"We Know How the Machines Work and We're Able to Take Control:" An Interview with Fugazi's Guy Picciotto

Scott Thill

Some may say that punk has an altogether simple formula: three chords of noise, plenty of sneer and snarl, and middle fingers everywhere. But for about a decade and a half, Fugazi has proven that it's vastly more complicated, to the point that perhaps the term "punk" itself can be considered reductive.

What Fugazi have brought to the table is a strict DIY work ethic, some of the most diverse musical compositions you will likely encounter from one band, and enough conscientious lyricism to make your average punk -- and mainstream media fan(atic) -- think twice about what is going on in the world. And, as one of the chief architects of Fugazi, Guy Picciotto is no slouch when it comes to current affairs, as you will read later.

So it comes as to no surprise to anyone -- except Fugazi, perhaps -- that one of their finest albums to date, The Argument, was released hot on the heels of yet another American war full of sound and fury. What it signifies is ultimately up to the warriors involved, and like most exemplary Americans, Fugazi just want everyone to think before they speak. But definitely act.

Scott Thill: So I was in my friendly neighborhood indie music store and someone there told me you broke up. Two weeks later, The Argument came out. What happened?
Guy Picciotto: Well, I think rumors about us breaking up have gone around for probably the last nine years, so we always hear about it. It's kinda like the "Paul is dead" rumors. Particularly when we put out End Hits. A lot of people looked at that record and freaked out. We didn't anticipate it, but a lot of people were saying, "Oh my god, this is their last record!" People thought of it like this tombstone thing, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there isn't a constant media presence for Fugazi. It's not like we're on MTV all the time or doing interviews with Rolling Stone. When we're off working on our own, not necessarily touring or recording, just kind of writing, I think we drop off the radar and people start to think, "Shit, they're not together."

The two hands of justice on The Argument: one lighting the way, the other one empty. "It's like a chemical -- you put it out there and the reaction that it creates is what art is," says Guy.

And I also think that some of it comes from the fact that most bands don't last. I think we're going on to our, what fifteenth year? So it's natural for people to assume that it's going to wind up at some point. And over the years there have been times that we haven't worked as hard as other times, and during those lulls, people start to speculate. As far as we're concerned, if we're not obviously working, you can bet that we're somewhere underground working because we never stop.

ST: And even when you guys are touring, it's a word of mouth thing.
GP: Right. And that's the way we work. We figure that if people are curious about the band, it's not impossible to find out information about us. We have a Web site, we do interviews constantly. I think it would surprise people. Most of them are usually for fanzines . . .

ST: Like us!
GP: Yeah, like you guys. Stuff that's more motivated by enthusiasm and not necessarily corporate money or whatever. So it is kind of a weird thing. Our feeling is that we don't want to go ram ourselves down people's throats but we also want to be able to make ourselves really accessible. I mean, that's our whole thing with the low pricing. It's just about making it accessible to people who are curious without necessarily spoon feeding everyone, you know?

ST: You talked about going on your fifteenth year. Looking back, are you guys proud of the run you've had so far, as well as the fact that you can claim total ownership over all of your creative production? And make a living while doing it?
GP: I don't think any of us anticipated it when the band started. I mean, I think it took us two or three years together before the band really felt like a solid thing, and I don't think any of us expected it to last this long. But it's just one of those things. I've been in a bunch of bands before this one -- and so have the other guys in the group -- but it's like one of those weird puzzles you get as a kid. You shift those plates around and all of a sudden, you have a picture in your hand. I mean, we just kept trying different combinations of people but when the four of us lined up, something happened. I think a lot of it was that everyone in the band was so committed to working hard that before we knew it we had toured the world a hundred times! (Laughs) So it's just one of those things.

We never were overtly ambitious and we never really planned anything out. It's just a matter of working and always focusing on the next task at hand. And that's kind of what happened.

ST: Speaking of clicking, one of the things I think that many fans -- underground or mainstream -- seem to miss when it comes to Fugazi is just what amazing musicians you are, how you click musically with each other.
GP: Yeah, that's for sure. I think one thing people don't understand is the democracy that is the band. I think people have the perception that there are leaders in the group or that one of us controls everything, but if people could only see the way we practice. It's really intense. It's an insane, four-way communication laser beam barrage where all of us are working really hard with each other.

One of these guys deserves more credit. "I think many people don't realize that our drummer, Brendan, writes a lot of our music," says Guy.

I think many people don't realize that our drummer, Brendan, writes a lot of our music. Everyone contributes stuff, but no less than anyone else. Everyone is coming in with ideas. I mean, when the band started, there were a lot of songs left over from when Ian and Joe were working together, but at this point, every single song is a group work. And we just have a good communication with each other, particularly from touring so much. When we're onstage, it's like mind reading: we're on the same page.

ST: Especially, on a smaller level, the guitar work between you and Ian. It's seamless.
GP: Yeah, we've definitely learned how to play together. I didn't play guitar when the band started, and it wasn't until Repeater that I started playing guitar with the group. And it took me awhile to figure out -- since the sound was so full -- how another guitar could work within it, how to hone in on the way I wanted to play. I never really considered myself a guitar whiz, but at a certain point I think I had an idea on how it could work. And Ian and I just fed off each other. But I always like to think of it as a sports team or something. Teams are constantly trading people, but we never had to. We know how to play.

ST: Some songs off The Argument like "Epic Problem" recall your earlier stuff, but there are some that are beautifully different, like "Strangelight." How did the idea for the songs and the lyrics on The Argument come about?
GP: It's a weird sort of collection of songs, because some of them are ideas we've had around for awhile, like "Epic Problem," for example. We have had that song around for about ten years, and we just never completed it. And there are other songs on the record, like Joe's song, "The Kill," which are songs we pretty much arranged in the studio. We had ideas about them, but never really nailed them down until we started laying tracks. Like "The Kill," which was just an improvisation that became a song. So each song has a different history, and there's a very different vibe to the whole record.

We put out that Furniture EP at the same time because most of the songs on it were much older ones that we never committed to recording. It was a weird thing, kinda like we were taking stock. It was like we had a parts graveyard, where all these parts got left by the wayside. We have an enormous amount of practice tape, and we went back and scoured over it all when we were making the Instrument movie, because we used a lot of those pieces for the soundtrack. And that experience led us to, "Oh yeah, there was this thing! How come we never developed that?" And then others, like "Strangelight," were brand new ideas that came out of nowhere.

It's kind of funny, because for the longest time "Full Disclosure" and "Strangelight" were actually the same song. And they don't sound anything like each other now! They never coalesced, so they separated and became two different songs. For us, it's weird, because we know their genealogy and how they break down. But for people hearing them for the first time, they're not going to pick up on it. (Laughs)

ST: Right! I'll look at one of the lyrics and go, "This is perfect for what's going on in the world right now." And it was written ten years earlier!
GP: Right, it's weird. Particularly for this record. I mean, we're very slow lyric writers; it takes us a long time to finish the song and put the vocals on. The lyrics and the vocals are usually the last stage. So we had a bunch of music and right before we went into the studio, all this stuff came gushing out and we had more songs than we expected.

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