INTERVIEW WITH MUSICIAN GUY PICCIOTTO (FUGAZI, RITES OF SPRING) BY MUSICIAN AND JOURNALIST GREGG FOREMAN (CAT POWER, DELTA 72, PINK MOUNTAINTOPS)
CITY: WASHINGTON D.C.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in DC and I lived there for forty-five years straight.
Was there a specific moment growing up where you remember being impacted by music?
Growing up, there was no music in my family, no one was particularly musical. We didn’t have a piano in the house. My dad had been in an all harmonica band when he was a teenager called the Three Musketeers so there was a harmonica in the house but that was the extent of it.
But when I was in third grade I had a friend Paul from England and I would go to his house and his family had all of these Beatles’ records and this Beatles illustrated lyric book which was really trippy and I remember the first time hearing them over there, something changed in me. I got so into them, there was so much joy in the music and from that point on from ages seven to twelve, it was just a total Beatles situation in my head. So that was my first kind of experience having music impact me and in a way it kind of insulated me from any other influence until punk rock happened. I listened a little bit to Kiss, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and so I was aware of stuff that was happening at the time but it wasn’t until punk rock happened that I paid attention again, until then, I was just in a kind of cocoon.
What were those early days of DC punk rock like? I know in Philadelphia at that time it was a lot of small shows in churches and it allowed you to think you could actually be a part of something whereas bands like Led Zeppelin and Kiss didn’t seem attainable, the first time I heard Black Flag though I thought, well maybe I can’t do this exactly but it’s a lot closer to me than Stairway to Heaven.
Reading a lot of books on music history there is always this feeling about music being unattainable. I think it’s a reality of being a young musician starting out that you feel like you have no entry point and for our generation that was why punk rock was a really big influence. There was a radio station in DC at that time called WGBT. It was run on Georgetown University property but had almost nothing to do with the university. The university was run by hardcore Catholic Jesuits but these radicals had taken over the station and turned it into a really powerful free form station that reached all the way up to Delaware. That’s where I first heard punk rock music, just being in my room listening to it on a transistor radio. That station eventually got shut down by the Jesuit president because he wanted to stop all of the radical politics and music that was coming out of it. So the first punk rock show I saw was when I was thirteen and it was a benefit which was more of a protest against the closing of that station and at that show. At that show I saw Bad Brains and my future bandmate Ian MacKaye and I remember seeing The Cramps play live which was a really violent and frightening show. It was actually hard for me to even look at them because they had this kind of great, powerful energy that surrounded them. Then a few months later I ran into them on the street in D.C. and I just went up and talked to them and they were so polite and so kind and there was this strange moment of having seen them play so powerfully and raw and then meeting them on the street and getting this incredibly warm, openness from them… it was really amazing. They really had a huge impact on me.
So my main connection to music was the radio then. There weren’t that many friends around me at that time who were listening to this kind of music. Then later I started to see other people who were into it and I started to make those connections and I saw a lot of these kids who were a little older than me start to put together bands and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a part of that conversation.
So The Cramps and the radio station were your sort of opening. What was the next step? How did you start forming some of your own bands? You played with two really influential bands Fugazi and Rites of Spring. How did they come about and what did these bands bring to your life?
I was around fifteen and I had a guitar and I started seeing people putting bands together and knew I wanted in on this. Three of the people I went to high school with were in bands. One of them was in this band S.O.A. with Henry Rollins and two of the other guys Brian and Lyle were in Minor Threat, so these were friends of mine who were in two of the most important bands in the early hardcore scene and I would tag along with these guys to watch them practice and play. At that time I would be in these one off, completely hysterical, freak out bands, like I had done this thing called The Hostages where it was just basically about screaming, wearing diapers on your head, and just being crazy and then I remember seeing Minor Threat and they were just on another level with what they were doing, they were so structured.
That’s the thing about hardcore music, I think a lot of people look back on it now and see this orthodox or rigid style of music but the shapes that everyone can look at now and see as a pattern, when these people were starting to make that music it had no formulaic shape yet so it felt incredibly radical at the time. I would see punk rock bands but these hardcore bands would be more extreme, more cut down, more direct of a focus on radical ideas and that’s what really drew me into it. I got really excited seeing those bands and I really wanted to be a part of it. So there was this crew of me and my friends and we would just be hanging around at different band practices and over time we started to form our own band.
