Toronto hardcore legends Fucked Up build on their galvanizing sound One Day at a time
By: Tabassum Siddiqui | Photos by: Jeaninne Kaufer
For so many, the pandemic and the many fault lines it exposed led to personal and societal breaking points – negative outcomes like fractured relationships and political divisions, but also positive change that pushed people to think about what matters most.
Toronto hardcore legends Fucked Up have always been a thoughtful group – singing and speaking up about the things they care about, but also in their approach to music itself. So when it came to writing and recording their sixth full-length album in the middle of a time of lockdowns and uncertainty, they found that trying something a bit different could be just the right creative catalyst.
Their shortest album to date (10 taut songs in 40 minutes), One Day was – as the title suggests – written and recorded in just one day, though with some leeway for COVID lockdown constraints and the fact that the band members often record their parts separately.
Guitarist Mike Haliechuk initially envisioned the concept prior to the pandemic, towards the end of 2019, writing and recording the music for the album’s 10 tracks over three eight-hour sessions.
“I just wanted to get something out quickly. The last few records, we took several years – and when we got back from the last album tour, it felt like we had come back from the moon or something,” Haliechuk says from his home in Toronto.
“I thought, ‘I gotta recover and just chill out.’ And that only lasted for about a week before I got restless. Initially I was thinking of [the record] as a non-committal, chill thing. And I always like to come up with contrivances or weird, wacky ideas to start recording. Doing it in a day felt appropriate – and then other meanings for doing it that way kept coming up afterwards.”
When the pandemic hit weeks later, the idea of releasing something quickly went out the window, but the rest of the band stuck to the guideline of doing their parts within the same 24-hour timespan – a challenge that proved more fruitful than limiting.
“What I liked was that I got to do what I wanted, in a way, because I was alone and I had time to play and redo some things on my own,” says bassist Sandy Miranda during a joint Zoom call with vocalist/bellower Damian Abraham (the band also includes guitarist Josh Zucker and drummer Jonah Falco). “In the old days in our practice space, it was often more directed by Mike, and I’d be a little bit like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do – do you have trust in my creative process?’” she adds with a laugh.
“But in this way, even though we were separate, I felt like we were more collaborative. I’m a bit of a loner at heart, so being on my own in my comfort zone really worked for me. I felt like I had a bit more freedom with my contribution.”
Abraham was initially set to record his vocals in early 2020 in Vancouver, but One Day was put on pause for two years while the band turned their attention to the Year of the Horse 12-inch. A busy father of three, Abraham eventually managed to find time – between overseeing virtual school and taking the kids to play outdoors – to record his parts in four six-hour blocks. Having time to ruminate over the songs also saw him return to contributing lyrics for the first time since 2014’s Glass Boys.
“When I actually had to sit down and write the lyrics within that so-called ’24-hour’ period, I wondered if I could do it,” Abraham admits, puffing clouds of smoke from a joint. “But I had these melodies and choruses and a couple lines bouncing around in my head for a long time at that point, so it really came very easily.”
Given Haliechuk’s role as the de facto musical director of the band, he usually has a clear idea of where he wants an album’s sound to go – but putting a framework around making One Day, and splitting lyrical duties with Abraham, gave him the chance to delve even deeper into what Fucked Up’s musical ethos is all about.
“There are so many chances when music is your form – you get to record it, and then you sit around listening to it and you can make changes that no one will really notice. If you’re painting and you paint over something, it’s not there anymore. But music is so malleable, and it’s the post-production process that often takes us years. It can really make the finished thing so different than what you [initially] played,” Haliechuk explains.
“With this album, I really wanted to know what kind of music I could truly write without being able to spend years on making a perfected version. I found a lot of clarity writing in that way.”
Asked how he and Abraham decide which tracks they’ll each write lyrics for, Haliechuk quips that he usually lets Abraham have his way, but adds, “It’s almost like doing draft picks.” At first the two planned to write collaboratively, but pandemic restrictions soon scuttled that idea – and writing lyrics about the tedious minutia of pandemic life held little appeal, he points out.
For Abraham, the return to writing lyrics was inspired in part by the music Haliechuk had written – and also by pandemic ponderings about the family and friends he holds dear.
“I wonder what it’s like for Mike, because I know that when he writes the songs, he’s got a particular vision in mind for how they’re going to sound – and by the time I’m done with them, I’m sure they’re completely unrecognizable [to him],” he says with a chuckle.
“I’ve only now come to appreciate what a trust and sort of surrender that is as a creative person, to be able to just give things over like that. I won’t even let anyone else edit my podcast, let alone write lyrics to a song that I worked on myself!”
