An interview with Sandy Miranda of Fucked Up

It’s actually a constant source of anxiety for me, not knowing when the band is going to end‘ – Fucked Up’s Sandy Miranda talks to Siobhán Kane

Toronto’s Fucked Up have been together for almost 12 years, and in that time have released the records Hidden World (2006), The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), and 2011’s concept record David Comes to Life. They have also released various 12″‘s (in the Zodiac Series among other things),and mixtapes and collaborations that have endeared them to many, as well as their often incendiary live performances, which owe something to frontman Damian Abraham’s magnetic personality, and which perhaps reached a zenith in their 12-hour-long show at the Rogan Gallery in New York in autumn 2008, featuring various collaborators such as Dinosaur Jr, and Les Savy Fav, Abrahams opened with the statement, “this is either going to be the best or the dumbest thing we have ever done” – and it turned out to be the former. One of the joys of that show was that anyone could join the band and play, which really distills the band’s vision, and a sense of community,as Sandy Miranda tells Siobhán Kane.

There is a lot of chemistry within the band – you and Damian, for example, seem so different and complementary.
Well, Damian and I have known each other for a long time. We met around 1996, when both of our bands were playing a “battle of the bands” show. We were both in punk bands amid a sea of Rage Against the Machine coverers. Then the following year, we both joined this punk rock radio show at the University of Toronto radio station. The show was called “Mods and Rockers” and we did it together, along with the main host, for a few years. We’ve known each other longer than anyone else in the band. But as for the chemistry between members, it’s funny because when you look at us, you’d think that we were all in different bands. We all look different, dress different, have different interests. I’m not sure why, but it’s rare to see bands like this. Many nowadays all look alike, which doesn’t make any sense to me. I like that we are different in this way.

You are a wonderful bass player inbetween three other guitarists – it poses quite a unique challenge – how have you found it over the last number of years?
Thank you for the fine compliment! I started playing bass when I was 17 in 1997 in a shitty skate punk band. That lasted a year or so, and then I didn’t play again until 2001 when Mike [Haliechuck] asked me to join a band he was starting. Our songs back then were short and really fast. I was just okay at bass, still referring to bass tabs written on a piece of paper that I would refer to while we played, and didn’t really hit my stride until a few years later. As time progressed, we got better as a band, and our ability to groove together improved. Thank God for that!

Since you all came together many years ago, do you feel the dynamic of the group has changed?
We’ve been a band for over 12 years now, which is amazing to me because we weren’t very good in the first few years, haha. We were very rough and chaotic and sloppy. But somehow, we continued and maintained and got better at playing our instruments and writing songs together. The group dynamic has changed in many ways over the years. At first, I felt like we were all kind of like strangers, because we were. I mean, there was an existing relationship between Josh and Mike, but for the rest of us, we weren’t friends. We were just people that we’d see at punk shows. But over time, we became closer in our relationships, which just happens when you spend a lot of time with someone, although most of us don’t necessarily hang out with each other outside of the band – we hang out enough being in the band together. I feel like we are more efficient than ever. But interpersonally, things are still precarious. Fights and animosity happen all the time. With time and distance, those tensions dissipate, but they never disappear completely. They are always just below the surface.

The Chemistry of Common Life and David Comes to Life are quite different records, it seems to be about challenging yourselves as well as the audiences – which records do you feel most connected to?
Each record has a special place in my heart, and I love them all for different reasons. I stand behind all of our studio albums, and feel connected to all of them. In ways, David Comes to Life is more fun to play because we wrote those songs when we had been a band for 10 years, so the songs are more dynamic and sonically challenging. I’d say David Comes to Life brought us the most exciting experiences. The album was so well received that it opened the door to new experiences. And, true, it is more fun to play songs that you haven’t played 700 times already. For instance, opening for Foo Fighters on a 3 week tour in Australia happened, and that was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

Something like David Comes to Life was really interesting – and set in England, what is it about England that you all connected to in terms of the various musical and literary culture? I suppose there is a subtle English presence in terms of culture in Canada.
England has always been a great place for music and the creative arts in general. We are all fans of many British bands from the 1960s to today. Punk was born there, also, and has been a big part of our lives for more than half of our lifetime. It’s only fitting that the story be set in a place like England, considering the deep roots in the music that we love and that shaped us. And of course, you can’t deny the Commonwealth connection between England and Canada — the Queen is still on our money! Also, this might be silly to say, but I’m a bit of a sucker for the British accent, haha. Not sure why. Maybe it’s its authoritative air, I don’t know.

