The Washington Post The Washington Post August 1, 1993, Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: SUNDAY SHOW; PAGE G1
HEADLINE: PUNK LIVES! Washington's Fugazi Claims It's Just a Band. So Why Do So Many Kids Think It's God?
BYLINE: Eric Brace, Washington Post Staff Writer
BODY: It's May. Seattle. The four members of the Washington, D.C., band Fugazi are sweating in a tiny dressing room after their show, surrounded by mineral water and untouched bags of Doritos. A couple of dyed blonds walk self-consciously through the crowd and stick their heads in the door. It's Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Hole's Courtney Love, rock's couple of the moment. They want to talk to their pals in the band.
Two nights later, in Olympia, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, another old friend of the band's, pays a surprise visit, interrupting a film project in Los Angeles to, as he puts it, "charge my batteries." He dances the hokey-pokey in the street in front of the Capitol Theatre with Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty.
During Pearl Jam's U.S. tour, its lead singer, Eddie Vedder, takes a driving tour of D.C. Not that impressed with the usual sights, he has one wish: "Show me where Guy and Ian live." That's Guy Picciotto and Ian Mackaye, Fugazi's singers and guitarists.
Fugazi. It's not on MTV. Not on your radio station. Not on the cover of Rolling Stone. Not a household name. Who are these guys, and what is it that brings rock's royalty of the '90s to their door?
The night after the Seattle show, Fugazi plays Vancouver, B.C., in front of a thousand kids in flannel. It's cold in the open-air amphitheater on the city's waterfront. Steam rises from the bodies onstage and from those slamming in the pit up front.
The dynamic punk-funk music goes from a pin drop to a bomb blast in a beat. It evokes rock-critic terms like "visceral" and "kinetic" and "impassioned," adjectives that do nothing to convey the impact of Picciotto onstage, twisting coals. They can't explain the emotional explosion in the amphitheater when Joe Lally starts the brutal rhythmic bass notes of "Waiting Room," a song from Fugazi's first record, one it rarely plays:
"I am a patient boy. I wait I wait I wait."
Mackaye shouts. A thousand shout along; the connection is made. Two guitars, buzzing with jagged notes and distortion, ride on top of Canty and Lally's funk.
Onstage is the band whose members aggressively defined teen angst while in such influential punk bands as Minor Threat and Rites of Spring during the 1980s. A band whose lyrics now caution listeners: "You can't be what you were. Time is now and it's running out." And remind people: "You are not what you own." And: "We are all bigots." And: "We have a responsibility to use all of our abilities to keep this place alive. Right here. Right now. Do it. Now. Do it."
There are three facts about Fugazi you must know: It
only plays shows where age IDs are not required.
It charges $ 5 admission to its shows, always.
It will never, ever sign with a major record label.
Its rigid adherence to these precepts gives the band that most valuable of intangibles: integrity. The flip side of integrity is selling out, which can be loosely defined in the music business as putting yourself before your fans. Fugazi doesn't.
The all-ages show policy is easily explained. Fugazi's members were teenagers once, and were kept from seeing plenty of their musical heroes because of age restrictions at clubs. Why do that to their young fans?
The cover-charge policy was explained by Picciotto after an April show in College Park: "We try to make it as easy as possible for people to come see us and we try to make it as easy as possible for people to leave if they don't like it. Five dollars is not going to bust anybody. We are not an entertainment machine. If you charge 20 bucks, you'd better put on a good show. Five bucks allows us to have a terrible show. Honestly, there are nights when the band is just not functioning, for whatever reason, but I don't feel like I've ripped anybody off, ever."
When the producers of Lollapalooza '93 called earlier this year inviting hand: The $ 33 ticket was $ 28 too high. And if, somehow, Fugazi had agreed to the offer, it would have been the only band on the main stage without a global corporation behind it.
Which leads to the major label thing. Fugazi has been courted for years by nearly every record company: Atlantic, Columbia, Geffen, EMI, Elektra. Label scouts turn up at its shows, talk to the musicians backstage, tell them how much a big company could do for them. The scouts write letters; the first paragraph always says something like: "I understand your commitment to being completely independent, but think of how many more people you'll reach with your message with the distribution clout of [fill-in-the-blank]."