More than two decades into their career, Fucked Up sound more vital than ever on One Day – which to the uninitiated might come across as far more melodic than their reputation as high-energy punks might imply. While Abraham’s roar is as fierce as ever and the rhythm section still raises the listener’s pulse, the melodies are relentlessly memorable and the lyrics deeply pensive.
“I think we started as a very distilled project where we were writing under the guidance of very specific punk songs. We were into ’80s American DIY music and late-’70s small-batch British punk records. And as weird or obscure as some of those bands are, they’re all trying to write pop songs, right? Everybody who puts a record out, they’re trying to make a hit – whether they admit it or not. No one goes into the studio thinking, ‘I hope no one hears this,’” Haliechuk notes.
“And so we were listening to heavy music, but the pop sensibility is there. I always feel like punk and aggressive stuff, it’s just one of the trappings of pop music. Even our early 7-inches, they’re very aggressive and angry – but they have little guitar licks and there’s always been melody up front. If I was writing music for Taylor Swift, you’d write to that type of vocal. But we don’t have a singer that plays that role – so it’s just a different expression of what we’re doing,” he says.
“I’m very orthodox in my love of punk and hardcore, and felt like what I was going to do was always going to be within this certain sonic parameter that I’d set for myself. And as time has gone on, just realizing that there are other influences and ways to incorporate other sounds into what I do has made me enjoy the challenge of trying different things,” Abraham adds.
“To some, it probably does not sound like a lot of diverse experimenting going on in my vocals. It’s like Where’s Waldo – the melody is always hiding there, but it might be under a bunch of screaming,” he quips.
While they’re never afraid to change things up in their sound or approach to making music, what remains constant is Fucked Up’s place in Toronto’s cultural scene – an influence that goes beyond simply their music. Aside from being an integral part of a groundbreaking wave of local indie music that began in the early 2000s, the band has maintained an unwavering commitment to social and artistic movements – including the Long Winter arts and music series founded by Haliechuk and Zucker; the band’s longtime penchant for holding all-ages shows in offbeat venues across the city; and their fundraisers to support local causes from women’s shelters to harm-reduction programs.
Those community values are reflected in songs like One Day’s “Lords of Kensington,” in which Abraham laments the gentrification of one of Toronto’s beloved neighbourhoods – while candidly acknowledging his own role in that same evolution. The changes in their city and the many difficult issues that come with it – from rising homelessness and housing shortages to venue closures and artists’ inability to make a living – are clearly top of mind.
“Over the last few years, even since we’ve written the record, Toronto has become a very different place,” Haliechuk says. “In ‘Lords of Kensington,’ Damian is remembering a crystallized time in our late teenage years when we were discovering the city as people that could maybe have an impact on it, and coming to art spaces in the Market and all that.
“But as we were writing the album, we lost our practice space, and so many other things closed. It really does seem like in the last 10 to 15 years, the focus has really changed from Toronto being a weird, cool place to just sort of a cold, sterile assembly of condo units – which is painful for those of us that wanted something else. I think about it a lot, especially doing Long Winter and all that stuff – but similar to how we did this record, if you push people into a smaller and smaller space, it just forces them to be more resourceful,” he adds.
“It’s tough seeing the churn – there was already a shortage of spaces, and the rising rents do add a bleakness to the city,” Miranda concurs. “But we’re here, and we’re going to keep going as long as we can – and hopefully more places will crop up to foster that same sense of community that we thrived on in the early days.”
From their earliest days as chaotic provocateurs to One Day’s decidedly adult preoccupations with time and memory, Fucked Up have managed to sustain a long career where change remains the common denominator but one thing stays the same: their dedication to the ever-evolving experiment that is Fucked Up.
“We set out to be a weird, belligerent band who never put out records or toured, so we definitely didn’t achieve what we set out to do,” Haliechek jokes. “There’s a lot of stressful things that go into being a band like this, but we really like making music – that’s the constant. So that’s really where we ended up.”
“Yeah, we broke all of our own rules somehow,” Miranda says. “But it’s been beyond my wildest dreams – things keep happening that I never expect. It’s cool, but it’s just a mystery to me. I feel very blessed and lucky – and we just keep rolling with it.”
Abraham echoes his bandmates’ thoughts, but goes a step further: “I was in, like, 10 bands in high school before Fucked Up that didn’t go anywhere. I had become contented with the idea that I would always just be a fan that loved to talk about music. So this band afforded me everything – I don’t think I would have met my wife if it wasn’t for this band,” he declares.
“And I don’t know who I would be as a person – I got to grow with these people, and they became my family. To be able to do this every day – as a kid, this is all I would have ever wanted in my wildest dreams.”