Nine Songs: Fucked Up
When I ask Damian Abraham if he’s ready to talk about his nine songs, the Fucked Up frontman immediately interrupts me. “You mean the best mixtape you’ve ever heard?”
Abraham is a punk rock renaissance man. His knowledge and enthusiasm is so limitless that he willingly describes himself as a “punisher” - the type of fan who, when meeting their heroes, will relentlessly reel off trivia and arcana by way of introduction. This makes him an incredible conversationalist, Abraham’s podcasts about his twin loves of punk rock and wrestling are proof of his punishing adoration of the things he loves.
However, it does make sticking to a word count a near-impossible task. In fact, when he promises to call me back after our overrunning interview is interrupted by another call I think nothing of it until he actually calls me back. It’s impossible to overstate that people in bands Never Do This, but he just loves talking about this stuff that much. So sadly there isn’t quite space for his detours into Dee Dee Ramone’s career as a rapper, his all-time favourite piece of music journalism and the deep connection between punk rock and wrestling. Still, I can’t imagine that he hasn’t discussed these matters in compelling detail elsewhere.
It’s almost miraculous that he can remain so fervent, considering he’s been up since stupid o’clock to make the most of his last day with his family before a short run of shows with Fucked Up. “Nothing changes with Dad life,” he explains. “The last day before you go on tour is actually the hardest day, because you’re emotionally on edge. It’s different for me, because it’s going to work, but it’s going to be a lot harder for the kids obviously because they’re missing their parent. So today I got up early to make pancakes and make sure we made the most of the last day.”
Last year’s Dose Your Dreams may be Fucked Up’s longest, most ambitious and possibly their best album, but it saw Abraham taking a major step back from his role in the band. “I can’t overstate enough how out of the band I was during the recording period,” he insists. “I remember getting a text from Mac [McCaughan, Merge co-founder] saying ‘Hey, I love the new record’ and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I guess it’s done!’”
At the time Abraham was dealing with the loss of his Mother and chose to focus on his family and “trying to mitigate the loss as much as possible”, whilst also making sure he gets to see as much of his children as possible before heading out on these shorter runs of shows. It’s not the only reason Fucked Up are keeping it brief on the road. “When you hear about bands saying they’re going off to tour and it’s like going off to summer camp, I don’t know who those bands are. With Fucked Up it’s more going into a very silent submarine where no one’s going to talk to each other for the next ten days. So we realised that keeping them shorter would be better for our sanity.”
Then again, considering how much time Abraham has been spending at home, his less than family-friendly taste in music definitely cuts both ways with his kids. His middle child may like rocking out to the Flamin’ Groovies with his Dad but he’s also enjoying his own occasionally adversarial reaction to his oldest son’s favourite songs.
”He’s really into Twenty One Pilots and all this YouTube stuff. We were listening to 'Life Is Fun' in the car and it’s a really hard song to listen to. It makes the harshest sludge music sound positively soothing by comparison”
“I picked this because it’s the greatest cover of all time, it completely reinvents the original. I love ‘Gloria’ and Van Morrison is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but I hate the original of this song. I probably heard Them’s version and it didn’t register it at all. The chorus is killer on the Them version, but I just don’t like the verses.
“And Bowie covered it too! I like the Bowie version slightly more than the Them version but, no disrespect to David Bowie - I think we all appreciate his gifts as far as music goes - but I think The Rivals beat him on this cover. Apparently they were the Millwall football club’s firm’s band, they would all hang out and go see them and they were really big with the Millwall supporters. They’ve got a couple of other 45’s that are just fantastic, but I think that when you do a cover you want to make sure that you’re doing justice to the original; the goal is “Can you beat the original?”
“I first heard this when I went over to my friend’s house and he was playing me records he was selling. Before he put this on he asked me “Do you want to hear the best song of all time?” He’d just bought it off this guy who had come to Toronto and was selling records out of the trunk of his car with some crazy story around this thing. I ended up buying it off of him and I concur. I went out and bought the Them 45” thinking it was going to be something like ‘Gloria’ or something kinda raging and the Them version is almost like a sixties version of screamo, in that it feels like two completely disjointed songs mashed together.
“In Fucked Up, we’ve always picked weird covers. We’ve obviously done covers that are more on-brand, quote unquote, for live shows, like ‘Nervous Breakdown’, The Sex Pistols, or more obscure stuff like The Nubs, but the other thing about covers is you want to do something kind of weird, so stuff like Dolly Mixture, The Shop Assistants and we’ve done some Northern Soul stuff. It’s not like we really pick these things out, they almost fall into our laps.
