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Fugazi: Guy Picciotto

Fugazi by Chris Summerlin

This is an interview I did via mail with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto in Jan 1998. Lots and lots of thanks for Cynthia from Dischord for organizing this and to Guy for taking time out to do the interview. The general idea was that this interview would come out before the new Fugazi LP End Hits did but I guess you will have heard the new LP by now. I first heard it over the PA at a gig by Bob Tilton and it was amazing, a real continuation of the ideas of Red Medicine.

What have you personally been up to since the end of touring for Red Medicine? I noticed you’d done some production work for the mAKE-UP…

Most of what I do is kind of wrapped up in Fugazi. We kind of operate underneath the scope of the radar so it might not seem like we’ve been that busy but really there has been a lot going on: 2 tours of Australia (the second to make up dates cancelled when Ian got ill with a collapsed lung the first time round), a tour of Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) and the on and off again process of recording our next record which took us from March to December of 97, interrupted as it was by the aforementioned tours and our drummer Brendan’s marriage and birth of his son. But when the band wasn’t so active I had a bunch of other stuff going on. I do a lot of recording sessions in the basement of my old group house using 8 track equipment Fugazi bought a few years back. This year I did stuff with Blonde Redhead, mAKE-UP, Crom-Tech, Mighty Flashlight, Machetres and a bunch of others. I also run a small label called Peterbilt which had been on hold for almost 10 years due to Fugazi time-overload but this year I got it back up and running with a couple of releases: a co-issue with Dischord of a Happy-Go-Licky CD (the band Brendan and I were in before Fugazi) and a vinyl 12″ by a band called Black Light Panthers which contains some of the first bedroom recordings Brendan and I made in 1982 plus some 1997 faux-jungle chaotics. Oh yeah – last year I also had some Super 8 movies screened about (Silly Game and Please Cry even showed over in London at the ICA)…I’m sure a bunch of other stuff went down but looking back over the last year it all comes back like a swirling disjointed chaos.

Would you tell us a little about your history? Did you grow up in DC?

Yeah – I’m a DC hometowner. Born here in 1965, went to school here and am fully in love with most aspects of this town. In some ways it’s a strange place to live because the outsider’s postcard perception of DC is so at odds with the reality. The local culture that thrives here has always been amazing, from the Go-Go scene to the punk scene etc. but politically speaking it’s a kind of a hell hole. The crux of the matter is that DC has never been granted statehood so it kind of functions as a vassal province without representation in congress and at the mercy of a local government which is both corrupt and incompetent.
On the positive side, museums are free and we have lots of trees.

What kind of music were you first influenced by? I remember reading an interview with Ian and he said the first show he was really struck by was The Cramps, what about yourself?

Funnily enough Ian and I shared the same first punk show. I was also at that Cramps show in 1979 and though I didn’t know Ian at the time I think our experiences were pretty identical. The event was a benefit for a local college radio station that was being shut down by the university’s jesuit college president for running abortion clinic public service announcements which ran against the Roman Catholic doctrine. It was a really explosive event not only because of the political nature of the issue but also because the station itself was so amazing, playing shit no one else in the area would touch. (It’s the first place I ever heard bands like The Adverts, Stiff Little Fingers, The Cramps, all the great sounds of that era.) Anyway, the show ended in a complete riot with tables smashed and shoved through windows, Lux Interior vomiting on stage, their guitarist Bryan Gregory projectile spitting lit cigarettes into the crowd etc. It terrified me totally but also made me realize the energy potential of what a band could do. After having only seen groups like Kiss and Aerosmith, who were great in a way but totally removed, safe and vicarious, this was a primer in having something explode directly in front of your eyes. From then on I was hooked in and hit shows all the time, seeing The Clash soon after, then the Bad Brains locally and pretty soon the local scene with tons of pre-teens forming bands and taking over.

How did you come to meet Ian (MacKaye, guitar/vox), Joe (Lally, bass) and Brendan (Canty, drums)? Correct me if I’m wrong on this one hut weren’t you the last to join Fugazi?

