Melody Maker | Feature | 2 December 1989 | Photo: Joe Dilworth
A TENSION SPANS
"This is totally weird," says drummer Brendan Canty, pointing to a photograph of himself that appeared in Melody Maker the last time Washington DC's Fugazi were interviewed.
It's taped to a cupboard in the kitchen of the north London studio which is their temporary home. Alongside it is a picture of Steve Albini that had been printed a few pages away in the same issue of the paper. Although Brendan and Albini do not bear the slightest resemblance to each other, the two faces are identical.
Fugazi have been in Europe for the last couple of weeks, appearing on a Dutch national TV show and enduring more than 20 interviews. Ian MacKaye has had to answer endless questions about straight edge, the anti-drugs, anti-drink philosophy that has been adopted by a number of American bands in recent years. Its roots date back to the early 1980s, to a song called "Straight Edge" which was written by Ian MacKaye when he was a member of Minor Threat. He finds it strange that interviews continue to ask about straight edge. He says it's not a Fugazi issue and he's adamant in his refusal to discuss his personal life choices.
Ian is willing to talk about the uncomfortable ferry journey across the English Channel, though. En route, the band had met a tearful Argentinian woman headed for London in search of work despite the fact that she could not speak English. Amazingly, she'd cheered up when they showed her copies of their two mini-albums, both of which have sold well in Britain. The second LP, "Margin Walker", recently spent several weeks at Number One in the independent charts. They think this success is odd because, as Guy Picciotto notes, Fugazi are "just normal Joes".
Fugazi say they've never been happy with their eponymous debut album or with "Margin Walker". They only agreed to make the former available after the threats and assurances of numerous close friends and "Margin Walker", which was recorded at the end of their last European tour, is virtually dismissed as "a documentation of exhaustion". It was supposed to have been a full-length LP, but it features only six tracks. They claim that most of the material was not usable.
Both "Fugazi" and "Margin Walker" are, initially, difficult to come to terms with. Song after song is a complicated maze of sudden twists and turns, the guitar sounds alternating between a blur and a stab, and the vocals often amounting to a series of shouts. Joe Lally's bass playing is sometimes the most melodic element. The reference points – punk, reggae, hardcore, metal, industrial – are so varied as to be practically useless.
So how do they describe their music?
Ian: "We don't. The problem is that a word or a phrase means different things to different people. I might explain an idea to Guy or Joe by saying 'heavy metal' and they'll basically know what I mean, but to another person it'll have a completely different definition. If we were to say that we were a heavy metal band or this or that core, for some people it would create the wrong impression. It's just us. It's just Fugazi."
Is it rock music?
Ian: "I think so."
Joe: "If somebody who never goes to gigs, a friend's sister or something, asks me what sort of band I'm in, I always say a rock band."
Guy: "I suppose what we're doing fits in historically as an extension of rock music, but we're not in any sense rockers. I'd say we're a punk band, although that wouldn't mean the same to you as it does to me. I grew up listening to punk and the first bands that I saw made me realise that I too could pick up a guitar. Even if I still may not see myself as a particularly talented musician, the fact that I can make a record and get on a stage is more important. As far as I'm concerned, punk is the ethic of having no ethic, it's actually a way of not necessarily having to describe something."
Does that mean that Fugazi represents an attitude rather than a specific sound?
Ian: "I certainly wouldn't know what the fuck a Fugazi attitude might be. I mean, there isn't even a common attitude among the four of us. In fact, we all approach music and life in very different ways. Then again, we respect and tolerate each other's views, we're close friends and we all get along fine."
Guy: "Fugazi functions pretty well in that we can tour and make records, but we find it pretty impossible to do anything beyond that. Once you start trying to say what a band represents, you put yourself into a little box and make it easier for people to have expectations of you. We don't want anybody to expect anything from us. As soon as they do, or attitude is concentrated on fucking destroying those expectations in order to keep it fresh and interesting for all concerned."
Not only do Fugazi cautiously avoid a classification of their music, they also believe it's important to never try to explain their lyrics. Many of their songs address socio-political issues. "Lockdown" investigates the union of machinery and man, while "Promises" expresses feelings of isolation and alienation and articulates the uselessness of words. "Waiting Room" may be autobiographical – "We hate having to hang around" – and "Burning Too" is perhaps best perceived as a reworking of Henry Rollins' version of "Do It".
Guy: "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."
Whenever possible, the band take great interest in admission prices and door policies at their gigs, refusing to play bars in America where licensing laws do not allow people under 21 years of age to attend. It's not unusual for Fugazi to perform at an established rock venue one night and in a community centre the next. Over the last couple of years, they've also played in high schools and private basements, in an art gallery and on top of a parking garage.
Guy: "We're often asked to play at some gig that a 17-year-old kid wants to organise himself and that's great. The sort of person who'll do that obviously really cares about music."
Ian: "It also means we've encountered a load of ineptitude. Half of these kids simply don't know what to do. There have been times when we've turned up for a gig and there's no PA because the organisers thought we were bringing one with us. We usually end up putting the vocals through guitar amp. I'd like to think that a band wants to play as much as you want to see them even if, as our profile gets higher, whole new realities are beginning to take shape. When we started out, we just wanted to make music, but what we're doing seems to be becoming more business oriented."
Guy: "We're now operating between two tensions. On the one hand, we've got to take care of the business. But on the other, we realise it's all bullshit and the music is more important. It's a question of maintaining the balance. If Fugazi starts to become a total contradiction, or some kind of a machine that runs on its own, I'd be happy to see the whole thing break up tomorrow. Ultimately, it's just a band, it's a burp in the ocean."
Fourteen new Fugazi songs will be available early next year. A three-track EP will come first, followed by an LP called "Repeater". Guy shares guitar as well as vocal duties with Ian on the new material and they say it's a more accurate representation of the band than their earlier albums. They also agree that they're more together as a band than they've ever been before. After "Margin Walker", they felt that if they didn't quickly tighten up, they'd fall apart.
Brendan: "And it's a good sign that we haven't had to ask anybody whether they think we should put the next album out or not."
Guy: "Actually, it might be the opposite, it might mean that everyone else will think it's crap. The good thing about 'Repeater' is that we hadn't played most of the songs live before we recorded them, so when we went into the studio we were still really jacked on the material. That made it a lot easier."
Ian: "The whole point of going into the studio in the first place is supposed to be to obtain a definitive version of a song. But if you've played something live 50 or 100 times, it's such a big part of you that you don't feel at all comfortable trying out new ideas with it, so it's often hard to make it sound fresh. In many ways, it's an artificial situation – there's no crowd, no volume, no atmosphere. So much is missing. When we go out live, every night is different. We never use set lists, we change words, we fall in and out of grooves, and it's a much more interesting situation."
Brendan: "Part of the appeal is the fact that whatever you play is only going to last for as long as you play it and it's not going to be preserved on vinyl."