“When you’re in a punk band, people never ask you about songwriting.”
So bemoans Jonah Falco, drummer for F***ed Up. Since springing from Toronto’s hardcore scene in the early 2000s, the band has gotten its share of ink. Initially, for its unpredictably wild live shows, from which lead singer Damian Abraham is known to emerge bleeding from the head; for being banned from entering MTV studios after a predictably wild in-studio performance that resulted in significant damages; for the band’s very name, unprintable in most newspapers. In other words, for being punk.
After they signed to Matador Records in 2008, more attention was paid to the actual music, mostly for how “un-punk” it was. The Chemistry of Common Life, with its ambitious layering of textures, and unconventionally long songs (i.e., more than 3 minutes), won the 2009 Polaris Music Prize, and 2011’s David Comes to Life, a self-proclaimed “rock opera,” was named the No. 1 album of that year by Spin magazine. Now, the band critically acclaimed for pushing the boundaries of hardcore presents Glass Boys, a reflection on aging and ambition that’s both raw and complex.
“I wanted the record to be about coming to awareness that as a 32-year-old, you’re probably someone your 22-year -old self would have hated.” – Damian Abraham of F***ed Up
“I wanted the record to be about coming to awareness that as a 32-year-old, you’re probably someone your 22-year -old self would have hated,” explains Abraham, who shares lyric writing duties with guitarist Mike Haliechuk. “The songs are about getting old, and having to accept that the things that worked for you then don’t necessarily make sense for you now. Weirdly for me, I worked through some things in the process of writing, which I haven’t in the past. I hesitate to use the word transformative, but I came out feeling a lot better.”
With six full-time members (including guitarist Josh Zucker, bassist Sandy Miranda, and guitarist/backing vocalist Ben Cook), F***ed Up learned early on that jamming out song ideas all together in a room was ineffective. Songwriting has thus evolved into a process of splitting up and coming together. “We wrote the shell of the record as five people, fine-tuned it as three people, then recorded it almost all separately,” says Falco.
If the words “songwriting” and “hardcore” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, try this match: F***ed Up, featuring Gord Downie. The Tragically Hip singer’s appearance is just the latest in the band’s tradition of guest vocalists, who have included Dallas Green (Alexisonfire, City & Colour) Sebastien Grainger (Death from Above 1979), Katie Stelmanis (Austra) and J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), whose voices complement and contrast Abraham’s harsh, screaming style. These guests are often conceived from the beginning, as part of Damian’s songwriting process.
“When I’m writing and I hear the lyrics and where they’ll fit in the song, normally I’ll have different people singing, in my head,” he says. “It’s never my own voice. That comes later, almost like a translation, in the studio. And I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to reach out to some of these people and say, ‘I’ve got a song for you, would you come in and I will sing around you?’ It’s almost like casting.”
Abraham first met Downie as a customer in the video rental store he worked at. Later, the two musicians got to talking backstage at a City & Colour gig, then struck up a regular e-mail correspondence. When Damian sent Downie the lyrics to “The Art of the Patron” and asked him to sing on it, Gord was in. “I never once dealt with management or a label, he just showed up. He truly is the most down-to-earth, totally awesome, chill human being. It was surreal how normal it was.”
Normal. Another word that isn’t used much in this band’s universe. F***ed Up began as – and remains – a glorious accident, an experiment that has succeeded far beyond the dreams of its members, mixing musical sounds and ideas that shouldn’t go together, yet do. This is the spirit of punk rock, as they see it – not adhering to the convention of genres, but breaking them.
“You can always bend the rules,” explains Falco. “The thing that makes something F***ed Up is this really conflicted intersection of melody and not-melody. Maybe overreaching, the amount of lead guitar tracks, or doing something that is like squeezing into a shoe that’s too tight. Basically, going well beyond any reasonable amount of ambition. Like, ‘OK, we’ve got a great song. Cool, let’s put more stuff on it!’”
JONAH FALCO’S LESSONS LEARNED
- Say yes to everything. “My invitation into F***ed Up was an e-mail: ‘Do you play/have access to drums?’ I said yes to both, neither of which were true.”
- Build a mystery. F***ed Up initially used fake member names, created an enigmatic logo, and released their music in very limited editions with minimal credits. “When you make information hard to find, it creates demand.”
- During writing and recording, take all the time you can to craft the songs to your satisfaction. “After it’s done in the studio you can no longer exert any control over it.”
Publisher: Songs of Beggars Music, Mattitunes Music (ASCAP)
Discography: Hidden World (2006), The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), David Comes to Life (2011), Glass Boys (2014)
SOCAN member since 2005 (Cook), 2006 (Haliechuck, Zucker), 2007 (Falco), 2008 (Miranda), 2010 (Abraham),