Few if, any, bands have influenced the D.C. music sphere like Fugazi. Their politically charged-lyrics and commitment to a DIY ethic helped to define the city’s unique brand of punk subculture. In the 15 years since the band announced its hiatus, a whole new generation of fans has been born. In a D.C. wrought with political turmoil unlike ever before, the clamoring for a reunion—however unlikely it may be—is as loud as ever.
Austin-based arts and culture journalist (and former City Paper contributor) Joe Gross appreciates this. “Fugazi is sort of the band I’ve thought about the most,” he says— something significant considering Gross’ background, both professional and personal. It’s for this reason he decided to focus on the band’s third album, In On The Kill Taker, for his forthcoming book, the 129th installment of Bloomsbury’s popular 33 1/3 anthology book series.
City Paper recently spoke with Gross by phone about the book, the band, his writing process, and what he thinks about the current D.C. punk scene.
Washington City Paper: When did you begin the book?
Joe Gross: I had been thinking bout pitching a 33 1/3 on [Fugazi] for a long time. Sometime in 2015 I said “Might as well try it” and I got in touch with the band. I had interviewed Ian [Mackaye] a couple times before; I knew him in just sort of like a business/professional capacity just a little bit. I had friends who had worked for Dischord. But I didn’t really know any of those guys, and I just sent [the band] an email basically saying “I’d like to do this, but I don’t want to do it if you’re not interested in participating. I’d love to talk to all of you. I’d love to get all of your thoughts on this, so if you’re not into it, that’s fine, but if you are I can write about any of your records with a reasonable amount of authority, I think.”
WCP: Did you know from the start this was the specific album you wanted to write about, or did you reach that conclusion more gradually?
JG: Absolutely not, that’s why I thought to ask them. I really was like “I think there are four that I know forwards and backwards. Thirteen Songs is kind of tough because it is two records, it is two EPs and I kind of didn’t want to pitch those because that’s kind of an odd object. [The album] became sort of an iconic record of the CD era, but those are two separate records, and I think of them as a piece. I had written about them before, and they were very generous. They were actually like, “We kinda don’t care which one you pitch—we can talk about any of them. We have better memories of some, but pick whatever you like and we’ll go from there. I settled on Kill Taker because I think it’s an album that came out at kind of an interesting moment for what became known as alternative rock. I think it’s a spectacular record; I think it’s the first record of theirs that captured how powerful they sound live. So, I pitched Kill Taker to the 33 1/3 folks and they were into it.
WCP: When people think of the quintessential Fugazi album, often In On The Kill Taker is not the first to come to mind. Do you hope this book changes people’s perspective?
JG:I can only speak for what my perspective on the record is. I hope it clarifies some stuff and I hope they learn something. I think it will shed light on a lot of enigmatic song lyrics. Something I think is sort of a theme of the book is everything in Fugazi songs means something, but not everything means a lot; they’re a band you definitely sit down and try to parse out what they’re talking about. Sometimes you get close and sometimes you—as I found out—are nowhere near it. I hope people take away a better understanding of where they were coming from.
WCP: Can you elaborate a bit on what the interview process was like?
JG: Once the book got accepted I set up an interview with them and wanted to get all four [members] in a room at once for the first round of interviews. Most interviews with them are with Ian [Mackaye] or Guy [Picciotto], but I just wanted to be in a room with all four of them just talking casually about this record and see where that went. It was the four of them and their longtime engineer Don Zientara, who is the owner/operator of Inner Ear studios, at Dischord house [in Arlington]. Then I did phone interviews with each individual.
WCP: Much of the book is written in first-person. You pretty casually namedrop local institutions like Yesterday and Today Records and Fort Reno, are these places you were familiar with before beginning your research?
JG: Yeah. I grew up on the Virginia side, so I didn’t go to Yesterday and Today [Records] that often, but it is certainly a store I went to. I saw lots of shows at Fort Reno. Most of the places I talked about I had at least a little bit of familiarity with.
WCP: Related: what is your background like writing about this subject area as a whole?
JG:I started writing about music professionally around 22 years ago. I graduated from UVA and started writing about music and culture around 1996 and 1997 for the WCP, and a magazine called Option, which isn’t around anymore. I worked for an alt weekly in Dallas from 1999 to 2000, then started working at the Austin Statesman in 2002 and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve written about Fugazi on and off. Actually, I think a review of Steady Diet of Nothing was one of the very first record reviews I ever remember writing.
WCP: You touch on the state of world affairs—particularly in Washington, D.C.— in the afterword. How do you expect this to influence the punk music that is to come?
JG: Things are massively, massively different than they were 25 years ago. The context in which [the album] was released is so profoundly different from the context in which music is made now. I don’t know how young outsider artists are responding to this administration right now. The weird thing about the context in which In On The Kill Taker came out is that suddenly there was all this sort of corporate-level attention on the music you had to go looking for.
The difference now is that you still have to look for it, but it’s much easier to find. I think the bigger question right now is, ‘’to what extent do young people build their social identity around music? Is it comparable to the way they did that 25 years ago or not; how is it different?”
Something I really defined myself by was “this is what punk rock in Washington is like.” Of course, that’s an oversimplification—there was lots of punk in D.C. that had nothing to do with Dischord, and was fascinating and amazing in its own right, but I remember at the time thinking “This is me; this is very much how I want to think about the world,”` and I just don’t know to what extent [young people] do that with music now.
WCP: What’s next for you?
JG: I’ve got other book ideas, but nothing I’m immediately diving into at the moment. I’m just gonna keep doing my day job and see if this book achieves a certain level of success then I’ll have some options; if it doesn’t I’ll have other options. But I wanna see how people like it before proceeding with anything else. This coming June marks 25 years since In On The Kill Taker was released.
Fugazi’s In On The Kill Taker is now available online and in most bookstores.