My first band was Insurrection, when I was around fifteen and it was all of us basically inspired by listening to a lot of Discharge. But we were playing shows, like we were still in high school but we’d drive to Detroit or New York on the weekend to do a show and when you’re that young these bands are really volatile and people would keep breaking them up and reforming them. So I was in about six bands before I joined Fugazi at age 21.
At a certain point I started to get an idea of wanting something that was different. I wanted to find something else and create a new edge or a new place to go to with music and that’s what Rites of Spring felt like to me. It was kind of pushing the conversation forward again and I think that was the first band that I was in where I felt like it was a perfect thing. We were all into it and it’s what we all wanted to do and I think there was a little bit of us all (Guy Picciotto, Brendan Canty, Mike Fellows and Eddie Janney) figuring out how to actually play our instruments a little bit too (laughs). Playing guitar is still kind of a mystery to me actually. I feel like you don’t really know how to play an instrument in some ways until you play it with other people though and find some mutual language together. I knew some chords and stuff and I took some lessons in elementary school but I didn’t and I still don’t really understand how it all works but when I’m playing with other people I just started to figure out how to create sounds together with them and that’s how Rites of Spring formed. It was just the four of us hanging out, trying to put all of the different things we were listening to into our own songs while also having the feeling of really not caring what people thought about it at all. (laughs) We were all so psyched on each other and psyched on playing together. And pretty quickly people in town were really into it and it was really brief but it had a really good feeling for awhile until it fell apart. But then that band reformed again a year later under a different name and we were called Happy Go Licky which was completely different from Rites of Spring but playing with those three guys, the idea was always to move forward. That one only lasted 9 months but I thought we had a lot of really cool ideas.
With your start in Fugazi, you showed up to visit Brendan at practice and you just kind of fit into the mold eventually? How did that really come about?
Well Brendan was in two bands at the time, he was drumming with us in Happy Go Licky and we were playing intermittently. Brendan started playing with Ian in the early version of Fugazi and at that time Happy Go Licky was not going to continue and I kind of honestly thought I wasn’t going to do music anymore so I sold my amp and I packed up and arranged to meet some friends in Texas and I just left town. It was around Halloween time and I found a pumpkin patch and I was working there for a night or two and I met these friends of mine and we drove around the country for awhile and then went back to D.C. and Brendan told me that he was in this band now (Fugazi) and they made it open to me that if I wanted to sit in and do something I could because in the beginning they were having lots of people come over and sit in with them and Brendan and I had been in bands pretty much since the first day we met. And I had this feeling like oh shit, it’s over for us playing together and I was feeling really shitty and I just didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself and since I was feeling kind of desperate I thought, ok I’ll sing with these guys since they’re being so generous but I didn’t really understand the music at first and I didn’t really understand what was happening but I started singing because I was so bummed and aimless and then something started to happen. Before Fugazi, I had never played in a band where I didn’t have a guitar and so I felt unencumbered because I didn’t have to play anything and I didn’t have to define my role in the band because they already built the initial band so I had all of this freedom and it was weird, suddenly I felt this different energy to be more free on stage and to move and it was really a kind of cool and unexpected feeling that I could be free like this and I started to feel the music push me energetically. The first couple of years with Fugazi, I was just making my way into the group and then suddenly it became my being in the band and we started touring and it was happening. It was kind of unvoiced but it became a role and it made sense to me. After that I wanted to play guitar and to write and be more involved with them and it just kept working. I think because we had all been in so many groups before we had this idea of not being able to keep a band together but I think we were all kind of engaged into being loyal to the concept of the group and we were willing to push it as hard as we could and that’s what we did. We went out and toured six to seven months a year and we worked like motherfuckers and that’s how we learned how to be a band and that’s how we learned how to play together. It was the first time I had been in a band that didn’t start from the ground up but the personalities, the discipline, and the communication, it just all began to make a lot of sense to me.
In the beginning of Fugazi, you mentioned how you had this new freedom without the guitar and you and Ian sort of had this call and response, Sam and Dave kind of vibe in an abstract way…
That’s the thing, we were listening to a lot of James Brown and Public Enemy at the time, which might have had the biggest influence on us in the sense of there being two voices or two perspectives. Minor Threat and Rites of Spring for instance were two totally different bands and Ian and I had two totally different approaches to music but there was something about supporting both of our styles that created a kind of complexity for people. They had to wraps their heads around it and initially I think it may have been a bit of a stretch for people sometimes. The audience was like, “What they fuck is that guy doing on the side of the stage but that was part of the point, we were trying to create some kind of confusion or some kind of complexity. Public Enemy were fucking way confusing and that’s what made them so cool. It was so disorienting what they were doing and their sound was so extreme. We were really inspired by that.