But Fugazi has a record company: Dischord Records, which was started in 1980 by Mackaye and drummer Jeff Nelson. They were teenagers, they were punks, they were middle-class kids fresh out of Wilson High, up near Tenley Circle. They wanted to put out a record of their band, Teen Idles, so they did. Dischord is now one of the most respected independent rock labels in the world. It has sold nearly 1 1/2 million records, tapes and CDs, mostly by word of mouth, with Fugazi accounting for more than half those sales. While Mackaye still has a full-time job as co-owner of Dischord, the other members of Fugazi were able long ago to quit their day jobs. But now that things like making the rent aren't troubling them, they have new concerns, such as how to invest their new-found wealth without buying into the corporate structures they despise.
A major record label, according to the band, couldn't do anything for Fugazi it doesn't already do for itself. "Anyone who wants our records can get them," says Picciotti. "There's mail order, and they're distributed all over the world. What more can a major offer?" A major-label record contract, by definition, makes you an employee of the record company. No matter how good a contract you negotiate, you do not have complete creative control. That is a fact of the record business.
This is a fact about Dischord: It doesn't sign contracts with bands whose recordings it releases, and it allows them total artistic control. To Fugazi, that seems an obvious reason to remain independent. "I never thought it should be done any other way," says Lally. To the kids who buy punk records, it has made Fugazi heroes.
A half-hour into Fugazi's Vancouver show, a kid climbs onstage and dives, feet first, back into the audience. The music stops: The band does not tolerate stage diving or body surfing -- it's seen too many people get hurt. Mackaye patiently asks everyone to calm down. It's a nearly impossible request. The band's music is anything but calming. Some kids shout back. Mackaye gets angry. He spots the guy who leaped from the stage, tries talking to him. The man yells back. Mackaye threatens: "Come up here, I'll beat the [expletive] out of you!" Not the finest moment for an avowed pacifist.
Mackaye is pulled away from the microphone by Picciotto and Lally. They each take a turn pleading with the crowd to respect each other. Finally the music continues.
After the show, walking the 20 yards of open space from the stage to the dressing rooms, Mackaye is stopped by some kids. "Why did you yell at that guy in the audience?" one asks. Another holds out a felt pen and a CD booklet for an autograph. Mackaye is polite, engaging. He asks the kids' names. He shakes their hands. More fans notice him talking. Soon he's surrounded by dozens of sweaty 15-to-25-year-olds who want answers: Are you all vegetarians? Do you have some advice on starting a record company? Why don't you sell T-shirts? For nearly a half-hour he answers, and asks them questions too. Finally he breaks away, and heads off to change his soaked T-shirt.
The next day, in an Olympia coffee shop, Mackaye sits with his
herbal tea and talks.
"Last night a kid said to me, 'I really disagree with what you said onstage,' how I threatened that kid. He was mad at me because he says I was too angry. I seven-foot stage, feet first, and kick a woman in the top of her head. I have no apologies about being angry. ... I'm going to react however I feel onstage. That's part of the deal. I'm not there to entertain people; I'm there playing. ... Sometimes we're in a good mood, sometimes in a bad mood. Sometimes we're well, sometimes we're sick. Sometimes we're awake, sometimes we're tired. You're going to get what you get."
Asked about the impromptu Q&A after the show, the night before Mackaye hesitates before answering: "Please be careful talking about 'adoring fans' last night. It would be a nice cliche, but these are just nice kids who are interested. They've heard our music, seen our picture. They've related to us with our recordings, and now we're here in front of them and they're just curious."
