40 at 40: Fucked Up reflect on the time they could have been huge

After a decade, the Toronto hardcore band looks back at David Comes To Life – an album that nearly propelled them to arena rock status

There was a moment in 2011 when it felt like Fucked Up would become one of the biggest bands in the world. 

That’s the year the Toronto six-piece appeared on the cover of NOW Magazine, part of a media blitz for their third full-length album, David Comes To Life. 

That album – a massive-sounding punk rock opera that was ambitious even for them – is turning 10, and the band is celebrating with an anniversary tour in which they’ll play the whole thing in full. That includes two hometown shows at the Great Hall on February 4 and 5 – a benefit for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (tickets for night one are still available via Not Dead Yet).

“As far-fetched as it sounds, there was an idea around that time that a hardcore band was going to be huge,” reflects Fucked Up lead guitarist Mike Haliechuk. “And yeah, there were some people that thought it could have been us. But I think we were a bit too weird and dysfunctional for that.”

If you were a music fan when David Comes To Life came out, Fucked Up were ubiquitous. Critics heaped praise and the band was in just about every music outlet, big and small, including the covers of NOW and SPIN and in some mainstream publications that wouldn’t even print their band name. It felt like they played every single music festival. Without even meaning to, I think I saw them five or six times that summer. 

The band was coming off a 2009 Polaris Prize victory for their previous album, The Chemistry Of Common Life, and their label, Matador Records (at the time one of the biggest independent record labels) was ready to push them to new heights. They even played an arena show or two, including one opening for the Foo Fighters at the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena). 

I wrote the cover story a decade ago, interviewing Fucked Up members Damian Abraham, Ben Cook and Josh Zucker at Little Nicky’s coffee shop (RIP) while they juggled band duties. Looking back, there seemed to be some shock that a band with a growling lead singer and expletive in their name could make it that far. But Haliechuk thinks they could have had an alternate history where they blew up into an arena band themselves – maybe something closer to the trajectory of Arcade Fire.

“We were poised to make the jump I think,” Haliechuk says. “If we were a bit more palatable or a bit more savvy we might have. We jumped straight into being a legacy band – like the Melvins territory. We skipped the step where you get massive and spend 10 years headlining arenas. Instead, we became the one that bands that were doing that were secretly into.”

There was some tension between members about how much to tour, he admits. While recording the album, frontman Damian Abraham got the call that he’d be the new host of MuchMusic’s briefly rebooted “alternative” show The Wedge – and now he’s as well known for his speaking voice as his screaming voice. Some had families and side gigs, while some just got tired of playing 150 shows a year – something they did pretty much nonstop from 2007 until 2014. 

“We were never really committed to trying to be huge,” Haliechuk says. “But we were committed to huge-sounding records.”

The band have never made a secret of their functional dysfunction. They often have six competing visions for the band – a never-ending chaotic push between relatable fist-pumping anthems, conceptual depth, studio perfectionism and aesthetic experimentation. On a musical level, David Comes To Life was when those visions perfectly aligned – somehow both their most accessible record and the one with a full setting, time period, storyline and unreliable narrator. The album made our list of best Toronto albums of the 2010s

Even if they never crossed over into superstardom, they’ve continued to push themselves in new and interesting directions, which continues today. In 2012, they had already played a Toronto show for their David tour and wanted to try something new for their hometown fans, so they came up with Long Winter – a multi-room monthly seasonal showcase that would bring together various corners of Toronto’s multi-faceted music and arts scene. 

At the beginning, Fucked Up played every show, but “like the ship of Theseus,” Long Winter now continues without the organization of any of the members of the band – Haliechuk was one of the last originals, but he took a step back during the pandemic. The series is still growing and evolving, thoughtfully interrogating what it means to be a DIY – or DIT for “do it together” – community organization. 

