In today’s Style section, I talk to the members of Fugazi about the band’s new “Live Series” Web site devoted to their massive collection of concert recordings. From 1987 to 2002, this iconic punk band played more than 1,000 shows around the world, and recorded more than 800 of them. Band members Ian MacKaye (vocals, guitar), Guy Piciotto (vocals, guitar) and Brendan Canty (drums) told me about collecting and dealing with that trove of material, what it was like to tour relentlessly, and how the audience was as much a part of shows as the music. Here’s more from them on those subjects.
On building and releasing such a large tape archive:
Picciotto: We were really into go-go board tapes, and the way go-go bands – Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard – would make board tapes and they’d be traded around the city.
Canty: There are really only a couple ways to deal with that size of an archive. You either pull a few things out and make a live record, or you just really go for it and try to put all of it out. And ultimately, if what’s standing between us and doing this was just a lot of hard work, we’re totally used to hard work. Everybody’s really happy to do it. The only way out is deeper in.
MacKaye: I’m a Hendrix fan, and I have like 20 or 30 recordings of his summer 1970 tour. I find it fascinating to hear the shifts in the sets, and how that shows where he was at. So maybe somebody will find that interesting with us. Or maybe no one will, I have no idea.
MacKaye: The tours were their own compositions. Part of the ethic of the time was, at every show, you gave it all. You just threw everything you could into it. When Fugazi started playing, I wanted to tour. I just wanted to play every night. But on tour, you can’t give it all every night. You have to leave something for the next night. So you have to retrain your mind to think, OK, the tour is the show. You give it all for the tour.
Picciotto: I had never toured the way Fugazi toured. And I had never been in a band that managed to make it past the two year mark. So the first two years of the band were really intense. We started touring without a record out — three months in the States and then three months in Europe, learning how to even be around each other. You’re kind of startled that you made it that far, and you just keep going. It made us learn how to work together and create space for each other, which I think is the biggest thing in any band.
Canty: When you’re on the road for three months at a time, you’re looking for opportunities, even in the songs, to do something different every night. So you’re not just playing your instrument. You are responding to the crowd, and you’re interacting with the other people onstage as much as possible. The most important part of performing is being present and in the moment, and it always has been. To me it’s cool to be able to go back to these tapes and actually be in the past.
On engaging with the audience:
MacKaye: The show is a joint effort. We used to always say, the five dollars, that’s turning the key. We can’t get into the building without some dough. But it’s not a guarantee for entertainment, because we don’t give a [expletive] about that. We’re making a show with you, not for you.
Picciotto: One thing that listening to the tapes reminds me of is how confrontational it could be. We maintained a $5 door price, and that creates situations where anyone can come see your band, and a lot of those people don’t particularly like your band. A good bulk of our shows were playing to people who had misconceptions of what the group was doing. To my mind it made for a hundred times more interesting event. Because you get all kinds of people in a room trying to figure out how to make it through the night, and it becomes this other thing.
MacKaye: We started playing at a time where there was a lot of serious energy in this city. The shows were wild. Maybe we offered up good fuel, but it was the crowd that was burning. Every time we played people would come on stage and dance. People say we always complained about dancing, but that’s wrong. You couldn’t find a band that wanted people to dance more than us. What we were not interested in was ritualized brutal behavior.
Canty: There were a lot of great confrontations. I would never say the music is secondary to that, but there is high entertainment value in these 10-minute shouting matches between the crowd and Ian and Guy. That’s the part I enjoy.
MacKaye: There’s a lot of humor in this for us. We have a very dry sense of humor, but it’s very intentional. I don’t think most people get that about us. I think a lot of people think of us as obtuse. [But] I’m so used to that. People have been thinking of me as a dour fundamentalist for 30 years. If I puzzle people, I’m glad.
On the past, present, and future of Fugazi:
Picciotto: I think all four of us live in a permanent state of ... not nostalgia, but the band is always in our head, [as is] the affection we all have for playing live and the amount of intensity and amount of work it was. It was amazing. So you know, [revisiting the tapes] is not like a crippling weird nostalgia, it’s more like a pleasant thing where I’m like, man we did some good work.
MacKaye: The band was the product of the four of us. And if all four couldn’t be wholly committed, then we couldn’t be a band. That’s kind of the way it’s been in all my bands — no one’s replaceable. You just can’t swap them out. As soon as someone leaves, end the relationship, and start a new one. I think a lot of people think, “I don’t want to start all over.” But then it’s like, OK, have fun dying! (Laughs.) It’s regeneration — that’s life. You don’t want to regenerate? Then you must be dying. At what point do humans not have the ability to create new ideas? I hope my last new idea will be like, hey, I’m dying! That will be my last new idea. But up to that point, I’ll have a steady stream of them.