A Conversation With Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham

Iggy Pop is a wuss. Admittedly, the legendary Stooge has been a pioneer, pushing stage performance to dangerous, physical extremes. Still, take a look at the guy. He’s all sinew and muscle. Christ, Iggy could probably fit into ladies’ jeans. Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham, on the other hand, is another story.

MAGNET dialed Abraham to talk about religion, punk rock, the Grateful Dead and Fucked Up’s recent showdown with the Stooges.

So first things first; I gotta hear about the show you guys played with the Stooges.
Unbelievable. They were the best band I think I’ve ever seen in my life, and that’s not hyperbole. [Iggy Pop] was like a man unhinged with his performance. I kind of went into it with real low expectations. I didn’t think we could outplay the Stooges, but thought maybe we could kill them on energy. They took us to school. They pulled us out on the carpet and beat the shit out of us. It was insane.

I read a review of the show online and they actually said you guys gave the Stooges a run for their money.
I think someone was being very polite. It was a wild show on our part, but they were like men possessed. It was the only reunion I’ve seen where I left thinking it was unbelievable. I would have bought tickets. I mean, I got kind of burned on the MC5 and New York Dolls reunions, but this one exceeded all my expectations. And they’re actually really nice people.

So you got to hang out with them a bit?
Yeah. Before the show, we were pretty sequestered in our dressing room areas, because it’s a huge theater. Like I saw Cats performed there when I was a kid. I saw Noam Chomsky do a lecture there ten years ago. It’s like a theater theater. So we were kind of in our dressing room area and they were in their dressing room area. But after the show, they opened up their room and were incredibly nice. It was so bizarre. It was like they were oddly grateful for us playing. One of those moments where you have like an out-of-body experience, looking down going, “Wow. This is really happening. I’m really hanging out with Ron Asheton right now.” It was a show to be remembered.

Is Mike Watt still playing bass for them?
Yeah. I saw Mike Watt on that Ball-Hog Or Tugboat tour. That was a real definitive record for me. From that record I connected a lot of pieces and got into other bands based on who appeared on that record. So it was really cool to talk to him. There’s a bootleg store in Toronto that used to sell really bizarre bootlegs. One of the bootlegs they had was from a Mike Watt show in Toronto. With the Foo Fighters, before they had a record out and Hovercraft, that Eddie Vedder project. Someone bootlegged the whole show and put it on tape, so I gave him a copy of the show.

Were you a Minutemen fan?
I guess I was getting into alternative music around the fIREHOSE era, but I’d be lying if I said I was a fIREHOSE fan. Minutemen was a band I got to too early. I think it was the same way with a lot of those later SST bands. I got into ‘em before I was kind of ready to understand what was going on. I just wanted another Black Flag. Even Black Flag, when I bought the later records, I was totally lost. Minutemen is a band that in the last eight years I’ve kind of gone back and listened to with much greater appreciation. I was too young to understand that you could have a funky bass line in a punk song without it being bad. Now I can understand the Big Boys and Minutemen a little better.

We all tend to be a little more rigid when we’re younger.
Oh yeah. I’ll never forget buying…was it the Blasting Concept? One of the compilations they did on SST. Like hearing Saint Vitus and thinking, “This is terrible! It’s a fucking heavy metal band!” Now I love Saint Vitus. Everything comes with time.

Back to the Stooges show, it sounds like you were a fan going in.
Oh yeah. I met Iggy Pop in 1994 when he came to Toronto to do a thing in a radio station here. I got this Arby’s hat that I was wearing signed. I still have that hat and was looking at it before the show thinking, “Whoa. Who would have thought this would happen?” The Stooges, not that this hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but Fun House and the first record, they built the house that Fucked Up plays in right now. It’s weird to appreciate (the Stooges’ music) after everything that’s come after. When they came out in the late sixties, they must have sounded like something from outer-fuckin’-space. There were no reference points. I definitely love those records and I’m a huge Destroy All Monsters fan, too. So getting to meet Ron Asheton, I got him to sign my Destroy All Monsters seven-inch. I think he was just stoked to be signing something other than a Stooges record. I told him I really loved the band and really wanted them to do a reunion. He was taken aback.