Curious about the band whose songs seem to offer direction rather than entertainment. "Yeah, people ask questions," says Picciotto after the April show in College Park. "They want us to supply some kind of message, but if I wanted to express a message in that way I would have been a politician. I'm not. I'm a musician. It's in the songs. It's there for people to use or not use." On a side street near the Clarendon subway stop in Arlington is the group house where Mackaye has lived for 11 years, and which he shares with longtime companion Cynthia Connolly and Fugazi bassist Lally. It's known simply as "The Dischord House." It's small, wooden, ordinary, with a chain-link fence and a big furball of a dog named Mudpup who growls and whines as people cross the peeled-paint porch.
Inside, across the worn hardwood floor, off to the right, are shelves of records, tapes, CDs, ready to be mailed out to the thousands of fans who send in their orders from around the world. To the left, in an office the size of a pantry, are promotional copies to send to newspapers and magazines and radio stations -- a recent, reluctant concession to the world of commerce. On the walls are fan letters that say things like: "Realize again what you do for everyone by putting this stuff out there. It is a voice that speaks beyond life ..."
Connolly is minding the office in her capacity as one of Dischord's few employees. She points to a couple of in-boxes: "This is the Fugazi mail just to Ian in the last six weeks." It's a stack nearly a foot tall, maybe 200 letters. She points to another pile. "This is for everybody else in the band. ..." A slightly bigger stack. "It's crazy because they really do try to answer
Binders on the office shelves hold articles about Fugazi from around the world. Interviewers ask Fugazi the darnedest things: "How can the United States heal itself?" a French music magazine wants to know. A British weekly inquires, "How do you think a birth of 'greenism' is going to affect the consumer boom?" A Berlin monthly wonders, "How are ordinary people in the U.S. feeling?" One magazine posits that Fugazi is "the one remaining beacon of hope in rock 'n' roll and for America's youth in general."
A little history: Minor Threat was formed by Mackaye and his record-company partner Jeff Nelson right after their previous band, Teen Idles, broke up in 1980. It became one of the most influential punk bands in the United States, partially because of a 46-second song called "Straight Edge" that said, "Always gonna keep in touch, never want to use a crutch," which seemed to preach abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Another song, "Out of Step," said, "Don't smoke, don't drink, don't [expletive]. At least I can [expletive] think." " 'Straight Edge' was just a song, not a movement or philosophy," Mackaye says when asked about the song's influence on thousands of teenage boys who went out to start punk bands. "They were just anti-obsession songs," says Nelson. "think for yourself, but we were constantly thought of as monks and total do-gooders."
But punks with shaved heads talking about abstinence and social responsibility got the band a lot of press, and started Mackaye's transformation into a kind of god by the fans and the media. In late 1983, Minor Threat broke up. ("We didn't like each other," says Mackaye bluntly.)
In 1986 Mackaye hooked up with Joe Lally, a Rockville kid with clear blue eyes and a buzz cut who had grown up on Graham Central Station, Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown, and got plugged in when he discovered punk -- especially the bands on Dischord. Someone was speaking his language. He was working as a roadie when he was recommended to Mackaye as "somebody who plays bass, plus you can live with him in a van and he doesn't drive you crazy." Lally says, laughing at his qualifications.
Mackaye called him and the jamming began. Mackaye's songwriting was maturing, away from the relentless buzz-saw "loud fast rules" of hardcore punk toward more complex rhythms and dynamics. After some false starts, things clicked when drummer Brendan Canty started sitting in. At the time, Canty was playing in Happy Go Licky with Guy Picciotto, who was ability to combine punk with funk and reggae grooves dovetailed with Mackaye's ideas. They were ready to play live. After their first two shows, in late 1987, they asked Picciotto to come along to a show in Richmond. "We asked Guy if he just wanted to come hang out and roadie for us," says Mackaye. "He got up and sang a song, and it just started evolving."
Evolving into songwriting by jamming, with Picciotto and Mackaye both contributing lyrics and scratching out parts on guitars they still insist they aren't particularly fluent in playing.
Mackaye says the name Fugazi "is just a word that I came across in a book called 'Nam,' with Vietnam veterans' recollections. It was their slang for [Expletive] Up Situation. I thought that was something we could agree on about the way the world is."
