Arts Desk

Full Disclosure: Fugazi’s Live Series Is a Lot More Than Angry Banter

Photo by Bert Queiroz

In 2009, a 45-minute MP3 of audio from Fugazi concerts cropped up on punk and indie-rock blogs. But it wasn’t a musical recording: Instead, James Burns, the fan behind the file, had cobbled together choice clips of outrageous stage banter. The collage not only affirmed the band’s reputation for hardline punk diatribes (“Would the gentleman in the middle, would you please stop being so unpleasant to the other people around you?” admonishes singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye). It re-affirmed it to a ludicrous, almost comical extent, again (“I’m 40 years old and yet I still have to treat 27-year-olds like little fucking children”) and again (“What else can I do for you, you little MTV-generation piece of shit?”) and again (“No, we are not playing Lollapalooza”). The recording captures a slightly weirder Fugazi, too: In one snippet, co-frontman Guy Picciotto asks the crowd if it read a recent Scientific American article about the mating habits of bonobo apes.

The MP3 went viral. “People sent it around and I remember listening and being like, ‘This is bullshit,’” says Picciotto. “This is nowhere even close to as fucked up as the stuff we have.”

Tomorrow, Dischord Records is unveiling the Fugazi Live Series, a website where fans can download 130 of the D.C. post-hardcore band’s shows for a suggested price of $5 each. The site will eventually contain more than 800 concerts taped by the band, and perhaps more recorded by audience members. Unlike most commercial live albums, these recordings vary widely in audio quality, and have a gratifyingly warts-and-all wholeness to them. “If people want to get into it, they could make a much much better [compilation of banter],” Picciotto says.

There’s plenty of Fugazi’s punk-rock asceticism on offer here. But more surprising are the archives’ aesthetic treasures. Fugazi is frequently remembered for its business ethics, its lifestyle, and its fury, but the website offers a wealth of subtle, surprisingly detailed instances of musicianship—the kind that might lead particularly diehard fans to compare, say, how “Argument” sounded in Milan on Oct. 2, 1999 to how it sounded in Leeds, England, on Oct. 31, 2002. (Different!)

Fugazi, it seems, is finally having its jam-band moment.

LISTEN: Fugazi plays "Argument" in Leeds, UK, 2002.

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Tons of bands sell live concert recordings. Pearl Jam did just that throughout the 2000s. But jam bands are the true kings of the concert-recording market—thanks in large part to their fans, who have been swapping unauthorized (but implicitly approved) bootlegs since Grateful Dead pioneered the genre and ethos in the ’60s. “Certainly, the Dead and the jam bands and the bands that do that, the idea that the community is as important as the band is something that we definitely feel sympathetic to,” says Picciotto.

You can find plenty of fan-made show recordings at sites like Wolfgang’s Vault and Archive.org, and in more obscure online communities. Jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic have set up their own live-show shops, with varying degrees of thoroughness. (Picciotto also sees a more local connection: P.A. tapes, the live recordings made and sold by go-go bands. “That’s actually music that we do like and music that we were much more involved in, in terms of being fans and in terms of finding tapes,” he says.)

What sets the Fugazi Live Series apart from most online recording archives—aside from its lack of guitar solos—is how utile and uncluttered it is. Although it’s centered around a list of every show Fugazi played, the site has an uncomplicated design and is searchable by song, date, and location. It also includes show photographs, set lists, ratings of audio quality, and even estimates of crowd size.

The archive’s origins go all the way back to 1987, the year Fugazi started. “In the beginning...we didn’t have any records and hadn’t done any recording yet, so it was just a way to hear songs presented in their full form,” says MacKaye. “When Joe [Picuri, the band’s original soundman] would set up a P.A. to mix a show, he set up a tape deck and just made it a habit.”

Photo by Bert Queiroz

In addition to making a cassette recording from the soundboard, Picuri would also set up two room mics. “Because it happened every night, it was never something we ever reflected on,” says Picciotto. “The tapes, we would just bring them home, annotate them a little bit, and put them in the closet.” The recordings piled up inside Dischord House, the label’s home in Arlington. At one point, the band considered making copies for fans who mailed in blank cassette tapes, but decided it would be too much work. After Fugazi went on hiatus in 2003, Dischord began selling CD recordings of about 30 of the concerts. “We thought, maybe if the Internet ever becomes something, we’ll try to get everything up there,” says Picciotto.

LISTEN: Fugazi plays "Waiting Room" at their first show, in 1987.

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The pricing is in line with Fugazi’s ethics: The band typically charged $5 per show, and is asking for the same here. Most other artist-hosted archives sell shows for $10 to $15 a pop. Fugazi is also allowing fans to pay more or less for each recording—anywhere from $1 to $100—provided they explain why. If you go cheap, you’ll have to tell MacKaye why you think the show is only worth a buck—a clever psychological tweaking of the pay-what-you-want model popularized by Radiohead in 2007 with the album In Rainbows.