Ian was a major player in the early punk scene of 1980 on and I knew of him from the Teen Idles his first band and just from sharing space with him and his crowd in what was then a very small universe. When Minor Threat formed (his second band), I went to high school with his bassist and guitarist so I went to a practise of theirs after school and that was the first time we were properly introduced. Brendan was also a figure on the scene and I was a huge fan of his first band Deadline I would hang with those guys constantly and he and I hit it off immediately, making music together almost from the start. After Deadline broke up in 1982, Brendan and I began playing together in what has been an uninterrupted sequence of bands from the age of 16 on to now. They were: Black Light Panthers, Insurrection, Rites Of Spring, One Last Wish, Happy-Go-Licky then Fugazi. Fugazi actually formed without me and played a show as a 3 piece but the fusion of Brendan and I up to that point made it almost mandatory that I weasel my way in. Joe and I met much later probably in 1985 when he was roadie-ing for the Dischord band Beefeater. He and Ian hit it off famously and Fugazi was really born from their long practising as a 2 piece.

I think that often the music of Fugazi gets overlooked in the rush to make a dual about the political aspects of the band, the political nature of Fugazi is vital hut you make some pretty amazing music consistently…how do you go about writing songs? Does 1 member have an idea and then the rest of you work on it or do all the songs happen from a practise format?

Yeah it is a weird phenomenon how little our music is discussed in favor of the more “juicy” aspects of the group. At one time it threatened to give me a complex but what can you do? The way we write has changed a lot over the years. Initially, the early stuff was predominantly put together by Ian and Joe as the stuff they had been working on prior to Brendan and I joining the band, and for the first 2 years I didn’t play guitar but functioned almost like a toaster – doing back-ups, singing lead and dancing around. But once I started playing guitar the way we write changed dramatically – it became completely democratic with every song bearing everyone’s imprint. The only thing unshared is the lyrics which are almost always just the product of the person singing them. One thing that people probably don’t realize is how much of the music (basslines, guitar figures etc.) is chipped in by Brendan who is by far the most musically adept member of the band. But basically we hole up with each other and throw stuff back and forth and hammer them out as a band. We are merciless over-arrangers.

How much guitar do you play on the records? I’ve never seen you live, although I’ve seen you on video and your playing was pretty incredible and quite violent as well. Also, is it correct that you contributed some clarinet to Red Medicine, there’s some strange noises going on on that LP at times…

Basically from Repeater onwards I’ve played guitar on every song we’ve recorded. Live, when we play old material off 13 Songs I’ll put the guitar down and revert back to my old role which I enjoy as it gives me the chance to get down as it were. I think seeing us live is the truest expression of what we do. We have slowly come to grips with the studio but we almost look at the records as a rough blueprint for the structure we build on the stage. We’ve never used a set-list and must retain knowledge of every song we’ve ever written because in the heat of the show someone can start anything, plus we enjoy the freedom to extend and re-arrange the songs as we play them out. And yes, I did play clarinet on that song Version. I am unschooled and lousy on it but the sound worked out. Every now and then I play it live and we bury it in effects to hide the awful (glorious?) truth of my ineptness.

Fugazi by Chris Summerlin

What guitar equipment do you use live? Sorry about this question but I’m a guitar player so I have to ask…

Live I play Rickenbacker guitars through Marshall 100 watt amps. I love Ricks because they are so percussive and sharp in tone. It can sound like a washboard, it can sound like a piercing treble laser or it can just sound Byrdsy and 60’s chiming. It also allows me to cut through Ian’s sound which is much thicker, fuller and heavy. He and Joe function like a wall of rhythm and I kind of slice in and out. In the studio I’ve started using a Fender Twin Reverb. Also every now and then I’ll try an effect box, like an MXR distortion or a wah-wah.
I know it’s hard to pick something out of a body of work you’ve been so involved with but do you have a favourite Fugazi track or LP? Feel totally free to skip this one though…

Not really. It’s kind of hard for me to judge the songs or the records. it’s like judging a body part or internal organ – it just feels like an awkward undertaking to me. That said, I’m proud of our ability to commit to the moment live and I think our next record has some cool texture to it.

My personal favourite is Red Medicine; I guess I come from a noise rock background though, whereas people I know who love more traditional hardcore prefer the earlier LPs. Was there a conscious plan of “Let’s do something different” when it came to making Red Medicine?

