Fugazi: the past, the future and the ethos that drove them

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Guy Picciotto opens up about life in Fugazi and what their future might hold.

It’s been 15 years since legendary DIY post-hardcore titans Fugazi announced they were stepping away from the band. Despite countless rumours and incredible demand, there have been no reunion shows, no talk of new music and very little activity from the Fugazi camp in general.

But guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto promises the band are far from dead in the water.

“We don't say split, we say hiatus. Which is a term I absolutely cannot stand. But it seems to be the most accurate way to say it,” he told Double J’s Karen Leng this week.

“We never officially split. In 2003 we stopped actively working in terms of shows and recording, but we never actually stopped working, because we've done a lot of stuff as a group since then.

“We put together a live archive of all our shows. We've done a lot of tending to the monument. And we remain in each other’s lives and are friends.

“But, in terms of being an active working band to the degree that we were during the 18-20 years we were together, that shifted personality in 2003. I don't think any of us made a decision about what that meant or didn't mean, but that's kinda where we're at now.”

 

Picciotto is in the country for the first time since Fugazi’s last Australian shows way back in 1997. While here he is hosting a series of screenings of the classic 1999 documentary on the band, Instrument. Though he admits he struggles to sit through the film himself.

“It's pretty intense,” he said. “I haven't watched it all the way through in a while and I may try to do that at one of these screenings. But it's a much different feeling than when we finished it.

“We were still an active band when we made the film and now watching it is intense. When you look back at yourself younger, it's intense. But there's also the feelings of camaraderie, the friendship, hanging with those guys.”

Every night was a completely different show. You could pick from over 100 songs.

Guy Picciotto, Fugazi — Double J, 2018

Fugazi’s infamous work ethic is not just impressive to those of us watching form afar, Picciotto is still astounded at what the band were able to achieve on their own terms, using nothing but their own time and talents.

“Certainly, the things I've done since I was in the band were only allowed by the fact of not being in the band,” Picciotto said.

“Because when we were in the band, it was 100 percent complete and total commitment. We were on the road six or seven months of the year, we'd rehearse five days a week, five hours a day. It was extreme work.

“We were self-managed, we were self-run; it was a totality of experience being in that group. Seeing the film reminds me of that. I miss it. I miss that experience, but 20 years was a long time to sustain that kind of pace.”

Even if you’re not into the band’s taut and powerful art-punk, their ethos makes them a completely fascinating band in the context of music history.

A few key tenets of their philosophy have become legendary.

In over 1,000 shows, they never wrote a setlist.

“We played without a setlist from the first show to the last show,” Picciotto said. “We never had a program for the night before we hit the stage. Right before we went on stage we'd get together and decide on a song to start with. From then on, we were basically improvising the set as we went.

“That meant, before we went on tour, we had to have these insanely long rehearsals where we relearned very piece of music that we knew so that everyone was ready. So, every night was completely different show. You could pick from over 100 songs.

“The only methodology we had was that we alternated singing. Once Ian was wrapping up his song, I knew that I had to have a song ready to go for my thing.

 

“So, we had a lot of hand communications. I could do something physical with my body that Brendan would know would mean a certain song and he would be prepared to go into that depending on who started the song.

“Within the songs there was lots of room for improvisation as well, we would expand songs and stretch them around like taffy.”

karen-leng-guy-picciotto-450-w.jpg
Karen Leng and Guy Picciotto

That improvisation didn’t always exactly go to plan.

“Sometimes it didn't work,” Picciotto recalled.

“I remember one show in particular, one of the biggest shows we played, in front of 5,000 people at the Palladium and Joe just couldn't remember the piece. He just sat there playing two notes over and over again. It seemed to stretch on for like 20 minutes, it was terrible.”

The band also shied away from printing their own merchandise. While many considered this to be a staunch, anti-capitalist move that saw the band taking a stance on the commodification of art and culture, that wasn’t exactly the reasoning.

Truthfully, the band didn’t want to carry around boxes of t-shirts.

“We didn't really think of it as a foundational plank of the band. It's just that we never were interested in lugging stuff on the road with us.

“We were just like, 'We're gonna go out on the road and play the music and not have to worry about setting up a shop at the end of every night.' It started as just a matter of convenience, but the more reaction we got against it, the more perversely steadfast we became about refusing to do it.

“There was this kind of panic, people were like 'Where's the shirt? Where the shirt?'. We were like, 'We're just not gonna make one'. Then we started encouraging people to make their own.

