According to conventional logic, Fucked Up should be the kind of cult act that never gets beyond the pages of Maximumrocknroll.
The Torontonians have never made things easy for themselves, initially trafficking in uncut classic American hardcore, a genre that’s never come close to gaining mainstream acceptance. By adopting such stage names as Mustard Gas, Pink Eyes, and 10,000 Marbles, the band’s members—intentionally or not—positioned themselves at the same punk-rock lunch table as lunatics like El Duce, Jesus Bonehead, and Mickey DeSadist.
Lyrics such as “I want to scratch your car/I want to fuck your wife/I want to break your life” from the early song “Baiting the Public” made it crystal clear that Fucked Up wasn’t going after the lucrative Hot Topic demographic. Most importantly of all, the group understood that a little mystique sometimes goes a long way.
Rarely giving interviews during the early years, Fucked Up for a long time did nothing to shoot down various misconceptions about the band, including that its mountainous singer, Pink Eyes, suffers from schizophrenia.
Despite all this, today Fucked Up finds itself on the mainstream radar, with its recently released Year of the Pig hitting the streets on indie powerhouse Matador Records. Reached on his cellphone in New York, drummer Jonah Falco—better known to his fans as Mr. Jo—acknowledges that things are definitely taking off.
“Our name is in more and more places, and more and more eyes are sort of on the things that we are transmitting,” says the unfailingly polite timekeeper.
Indeed, with everyone from Spin to (most improbably) the New York Times gushing over Fucked Up, the past few months have found the group playing the European festival circuit, with highlights including stops at both Reading and Leeds. After a half-decade of toiling in obscurity in skid-punk shitholes, Fucked Up is suddenly seeing how the other half lives.
“The touring we’ve been doing this summer is really new to us,” Falco says. “Because we’ve been on the festival circuit, there haven’t been a lot of little club shows or loading in and out at obscene hours. Generally, the shows were midday to open-minded audiences and scores and scores of people. It was luxurious.”
In + out
Jonah Falco sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On playing live: “You don’t see many other bands on the festival circuit engaging their audiences the way that we do. We show up at festivals and do something more aggressive than most of the bands, and differently melodic, with a shirtless singer who’s flailing about. It’s confrontational, and I think this helps people to remember us.”
On his perception of what Fucked Up is: “We’re basically an open sore, pustulating all over the place. We can’t stop ourselves from leaking everywhere.”
On the band’s career trajectory: “At this point, seven years on, we’ve turned a lot of corners and taken a weird kind of path. By signing to Matador and releasing these really kind of strange musical endeavours and branching out from how we used to sound, we’ve sort of become the kind of band that people love to pay attention to.”
Fucked Up’s rise to respectability is doubly incredible when you consider that Year of the Pig starts off with an 18-minute epic loosely based on the exploits of Robert Pickton. On a purely musical level, “Year of the Pig” flips a giant bird to hardcore dogmatists, combining gorgeously fragile piano, sound-and-fury guitar carnage, sugar-dipped vocals courtesy of ethereal chanteuse Jennifer Castle, and phlegm-and-gravel bellowing from Pink Eyes. (Just to drive the point home, three edits of “Year of the Pig” follow, with the “Japan” version zeroing in on the tinkling keyboards of collaborator Max McCabe Lokos, and the “UK” version offering up a shoegazer’s take on U.S. hardcore.)
As for lyrics, certain subjects are generally deemed off-limits, even in punk rock, with the deeds of Canada’s most notorious pig-farming serial killer being right up there. Given that reality, “Year of the Pig” seems designed to get people squirming, as Pink Eyes howls out such lines as “Turned to tricks for a feast/Tear into the filth like a whore/Suck the meat from the bones/Leave the corpse on the floor.”
Before you start working on your politically correct picket sign, consider that Fucked Up celebrated the release of the single with a benefit concert for a Toronto support group for prostitutes.
“We have, in the past, tried to play with taboos and stepping on people’s toes and specifically pushing buttons,” Falco admits. “The single ”˜Baiting the Public’ was all about that. But I don’t think that ”˜Year of the Pig’ is shocking. I think it’s a compelling topic. It was meant to be exegetical—to draw attention to and to explain, and not to glamorize.”
That Falco is as articulate as he is engaging acts as a tip-off that he and his bandmates have something smarter to offer than, say, the back catalogue of Hogtown cretins Bunchofuckingoofs.
“The things that we do are very thought-out and given the attention that they deserve, especially at this point where we are reaching more and more places and people,” he says. “You can’t take a passive approach. Being intelligent is important to us.”
Smart enough to realize early on that punk, in its purest form, has no rules, Falco and company have in fact made a career out of challenging people to think, which is more than Green Day can say. No sooner had Fucked Up established itself as a force on the Canadian hardcore scene—accomplishing this with a seemingly endless string of blast-force seven-inches—than it suddenly deviated from fast-and-loud, clocking in with nine-minute prog-punk epics on 2006’s critically lauded Hidden World.
Year of the Pig continues to mess with all notions of what punk rock is supposed to be, with “Anorak City” splattering old new wave with a mixture of Drano and lye, while the electro-spazz bottom end of “For My Friends” takes dead aim at the post-postpunk dance floor. Of course, such diversions have enraged many of the purists who initially embraced Fucked Up.
So what is punk? Well, the easy way out would be to let Maximumrocknroll answer that. But because Fucked Up has never chosen the easy route, Falco happily takes his best shot.
“Punk is the most indefinable word in 2008, so I could say that we are a punk band,” he offers. “But I don’t even know if you can use that word anymore. I don’t subscribe to the idea that punk is anything. I saw Billy Corgan on TV recently saying, ”˜I’m in Des Moines, and someone is reading her poetry for people and she’s really happy about it. How punk is that?’ I don’t believe that. Punk is a finite term that’s applied infinitely, which is unfortunate.”
Without so much as pausing to catch his breath, Falco continues: “This guy from this Japanese band called Judgement had this song called ”˜Just Be’. That’s important advice. Just be. That’s what Fucked Up is doing now. Whether you want to think what we do is punk or hardcore is fine. We just be.” -
Fucked Up plays Richard’s on Richards on Sunday (September 7).