We Know How the Machines Work and We’re Able to Take Control:” An Interview With Fugazi

Some may say that punk has an altogether simple formula: three chords of noise, plenty of sneer and snarl, and middle fingers everywhere. But for about a decade and a half, Fugazi has proven that it’s vastly more complicated, to the point that perhaps the term “punk” itself can be considered reductive.

What Fugazi have brought to the table is a strict DIY work ethic, some of the most diverse musical compositions you will likely encounter from one band, and enough conscientious lyricism to make your average punk — and mainstream media fan(atic) — think twice about what is going on in the world. And, as one of the chief architects of Fugazi, Guy Picciotto is no slouch when it comes to current affairs, as you will read later.

So it comes as to no surprise to anyone — except Fugazi, perhaps — that one of their finest albums to date, The Argument, was released hot on the heels of yet another American war full of sound and fury. What it signifies is ultimately up to the warriors involved, and like most exemplary Americans, Fugazi just want everyone to think before they speak. But definitely act.

Scott Thill: So I was in my friendly neighborhood indie music store and someone there told me you broke up. Two weeks later, The Argument came out. What happened?
Guy Picciotto: Well, I think rumors about us breaking up have gone around for probably the last nine years, so we always hear about it. It’s kinda like the “Paul is dead” rumors. Particularly when we put out End Hits. A lot of people looked at that record and freaked out. We didn’t anticipate it, but a lot of people were saying, “Oh my god, this is their last record!” People thought of it like this tombstone thing, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there isn’t a constant media presence for Fugazi. It’s not like we’re on MTV all the time or doing interviews with Rolling Stone. When we’re off working on our own, not necessarily touring or recording, just kind of writing, I think we drop off the radar and people start to think, “Shit, they’re not together.”

The two hands of justice on The Argument: one lighting the way, the other one empty. “It’s like a chemical — you put it out there and the reaction that it creates is what art is,” says Guy.
And I also think that some of it comes from the fact that most bands don’t last. I think we’re going on to our, what fifteenth year? So it’s natural for people to assume that it’s going to wind up at some point. And over the years there have been times that we haven’t worked as hard as other times, and during those lulls, people start to speculate. As far as we’re concerned, if we’re not obviously working, you can bet that we’re somewhere underground working because we never stop.

ST: And even when you guys are touring, it’s a word of mouth thing.
GP: Right. And that’s the way we work. We figure that if people are curious about the band, it’s not impossible to find out information about us. We have a Web site, we do interviews constantly. I think it would surprise people. Most of them are usually for fanzines . . .

ST: Like us!
GP: Yeah, like you guys. Stuff that’s more motivated by enthusiasm and not necessarily corporate money or whatever. So it is kind of a weird thing. Our feeling is that we don’t want to go ram ourselves down people’s throats but we also want to be able to make ourselves really accessible. I mean, that’s our whole thing with the low pricing. It’s just about making it accessible to people who are curious without necessarily spoon feeding everyone, you know?

ST: You talked about going on your fifteenth year. Looking back, are you guys proud of the run you’ve had so far, as well as the fact that you can claim total ownership over all of your creative production? And make a living while doing it?
GP: I don’t think any of us anticipated it when the band started. I mean, I think it took us two or three years together before the band really felt like a solid thing, and I don’t think any of us expected it to last this long. But it’s just one of those things. I’ve been in a bunch of bands before this one — and so have the other guys in the group — but it’s like one of those weird puzzles you get as a kid. You shift those plates around and all of a sudden, you have a picture in your hand. I mean, we just kept trying different combinations of people but when the four of us lined up, something happened. I think a lot of it was that everyone in the band was so committed to working hard that before we knew it we had toured the world a hundred times! (Laughs) So it’s just one of those things.

We never were overtly ambitious and we never really planned anything out. It’s just a matter of working and always focusing on the next task at hand. And that’s kind of what happened.

ST: Speaking of clicking, one of the things I think that many fans — underground or mainstream — seem to miss when it comes to Fugazi is just what amazing musicians you are, how you click musically with each other.
GP: Yeah, that’s for sure. I think one thing people don’t understand is the democracy that is the band. I think people have the perception that there are leaders in the group or that one of us controls everything, but if people could only see the way we practice. It’s really intense. It’s an insane, four-way communication laser beam barrage where all of us are working really hard with each other.