“The National guys asked us to do a Grateful Dead cover and to me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had in my life as a musician was this summer. I was in New York, walking back to my hotel and I ran into Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. I’d met him a couple of times and I love his songs in Sonic Youth. They’re super underrated as far as that band goes, so I punished him about ‘Genetic’ and all these songs. We were just chatting and before I go to leave he says “Hey, I’ve always wanted to tell you this, you guys did the best cover on that Grateful Dead tribute comp.”
“My heart just exploded, because I’m not the biggest Grateful Dead fan and I know he was a Grateful Dead fan – so the fact that we managed to make one of their songs work in a Fucked Up context, but still did right by a Grateful Dead fan, let alone Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth? I can die a happy man.”
“I love Superchunk, but ‘Precision Auto’ is my favourite Superchunk song of all time. The first time I ever saw them live was at The Garage in London. It was funny, because I was a punisher and I understand when people come up to me and want to do that, because I’m the same way. These are kindred spirits and that’s why I do the podcast.
“Anyway, Laura Ballance was doing merch and I just went up and started talking to her and was like “Yeah, I’ve just been doing merch for my friend’s band, they’re on tour, blah blah blah” and she said “Oh cool, I have to go to the bathroom, can you do our merch for a second?” So my first interaction with Superchunk in a personal way was actually working for them, which set the tone for our current relationship, where Laura is technically my boss now.
“Being on Merge is amazing. I kind of think “This is the label for us”, they’ve had huge, huge artists come out of this label, but it still feels very much like a DIY label, and the politics of it, the way it’s operated, it’s very much in keeping with the way I always envisioned our band operating. And it comes out of punk rock and hardcore – both Mac and Laura were hardcore kids and going to shows. Obviously [Matador founder] Gerard Cosloy is one of my favourite human beings of all time, and his importance to alternative music cannot be understated, but Merge just feels like a really good home.
“The Matador At 21 festival [where the band covered the song with The Best Show host Tom Scharpling] was the wildest time and will forever be remembered by me, or not remembered, though I only smoked weed. Rob Corddry was there, I was talking about The Authorities with Malkmus and for that show we went song to song with Ted Leo And The Pharmacists, and I knew I wanted to do a song with Tom. So I hit him up and I don’t think I’d ever seen Tom that amped onstage. I picked him up and spun him around, and then he picked me up, and just suplexed me into the drum kit. I think he broke his wrist!
“This is a cover of a Last Rights song, who are a band who only played one show ever, but J Mascis and Lou Barlow’s first band, Deep Wound, opened the show and maybe Murph’s band All White Jury played too? It’s a legendary show in hardcore, where the Last Rights dudes were sitting in their van the whole time and didn’t talk to anyone. They showed up with all their friends from Boston, who were just moshing and murdering people in the pit and Last Rights’ vocalist Choke had a sawn-off mic stand that he used to carry onstage then, before he started carrying a hockey stick in his other bands. Apparently some guy walked onstage and he just swung this mic stand and split the dude’s face wide open.
“Obviously this show had a huge impact on Dinosaur Jr as young people. It was only a B-side, but it’s one of those cases where more people have heard this cover than the original. Unlike The Rivals song, the original of this is fucking unbelievable. Dinosaur Jr definitely came through with their version in a big way, but they had great source material to start with.
“This is a song that they’ve let me come out and perform with them a lot over the years. I sung this song with them at Primavera in Barcelona, or maybe in Portugal, but it was the most people I’ve ever seen in one place in my entire life. No, wait, I walked onstage while the Foo Fighters were playing and that was the most people I’d ever seen in my entire life, but this was the most people I’d ever performed to in my entire life. The Foo Fighters definitely never invited me up to sing a cover with them.”
“These are probably the best lyrics ever written. Sam McPheeters has written a killer song or two in his time, but this might be his masterwork. I think this song is more terrifying now because it was almost like prophecy. Go back and listen to a lot of these songs and the stuff they were rallying against at the time just feels even more real now, and more present. Maybe it felt just the same way back then and I wasn’t aware of it because I was much younger, but it’s such a dire time.
