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The Fugazi Paradox: Hardcore's Most Daring Band Goes Soul-Searching About Its Success 

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014
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If there's any good reason for award shows to exist, it's for the moments of unfiltered passion they're liable to produce: the heartfelt shout-outs, the spontaneous bursts of crying, the gestures of overwhelming affection and exhilaration. Stationed in the audience at a recent Canadian award show, Fucked Up's Damian Abraham experienced a moment of clarity himself, but it wasn't like any of the ones you'd expect.

"The whole thing felt very much like a cabal, like, 'Oh, this is the music industry. This is what it looks like to be part of this evil monolith that I never thought I'd be able to see in visual form, and here I am,'" the Toronto hardcore six-piece's vocalist says via phone. Abraham, 34, tiptoes around specifying the award show so as to not offend peers and friends who enjoy the event, but he holds nothing back when discussing how all the sleazy people and self-congratulatory speeches — to audience members who were also winning awards — turned his stomach. "I knew at that point," he says, "that me at 22 would have been mortified to see me at 33 sitting in that room."

Truth be told, Fucked Up isn't a stranger to award shows. In 2009, it won the Polaris Music Prize, an esteemed Canadian accolade worth $20,000, for its album The Chemistry of Common Life — but it's still easy to parse Abraham's disgust with the existence and symbolism of that event. Formed in 2001, Fucked Up has built its name on aggressive, raw music and shows, and making good on outlandish experiments. Its accomplishments include, among many others, creating a series of ongoing "Year of" releases based on Chinese zodiac signs (e.g., Year of the Dragon, Year of the Tiger); causing major set damage during an MTV performance; playing a 12-hour-long show in New York City; making a 12-inch that contained a 16-minute song, an extended drum solo, and whistling; and enlisting scattered entertainment notables — Nelly Furtado, Bob Mould, GZA, Andrew W.K., comedian David Cross — for Christmas charity singles. 2011's David Comes to Life, Fucked Up's third record, was a rock opera/concept record concerning a light bulb factory worker falling in love in Margaret Thatcher-era England.

These attention-grabbing risks have paid off in spades. Abraham, a genial, humble guy with a dragon's growl of a singing voice, has appeared on Fox News and the cover of Spin. Nowadays, he has a burgeoning career as a TV show host. For Fucked Up as a whole, this excitement has led to the group signing to powerhouse indie label Matador, touring Australia with Foo Fighters, and winning that Polaris Prize, all on top of continuous tours and releases. All these events would be a big deal for any independent band, but for a group with profanity for a name and its punk/hardcore roots always showing, the list is staggering. Abraham attributes these successes to luck, timing, and having the right people vouch for them, but the group's long-standing sense of ambition is a crucial factor, too.

But in achieving the things it has, compromises have had to be made. The ascent has made Abraham uncomfortable.

"There comes a point where if you want to do this job, I can't be like Ian MacKaye," he lamented in a recent interview with Wondering Sound. MacKaye, frontman for Fugazi and Minor Threat, is the gold standard of working in music independently and ethically — he's been outspoken about playing cheap shows and not performing in circumstances where he feels ethically uncomfortable — and Abraham feels beholden to him. Fucked Up, as Abraham notes, owes its beginnings to the kind of scene MacKaye ran around in, one that rejected excess commercialism and music industry sycophancy. A band with those values should, theoretically, also be rejecting music award shows.

The result of Abraham's award show experience and his reflections thereafter is the recently released Glass Boys. Instead of being a fictional-narrative-driven album like David, Glass Boys is an autobiographical work. It examines what it's like to grow up in a band and be successful in the music business, feeling you have betrayed your principles, and reconciling those issues. It's about what guitarist and songwriter Mike Haliechuk, who co-wrote the lyrics with Abraham, calls "that second coming of age you have when you're already an adult" — one where you have a job and responsibilities but still feel vulnerable and unsure. That notion comes through everywhere on the record but especially in "Paper the House." "The way I make my living is driving me insane / It's a 21st-century irony / Where everything you hoped for in life gives you more anxiety," Abraham roars. "Praise gone, money spent / Just a kid wondering where his dad went / Old man, life spent / Carved a legacy, never made a dent."

In contrast to the self-doubt and darkness hanging over the lyrics, Glass Boys' guitars are warm, light, and optimistic. Fucked Up is the rare hardcore act that slips in and out of being a hardcore band without too much trouble: It has grown to sound and more like a lean indie rock or post-punk band over the years, but as soon as Abraham's distinctive voice rushes in, the old days don't seem all that long ago. You can buy them tackling these big themes about identity without using a classically hardcore or punk sound.

Much like Glass Boys' lyrical content, Fucked Up's future is perpetually filled with uncertainty. After David came out, Abraham spoke openly about leaving the band, feeling beaten down by touring and unsure of what the band's next work would sound like. Strangely enough, that experience at the award show helped, inspiring Glass Boys' lyrical angle and compelling Abraham to stick around. Though healthier and happier now than he was three years ago, he's back to not knowing what direction is next for his band's sound. "Maybe the next one's going to be the one where we really, really depart from the sound," he says, sounding like he's mostly joking. "It's going to be drum 'n' bass, and I'll just wind up hating myself."

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Reyan Ali

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