One of these guys deserves more credit. “I think many people don’t realize that our drummer, Brendan, writes a lot of our music,” says Guy.
I think many people don’t realize that our drummer, Brendan, writes a lot of our music. Everyone contributes stuff, but no less than anyone else. Everyone is coming in with ideas. I mean, when the band started, there were a lot of songs left over from when Ian and Joe were working together, but at this point, every single song is a group work. And we just have a good communication with each other, particularly from touring so much. When we’re onstage, it’s like mind reading: we’re on the same page.

ST: Especially, on a smaller level, the guitar work between you and Ian. It’s seamless.
GP: Yeah, we’ve definitely learned how to play together. I didn’t play guitar when the band started, and it wasn’t until Repeater that I started playing guitar with the group. And it took me awhile to figure out — since the sound was so full — how another guitar could work within it, how to hone in on the way I wanted to play. I never really considered myself a guitar whiz, but at a certain point I think I had an idea on how it could work. And Ian and I just fed off each other. But I always like to think of it as a sports team or something. Teams are constantly trading people, but we never had to. We know how to play.

ST: Some songs off The Argument like “Epic Problem” recall your earlier stuff, but there are some that are beautifully different, like “Strangelight.” How did the idea for the songs and the lyrics on The Argument come about?
GP: It’s a weird sort of collection of songs, because some of them are ideas we’ve had around for awhile, like “Epic Problem,” for example. We have had that song around for about ten years, and we just never completed it. And there are other songs on the record, like Joe’s song, “The Kill,” which are songs we pretty much arranged in the studio. We had ideas about them, but never really nailed them down until we started laying tracks. Like “The Kill,” which was just an improvisation that became a song. So each song has a different history, and there’s a very different vibe to the whole record.

We put out that Furniture EP at the same time because most of the songs on it were much older ones that we never committed to recording. It was a weird thing, kinda like we were taking stock. It was like we had a parts graveyard, where all these parts got left by the wayside. We have an enormous amount of practice tape, and we went back and scoured over it all when we were making the Instrument movie, because we used a lot of those pieces for the soundtrack. And that experience led us to, “Oh yeah, there was this thing! How come we never developed that?” And then others, like “Strangelight,” were brand new ideas that came out of nowhere.

It’s kind of funny, because for the longest time “Full Disclosure” and “Strangelight” were actually the same song. And they don’t sound anything like each other now! They never coalesced, so they separated and became two different songs. For us, it’s weird, because we know their genealogy and how they break down. But for people hearing them for the first time, they’re not going to pick up on it. (Laughs)

ST: Right! I’ll look at one of the lyrics and go, “This is perfect for what’s going on in the world right now.” And it was written ten years earlier!
GP: Right, it’s weird. Particularly for this record. I mean, we’re very slow lyric writers; it takes us a long time to finish the song and put the vocals on. The lyrics and the vocals are usually the last stage. So we had a bunch of music and right before we went into the studio, all this stuff came gushing out and we had more songs than we expected.

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Checking in with some fan reactions to The Argument, I came across some descriptions of the album as more “pop” than Fugazi has shown before, while other fans bristled at the use of that word. They all love it, of course, but is there a point where terms like “pop” and “punk” become reductive?
GP: Well, it’s not really something that we sweat too hard. I mean, we write the music to keep ourselves engaged with it, and that’s not really something we worry about. We want to push ourselves to find ways to make music interesting, so to make the same record over and over again would probably not be of any interest to us nor anyone else. So, with each record we try to — and not in a forced way, since I think that our progression from record to record seems organic — build on what we have done before. I like a lot of pop music, so it doesn’t really bother me. In terms of whether we are or are not a real punk band, it’s not something we worry about.

