Don't expect 'Repeater': The Fugazi opera inspired by guitar feedback and stage banter
If you were a fan of '90s-era post-hardcore band Fugazi, you know all about the Washington, D.C. quartet's legendary live shows — frenetic, off-the-wall gigs that saw them do everything from hang upside down from a basketball net to getting right in the faces of would-be moshers.
During the band's 15-year run, singer-guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty were known for their DIY ethic, straight-edge political stance and contempt for the music industry.
They also toured relentlessly and ensured fans would have access to their work through all-ages shows and low ticket and record prices.
Fugazi called it quits in 2002, but fans late to the band's uncompromising sound can still get a taste of what it was like to be at one of their gigs, thanks to an online archive that's catalogued nearly 1,500 hours of their live performances.
Now there's a new opera based on Fugazi's archive — but it's got nothing to do with their music.
It's All True, the latest project by experimental performance group Object Collection, focuses on the incidental moments between the songs: anything from the band's often strange and sarcastic stage banter to a dropped drum stick or a loud heckler became material for the opera, which features four actors, four guitarists and two drummers.
Object Collection is the brainchild of writer/director Kara Feely and composer Travis Just, who have been merging theatre and experimental music since 2004.
While It's All True may not sound exactly like Fugazi, its abrasive musical score and shouty performances certainly capture the band's raw spirit.
"[Fugazi] painstakingly assembled this massive archive of every recording and made it available," Just tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "That sparked an idea and connected the dots between how they conducted themselves and the sort of things they sing about — stuff that was compelling and had a resonance for us in the kind of work that we had been making."
In fact, the pair found Fugazi's archive so compelling that they ended up listening to all 1,500 hours of it, meticulously transcribing all the between-song banter and incidental action over the course of several months.
"It was exhausting," Just says, laughing. "I mean, it was great — they're one of my favourite bands, even after this process, if you can believe it. But it felt essential to go through all of it, because we didn't want to miss anything.
"There was so much of it that we were unable to really have any preconceived notions of things that we were looking for," he continues. "So the first stage was to look for anything that caught our interest, whether it was … particularly cool drum flourishes or some kind of compelling guitar sound here or some weird heckler there. We had so much to get through that there [was little] time for reflection."
The spaces in between
What they ended up hearing in the spaces in between Fugazi's songs was as interesting as the music itself, Feely says.
"If you listen to the shows, there's such a diverse amount of things that are happening in between moments onstage," she says.
"In addition to the band and their interactions with the audience and each other, there were also other people who were invited up onto the stage, audience hecklers…" Feely adds. "They played so many benefit concerts [and] there were other people involved in those events that were coming up and speaking on a number of topics that were of pressing concern at the time.
"So it was such a great well of material to pull from, but also a moment in time in which there were a lot of voices that were trying to be heard."
Fugazi didn't hesitate to confront their own audiences, whether offering blistering political screeds at the mic or haranguing the crowd if the band thought they were getting out of line.
"They had a love-hate relationship with the audience," Feely says.
But Just says the time and context matter too.
"It's important to remember they come out of the … hardcore scene — those shows had gotten to a point where they were profoundly violent. People would just start wailing on one another as soon as the music started — I mean, this is not conducive to watching a show or playing a concert. And it was also generally a very aggressive vibe that shut out a lot of people."
While the performers in It's All True do offer up some high-volume pontificating and often confounding onstage action, they're not recreating a Fugazi gig — that sort of on-the-nose treatment held no interest for Feely and Just, who didn't want to simply engage in a nostalgic look at one of the formative bands of their youth. But though their opera might have its tongue firmly in cheek, it's not meant as a send-up of Fugazi's straight-edge seriousness.
"[We're looking at them] certainly with admiration, I would say," Just explains. "With the things they're talking about — imploring people literally not to use physical violence towards one another and also to engage themselves in the communities around them — whether it's things that are more politically or socially motivated, but also in an artistic sense."
After listening to hundreds of hours of Fugazi's biting but often wry and even silly banter, Feely and Just tried to bring that sense of humour to the surface — there's a surreal edge to It's All True that manages to walk a line between deadpan and absurdist.
"I can't help but make things funny," Feely says. "It's part of what keeps me entertained, and I think there's a lot of humour in the material already. I'm sort of bordering on exaggeration and the ridiculous in terms of the staging and [how the performers] take things to an exaggerated level."
'They were a little blown away'
It's All True, which premiered at the Borealis Festival in Norway last year, will play at the London experimental music venue Café Oto on Sept. 21 and 22, before making its New York debut early next year.
London label Slip is also putting out an album of musical selections from It's All True in October.
But what does Fugazi think of this tribute to their infamous onstage shenanigans?
The band members haven't yet seen It's All True live, but they did give their blessing to the project (though they weren't directly involved) and got in touch after Just sent them a video of the Norway performance.
"It was very nerve-wracking because we got the permission … and then we went away and weren't in touch for a year and made this thing, and then sent them the video and were terrified to get a reply back," Just says. "But they were really supportive of it, and I think a little blown away by how obsessive we were in doing this stuff – I don't think it was what they expected.
"They said all sorts of nice things, which was profoundly gratifying. I mean, they're such a particular subset of an audience for this thing — nobody else is going to have an experience watching this like those guys, because they lived everything that happens in the show," he adds. "It definitely made us feel good that they were behind it and didn't think that we'd discredited or disrespected the stuff that they'd done."
To hear the full interview with Object Collection's Kara Feely and Travis Just, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.