An interview with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi

From the years 2000 to 2002 I ran an online zine, Actionattackhelicopter, along with my friends, Brian and Josh. I was fortunate to interview many musicians whose work I enjoyed. I’m posting some of those interviews here for anyone who may have missed them the first time. They have been edited for length, relevance, and to correct for my poor editing skills at the time of original publication. Keep in mind that these were done over ten years ago, thus individuals’ opinions, thoughts, and ideas may no longer be relevant, but they are still interesting as a snapshot of a particular time and place.

This interview was originally published in October 2001.

Avoiding the Obvious with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi

I had this idea a long time ago. I wanted to talk to rock musicians whom I knew and ask them questions that weren’t related to their band whatsoever. And “Avoiding the Obvious” is what I came up with.

Fugazi’s coming out with a single and a full-length this month (October 2001) and will tour next year. There’s really not much else that I need to say, I don’t think. Enjoy.

Have you had a chance to read Dance of Days yet?

I haven’t read it from cover to cover, but I have looked at it.

What did you think of it? Not so much what you thought of the stuff relating to you guys, but more about the other bands.

I’ve got a weird perspective. Right now is a kind of time when a lot of books reflecting back on the ‘80s are coming out. We’re reaching a point when a lot of stuff is becoming historicized and documented in that way. Speaking for myself, I’m not that comfortable with it. In my own mind I’m not in the mood to be reflective. I read these things and it makes me feel incredibly self-conscious of the things that I was involved in or the things I have memories of. I think it’s impossible for a book like that not to read a little bit like a cartoon to people who weren’t involved in it. I’m not specifically speaking of Dance of Days, but any of those types of books. It’s really difficult for people to capture the nuances or the things about what you remember and in the way that you retain them. It’s difficult. My feelings about Dance of Days is that I know Mark Andersen really well—I don’t know Mark Jenkins that well—but I really respect the political work that Mark Andersen has done in town and he’s done a lot of organizational work with Fugazi and on that level I feel really comfortable with him.

But in terms of him being someone who’s the historian of the scene or whatever, I feel less comfortable with it, because I feel like a book like that—well, there’s two things. People need to have been there and they need to know how to write. When I was looking through the book I was noticing a lot of inaccuracies and a lot of agendas that were related to Mark’s experience of what was going on but may not have been as relevant to other people. And I told this to Mark while he was writing the book, so I don’t feel weird talking about it. I thought that he had done great research and had done great interviews, but I didn’t think he was the person to write it. He’s got a very particular agenda and vision the way he interprets it that I don’t think necessarily jive with a lot of the other people who were involved with the stuff. From his perspective he’s just telling his story and that’s fine. He’s entitled to it. But I think that people think that it’s authoritative and the people involved authorized it and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

I read it and a couple of the other people on staff have read it and we all loved it, but I can see where you’re coming from.

Well, I’m sure. I think for a lot of people, there’s not a lot of information about the stuff, so to them it’s a goldmine. But for people who were closer to it, I think it’s difficult for us to have the same kind of reaction.

Thinking of some of those bands talked about in the book—who influenced you musically in DC when you were growing up?

Oh man. God, the Bad Brains. I think of all the bands, Bad Brains were the one that were the most powerful to me when I first saw them. I just couldn’t believe how intense their performances were. I think their records are incredible and for people who didn’t get to see them in their heyday the records certainly do a great job of documenting what they’re about, but their shows were just so phenomenal and so physical and so cathartic that they’re kind of the standard to which I hold most bands when I see them live. They were great. They took it to a different level. So I’d have to say that the Bad Brains were the most intense, but I’d have to say that for me, it was 1979 when I saw my first punk show and into ‘80 and ‘81 when I saw my first hardcore shows where much younger people were playing. I think that had a big impact on me, also. The idea that super young kids were playing.

The band I hung out with the most at the beginning was Deadline, which was Brendan’s first band. There was a kid from my neighborhood named Ray Hare, who was their singer. They were the first band that I was like hanging out with twenty-four hours a day. I was going to their practices—that was the thing, practices were almost like shows because there were so few shows that you’d get big groups of people just hanging out and watching bands practice. That was the band that I would always be hanging out with. That’s kind of how Rites of Spring developed is that me and Mike Fellows were always hanging out at Deadline practices and then when Deadline broke up they morphed into this band called Insurrection. There were these crew of kids who hung out and then all the bands developed from there.

Yeah, that’s pretty rad. I know that growing up, Ian and Brendan both came from musical families. Is your family that way at all?

No, it’s funny. Not really. My dad actually played harmonica in a band.

Blues Traveler?!