I think the question of, “What the fuck is this?” is alway s a sign of something valuable. It’s like Suicide that was a band who when they first came out and I put on their record, I was just thrown by it or seeing Beat Happening or Bikini Kill for the first time. Those bands had to really challenge people and upset things and bands that really upset people’s perspective are bands who are bringing something new to it. It’s really easy to repeat a form and there’s a lot of value to respecting forms and reproducing them but there’s another value to bands who are finding a different angle that people aren’t used to or ready for yet.
Fugazi has these wonderfully juxtaposed elements. It’s like a mixture of dub music, Wire, Gang of Four, some Krautrock, definitely soul, and some experimental elements. I remember seeing you guys play live so many times at churches and I’ve even seen you at your house. You guys played at a party for around one hundred people when you were about to record a new record, testing out the material on us. Just watching the interplay between the band was really interesting and exciting. Where did that sound come from do you think?
Well a lot of the rhythm section and the bass especially was such a huge part of the band. The band was kind of built up from the bass lines and (bassist) Joe (Lally) grew up in Rockville, Maryland listening to a lot soul and saw Graham Central Station and Sly and the Family Stone and his bass playing had a lot of that inspiration in it. Ian was actually a bass player and Brendan also wrote a lot of bass lines so there was a lot of focus on creating a foundation and then over that foundation all of this other shit could happen. The period you’re talking about when you saw us at that house party everyone was living in mass group houses all in the same neighborhood. So you had like eight to ten people living in a house and then a block away there’s another house with eight to ten people and bands in each one. So there’s something to be said about communities and bands that grow up together mutually influencing each other. The house we lived in was called “Pirate House” and we had a eight track in the basement so we were able to record groups and try to create something ourselves. When you start touring you feel like a thread has been cut off, like you’re out there working and then you come back after three or four months and you can feel this weird alienation but that was what was cool about being able to come back to this community and see what everyone had been doing and you still feel like there’s something behind it that you always wanted to get home to. We felt a strong home vibe which was really cool.
Going back to when you mentioned feeling free without the guitar, I remember recording the first Delta 72 single was recorded by our mutual friend Juan Carrera in your basement and I remember on your door was a poster of The Jam and in the picture Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton were both jumping twenty feet in the air or something and all of the people I grew up listening to were all animated like that, whether it was The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, The Small Faces, The Jam or Fugazi, I have to move it’s how music makes me feel…
When I first started playing guitar it was really hard to play the instrument because of the feeling when you get on stage, the adrenaline and trying to control the adrenaline and still do what you’re supposed to be doing. I could never do it, I just couldn’t do it and that’s why it was great with Fugazi to not have to worry about that. I could just react to the music and once I got some years under my belt I was able to come back to the guitar and now I can actually try to play it. It is cool to be able to do both but yeah it is a weird thing because I’m actually not that animated a person normally but it’s just appropriate with the energy when it’s happening.
Beyond the music Fugazi and Dischord records in general always seemed to be a band and a label about the kids, looking out for the kids. The shows and the record prices were always reasonable priced and there seemed to be almost a contempt or a disinterest in the music business. I know it inspired many musicians including myself to just be honest to ourselves. I didn’t think it was possible to do stuff on my own, to just get in a van and go. When we put out that Delta 72 record (on Dischord) Ian said, “OK you design the cover, you pick the studio, you book your own tour…” Where do you think all of that came from?
A lot of it was just practical thinking on our part, like holding an all ages show just seemed self-evident because we started playing when were fifteen and sixteen so playing a show that your friends could go to just made sense and that was something instilled in us from the beginning. The cost of the shows was similar in that when you’re young you can’t afford to pay tons of money to go to a show and when we were young, we were going to shows all of the time. So that was where the initial impulse came from but then it really became clear to us that when the Fugazi shows and tours became bigger it was an ethical thing too. Not only was it that we could have more people come and see us without breaking their banks but it also introduced another element to the show which was you’re not only playing to people who are your closest dearest fans. If you pay forty-five dollars to see a band then you obviously love that group, but people would come to see us and they wouldn’t know anything about us, they maybe even hated us and just wanted to get in to the show and stir it up, but those were the kinds of crowds we found to be more challenging and more interesting. It created a tension that was about something different than just supplying entertainment which was interesting for the group and I think interesting as an ethic but some guy recently wrote an essay criticizing our band specifically and saying that our idea was a lack of ambition and a lack of professionalism and it created a bunch of people who cant get work now as musicians. I think that’s complete bullshit. My feeling about it is that it actually instilled in people the desire to learn how to manage their own affairs and how to create their own system because the business looks out for business they don’t look out for musicians. If you don’t know the tools of it then you’re always going to be vulnerable to being manipulated.