Fugazi decided to do its small part to fix the way the world is. In D.C., it plays only free concerts or benefits, often in collaboration with Positive Force, a Washington-based group organizing for radical social change. "They're an astounding group of people," Positive Force's Mark Anderson says of Fugazi. "Not only as a band but as human beings. Fugazi has helped to raise close to $...I feel lucky to have been able to work with them." Anderson considers Fugazi to be the embodiment of punk: "Punk rock music has always been about something more than just entertainment. It's about building some sort of liberating consciousness, challenging ourselves and our world."
The band will perform two free shows in Washington -- Saturday at the Sylvan Theatre in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington 30 years ago, and Monday, Aug. 9, at Fort Reno Park -- before going back on the road Aug. 15.
Released in June, Fugazi's latest album, "In on the Kill Taker," is no great departure from its earlier works ("Fugazi," "Margin Walker," "Repeater" and "Steady Diet of Nothing"). The band once again called on producer Ted Nicely, who worked on three of its previous recording sessions. "Once we had the basic tracks laid down, I felt it was turning into the strongest thing they'd ever done," says Nicely. "When I was in the middle of [recording] in the studio, I just felt like it was stuff you've never heard before." He admits he might have a vested interest in the project, but says, "Not many bands play as well as Fugazi. I think they're doing something unique."
One thing earlier Fugazi releases didn't have, but that you'll find on "In on the Kill Taker," are UPC bar-code stickers. They enable the SoundScan system -- commercial sales. Fugazi now permits the bar codes on the outside of its packaging but refused to incorporate them into its album covers' artwork, as do most record companies. It's a compromise that enables the band to get into the large chain record stores, which do not accept merchandise without the familiar vertical lines.
The results were immediate: "In on the Kill Taker" hit No. 153 on Billboard's pop chart the month it was released. In England, Fugazi flew out of the gate: The record started at No. 1 on the independent charts of both Melody Maker and the New Music Express, and has remained near the top ever since. Another pressing has been ordered, all 175,000 of the first run having been shipped to stores.
But the band will not budge on the issue of selling Fugazi T-shirts at concerts. "We want to sell music, not clothes," Mackaye says quickly. "If someone wants to make a Fugazi T-shirt, I say go ahead. That's not what I'm here for.
Still, the business of being Fugazi is something Mackaye enjoys tending to. He works closely with all-around financial adviser Seth Martin, a friend since junior high. Martin helped the band do a very un-punk thing: incorporate. "There's a Fugazi corporation which is called Lunar Atrocities Limited," says Martin with a smile at his home office in Northwest Washington. "Protection from liability is the main reason to form a corporation, and for these guys it makes sense. If someone got hurt stage-diving and decided to sue, it would be a little harder to go after their personal assets." He points to some finely engraved sheets of paper. "Actual Fugazi stocks. Pretty cool," he says laughing.
This month, Fugazi begins another leg of its seemingly never-ending world tour, one that will take it up the East Coast and eventually to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Sometime during this tour, Fugazi will probably sell its one-millionth record, tape or CD. Most indie bands think they're doing well if they sell 10,000.
The growth of Fugazi doesn't really surprise Mackaye. "The first time I was in a band, the only [question] was, 'Can I even play bass?' and so I played the bass. Then it was, 'Can we even play a song?' and we learned a song. Then, 'Can we even write our own songs?' and we wrote our own songs. 'Can we write five or 10 songs?' And we did. Then, 'Can we play a show?' and we did a show. Everything has been very gradual: Going on tour, putting out a record, putting out other people's records, playing guitar -- it just goes on and on. So Fugazi is just part of a continual escalation, but there's still the same basic premise of doing it: It's punk rock."
In a fanzine interview last year, Picciotto said: "If we were worried about for years that we can't get any bigger, that we're going to have to sign to a major, we're going to have to find a manager, we're going to have to do the things all other bands do. People keep saying that. We haven't done it, and we've managed to survive. The only things I'm worried about are: Can we keep writing good songs and keep having a good time?"
Mackaye is 31, Picciotto and Canty are both 27, Lally is 29. Fugazi is the face of punk growing up.