Interview: Damian Abraham, Fucked Up

If you’ve ever listened to his band, Damian Abraham from the Canadian hardcore punk group Fucked Up is a lot like you’d expect him to be. He’s smart, for one, and he’s principled. He seems like a really good dad. He also loves videogames—as he sings in “Black Albino Bones,” off of The Chemistry of Common Life, “It’s the little things that get us through life.” Damian spoke to us over the phone while babysitting his young son, discussing what it means to be a punk, the games he plays with his son, and how he wishes the PSP got more love.

What are you doing right now?

My son’s home sick, so I’m trying to entertain him the best I can, putting on various educational programming and whatnot since we can’t go outside. It’s been a pretty relaxing little day so far.

Is it really cold in Vancouver today? 

Now it’s gorgeous. It was horrible when I got up: it was freezing rain. But now the sun’s out there beaming. It’s like three degrees out.

[To son: Look at that, you ate all that food! Good boy! Look at you!]

Sorry about that.

You’re fine. How have games affected you over the years?

I’m definitely of the age where I’ve come up all the way through the systems, but I was touring and by the time Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hit, I was left behind for a couple of years. But I finally got an Xbox, so I feel like I’m playing catch-up in the major cultural paradigm shift that’s happened in the last five years.

“If they’re there for an entertaining show, they’re not going to be the most receptive to a lecture.”

What have you been playing?

I got the Halo reissue that they just put out. Arkham Asylum, which I guess everyone’s played. I’m a huge pro wrestling fan, so I’ve been playing WWE All Stars. I was planning to buy WWE ’12, but I’m going to wait until I give All Stars a fair chance. Once again, because I’m so late to the game, I’ve gone back and been getting into the older staples like Modern Warfare and Left 4 Dead. And Skate 2.

How old is your son?

He’s two years and seven months now. It’s crazy, though. You can definitely see, with the most recent wave of technology being touch applications—they’re so designed for early adoption by youngsters. My son’s already playing Angry Birds at two and a half. It’s ridiculous. He can turn on Netflix.

How do you feel about that?

You know, I think parents are going to be forced to face the reality that they’ve been facing for the last 10 to 15 years, which is that their kids are going to be smarter than them. There’s no way for the generation to catch up with the generation below it. So I think it’s no longer a case of hiding dirty magazines under the bed, or putting things out of reach of kids, because kids can reach that stuff no matter where they are. Not to sound like a Republican or a right-wing person in any way, but it’s all about instilling values. It’s now more important than ever to have some sort of intrinsic “right and wrong” sense to keep them away from certain things. Because they’re going to get it anyway.

How do you play with your son?

Well, he doesn’t like it when I try to help him with Angry Birds, and I think I’m going to let him discover Left 4 Dead on his own. I love drawing with him. That’s one of my favorite memories of being a kid with my dad, was kind of drawing and sitting down and making things. Playing Play-Doh, obviously. We’ve got a game called Rain Fort, where we pretend it’s raining and we build a giant fort out of blankets and pillows, with myself and my wife and him. A lot of role-playing and interactive-type gaming. He’s starting to use his imagination, starting to get a sense of humor, starting to figure out more cerebral types of play.

What does it take to make a good Rain Fort?

I didn’t know this, but apparently Rain Forts have to have a TV and a potty in them, he told me the other day. I was not aware of this. But I guess the most important thing for a rain fort to have is something that my son can inevitably get out of and jump on. It has to be pretty soft.

That’s really efficient.

I think with the age he’s at now… I’m a very immature person…

[To son: You’re playing Bats? I’m just going to talk on the phone for a little bit, and then we can play Bats, OK?]

We also play Bats, which is kind of like fencing, but with two soft Nerf bats. He doesn’t really know the object of fencing is inevitably get a point by sticking the person with the sword, so we think the object is to bang the bats together. I think he’s at the age now where he’s discovering everything that’s around him. I’ve never been the most mature person, so for me this is the most fun phase so far of being a parent.

Switching over to your band. What drives you to write songs?

I think at this point—it’s been like this for a long time, actually—it’s almost like “by project.” We’re not really the type of band that stockpiles songs in their completed form. There’ll be songs or riffs that Mike [Haliechuk] or Jonah [Falco] will come up with, and we’ll save that for a future record. It’s not like we’re the type of band who will say, “Oh, let’s work on some songs this weekend.” We have to have a record we’re working toward, or having a single that we’re working toward. You have to make sure the songs that you’re writing are very much tailored to what you’re trying to do with the record. If you think of the record as being the whole complete vision and not just a bunch of songs with some artwork slapped on it, I think they become interrelated.

When you’re on tour, what do you do to kill time?

Luckily, I bought a PSP years ago. I don’t know why that never caught on. It was a very fun and time-consuming system to have on the road. That is definitely the hardest part about being in a band—the actual act of touring itself. The shows you’re playing are amazing, and being at the show and meeting people and playing the shows and talking to people afterwards are all so much fun. It’s just the other 22 hours of the day. You have to fill the time, or else you lose your mind slowly. I try to read a lot of books. Reading is really good for putting myself to sleep in the van. I have no idea how bands write on the road. I just can’t imagine feeling creative in the slightest.

Lil Wayne writes on the road.

Yeah, but Lil Wayne is the type of guy who doesn’t even write his lyrics down. Lil Wayne’s operating on a little different tip than the ol’ Fucked Up No Money Boys.

It’s interesting that you like pro wrestling. I can definitely see a parallel between the way you perform and the idea of pro wrestling.