I had my own label Peterbilt Records and I didn’t sell a ton of records but I learned a lot about the different stages of having a label, putting out the records and making them look interesting. That really helped me in terms of being in Fugazi and making our own records and figuring out the whole process of it. It also gets you to feel a lot more welded to your own music. One of the biggest things that occurred to me in the 1990s in terms of music was that a lot of musicians were put into situations that felt alienating to them because all of a sudden there was a lot of attention and money being put into the underground music scene and when these underground musicians felt alienated from the music they were creating or they saw representations of themselves in the media that didn’t jive with the way they thought they were doing it, it just becomes this really disturbing thing and it creates a mental breakdown where the musicians can’t process what they’re doing anymore and it just drains all of the joy out of what you’re doing and very quickly, bands start breaking up and bands start losing their plot and it can be hard because there are enough pressures within the group without introducing all of those external pressures. So Fugazi was really smart about not letting it get outside of our management because once that happens, once we start seeing these reflections that we can’t control then the whole thing just falls apart. I think that was really important to us and it allowed us to get through it and continue feeling like we were in the driver’s seat and that what we were making was our own product.
Did you have any idea that it would influence future generations or even the kids around you like us?
Inspiration works both up and down. I feel like people may have been inspired by what we were doing but we were being mutually inspired by the people around us and the people we were meeting on tour.
A lot of times I think Fugazi was presented like an anomaly, like wow look at these freaks they do it this way. But we were also hanging out with bands like X who were doing very similar things and Calvin (Johnson) out in Olympia so I felt like there was a mutually reinforcing ethic that was available to everybody. Some of the things we did were anomalous like the shows we did but where we were coming from, we felt like we were part of a community and that we were constantly being mutually inspired by each other.
I heard this funny story that you were playing at Roseland Ballroom and Ahmet Ertegun, the famous Atlantic Records mogul came to the show and tried to sign Fugazi and offered you anything you wanted. I wonder if you could explain that story, this is the guy who helped Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles become international legends, it must have been kind of strange?
The whole thing was really strange because we were playing this gig and we finished the show and went down to the dressing room and we were taking off our clothes and toweling off and trying to change and we realized there was no one down there with us and we were wondering where were all of our friends. I guess the security was holding everyone away and then Ahmet came into the room with a lady and we were like, “Whoa, what the fuck?” It was an incredibly impressive power move, I gotta give him that. Then he started to pitch to us and I think all of us would have just rather have heard stories from the guy. Like you said, he signed some amazing people and he had an amazing history but he gave us this very straightforward pitch. He was like, “Look , you can keep your same label, I’ll just give you the same deal I gave to The Rolling Stones, you have your own imprint and you just run the show.” I think we were all just so confused about what was going on that we just weren’t even taking it seriously (laughs). I mean there was no way it was ever going to happen but at the same time we wanted to be polite because we respected the guy but it just didn’t make any sense. I mean people had long since stopped trying to sign us. For the first three years there were a lot of people trying to sign us but after that, no one even called us anymore, we were just not on anyone’s radar so it was just kind of weird to be approached by him and it’s a funny story but it was weird and the numbers in retrospect were just completely crazy.
Wrapping up on this topic, do you have one or two memorable moments in that whole history between when you first started playing with Rites of Spring through Fugazi ?
