Before Fucked Up launched into "Police" at their sold-out record release show for their new Glass Boys in Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom last month, frontman Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham barked a monologue that probably didn't mean much to most of the crowd.
"This song goes out to Agnostic Front," he shouted. "It goes out to Abused. It goes out to Madball. It goes out to H2O. It goes out to Straight Ahead. It goes out to Urban Waste. It goes out to Skarhead. It goes out to all the New York hardcore bands who influenced us."
"Police" is one of the best hardcore songs of the last decade, but Fucked Up's winding path to critical and commercial success has, at last, transported the Toronto band to an audience that's largely indifferent to that distinction. Signed to indie mammoth Matador and cherry-picked to open for radio rock titans the Foo Fighters, Fucked Up is now the premier hardcore band for non-hardcore fans. Maybe that's because, these days, they're not much of a hardcore band at all.
To many of the people on the receiving end of Abraham's love letter to NYHC, Abraham might as well have been yelling at them in Klingon. For a crucial minority—namely, those who have followed Fucked Up long before their music took a turn toward art-rock excess—it remains part of the reason they still go to Fucked Up shows at all.
"I've always loved that kind of secret handshake," says Abraham, a week before Fucked Up leaves for its first major tour since the release of Glass Boys. "A few years ago, when Fred Armisen did that sketch on Saturday Night Live where the guy is playing his daughter's wedding but he's in a hardcore band? That was the coolest thing, because it was a wink and a nod to everyone who was a punk and hardcore fan."
Abraham's onstage name-dropping serves a similar function, albeit on a much smaller scale. It confirms Fucked Up's crucial foundations within hardcore, though they haven't aimed to be just another hardcore band for nearly a decade. In 2008, The Chemistry of Common Life, which notoriously opened with a flute solo, won the Polaris Prize for the best album by a Canadian artist, throwing wide the door between Fucked Up's music and a whole new genus of music fans. The 2011 rock opera David Comes to Life galvanized that relationship, hacking through the remaining connective tissue to the band's more straightforward hardcore days across its 78 minutes to arrive at strange rock magnificence.
Glass Boys is a hardcore record mostly in the sense that Abraham still screams the lyrics, but those words adorn songs that, in an era friendlier to loud guitar bands, could have been called arena rock. The drums are huge. The three guitarists take big, fuzzy solos. Every song has one or two or five hooks. Though Glass Boys is relentlessly melodic, it's also relatively lean, its brevity working as a sly nod to lifers who loved the band before they started channeling Quadrophenia.
Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy says the label's embrace of the band never hinged on its ability to move beyond hardcore. Matador signed the band partly on the strength of their boundary-pushing debut LP, Hidden World, but they were fans even earlier than that.
"They were ID'd as being a hardcore band," Cosloy says, "but we were always hopeful they'd appeal to anyone interested in smart rock music. We didn't consider hardcore to be an albatross or a stumbling block or even a feeder squad. We hope we're not the only ones who like more than one kind of music."
That sort of unity comes across during Fucked Up's incredible live show, a cathartic and cohesive concert experience where fans from the most jaded balcony watchers to shirt-and-tie weekend warriors clamber toward the first few rows with the hardcore kids. They all try to draw Abraham's attention, hoping to scream a few lyrics into the microphone.
"I don't think I've ever really changed," Abraham says of his stage presence, pausing to reconsider. "Well, that's not true: I don't make myself bleed anymore, and I don't smash full cans of soda against my head. But I want it to be the same kind of vibe."
Chasing that essence means Abraham spends more than half of each Fucked Up set, whether in a DIY space in Ontario or an outdoor amphitheater with the Foo Fighters, lunging around the crowd. That approach allows more elemental hardcore songs like "Police" and "I Hate Summer" to work alongside more glimmering recent numbers like "The Other Shoe" or "The Art of Patrons." Abraham's attitude obliterates the stylistic cognitive dissonance. People who were drawn to Fucked Up for melodies and musical excess get the same exact experience as people who first came to the band for its danger and aggression.
To that end, it's tempting to think of Fucked Up as a gateway drug into hardcore for people who weren't well versed in the genre when they discovered them. Abraham isn't so sure it works that way. For new fans, they're less likely to be a stepping stone on the way to Straight Ahead and Urban Waste than they are to be an outlier on an otherwise punk-light iPod.
"It would be awesome if someone heard us and said 'What bands are these guys into?', which is how I got into 90 percent of the music I'm into," he said. "But honestly, as long as they're not sexist, racist or homophobic or transphobic or fascist, I don't care. If they're willing to engage with the music, and have fun and be part of the show, they can be into whatever they're into."
That's a pragmatic stance. Indeed, as Fucked Up's scope and sound have moved beyond fundamentalist roots, the band has had to embrace a wide audience beyond those who understand the secret language embedded in New York Hardcore seven-inches. That doesn't mean they want to ostracize that vanguard, either.
"There was a point where most of our fans were like me—record collector nerds, and I was naïve and wanted it that way," Abraham says. "We've survived so much longer than a lot of our friends' bands. Now when you play music, you just want people to be engaged in what you do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breaking ball"