Ritualistically Speaking: F-cked Up

Damian Abraham on the gig experience…

Well, it is the biggest story in the world right now, right?

“That royal baby stuff, are you sick of it too?” asks F*cked Up frontman Damian Abraham when he answers our call. “It’s on every ‘paper here. I know we’re the Commonwealth, but come on. Every ‘paper? I guess it’s a joyous time. I’m happy that they had a successful birth, but something else must be going on in this world?”

The amiable vocalist says everything with an underlying chuckle. He’s a serious artist who doesn’t take any of this business too seriously. After all, as he’ll say later, it can all disappear before you know it.

Amongst Canada’s most successful musical exports of recent years, and winners of their home nation’s (Mercury-like) Polaris Prize for 2009’s ‘The Chemistry Of Common Life’ LP, neo-prog punks F*cked Up are a band with a solid can-do attitude. Heavy touring sorts, their show has become one of the most entertaining around.

“That’s the reality of every band now – not that we are the kind of band that would have made any money in the old model of the industry. But it does seem like every band is on tour, all the time. As that’s the only time you can make any money. Unless you’re the type of band who can sell a song to a commercial. I’m sure you can make money that way, but unfortunately we are not that band.”

Well, if Pepsi have a really out-there concept…

“Like, ‘We are bringing out the most extreme Pepsi flavour ever, and we need a guy to yell about it, who’s 300 pounds.’” He laughs that most appealing laugh of his. “But I actually quit drinking Pepsi on Friday, so I am no longer willing to endorse their products. I used to be, believe me. I drank loads of that stuff. I could have used them to sponsor me.”

But we’re not calling to talk sprogs and pop. We want to talk about the rituals of the F*cked Up live experience, as the band prepares to headline London’s new Visions Festival on August 10th. So, we do…

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F*cked Up, ‘Queen Of Hearts’, from ‘David Comes To Life’

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Before the show, what are you doing? Are you getting fired up, or do you try to relax?

Well actually, I’ve had different rituals over the years. When we started I’d go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and tell myself that everyone here f*cking hates me, that nobody likes me. And I’d go out there, and I could be a real dick. I’d throw myself into the audience. But then I saw Andrew WK and it was a revelation – he showed me that you can have a scary show, without it being violent and dickish, I guess.

So after that, I’ve worked on actually calming my nerves. I get really bad anxiety, so I’d go and hide away in a record store before a show sometimes. I’d avoid people before the show – I’d love to speak to them afterwards, though. But beforehand, I’d get anxiety so bad that I was on medication for it, and one time in Denmark I had to go to hospital. It was very Hamlet-like, going to a mental institution in Denmark. But then, I discovered smoking weed, two years ago. And ever since then, I’ve really found that it can do away with all of that anxiety.

You know, before, I’d get sick on stage, and actually throw up. I’d feel sick in my stomach. I definitely felt fear – fear that there might be nobody to watch us. I was worried about what’d happen when I went out there. But ever since I started smoking pot… I’ve become a medicinal marijuana user, after being straight edge for 16 years, so it’s a massive life change for me. But I’ve lost 100 pounds, and I find that everything about the performance has improved. It’s a problem when I have to go to Japan, though – you get caught with pot there, and it’s a long time in jail.

It’s a cost and reward situation. But I do try to smoke pot before I play. I’m not saying that it’d be the same for everyone, but for me it definitely helps overcome my anxiety. So, now, my pre-gig ritual is socialising with like-minded people and bands, and mellowing out.

And what about your audience? Let’s say there’s someone coming to see you for the first time. What do you want him or her to be doing prior, or imagine them doing, to the show?

I don’t want anyone to come wanting to hurt people. I want there to be excitement, and some sort of weariness because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but not because you think you’re going to get hurt. I’m the only person I wanna see hurt at the end of a F*cked Up show. But I want them to open their mind – I want it to be a fun experience, really inclusive, with nobody judging anyone else.

I don’t want it to be a place where you have to mosh, or go crazy, but at the same time I want that to happen without it ruining someone else’s time. I think it’s important to have that balance – you can have a show where there is stage-diving and people going nuts, but there’s also a place for people to just sing along, and for people who just want to watch. I want that person, coming for the first time, to get that inclusive mindset.

