Guy photo by Jem Cohen
Joe photo by Antonia Tricarico
interview by Damon Locks
Fugazi was a group whose approach to performing and putting out music excited, challenged and mobilized many during their tenure as a band. They put creativity, compassion and common sense to the forefront when worldwide popularity generally encouraged greed and insensitivity. The band left a lasting impression of inspiration. I asked Joe and Guy about what inspired them to become the artists they are today and what drives them to continue.
When I was young there were things that impacted me and changed me forever. For example: seeing Eraserhead at the midnight movie or listening to The Specials album for the first 300 times. Can you tell me a couple of the pivotal: events, films, records, bands, books etc that made you see things differently as a kid and explain their influence?
J: The first thing that really shifted my thinking was when my dad took us to see some Buster Keaton films at the local library. I felt like I was let in on a secret to see the world in a different way. An individual with not a lot going for him, battling authority or nature. I saw the Marx Brothers on television soon after and seeing the restored Animal Crackers in the theater was the best thing that had happened to me by that point in my life. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t develop a whole image like Groucho and go around being a public nuisance mocking society.
When punk rock hit my system I was aware of the continuity that led back to those films and the surreal and rebellious attitude. Long before that happened I had listened to my sister’s Beatles records and always watched the Monkees on TV, but the point when music became something important to me was from going next door to my best friend’s. There was a lot of music in the house and his brothers played drums and guitar. They had singles on a peg board on the wall as a sort of center piece to the rec room. I remember seeing James Brown’s Cold Sweat 45 hanging there. They had Elvis too but it seemed like bullshit compared to James Brown. My favorite song to listen to at his house was the live version of “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding from the Monterey Pop Festival. That song just took me away. It starts out slow and builds to this insane climax. He had 3 older brothers and they would take us to these matinee shows at Shady Grove theater. I saw The Spinners, The Isley Brothers, The Jackson 5, and the O’Jays. We listened to Parliament/Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, and Sly and the Family Stone but the band that I first dug the most was Graham Central Station. They had played a DC show opening for Sly and Sly didn’t play so they just carried the whole show and therefore had a big DC following and got a lot of airplay. My friends’ brothers saw that show so we thought Graham was the greatest. The only radio we listened to was black, WOL or WOOK. Music was and still is so segregated that there was no one to share this with at the time. I was in 5th grade. There were maybe 6 black kids in my entire Elementary school. No one knew what the hell we were talking about.
When punk rock came along it made so much sense and again it was having something most people didn’t know about. In ’79 I saw Devo, the B52′s and the Clash. They all stood on equal ground. Different levels of intensity. The next year I saw The Cramps, Iggy Pop and a local band the Obsessed. After that I don’t think I could take a regular job seriously.
G: I’m not from a particularly musical family. It wasn’t like there was a piano in the house or any Von Trapp harmony singing going on. My father was briefly in a harmonica trio called “The 3 Musketeers” when he was a teenager. They actually played on Lebanese radio so there were a few unplayed, souvenir harmonicas in our house…but that’s it.
My parents though did have a small, random collection of records that I listened to very intently growing up. I remember: Golden Hits of the Platters with “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” on it, The Supremes, A Go Go with their version of “Hang On Sloopy”, Johnny Hallyday’s “Salut les Copains!” and Roger Miller’s “Words and Music” (especially the song “Husbands and Wives” which was brutally sad and “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” which was so lyrically surreal that it was sort of destabilizing ).
But the most important record they had for me was The Beatles Something New which was the US version of the Hard Day’s Night album. I listened that record to death, particularly “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” over and over. Though it will sound ridiculous, something about that record was so joyful that it made me feel like I was carbonated and jumping out of my skull and and it marked the beginning of an almost painful Beatles obsession. It took me until 6th grade to realize that when I looked at the 8″x10″ photo of George Harrison (included in the White Album) that I wasn’t actually looking in a mirror. I made a pact with myself to buy no other records by any other band till I owned every Beatles record. It took me until I was 12 to do it. I was, in essence, protectively sequestered from Rush and Styx during that period. I became mentally available again just in time for punk rock.
