Personal Playlist: Jonah Falco And Mike Haliechuk Give The Stories Behind Six Fucked Up Songs

On October 9th 2018 » By Josh Terry

fucked up personal playlist header

Welcome to the second edition of “Personal Playlist,” a recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the six songs Jonah Falco and Mike Haliechuk chose from each Fucked Up LP, including their Zodiac singles series and new album Dose Your Dreams.

Fucked Up have had one of the most unpredictable career arcs of any band of this century, let alone any course run by a scrappy hardcore outfit from Toronto. What started as a ragtag group of people learning their instruments together and releasing searingly confrontational seven-inch singles, quickly expanded to something much bigger as soon as the band started releasing full-length albums in 2006. From there, they followed up each successive effort with something grander and more ambitious. 2008’s The Chemistry of Common Life won Canada’s Polaris Prize (a controversy then because of the band’s unprintable name), then the 2011 18-song narrative-centric concept album David Comes To Life widened their scope even more.

Though 2014’s introspective Glass Boys had a 42-minute runtime that was a direct reaction to its cinematic predecessor, Fucked Up have always pushed the limits of expectations. Few bands can within the span of a year pen an honest-to-goodness opera, put out a metatextual album-length meditation on being in a hardcore and punk band, and a 21-minute single inspired by the Chinese Zodiac (their seventh in a series). But whatever twists and turns the band has taken throughout its 17-year career, there’s a vitality to the compositions that is the reason Fucked Up has endured longer than most hardcore outfits. As drummer Jonah Falco said in a 2011 Spin interview, “When the band started, the idea was, ‘Angry people make angry music for other angry people.’ Then that became, ‘Angry people realize there’s more to life.’”

With the group’s fifth LP Dose Your Dreams out now, arguably the band’s most ambitious in a career of risks and wild experiments, co-lead songwriter and guitarist Mike Haliechuk and songwriter/drummer Jonah Falco talked with Vinyl Me, Please to run through six of the band’s songs for the second installment of Personal Playlist.

“Triumph of Life,” Hidden World (2006)

VMP: Before Hidden World, Fucked Up had been known for releasing several seven-inch singles and EPs. What was the impetus for finally releasing a full-length album?

Jonah Falco: “Triumph of Life” is a kind of funny and special song in my memories because of the way it was written. Like you said, we had been been known for these short seven-inch singles and “Triumph of Life” was also a single at first, but it was really long and much different in a slightly different format. It’s amalgamating silly experimental things that we’d done with the punk singles that we’d done and then it ended up on Hidden World. The thing I remember most about it and why I feel it’s an important thing to recall it, again, was how it was written. We used to always write our songs in this crummy practice room called Cactus Studios in the West End of Toronto. The environment was a less-than-ideal place where making music was always a crapshoot on what amps you would be able to blow or whether anything would work. There was no sound isolation. The place where we practiced in was an old stain glass factory and then it was a sheet metal factory and at this point it had just been subdivided into mixed purpose, whatever you want kind of rooms. It just so happened that that day we were given what looked like a classroom, which was way bigger than any of these other rooms and completely unfit to make music with formica tiles on the ground with our tiny amps. For some reason, all of these crap circumstances made for the the perfect reverberating, really shimmering sound in the room room.

I remember Mike was trying to show us his main guitar riff for the song, which was this really frantic and chromatic chord progression. He told us he wanted it to sound like the first Dickies LP with wacky, almost like it was in the cartoon, filled with drum rolls and needless baroque cornices. We got the meat of the song but it needed the beginning and end. For some reason in this unprecedented stroke of creativity, our bandmate Josh Zucker, who had never really been part of the songwriting process before then, and I had formed this tightly welded creative bond for 35 minutes and we came up with the introduction to the song. By the time we had left the studio, we had created this really complicated intro that somehow the rhythm section created instead of lead songwriting core. That section of the song, which also for me bridged us partway through this creative archetype of the Ramones and Undertones influence to more — we didn’t know it at the time — but a compositional track that we ended up on.

Where writing the song had the feel of a creative breakthrough, I’ve read that the actual recording process was very rushed.