“There’s a couple of hardcore or punk songs where I wish someone could cover them, or at least find a way to integrate the same sort of message in a pop context. The way he lays out the issues of choice are very profound, obviously it’s a dude talking about it, so he can only have so much perspective on the issue, but let’s be honest, it’s mainly men who are trying to interfere with women’s bodies on a daily basis in any context, but especially with reproductive rights.
“It’s the way he lays this out, I remember hearing this song and being blown away by how every word is important to this song. I can live my life hoping to write a song as good as this lyrically. I have songs like that and my philosophy and politics are put into our songs, but I have a hard time writing about it as directly. Like, if I was writing a pro-choice song then we should just cover ‘Mary And Child’, because as far as a dude writing a song about women’s reproductive health, I think they nailed it as close to what I’d want to say.
“One of my issues is that there’s so many bands - and maybe it’s because I’m obsessed with all these old records - where I want to find a different way to say what they’ve said, because they’ve put it so perfectly and succinctly already. I can’t write a political song the way Chris Hannah from Propagandhi does, and Chris Hannah’s the best at it. Holy shit, the stuff I’ve learned from his songs, the writers and thinkers that he turned me to through his music, but still making it somewhat catchy? Man, I can’t do that, so why not just do something different!”
“This is the song that I wish we’d covered. I was never a PJ Harvey fan until the record The Hope Six Demolition Project, but that record is perfect and every song on it is amazing. It’s like knowing that there’s this brilliant painter who just starts painting in a colour palate that just connects with you. I always knew she was brilliant and I liked the songs, but it didn’t connect with me like this record has.
“I don’t know what it was, but I think there’s a punk influence on there - or maybe a UK DIY influence - that’s a little more played up this time. I’d love to talk to her about it, because it’s just such a raging album and this song crushes. Crushes. She’s an incredible lyricist and turns a phrase on this record like I wish I could. She is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and this is my favourite record from 2016 by far.
“I saw her live on that tour and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. It was funny, because when she played old songs the whole crowd would start cheering and I’d be like “Ah, please just play the record, there’s so many songs I need to hear!” All the singles from this record and all the B-sides off it are killer too. I’ve gone back and listened to the other stuff, and I definitely have a new appreciation for it, but there’s something about this particular album that’s just perfect.
“And she recorded it as part of an installation at, what museum was it? Somerset House, right? I think that was where I did a weird photo shoot with that fashion photographer Nick Knight in front of an audience. It’s amazing how confident this record sounds and how assured every note is and I can only imagine having to do that in front of an audience.”
“This was actually one of the first concerts I ever went to, it was Ultra Bide from Japan, Alice Donut and NoMeansNo, one of the best bands from this country ever. I went to see them because they were legendary.
“It was around the time they were getting a lot of press and I was kind of voracious for anything about punk music that I could get. I brought two of my friends with me, we went to a thrift store nearby and bought blazers and cut them up. I stuck a Sonic Youth patch to one of them and then we went to the show, we were thirteen or fourteen I guess.
“So we went to the show and it was definitely above our heads, I don’t think I got everything, but Alice Donut played and the singer went up to a glockenspiel, someone walked up in front of my friends and I and just hocked a loogie at him. This dude dived into the crowd and this guy got tackled on top of my friends and I. They’re fighting each other and this guy gets away or something. My friends never really went to another punk show after that, but I was hooked.
“I went to the merch table afterwards and the guitarist was there and I asked the best question to get asked when you’re in a band. It’s one I’ve definitely been asked before, so I have unending empathy for anyone who gets asked this question, I asked “What’s your best album?”
“This was the one song that’s an outlier on all their records. All the rest of their stuff is much more aggressive and a completely different style, but this is a soft acoustic ballad. Maybe it’s like a novelty song on the record, the rest of their stuff is more progressive and aggressive and a lot more befitting of a band who would be on tour with NoMeansNo.
“But, man these are lyrics that I wish I could write. This is another song that feels like it makes much more sense today than it did when it came out. It’s about a world that we’re heading to where everyone just wants to be onstage the entire time. I don’t blame them, I wanted to be onstage so that’s what I’m doing, but man, these lyrics make it seem bleak when they sing about it.
“It’s goofy but profound, which I guess is what punk and hardcore is when it’s successful. There’s this other song that I was going to put on the list by this comedian from Iceland, but I couldn’t find it anywhere and the last thing I wanted to do was make you have to search for it. It’s this comic record in Icelandic but it basically translates into “Stop punk” and the verses are kind of goofy but the chorus is crushing. Maybe it’s like the Them song. It all comes back to Them in a weird way.”
