Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fugazi Returns... Through Opera?

from Pitchfork:
by Andy Beta Contributor
Last November, Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards posted a photo from a Washington Wizards telecast, featuring former Fugazi and Rites of Spring member Guy Picciotto taking in the game. Soon after, another indelible image of Picciotto on a basketball court circulated online, of the guitarist and vocalist performing at an early Fugazi show, dangling upside down from the basket, shirtless and screaming. It was a searing reminder that Fugazi’s vitality has seldom been matched. For nearly 20 years, they were an inspirational force in the underground—as kinetic as a severed power line, night in and night out.

“They're still the greatest rock band I've ever seen live, as electrifying as your imagination will allow,” recently said Richards, whose post-hardcore band Q and Not U was signed to Dischord Records, co-owned by Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye. “Fugazi taught me how intense live music could be, and how that intensity can help bind a community.” After the band’s sixth album, 2001’s The Argument, and its subsequent tour, Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus in 2003. Every so often there are rumors of a reunion (and even an April Fool’s Day joke), but the band has never played live again. In 2011, they offered a consolation of sorts: an 800-show live archive spanning from 1988 to 2003 and containing over 1,500 hours of music, uploaded to Dischord’s site.

When Brooklyn-based experimental theater group Object Collection announced It’s All True, a so-called “opera-in-suspension” based on that archive, fans, music sites, an even the band were flummoxed. “I was really left-footed by it–I couldn’t read the tonality at all,” Picciotto said recently, via email. “It seemed kind of arch at first, though I was hugely relieved that it wasn’t some kind of hagiographic take on the whole thing.” It’s All True premiered in Norway in 2016, was staged in London last year, and now makes its U.S. premiere at New York’s venerated experimental theater home, La Mama, where it runs from February 8th through the 25th.

Before the idea of “Waiting Room,” “Glue Man” and “Reclamation” being strung together into a cringeworthy storyline about two Gen-X lovers crosses your mind, none of Fugazi’s songs actually appear in It’s All True, meaning that the band thankfully won’t be having its Mamma Mia! or American Idiot moment. Instead, Object Collection’s composer Travis Just and writer/director Kara Feely pulled their material solely from stage banter, feedback, guitar re-stringing, and confrontations between Picciotto, MacKaye, and their audiences—a bewildering mix of incidental and interstitial moments that suggest every performance is in a perpetual state of collapse. How fitting for a troupe that most recently presented a hardcore take on the Russian Revolution (and the legendary Sergei Eisenstein film about it) with cheap&easy OCTOBER.

“Our work is non-narrative and there's already 1,000 versions of ‘Reclamation’ available for everybody to listen to, so what's the point of us doing that?” Just said. “We're not gonna tell the story of the band, either. As a composer, I've always loved uncontrollable feedback and drums that sound like they've been thrown down a flight of stairs. That's kind of my thing.”

Even after Fugazi granted usage rights (they are selective, generally allowing student films and non-profits but not most corporate and industry requests), they still didn’t think anything would come of the project. “Frankly, I didn’t fully understand what they were going to do with the material, and I also wasn’t 100 percent convinced it would ever happen,” Picciotto said. But after the premiere, the band saw video footage and couldn’t quite believe the end results. “We all started exchanging emails of the ‘what-the-fuck’ variety,” Picciotto added. “But the more we watched it, the more it started to grow on us. I think the willful perversity of the undertaking really appealed to us—the literal notation-scoring of the incidental music by Travis, all the crazy quilting of the stage speech by Kara.” Picciotto even admitted that no single member of Fugazi actually made it through the entirety of their own live archive, a process he called “pretty fucking grueling.”

“They maybe weren't expecting us to go as deep as we did, but when you're working with an archive, you kind of have to go through everything,” Just said, though the process did start to have adverse effects on him. “It was brutal, I won't lie. I was having weird dreams that I was in the band or just some disembodied head.”

In the years since Fugazi went on hiatus, their legacy has grown, though the band’s convictions have become at times distorted. “It drives me insane how people talk about them today,” Richards said. “‘Fugazi? Weren’t they that straight-edge band who hated dancing and liked to scold their audience?’” Yes, the band held to convictions about keeping shows cheap (often $5-$7), all ages, and safe. If the mosh pits grew hostile toward women and younger kids, MacKaye would immediately bring things to a halt. Rather than regard it as nagging and hectoring a paying audience, such pauses and verbal sparring were ultimately about fostering inclusivity in the scene. As a 16-year-old living in central Texas, Fugazi coming to play in my town felt seismic: an all too-rare event that didn’t involve going to a bar, needing a chaperone, or borrowing money from my parents. Even more mind-boggling is that I can revisit that exact show.

Although neither Just nor Feely ever saw the band play live, Fugazi’s dedication to a DIY ethos—their willingness to book the tours, rent the PA, and cart their own gear—spoke to the theater group. “Being involved in performance, it's all about the live show for us,” Feely said. “There was just such a huge amount of activity going on around [Fugazi] shows, whether they were playing a benefit concert, or there was a rally going on that they were playing in front of, or even just how they conducted themselves live and what they expected of the audience.”

On Thursday night, It’s All True made its U.S. premiere, every bit as confounding as the video clips hinted at. Propelled by a din scored and conducted by Just for the Dither Guitar Quartet, bookended by drummers Shayna Dunkelman and Clara Warnaar, the noise accompanied four actors as they thrashed and shouted on a simple stage of armchairs, folding chairs, metal tables, and stacks of cardboard, moving seemingly at random. It was gestural yet resistant to a through-line, the music similarly disjointed: tunings, drum rolls, amp buzz and, at one point in the performance, amplified sipping from water bottles. “Surprisingly, the incidental music triggered weird ‘feelings’ for me,” Picciotto said. “Stuff I heard a million times–certain time-killing drum fills or tuning patterns–and it was weird how resonant that felt.”

Although much of this stage banter was first uttered by Fugazi in the ’90s, as the band railed against Exxon, Mobil, Bush 41, and the “television miniseries Desert Storm,” there are passages highlighted in It’s All True that become eerily resonant in the present moment: lines about police violence, gun deaths, the unchecked growth of for-profit prisons, affordable healthcare, “male lame asses,” and even a diatribe on “shitholes,” all woven into the din. The opera starts to reflect the mass confusion that is palpable in 2018, wherein we’re in need of action yet flailing over how exactly to act.

“I always hated the whole question of, ‘Does politics have a place in music?’” Picciotto said. “It’s moronic. We are all in politics all the time, and the play reminded me of how much that was foregrounded at the shows—we were all in it. And we’re still all in it. It’s a combination of that depressing feeling of ‘fuck, this shit AGAIN?’ with the more resilient, combative ‘FUCK this shit, again!’”

Amid the jumble of feedback and shouted lines, something resembling that heartening relief of being in the crowd at an underground show or a protest march emerges: the paradoxical realization that while no one person can make a difference, a difference can nevertheless be made. It’s All True explicitly addresses that near the end, taking a line from the band and shouting it anew: “You look around and go, ‘I’m not alone!’”

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