[laughs] Nah. My dad is an Italian citizen but he grew up in French-speaking Lebanon and he was in some weird band. They wore sombreros and they were called The Three Musketeers and they all played different size harmonicas. I’ve got a picture of them on some radio show in Lebanon and they’re all playing harmonicas. That was about it. Every now and then my dad would pull out a harmonica, but that was the only kind of musical thing. There wasn’t a piano in the house or anything like that. Both Brendan and Ian grew up playing piano—there were pianos in their houses—and they’re really strong keyboard players. This summer I’ve been trying to teach myself piano and I got myself this 1950s primer on piano playing and I’m learning songs like “The Grey Goose” and shit like that. I came at it from a different way. I got a guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and I started learning chords and I never had a particularly strong grounding in it. It was more like I just wanted to play.

Do you have siblings that play anything?

Nope.

Are you an only child?

No, I’ve got an older brother and a younger sister, but neither of them are musical.

So what do your parents think of what you do?

When I first started playing in bands, I don’t think they thought it was for real. I think they thought I was just hanging out with bands but I wasn’t necessarily in the band. Eventually Rites of Spring started practicing at my house and then they started to understand a little more what was going on.

They had to take it seriously.

Yeah. I think when I joined Fugazi and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to go do something else or get a job, then they started to see that it was real. As time went on and they saw how it developed I think they’re kind of into it now. I think initially it kind of freaked them out but now I think they’re probably happy that I’m doing something I like.

What do your siblings and extended family think of it? Do they look at you and say, “Oh, there’s Guy, the weird guy in the family.”

Oh no. I don’t think so. I think they’re into it. I’ve actually got an uncle who’s a musician. He married my dad’s sister. He’s a folk singer from England who’s actually sort of well known over there. His name is Leon Russelton. So there’s at least someone else in the family tree who’s doing a somewhat similar thing.

I didn’t know if you ever felt like an outcast in your own family sometimes.

No. Not really.

So, do you have any hobbies? Or do you not even have time for anything like that?

No. Not really. Most of the stuff I do revolves around music. I read all the time, but as far as hobbies, I don’t have a train set or anything like that.

The thought of you having a train set is rather odd. I can just imagine the rest of the guys come over and are like, “It’s time for practice,” and you’re like, “NO! I’m playing with my train set!” So what have you been reading lately?

Right now I’m reading a book called Fugitive Days. It’s a autobiography of one of the guys who was in the Weather Underground group from the ‘60s. He wrote a book about that, so I’m half way through that. It’s rather interesting.

Guy_Picciotto

I hear that you have a pretty extensive philosophy on the prison system.

I wouldn’t say it’s a philosophy. I’m just really critical of it.

Have you done any writing on any of it?

No, I guess what triggered it was that when I was at college I studied under a professor who had a class called Prison Literature. That’s basically what the class was about. It was about stuff written by people who had been in prison. From out of that class it just opened my eyes to something that I hadn’t thought that much about. Growing up in DC where there’s been an insane drug war situation for so long and so many black people from DC have been incarcerated in record numbers, it’s the kind of thing that I started thinking more about.

Over the last couple of decades, I really think that the prisons in America have been turned into an industry in a way that’s really frightening. People need to start paying more attention to it because it’s gotten to the point where one in thirty-two Americans is somehow in the prison system, either on parole or incarcerated. When you get that kind of numbers it starts to affect more and more people, because they all know someone who’s involved in it. They start thinking about how it got to be like this. I think that a lot of it is that prisons themselves are like factories. Politicians agitate to get them built in their districts because they know it means instant jobs and a kind of cash flow. It solves cash flow problems. When it becomes something like that (which to me is so obviously twisted), it becomes something that people need to think about.

Have you thought about reformations that could take place within that?

I think the most obvious thing is that they need to change the drug law sentencing in this country that is just asinine.

Like crack versus powdered cocaine?

Just everything. Kids getting busted for joints are doing time and the great bulk of this expansion in the prison system is to accommodate everyone who has been arrested in the drug war. That would be a place to begin. I think that with most of these places, the idea that rehabilitation is a part of it is absolutely not the case. It’s just about housing people. People need to start to think about how they want those things to function, because right now they’re just holding pens.

Yeah. Exactly. There’s no rehabilitation. What you’re doing is basically just taking someone out of society, which totally fucks them up, and then you’re putting them back into it however many years later and then they can’t function at all.

Right. And they’re deprived of a lot of things. Now there’s this thing where they’re passing laws where if you’ve been convicted of a felony you’re no longer eligible for any kind of housing assistance, welfare, and your voting rights are taken away. So basically you come out of prison and you have no support system and you can’t even affect change through the pathetic tool of voting. It’s a joke.

So, you said that you went to college. Where did you go?

Georgetown University.

What was your degree in?

I got an English degree.

Have you used it at all?

No.

There you go!

To me it was just an extension of high school. My main thing was that I wanted to be in DC. I didn’t want to leave town. It was the only school I applied to and when I got in I was happy to go. I felt like I learned some stuff and I had some great teachers and I met some interesting people there, but my main focus was really on being in bands and living in a group house with other musicians. I was working a job at the same time. It was a pretty intense period. I was in a band, going to school full time and I was working, so it was a great experience. But as far as the college aspect of it, I never really felt like I was in a career track or anything. I guess I just felt like I was treading water and learning stuff at the same time that I was doing music.