You and Iggy have similar performance styles. Did you take in any cues from him, or was it all self-taught?
I would never fashion myself an original. I’m definitely a student of what came before. I’d like to think that somehow I fit into that continuum of aggressive stage frontmen, but I think I’ve brought something new to it, in that I’m probably 200 pounds heavier than Iggy Pop.

That kind of makes it more impressive in a lot of ways.
Yeah. [Laughs] Well, it definitely makes it…larger. When Iggy crawls on something and balances and is kind of teetering over the crowd, the crowd is like, “Wow. He might fall, and I might get to touch him.” When I’m doing that, they’re thinking, “Wow. He might fall and crush us. This might end really badly for everyone involved.” Yeah. There’s that footage in like 1973 when Iggy’s in Detroit where he does that thing where he stands on the crowd and spreads the peanut butter on himself. That footage is unbelievable. There should never be a separation between vocalist and the audience. It should be in the crowd, covered in peanut butter, standing on peoples’ hands. I know I’ll never play a show where people carry me with their hands unless I’m playing a show full of incredibly strong people, but I will want to smear peanut butter all over myself.

I read an interview you did recently and the interviewer was talking about the terror he saw in peoples’ eyes when you leapt off the stage.
We went on tour with that band the Gallows. The average fan at a Gallows show, that’s their first showgoing experience. They’re young. It’s especially their first punk showgoing experience. So we were playing to kids that were 13 or 14 on the young end and 17 to 20 on the older end, on average. When you see a guy my size standing on top of that barricade and you know he’s only going one way, and that’s on top of you, it’s got to be a really scary experience. But those are the best shows. The best show I saw when I first started going to shows was Alice Donut. One of the band members was being spat on by the crowd and he kind of lost his mind and leapt off the stage and tackled this guy into me and my friends. We all fell down into this huge heap. It was frightening, because it’s definitely not something I’d seen at an AC/DC concert, or Rod Stewart, or something else I was into at the time. But it was really exciting, because it was so real. There was no fourth wall. So when we were playing this Gallows show to kids that had never seen a band do that before, I wanted to kind of bring it to people and replicate my experience. Even if the guy from Alice Donut was 200 pounds lighter than me. But him and the guy he tackled to the ground together were probably somewhat equal to my weight.

Sounds like you gave them their money’s worth.
You might as well stay at home and look at pictures on the internet and listen to a CD if you’re going to have a band that just stands on stage. It doesn’t have to be as aggressive or violent. It just has to be real. There just has to be some sort of interaction between the band and the people watching the show. It should be a collaborative effort. Like in sports, where they talk about the crowd being the 7th man. In the case of Fucked Up, there has to be that 7th person, and that’s the people watching. That way, the show will never be the same every time. The band will always be the same. It will always be, in our case, six people playing these songs, but the variable is the people watching the band. They can change the experience for everyone.

You guys are up to three guitarists now, right? That’s gotta make shows interesting in the smaller clubs.
Soundmen hated us before. You know those bands where after the show, the soundman will say, “You guys were really good. Can I get a shirt or a CD?” That’s never us. Never, ever, ever. Now it’s even less likely to be us. They always tell us to turn down. And now they have to contend with three people saying they shouldn’t turn down, instead of just two. Definitely in smaller clubs, we have trouble fitting on the stage, but once again, that’s more of an excuse to go into the crowd. Also, on the new record, there are songs that we have with dozens of guitar tracks, so we could even replicate some of that live. If not, we’ll have to be like Glenn Branca and start bringing in more and more guitars so we have a little guitar symphony onstage.