Yeah, I don’t really think down into moments but Fugazi lasted eighteen years (has been on hiatus since 2003) and people always ask me why we still aren’t playing and for me it was like we stepped off a train that was going so fucking fast that once we stepped off of it we couldn’t even see it anymore, it was just gone. I’m glad we made the film Instrument because there are so many memorable moments in that film, like playing the Lorton Correctional Facility which was perhaps the most awkward and strange show we ever played. Where like, Johnny Cash went into Folsom Prison and was loved, that wasn’t the vibe at all for us. Shows like that are really awkward and difficult and I look back at them as if they happened in a dream. But we would play shows like that, I remember being in Sardinia playing in a village, on a stage set up in the town square with children and grandparents walking around or in a public park in Hong Kong where people are just doing tai chi around us. These weren’t epic rock shows where the crowd was with their fists in the air singing along you know. It’s just something we wanted to try with that band, to play odd places like some underground show in Malaysia or Brazil and in a lot of these towns nobody knew who we were or what we were doing there but for us, we were just having our minds expanded.
You also work as a producer and engineer, producing bands like Blonde Redhead, Gossip, The Make-Up etc. How did that come about and how is that different to you then performing?
Well it started because like I said Fugazi had bought this small eight track setup and we set it up in our basement and for us it was important to learn how to engineer because we were making records without really understanding the process and so we wanted to teach ourselves. When we started making records we had no idea what we were doing and I would still never consider myself a well schooled engineer or super technical producer but I love the experience of being with bands and I think I’m able to focus and I just enjoy being around groups and working with people so once we started doing it and we had the equipment we were like “Shit yeah!”, and we just started letting bands come over and started tracking them and got more experience doing it and I just kind of fell into it really. I tend to only work on the people that I know or the music that I connect with. I’m less about the technique of making records and more about the experience of it all. I honestly believe that great records can be made on complete dog shit. Some of the greatest records ever made were made by complete morons making hundreds of mistakes. At the same time I believe that beautiful production can produce amazing records too. I just don’t think there’s any particular formula. I’ve tried to make records every which way I’ve made records in smaller studios and I’ve made records with Blonde Redhead that were 48 tracks analog. I’m just into whatever serves the music and whatever serves the bands creative ambition at the moment. Whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish, I just want to make that happen.
Lastly, there are two questions I chose from people who wrote in for your interview. The first one is from Stuart in Scotland. He asks, “I watched the Turnover live video the other day and it was amazing, I’d like to know how Guy got those sounds out of a Rickenbacker?
I remember in those early hardcore bands in DC everyone played a Gibson and there was a certain thick and massive sound to that guitar but at a certain point I wanted something different, to be in a different space and I’d always loved the look of the Rickenbackers just from being a Beatles fan and when I got my first one I just loved how thin the neck was and how different it sounded from any of the other guitars that anyone else was playing. But at the same time, they’re really fucking hard to control the feedback on.
It’s funny because I think I know the video he’s talking about and that was us playing in front of the White House which, no one will ever play in front of the White House again, (laughs) it can’t happen anymore so it’s amazing that it did happen because it really represented a moment in history where you could actually get away with being there.
There’s a sound on Repeater in the very beginning this snarling feedback that almost has a gate on it..
Yeah, that’s playing above the bridge on the Rickenbacker. Because the Rickenbacker has really long extensions from the bridge to the tailpiece and you had a lot of room to play it like a harp back there and when it’s distorted you can get these really shrieking sounds.
The last question is from Andy who said, “It would be really great if you could get him to talk about the experience of working off a spontaneous set list when playing live with Fugazi, that is something really special that people often forget or don’t know about their live set.” I didn’t know that you didn’t have a set list live.
Yeah, from the very first to the very last show we never had a set list and basically the way we did it was before we went out to play, we’d have to learn every song that we’d ever written. Initially, the first few years it wasn’t that hard but by the end of year seventeen when you have over a hundred songs and you have to learn them all, the practices would be really intense and we’d have to really work through all of the material and make sure that we knew everything completely. Then, when we played live the only thing that any of us knew was that we would be switching back and forth between Ian and myself singing and then later Joe because he started singing some songs and that was the only thing we knew before going on stage so whoever was singing next would be identifying the song we were going to play and we had to communicate it to everyone else and it was tricky because we did a lot of jamming together in between songs, just playing and creating segues to keep the concert flowing. So we had to use hand codes shout across the stage to each other. It’s a really good way to work and I think a lot of bands should consider it because you can really cater it to what’s happening in the room and it keeps you invested in what’s happening, you can’t zone out because you have no idea what someone is going to do next and you really have to stay in the game and it keeps everybody on this tightrope walk, everyone has to be really focused. It can also make for a really horrible show with people making horrible song decisions and the whole thing has loses momentum but you learn quickly this way what is going to work and what is not going to work.