Guy Picciotto

Did you work at the Häagen-Dazs with Henry [Rollins] and Ian [Mackaye]?

No. I worked at the Georgetown Theater where a lot of those guys worked and I worked at a record store called Yesterday and Today Records that was an education in itself. At the time it was the greatest record store on the east coast and the people who worked there—each one of those guys was like an expert in different areas of music. Just working at that store was incredible. They had a whole shop that was just seven-inch singles of everything from the early ‘50s to whatever was contemporary. It was like a library. You could just sit in there and completely fill your brain with stuff. It was a great, great job.

What ended up happening with it?

It still exists, but I don’t think it’s quite the powerhouse that it was. I still think they have an amazing singles collection, though. If you’re into old soul stuff and early rock and roll—they have everything. There was that period there where the CD thing hadn’t happened yet, so vinyl was the medium and that was the store to get stuff at.

Since you’ve lived in DC for so long I’m kind of curious where you usually like to go to in the city.

It’s one of those great walking cities. It’s got an amazing park right through the middle of it. I live right next to the zoo. I mean, I live literally across from the zoo. For me, I could walk out and be looking at a sloth bear in five minutes.

You mentioned earlier how you didn’t feel like you were in college for a career track. I hate to say this, but do you ever feel old because you’re not doing what the rest of society does? Or is that just another extension of punk rock?

That never occurs to me. That’s never been something that was on my mind. Even if the bands I’d been in hadn’t gone on to do anything or say that Fugazi had broken up in six months, I think I would’ve kept finding some other way to play. But the way I look at it is that music saved my life. I was not all together until I started getting involved with music and the people here. I really feel like it was a huge thing. It was never a question where I felt like I was biding my time or I was doing it until it gives out and then I’d get real. The only thing that I miss is living in group houses and I miss that activity or energy that’s generated when you’re super young and there’s this constant hang going on and you’re up to four in the morning making tapes. And as you get older it seems like there’s less of that compressed group activity going on. Things tend to get a little more isolated. I miss that, but I certainly don’t miss the idea that I don’t have a pension or something like that. That’s not something I worry about.

I think it could also make you feel old when you mentioned that 1979 was the year of the first punk rock show you went to and that was the year I was born.

Yeah, sure. That’s definitely weird, but I’ve been hanging with people who saw the Beatles play and I think that’s really intense.

I’m supposed to ask you about what you have to say about the accusation that you’re just an evil koala math professor bent on taking over the world.

Wow. Where’d that come from?

A friend of mine said he asked you that at the show in Indianapolis. He said you look like a koala math professor.

Wow. I dunno—man. I don’t even know where to go with that one.

I can see it. You kind of look like a koala math professor a little bit.

Well, I’m good at math.

Are you really?

Yeah.

Well, do you like koalas? Do you ever go over to the zoo and watch the koalas?

I’ve got a picture in my apartment of me holding a koala.

Really?

Yeah. We were in Australia and we went to an animal refuge. You’re in the middle of the outback and they have this shack set up and it has a backdrop on it and they have these koalas they’ve been feeding eucalyptus leaves to so that they’re in a good mood. You get to hold one and they take a picture of you with it. But they’re really kind of crabby animals. The only food in their diet is eucalyptus leaves so they try to give them a lot of those so that when you actually get to hold them they’re not going to rip your stomach open.

[laughs] So what you’re saying is that you’d rip people’s stomachs open if you took over the world?

Yeah, maybe.

I was out in San Diego and I saw one of the only albino koalas in the world at the zoo there.

Wow.

That was kind of trippy. He was really pretty pissed at everybody. You think the regular koalas are bad, well, this one hates sunlight, too. So he’s hiding under things.

Something that I’ve been really interested in is the way Australia is isolated, geologically. It has such a bizarre animal population that’s so different from anywhere else like with the platypus and the spiny anteater and the kangaroo. It was great to go there. One of the things that tripped me up the most, though, was that in America road kill usually means squirrels, but there it means kangaroos. It’s huge. Getting your mind around that is hard. They have these giant “‘roo bars” on the trucks which are like these cages they build to rebound off the kangaroos.

Wow. That’s pretty crazy. I’ve never been to Australia.

It’s a great, great place. I think that everyone should go there at some point because it’s really amazing.

You also probably have an added interest in it because it was started as a penal colony. Did you study that at all when you were down there?

Yeah. I read the book, The Fatal Shore, about how that all went down.

I was a history major at college and one of my professors was big into that book.

It’s a great book.

There was some stuff at the end where I kissed Guy’s ass telling him how Fugazi changed my life, but that’s just between the two of us.

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5 responses to “An interview with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi

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