“Not against any band that sells merch, I understand it's a way to function on the road and we understand the economics of it, but we just were, like a lot of the decision making in the band, we were into doing things that were perverse just to explore an alternate way of doing things.”

When you have four or five men dictating a room of hundreds of people, you end up in a situation that makes no sense. So, we just did our best not to be a soundtrack to that.

Guy Picciotto, Fugazi — Double J, 2018

The band were also vehemently anti-violence. In 2018, that sounds like a typical and some might argue unnecessary stance to take. But the 80s hardcore scene in which they cut their teeth was a wild place, and the band wanted it to change.

“The hardcore scene was very energetic and at a certain point it kind of morphed into something that was less energetic and more violent,” Picciotto recalled. “Violent in a way that was misogynistic and sometimes just incredibly reactionary and messed up.

“At a certain point we were like, 'How have we allowed this thing that we love to become perverted in this way?' It was like a weird shadowy version of what it was.

“We just wanted to try to find some way to feel responsible for what was happening in the room.

“We had a lot of people think we were police, that we were acting like cops, 'they're trying to tell us what to do', but to me that just reveals the entitlement of a very small segment of people who think what they want to do should dictate the entire environment of a room.

“When you have four or five men dictating a room of hundreds of people, you end up in a situation that makes no sense. So, we just did our best not to be a soundtrack to that.”

This meant that the band stood in solidarity – and awe – at the riot grrrl scene that exploded in the early 90s.

“It had to happen and when it happened it was thrilling,” Picciotto recalled.

They didn’t make it easy for themselves. Fugazi wanted their shows to be as accessible as possible and, as such, ensured they only played all-ages shows and only ever charged a few dollars to get in.

 “When you have a scene that's created by very, very young people, you have a consciousness of what it means for young people to be into music,” Picciotto said.

“One of those things you're conscious of is you want to be able to get into the show. In D.C. when there was bars and stuff like that and you weren't allowed in the show, it used to drive me crazy. Bands would come from England that I loved and I was so curious to see and then you weren't allowed into the gig. It would drive us insane.

“So we had that ethic of, anyone of any age could come and see us play.

“We had the ethic of the low door price which is the same. You don't have a ton of money to buy a ticket. We had a strict thing in D.C. of five dollars – that was just about making it accessible to people. The same with the record prices.

 

“As we got older, it wasn't like we suddenly got zapped with a ray and we forgot about what those things meant. We decided to have that be foundational planks of the way that we wanted the band to operate.”

This meant that all sorts of characters would appear at their shows.

“It's an interesting thing to do, when you play for a very cheap door price, you don't just play for your most committed fans. You play to the entire strata of whatever town you're in.

“Every jackass with a five-dollar bill can come to your show and it creates a very volatile mix. A very fizzy environment, a spicy environment. It made things very interesting and it made you have to work.”

Then there was the music. Fugazi came from hardcore stock – its members formerly of bands like Minor Threat, Rites Of Spring, Embrace – but imbued a groove into their evolutionary take on punk.

It's not like we never get together and we never play together: we do.

Guy Picciotto, Fugazi — Double J, 2018

Picciotto says the seed was planted by some local Washington D.C. legends.

“The fact that Bad Brains did hardcore as well as reggae was like an education for everyone who was growing up in the scene,” he said. “It led us to really get into dub music, which was a big part of what Fugazi was into.

“I think another aspect was that everyone in the band except me was fundamentally a bass player.

"Ian had played bass in his first band, Brendan was an incredible bass player and Joe was an incredibly smooth bass player who had grown up listening to Graham Central Station and Sly & the Family Stone and those kind of bands.

“The songs were all kind of borne out of bass lines probably. Everyone in the band wrote bass lines and that was kind of the thread. Once you had the bass line, you could just hang all this guitar noise and other stuff on top of it. But that was kind of the core of the group.”

While he fields this question constantly, Picciotto has no issue discussing the current status and potential future of Fugazi. It’s both brighter and bleaker than you can imagine.

“It's not like we never get together and we never play together: we do,” he said.

“But what Fugazi represents to us is a machine. We can't just do it in a half-assed manner. If the band was to get back together it would have to be really full-on.

“When the band stopped, everything we'd been holding back in our lives just rushed in. Now we all have families and different projects - it would be difficult. I don't know what the future holds.

“There's no question that there's enormous love, respect and friendship among the four of us. But we also have a lot of love and respect for the band itself and would never do something that was bogus. So that's kind of where it's at.”

Catch a screening of Fugazi’s documentary Instrument as a part of Vivid LIVE at the Sydney Opera House Friday 25 and Saturday 26 May

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