Fugazi - Biography
Fugazi ranks as one of the bands that not only set a high bar musically for American post-punk and indie bands of the late 80's, 90's and into the 21st century, but also morally, by insisting on charging low prices for their releases and five dollars, (whenever possible), for their live shows. They ran straight against the trend of bands from the underground signing to major labels, burning out and imploding by creating challenging albums and playing all-ages shows and showing that punk ideals can be carried forward into adulthood.
Fugazi was formed after the dissolution of Ian MacKaye's seminal early 80's hardcore band, Minor Threat, and after the break-up of his genre-defining emocore band, Embrace. MacKaye began jamming in the basement of the Dischord house, (the house where he lived and ran the Dischord label), in September of 1986 with ex-Dag Nasty drummer Colin Sears and bassist Joe Lally. Practices went on a few months until Sears returned to Dag Nasty and was replaced by ex-Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty. It bears mentioning that both Embrace and Rites of Spring broke with the orthodoxy that was developing around hardcore punk of “loud fast rules”, both bands explored slower rhythms and more emotionally cathartic themes of expression. Canty's former Rites of Spring bandmate Guy Picciotto began dropping by practices to catch up with his friend. The band already seemed self-contained and complete.
The trio version of Fugazi booked their first show at Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. In September of 1987, though they still didn't have a name. MacKaye found a book of Vietnam War stories and stumbled upon the term “fugazi,” an acronym for “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In.” This name seemed to fit the band well, sort of saying the members had been through a lot already, had made their mistakes, and were ready to carry on regardless. Around the same time the trio began formally inviting Picciotto to practices to see if he wanted to contribute anything. His last band, Happy Go Licky, had recently broken up and he accepted the invitation from the trio to join Fugazi, initially as the back-up vocalist. His more emotional vocals and kinetic style of throwing himself around the stage and into the live performances was a perfect counter-point for MacKaye's feet-planted, legs-splayed shout-out-the-lyrics style. A band that had seemed complete was now brought up a few more notches.
The quartet version of Fugazi took off on their first tour in January of 1988, honing the ideas they had been working on in front of crowds that only knew them from their past band histories. In June of that year they recorded their debut EP, titled simply Fugazi, with producer Ted Nicely. Fugazi then went back on the road in Europe and, at the tour's conclusion, decided to record tracks for their debut album. The strain of the long tour proved to be too much for the band, however, and they decided the tracks they had laid down were not up to what they thought they were capable of. They took the tracks they did like and paired it down to another EP, Margin Walker, which was released by Dischord the following year. Around the same time, Picciotto began contributing second guitar as well as vocals, using a Rickenbacker guitar for a cleaner, more trebled tone against MacKaye's more slashing, mid-range Gibson sound. This set the stage for the full band to use everything they had to contribute to their debut album.
Repeater was released in January 1990. The band spent the majority of 1990 touring behind Repeater and regularly sold out venues of more than 1,000 capacity. By the summer of 1991 the album had sold more than 100,000 copies, thus attracting the attention of major record labels. Reportedly Ahmet Ertugan, the head of Atlantic Records, caught a home-town show by the band and took them aside afterwards and offered them anything they wanted, including their own label through Atlantic. They said thank you, but no thank you. They already had their own label and were satisfied with the distribution they had. This was seen in some quarters as “The Punks” standing up against “The Man,” but in hindsight, it seems Fugazi wanted to keep the manufacture and distribution of their work within their own hands, where they could directly benefit from their own work and market themselves as they saw fit. This stand has been highly influential in the independent music scene, right up to the present day.
Fugazi's second album, Steady Diet Of Nothing, came out in 1991. The band asked Ted Nicely to once again produce the album, but he was pursuing a career as a chef and turned down the opportunity. The band produced the album themselves, and came up with a sound that was more stripped down and took advantage of different types of song structure and dynamics than what had been displayed before. The album ends with the wonderfully fierce track “KYEO,” (standing for Keep Your Eyes Open), and when MacKaye screams “We will not be beaten down!” at the end of the song, you feel he's screaming not just the intent of himself and the band, but making a rallying cry for independent music and his generation in a wider context.
The band decided to get out of Washington, DC to record it's third album, In On The Killtaker, and ventured to Chicago to record with ex-Big Black member and Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini. Not feeling satisfied with the results, Fugazi returned to DC and convinced Ted Nicely to drop his apron for a while and produce the record. The result was an album that showed the band playing to the strengths they had already established as a band, while further expanding their vocabulary. From the almost-pop of the first track “Facet Squared” to the nearly-experimental, almost-instrumental sturm und drang of “23 Beats Off” to the emotional hailstorm of the Guy-sung “Rend It,” In On The Killtaker staked its claim in the rock watershed year of 1993 as the voice of what was really going on in underground rock, beyond the hype of grunge and the Seattle scene. In On The Killtaker was also the first Fugazi album to enter the Billboard album charts.
