The Washington, D.C.-based band Fugazi has managed to thrive as a creative unit and as a business organization despite an utter refusal to participate in the mainstream music industry. It is for this reason, they insist, that they’ve been able to make their volatile, politically charged music without compromise. “While a lot of new music seems manufactured, empty, and devoid of any social consciousness,” wrote Spin’s Daniel Fidler, “Fugazi is an essential change.” And though listeners have had mixed reactions to the group’s teachings, Fugazi has steadily increased its fan base while working diligently to keep album and ticket prices down. Through relentless touring they have become, in the eyes of critics like Rolling Stone’s Michael Azerrad, “perhaps America’s best live band.”
Singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye—often regarded as the band’s leader despite Fugazi’s insistence that it is a democracy—occupied a pivotal place in D.C.-area punk rock when that form exploded in the early 1980s. Along with Jeff Nelson, he performed with the band Teen Idles in high school; “We had a tape of songs,
Members include Brendan Canty (born March 9, 1966, in Teaneck, NJ) drums; Joe Lally (born December 3, 1963, in Rockville, MD), bass; Ian MacKaye (born April 16, 1962, in Washington, DC), guitar, vocals; and Joe Picciotto (born September 17, 1965, in Washington, DC), guitar, vocals.
MacKaye was member of groups Teen Idles, late 1970s, Slinkees and Embrace, early 1980s, and Minor Threat, mid-1980s; Picciotto and Canty were members of group Rites of Spring. Fugazi formed in Washington, DC, 1987; released debut EP, Fugazi, on MacKaye’s Dischord Records, 1988; founded parent company Fugazi, Inc., 1990.
Addresses: Record company —Dischord Records, 3819 Beecher St. NW, Washington, DC 20007-1802.
and we had saved up some money from shows,” MacKaye recalled to Option. “So we said, ‘Let’s put out a record. No one else is going to do it for us.’” This decision led to the formation of Dischord Records, which independent music fans—and some envious record industry figures—would later come to regard as a pillar of integrity and non-corporate viability. MacKaye graduated from high school in 1980 and moved into a house in suburban Virginia; this domicile became Dischord House, the fledgling label’s nerve center. “We didn’t set out to be a record label,” the singer explained in a Melody Maker interview. “Dischord was set up to document our community, the generation of musicians that came up in Washington with us.” MacKaye also played with such bands as the Slinkees and Embrace.
MacKaye and Nelson formed the hardcore band Minor Threat, which became one of the most influential punk rock outfits of the decade. Yet some of MacKaye’s message slipped by many of his more literal-minded fans; long after Minor Threat’s day was done, the song “Straight Edge” would haunt the singer. Written as an attack on complacency and substance abuse, it became a manifesto for a group of kids for whom clean living served as a religion. Much to his chagrin, MacKaye received credit for a movement that turned the non-conformist message of his song into a new, stoic conformity, demonstrating an authority that he never would have imagined.
In 1987 he cofounded Fugazi with singer-guitarist and songwriter Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty, formerly of the band Rites of Spring, which had rebelled against the negativity and violence that overtook punk. Bassist Joe Lally was a heavy-metal-obsessed fan for whom punk was a revelation; performances by bands like Rites of Spring and San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys helped him find his path. “Seeing the shows made me think about what I was doing with my time, being stoned all the time—being bored, depressed … whatever,” he confided to Option’s Taehee Kim.
The new band’s name came from Vietnam War “slang for a f—ed up situation,” as Melody Maker noted; the challenge the musicians faced was simply life in America and its capacity to crush the human spirit, not to mention the country’s role in exploitation abroad. The group’s debut EP appeared in 1988 and was followed by 1989’s Margin Walker. Fugazi’s sound thrived on dissonance and tension, much like England’s post-punk political rockers Gang of Four.
As Ann Powers of the Village Voice opined, “Punk chronology pulses through its songs like a bloodline. [The work of the] Sex Pistols and early PiL, Mission of Burma” and other innovative groups is evident in their style. “But each influence neutralizes the other, with none dominating, so that Fugazi sounds unlike any other band. Its songs are the new language emerging from a Babel that renders all previous differences mute.” Spin’s Fidler similarly explained, “The band has taken the raw elements of rock, hardcore, funk, heavy metal, and reggae and mixed them together with a radical punk twist.” In their songs and in their day to day existence, Fugazi, in the words of Los Angeles Reader columnist David Shirley, “have struggled not only to understand how power works in our everyday lives, but to change it.”