Absolutely. I just think that punk rock and wrestling have had this sort of interconnectedness for years. You look at the cover of The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! record, and it has Dick Manitoba dressed up as a wrestler. There’s bands dating from the first wave of punk singing about pro wrestling. Richard Meltzer, who wrote The Aesthetics of Rock, was also a huge professional wrestling writer as well. And Bob Mould wrote for WCW. I think music and so much about it is about putting on a performance, and so much of punk has a performance aspect to it, because the music is very socially realist in its lyrical content, so the performance has to be even that more theatrical. If you think back to Iggy Pop, he was very over-the-top, very much playing a character onstage. I’ve never wanted to be a character like the Ultimate Warrior up there, but you definitely have to bring a bit of pizzazz and put on a show.

“It’s just the other 22 hours of the day. You have to fill the time, or else you lose your mind slowly.”

It seems like you do a lot of punk stuff but keep it very real.

You do want it to be real. As much as there’s a place for Gwar, I don’t think there’s a place for me being Gwar. You want it to be real, and you want it to be relatable; but at the same time, it is entertainment. I definitely can remember going to shows in the ’90s that felt like lectures. A lot of big bands were making a lot of incredibly relevant points and incredibly poignant points, but it’s just that there’s certain places where the audience is not going to absorb that message, especially in a live venue. It’s one of those things where you can try as hard as you can as a performer to try to make the audience think about what you’re thinking, and why they should think about that in the same way; but if they’re there for an entertaining show, they’re not going to be the most receptive to a lecture. Much more effective would be to put on a show and get them interested in your band, and convincing them to engage you outside of the live environment. Maybe then they can understand what you’re talking about, and maybe interact with what you’re talking about in a different way.

What do you mean as an example of a band that’s a “lecture band?”

Steve Aoki’s band one time … I can’t remember what they were called, but it was a spectacular show. He was crying and stuff. There was that sort of vibe going on in the ’90s where it was taking itself so seriously. It was that post-Fugazi thing where bands were making it so heavy-handed. I remember going to Columbus Fest 1997, and it was just the most antiseptic environment for a rock concert. It was just because there was this weird politic going on with a repressed sexuality, which at that point was coming out in these really bizarre kissing circles. It was just a really weird time for music, where you would go to a concert and these bands would be amazing. Like Los Crudos. Martin would go on these huge 15-minute lectures in between songs, but then you’d see a band like Race Traitor who would go on these 15-minute meandering rants about destroying While Culture, and you’re like “Whoa. What does this have to do with Chuck Berry licks?”

It’s all about trying to find the paradigm shift, that balance between the two. I think we hit a point in the early parts of this decade where it almost became an anti-intellectual thing, all about saying the most biased things you possibly can, especially in punk and hardcore. There was just no politic to it at all. And so the problem with rejecting what happened in the ’90s is, you risk going back to what happened at the beginning of this decade, which is just like no one was engaging anything.

So it’s about finding a balance.

I think that’s what everyone is looking for. Every artist that does want to talk about something more than fast cars and money, you try to find some way to talk about things like that, but also not pander to the audience. It’s a really weird balancing act, and for a long time I just watched from the sidelines and hated, just hated watching bands trying to navigate this thing, like, “They’re doing this so poorly.” And here I am now doing it myself. It’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s a lot harder when you’re trying to make a living off the band, and someone’s like, “We’re going to give you X-thousand dollars to use this song in a car commercial.” Do I take this money and risk ruining this song forever by having it associated with a product, or do I not take that money and hopefully find a way to feed the family on good intentions?

As much as one is morally the absolute right decision, the reality of the situation is different. Watching bands like Refused, watching bands like At the Drive-In … watching these bands from the sidelines and being like, “Man. Why are these bands so ridiculous?” Now it’s like, “Oh. Now I know why bands struggle with some of these decisions.”

There was a big controversy a while back where Patrick from Titus Andronicus was railing against Kurt Vile for having his song on a commercial.

It was a Bank of America commercial. And yeah. I’m friends with both of those dudes, and I completely understand both of their positions. I don’t want to see a Kurt Vile song that I love get associated with some dumb product that I don’t like. I can never listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” without listening to a Molson beer commercial I saw when I was eight years old. I’ll never be able to get away from it. I can understand Patrick saying that, but I also understand that Kurt has a daughter who’s the same age as my son; he’s in a position where he’s got to get a little bit of money. It’s a really weird, hard ocean to navigate. I understand and appreciate both men’s positions. I’m in a position with Fucked Up where I can say, “Oh no. Let’s not do that.” But that’s because I have another job.

What’s your other job?

I host a TV show.

Oh, I knew that. In Canada.

It’s on Fuse in America.

Sorry, I don’t have cable.

Don’t worry, not too many people do anymore. I do have that position where I can go and say, “I don’t feel right about this.” I can do that because I have another job where I can get money.

[Talks to his kid about bugs]

I’m sorry if I’ve been a little bit distracted by this kid.

It’s totally fine. It’s really interesting to hear the difference between your “dad voice” and your conversation voice and your live voice.

It doesn’t really have the same exclamation when I sing in my normal voice. I need to do the yell.

Has your son ever heard you do the yell?

Absolutely. He loves it. This is not because I’ve made a point of playing my band a lot to him, but his favorite song after Yo Gabba Gabba‘s songbook is “The Other Shoe.” He sings the first part in his normal toddler voice, and then goes into the verse and screams. He does a very good job. I know as soon as he’s old enough to get on the road I’m going to retire and put him out there.

Photograph by Daniel Boud