Have any of you seen the Shane Meadows-directed television series and film This is England? Just listening to David Comes to Life put me in mind of it, somehow.
You know, I keep meaning to watch it. I haven’t yet, but friends of mine have, and have raved about it.

That record was a concept record – which other concept records have you really loved?
Most of my favourite concept albums seem to have been from the 60’s, such as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to The Who’s Tommy. I also like David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. What I like about concept albums is that they allow people to really “play” and I don’t mean just their instruments, but to play with ideas and experiment in ways they never had before. I appreciate new and unconventional ideas and being challenged by art and music.

You have all had an acute sense of time not being infinite in the band – you once said in an interview that “every year I thought would be my last” – why is that? And how do you feel about it now?
I still believe that the band is going to break up at any time. This is the truth. We are a precarious bunch. We were never supposed to last this long or do even a fraction of all the things we have done. It’s been a really amazing surprise to us that what the bunch of us do has gained so much traction and adoration and respect over the years, from both fans and makers of music. In ways, my view of the band relates closely to our song “The Other Shoe”. We’re living this life never knowing when the ‘other shoe is going to drop’, when it’s all going to end. It’s actually a constant source of anxiety for me, not knowing when the band is going to end, especially now that we are all in our thirties, and we are asking ourselves what we’re are doing with our lives now and in ten years from now. It’s a bit worrisome to me to not know, but then again, I think most people don’t know what it is that they are doing or what they want to be doing for the rest of their days. Part of me wishes I knew what the end date would be so that I can enjoy the time I have in the band even more and to not take it for granted. It’s so hard not to take things for granted. With every tour, I feel like it won’t be my last, but I know that at some point, it will be a last tour, and when – if – that happens, I know it’s going to be extremely traumatic for me. Who knows what the future holds. Whatever it is, I hope it’s good. Change is a very scary thing to me. Hopefully I’m worrying over nothing!

Your nickname is “Mustard Gas” – how did it come about?
Haha, you know, this might sound ridiculous, but I can’t remember the exact origin! I think Mike came up with it, but really, I’m not sure why. I think the main appeal of the term is that it’s dangerous, and there’s a long tradition in punk rock of coming up with dangerous pseudonyms. What’s funny is that I don’t consider myself dangerous at all, although I do consider myself hyper-critical of the dangerous world we live in.

You opened for Foo Fighters – in some ways, a different kind of group, but the common ground must be DIY culture – is that how you felt once you started opening for them?
I definitely felt like the Foo’s and us were cut from the same cloth of punk rock, although from different generations. It was amazing how well we got along. I think it helped that both Damian and Jonah are massive record nerds and can talk anyone’s ear off about the most obscure bands you’ve never heard of, as well as information about records and music history that the average person would never think about. But, yeah, everyone in the Foo’s was so gracious and kind, and it was extremely flattering to me to see members of the band watch bits of our sets on that tour. To this day, I pinch myself that all happened. If you told 16 year old me that I’ve been hanging out with Dave Grohl and Pat Smear on a stadium tour in Australia, I would have told you that you were crazy! But instead, life is crazy.

You won the 2009 Polaris Prize for The Chemistry of Common Life – it is such a good prize, because it seems to really want to invest back into the artist – did it help you a great deal? What is Canada like in terms of support systems for musicians?
Winning the Polaris Prize was a definite highlight of our career. I felt extremely honoured. We wanted to do something good with some of the money, so for the first time in Polaris history up to that point, we had dedicated about a third of the winnings towards recording a 7″ that we sold in order to raise funds to a few charities in Canada who fight for the rights of missing and murdered aboriginal women, which became an especially hot topic in Canada around that time. We’ve raised about $15,000 from that 7″. And then it was nice for each of us to pay a few months rent with the rest of the money we had won, since earning money as an artist to live on, without the financial benefit of songs on commercials or on the radio, is not easy. Funnily enough, we were always denied access to the artist grants until the year that we won the Polaris Prize. Winning the prize somehow legitimised us in the Canadian music landscape. Since then, we became eligible for some tour support, which occurs only after you’ve done a tour and prove what your costs and earnings are. We don’t get a ton, but we get enough that allows us to continue touring. Tour costs are extremely high when you have 6 people in the band. Maybe one day, we’ll make enough to afford a full-time soundman or merch person. Until then, it’s all DIY, baby.