Even though the record was rushed, it was the first time that we had been able to record in this space that allowed us a bit more flexibility in terms of what we wanted to do. Previously, we’ve done everything in that place called Audio Lab, which is quite small. Everything was required to do it right off the floor and it was generally mixed in the same day, pretty hastily. We did the LP at Hala Music, so all of the sudden had this giant room filled with instruments, pianos, organs, guitars and mandolins. We had extensive hours and the unsung and seemingly bottomless well of labor from our engineer John Drew, who worked himself to the nub on that session. It kind of had this 360 effect of process, composition and then execution. It’s the same way it happened on the new record, where we did an experimental way of recording for us, and some of the songs don’t sound like they normally do, but somehow they appeared under the umbrella of Fucked Up.

“Son The Father,” The Chemistry of Common Life (2008)

The way Fucked Up records is with a mosaic approach, where one or two members of the band will be in the studio at a given time and no more. How did you settle on that routine?

Falco: It was definitely during LP sessions where we figured that out and Chemistry was the first time that really kind of came true. Previously, we tracked everything live off the floor to get it done as quickly as possible. With Chemistry, at the request of our engineer, we started actually doing it with live guitar, some scratch tracks and then using overdubs. We just started to realize we maybe work a little bit more efficiently that way, but also that’s just the way a lot of records are made. You get to isolate a sound in a studio recording, which is partly about reproducing something to its maximal artificialness. You can’t recreate what happens in the studio live, but you’re not supposed to. With “Son The Father,” we started with one guitar and drums at the same time and then the intro was recorded completely separate, as well as the ending.

We started to realize that if you come and go, that parts could be sort of pasted together and repurposed better. I think “Son The Father” obviously has this iconic flute intro that my mother played, which was quite cool because most parents don’t really love the band name Fucked Up. I’m a son of musicians and when I told them that I was getting into music, they didn’t expect it would be a band with a swear word in the name. It was this really amazing thing to have my mother come and play on the record. Not only that, the intro to this song became the first real musical motif or leitmotif that we came up with quite substantially. We had stylistic things that we liked doing, but this is a riff that then became a compositional cell on that record.

Having a close family member on your own record must have been validating.

I remember we were listening to rough mixes of “Son The Father” with my dad actually, who’s an accomplished musician himself. He gets out of music different things than I do but when I played it for him, he was like, “Oh, this is interesting. Your band is starting to become more compositional.” When I asked him what he meant, he explained, in his terms, that we had taken our band and done something interesting and modulated our sound. All of the sudden, I had this revelation that within what we were doing with Fucked Up we didn’t have to be so combustible all the time. We could be more attentive in our music. That was a lightning bolt moment for me and “Son The Father” is one of my favorite Fucked Up songs of all time. It’s so powerful to me.

The Chemistry of Common Life also launched the band into new heights because it won the Polaris Prize in 2009. How did that change the game for the band?

The Polaris felt like a completely anomalous situation because in some ways that prize is there like a recognition of a certain strata of music that we just hadn’t been a part of. In some ways, I felt very validated, we all did, because the prize was for artistic achievement regardless of sales. It’s rare in music to get an “A for effort” sometimes. It represented a kind of shift in the winds of what our band could be, because we went from this underdog that had our moment of glory and all of a sudden the expectation was enough to uphold whatever had happened with us. It didn’t change the way we make music but it changes the way people think of your band. It felt like Fucked Up went from Private Press to the front of the record store.

“Inside A Frame,” David Comes to Life (2011)

Why this song out of all the songs on David Comes to Life?

Mike Haliechuk: ‘David Comes To Life’ seems to me like a record that hit people very hard, but at the same time it was, like, difficult to listen to. I wanted to pick a song that seemed like the best song tucked at the end of the record like “Inside A Frame.” It sorta sounds like it could be on a different different album or even a different band’s album in a different way than, like, obviously a lot of Fucked Up songs could.

We sort of wrote it as a sequel to “The Other Shoe,” which is the hit of that record. With “The Other Shoe,” we arranged it so that there would be these three guitar parts braided all together because it was our first record writing with Ben Cook as our third guitar player. So we tried to write these parts that would all fit together and they would necessitate three rhythm guitar tracks. So, “Inside A Frame” we wrote in the same way as all three of the guitar tracks hinge on each other where one will come in after the next like a fugue, if that’s the word I’m looking for.

