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Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto talk about life, music and keeping it real after a decade of being the most honest band in America.


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Fugazi: It's Not All 'bout the Benjamins

by Tim McMahan



"Yes, I guess our actions can be seen as anti-corporate, but that's just the way we operate."


Look up Fugazi in any alt/rock/music guide and you'll find an entry that reads: "The Washington D.C. indie punk rock band, known for its strident anti-corporate stance." Research Fugazi on the Internet and you'll likely find countless articles describing how the band has managed to flourish despite bucking the mighty rock-star machine. Ask you're run-of-the-mill Fugazi fan about the band and they'll tell you, with great pride, how they never sold out.

Keep looking, eventually you'll find something about their music. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, both songwriters and vocalists, know that their legendary flip of the bird at the corporate rock establishment has long ago become their calling card. That doesn't mean they like it.

"Yes, I guess our actions can be seen as anti-corporate, but that's just the way we operate," MacKaye said. He and Picciotto talked via phone from their D.C. homes last week. "What comes natural to us might strike others as austere and intense, but everything we've done – whether it's how we release our records or control ticket prices – has always been centered around making the most comfortable environment to play our music. It should be that way for all bands."

Fugazi's integrity was legendary long before Pearl Jam made headlines with its quasi-fight against Ticketmaster. The band continues to charge no more than $5 or $6 for its shows, and tickets are sold mainly at indie music outlets or the venues. All six Fugazi albums have been released on MacKaye's Dischord record label and sell for around $10 at indie music stores. The band doesn't do interviews with mainstream magazines, such as Rolling Stone or Spin, preferring to talk to small, local publications or fanzines. There are no Fugazi T-shirts, MTV videos or other slick promotional gimmicks. The band is proud to say it makes its living doing one thing: playing music.

It's a shame that their anti-corporate status has at times overshadowed their music, because Fugazi is one of the truly original indie rock bands whose sound is both angry and cathartic without being overtly distorted and ugly. Formed in 1988 by members of bands who created Washington D.C.'s hardcore scene, Fugazi is MacKaye, Picciotto, bassist Brenden Canty and drummer Joe Lally. Through six albums, they've defined a sound that's the natural progression for hardcore punk. Their latest album, "End Hits," is a smorgasbord of powerful guitars and solid rhythms entwined with vocals and lyrics that do something altogether unique by today's music standards – they mean something. Fugazi have managed -- with artistry and intelligence – to write and perform songs that attack conformity, alienation, Big Brother politics, anger, fear and hatred.

MacKaye says the band's anti-corp. politics are easy pickings for music journalists looking for something to hook a story on. "It's easier to write about the circumstantial issues than to write about how music makes you feel," he says. "If we were all seven feet tall, they'd write, 'Fugazi, the 7-foot-tall band.' That's just the way it is."

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But maybe it's just too hard to ignore Fugazi's integrity, considering how today's popular bands bend over backwards to please the masses and bring in the cash, resulting in flavorless, colorless, lifeless music.

"People have always tried to make money off music," MacKaye says. "The difference today is that now business people are trying to make the money instead of just the rock-and-rollers. The industry used to be staffed by people who loved music. Now it doesn't make a difference what the product is, it's all about maximizing profits.

"The first interview I ever did was back in 1979 when I was with a band called the Teen Idles. The interviewer asked us individually why we joined a band -- to get rich or to get girls. It never occurred to me that anyone would play for any other reason than to make music."

Picciotto says he could care less about the poor quality of today's popular music because, he says, there is and will always be a thriving underground music scene. "I don't spend a whole lot of time agonizing over the state of modern music," he said. "People will always make art outside whatever the commercial world values. I started going to shows in 1979. Things have come and gone since then, but there's really always been a very basic motivation for people to form bands -- to find a creative outlet, to create networks and communities to share ideas. That's not slowing down. I still see young people getting involved and forming bands."

Fugazi thrives, MacKaye said, thanks to a solid fan network and an indie music establishment that thrives on word-of-mouth promotion. "That's the way it's always been," he said. "Those in the underground cultural scene talk about the music instead of what's in style this week. People who work in indie music stores are generally huge music fans. So when a clerk takes the time to mention Fugazi to a customer, that means a lot to me, and that's why we've stayed so focused on distributing records to those stores."

