Washington DIY pioneers Fugazi are the kind of band that exist without comparison.
Their sound, their ideology, and their live performances are all so, well, Fugazi. True pioneers of the DIY garage/punk movement, Fugazi lived for playing their music live, to all-ages crowds, for as little money as possible. They also refused to sell any merch and released all their music via their own record label, Dischord Records. The band were also notoriously private—they gave few, if any, media interviews. Which is why their documentary, Instrument, is so fascinating to watch. First released in 1999, the 2-hour-long Fugazi-thon is making its return to the screen next week as part of Vivid Sydney, with Fugazi guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. Shot over 11 years (from 1987 through to 1998), the documentary sought to dispel some of the common misconceptions about the band, born from their complete lack of interest in actually ever setting the record straight.
I never got to see Fugazi before they went on ‘indefinite hiatus’ in 2003, and watching the live footage in Instrument only makes that travesty more glaring. On stage, they aren’t humans, or performers—they are Fugazi, and that’s a whole different type of beast. A week before Guy hits Australian shores, I was lucky enough to chat with him about everything from bootleg merch, to performing from inside a basketball hoop, to Taylor Swift. Get comfy.
I never got a chance to see you guys live, but I think one really cool thing about the documentary is watching all the live footage and knowing that there were no setlists at any of those shows. Why didn’t you guys use them?
It was always an idea that we would try to cater the set to what the night was feeling like, or what the audience was feeling like, or what the room was sounding like, or what we were into playing, you know? It just occurred to us that it would make the shows more interesting for us and also for the crowd because we’d be able to fine-tune it as we went along. And at a certain point, because we had two vocalists—and later three vocalists, when Joe started singing a couple of songs—we knew that Ian would be starting one song, and when he was done I’d be starting the next one, so that was basically the only information we had besides the first song. No one could ever like, zone out, no one could ever go into some default mode of having played the exact same setlist 60 times in a row. Every time a song was about to end, you’d kind of feel this panic, like, ‘Okay, I have to be ready to play any of the hundred whatever songs we have!’
There’s also a lot of crazy footage of you and Ian stopping shows to check on the crowd and removing people, which is pretty unheard of because that’s security’s job. Did you ever feel unsafe in any of those situations?
We didn’t like using security. If we could avoid having security, the best shows for us were ones where we could just have an agreement with the crowd that we would try to police the show ourselves, because there would always be this extra level of misunderstanding and potentially messed up situations if you have outside security, so we tried to avoid that as much as we could. Sometimes, when our shows got bigger, that was more difficult to do. But we felt a responsibility as a band to take care of the people who had come to see us. I think nowadays it’s a little bit hard for people to understand the kind of conflicts that were happening at shows—particularly when we started. I mean, we came out of a hardcore scene in America that had started out with a really incredible, creative energy, but had kind of ossified into something that had become really ritualistically violent with some pretty intense misogynist undertones and it started to make us feel really uncomfortable.
We just felt a responsibility to do the best that we could to make sure that everybody in the room got to enjoy the show and I think a lot of people were frustrated because they felt like their behaviours were being curtailed or whatever, but our perspective was that the only power we have is the power to voice our opinion and that’s what we did. We wanted people to dance, we wanted people to go off, we wanted the energy in the room to be high, but we also didn’t want four or five people in the crowd to be dictating the experience for everybody else in the room. Shows in the ’80s and ’90s could be pretty violent, and there was a lot of different factions in the crowd. You’d have some pretty violent stuff going down and our feeling was that we’re not going to be a jukebox for that so, we’d do what we could to stop it.
Fugazi has always been opposed to the greed of the music industry, and I wanted to get your opinion on the state of things today, when—sorry to even mention her name—but people like Taylor Swift have introduced ‘a verified fan system’ where you get priority for tickets in the online queue if you buy her merch. How do you feel about stuff like that?
