The recently released Red Medicine (Dischord) is the band's riskiest record yet, with a more controlled sound and an aura of experimentation that was only hinted at on earlier records. "People have said that the new record is so different, that it's a departure," says vocalist and guitarist Ian MacKaye. "I don't think it's a departure because that would suggest that we deviated from a straight line. We don't deviate from anything."
Aesthetic reinvention is nothing new for MacKaye, whose early '80s band Minor Threat defined U.S. hardcore. But it was MacKaye's grandmother who unwittingly offered a key insight that would later fuel Fugazi. After watching a performance of MacKaye's first band, the short-lived Teen Idles, she told her grandson that she loved the music's energy, but that all the racket got a bit monotonous. "If you did something quiet sometimes," she advised, "it would make everything else sound louder."
Following Minor Threat's demise, MacKaye's frustrated attempts to put together a stable outfit led him to scrap the idea entirely; instead he jammed with bassist Joe Lally, and eventually drummer Brendan Canty. "The whole point of the project was not to be a band," says MacKaye. "It was more just to play together and goof around with ideas. It was basically a glorified joke band in a way, because I just decided I couldn't be bothered with making something that had to be presentable."
Oddly enough, the experiments began to jell, especially with the addition of Rites of Spring's Guy Picciotto as a second guitarist and vocalist. Though MacKaye insists the band was formed with no preconceived ideas, even the earliest Fugazi songs were distinguished by their odd (for hardcore) formal qualities: There was a general emphasis on groove and repetition that carried the mark of the local go-go scene (which MacKaye cites as the "best music ever written"), the guitars were used primarily as percussive devices, and Canty and Lally kept reinventing a crooked beat. "I wanted it to be slower, to have more rhythms, and I wanted everyone to be able to dance," MacKaye explains. "The fast stuff always just ended up with guys running in circles."
With a few exceptions like the overwrought "Dear Justice Letter," MacKaye and Picciotto tend to write oblique, intensely personal lyrics and evocative anti-anthems, but somehow Fugazi maintains a reputation as a purveyor of the explicit political manifesto. "That's the comedy of the situation," says MacKaye. "I do think we're a political band, but in the sense that everything is political. If we do things certain ways because we feel that it's the way it should be done, that's a political statement in and of itself."
More than perhaps any other rock band, Fugazi has managed to make the most of a nationwide infrastructure of independent music. With minimal self-promotion, the group's records -- released on MacKaye's Dischord label -- routinely sell as successfully as many (if not most) major-label "commercial alternative" acts; live shows, including two nights at the Trocadero Transfer this week, immediately sell out. Though MacKaye says his band's goal has always been to establish what he calls a "parallel economy" that could exist alongside the conventional industry, he insists that all of the band's supposedly lofty gestures are pragmatic acts that make it easier for Fugazi to record and perform music.
The band's maturation has coincided with the industry's discovery that the once-ignored musical communities Fugazi has always catered to can be tapped as lucrative markets. MacKaye claims that the ongoing major-label exodus hinges on the fact that independent labels don't know how to offer their bands a viable alternative. Fugazi has tried to transcend its insulated status and get as much music out as possible -- on its own terms, of course.
"I know that way more people have heard of Loverboy than will ever hear of us," MacKaye reasons, "but so what?" He likens the current situation to an agribusiness discovering that the organic farm nearby produces some stellar produce. "So they buy up the whole goddamn farm and just rape the soil, because they know they'll be able to find another farm later on. They're interested in capitalizing on the moment, whereas I'm interested in maintaining my own garden."
Fugazi plays two sold-out shows Sun, Nov. 5, and Mon, Nov. 6, at the Trocadero Transfer in