Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham, the roly-poly singer in Toronto’s F——- Up, spends a lot of his time at the band’s concerts in the audience, doing everything from climbing on chairs and tables to munching on beach balls.
In the band’s early days, he thought he needed to be threatening and verbally abusive to get the crowd going, but something changed when he saw the “exciting, positive energy” at an Andrew W.K. show.
“That was a big transition for me,” he says. “I’m just this big, goofy dude, so why not just be that? A year or so after, I took off my shirt for the first time at a show in Texas, and once the shirt came off, my party started.”
His most memorable concert encounter? Happened a few weeks ago while his band was in England, Abraham says, as a prelude to the arrival of the rapture predicted by an evangelist.
“I’m fighting through the crowd, and this older gentleman starts yelling at me, ‘Excuse me, have you let Christ into your heart?’” Abraham says. “And I’m like, ‘Not now, I’m in the middle of a show.’ ‘So will you do it later?’ ‘Maybe.’ That was a first. I’ve been hit with bottles, pelted with stones, but I have never before been offered redemption.”
Redemption is actually a major theme on F——- Up’s latest album, “David Comes Alive” (Matador), an 18-song, four-part rock opera that is among the year’s best releases. It caps a prolific decade for the sextet, which has released more than 50 singles, mix tapes and albums in that time.
“No one in the band has a complete discography,” Abraham says. “It’s too much for even us to keep up with. But as soon as we started to figure out how to put out records, we wanted to do as much as possible. It helps to have prolific songwriters like Mike (Haliechuk) and Jonah (Falco), and the rest of the band has a fairly strong work ethic. They are constantly in the studio trying out new songs. We still don’t have management or roadies. We sell our merchandise at shows. We treat it like a real job, so we don’t have to get a real job.”
The idea of doing a rock opera seemed preposterous, especially given the band’s roots in hardcore punk and that scene’s aversion to classic-rock pretension. But F——- Up broke with convention on its brilliant 2008 album, “The Chemistry of Common Life,” a more elaborate, layered exercise in maximalism that somehow still hit hard. It won Canada’s most coveted music award, the Polaris Music Prize.
“That was just insurmountable hype, so how do you top that?” Abraham says. “We had joked about doing a rock opera for a long time, so if not now, when? Everything this band does feels like bonus rounds anyway. We were never meant to last this long. That we have feels like a weird fluke, not a risk. And we knew that the whole Mohawk-wearing, leather-jacket image of punk was way too narrow. We think about bands like Television Personalities or Gang of Four doing really progressive music within the parameters of punk. Sham 69’s second album (‘That’s Life’ in 1978) was a rock opera. There was a secret history of really ambitious punk rock, a yearning for grandiose statements, that we wanted to be a part of.”
After the band wrote the music for “David Comes Alive,” Abraham, Haliechuk and Falco sat down at a food court in a shopping mall and created a story line, then broke it down into individual songs. The plot gets pretty convoluted — “a ridiculous, meandering story,” Abraham calls it, about the title character who falls in love, then has his heart broken and is eventually redeemed.
Weaving through the narrative are subjects that have obsessed Abraham from the start, from patriarchy to God.
“Writing about stuff that means something to me is the only way I could pull something like this off, singing at full volume,” he says. “That’s why I liked punk and hardcore so much growing up, because it so explicitly puts its agenda on its sleeve. Hip-hop does that too. But I can’t write about going out and partying because I’ve never really done that.”
The singer admits the album is a lot to absorb: an old-fashioned concept album with dense lyrics and complementary artwork that can’t really be appreciated in a couple of sit-downs.
“It’s not a convenient record. If anything, it’s a statement about how inconvenient a record could be,” he says with a laugh. “It’s completely not of its time. But this is our attempt to make something larger than ourselves. When you come down to it, it’s basically a guitar record. We intentionally took out all the French horns and organs to make it as straightforward as possible while we were telling this story.”
Now where does the band go? Abraham is wondering that himself. “I’m hitting a point where I’ve said my piece as the band’s sole vocalist. I want to stay in the band, but there are other elements we can bring in. Different things we can try to open it up. We want to keep trying to do weird and different things. We’ve just recorded a new 12-inch, ‘Year of the Tiger,’ with (director) Jim Jarmusch on vocals. That might be the first statement of this band’s next phase. After you’ve made your rock opera, you can’t dial back.”
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