Your live performances are incendiary – and have been quite visceral in places, is that sometimes quite frightening? It must be quite something to experience for you as a musician.
The band definitely feeds off of the energy of the audience at the shows. Their participation is just as important as our performance. To me, the audience is my show. As they look at us for entertainment, I’m looking at them for the exact same reason. I look at them and think about me when I was younger, and how exciting the world seemed to me, and I look at them freak out and wonder what’s going through their minds. I’m older now, but the kids at our shows make me feel like I’m 21 still. The energy of the room is palpable. To me, the live show is extremely important. Almost more important than creating the perfect studio album. To me, if a band sucks live, then I find it rather disappointing, and in ways, cheated. So to be told by so many people that Fucked Up are a great live band is a real honour to me. I have to give credit to Damian, for his wonderful banter and stage presence, and to my fellow bandmates, for their musicianship and energy.

You have collaborated with so many different people – one of my favourite, is Owen Pallett – I wondered who some of your own favourite collaborators have been?
Owen was definitely an amazing contributor to our first studio album. Another favourite is Jennifer Castle, who’s contributed vocals on a few things – Year of the Pig, and The Other Show on David Comes to Life. She has her own solo project and is beautiful and amazing and I love her to pieces. I would love to work with more artists who are doing something very different to what we do. It just makes things more interesting to collaborate with people who are doing different things than you.

Photography is a real passion of yours, when did your love of it begin, and what camera do you use? Would you like to explore this further?
I first started shooting film when I was in high-school, but then took a break in the years following when I wasn’t working. I took the hobby up again in the early 00’s, and then reinvested in film a few years later. I bought a couple of amazing film cameras in Tokyo a couple years ago, which are my favourites to shoot with. The first one is a Contax G1, which contains my best lens – a 45mm Carl Zeiss – and is my first and only automatic focus film camera, and I also got a medium format camera, the Mamiya 7. And I always keep an Olympus Stylus Epic handy in my purse, which is a lovely quick and easy point and shoot with a solid prime lens. I find that I shoot in waves. When I’m feeling happy and inspired, I find that I’m shooting all the time because I see an abundance of beauty in the world. But when I’m feeling depressed, which oddly enough happens at least once every tour, I find that I don’t shoot and I don’t feel inspired to shoot or do anything. Sadly, there are a few tours that I don’t have any photographic evidence of because, for one reason or another, I was feeling bothered or sad, or whatever. I’m such an emotional person…touring is full of extreme highs and lows, always. I’ve learned that the highs are better for my visual creativity, and the lows are better for my musical creativity. I would like to peruse photography, but I’m torn because I also want to pursue another musical side project, as well as continue work as a music video director. Even though I’m a musician by trade, I feel like I am more of a visual person, hence my love of photography and video.

Are you working on any new material at all?
Yes! We have been working on a new album for the last year, or so. It’s coming out on Matador Records in the US and on Arts & Crafts in Canada around March 2014. Most of the music of the songs have been recorded, but Mike and Damian are still working on lyrics and a general theme to the album. I’m doing my bass parts in a couple weeks, and I’m a bit nervous, because the songs haven’t cemented yet in my mind. They won’t feel firm until I’ve played them every day for six months. It might be too early to say this, but I think the concept of the album is going to learn towards the cynical side, where we stand back and discuss the state of the industry of music. This might change, though!

What are you reading, listening to, and watching?
Right now, I am reading a history book called 1421 which is about how the Chinese were the first to discover America, not the Europeans. It’s pretty heavy reading about medieval times. Add that to the fact that I’m watching the latest season of Game of Thrones, and I find myself feeling uneasy, thinking about how prevalent brutal death was back then. Musically, I find myself constantly going back to 60s rock, like The Kinks and The Byrds. Like I said earlier, I love Jennifer Castle, as well as the experiment Toronto artist, Prince Nifty. Lately, I’ve been listening to tons of Ethiopian Jazz, as well, like Mulatu Astatke. But really, seems like the older I get, the more back in time I go, in terms of entertainment.

Fucked Up & Strong Boys play Whelan’s on Monday 12th August.

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