Damian Abraham clutched the microphone and unleashed his reptilian hiss, spraying acidic lyrics for fans that were thrilled to fall prey. As the hulking, bearded, shirtless frontman of Toronto punk troop Fucked Up lumbered across the London (England) stage, he spotted someone in the audience who conspicuously stood out.
“There was a younger kid in the crowd. I gave him the microphone to sing along. But he just took it and started bashing himself in the head,” Abraham says about the boy’s self mutilation at the all ages show during, the tour for their 2011 album David Comes to Life. But Abraham should not have been shocked, considering his own infamy for onstage rowdiness. “I looked at the kid and thought ‘Oh, you’re doing that because I do it.’ Not like I’m a role model, but I realized I didn’t want to be sending that message anymore.”
Even before that, Abraham was already taming his volatile performance style, for reasons that turned out to be even more controversial for some of his closest followers.
“I’m a lot more at peace with performing and who I am. It’s still intense— I still hoist people up or bump into people. But it’s a lot less bloody now,” he says, adding: “I realise now a lot of the blood letting and smashing my face open onstage was a panic reaction to performing. Now I’m more in control through proper medication.”
Abraham says that last sentence with a rueful chuckle, because the ‘medication’ he’s referring to is self prescribed. Before Fucked Up started recording David, the singer decided to forgo his clinical anxiety meds in favour of taking bong hits with some of his bandmates. This, of course, infuriated some of Abraham’s closest friends in the hard core (and entirely sober) straight edge community.
As an alienated, anxious teen, Abraham found solace in the straight edge scene’s dark, hard hitting tunes and lack of boozy bullies. But as Fucked Up attained more success, and as pressures mounted, Abraham found himself questioning his strict abstinence. Ultimately, he feels he made the right decision, regardless of those who judge.
“Smoking pot and going off my meds completely changed my life,” he says, before elaborating: “I’m calmer. I lost 120 pounds without even trying. One of the side effects of my anti-anxiety pills was not wanting to have sex. Now I have a new child. Not to get too graphic or anything, but it’s changed my relationship with my wife.”
That spirit of growth and evolution also carries over to Fucked Up’s music. Their latest album, Glass Boys (released earlier this summer) is a departure from David, boasting shorter songs and harder hitting four track percussion, courtesy of drummer Jonah Falco. This led Abraham to forgo David’s high concept narratives, in favour of direct lyrics that spoke to his current struggles.
“A lot of it’s about trying to find a place as a professional punk musician, something I abhorred before I became one,” Abraham says, adding that the lyrics helped him reconcile how to graciously grow old in such a brash, youthful scene. “A lot of the lyrics started out negative — lashing out at the music industry and claims that we’d sold out. But eventually it was therapeutic. Over the course of recording, I realized there was a peace that could be had.”
In fact, Abraham has often wrangled zen from Fucked Up’s raucous rhythms. But he doesn’t always realise it. A prime example is “Black Albino Bones,” from the band’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life. The song’s protagonist revels in collecting records, having sex and smoking weed. When Abraham penned what he thought to be fictional lyrics for the tune, he had no idea that its last verse was so prophetic.
“Now when I play that song live I see the progression in my life. At the time I was just comparing a record collection to both people’s obsession with sex and to a drug. But now I realize it’s very autobiographical, in a weird way.”
But even without that hindsight, it should have been obvious to Abraham that the song’s first verse was lifted from his youth. Those opening lines about “the purity of obscurity” and the attempt to “capture the name as it spins in your mind,” were clearly about the stacks of vinyl that he compulsively played as a dysfunctional teen. One of his favourite LPs was Bought and Sold by a Swedish hardcore band called Intensity. After enduring a particularly tough day of school, Abraham would often crank the volume and let the record’s jack-hammer rhythms pummel his pain away.
Abraham’s parents weren’t concerned with his record collection obsession. In fact, his father was even more methodical when it came to the cataloguing of oddities. He and young Damian spent countless Saturday mornings at antique markets and yard sales, rummaging about in search of gothic inspired knick knacks.
“We’d find weird things. He’s really into art deco antiques. I remember growing up around snakes and skulls and devils,” Abraham says of his parent’s memorabilia, before going on to describe their affinity for unique pets: “One time, my baby sitter called child services to report my parents as satanists, because we had a living room painted black and these two king cobras encased in front of the fireplace.”
Abraham now seems to embody those snakes onstage — his body writhes and his lyrics slither. His father’s willingness to embrace all things strange gripped Damian like a python’s embrace, leaving an everlasting impression. And now that he has shed a few layers of skin— in terms of his sobriety, his weight and his band’s sound — Abraham feels all the more eager to offer anti-venom to his fans.
This is more than apparent when audience members approach him after a Fucked Up gig, inquiring about the clinical anxiety that he describes in interviews and documents in his lyrics. Abraham adds: “Kids come up and say, ‘I appreciate how open you are.’ I want to play a small role for them, in the same way that bands helped me deal with bullies, or society and feeling out of step with my peer group. It’s about hearing a band’s lyrics and thinking ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’ That’s incredibly gratifying and affirming.” ■
Fucked Up will perform at Heavy Montreal’s Apocalypse stage at Parc Jean Drapeau on Sunday, Aug. 10, 8:30 p.m., $85 for a Sunday ticket/$175 for a weekend pass. Tickets can be purchased here.
Fucked Up play with Solids at Katacombes (1635 St-Laurent) on Sunday, Aug. 10, 11 p.m., $10