Fugazi’s real power came through most clearly in its performances, which featured what Nisid Najari of the Village Voice called a “communal, revivalist atmosphere.” Kim noted that “Fugazi’s live shows are what really capture the essence of this band—shows that are capable of restoring your faith in the energy and potency of punk rock even a decade after its decline.” The band performs at numerous benefits and has a policy of playing exclusively at clubs that charge five dollars or less for admission and admit clubgoers of all ages. As MacKaye told Spin, the policy gives the band freedom from high-priced pressure: “For five bucks we could suck. Because we are human and we do suck sometimes.” A Rolling Stone review of their performance at the Ritz in New York City remarked, “In concert as well as in theory, Fugazi exists to demolish complacency by confounding expectations, so its unpredictable, stop-and-go arrangements are a musical metaphor”; the group’s performance, reviewer Azerrad wrote, turned the crowd into “a swarming mass of arms and legs.”
Despite the ferocity of Fugazi’s music, however, the band—MacKaye particularly—has constantly admonished its audiences not to abuse one another with the ritual of slamdancing or “moshing.” “We play loud, electric guitar music, and you’d hope that that doesn’t mean you have to act like an asshole,” Picciotto groused to Option’s Kim. Yet, as Powers asserted, this issue embodies the paradox of the band. “Fugazi chides its fans for going wild,” she pointed out, “all the while driving them there.”
Seeing Fugazi sell 100,000 copies of their album without benefit of major label promotion or distribution drove many record executives wild; the band was continually besieged by offers from industry giants. Of course, if the band were to sign such a pact, it would mean the end of printing a $9.00 price directly on their CDs to avoid retail gouging. “There are some major labels who are suddenly enamored of us because our name is on a list in some trade publication,” MacKaye remarked to Spin’s Fidler. “Those people I don’t really have much time for because they really don’t have time for me. We’re just not interested. There’s nothing the labels can offer us that would be worth the loss of control over our own music.”
Likewise, the band has been circumspect about doing interviews in mainstream music magazines; Picciotto scolded Spin for its liquor and cigarette ads, leaving Fidler to cobble together his article from quotes the band gave while explaining why they had collectively declined a formal interview, as well as a few from Kim’s Option piece. Fugazi has, however, done many interviews for independent “fanzines,” in part, as Picciotto explained, “to support underground music.”
The group continued to sell well with albums like 1991’s Steady Diet of Nothing, which Melody Maker dubbed “a hard album, a punishing album,” adding, “Fugazi trap the embittered, directionless fury of punk inside their own full metal straitjacket.” Of 1993’s In on the Kill Taker, Matt Diehl of Rolling Stone declared, “As Fugazi grow more diverse, their music only becomes more powerful”; the album, Diehl claimed, functions “as a virtual encyclopedia of punk-derived musical styles.” Spin reviewer Charles Aaron, however, found Kill Taker the band’s “most rigid, predictable album yet” and regarded the political anthems contained therein with derision.
To be sure, though, Fugazi has not pursued its uncompromising direction in order to please music critics. As Picciotto told Melody Maker’s Joe Dilworth, “We’re responsible for the presentation and others are responsible for the interpretation. I hope that people listen to Fugazi and have some kind of understanding of what we’re doing, but it comes down to a question of respecting your audience, of letting them figure things out for themselves, rather than ramming it down their throats.”
For MacKaye—who, like his bandmates, has on occasion maintained that Fugazi would last only as long as the music stayed fresh—the process of making music has always been about freedom and expression. “There’s something incredibly wonderful about having your own thing,” he insisted to Kim. “But I’ll tell you one thing—if this band was selling [only] 5,000 copies, and we were happy playing, we’d still be together. We’d still be working day jobs and just doing what we want.”
On Dischord Records
Margin Walker, 1989.
3 Songs (vinyl 7”), 1991.
Steady Diet of Nothing, 1991.
(Contributors) “In Defense of Humans,” State of the Union, 1991.
In on the Kill Taker, 1993.