And, now 20 years into their career, Fucked Up continues to experiment as a band. They recently released their latest “zodiac” record, Year Of The Horse, in four 20-ish minute “acts” before releasing the whole epic on vinyl and Spotify. Drifting between psych, classical, thrash riffing, spoken word poetry and various vocalists, it might be the most creatively restless thing they’ve ever released – which, for Fucked Up, says a lot.

Below is my cover story, Fucked Up Get Big, republished from the June 16, 2011 issue of NOW Magazine.

Fucked Up Get Big – Toronto punk rock superstars grow up and blow up with an unlikely rock opera

By Richard Trapunski

I’ve been sitting with Fucked Up guitarists Josh Zucker and Ben Cook at Little Nicky’s Coffee for about 15 minutes when Damian Abraham walks in carrying a heavy bag full of vinyl.

“What records are those?” Cook asks, looking up from a schedule their publicist has just placed in front of him.

“These are 200 copies of David Comes To Life I have to sign,” the lead singer answers, a look of modest bewilderment barely masking a smirk. “My life is hard.” He can’t contain his excitement at seeing the band’s uncensored moniker on a concert poster on the way over.

It seems Fucked Up are still getting used to their influence, though it’s increasing quickly. Their pre-release stream debuted on NPR. Their last album won the Polaris Prize. Their scream-singing frontman moonlights as a MuchMusic VJ. Not bad for a band with a supposedly unprintable name.

Fucked Up once strove for enigma and menace, but the three members sitting before me look a lot like regular dudes. Zucker is courteous, with a penchant for small talk. Cook is reserved but civil and well-kempt. Even Abraham, with his wild beard and hulking bearlike stature, comes off more jovial than imposing.

He does dominate the conversation, but that stems more from his passion for music and banter than from arrogance or self-importance. Partway through the interview he excuses himself to help a mother carry a stroller down a flight of stairs.

This is all in striking contrast to their early days as an incendiary group of miscreants, as notorious for their controversial pseudonyms, elaborately constructed backstories and physically destructive concerts as for their music. To put it in perspective, lead guitarist Mike Haliechuk originally formed Fucked Up as an experiment to see if this group of dysfunctional people could play together as a band.

A decade later, that same group of dysfunctional people (give or take a couple of lineup tweaks) has blossomed into a band that tops critics’ polls, plays major festivals and opens for the Foo Fighters alongside NXNE programmer John Kastner’s reformed Doughboys at the Air Canada Centre. Let’s repeat that just in case it didn’t sink in: Fucked Up are going to play the Air Canada Centre.

You’d think the sextet’s sudden drive toward legitimacy would be a major coup for the punk and hardcore scene from which the band sprang, but some still in the scene apparently don’t think so.

“A couple of years ago, we started getting written about in glowing terms by larger magazines, but at the same time all our friends who wrote for these smaller zines started talking shit about us,” explains Abraham. “It was a really bizarre moment: an acceptance of our band by the mainstream but a rejection of us by our scene.”

It’s not like Fucked Up are the first band to be called sellouts by their early fans. Still, considering their ongoing ties to the scene, through side projects and production gigs, you’d expect them to take it hard. Not so.

“I don’t resent it at all,” says Abraham. “I totally understand it. The DIY hardcore scene cuts bands off when they get to a certain point, and that’s how it stays so vibrant and strong.

“You know what?” he continues. “I would have been the same way. I would have been like, ‘Yo, fuck that band Fucked Up. They have a rider. They have a booking agent. They’re in Spin Magazine. Fuck those guys.’”

Despite their obvious admiration for punk, Fucked Up have always shown a willingness to bend the rules of their genre. With their star-studded charity singles and sprawling orchestra-laden epics, they’ve never shown much reverence for conventions.

Their third LP, the just-released David Comes To Life (Matador), shatters the ultimate punk taboo: it’s a massive rock opera, the classic symbol of dinosaur rock excess, the very thing punk rock originally defined itself in opposition to. Yet with an album that sprawls to 78 minutes and 18 songs, Fucked Up have willingly, almost confrontationally, adopted its form.