That’s interesting.

I also picked it because the video’s fucking weird. It seemed to me like it was a more of a rhythmic track and everything else in the record and we commissioned this really weird choreographed dance video for it which came in like a year after the album. I think it’s an interesting song. It’s a very tight song that sort of got lost. It’s hard to play. We barely ever play it since we first toured that album and I think it’s just an interesting little experiment for us.

How was fleshing out the narrative of the entire album? The fact that the band figured out the LP’s story during meetings in a Toronto mall food court is one of my favorite factoids.

It was simple, me and Josh and Damian [Abraham], all met and fleshed it out. The mythology of the food court thing, just so happens that there’s a mall right by my house. If we were doing this interview in person we’d go there because it’s more anonymous than meeting at a coffee shop or something where I feel like everyone is listening to you. We would just meet there and we had an idea of how many songs we had but none of us had really written anything before in terms of story arcs and narratives and all this stuff. That’s the theory of writing, none of us to this day, we still don’t really know what it’s all about but we gauged what would be the appropriate amount of narrative to put on an album, so there we came up with a few detail points and beats. After that, me and Damian split things up into what sort of subjects we wanted to tackle and what would make sense for both of us to split up lyrically and musically.

Whenever we have a song that feels like we’re gonna play it live more than a few times, I like Damian to write the lyrics for it. One, because it makes him more comfortable singing it and I think he’s better at coming up with lyrics and passages that are ready for the stage. It was pretty simple: Me and Damian just went our separate ways writing on our own and we’d come back and check in on the story.

You tackled 12 of the 18 songs where Glass Boys was a 50/50 split. How much did it feel like you were taking on the bulk of the responsibility with David Comes To Life?

‘David’ felt like an even split, actually. I don’t want to say there’s, like, throwaway songs on David, but some of the writing was a lot harder than the others and if I remember correctly, Damien had a lot of the weightier songs with more of the story in it. I think we had decided that he had a lot of the main hits and I’d filled in the edges with a lot of the songs. A lot of the shit in the back half is me.

“Sun Glass,” Glass Boys (2014)

When this single came out, I remember reading music journalists calling it a “happy go-lucky” song. I get how you could say that that musically compared to Fucked Up’s catalogue, but the lyrics don’t strike me as that.

Haliechuk: It doesn’t matter because as soon as you put your work in and you put your intentions into a piece of art, as soon as it’s released [it] doesn’t belong to you anymore. I think with music and lyrics specifically, it’s really open to interpretation. I think certainly the that song, it’s very feel-good, at least musically. It’s written to to have a certain feeling, which is, like, fast. With ‘Glass Boys,’ we were going for this 90s punk kind of stuff like Dinosaur Jr. and this really brief and fast major key vibe. We wanted it to be a little more gauzy sounding than what we had done before.

It’s about this pompous old fart who’s at odds with, like, 19th century French society or whatever but he expresses it through fancy food and expensive cheese and wine. And he’s just gorging on it by himself and my lyrics here are kind of the same thing. It’s very bright language, but it’s just about not understanding what young people are like and what motivates them. To me it was just funny: I’m going to write this like Roman orgy-style song about young people, which I used to be, but I have no idea what’s going on with them now. We still play it because it’s so upbeat. That’s basically it.

Out of the all the songs on the LP, why choose this one?

It’s just most representative of we’re trying to do with that record. With that album, it’s weird. It’s hard [to find] a song that really stands out for a reason on ‘Glass Boys’ just because so much of it was kind of negative. Sometimes you get too introspective and there’s no sense talking about it. I like the piece of writing. I think it’s funny and the song is cool.

“Year of the Hare,” Year of the Hare EP (2015)

This composition started with your guitar riff. Do you mind taking me to the beginnings of this creative process?

