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May 5, 2006
In 1988, when I was in the sixth grade, Fugazi released their eponymous debut EP on Washington DC's Dischord Records label. Dischord was headed by Ian MacKaye, an outspoken political minded punk who was also a member of seminal bands Minor Threat and the Teen Idles, and Fugazi's debut was already the label's 30th release. Since it's inception in December 1980, when MacKaye released the Teen Idles' "Minor Disturbance" EP (a 7" single with eight songs), Dischord has released albums by some of the luminaries of punk rock. From Dag Nasty to State of Alert, from Q and Not U to Faraquet, from Make Up to Scream, Dischord Records has represented and documented the best of Washington DC's music scene. Another of those great, early bands was Rites of Spring, who were, like it or not, the origin of today's burgeoning Emo scene. Rites of Spring were perhaps the cream of the Dischord crop, and when they disbanded two of their members moved on to Fugazi. Drummer Brendan Canty teamed up with MacKaye, who's band Embrace had folded after a year with one self-titled release. They were rounded out, as a trio, by Joe Lally, a bassist with no early defining characteristics such as "ex-" band member who would become a quiet cornerstone to the band. The trio, joined after only a few shows by the enigmatic Guy Picciotto, expanded on the ideas of dynamics set forth by Picciotto and Canty's Rites of Spring.

While it may not have set forth to do so, Fugazi has become one of the great institutions of rock and roll, a chapter alongside the likes of the Sex Pistols. The liberal-minded activists proved early on that they could both talk the talk and indeed walk the walk. The highlight of their first single, "Suggestion" was an off-kilter punk song, with a Caribbean flavor to its cauterizing guitars, matched with MacKaye delivering vocals from the female perspective. The band stayed true to its sonic roots early on, becoming one of the pioneering post-hardcore bands on the strength of albums like Margin Walker and the now-classic Repeater. It was with the release of Steady Diet of Nothing in 1991, however, that Fugazi's music began to flower, taking on the flair of their progressive convictions. The quartet made two key changes in their approach, which made all the difference in their results, by changing their focus from overt lyrical statements and making more of an investment in the creative merit of their art.

It became clear that Fugazi were not simply making a political statement with punk rock, they were making a musical statement that carried a political message.

From there all roads became options, and Fugazi became a legend. They have wound up, musically, perhaps on a different course than the direction they imagined it taking ten years ago, but it hasn't necessarily been by design. "I don't think about the future" MacKaye says matter-of-factly when asked about Fugazi's course over the years. "I never had any idea of where the band was going, or how long the band would 'go' for that matter." His outlook serves as insight into the band's policies, or lack thereof. "I am not a long-range goal oriented person. I just wake up and try to take care of what needs attention. Obviously there is some planning involved, but while I am aware of, for instance, the band's desire to play some shows in February [2002], it's whether or not I book them in the present that will make the difference."

Fugazi has grown in many directions, and the band has also aged well, evolving into one of the most emulated bands in rock. Like most leaders and long-term trend setters, Fugazi are followed by persistent rumors. As the band has aged, the periods of what may be seen by outsiders as periods of inactivity have become more frequent and lengthy. No definitive statements are ever made as to the band's future intentions, which has often served to fuel the rumors of the band's demise. "I did not plan or hope for the band to stay together for 14 years, nor did I plan or hope for the band to break up" says MacKaye. "And I don't have a clue of where the future will take us next. I am sure, however, that it will take us somewhere." That somewhere is usually another great album.

Over the years Fugazi has successfully experimented with noise, dynamics, melodies and various abstract themes. With each album the band seems to expand on new ideas while continuing to branch out in all directions, seemingly influenced by invisible forces. The changes in direction and growth in scope seem to be an extension of band members' personal growth. As for other musicians influencing Fugazi's style or methods... "I can't actually think of any" MacKaye says.

"There was a point in time many years ago when I feel like I kind of cut the rope that was guiding me musically... In other words there was a time when I was listening to music that was kicking my ass and in my efforts to find my own voice I was trying to answer in kind."

MacKaye went on to elaborate that "eventually I feel like I found my voice and while there are records that I love and that inspire me, I don't think I could measure what sort of impact they have had on my musicianship". After further though, he did manage to release a few names that, while not shaping his vision, provide it with depth. "I suppose after spending a lot of time listening to the Fela Kuti reissues last year, I think my music was affected. This doesn't mean that I started writing or playing afro-pop."

"Certain lines that I had previously placed around the concept of song structure and presentation had been removed, or at least repositioned."

According to MacKaye, his creative process, and that of the band, is continually in motion. When asked about Fugazi's ability to continue on and break new ground, MacKaye insists that they are still in their element, that he felt the continuous building of momentum over the past decade was still forging ahead "the last time we played together, [on] August 13, 2001".

But what has Fugazi become, as a unit, from the origins of its four distinct voices? Has Fugazi become bigger than the sum of its parts? "Who cay say?" asks MacKaye. "I don't 'rate' Fugazi, over- or under-." While myself and thousands of others involved in both the underground and mainstream music community sing their praise, some skeptics view Fugazi as an over-rated entity buoyed by a nation of disillusioned underachievers. "I suppose that this could be said about all music and art, since the value of these forms are based on people's tastes and passions, there is no yardstick to really measure them upon." MacKaye places the band's fans, critics and the band itself in the same boat on an ocean of varying perspectives. "I certainly have met people who were completely fanatical about bands that I thought were jokes and others who joked about bands that I followed fanatically."

"Over the years I have spoken with many people who have, in my opinion, focused too dearly on certain aspects of our band, but that has more to do with their reception than with our transmission."

From it's early days as the offspring of a distinct Washington DC punk scene, Fugazi has come a long way. Once the band broke out of its home scene and became, in some instances, a household name, it became an unspoken race of sorts for their artistic reputation to exceed their political one. Energetic live shows and Picciotto's stage performances (exemplified by the amazing "Basketball Hoop" footage on the band's self-released documentary film, Instrument) developed into an antagonistic battle between rowdy fans and the band, their reputation for being humorless and "anti-moshing" growing as rapidly as their reputation for monumental music. In recent years, as the band and much of their audience grows older (although they continually gain as many new fans as any other band) the focus seems to have shifted more solidly to their art. Just this year they released their sixth full length album, The Argument (along with an accompanying single called Furniture), which was as creative as 1995's departure Red Medicine and a bit more controlled than the critically acclaimed 1998 release, End Hits.

As I recently stated in my review of The Argument, disillusionment becomes more and more fashionable in the post-punk community every year, and the machine that is Fugazi becomes more and more well-rounded. As more and more punks cry foul on their favorite bands for the most mundane reasons, Fugazi forges ahead with new ideas and new statements like The Argument, although they now make their statements more covertly, through the music that will live on as a document of proof. MacKaye is a believer in the legacy that Fugazi has built, and in "the idea and the fact that music is a real and powerful form of communication, one that existed prior to language itself, and that this communication continues to exist today and forever outside of the industry that has tried so desperately to place their trademark on the very concept".

--
photo by Cynthia Connolly

SEE ALSO: www.dischord.com
SEE ALSO: www.southern.com/southern/band/CYNTH/

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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