Los Angeles Reader, September 24, 1993.
Melody Maker, December 2, 1989; September 7, 1991; October 12, 1991.
Option, November 1991.
Rolling Stone, June 25, 1992; September 30, 1993; November 25, 1993.
Spin, September 1991; September 1993.
Village Voice, September 12, 1989; October 5, 1993.
"Fugazi." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fugazi
"Fugazi." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fugazi
Formed: 1987, Washington, D.C.
Members: Brendan Canty, drums (born Teaneck, New Jersey, 9 March 1966); Joe Lally, bass (born Rockville, Maryland, 3 December 1963); Ian MacKaye, vocals, guitar (born Washington, D.C., 16 April 1962); Guy Picciotto, vocals, guitar (born Washington, D.C., 17 December 1965).
Best-selling album since 1990: Repeater (1990)
Hit songs since 1990: "Waiting Room"
Fugazi bears the gold standard for American independent rock. Its members operate the record label Dischord, offer low prices on albums and concert tickets, and push themselves to make honest and uncompromising music. Their strident anti-sellout stance tends to overshadow their music, which offers a bracing mix of hardcore punk and fearless experimentation. Notwithstanding their politics or allegiances, Fugazi has produced some of the most enthralling music of the postpunk era.
Fugazi took root in two bands from the hardcore punk scene in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. Hardcore stripped the punk-rock style down to stark anger and aggression, fostering an intense and speedy sound that inspired the politically minded D.C. bands. Ian MacKaye founded Dischord Records in 1980 as a means to distribute work from his band Minor Threat, whose sonically extreme songs preached social and personal awareness. Guy Picciotto fronted Rites of Spring, which married the searing guitars of hardcore rock to more personal songwriting, and thereby established the punk subgenre called emocore. MacKaye recruited drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally to form Fugazi in 1987. Picciotto joined the following year. The interplay of MacKaye and Picciotto defined the Fugazi aesthetic: social and personal exploration heightened by angular guitar work. Unlike most hardcore, Fugazi sounded aggressive, but not for the sake of venting testosterone-fueled anger; in fact, the early single "Suggestion" railed against male sexism. Fugazi approached song structures and lyrical themes from a more open perspective than that of the restrictive and insular hardcore scene.
Soon after forming, the band released the EPs Fugazi (1988) and Margin Walker (1989) to considerable acclaim. (The EPs were later collected on one album as Thirteen Songs .) Critics praised the artful take on the hard-core sound, most fully realized by the wildly shifting rhythms of "Waiting Room" and "Suggestion." Canty and Lally provide lockstep backup for MacKaye and Picciotto's anthems, and the songs pulse with blood and fire. The band followed these instantly legendary singles with the full-length album Repeater (1990). This recording continues in the tone of the group's first singles, with propulsive
rhythms driving political screeds such as "Styrofoam" and "Sieve-Fisted Find." Considered a classic of D.C. hardcore, Repeater is Fugazi's most didactic moment, and the clumsy earnestness of lines like "We owe you nothing! / You have no control!" tends to grate. Still, the jittery release of "Repeater" and the contemplative, strangely beautiful closing track "Shut the Door" round out its rough edges.
The band ventured farther away from hardcore with their next album, Steady Diet of Nothing (1991). Here, the songwriters stretch out into abstract territory, toning down the political grandstanding of Repeater and freeing their guitars from the rigid rhythmical structures of their previous work. The result is dark and textured. "Latin Roots" and "Nice New Outfit" benefit from a combination of wiry noise and reggae-inflected beats. The cerebral Steady Diet of Nothing is a visceral album that finds new ways to create physical, demanding sounds.
Populism and Experimentation
During the tour for Steady Diet of Nothing, Fugazi attracted attention from the mainstream media. Press stories focused on their ideological quirks, such as their five-dollar concert tickets and antimoshing stance at the height of grunge (this stemming more out of concern for the safety of fans than disdain for trend). Concern for their audience, along with a refusal to give interviews to corporate media outlets, kick-started the spread of several Fugazi urban myths that threatened to obscure their music. The most common stories involved the band living in an ascetic commune, subsisting solely on rice. By trying to cultivate equality with their fans, the band found themselves at the center of a legend that made them out to be humorless elitists.