The new record surprised me. It’s very dense, with a lot of layers. With Year Of The Pig, it seems like there were sections where you spread it out and let the songs breathe a little more.
Yeah. With Year Of The Pig, because it was such a long song, it has the feel of being more than a single. But at the end of the day, it was just a single. It was a sparse song. It was an experiment to see if we could create some sort of sparse, Julee Cruise, Twin Peaks soundtrack kind of vibe. With the new record, it was definitely going in the studio and trying to layer as much as possible. We had a lot more time to do the new record. Year Of The Pig, I think we did in two days. With the mix, three days in total. With the new record, we did it over the course of six months. That wasn’t constantly in the studio, but going in and coming back, doing things again and again.

Does the band have a primary songwriter, or is it more collaborative?
Mike, Jonah and Josh will go into the practice space and work on songs and basic structure. Then, we’ll get together as a band and flesh it out. Depending on what Mike wants, he’ll either give me a song, or take a song home, and we’ll write the lyrics separately. On the last record, Hidden World, he and I would talk and write the choruses together, but this time it was really separate. Basically, we decided this was going to be a more positive record. In terms of lyrical content, that was the only discussion we ever had. My songs are all the ones that have to do with loss of faith, and his songs always have to do with gardening. So it got a little bit too divided.

So the album title (The Chemistry Of Common Life) was from Mike?
Yeah. Absolutely. The two books that really influenced the record, for Mike was The Chemistry Of Common Life, and for me, it was The Passover Plot. Those two books kind of dictated our songs on this record.

I haven’t read The Passover Plot. What’s it about?
It’s written by a guy named Hugh J. Schonfield. He’s kind of a religious scholar. He takes the point of view that we always talk about Jesus in terms of this Christian, post-Jesus way, so we always interpret the scripture from the point of view of Christian theology. What he does is actually go back and interpret in terms of Jewish theology or tradition. In Christianity, Jesus is the literal son of god. If you actually look at it from the point of view of a Jewish scholar, at the time it was written, Jesus would have been the son of God like all people are a son of God. Therefore, Jesus isn’t the literal embodiment of God, he’s just like anyone else. A child of God, therefore he’s just a normal person. It kind of goes from that point of view and examines the text where Jesus wasn’t born a virgin birth, wasn’t all these things, he was just a moral person, who decided to try and bring about heaven on earth through revolutionary tactics. That’s kind of the point of view the record takes, where a lot of songs are about looking at things not in terms of a deep religious faith, but a faith in humanity. So that book was a huge watershed moment for me. Maybe you don’t have to be a Christian to think there’s some sort of heaven at the end the world. Heaven could be made on earth by improving the world around us. If you don’t think of Jesus in terms of religion, but in terms of being a normal person, as being a human being who was born and died, while trying to bring about some sort of revolution on earth, it just sort of changes how you look at the world.

Did you have a religious upbringing?
I was raised pretty poor man’s Catholic; like high Anglican. I definitely went through a period of just hating religion. Absolutely despising religion. I still never would call myself a Christian, because I don’t believe in any of the tenets of Christianity, but at the same time, you can’t turn your back on religion, because religion is what makes the world work today. We have laws in the Western world that are dictated by the New Testament, the Torah, and Islamic law. Religion permeates every aspect of our society. You can study it and kind of look at it from a non faith based way. That’s kind of where I’m finding myself now. Going back and reassessing.

You would think over time, as society advances, it would move further and further away from religion.
Modern civilization is so intertwined with…well, I guess everything kind of comes back to the Torah in modern religion. We’d almost have to start anew and get past religion and work from there. With The Passover Plot, the Jesus they were talking about in the book, he was working towards his interpretation of what heaven on earth would be based on Judaism, but if you kind of take the lessons of that book and think about how we could bring about a Utopian world on this planet just by getting past religion, I think the book takes on an entirely new dimension. That’s like the first track on the record.

