Fucked Up: Punk-Rock Social Experiment

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Fucked Up’s latest tour of Europe ended in a fistfight. Outside of Heathrow airport, singer Damian Abraham, guitarist Josh Zucker, and drummer Jonah Falco actually started throwing punches at each other. “In the kiss-and-hug area of Heathrow,” laughs Abraham, “with all these families saying goodbye, we’re throwing each other around, smashing into vans. It just spiraled out of control.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the band’s name, after all, is Fucked Up, and its members were collected deliberately as a group of guys who would not get along. Zucker and fellow guitarist Mike Haliechuk actually sat and racked their brains to come up with a group guaranteed to have serious issues. This is either the worst or the best idea for putting a band together that anyone has ever had. We’ll have to wait and see.

Regardless of the wisdom of the idea, the initial goal has been achieved: Fucked Up can’t stand each other. They will happily tell you so. (This is a refreshing departure from the usual shtick of bending over backwards to compliment your bandmates and what they “bring to the band.”) They haven’t been able to stand each other now for about a zillion singles and two full albums—for going on seven years and for much longer, in fact, than many bands that started out as best friends.

“It’s like that thing, you know, you gotta love something to let it go? We don’t love each other enough to let it go,” says Abraham. “Some people in the band really party, and some people really don’t party. So there’s that conflict. Some people in the band are really healthy, and some people want nothing more than to eat French fries all day. So there’s conflict there. There’s really no common ground.”

“Most bands form out of friendship, common musical taste, drive, ambition,” adds Falco. “This was done completely inorganically. It was like a social experiment.”

Naturally, they didn’t expect things to go this far. A deliberately fractious band? “That’s great if you’re just playing local shows,” says Abraham. “But here we are six years later, and we’re touring the world.” The original goal, as Abraham (a.k.a. Pink Eyes) describes it, was really just to play as many local shows as possible. According to Falco, the plan was even more limited: “Ten [shows] or less, never tour, hate each other, self-destruct.”

It’s worth mentioning here that the members of Fucked Up are also famously untrustworthy, hiding behind their many aliases (the band members go by Pink Eyes, 10,000 Marbles, Mustard Gas, Mr. Jo, and Concentration Camp, but also sometimes Father Damian, Slumpy, Laundry, Gulag, and Guinea Beat, and probably many more).

They have disseminated wild stories, such as the recurrent mentions of “David Eliade,” their possibly fictional manager/Svengali figure, whom they credit with both spiritual and professional guidance, but who no one seems to have ever seen. (They can, however, take things seriously. The most notable example of Fucked Up as a sober, businesslike entity is their ongoing lawsuit against Rolling Stone and Camel Cigarettes, who used the band’s name as part of an “indie universe” without permission.)

So when they—mostly Abraham—talk in a low-key, straightforward way about their creation, and about their intra-band troubles, one has to wonder. But they obviously do get along, at least some of the time. They’re currently all packed into a vegetable-oil-powered bus, touring the West Coast as part of the Fuck Yeah Tour, and everyone seems to be getting along fine.

As recently as 2006, Falco and Haliechuk were groomsmen at Abraham’s wedding. Most likely, Abraham is embellishing. He’s a myth-maker. These are not lies—and I would lay good money that they did in fact fight at Heathrow—but he knows what makes a good story.

The members of Fucked Up naturally are the main sources of information about their past and present, and they’ve made such a habit of spreading misinformation that now even the simplest facts about them are murky. Doubt creeps in everywhere. Undoubtedly, they were assembled in an unorthodox way; definitely, they’ve had their differences. But nothing about Fucked Up is simple.

Here is what we know. Fucked Up formed in 2001 in Toronto, in what was a surprisingly fertile hardcore punk scene. Haliechuk and Zucker added Falco, Abraham, and most recently, third guitarist Ben Cook to their volatile mix. They’ve cranked out a relentless series of singles and EPs over the years.

Their debut LP, Hidden World (Jade Tree), was generally seen as a big step forward for both Fucked Up and hardcore music. From a creative standpoint, things have gone consistently well for Fucked Up.

They also quickly developed a tendency to grab attention for many, many things other than their musical output. Fucked Up takes a shotgun approach to the art of provocation. Why aim? Just fire. See what you hit.

Obviously, there is the name. They’re not entirely alone in this territory: there’s Fuck, Fuck Buttons, The Fucking Champs, Holy Fuck, and Total Fucking Destruction, not to mention every FCC worker’s favorite, Anal Cunt, as well as the granddaddies of this particular family of band nomenclature, the Butthole Surfers. Even so, you place yourself in a smaller camp when you name your band Fucked Up.

It’s earned them attention as part of a phenomenon: both Slate and Exclaim have run articles on the implications of the F-word band names. The name has presented all kinds of challenges along the way. A gushing New York Times article could not even name the band, MTV resorted to calling them “Effed Up,” and numerous record distributors have refused to carry the albums.

And that’s not the worst of it, as Abraham explains: “I will tell you that at the border, when you have to tell the officer that you’re in a band called Fucked Up, you really start wishing that maybe you’d picked a different name.”

And then there is the fascist imagery. In the middle of the bewildering swirl of obscure references and hilarious lies that are constantly pouring out of this band, there were occasional comments about Nazi mystics. Some people took notice, and so, being true punks, Fucked Up responded by including a picture of a Hitler Youth rally in a later release.

There they’d found an old, familiar nerve. As a society, we still really, really don’t like Nazis. And the blurred lines in some minds between hardcore punk, skinheads, and out-and-out racists meant that it was easy to assume the worst about Fucked Up: that they used those images because they want to promote those ideas. (Abraham was even assaulted by someone who took things that way. They’ve since become friends.)

In fact, there isn’t much to the whole fascism “controversy.” It’s easy to see, in the course of conversation or even quick research of the band, that they’re not fascist, or promoting fascism, or any such thing. Their reasons for using fascist imagery may be complicated; Abraham tap dances skillfully on the topic, talking about the power of symbols, irony, etc., and Zucker, likewise, can talk about the end of Western culture and the effect of standing at Nuremberg.

And maybe it’s all true: maybe they had profound, artistic, intellectual reasons for their use of Nazi symbols. Or the reason could be simple: they like to cause trouble. With a couple of marks on a page, you can create a very hostile environment for yourself,” says Abraham. “And that’s what we did.” This is, after all, a band that named one release Baiting the Public.