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December 13, 2007

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There are more reasons than simply a name that some puritanical types deem "controversial" why F---ed Up remains one of Toronto's most under-recognized underground entities.

As silly as it is in this day and age, of course, the mild furor over a band daring to use the F-word in its moniker does have its drawbacks. Mainstream radio won't touch F---ed Up, for instance, while big-box stores like Wal-Mart – which increasingly dominate the music-retail market – won't stock its records.

Even the free press, as the observant reader will deduce from the preponderance of dashes on this page, tends to tie itself in knots over how to deal with the name; last month, the New York Times ran an entire piece praising a Brooklyn show by the group, yet conceding that its name "won't be printed in these pages, not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake."

Still, Top-40 radio play, front-rack status at Best Buy and props from the Times likely don't number among this defiantly D.I.Y. hardcore quintet's ambitions.

F---ed Up's prolific output consists mainly of seven- and 12-inch vinyl singles released on a variety of small indie labels, with only one full-length album, last year's searing Hidden World, to appease the wider CD-buying public. And like any proper punk band, it has relied on relentless touring and word-of-mouth, not shrewdly orchestrated hype, to get its music out there.

Even onstage, mind you, F---ed Up doesn't exactly wave you in with arms wide open. By bear-like and often bloodied (or partially nude) frontman Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham's own admission, the object of the band's earliest gigs was "to put on the most violent show possible."

"It's not like it was," says Abraham, actually a jovial chap, after a round of hot chocolates with guitarist Mike "10,000 Marbles" Haliechuk and bassist Sandy "Mustard Gas" Miranda. "But then it would be ridiculous sh--, like psyching myself up in the bathroom before we'd play, going `Everyone here hates you.'"

"We would just drive around being bummed out," laughs Haliechuk. "Me and Damian would get in the car before the show and be, like ..."

"...`F--- this show,'" offers Abraham.

"Yeah, `F--- these people.' It's the same now, except the people are, like, 10 feet farther away from us. So we don't have to see them."

They talk a good talk, they do. But it's a somewhat poorly kept secret that the F---ed Up crew – rounded out by second guitarist Josh "Concentration Camp" Zucker and drummer Jonah "Guinea Beat" Falco – actually cares.

The band followed up its recent, epic 12-inch diatribe about the treatment of women in the sex trade, "Year of the Pig," by playing a benefit show for the outreach organization Sex Professionals of Canada, for example.

This Saturday, too, F---ed Up is urging those who turn up for its free gig in the basement at Bloor St. W. record shop Sonic Boom to make a donation to George Herman House, a facility for women with mental-health issues, in lieu of paying a cover charge, and to bring some non-perishable food items for the food bank.

Before the show, Abraham will don a Santa Claus suit ("As you can tell by my stature, I've been working for years to get this physique.") and pose for photos with his four costumed "helpers" to raise a bit of extra cash. A new single, "David Christmas," has also been pressed for the occasion, with 100 per cent of the proceeds also going to George Herman House.

"David Christmas" is actually a teaser from the in-progress follow-up to Hidden World, but in the spirit of the season – and in keeping with a punk tradition observed by everyone from the Yobs to the Ramones to the Descendents – F---ed Up did indeed decide to make the B-side a Christmas carol. Of sorts.

At a loss for an appropriate song to do on the day of recording, the band finally decided to ring up every "name" in its collective Rolodex – including David Cross, Jello Biafra, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and, apparently, one Nelly Furtado – and ask the "unfortunate victims" to deliver a holiday message over a shrieking guitar-scape it had concocted.

"It's pretty funny. All things considered, it came out really well," says Haliechuk. "Some people reacted well to us calling them out of the blue at 10 or 11 o'clock. Some of them reacted differently. But in the end, after we'd explained to them what we were doing, everyone went along with it."

"Jello Biafra's really been dogging us," says Abraham. "More than just calling us. I was getting emails all week from, like, his assistant saying, `Jello is really excited about this project. Can you please write me back?'"

Biafra was, sadly, too late to make the cut, but it's a testament to F---ed Up's growing profile that so many well-known folks – we won't spoil the surprises awaiting on the seven-inch – will now return the band's calls at the drop of a hat.

Not a bad capper, really, to a wild year that's seen the six-year-old outfit ride waves of acclaim for Hidden World to a couple of transatlantic tours, $2,000 worth of havoc during an MTV Canada appearance, a scene-stealing spot at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., where they were joined onstage by Black Flag's Keith Harris ("High praise from Caesar," Abraham calls it) and so much demand for shows that F---ed Up is now joking about "contracting out" the next record to another band because it doesn't have time to maintain its recording schedule.

Lest it be thought that such notoriety has softened F---ed Up in any way, though, keep in mind that all of this has been accomplished while its members juggle day jobs and scrimp and scrape to make ends meet. They're a little worried, in fact, that F---ed Up might cease to be the real F---ed Up should it become a full-time job.

"A lot of people who know about music, journalists and sh--, know about our band. Last year, we were in the NME, like, every week. But we're still playing to 200 people in England. So it's like this weird dichotomy where we're popular but we're still a small band," says Haliechuk.

"We have this patina of success. Especially for a hardcore band, we get crazy press and we're on the lips of a lot of people and we know so many people now. But we don't play to a thousand people, we haven't sold a million copies of the record and we still don't make any money off the band.

"We're still the same people. It's this empty balloon sort of thing – the F---ed Up balloon keeps expanding, but there's nothing in the centre for us. We're doing a Toronto Star interview, we were in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, but it doesn't really translate into us being `successful.' It keeps us the same band."

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Committed antagonists though they may be, the members of F---ed Up aren't in the business of shilling for cigarettes. Selling cigarettes occasionally to make ends meet, maybe, but that's another story. In any case, the band was still alarmed – along with the likes of Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, Devendra Banhart and fellow Canadians such as Wolf Parade, AIDS Wolf and Black Mountain – this week to find an MP3 link to its song "Color Removal," among others, hitched to the online version of Rolling Stone. It was part of an advertising feature touting the "Indie-Rock Universe" that some U.S. lawmakers claim is a veiled pitch for Camel cigarettes. Eight states had already sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco as of Tuesday over the original, illustrated print pullout because, they say, it violates a law that prohibits using cartoons to sell cigarettes. But the buzz on sites like is that bands and labels are now gearing up to file their own lawsuits because the online music provider Rhapsody surrendered their tunes to an alleged tobacco ad without their consent. F---ed Up, for its part, found out about the snafu from a member of AIDS Wolf on Monday and is now, says vocalist Damian Abraham, casting about for an entertainment lawyer. "We want to know if the bands can take legal action against Rhapsody, which illegally licensed the MP3s for the project," says guitarist Mike Haliechuk. Ben Rayner

The Star

Ben Rayner