The new record has some surprises, musically. You can tell me I’m full of shit, but “Golden Seal” reminds me of Pink Floyd.
Pink Floyd is the big divide in the band. The big divide is, people that like post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and people that like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Mike is definitely into the post-Syd Barrett era, and I’m definitely into Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. But Pink Floyd is a huge influence. Kind of like coming back to religion in this point of my life, coming back to Pink Floyd is also a big stage for me. I’m kind of realizing that maybe I threw the baby out with the bathwater when it came to psychedelic music. I never thought I would say it, but I actually kind of like the first Grateful Dead record.

Oh my god.
I know. I never thought I would say that, because I hated the Grateful Dead so much just on principal. Actually, the first two Jerry Garcia solo records? Not that bad.

Can I quote you on that?
You can definitely quote me on that. I am kind of going back and seeing these things that I rejected on principal from my pre-musical awakening. Now I’m going back and thinking I should re-listen to this stuff and see where I’m at now with it. Maybe it’s the end of my life and everything is flashing before my eyes. I’m going back and going, “Oh yeah. Grateful Dead are actually not that bad.”

I’m getting to the age where I can listen to just about anything, but with the Dead, I still don’t get it.
With a band like that, it’s hard to separate the art from the artist.

It’s not even the whole hippie culture with me. It’s just the music. I could just never connect.
I think about the Grateful Dead not as this monolithic, terrible jam band that spawned that an entire generation of terrible music. If I think of them as this kind of rootsy, San Franciso band? They’re alright. I was reading this book about this history of L.A. music and there was this section about Ed Sanders from the Fugs. When he was writing his book on Charles Manson, he stayed with Don Henley. Now I’m thinking I should go back and listen to these Eagles records. Maybe those are alright. [Laughs] On a long enough plane of existence, everything becomes a classic. Everything gets cultural reassessment. Maybe I’m just at the point in my life where I can reassess all the stuff that I thought was terrible when I was younger.

You’re straight edge, right?

Are people shocked when they find that out, given the band name, and your onstage antics?
Oh yeah. People are mortified to find that out. At this age, straight edge means as little to me as something possibly can. When I was younger, it was a huge deal. When I first went straight edge, I was sixteen. I honestly thought straight edge was this revolutionary ideal where if the world went straight edge, we would have no more problems. It was just a ridiculous concept to believe in, to actually think that by me deciding I don’t want to have a beer, I can somehow save the world. At the same time, people are really frightened by people saying they’re straight edge. A lot of it is probably the negative connotations that go along with it. People are always like, “Well why do you do what you do then?” I’m like, “I dunno, because it’s who I am? I’m legit crazy.”

Maybe you’ll find your way back to beer, since you’ve found your way back to…
Yeah, exactly. Maybe one day I’ll be like, “You know, maybe I turned my back on beer too early. I should try it now.” I think the only drug I’d go back to doing is LSD. I really liked acid. Before I went straight edge, I thought that was the only drug that really lived up to the hype. Let me tell you. I could be a spokesperson for that drug. I only did it a couple of times, but every time I did it, it was a real fun experience. I remember that before I did drugs, I’d had so much indoctrination about how bad drugs are and how crazy they will make you. I remember seeing this documentary about pot in school and it made it seem like it was some insane drug from a comedy skit. When I did it, it just made me really bored. With acid, when I did it, it was really crazy. I’m walking down my friend’s street pouring bottles of club soda over my head to feel the bubbles pop. It was insane. So that’s the only drug I can see myself wanting to go back to do. Maybe I’ll reassess and realize that it’s not the classic that I think it is now.

Well, you can pull out your Grateful Dead records, drop some acid…
[Laughs] I think if I did acid again I’d listen to all the bands I had discovered since going straight edge. I think listening to Neanderthal on acid would probably melt my brain.

I think that’s what they call a bad trip.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] Like Eyehategod, or something on acid. That would be a bad trip.

How many releases are you guys up to now? Or do you keep track anymore?
I think it’s probably about 30.

Yeah. When we started the band, our big role models for releasing records were the Melvins and Poison Idea. I think we’re on track to lap Poison Idea. The Melvins have a good couple of years heard start on us, but I’m sure they can feel us nipping at their heels.

—Matt Ryan