Giving the image the middle finger. “I think that more than ever the entertainment industry is trying to serve as a distraction, to keep people from thinking too hard.”
As far as I’m concerned, that stuff is just marketing. I don’t give a fuck about it. To me, at least historically, I feel comfortable being called a punk band, because I feel that’s what we came out of. And I feel totally comfortable with the core concepts I associate with it, but I’m not interested in selling it to someone else who may have a different take on it. I don’t care.

ST: There comes a point where you pick up your instrument and played the same riff. It’s time to explore something different.
GP: Right. With this record, practically speaking, we brought people in to play with — which we had never really done before — so it forced us into playing something different. We never had a second drum set playing through most of the songs. We had people playing cello, people coming in and singing with us, so we kind of opened the process more. I think this record has a different flavor mainly because it had different people involved with it. We used to always seal the four of us in a studio; there was no outside light coming in at all. But now we’ve got things like this guy, Jerry Busher — who’s been playing live with us on a second drum set for awhile. And we had written a lot of the songs with him in mind so we that knew it was going to sound different.

ST: Fugazi has always seemed to write songs for the dispossessed. And now, especially with the War on Terrorism, do you feel that the pendulum is swinging away from vacuous pop to the more political music like yours. Is it due for a resurgence?
GP: Well, I don’t think it’s ever not due. I think there’s always a call for people who are bucking the norm. But I don’t expect it to happen now because I think that more than ever the entertainment industry is trying to serve as a distraction, to keep people from thinking too hard. And I don’t really anticipate that the overculture — or whatever you want to call it — is going to support stuff that is very critical right now, because I think that people are terrified of being critical and are convinced that critical voices won’t sell. Which may be true, I don’t know.

But I think that there’s always going to be an underground that cuts against the grain, there always will be. I’m not one of those guys who wrings his hands and worries about it, because there are always going to be people that can’t get with the current program or whatever. I think that right now is a really difficult time — a lot of radical and progressive groups are trying to figure out their strategies because things have gotten so polarized and intense. I think that people are trying to figure out how to take the next step. But I think that they will. And I’m convinced that they have to, because it’s gotten serious and fucked up.

The faces of punk? “I feel totally comfortable with the core concepts I associate with it, but I’m not interested in selling it to someone else who may have a different take on it.”
ST: Listening to tracks off the album, like “Life and Limb,” with lyrics like “We want our violence doubled in a loving way” or “The national temper that’s all the rage” seem to really stick out considering our current political situation. There seems to be a lot of mobilization — to get even or to make change — but people don’t really seem to have the facts to make a move that might work.
GP: I agree. In light of the situation happening now, we actually don’t have information. There’s a lockdown on the press so intense that we can’t know what’s happening. Have we reached an appropriate quota of dead civilians over there to balance out our dead civilians over here? The whole thing is really . . . I think that people are scared to analyze the situation, but it’s precisely at moments that you are frightened that you need to be the most clear-headed and analytical. And I think that’s something that the powers that be are . . .

ST: They want you to go buy a flag.
GP: Yeah, they just want people to turn off their brains for awhile. There’s a wholesale restructuring of the way government works going on right now, and I think that people need to pay attention to it, you know?

ST: Like the wiretap issue. I think everyone missed that one.
GP: Yep. There’s some weird shit going on. One thing that really freaks me out is this whole presidential papers thing that sort of slipped under the matrix. Now the sitting president is able to put a lid on the release of presidential papers. The whole thing is bizarre.

ST: Speaking of lyrics, I was listening to “Oh,” one of my favorite songs off the album. It’s kind of like Lennon’s “Yer Blues” for the dotcom sect.
GP: (Laughs) That really cheers me up because that’s kind of what it’s about. I thought there were lines in that song that people who worked in offices would really get into. (Laughs)

ST: So do you think the multinational corporation’s secret is out or are people just waiting to go shopping again?
GP: I think the thing is that there was really an amazing anti-globalization movement that was coming together, raising a lot of intense questions about the way global economy works. And it was gathering a lot of momentum, and was one of the more optimistic things to happen in a very long time. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it’s come to be seen as disruptive. But I think the issues it was raising aren’t going anywhere; that stuff is still true. It’s going to have to be dealt with sometime, particularly now that we’re finally admitting to a recession.