The first concert that I went to post-Beatles pact was ACDC opening for Kiss on the Kiss Alive Two tour at the Capital Center in 1977. Later that week I saw Golden Earring opening for Aerosmith and soon after that I got a guitar. It was an acoustic Aria and I started learning open chords though I never really felt like I knew what I was doing. I had a friend on my block who would come over and make fun at how out of tune my guitar always was, which I guess was an early indication of my dubious sense of pitch and my lack of full investment in the instrument. It was weird having both this total obsession with music but also this core feeling that I couldn’t actually be a musician. That music was the province of some other kind of human being.
Around then I started hearing about punk rock in CREEM magazine and it sounded like the most fucked up and terrifying thing in the world. Its hard to think about now when the whole thing seems so played out and cliched but the aggressive negativity of punk rock was totally mind expanding at a time when the biggest record around was Supertramp’s, Breakfast in America. I immediately went out and found the Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the UK” 7″ in Georgetown and brought it to an 8th grade dance where it was taken off by the principal before it got to the chorus. I was in from that point on.
Later that year I formed a one-off band called, The Chains, in order to play a school assembly (with Mike Hampton who was later in S.O.A. and the Faith). We had a song called “Thank You…Please Call Again” ( we just sang that over and over ) and I remember we covered the bass drum with burning incense and I kicked it across the room at the end of the song. Awhile later, after having started seeing some amazing shows like the Cramps, the Ramones, and Patti Smith as well as some local bands like the Razz and the Bad Brains I did another one-off band called The Hostages ( this was during the Iranian Hostage crisis of the Carter administration). We wore shirts that said “52 Out of Tune” (referring to the 52 American hostages) and adult incontinence plastic underwear on our heads. Again we played a school assembly. Afterwards I remember a hipster English teacher coming up all pained, bemoaning our “missed opportunity” to show the school that punk rock could be intelligent “like the Clash”. I remember thinking “Eat shit.” but at the same time it occurred to me that I wasn’t really capable of or interested in writing a for-real song and that all I really wanted to do was make noise and freak out.
Not long after that, I went to a Minor Threat practice after school (Lyle and Brian who played in the band were schoolmates of mine). Thinking back on it I think that was a definite watershed moment for me because even though I’d seen them live, at that practice…I got to watch them write. I remember them working up ”Screaming at a Wall”. The song was so amazing I couldn’t believe it but what really fucked me up was their way of working. There wasn’t any bullshit. They bore in on the music in a super focused way. They spent a lot of time sorting out how the down tempo breakdown would work, where the accents would fall. Then they practiced it over and over until it was just totally intense as shit. It was the first time I ever saw up close how a great song was crafted and how its impact could be shaped consciously. From that point on I was really determined to get something together with some actual caliber and weight to it. It ended up taking me awhile to figure out what it could be but that practice was sort of like a teenage version of Prometheus bringing fire down from the heights to human level. I got a taste of the possibilities and realized that they were potentially available to me too.
What does performing do for you? How do you approach the idea of presenting your music?
J: Arranging and practicing in the laboratory was always very important work for Fugazi. Going on stage with a completely clear and open mind allowed all that work to come across live. If I’m going to present some form of music I have to know that I am saying something that I feel strongly about. It either sets me free or I find myself trapped in my uncooperative human form.
G: I think a lot of what I think about being on stage is informed by seeing the Bad Brains when I was young. Basically, if you saw the Bad Brains play in DC in the early 80′s you were automatically ruined for bands that didn’t really bring something “full-on” to the stage. For example, I remember just worshipping the records of Discharge. To me the early Discharge singles are absolutely masterpieces. They were perfect black and white minimalist creations with such a utterly cool graphic, thematic and musical unity. But seeing them live I was kind of like “Wait a minute …what happened ?” Not that they were in any way terrible, it just wasn’t transcendent or body possessing like the Bad Brains, so it felt underwhelming. It was really the experience of being possessed in the crowd at a Bad Brains show, being driven by how possessed they were, that made me want to get there on stage too. Once I started doing it, I think the thing I felt and wanted to keep feeling was that sensation of being blanked out, with just white light in my head so that I didn’t know myself. For me, that kind of effacement is the pinnacle of where it can go, just becoming a stranger to yourself.
How important is personal fashion to your aesthetic? Is fashion political or a moot point?
J: Seeing Lux Interior come on stage in stiletto heels, no shirt and his tight pants already half way down certainly struck me as a ‘love me or fuck off’ kind of statement. Presentation can certainly be confrontational as opposed to decoration. I love that but at some point I decided it just wasn’t right for me. Maybe because I’m not tall dark and handsome like Lux was.
