By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Somewhere in the Midwest, 1998. In a cold, dim basement, three university students sit among stacks of blank CD cases, a few guitars, a four-track recorder, and an ambitious plan. They will record and release an album all by themselves, thereby sidestepping the cruel and carnivorous music industry. Hell or high water, their music will reach the masses. (Two doors down, the exact same scene is unfolding.)
Somewhere in the Northeast, also 1998. A handful of teenagers gather in the parking lot behind their school to ogle their buddy's newly shaved head and 14-hole Doc Martens. One of them spots a discarded roach clip on the ground and points it out. The whole group winces and turns up its collective pale, runny nose. They're all sipping Coke, save one, who swills orange juice.
Fugazi likely wouldn't take credit for either of these scenes, but then, who else can we blame for the root of both, and therefore the growing legions of do-it-yourselfers and clean-cut punks? Whether Fugazi's members like it or not, the band's name has been interchangeable with both notions for years, and it seems that no matter where a kid grows up these days, he or she will face a vast and expanding menu of rock-and-roll choices: radio hits or subterranean indie? MTV or Internet MPGs? Dope or Snapple? Many will believe the self start-up and the clear-head approach is Ian MacKaye's contribution to the buffet.
Do not tell him that.
"We're just a fucking band," he says. "That's it."
Ian MacKaye, Fugazi's figurehead and the founder of Washington, D.C.'s long-running indie label Dischord, has for nearly two decades done only what comes naturally to him: take business matters into his own hands, and stay sober. That this anomalous pair of un-rock-star-like habits pushed its way into public awareness and that MacKaye and company have backed up such practices with unapologetic flair and articulate determination have earned Fugazi its own seat in rock's VIP room--one that hasn't wobbled much during its 11-year life span, even as pop culture has swelled and crashed around the band three or four times over. There are plenty of self-professed rock fans who can wax thoughtful about Fugazi's all-ages show policy, or ultra-low ticket and record prices, or Dischord's commitment to bypassing the middleman. But how many of these people, when pressed, can hum a Fugazi tune? (Rancid's Tim Armstrong notwithstanding.)
The idea of Fugazi usually precedes the band's actual music, and often overshadows it--though most acts touting a colorful political bent suffer that same fate (or enjoy that crutch, depending on whether or not the music sucks). But about every two years, Fugazi puts out another album, and the music comes up for hard-copy scrutiny again by both fans and critics. And so every two years, the band that's most noted for shunning the ever-slippery industry and keeping its nose clean (literally and figuratively) proves again that its goal--once and always--is just to be a band. Not veteran shamans, or godfathers of any movement, or bastions of integrity, but a damn rock band. And that Fugazi can, after all, write and play better-than-good music helps this modest goal along. Still, Fugazi's ethical backbone keeps it from bending in conventional directions.
"Sure, we play shows, and we put out albums, but the two aren't necessarily linked," MacKaye says via phone from the Dischord offices in Washington. The new record, End Hits, is the band's sixth full-length, and Fugazi sets out this week on a two-week U.S. tour--a quick jag by Fugazi standards. "I understand the nature of, 'They have a new album, and they're touring to promote it,' but we see it the other way around. We document the stuff we play live. The record is the menu, and the show is the meal. We never use a set list, so we just draw from all the songs we've ever released, and even some that we haven't. In fact, we played for a solid year--toured all of North America and Europe--before we even released our first record."
To put out an album, especially one as solid as End Hits, and then to shrug off the obligation of playing the songs pretty much spits in the face of shameless or lucrative self-promotion. The band may or may not even mention the record's release to their concert audiences. "I think people have focused strongly on us as a band, saying, 'Oh, the ticket prices, they're such a political band.'" MacKaye says. "I don't think people realize that one of the reasons we're into the low ticket prices is that we're really interested in moving as far as we can from a situation where we have to play a really pristine, perfect show. [It] releases us from expectations."
In that vein, MacKaye would rather discuss the songwriting process or the dynamics of playing live than End Hits itself. "For every record we do, we're happy with it, but once it comes out, we never listen to it again," he says. "The recording studio is one of the most sterile places you're ever gonna find yourself in. Particularly a band that's primarily a live band; we cut our teeth on the stage. Going into the studio to create something that reminds us of what these songs sound like live is always quite a challenge--to create this illusion."