ST: Finally.
GP: (Laughs) Yeah, finally! There are things at work, man, that people are going to have to examine, and that’s kinda what that song was about. It is weird, man, writing lyrics and writing songs. I’ve got to say that it’s almost like sitting in a cloud. For me, it’s such a difficult process because a lot of times you write these things, and when they actually come together, you’re really happy. With this record, it was weird. Like you said, in retrospect, reading “Life and Limb” and some of the other songs, it’s strange the way it played out. It’s almost as if the meanings have become exaggerated.

ST: But you guys can kind of get where fans look at your lyrics and go, “Oh yeah.” And then use them as a position paper for whatever they want to rage against the machine about.
GP: Right, and that’s kind of the point. I’m an insane music fan. I’ve grown up working in record stores, collecting music and I’ve got relationships with other people’s music and lyrics that’s very intense. So I understand the process that goes on for people. But for us, when you’re working on your own thing, there’s a self-consciousness that you try to avoid. Because to me it’s paralyzing to spend so much time going over that ground.

It’s a difficult thing, and it probably frustrates people who interview us, but the point is that we put a lot of effort and work into making these things, doing the concert, making the record, writing the song, and at a certain point, you just gotta release it out there, know what I mean? And let it interact with people. It’s like a chemical — you put it out there and the reactions that it creates is what art is. The art isn’t breaking down the puzzle, explaining everything to people. That makes you feel like a necrophiliac or something. (Laughs)

ST: That’s an interesting metaphor! There are some songs like “Strangelight” and “Oh” that are different, that have cellos and backing vocals. Even though every album is different, is that a direction that the band is headed in, do you think?
GP: I really don’t know what we’ll do. We didn’t anticipate having a cello or backing vocals on the record until we got into the studio. Ideas presented themselves and we just ended up liking them. We’re never very considerate of the direction that we’re going in. We develop our aesthetics individually and when we all come together in the practice room, we try to force fit our attitudes together. And that’s what makes the music. So I have no idea where it’s going to go from here. But I imagine that we’ll continue to expand on incorporating Jerry into the writing of the music, and things will shift and change.

To me, the newest songs we worked on — stuff like the “The Kill,” “Strangelight,” and “Life and Limb” — might be where we heading. But we work in weird loops, and we’re not one of those bands or people, like David Bowie, that’s trying to come out with a new fashion every record. Just because we wrote “Epic Problem” ten years ago doesn’t mean we still don’t feel it now. It’s coherent, but at the same time, we’re trying to push ourselves.

ST: Which is ironic because for me each Fugazi album sounds totally different that the one before it.
GP: Really? That’s funny because we’ll put out an album and get a ton of reviews that’ll just say, “More of the same slash and thrash from the punk heroes, Fugazi.” (Laughs) It’s so funny, man. I think it really depends on what people hear.

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“We Know How the Machines Work and We’re Able to Take Control:” An Interview with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto (con.)

Scott Thill

ST: I think people don’t have a musical ear sometimes and they’re just looking to jump around and beat stuff up. I remember the review for Killtaker and it was like, “Same old same old.” Then I listened to it and went, “Whoa!” It was much different for me than Repeater or your earlier stuff.

The record that turned it around. “I think that the process of building up the knowledge, from Red Medicine on, we felt that we could produce the records ourselves. We know how the machines work and we’re able to take control.”
GP: Right. For me, I feel all of the records differently. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to them. But I definitely think from Red Medicine on, we took a turn because we felt a lot more confident about producing the records ourselves. That for us was a big shift, because before that I think we felt intimidated in the studio because it was one of the few things where we weren’t in control of how everything worked. Because we didn’t know. And I think that the process of building up the knowledge, from Red Medicine on, we felt that we could produce the records ourselves. We know how the machines work and we’re able to take control. I think that’s been the shift, for sure.

ST: Now that Napster’s dead, I think that the RIAA is going after a bunch of other peer-to-peer sharing networks. What are your thoughts on file sharing and piracy?
GP: We have completely no problem with file sharing. We just consider it the exchanging of tapes. And we’ve always had a really open policy about our stuff — when people come to our shows, we tell them to bring cameras, bring tape recorders, bring video recorders, we don’t care. People can come in and tape our gigs and they can trade them. We’re not into when people sell our shit as bootlegs and try to make a profit off of it. We think that’s a different line that’s being crossed.

