After the ferocious explosion of the Jesus Lizard on opening night, the bands on the middle day of last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival had a tough act to follow. But Toronto's art-punk provocateurs F---ed Up were up to the task.
As the group tore through a riveting set of unrelenting yet ultra-melodic hardcore punk, including tunes from its stellar 2008 album "The Chemistry of Common Life," bald, bearded and beer-bellied singer Pink Eyes, a.k.a. Damian Abraham, spent most of the set in the field with the fans, standing atop the crowd barrier or using his teeth to tear apart any stray beach ball tossed his way in an ecstatic explosion of unbridled energy.
I spoke with this unique rock front man as he and the band prepared for three events in Chicago next Saturday, Feb. 13: two shows and an exhibition of his drawings at the Concertina Gallery, 2351 N. Milwaukee, from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Q. Though I've been a fan of your recordings for a while, Pitchfork was the first time I saw you play live. You don't hold anything back!
A. It's weird: I want to walk this line and make it as honest as possible, but I also want to be as entertaining as possible. Sometimes those things go hand in hand; sometimes they are diametrically opposed. When you're having a terrible day, it's really hard to go on stage and be as honest as possible, because you're having a really bad day. But you still owe people a show because they sacrificed their time and money to come see you.
When we first started playing, I was almost playing a character. I would be super serious and like, "Alright, shut up and listen." Now I can't do that. I am just so excited and I get such a shock and thrill that people are there to see us. I want to find a way to express that to people watching us--I'm just as excited as they are if not more.
Q. I'll preface this by noting that I'm a guy who's built a lot like you, which is to say the exact opposite of the rock's svelte and stylish lead singers. Is it daunting for a guy who is not a traditional front man-type to get up there and let it all hang out?
A. It's true: We are conditioned to accept that musicians are sent down from heaven and cut/chiseled from marble gods. I don't think rock and roll has ever been that until the advent of the video generation. If you look at Bill Haley, he was no looker. Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper... I think the rock 'n' roll image of the perfect singer is kind of working against bands. No one stays beautiful forever.
The thing with punk is that it's always been about playing with conventions and bucking them. For someone like me, I really don't think I have very much musical talent at all. I've been in bands since I learned about punk rock, but I do not have a lot of skills to show for it. I can't play guitar, and I can't drum for the life of me. Yet it's just one of those things: I like that anyone can do it. Not everyone should do it, but anyone can do it. And if it gives them joy and they have a good time, they should keep up with it.
Q. When we look at the band's long discography, it seems as if something clicked with "The Chemistry of Common Life," and suddenly a lot more people were excited about the group.
A. I think for us it was a perfect storm. There was a tendency for a lot of people outside of punk and outside of hardcore to kind of devalue the importance of punk and hardcore, even though it is kind of ironic because a lot of people come from that background. And I think had to do with signing to Matador. What we were doing was suddenly available from an acceptable source of this information; it wasn't us putting out a seven-inch on some little obscure punk label.
Q. You've just collected a lot of the earlier recordings on new "Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009." Do you think it holds up as an album?
A. To a certain extent. It's funny to look at it now, because it's hard to separate the events that were involved in each of those recordings. When I listen to "The Chemistry of Common Life," I picture it as a whole album because it was recorded that way. This one, the first song on it is from 2002 and the most recent is from last year. It is all over the map for us. It's really hard to picture it as a complete album, but I think what it does do is put in perspective how our sound has changed. A lot of people have criticized us for changing our sound [to be more melodic], but we're not smart enough to make a conscious decision to change our sound! I think this illustrates that we just drifted that way.
Q. There always has been a lot of melody in your songs. I thought you just got better at recoding them!
A. For us as a band, the stuff we were looking at as reference points definitely included the Germs and bands like that. But there were also bands like Mission of Burma and Wire--bands that strived to be more with what they had at their disposal and went to the studio to do weird things.
Q. Anyone who really listens to your music or looks beyond Wikipedia will quickly discover that this a very smart, thoughtful and enlightened band, yet a notion persist that you guys are right-wing reactionaries because of some images in your artwork early on.
A. Any press is good press until someone calls you a Nazi or pedophile. Obviously our intention of putting a Hitler rally on our record is not saying, "Hey, look how awesome it was." It was more like, "Hey, look how easy it is to fall into this certain trap of a totalitarian dictatorship." It inspired conversation, which is great. But it inspires a conversation that is so inane that you do not feel like having it.
We were never really thinking about long-term plans. Naming your band F---ed Up wasn't the best idea; putting sketchy stuff on the covers of our records that could be misinterpreted by people was not the best idea. But the level of success we have achieved was never something any of us considered possible, so we didn't think about those things.
F---cked Up with Kurt Vile
9:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
The Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western
F---ed Up with Kurt Vile, Zola Jesus and Boystown
10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Tickets $12 for each show via www.emptybottle.com