“If it’s not hardcore, what else would you call it?” asks Cook.

That’s a good question. From Hüsker Dü to the Refused, a long line of hardcore bands have experimented with the form. By introducing elements of classic rock, pop and prog into their sound, Fucked Up, you could say, are just further expanding their language.

Aside from Abraham’s gruffly screamed vocals, though, “hardcore” doesn’t feel like the right descriptor. Haliechuk, Cook and Zucker layer shimmering guitar leads on each track, the songwriting is more melodic than ever, and Abraham’s bark is often tempered by sweet, almost twee vocals from Cults’ Madeline Follin and local stoner folk troubadour Jennifer Castle (see sidebar).

But punk rock is as much about attitude as sound.

“We can’t really do anything without a punk ethos. That’s just who we are,” says Zucker. “Like, we can’t put out a double LP without also putting out four or five 7-inches.”

On record, the band is anything but sloppy. In fact, they’ve been known to layer upwards of 50 instrumental tracks in individual songs. Behind the scenes, the members are meticulous craftsmen (and in the case of bassist Sandy Miranda, craftswomen).

Live, it’s Abraham’s show. Though the music has become significantly more sophisticated over the years, Abraham’s onstage antics remain unchanged. While the other members stay relatively static, the frontman will strip down to his skivvies, perform from within the audience, give up the mic to anyone who wants it and occasionally bleed all over the stage. Literally. There’s only one good description for it: fucked up.

“We labour over songs forever in the practice space,” explains Zucker. “But when we play live…. Let’s just put it this way: my tuner pedal has been broken for the last two years.”

“It’s almost like two different bands,” Abraham elaborates. “We’re playing the same songs, but you can’t replicate 57 guitar tracks live, so it makes sense to have something else going on in the live show. I couldn’t imagine us up there twiddling knobs. There’s no room for pretension onstage. That’s best left for the records.”

But let’s be frank: there is plenty of pretension on David Comes To Life. Spread over four acts and set in the 70s, the album tells the story of David Eliade, a young factory worker in the fictional English town of Byrdsdale who meets and falls in love with political radical Veronica Boisson. When she’s accidentally killed in a demonstration, David faces an existential crisis, seeks solace in past lovers and questions his own guilt. Eventually, narrator Octavio St. Laurent is revealed as an untrustworthy storyteller, the plot twists and turns, reality is called into question and, well, even the band admits it gets a bit convoluted from there.

To further complicate things, the storyline reaches beyond the album and into a series of singles, tie-ins and a compilation of fictional Byrdsdale bands called David’s Town, released as a limited vinyl exclusive on Record Store Day in April.

It also stretches into their back catalogue – David has been used as a character a couple of times before – and into the band’s living mythology. Characters David, Octavio and Nick Fenstle have alternatively been falsely cited as their manager, lawyer, roadie and owner of Thriller Energy Drink, a made-up company said to be suing the band in a widely reported story that was eventually revealed to be an April Fool’s prank just over a year ago.

“I hate when you’re able to figure everything out about something.,” says Abraham. “That’s why I think Twin Peaks holds up so well. There are so many unanswered questions. I’m not saying we’ve made Twin Peaks, by any stretch, but if people can listen to the record and get different things out of it each time, that’s great.”

Stripped to its core, however, David Comes To Life might be their most direct album yet.

“The narrative is like a wrapper,” explains Abraham. “It gave us an excuse to write about really relatable things like love, heartbreak, life and death. That’s why I think, for myself anyway, this is a much more confessional album than the rock opera concept would have you believe.”

Contradiction, after all, is inherent to Fucked Up. They’re easy to like but hard to fully understand. So how have they managed to get so big?

Says Abraham, “I’ve been in this band for 10 years and I still don’t comprehend how that happened.”

This story is part of our archival series 40 at 40. Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.


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