You know, it’s tricky. Our concept about it was we wanted to make the shows, and the music in general, as accessible as possible. So that was the reason we always had an all-ages door policy, and we also tried to keep our ticket and record prices down so that people who didn’t even know who the band was or where we were coming from or whatever could buy a ticket to the show without it feeling like a major investment. So I feel like that opened the band up to a lot more people than if we would have just stuck to whatever the market rate was. The idea was to make it accessible. I mean, it wasn’t a charity organisation, we were a working band, and we needed to make money to, y’know, subsidise our touring and function as a group but… I think it’s important, like with that kind of exploitative behaviour you’re talking about with Taylor Swift and that kind of marketing mechanics, I just find it interesting that it doesn’t really turn people off and that they don’t feel somehow reduced, as they’re only seen as consumptive entities as opposed to, you know… human beings? [Laughs].
Speaking of merch—you guys never made any and were pretty good at shutting bootlegs down. Do you still try to stop that kind of thing? I ask because I just found a seller on Etsy hocking what they’re calling ‘Vintage Fugazi’ shirts for $700!
What?! That’s crazy. I will say it’s much harder now because of the Internet. We do, to the extent that we can, when people bring things to our attention. We don’t have a team of lawyers or, like, a corporate office that can nail all this stuff down, but we do try to take it pretty seriously. Our idea back when we were touring was that we didn’t want to carry merchandise, and we were also reacting against the idea that we had to carry merchandise. A lot of our stances ended up being a little bit perverse, you know, we just didn’t want to do the thing that everyone thinks we’re supposed to do. It also ended up being kind of cool because we encouraged people to make their own shirts, so we used to see some incredible stuff. But it used to agitate people, like they just couldn’t understand—
Like, “Why can’t I buy something!”
Yeah, why can’t I buy the thing I want to buy! So it became a way to sort of tweak that idea, that there has to be any single way of doing anything. I think that if there was one message from the band it was that: whatever is received needs to be examined.
So then, do you own any other band’s merch?
I’m trying to think… I don’t think I do. But I must have bought something at one point. Oh! I used to have a Void T-shirt, they were a hardcore band from DC on Dischord. If I could find that shirt I would be really stoked, they were one of the most incredible bands of all time and that shirt was awesome. I mean, I’m not against it. If I saw a shirt that caught my eye, I would certainly buy one. Furthermore, I completely understand why bands bring the stuff on the road—for a lot of groups playing small shows, it completely makes sense. I think a lot of times people misunderstood the humour behind what we did. They’d think we were really arch and super judgemental about what other bands did, and it’s absolutely not the case. I have no issue with bands that do anything contra to the way we did it, our only point was like, let us do what we want to do, y’know!
I don’t know when the last time you watched Instrument was, but when you see all the footage, what do you miss most about Fugazi?
It’s interesting, the way I feel about it now compared to when we first made it. Now I watch it and I have this ache, like I miss playing live with those guys so badly that I kind of feel sick. It’s a very physical… like being punched in the abdomen kind of feeling. Even not just the footage of us playing live—though I think that’s the biggest thing that I miss—but also just the comradery of hanging out with those guys. I’m the one member of the band that doesn’t still live in Washington, so I don’t get to see the other three guys as much as I did for the other four decades of my life! [Laughs].
Speaking of some of the crazy shit you’ve done live, I have to ask about the incredible footage of you swinging upside down while hanging from the basketball hoop. I heard you actually fell, is that true?
It is true! It was really tricky when we were editing the film, we were like, “How much should we show? Is it better if people don’t know what happened to me?” ‘Cause it’s not too graceful, how it ends.
How does it end?
I don’t come down on my head, I kind of come down sideways, into the symbols. The thing that was fucked up about is that I got up there, and instantly it hurt like hell, for some reason I can just remember my feet behind the backboard really hurt.
There’s also footage in the film of Brendan talking about a rumour circulating that you guys didn’t use heat in your house. What are some other weird rumours you’ve heard about yourselves over the years?
I think the main one, which is not surprising, is just that we were completely, deeply unhumorous, extremely judgemental, unpleasant people to be around. You know, we would show up places and people seemed intimidated or freaked out, it was always work to kind of break people down to the point where we were just like, “Look, we’re just fucking doing our thing, you know?” So the film helped a lot I think, in that respect. It helped readjust perspectives. But I think the big one was, well it was exactly like Brendan was saying, this idea that we lived extremely monastically… but the humour of it was that at that point of the film we were living without heat.