In 1993 Fugazi issued their most vitriolic work, the blistering In on the Killtaker. Here Fugazi balances intensity and introspection, with a clarity of expression that sets a new standard for postpunk. "Public Witness Program" surges from an anxious march to a cathartic chorus, and the tense Hollywood diatribe "Cassavetes" fuses grinding guitar noise with a supremely catchy verse. Their prowess of noise dynamics complete, the band attacks pulse-pounding anthems like "Smallpox Champion" and "Facet Squared" with maximum authority. The introspective "Last Chance for a Slow Dance" closes the album on a tender note.
Red Medicine (1995) continued the artistic strides of In on the Killtaker with a fuller, less dissonant sound. The singers take center stage on this album, delivering lyrics with rhythmic and bright inventiveness. Only Fugazi could make a hummable chorus out of "Lockheed, Lockheed / Martin Marietta!" as on "Do You Like Me." The falsetto warble of "Fell, Destroyed" turns into a snaky vamp. Red Medicine is a portrait of the band at its most confident. Bashing out invigorating anthems ("Bed for the Scraping") as well as industrial soundscapes ("Version"), the album displays verve and intelligence.
The band soon slowed their breakneck pace of recording and touring, and took three years before the release of End Hits (1998), a disjointed, overtly jammy, and experimental album. Talk of a breakup circulated, but the group refuted the rumors with a handful of concert dates. The following year they released the soundtrack for Instrument, a documentary that showed their playful side. The accompanying album is a choppy collection of outtakes and live tracks; it displays both musical prowess and a sense of humor.
After another layoff the band bounced back with their most focused work in years, The Argument (2001). The album avoids meandering for tight songcraft and expressive melodies. The gut-wrenching surge of "Epic Problem" and the clenched anger of "Full Disclosure" sound like classic Fugazi, but the biggest surprises are the strange twists taken by the soulful "Life and Limb" and the vivid corporate revenge fantasy "Oh." "Argument" builds from a hazy verse to a bright-eyed coda, providing a fine summation to the album's range of styles. The Argument mines new terrain with a defiant spirit and hunger.
Fugazi's commitment to the punk do-it-yourself aesthetic is done as much out of practicality as politics—it gives them the freedom to produce their own kind of music. They do not serve a corporate bottom line or retool their image to attract press coverage. In an era of U.S. television programming devoted to the glamour of financial success, this integrity is refreshing.
Spot Light: Instrument
Instrument (1998) is not a documentary about Fugazi; rather, it is a compilation of visual material filmed over the band's first ten years by the noted underground filmmaker and photographer Jem Cohen. This approach allows the director to blend a wide array of sounds and images into a hectic collage of interviews, concert footage, and arresting visuals. For all its scattershot imagery, the film achieves a wholeness and fluidity that evoke Fugazi's arty post-punk aesthetic, thereby providing a dynamic insight into their work. Although the focus of Instrument is the music, there are a few scenes that debunk the many myths surrounding the band. In one fascinating sequence Ian MacKaye stops a concert midsong because of the wild flailing of a fan in the front row. MacKaye invites the offender onstage, asks him to apologize to the people he recklessly hit, and then escorts him out of the venue. The message is that Fugazi is not antifun or antidancing but antiviolence and will not tolerate one fan ruining the night of another. Cohen also edits in footage of a music channel interview with a visibly uncomfortable MacKaye, which culminates in MacKaye's statement that Fugazi's seemingly austere methods of operation are simply "about being a band," not a complex public image strategy. Instrument is the cinematic equivalent of that statement, a stripped-to-the-essentials portrait of a uniquely demanding and unrelenting band.
Fugazi (EP) (Dischord, 1988); Margin Walker (EP) (Dischord, 1989); Thirteen Songs (Dischord, 1990); Repeater (Dischord, 1990); Three Songs (Dischord, 1990); Steady Diet of Nothing (Dischord, 1991); In on the Killtaker (Dischord, 1993); Red Medicine (Dischord, 1995); End Hits (Dischord, 1998); Instrument (Dischord, 1999); The Argument (Dischord, 2001); Furniture (EP) (Dischord, 2001).
"Fugazi." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fugazi
"Fugazi." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fugazi