It took until 1995 for Fugazi to deliver another album, with family and outside commitments taking the members attention away from the band and from the almost constant touring of their early years. This break allowed them to bring in even more influences and to refine the two-guitar interplay between MacKaye and Picciotto. It bears mentioning that neither MacKaye or Picciotto played what could be called “lead” or “rhythm” guitar, instead taking the influence of such bands as Television, Wire and Gang Of Four and using dissonant chords and sounds up against each other to create sometimes lurching, sometimes noisy and often beautiful sound worlds on top of the post-punk dub-influenced rhythm section. These art rock influences informed Red Medicine, and further expanded Fugazi's audience and influence. The album featured jazzy piano, Middle-Eastern style melodies, an echo-chamber dub workout complete with other-worldly bass and woodwinds, and lyrics that continued to question society and authority, but in a much more subtle and inward looking manner. Fugazi again continued to make the personal political, adding more arrows to their quiver to bring the point home to the target.
Fugazi took even longer to deliver another album, 1998's End Hits. Just the name of the album alone sent waves of panic among the band's loyal following. Was this really the last album? If it was, it meant the band where going out on top. The usual angular guitar anthems were there, but this time even more art-rock, prog-rock, jazz and just plain pop influences were rearing their beautiful heads. The band even gained a third vocalist in that bassist Joe Lally stepped up to the microphone for the beautiful “Recap Modotti.” The album had a more mature moodiness and further blurred the notion of a “Fugazi sound,” keeping the meaning but re-working the definition. The members of Fugazi were all well into their 30's, and their world view was changing from the us-against-them view of a punk band towards the mainstream to a mischievous art-rock band making sly comments on American society and bold declarations of noise from whatever sidelines were afforded them.
End Hits didn't turn out to be the end fans thought it might be, but the following album, “The Argument,” took another 3 years to come to the surface, during which time Picciotto did some outside production work, (most notably for Blonde Redhead and Blood Brothers), while MacKaye continued running the Dischord label and drummer Brendan Canty started a family. The Argument (2001) turned out to be the “end hit” of the band, at least for the immediate future. The Argument carried on the art and noise rock damage of the previous album, but introduced still more dormant influences into the band's sound. The track “Ex-Spectator” introduced a double-drum attack courtesy of long-time roadie Jerry Busher, and some of the slower tracks like “The Kill” and “Life and Limb” utilized a feeling of menace missing from some earlier material. Not only did the band add Busher on second drum kit and percussion, but also added the cello of Amy Domingues and the backing vocals of Bridget Cross and Kathi Wilcox. This marked not only the first time the band utilized outside musicians, but also the first time female musicians were included. The results was a collection of songs that was heralded across the board, from national press to indie fanzines. Real life, though, was pressing in on the members of Fugazi and they decided it wasn't realistic to go on with the band, especially in light of Canty's new family. Fugazi always stood for integrity, and they were determined to apply that integrity to other parts of their lives away from the band. Fugazi went on what was officially termed “hiatus” after release of The Argument. This leaves the future open and hopeful that at some point the members might find the impetus to re-form and add their voice again to the world of music.
The members of Fugazi have been far from musically dormant during their hiatus. MacKaye formed the duo The Evens with ex-Warmers drummer and singer Amy Farina and have released two albums thus far. In 2004, MacKaye also produced the DC EP release for Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.
Brendan Canty has been working on soundtrack scores and playing bass in the band Garland of Hours along with Amy Domingues and Jerry Busher. He has also worked with ex-Helium singer Mary Timony and has played drums behind ex-Husker Du main man Bob Mould. He is also involved in the DVD series Burn To Shine, showcasing local music scene member bands playing in properties that are about to be torn down.
Bassist Joe Lally has appeared on Disconnection_Imminent, an album by Washington, DC band Decahedron, as well as a one-off project with John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer of The Bicycle Thief and PJ Harvey called Ataxia. He has also released two solo albums, There To Here and Nothing Is Underrated and has performed shows both solo and with producer Don Zientara.
Guy Picciotto has done before mentioned work as a record producer and has performed alongside members of The Ex and contributed guitar and production work to Vic Chestnut's album North Star Deserter.