For more serious fans, there’s also a $500 All Access pass, which delivers every show currently on the site plus anything that gets uploaded in the future. “I don’t think we would’ve had the balls to offer it for $500, except that with the CD series there was a steady drumbeat of people that wanted all of them,” says Alec Bourgeois, Dischord’s publicist and Web designer.

Dischord has to recoup the tens of thousands of dollars it spent on the archive, but charging for shows is also philosophical: Fugazi put in the work, so it ought to be compensated. “There were all these arguments about digital music years ago, but Dischord didn’t get killed by that,” says Bourgeois. “People wanted to steal Metallica records, but they wanted to buy Fugazi records. Everyone felt respected by Fugazi. No one’s ever heard Fugazi complaining about not making enough money.”

Unedited live shows aren’t glamorous. There are no production tricks to hide behind, but for the band, that’s a plus. “Wrecking the mystery was kind of the point for us,” says Picciotto. He says the band made several high-end live recordings at one point, but wasn’t happy with them.

What’s appealing about the Fugazi Live Series is not extended improv sections or complete reinventions of recorded material; Fugazi is not a jam band. Conversely, the band doesn’t stick to tight album re-creations or repeat the same sets night after night; Fugazi isn’t a pop group, either. It’s the organic, subtly mutating moments in each song that make the archive worthwhile.

You could spend a fair amount of money chasing down the life of your favorite Fugazi tune. Take the live mainstay “Repeater”: It always clocks in around three minutes, but the band uses a whole variety of techniques to achieve the squealing burst of dissonance and feedback that kicks off the crowd favorite. At a 1990 Frederick, Md. show, MacKaye gives a short spiel about gun violence and says the name of the track. Then, the guitars begin a thin, scraping ascent up the fretboard and remain in ultra-high range for the verse. At a 1993 festival in Dayton, Ohio, an improvised, low-register drone builds until MacKaye screams the song’s titular refrain, which is followed by a heavy, particularly frightening onslaught of aggression. At one of Fugazi’s last European shows—Leeds in 2002—MacKaye’s howl leads into a noticeably more dynamic, more controlled barrage of shrill guitar squalls and dives.

LISTEN: Fugazi plays "Repeater" in Dayton, OH, 1993.

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The site’s appeal is as much about the performances as each particular experience. The band’s very first show, which is available for download, was a Positive Force benefit pegged to a local compilation CD. That’s a part of the Fugazi iconography, too: The band’s dedication to benefit shows, its preaching of nonviolence to occasionally violent crowds, and the unusual social conflicts that sometimes arose at its concerts are all a part of the story. The recordings each give a sense of that vibe—a crowd of prisoners in Virginia is very different from a crowd of skinheads in Pennsylvania, which is very different from a hometown crowd at Fort Reno.

What you really notice listening to these recordings are the strange, small spaces Fugazi built into the structure of its songs. From night to night, what the band chooses to do inside them has a lot to do with how the members are feeling, and how the crowd is acting, and what brought everyone together. And Fugazi’s brief improvisational changes are always of a piece with the mood of the show.

Of course, there are plenty of exciting extra-musical moments, as anyone who downloaded that 45-minute MP3 knows. Listen to any show in the archive and there’s a solid chance you’ll hear MacKaye lecture a rowdy showgoer on how to treat his neighbor. It goes deeper, though: drunk guest vocals from a large Danish man, the band politely declining to cover Bob Marley at a youth correctional center, angry rants about George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

Plenty of bands have clever stage banter, but few have such direct interactions with their fans. There’s a sermon-like quality to MacKaye’s words: He preaches anti-authoritarianism with the fire of a big-tent revivalist, and if his audience isn’t heckling him, they’re cheering in awe. MacKaye’s ethical-punk homilies sound both absurd and necessary.

But the Fugazi Live Series is also notable for what it doesn’t capture. During the archives’ uploading process, the band’s unofficial fifth member and the mastering engineer for the series, Jerry Busher, brought one tape to MacKaye’s attention.

“We did a show in Mechanicsburg, Pa., at a place called Decibel’s, and I remember this, security was beating up the crowd,” MacKaye says. He jumped off the stage, and soon found himself outside the venue facing a wall while a policeman yelled at him. “For $5, and this is one of the weird side aspects of low ticket prices, everyone is welcome. They’re not gonna spend $25 to beat up someone, but for $5 [they will]. At that time, that was something that was in place. Security responded somewhat in kind. They were really jacked up. When we booked shows, there was some emphasis put in—we expected all venues to recognize human rights; they were not to attack our guests. Conversely, we had to remind our guests not to attack security. Occasionally, you run into a situation where it’s just young men fucking with each other. You cannot have security officers beating up fans, you just can’t. So, I confronted them about it, but you don’t hear any of that. All you hear is me leave the stage.”

LISTEN: Fugazi addresses the venue and crowd in Mechanicsburg, PA, 1993.

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