MacKaye says indie music stores flourished in the early '80s, thanks to a number of bands that sold records in the 100,000-range almost entirely to an underground audience.

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"Now we're at this weird stage where we're alone. There's no one in our position that I can think of. Though I feel connected with a lot of bands in the scene, they're all younger than us."


 

 

"It created this healthy ecosystem of indie distributors and stores," he said. "People knew where to get records by bands like Husker Du and Sonic Youth."

The downfall of that delicate indie ecosystem in the late '80s wasn't the bands' fault, MacKaye says. "It was due to the record companies who were distributing the bands, because they changed the way they did business. They began acting like major labels and treated the bands poorly. So the question for them became, 'Do we want to be treated like assholes and get shitty distribution, or get treated like assholes and get good distribution?' With all the bands going to majors, the smaller stores didn't have any product and couldn't compete with the huge, national chains."

Thanks to Dischord, the 'asshole question' has never posed to Fugazi. The band has reportedly shunned a number of major labels offers, preferring to stay their DIY course. More than a decade has passed since they released their first album, the seminal punk opus, "13 Songs." How has being in Fugazi changed over the years?

"When we started playing we were part of a completely different musical community," MacKaye said. "Now we're at this weird stage where we're alone. There's no one in our position that I can think of. Though I feel connected with a lot of bands in the scene, they're all younger than us. All my peers have been signed by labels, and subsequently dumped. It's an aging thing. Rock and roll is very much attached to people in their late teens and early 20s. That's when they are looking for youthful energy. Most of American society expects you to grow up and get real, but we were already real when we started."

Another thing that's changed is the way the band tours. Recently, Fugazi began doing shorter, multi-week tours instead of spending months on the road. The reason: family. Lally recently got married. Canty is a father these days, as is the band's sound engineer.

"It's just a lot of family stuff," MacKaye said. "The last year has been quite a change for us. We're just trying to creatively address the issue of wanting to go play and not take ourselves out on the road for too long. We've toured for over a decade, and for the time being, we're living two different kinds of lives. It's something we're all happy about."

"We used to tour six or seven months a year, just an enormous amount of time on the road," Picciotto said. "In a weird way, it compressed time. Life from age 19 to 22 took longer for me than from age 22 to 32. It was just a steady cycle of consistent work with the same four people.

"It's been quite a while since we've been to Omaha. Over the years, we've kept expanding out touring base, from the United States and Europe, to the Far East to South America. We're always adding more and more to our plate. And now touring is going to get curtailed even more, and it'll take even longer to get back to certain places. It's daunting trying to find a way to get back to those towns where we began."

Daunting maybe, but central to what Fugazi has accomplished, Picciotto said.

"We consider the live show the basis of what we're about. It's how we best present ourselves. That's the reason for the cheap door price, we want to play to as many people as possible.

"I don't think anyone in the band has been burned out playing live. It's always been the most exciting thing I've ever done. There will be a time when I won't do it anymore, so I want to do it as long as I can. There's definitely some tradeoffs for being away from home, but for me, there's nothing like playing, especially with this band."

MacKaye says there's a particularly warm spot in the band's heart for Omaha. "I remember that it's one town where every gig we've ever played was epic," he says. "Whether it was at Peony Park or Sokol Hall, it's always been a great place to play."

He says there's a number of similarities between his hometown of Washington D.C. and Omaha, especially when comparing the cities' music scenes. I asked him if he ever considered leaving the nation's capital.

"There was this whole attitude when we started that you couldn't play music in D.C., and that to make it, a band had to play in New York. Some even said you couldn't be a punk rocker there. I told those people to go fuck themselves. Our creativity, expression, attitudes and philosophies aren't geographically bound and dictated. If someone defines 'making it big' as being a part of the industry, they may be right. We judge our success by our ability to be creative and play music."


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Originally printed in The Reader November 12, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Photos (used for this webpage, and not published in The Reader) by Glen E Friedman