'Glass Boys' represents another leap forward for Polaris-winning Toronto band
TORONTO - What Damian Abraham calls his home "office" in actuality hews closer to a cluttered hobby shop designed by a teenager with a particularly lucrative summer job, given the mix of pristine-in-box action figures (ranging from "Akira" and "Star Wars" characters to adult-film stars), drug paraphernalia and a treasure trove of CDs, cassettes and vinyl.
Sitting alongside drummer Jonah Falco, the F***ed Up singer's attention is currently focused on a wall of carefully organized seven-inches, stocked with ghosts of punk's past — from relative obscurities like the Brainz to the more prominent likes of the Lurkers.
Abraham and Falco's celebrated band is days away from releasing its accomplished fourth LP, "Glass Boys." And Abraham — clad in a shirt advertising the Sacramento thrash band Trash Talk that's covered liberally in hair from his convalescing cat, Mr. Pickles — can't help but marvel at the longevity he's managed, compared to his hardcore heroes.
"I'm a hardcore singer who found my way into a very musical band," the always-affable Abraham explained. "And you don't really get to evolve too much as a hardcore singer. ... This was me trying to evolve it as much as I could on this record."
Here, Falco jumps in, arguing that Abraham is selling himself short if he doesn't see the evolution of his tornado roar, which has become more tuneful and nuanced with each successive recording. He tells Abraham that he's just as much a musician as anyone else in the accomplished band.
But Abraham deflects the praise, shifting to a favoured topic instead: pro wrestling. He brings up the "bump card," a wrestling term used to refer to the accumulated career tally of in-ring traumas that, eventually, reaches a maximum limit.
"I think that's true of a singer in a hardcore band," Abraham mused. "You can only go for a certain number of years before you just — not that you have to stop, but it just changes the potency of what you're doing."
"We're staring at a lot of hardcore records right now, most of which have stood the test of time," replied Falco, eyeing Abraham's mountain of vinyl.
"They've stood the test of time but these bands haven't stood the test of time," Abraham shot back. "You and me could flip through a lot of these bins right now and find bands that only did a few seven-inches. The fact that we've done four LPs, you know, we're looking at 15 years as a band now."
"Yeah, it's crazy," Falco said.
It's a discussion with a tidy thematic parallel to the subject matter of "Glass Boys," a highly personal rumination on growing up, coming to terms with coming of age and what happens to the underdog who goes undefeated.
Following the outsize ambition of 2011's 78-minute rock opera "David Comes to Life," "Glass Boys" instead finds the band eschewing its defiantly anti-punk expansiveness for a newfound brevity that only focuses their piercing impact. Only three songs even pass the four-minute mark.
Which isn't to say the record lacks for ambition. The band's customary sonic firewall has only become more ornate and impenetrable — guitar after guitar, ablaze or twinkling, presented in enough layers to weather a Nunavut winter — and boosted by diverse instrumentation, starry guest vocals (including contributions from Dinosaur Jr. guitar hero J Mascis and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie) and several separate drum tracks from Falco, recorded at different speeds but presented simultaneously to head-spinning effect.
"I think 'David Comes to Life' was about quantity over quality at some points," said Abraham, his pug Rudy howling for attention a floor below.
"I think this is the best version of what we've been trying to do that we've ever done."
Falco, too, is excited, noting that typically the period just before an album's release is the time "when I doubt the record the most and feel the least confident and hate it the most and think that we made horrible mistakes along the way and that no one will like it." Now? He feels confident.
Of course, one should never presume agreement from the members of this six-piece, whose fractured nature has long been one of its defining characteristics. Musically, the seemingly oil-and-water brew of intricate sonics and Abraham's bludgeoning vocals reflects the at-odds relationship between oft-aloof musical mastermind Mike Haliechuk and the cheerfully accessible Abraham.
"We're a band that exists in conflict," Abraham agreed. "I think that sonically we exist in conflict, internally we exist in conflict. Conflict is something that has really driven this band on every level, in some way."
And yet Abraham says that his relationship with the sometimes-inscrutable Haliechuk has improved. In the past, it was sufficiently strained that other band members were informally assigned roles in conflict resolution — Falco the creative intermediary while guitaist Josh Zucker was the personal intermediary, Abraham notes — and Abraham still cops to reading Haliechuk's interviews to try to gain an understanding of his bandmate.
On "Glass Boys," however, they stumbled upon common ground.
"We just live parallel, completely different lives," said Abraham, a father of two sons. "(But) on this record, which also coincides with our interpersonal relationship, I think it's more in lockstep than it's ever felt. ... I found it way easier to relate to what he was writing about as opposed to when he was writing about plants.
"There are definitely conflicts in the band that have gotten way, way worse over the last few years," he added, "so it's coincided perfectly that one conflict is defused."
As far as other disagreements, Falco acknowledges that there's tension in his relationships with Zucker and Haliechuk, whom he once argued with onstage in Russia before they settled it "Moscow-style" with a drinking contest ("18 shots of vodka later, they vomited on each other," Abraham laughed).
Yet as Falco points out, the band has worked together as a six-piece for almost seven years and as a five-piece since 2001. In that environment, tension is unavoidable. They've become better at cleaving out personal space on the road, where they've gradually learned that time apart is crucial.
"I cannot picture anything that we would all agree on doing now," said Abraham. "Maybe where to stop on the road? Chipotle? We'd all agree we'd stop at a Chipotle."
"So our personal relationship boils down to Chipotle," replied a smiling Falco.
Well, navigating friendships and creative partnerships — that too is covered by "Glass Boys."
"It's about how your relationship to music, culture, all that stuff changes," said Abraham, taking occasional pulls from a bong. "The record at the end of the day is for me a lot of times about where I am vs. where I thought I'd be."
So, where are they? The band has always been a resounding critical favourite — each of their last two records has rode unanimous acclaim to Juno nominations, while 2008's "The Chemistry of Common Life" won the critic-selected Polaris Music Prize — and has gradually built an eager international audience ("David Comes to Life" reached No. 83 on the U.S. chart, a special achievement for a band with a profane name).
Though Abraham points out that he's way deeper into the music industry than his 23-year-old self would want him to be, the band has found success its own way, without being forced to endorse the elements of they industry they found "really gross." ("We've gone to some award shows and been like, eugh, never again," Abraham explains.)
An example of the tenuous balance between their indie mindframe and broadening appeal was their 2011 gig opening for Foo Fighters at the Air Canada Centre.
They recall showing up without the battery of support staff typical for an arena show, so the Foo Fighters' tech crew gladly offered to help.
"It was crazy going to play the ACC and having our ragged, (crap)-looking gear and putting it onstage in a stadium," Falco recalled. "I remember talking to (Foo Fighters drummer) Taylor (Hawkins). He came over and was like, 'How's it going man, great playing with you. Is this your drum kit?' And I wanted to say, 'Pfft, nooo.'
"So it comes with a lot of humility, also."
And perhaps a reminder that their band, already thoroughly outstripping their own modest expectations, could still have room to grow. Still, if "Glass Boys" represents a glass ceiling, Abraham can find a silver lining in that, too.
"Even if we did hit the end, hit the creative peak, how many bands can say they exhaust all possibilities? Very few," Abraham said.
"Most bands die before they get their chance. The idea of us taking (this band) as far as it could possibly go is kind of a cool notion.
"But," he added, "I hope we haven't."
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