And during the show itself, how conscious are you of every element that’s playing out?

I’m fully aware of what’s happening – I really try to maintain that. You know, it depends on where you’re playing, of course – if you’re playing a big festival, you can’t know what everyone in the crowd is doing. But I do want to be able to look out and see that everything is okay. If someone’s crowd-surfing, and falls, I want to make sure that person gets back up again, that people help them up. I wanna make sure that when things get too rough, those people are told to chill out.

That doesn’t mean that anything is pre-planned, or that I’m ever going through the motions. There’s always chaos, and you do never know what is going to happen. But I want to look out for people – and I think that, generally, people at our shows look out for each other, too. Another set of eyes always helps.

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F*cked Up, ‘Crooked Head’, from ‘The Chemistry Of Common Life’

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And do you find that the crowd’s energy, be that positive or negative, has an obvious effect on your own performance?

Oh my god, yes. It’s like a really different experience. When you’re playing that show where everyone is into it, and singing along, and having a good time, that’s my fantasy since when I was a little kid. There’s no other feeling like that in the world, when you’re in this band and people that you do not know are singing along with your words, smiling and having a good time.

That being said, we did a tour with Arcade Fire, and there were some shows where we were met with real distain. And I think you can also confront people – not in a violent way – with what you’re doing. “Yeah, here we are, deal with it for 20 minutes.” I don’t want to impose on them too much… but I do for that length of time, and it’s not like it’s going to ruin your life, I promise you. And those can be fun, too: when the audience really doesn’t know what to expect. There’s an energy to be found in that, too.

It’s actually amazing to have played a show where, at the start, you feel that nobody’s really into you. But at the end, you’ll be approached by someone and they will tell you that they had a great time. You feel at that point that you’ve won, even if it’s just that one person.

Can you measure the enjoyment of a F*cked Up show in the sweat on crowd members’ T-shirts?

(Laughs) Well, there’s no way those people are sweating more than me! With my sweaty hands, I don’t think I’d be able to feel the moisture in their shirts. I’m like a giant sponge on stage, unfortunately. I suck it up throughout the day and release it on stage.

And afterwards… is that the time for fun, or more relaxing? And do you ever sit there, as sports managers do, and analyse the performance?

We kind of go our separate ways, as much as possible. But I don’t eat throughout the whole day, after breakfast, because I don’t want that to come back up on the audience. So I’ll go and eat somewhere local to the show. In London, generally, I try to head to Brick Lane because I love Indian food. I don’t think anyone else would want me to eat that before the show, to be honest with you.

And, generally, I just try to relax. I’ll call my wife, and speak to my kids if they’re awake – it depends where we are in the world, on what time zone we’re in, of course. I unwind… I find it hard to go to sleep straight after a show, even if it’s super late and I know I should. So, yeah… I don’t drink at all, so I’m not a partier, and I don’t really go out.

If we’re playing a festival, and there are old punk bands there, I will inevitably try to find them and persuade them to tell me stories and anecdotes and that. That’s an ideal situation: playing with Dinosaur Jr and forcing Lou Barlow and J Mascis to tell me about playing in Deep Wound.

And what about the crowd. You take the time to speak to them?

Yeah, absolutely. I normally just stand in the crowd if we’re at a festival, so if anyone wants to come and talk to me, that’s cool. There’s no difference between the person on stage, me, and the person in the crowd, except for luck and good timing.

I think, ultimately, I am the exact same person as that dude who’s come to see us. I’m a music nerd who likes bands, and that’s probably the same sort of person who comes to a F*cked Up show. So I like conversing with people, answering questions. I wanna be there for those people. There shouldn’t be that permanent separation between the performer and the audience, because that’s just an artificial thing that’s put up. And we all know that all it takes is for people to stop listening to you, and you’re right back in that crowd.

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F*cked Up, ‘The Other Shoe’, from ‘David Comes To Life’

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Photo: Daniel Boud

F*cked Up headline Visions Festival, in London on August 10th. Find more information on the event here, and F*cked Up themselves here

F*cked Up’s latest album, the rock-opera-styled ‘David Comes To Life’ (Clash review), is out now on Matador.

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