But when it’s just the music being shared, that’s what it’s about to us. It’s not like we get a lot of radio airplay. File sharing is our radio; that’s the way people hear our stuff. I think people underestimate the enthusiasm of people who dig music — they dig it because they want to hear it, not because they want to steal it. It’s not like there’s this vicarious thieving thrill; they’re into the music; it’s an enthusiasm for the sound.

ST: They just want to get the word out.
GP: Yeah, exactly. They download your stuff, they dig it, they go out and buy the record. We never shared in the industry freakout about it because it’s not important to us. Our main thing has always been access to our music, making it as easy as possible, making it as cheap as possible, so why would we have any problem with file sharing? It’s redundant.

ST: You guys also seem to be one of the only outfits that put their postpaid prices on their CDs so shoppers can see how screwed they’re getting by the megachains.
GP: Yeah, I think that’s really important. For a lot of people, they see a record they like in the store and they’re willing to pay the extra money for it because it’s convenient. But I think it’s important for them to know that if they go to our Web site, they can get the stuff fast, cheap, and efficiently. That’s really important to us. You’ve got ten bucks, you can get the CD — it’ll be mailed to you for that much money. If people want to buy it in chain stores, that’s their option, but they pay for that convenience.

More Music That Matters

“Private Press, indeed. DJ Shadow has ironically withdrawn further into himself the more public he’s become. Which is a good thing, because he’s a brilliant artist whose bad ideas are better than the majority of the good ideas littering the musical landscape.”
“It’s a trend, it’s a fad, it’s a fashion, and it will be gone. We didn’t come to build walls, we came to knock ’em down.”
“If anything, the White Stripes are doing their best to clean up the dumb streak soiling Detroit’s good name.”
Although the JSBX have left splintered punk behind in favor of standard blues rock riffs, these wolves still have teeth, and they bite real hard.
ST: Yeah, if you go to a Virgin Megastore, you’ll find a CD for $18.99 with a Fugazi CD next to it for $13.99. And people will wonder why it’s so cheap. It’s because the price of what the Fugazi CD costs is on the back of it.
GP: Yeah, the economics of CD production is insane, because it costs nothing to make those things. They’re cheaper than hell. It probably costs twenty-five cents to manufacture a CD and a little bit more for the artwork. And all that extra money you’re paying the major label is stuff is to finance their ridiculously bloated industry. It’s ridiculous.

ST: Speaking of the bloated industry, now we’ve got a lot of Britney Spears and boy bands in the mainstream, which is kind of exciting for me. Because what’ll happen sometimes is that people will look to the mainstream and find nothing that speaks to them. And then they’ll go digging for stuff like Fugazi and Three Mile Pilot, who are just sitting there waiting to be discovered.
GP: Definitely. People lament the music that’s coming out but to me, it’s always been the same to a certain degree. I can remember the first time I heard this famous punk band called The Adverts on a college radio station. I was just like, “What the hell is this?” It just felt raw, and I had seen a bunch of arena rock concerts, like Kiss and Aerosmith, you know? And then the first time I saw a punk band in a small room, there was a difference of intensity to it that was so extreme for me. And I think that happens to people all the time. You meet a person or you go into a record store and there are moments that you’ll never forget where you are clued into something that you’ll never forget, that’ll change your life. And it’s awesome when it happens. And if it happens for people with our music, it’s incredible.

ST: Maybe because you’re not in a big arena with a product on the stage. In the small rooms, you can see everyone sweat.
GP: I will say this. I saw KISS and AC/DC and I thought they were incredible. I thought the shows were amazing. But once I saw the Cramps in a small room, there was a difference between the experiences. One was like a Siegfried and Roy explosion and one was something that was intense and real.

So I see the value of the bombast of the big shows. I love them and I thought that they were incredible, but I think that there is something more real and immediate about the other stuff.

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This interview with Fugazi originally appeared here on Morphizm

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