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Fugazi's sound and fury, now on demand

Ian Mackaye's seminal DC hardcore band catalogs 15 years of live shows

“I’m still in the middle of these fucking taxes, but yeah, I can take a break.” Ian MacKaye is on the phone. He is a busy dude with a penchant for doing everything himself — today, that includes assessing his 2013 income, which is derived from speaking engagements, selling records through the Dischord label he started in 1980, and playing out with his band The Evens. “But at the moment,” he says, “the chamber of my brain that’s involved with getting The Evens on stage isn’t available because I’m busy dealing with the Fugazi Live Series.”

Fugazi is a group of musicians steeped in the history of punk rock — MacKaye also fronted the legendary hardcore band Minor Threat as a teenager. But the band was intent on doing something with the sound of guitars, drums, and vocals that was completely divorced from the hammering barre chords and frantic drumming of the early ‘80s. That led to an oddly catchy brand of precisely executed rock that evolved over the course of seven albums and relentless touring.

Between 1987 and 2002 Fugazi played more than a thousand shows all over the world. While it wasn’t a particularly jammy band in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, Fugazi never used a setlist. This allowed the songs to flow into one another organically so that every performance had its own distinct sonic footprint. More than 800 of them were recorded to cassette and DAT tapes, which piled up over time. Five years after the band went on hiatus, an NYU student named Peter Oleksik was looking for something to do for his graduate thesis in moving image and archive preservation. He met MacKaye at a book fair in 2008 and learned about the unorganized archive that was languishing in his old bedroom. “I was like, ‘Hey, would you mind if I came down in January and did my thesis on this?’ And he was game.”


So on his winter break, Oleksik sat in a room full of tapes at the Dischord house in Arlington, Virginia — the same house where many of the most influential punk bands to come out of the DC area had lived, rehearsed, and recorded since 1981. For the Baltimore native who had grown up seeing Fugazi at Fort Reno Park in the capital, "It was a wild time those first two weeks. It would just be Ian and I in the room." MacKaye would regularly pop early original demos into an old tape deck as they sifted through material. "Whoa, whoa, you shouldn’t do that!" the soon-to-be-professional archivist would scold, wary of the havoc that even a single pass of a tape head could wreak on old cassettes. Within a few days he had created the basis of what would eventually become the Fugazi Live Series — rehousing and reorganizing the tapes from a jumble of crusty Case Logic boxes into an old but well-kept library card catalog MacKaye had found in the trash.

To accommodate the old standard Oleksik found a vintage turquoise Power Mac G4 tower

"I made up a numbering system and organized everything so that we could get it out of Ian’s head and into a database," Oleksik explains. "From there I prioritized everything in terms of obsolescence — there were a ton of DAT tapes that were really shitty." Before flash recorders and hard drives were cheap enough to use as audio-storage media, the most convenient way to get a high-quality digital recording was on the notoriously unreliable Digital Audio Tape. When affordable SD cards became the norm, DAT equipment disappeared from the market quickly, leaving the archivist with limited hardware options for pulling the Fugazi material into a more accessible format. The only high-speed DAT reader he could find was Sony’s SDT-9000, an internal drive that offered only a SCSI-50 connection. To accommodate the old standard Oleksik found a vintage turquoise Power Mac G4 tower. "When we went to get it from this Craigslist guy he was just like, please take it!" With school back in session Oleksik headed back to New York, leaving MacKaye with the Frankensteined transfer station and a massive job ahead of him. In a bizarre sort of reverse twist of fate, Sony discontinued the SDT-9000 just two weeks later.

For months, the rock ‘n’ roll icon would pop DATs into the drive, set an egg timer as they transferred, and go downstairs to do other work. Meanwhile, Fugazi’s longtime engineer Joey Picuri set about digitizing the cassettes — but the huge volume of material still had no set final destination. "I hate to do archiving for archiving’s sake," says Oleksik. "We can preserve stuff but what’s the point if no one’s gonna listen to it?" MacKaye also felt that the tapes had a higher calling than rote preservation: "I’m a Hendrix fan, and I’ve studied many, many live recordings of his … I’m glad someone taped those shows, and I’m glad I was able to get ahold of them. My sense was, well, we have all these tapes, let’s not just take a few of them. Let’s put ‘em all up."

Nice new outfit

And so the march toward digital distribution began. Sometime-Fugazi member Jerry Busher began post-processing: EQing out excess noise, chopping the sets into individual song MP3s, and labeling everything according to the catalog system that Oleksik had formulated. After guitarist Guy Picciotto gave the files and the metadata a final look, the music was ready for the public. On December 1st, 2011, the Fugazi Live Series debuted on Dischord’s website, with the stated goal of making all the recordings available for $5 apiece — a nod to the band’s preferred ticket price during the 13 years they toured. That’s just a suggested price, though: you can actually pay anywhere from $1 to $100 for any show download, provided you can explain why in at least 40 characters.

Like all of Dischord’s output, the Live Series interface is a no-bullshit affair, packaged efficiently and brimming with all the details MacKaye and his bandmates could scour from meticulous tour logs. Every show — from their first on September 3rd, 1987 to their last on November 4th, 2002 — is assigned an audio quality rating from "poor" to "excellent." Ticket price, opening bands, source material and engineers, and setlist are present for nearly every show, and most come with live photos and fliers, many of which were submitted by fans. There’s also a forum-like interface on every show page, and it’s not unusual to find scores of people who attended each event trading questions and comments with an air of happy nostalgia tinged with hope that the band will one day return from its 11-year hiatus.

But two years after it launched, MacKaye still seems focused on getting the Fugazi Live Series as complete as it can possible be. The band has solicited and received original source recordings that didn’t wind up in his bedroom — submissions from fans and tape traders have accounted for a 10 percent growth of the archive since it launched, giving the whole thing a community-driven feel. "I cannot figure out how many shows we still have to put up. I’m exhausted by it, I’ve spent thousands of hours on it at this point, but we’re really committed to getting it done… one of the things I have to do today or tomorrow is proof 10 more shows. It’s not that I’m sick of it, but if you’ve been on a long journey, the last few days it’s just sorta like, ‘Let’s get the fuck home.’"

Do you like me

There is a lot to be excited about in the ways we produce and consume music in 2014, but it’s often difficult to decipher where the music ends and the contextual media structures around it begin. The best thing about Fugazi, and the live series, is that the music is always the message. There are no Facebook or Twitter logos polluting its pages; no publicist blasting emails about how Dischord is revolutionizing music; no attempt to sell to a nostalgic market. For MacKaye, it remains a matter of completing a simple task demanded by a pile of tapes that captured a small slice of American history.

For months, the rock ‘n’ roll icon would pop DATs into the drive, set an egg timer as they transferred

"I have no idea who’s listening to it. Of course I would like them to think, ‘That was good, we enjoyed listening to that.’ But beyond that there’s no aim. It’s just a document." But doesn’t the very act of documenting imply that the content itself is important, like those Hendrix bootlegs — didn’t MacKaye have any real feeling of Fugazi’s place in history? "I’m not a nostalgic dude and I just don’t think about stuff like that. It’s just the work." No matter how hard I pressed him for some shred of pride, I couldn’t feel it over the phone. "Some of the songs, you put a guitar in my hand and I would have no idea how to play them. With that kind of removal I can listen to the songs and think, ‘That’s a good song.’ It’s not me playing it, it’s just the guy in the recording." It turns out Fugazi’s greatest legacy might be something that everyone involved in creating media could use a lot more of in 2014 — humility.

Photo credit: ECM