Falco: I think “Year of the Hare” in some way is indirectly the predecessor to the way we made Dose Your Dreams. I wrote this guitar riff when we were trying to come up with another Zodiac song, and our Zodiac songs to us generally mean musically and stylistically they’re carte blanche. With Fucked Up, even though people consider us to be very different, challenging, weird or whatever you want to say, there’s generally a thread of punk-informed songwriting. When we do the Zodiac stuff, it’s more that everyone gets to do their own thing., I was trying to write some riffs for this and one of the songs I had written on The Chemistry of Common Life was “The Royal Swan,” which had a sort of through-composed structure where it didn’t It didn’t really repeat the same thing and wasn’t a verse, chorus kind of thing. It certainly went in a straight line instead. I wanted to try and do a thing like that again and I came up with this repetitive little riff. I sent it to Mike and he was like, “Oh yeah, that’s OK, I guess. Maybe we’ll try something else.’ The time came to get into the studio and actually just that main riff that starts the song off in the acoustic guitar is essentially what my first demo for [the] song was.

The reason I say that this is a predecessor to Dose Your Dreams [is] because that’s more or less how little we went to the studio with. I went into the studio with Mike and Josh and we tried to flesh out a loose structure of the songs. We really only did it about 50 percent. It was very half-assed in the sense that we just decided not to finish it and figure the rest out in the studio. We came up with this sort of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. And that’s it. We wrote it during the Glass Boys sessions at Electrical Audio in Chicago and just recorded everything we had and decided to build the song from that.

How did you like recording there?

The most interesting part is the very top of the song, which appears to be 13 minutes of silence. The way the song goes is at Electrical Audio in Chicago, there are two big panels of speakers that play into the live room. In Room A, where we were recording, we had guitars and drums and piano setup in the main room with a bunch of microphones on and what we did is we recorded the empty room. Then we played the empty room back into the empty room and recorded that until, you know, basically you get the sound of the room where things are vibrating, a cymbal resonates at a certain frequency or a truck goes by. And by turning up the gain up on all the microphones, we were playing the speakers at full blast. Even though there was nothing, you start to generate these tones. It was all sort of eerie that it was just the sound of the room at Electrical Audio. We were able to use the studio as an instrument.

That’s wild.

There were all these chance elements against all of our attempts at better planning. Having things like a room creating a tone versus me trying to sit down [and] compose some piece of epic guitar music, which didn’t work. Being in Fucked Up doesn’t let you just go linear, something has to be perpendicular or obtuse in the machine. So “Year Of the Hare” is all about decay and malfunction, which is quite represented in the music.

This was around the time you composed an opera for the Canadian Opera Company. Do you ever look back at your career and think of all the risks and experiments you’ve been allowed to take?

If you list those decisions, it sounds very good. But if I have to think about how those decisions came about, it’s basically total chaos. I feel like I can’t believe that we even tried [to] put our shoes on, let alone make these decisions. They all seem to have come out of left field. In the past tense, they make perfect sense because we started to get more and more into compositional music. But Fucked Up is not a group of seasoned musicians. We learned to play our instruments together basically with varying degrees of experience so, taking all these decisions together, it’s been a huge risk. I’m just so happy they came back and seemed to have had legs.

“Dose Your Dreams,” Dose Your Dreams (2018)

This is probably my favorite song off the new album.

Haliechuk: I think it’s my favorite song on the record too. It has a weird place in the record, like it wasn’t even supposed to be a Fucked Up song. Me and Jonah wrote a collection of songs that sound like this based off these bass loops and drum machines. We would write some Fucked Up songs for a couple of days and then get tired of it because our ears would be crazy. And the way the studio was set up, I’m in this tiny little box of a room doing guitar tracks with three huge amps and I’d be doing this for hours and hours. Instead of taking a break and wasting studio time, I’d go to the control room with all these drum machines and stuff hooked up with pedals. I think I just had a bass in my hand while we were talking about something else and I was dicking around and that riff came out of it. So we recorded it. And just as a break we started writing these other styles, like, you know, disco-y music or whatever it is. Over months we arranged it into a song. I think there’s even a take with Jonah doing vocals on it in a completely different style. Then with getting a sense of what other types of music were going to be on this record, we were like, “Fuck it. Let’s just see what happens.”

What else sticks out about it?

It’s sort of influenced by this song me and Jonah both love, “Raise” by this band Bocca Juniors, which I’m now just realizing is pretty coincidental considering the title. It featured this English producer Andrew Weatherall. To me, “Dose Your Dreams” is like our tribute to that style of production.

Metal & Punk On Vinyl

Josh Terry

Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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