Red Medicine was kind of an effort to stop treating the studio like a doctor’s appointment: unpleasant but necessary. That time we decided to produce it ourselves and just try to expand the palette a bit, including more practise tape material, 8 track demos, just sratify it more geologically. We also recorded each song alone, one at a time so that they would sound distinct from one another and not all cut from the same cloth of sound.

Could you tell me a little about the lyrics to Do You Like Me as they’ve always intrigued me…

The lyrics to Do You Like Me are kind of a collage of 3 separate ideas. It starts like a love song then veers into a comment on prison construction as growth economy in the USA then derails into a fantasy about this defense contractor’s headquarters burning down (Lockheed and Martin Marietta had just merged to create a defense industry titan of terrifying proportion and they opened their headquarters in nearby Bethesda), then the song just spirals back into itself.

What’s the new LP like; is it carrying on from Red Medicine or have you taken some kind of radical departure? Any idea when it will be released yet?

The new album will be called End Hits and it will be out in April if all goes well. It’s got 13-14 songs on it and I’m not sure how to describe it it’s just a continuation of what we’ve been doing. I really have no concept if it’s a departure or not. You decide.

How’s the proposed long form film coming along?

The movie we’re working on with filmmaker Jem Cohen is very close to completion. It’s been in the making since the band began almost and will have 10 years worth of footage in every format from Super 8 to 35mm featuring us playing live, recording, hanging out etc. All the music in it is unique to the film and we recorded a lot of soundtrack for it. It will be sold as a video and with luck we will also strike a filmprint for theatrical showings. It should be about 2 hours long. Right now it’s over 3 so we’ve got some editing yet to do.

This is a question from everyone I know – are you going to come and play live in the UK in the near future? A friend of mine saw you at Brixton Academy last time you came over and is still talking about it 3 years later…

We would like to come back and play but right now we haven’t figured out yet what we’re going to do. Our drummer is still in the throes of new fatherdom so we’re just seeing how things play out. Hopefully we’ll do some stuff later this year but really we don’t know yet.

What kind of music do you like at the moment? I’m intrigued to know who you would class as influences on Fugazi’s music as I can hear traces of all sorts of stuff going on in there; free jazz, hardcore, Public Image Ltd style new wave and Sonic Youth also…

We are all 4 of us voracious music listeners and we cover the full range. Local bands have always been our most immediate influence and inspiration from Bad Brains in the early days to ban ds like Cram-Tech, Cranium and the mAKE-UP now. But pick anything at random and someone in this band will be into it. I like all the stuff you mentioned. We’re into the blender approach.

Are you surprised at the levels of “success” you’ve achieved (in terms of influence) or the amount of time you’ve been together?

We don’t really think in terms of success so much as more practical issues like “can we pull off this tour?”, “can we get our record out?” etc. On that level yeah we’re pleased because we’ve done what we set out to do which was to make music on our own terms, to distribute records on our own terms and to tour and play concerts on our terms. I’m shocked that after being in so many bands that lasted barely 9 months we’ve managed to drag this one on for 10 years but I think it’s testimony to our friendship and our ability to talk to and trust each other.

OK; last question: could you tell us a bit about some of the causes you’ve done benefit shows for recently? We all have a great deal of respect for you playing so many benefits and raising the profile of causes people may not have heard of or had the chance to learn about; not to mention keeping ticket prices down (never more than $5 a show in the USA).

Yeah here in DC we’ve only ever played benefit shows and the last couple of groups we worked with were: Emmaeus Services For The Aged which basically lends assistance to needy citizens in town who have been allowed to fall through the cracks of our pathetic social services, and The Latin American Youth Center which is a youth center for kids in my neighborhood who also are not served by the city which is more intent on routing and deporting illegal immigrants than taking care of people who live and work here. We tend to focus our support on grassroots organizations who are more immediately benefited by the kind of money we can raise and who are actually working for concrete, demonstrable change in their immediate environments.

Thanks Guy….
Well, that’s it. Hope I didn’t blather on too much. I enjoyed your questions and thanks for the interest and support. All the best and good luck. Guy

This interview was first published in Hee Haw fanzine

See also:
Ian Mackaye interview
Dischord Records interview

Fugazi website