Love in a Lightbulb Factory: Fucked Up Goes to the Opera

Photo: Daniel Boud

Canadian hardcore stalwarts Fucked Up, a sextet with an FCC-incompatible name, have just released a landmark album in their ten-year career: a true life rock opera. David Comes to Life is an ambitious hunk of sprawling punk-power-psychedelia chronicling the schizophrenic life of David, a disenchanted light bulb factory peon, and his love interest, Veronica. The album is lofty in vision and rife with guest musicians, sonic experiments and smatterings of hook-laden rock fury—it’s a transcendent album pricking ears across all of punk and hipsterdom. With a dizzying assortment of hardcore singles, three well received full lengths (one of which is a Polaris Music Prize winner), prominent slots on the indie festival circuit, and a newfound following of eye-rolling, slack-jawed hipsters who’ve just now accepted hardcore, Fucked Up has met incessant praise for their transcendent approach to punk rock. I spoke with lead guitarist and songwriter Mike Haliechuk (aka 10,000 Marbles) about the album the morning after their record release show.

SLUG: “David Comes to Life” was a song on 2006’s Hidden World. When did you decide to flesh it out into an entire album?
Mike Haliechuk: Around then. We knew we had this “character” that we could work with … and we knew sort of early on that we wanted to do a big-style record like this one, but we never really had the time or the guts to do it until now. Some songs on this new record are pretty old and the idea is almost as old as the song is.

SLUG: Besides the namesake, how much of David from the album is based on your manager David Eliade?
Haliechuk: The song on the first record definitely came from him, but this record isn’t about his life or anything. It’s just, whenever we need to personify someone or something … David’s the one who gets personified.

SLUG: Why him?
Haliechuk: Well, it’s just our “thing.” You don’t want to have too much quasi-fiction in your band, or else it gets too convoluted. If we were a band like Coheed and Cambria, it’d be cool to have a universe of characters, but we’re not that creative yet. Most of the story is just from experience. It’s just about love and loss, and everyone has those so we didn’t need to draw from something else.

SLUG: Coheed and Cambria make comics to accompany their albums. Will there be any other visual medium to accompany yours?
Haliechuk: We’d like to turn it into a stage presentation somehow. That’s the next thing we’ll start working on. We’re kind of working on a script for it, filling in some holes in the story. I think it’d be really cool for it to happen. We’re probably years away from it.

SLUG: Who writes the lyrics? Did you write the entire story first?
Haliechuk: For us, the music always comes first. We had rehearsed the majority of the album before we started thinking about the story. We came up with the framework and narrative for the story before we wrote the lyrics. Once we had that, it was easy to plug pieces of the story into each song. Me, Damien [Abraham] and Josh [Zucker] did the story together and then we sort of shared the lyrics.

SLUG: Is it weird to choose which songs to play live? It seems similar to picking chapters from a book or something.
Haliechuk It’s just music, right? People at a show aren’t really thinking about the lyrics or any narrative an album has. It’s not like you can really understand the words when we play anyway. We just pick the ones that are the most conducive to the live setting.

SLUG: Are you comfortable with the term “rock opera?”
Haliechuk: It’s whatever. There’s a lot of things you can call it, but when you hear it, it becomes clear what it is. It’s an album that’s got a little bit of a story to it. Hopefully it pushes the songs in a certain way and you can sort of follow along. It’s not like it’s this cumbersome thing where you have to listen to the whole album at once, or you have to completely understand what the story is … At heart it’s just music.

SLUG: How about classic “rock operas?” The Who’s Tommy?
Haliechuk: I really stayed away from them while we were recording. I’m not really into The Who. I know there’s a bunch of concept records on our “docket” that people are talking about, but I’m not really into that kind of music … The whole post-seventies thing, or that Pretty Things record or whatever. It’s just not my thing. I wouldn’t have wanted to draw from things specifically anyway because then [our record] would have just been too similar [to theirs].

SLUG: Stodgy rock journalists throw around terms like “dense” or “complex punk” when describing Fucked Up. Do you actively avoid simplicity?
Haliechuk: I dunno. I think we are pretty simple. People think we’re complicated because we haven’t followed a very conventional trajectory in our career, but it’s not like we use a million computers to make our music. We just play, you know? Especially now, most bands know how to work these complicated computer programs or this complicated DJ equipment. Even lots of rock bands will have triggers, or cues or MacBooks on stage. I think our music is very simple compared to bands like that.

SLUG: Yeah, but I mean, you have three guitarists, and you used tons of guitar tracks on The Chemistry of Common Life …
Haliechuk: It’s surprising to me that it became a talking point, because lots of bands have three guitar players and there were dozens of guitar tracks even on that first Sex Pistols record. It’s just how we make music. We never set out to be weird. Adding a third guitar player was just something we needed to do to play one of our songs live, you know?

SLUG: This new album is eighty minutes long …
Haliechuk: Yeah. When we were writing it, we wrote 26 or 27 songs, and then we picked the ones that had the best fit or flow with each other, and it just came to be that long. We can’t win, you know? When we started out, we were doing these 7”s and people were saying “meh, they’re good, but they’re too short.” It’s just this completely arbitrary thing. If you don’t want to listen to eighty minutes of the album, just listen to some of it and then listen to some later. When I was a kid, I’d listen to my favorite records five times in a row, you know? You can do what you want with your time. We made an album that was this particular length, but it doesn’t come with instructions on how you’re supposed to listen to it. That’s just how much there is of it.

Downplaying aside, it’s albums like David Comes to Life, coupled with a baffling stream of creative zeal and artistic accolades, that renders Fucked Up one of the most interesting and impressive bands to emerge from the internet seeped, post-Green Day alternative landscape. Frankly, who wouldn’t want to see a full-scale Broadway production of David? American Idiot can’t be our last hope for punk rock musical theater.

Photo: Daniel Boud