Fucked Up: Punk-Rock Social Experiment

Fucked Up has dabbled along the way in all kinds of obscure art movements; they usually have a handy, completely indecipherable explanation for the meaning of their latest lyric or image, referencing something like Belgian neo-surrealist shapeism. “Who on Earth would ever accuse Fucked Up of being pretentious?” laughs Falco.

They pull in a mind-numbing array of esoteric influences: the Vienna Actionist movement, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Kabbalah (naturally), Italian traditionalism, Corinthians, and Mircea Eliade, to name just a few. Reading their blog is like attending a symposium full of over-caffeinated academic revolutionaries. Thomas Pynchon probably loves Fucked Up.

On top of all of this is their live show—a show that frequently ends with Pink Eyes naked and bleeding. Abraham himself professes shock at this little detail of the Fucked Up universe: “I really, really, was not like this growing up. I was a real…not conservative, but a real shy guy. I’m shocked at the level of debauchery I’ve achieved. I’ll hear the next day about me stripping naked onstage, and I’m like, ‘No, I didn’t.’ Then I see the picture, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I guess I did. I really did.’”

In one of the more publicized events from their band history, they played a show on a pedestrian bridge in Austin, Texas that was reported as causing a “police riot.” Subsequently, the publication NME—which was the main source of the “riot” story—has been accused of sensationalizing the event (NME? Overreacting? What? Did someone call NME a hysterical publication?) and there’s been plenty of back and forth online, none of which hurt the band’s profile.

It’s possible that, by NME standards, most Fucked Up shows cause riots, and this one happened on a bridge. But it was a wild show by all accounts, even raising Fucked Up’s standard for crazy. “From a technical standpoint, that’s got to be one of the worst Fucked Up sets we’ve ever played,” says Abraham. “We didn’t get through one song. There would be a wave of people. We would do a verse and a chorus, and everything would fall down. It was one of those moments when the band is totally secondary to the event.”

All of their craziness might overwhelm the music, but the music is, of course, part of the craziness. Fucked Up has consistently pushed at the boundaries of any genre that tried to hold them. They’re clearly from a hardcore punk world, but they consider Pink Floyd and psychedelic music a major influence, and they regularly mix in long-form experimentation with their bang-it-out punk.

The new album, The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador), moves through more variety of atmosphere than your standard punk/hardcore, with peaceful, otherworldly intros and layers and layers of guitar—more than seventy guitar tracks at one point (or so they say…). There’s less stop-start fury than Hidden World—more sheets of sound. There are tracks on Chemistry that have almost nothing to do with hardcore punk: “Golden Seal” sounds like a darker Sigur Rós, or even Jean Michel Jarre. Their sound in general is more epic and complicated, more big-time rock band than most punk/hardcore.

They recorded the album separately, and in fact, with The Chemistry of Common Life all done, they now have to learn to play it together. “We’re going to come home now and learn how to actually play the record,” explains Damian. “We’ve never practiced the songs as a band. We’ve all played the songs individually, but we’ve never played them as a group.”

Naturally, their own takes on the album are contradictory: Falco describes it as a much more cohesive record—Zucker as a more disjointed one. Listening to Chemistry, it does sometimes seem that they don’t all want to be in the same band. The guitars—well, can a guitar sound arrogant? But justifiably so?

This guitar work is detached, assured, and somewhat at odds with Pink Eyes’ crazed bark. There’s not much in the way of drones or experimental noise here; Chemistry is melodic, almost shoegazer at times, like a sped-up Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine. “Blissed out” is how they’ve described it, and that works if your idea of bliss moves quickly and includes a fat, bald guy shouting complicated lyrics at you. “We’ve always been riding on the crest of our own wave,” says Falco. “The very crest of the wave is an unstable place. It’s not uniform. For this one, we decided that instead of being right on top and breaking all the time, we’re more in the middle, calmer, and happier to flesh out ideas.”

Fucked Up is now a Matador band, which implies that they’ve arrived in indie-hipsterdom, and maybe that they’ve left the insular world of hardcore punk. Or, possibly, it means that the world of hardcore punk is stretching out. In fact, this band is taken often to be a symbol of that change: they’re still legit hardcore punkers, but not following the usual HP playbook. So maybe that playbook is done.

Jane’s Addiction released Nothing’s Shocking twenty years ago; now, in 2008, Fucked Up erodes that assertion from all angles. All of their provocations have brought more eyes and ears to Fucked Up. This is a punk band; this is punk behavior. What they’ve accomplished—and it’s no small feat—is to get a conversation started again about punk.

They make the idea of punk music more difficult to file away as history; they’ve brought an element of unpredictability back into punk with both their actions and their records. As soon as we all started wondering just what the hell they were doing, they’d already succeeded.

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