“This band is incredible, I think this song is amazing and it’s an epic journey of an opening track, it might be my number one ‘side one / track one’ of all time.
“I loved stonercore, stoner rock - the broad term of weed-smoking music - before I started smoking cannabis but once I started smoking cannabis, I really got it. Cough is a band from Richmond, Virginia that definitely falls into that huge swathe of the genre. They don’t fake the funk it though, they actually smoke cannabis. I found out a lot of bands in that world aren’t that into weed, but these guys definitely are.
“Black Sabbath is the seed from which all of it springs from, there’s definitely that kind of influence and the melody is key. I think the most popular manifestation of this genre in the present day is Queens Of The Stone Age or Mastodon, and you definitely hear it with Queens Of The Stone Age that there’s a pop sensibility to this kind of music. There’s definitely a “rock” to the stoner stuff, even when it’s super aggressive.
“We played a show one time and the lead singer was actually working at the bar. I was talking to these kids after the show and I said to them “There’s a band from here called Cough who are one of the greatest bands I’ve ever heard in my life” and they told me “That’s the singer over there.”
“He was very taken aback to have someone come offstage and just start punishing him. I asked if they would ever tour and he said “Oh, we can’t, our drummer’s serving time in jail right now.” So I was like “Oh shit” and he just said “…for weed.” So I thought that was awesome, not for him, obviously, but for authenticity’s sake.”
“I’ve always loved rap and hip-hop and I think it’s a genre I have less ability to make than any other genre. With this track, and Cam’ron in particular, I feel I have the same relationship to him that other people must have to a sports team. I know that ideologically Cam’ron and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. Politically we probably aren’t on the same page on everything and there’s things he does and says that I definitely don’t agree with.
“But when this song came out, it felt the way it must have felt when a sports team that you love wins their big thing at the end of the year. Like, “Oh wow, this guy I’ve loved for a really long time has put something out that’s equal to all of his old catalogue” and I played this constantly.
“I remember smoking weed on a Ferris wheel at a Vice party with my brother. DJ A-Trak was playing this song on a turntable and I remember thinking “This is a life highlight. I should probably take this all in as much as possible.”
“As soon as Fucked Up started, going to Japan was the goal. That was the dream, to get to Japan and play with these bands. We never did play with them, though we got to Japan. When I was making my wrestling TV show I was living in Tokyo for a month and I got to see Death Side play at the annual Burning Spirit show that they do every year. It was the coolest, that felt like a music dream coming to fruition, it was so amazing to finally get to see this band in Tokyo.
“I probably heard about them from zines - punk rock and hardcore has always been so fascinating to me because it’s a truly international language. You see this with metal too but metal probably gets it from punk, though I know metalheads will be like “No! No! No!” But in the same way that New Wave Of British Heavy Metal comes out of the New Wave and punk explosion in the UK, I think this is kind of the same thing, the idea of tape trading.
“If you look at a lot of other music, there’s this idea of cultural edicts handed out from America, the UK and now, because of Drake or Broken Social Scene, I guess Canada too, but there’s not a lot of truly international things where you have international artists singing in other languages charting in America. It happens, but it’s not the norm, whereas these artists translate to huge numbers in other parts of the world.
“I think the thing with punk and hardcore that has always fascinated me, is that there’s a completely equal cultural exchange that goes on, on a DIY level. You have labels in Brazil putting out records by bands in Finland, or bands in Finland trying to sound like bands from Japan, who are trying to sound like bands from the UK. I think it’s amazing how beautiful this international web of people trading tapes is and doing it just because they love music.
“At that time especially, there was no commercial success or acceptance on the horizon for a lot of the music these people were listening to. But people were so desperate to share this stuff, other people were so desperate to hear it and you couldn’t at the time. I’m so happy that it has this international focus, because otherwise I might not have heard about this unbelievable pocket of bands that exist in Japan.
“Every band in this genre of hardcore sounds like this perfect synergy of Motorhead and Discharge, without sounding like they’re trying to sound like Motorhead and Discharge. And there’s such a strong connection to wrestling, they call the genre Burning Spirits, but that’s a quote Bruiser Brody said about Antonio Inoki, the godfather of Japanese wrestling. He said “When I look into his eyes, I can see a burning spirit”. All these Japanese punk bands were such big wrestling fans that they wanted to apply this philosophy to punk music, and that’s what they’ve done.”