G: I’m a materialist in the sense that I think everything has a political / economic dimension to it. Its like in that movie ” Gomorrah ” about organized crime in Italy…blood is the backdrop to everything. But in terms of Fashion as a personal thing, I guess, I really prefer the word “style” because it doesn’t automatically sound imposed from elsewhere. Some people absolutely have a sense of style that I appreciate. I am not one of them though. I can’t even barely get dressed anymore without wanting to throw up on myself.
How is your approach to music different now, than it was say 20 years ago?
J: I’m not sure that there is any difference. I’m looking for the feel or attitude of a particular riff or sound instead of trying to define what kind of song it is before it begins. Now I see the need to play other instruments on a regular basis to better inform my bass playing. I learned so much playing as a band with Ian, Brendan and Guy that working without them is a whole new experience. Elisa Abela (current collaborator/guitarist) is sticking with me now so it will be different working closely with one other person. There’s always more to learn.
G: I am still totally occupied with music every day of my life. I play guitar all the time on my own and track stuff privately and I am involved in doing things that have me playing guitar with other people more publicly. In the years since Fugazi stopped working, I’ve really done all kinds of shit: live collaborations with filmmakers, improvisational shows, I’ve played on a couple of Vic Chesnutt records and toured with him. That in particular has been an incredible thing for me because I think Vic is a genius songwriter and just being around the guy is pure enjoyment and an absolute education. I’ve also had a good run producing records for bands I think are great like the Casual Dots, Blonde Redhead, the Blood Brothers, the Gossip etc
In terms of how things have changed in my approach to music basically, between the ages of 16 and 38, I was in a series of bands that received my complete binding loyalty and attention. I could sing and play and it felt like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Now, to be honest, it doesn’t feel like that. That certainty of placement and intention isn’t there and its sort of like the cartoon feeling of bicycling your legs in the empty air after running off a cliff. I haven’t really sung at all in 5 years and I don’t know that I necessarily will again.
In all of your years of traveling and playing music in so many different extraordinary places, is there a place or experience that above others made more of an impression?
J: I found Brazil to be an extraordinary place. It’s difficult to process all the things that one feels there. Life hangs in some kind of balance between extreme opposites on so many levels. I find that places where society might not be in a state of perfect organization humanity seems to leave the space to find a natural state of creativity. That’s the best I can try to explain it. I had a different perspective on life after the first visit there.
G: I love to travel and I’m always sort of put off when people have bad things to say about anywhere because I think every place has the potential to wreck you if you have the right catalyst or guide for it to happen. I really think contingency runs the show so why make distinctions on that level ? That said, I went to Saint Malo in Northern France last year on tour with Vic (Chesnutt). I’d never been there before. Its one of those old as hell cities with stone fortress walls around it and its right on the coast. So, in the middle of the night after the show I went out to this island there that you can only access at certain points in the tide cycle before the ocean comes back and cuts it off again to be stranded for 12 hours or whatever. It was really windy and the island has these steep cliffs with water exploding off the rocks and a thick grass heath, a crazy bright moon(it was totally like “Wuthering Heights” or something). There was even like this grave with the inscription “Lay me hear to listen to the wind and sea.” on it. I’m not one to join a drum circle and talk about communion with nature but it was actually like that…one of those strange, obliterating experiences…vive Saint-Malo!
In the last 30 years culture has changed, modified and assimilated. To me, music seems to have less of a cultural cache than it once did. Given the way people can access music, it seems to hold a less valued place in the cultural psyche. At different times, jazz, punk, rock and hip hop all invested in challenging the status quo. Seeing the creative muscular atrophy of those genres, do you think that music still has the power to effect change?
J: I think it always will. My personal experience with music brought direction to my whole life. There will always be a way to dig deeper into yourself and find what you need for music to continue flourishing. Even if it is impossible to share with others for whatever reason. I can see that I am driven to play for the sake of playing because it is a celebration of life I guess. That might sound corny but if you do something for so long you do look into the reason why it keeps going and going.
G: While I think its certainly true that the cultural landscape has changed, I never really gave much of a shit about the cultural landscape before so I wouldn’t use that as any explanation. I just think I changed. Still, I’m not letting it stop me from continuing to do shit. Water finds its way to the sea one way or another.