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."
So a copy of End Hits lands in your lap--what's a critic to do? You can't exactly ignore a Fugazi release, even if the band itself will. Fugazi's fanbase is a loyal, diverse one; the band holds on to the audience that MacKaye first attracted in the early '80s with his D.C. teenage hardcore act, Minor Threat--frenetic pioneers of the American thrash cynicism and its peripheral clean-living manifesto--and attracts new swarms of younger followers through reverent word-of-mouth. These people, young and not-so-young, will buy the album, for a post-paid $10 (Dischord cautions against record stores that price-gouge above the pre-set price). And with End Hits, as with Fugazi's previous releases, the fans won't be surprised or disappointed with what they hear.
In place are Fugazi sonic trademarks: lots of moody bass noodling, vocals either yelled or whispered but rarely anything in between, verses that chug along like a steady steam engine and eventually careen off the tracks into an explosive (and often single) chorus. The lyrics are still specifically accusatory ("Five Corporations") and sometimes obliquely pissed off ("Caustic Acrostic"). The band continues its precarious affair with sustained quietude ("Pink Frosty," sounding for all practical purposes like a buried, meditative Fuck song), and it occasionally slips into self-indulgent studio-fied Scooby Doo adventures ("Arpeggiator," or the first bars of "F/10," which sound as though they're being picked up through radio waves in your tooth fillings). Arrangements are tight and spare, and the band, as always, occasionally stumbles into a truly melodic little oasis, as on "Recap Modotti" or (for a local reference) the Baboon-like "No Surprise." Little is new here. But little is dull or disappointing. In their decade-plus of writing and recording together, the members of Fugazi have squeezed out a thickly fluid formula, establishing themselves as brusque yet reliable architects of post-modern rock.
"The way we write now is so...somebody has to bring an idea in," MacKaye says when explaining how the writing process has moved away from Fugazi's early days of purely MacKaye-penned tunes. "And then we just go in the basement--we practice at [bassist] Joe [Lally]'s house--we go in the basement, and someone throws it in the middle of the room, and we just kick the shit out of it until it turns into a song or doesn't--until it dies.
"I have a general belief that basically anything we come up with, we could probably pull off," he says. "Ideas can start really simply, and you have to build on them. Everything has potential. OK, this is a totally abstract explanation: You're taking a song down the road, going in a direction with a song, and there are occasions where we just get off on the wrong service road with it. It just ruins what has great potential. Till it gets a stigma, and we drop it. But it's just floating ideas, anyway, and it's just a process."
End Hits, and the band's previous records, with their let's-circle-round-this-riff-and-see-what-happens consistency, reflects the mood and MO of a band with few internal conflicts. It's been the same four guys pretty much since the get-go: MacKaye and Guy Picciotto sharing duties as guitarists-cum-frontmen, Lally on bass, and Brendon Canty on drums. After 11 years of productivity--of up to 20 hours of rehearsal a week, of months spent in the studio year after year, of huge chunks of those years spent in the confines of a minivan while touring--the members' ongoing friendship makes most other close-knit bands look like the Gallagher brothers.
"One would think that that kind of proximity would hasten our end," MacKaye, now 36, says, "but each of us had been in bands before that were extremely short-lived and volatile and intense. I think that by the time we started this band, we had all learned about how to blow the shit outta your own band. We already knew about how to lay the devices of self-destruction, so that's not a problem. And it doesn't hurt, the fact that people seem to have an interest in what we're doing."
Luminaries (however dubious) such as Courtney Love and Eddie Vedder swoon over Fugazi's no-bullshit methods; National Public Radio has aired lengthy interviews with MacKaye about his ideologies. And each of the band's albums sells well into the thousands; most major-label releases should hope to do as well. Always judicious about his role as advisor and label president, MacKaye sounds relieved at what he sees as a slow-down in D.C.'s old-style hardcore scene and a settling of Dischord's roster. For the past year and a half, it's numbered four: Fugazi, the Make-up, Lungfish, and Bluetip.
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"The idea of the label is to document this particular community or frontier," he says. "I don't aspire to be a record-label owner. I'm perfectly happy to just put out the few records we do put out, and at some point I think that the community will wither, and therefore the label will too. I think the people I consider part of my community will wither. Age has a way of doing it."
He does, however, launch into the subject of young bands with enthusiasm. "As far as Dischord proper, I'm not comfortable signing bands that are real young. The new guard needs to create their own labels. But I'm totally involved with the young labels here. I have a distribution service for D.C.-area labels, and we lend money out constantly to all these. But I think younger kids have a different kind of relationship with me now, and I think that they're a little more intimidated, or they have a different perspective."
As in, seeing you as a wise veteran...or as old-hat? "I think that the kind of music associated with what we do--whatever genre that is--I think that the circus is kind of leaving town, as far as the industry's concerned, anyway. I think it's the nature of the beast to move on to the next leaching field. I always just try to keep my nose out of it. I've checked out rock and roll from all angles, and I don't necessarily like what I see." He pauses, then laughs. "This whole thing is pinned down by the notion that really, in the end, it's not that important anyway. It's not that big of a deal."
Fugazi performs November 23 at the Galaxy Club. The show begins at 5 p.m., and it's all-ages.