Fugazi's Guy Picciotto and Photographer Glen E. Friedman

Photo: Glen E. Friedman

BY Vish KhannaPublished Aug 29, 2007

In separate interviews Guy Picciotto and photographer Glen E. Friedman discuss the new book Keep Your Eyes Open; Fugazi.

Guy Picciotto
Since the 1980s, Guy Picciotto has been a key force in the Washington DC music community for his work in bands such as Rites of Spring and Fugazi. Fugazi played their first show together on September 3, 1987 and went on to significantly alter the ways in which people experience and play rock music. Picciotto was keen to discuss his friend Glen E. Friedman’s latest book, Keep Your Eyes Open; Fugazi , which captures he and his band-mates—Brendan Canty, Joe Lally, and Ian MacKaye — from lively and intimate angles throughout every period of Fugazi’s existence.

Guy, just by the scope of Keep Your Eyes Open, it’s clear that Glen and Fugazi have had a strong relationship over the years; other than being the subject, did Fugazi have any role in how this new book took shape?
Well, not really. It was Glen’s baby pretty much but he did ask for advice a long the way and commentary from the band and he would send things down for us to look at. I mean, he knew and understood that we were uncomfortable looking at tons of pictures of ourselves and he kind of factored that into whatever we had to say about it. But we did do stuff to help him out. He does a bunch of stuff in the book that he wanted to make sure was correct, like listing the song titles chronologically instead of using page numbers, so he checked with us to try and figure out the chronology of when the songs were written and things like that. We definitely lent him some ideas and criticisms along the way but ultimately… anyone who knows Glen knows that he doesn’t take direction from anybody! [Laughs] So, it’s definitely his puppy, man!

What do you make of this book?
Again, it’s tough for me and obviously a different experience for me to look at it than probably someone else, but there are things about it that I think are gonna be really nice for me down the line, to have and to be able to show my kid. It’s really an amazing thing to have. Beyond just the photos and getting to see the band through the years or whatever, which is kinda nice for me, I really enjoyed having the essay by Ian Svenonious that precedes the book, and Glen’s essay in the back. It was really, really nice to have friends writing about the band in a way that was different from the way the band have been portrayed up until this point. I think they both had unique perspectives and it was cool to be able to read that.

As a long-time fan of Fugazi, I’ve always appreciated the way in which the band have been documented, beyond you all making records. From recording shows to the amazing footage that was on display in the film Instrument and the photographers who’ve shot you over the years, these things are always rendered with great care and artistry. Why do you suppose all of these unique people have gravitated towards capturing Fugazi over the years?
Aw, man, I have no idea. We’ve been lucky in the friends that we’ve had. Jem Cohen is someone who knew Ian since he was in high school and we ended up working with him on Instrument and he just happened to be close friends with the band. Glen is someone… I mean I knew Glen even before I was in Fugazi just from his photography, seeing it on other people’s records. Particularly from this thing that he put out back in the day called My Rules, which was like a fanzine of his punk rock photography. I remember I was working in a record store when that thing came out; it was really like a one-of-a-kind thing at the time. It was a fanzine completely devoted to photography and was one of those things that everyone had to have and it set the bar for how cool photos could look. And also, at a time when there wasn’t information available on the internet, you could look at all these bands and get a sense of them. Bands that I hadn’t seen live — I could get a sense of them from My Rules and not just snapshots but really great composition shots, the way only Glen can shoot them. It was really awesome when I actually did get to know him and become friends with him around the time when the band was starting. So yeah, we’ve been really lucky. I’m not sure why these people want to hang around with us. [Laughs] Sometimes I find it funny that people find us photogenic at all because, unlike a band like the Beatles who had a different look every six months, I look at our book and I’m like, ‘Hey look, we’re wearing the same t-shirt for 16 years!’ [Laughs] And no one has a moustache but y’know, that’s the way it goes.

Yeah, that’s true. So it’s just, as you say, good fortune. You had these people who were on the periphery I guess, but also very involved with the band.
That’s the thing with any group. Groups are parts of scenes and scenes are composed of people and a lot of times people have a lot of analysis and praise for the group. That’s why I was really excited to have Ian Spiv and Glen and lots of different voices contributing to this book because those were people that were part of the scene we were from. We always felt really affiliated with communities and that’s a big thing that the band was about — communities. Fugazi may have been strictly us four as people but we were supported, encouraged, and inspired by all of these other people as well. That’s one thing that I think is cool about the book; it has a community feel to it. That’s the same thing about the Instrument movie; we tried to put lots of portraits in it so people can see where we were coming from and what was surrounding us.

Right, that certainly comes through. Among other things, this new photo book got me to thinking about Fugazi’s relationship with its own history. In interviews and the way you spend your energy publicly, Fugazi has always seemed to look forward rather than being particularly nostalgic about your work together. Would you say that’s an accurate perception?
Yeah, I think so. The only thing is, we stopped playing together in 2002 and we can’t be too forward looking because we don’t have any future plans! [Laughs]

Right, and since the band’s hiatus, there’s been the Fugazi Live Series of live recordings and now this book; how do these things affect your perspective of the band, particularly now that it’s inactive?
It doesn’t affect my perspective really. To be honest, all of us are engaged with so much stuff right now, we don’t spend too much time sitting around, stroking our chins, and reflecting on the group. One thing we are very serious about is tending to the group in a way that we think is respectful for the work that we’ve done and maintaining a standard for what we’ve done in the past. Just because we’re not active, we’re not gonna let the weeds grow. We actually are in touch with each other every week and we’re still self-managed and there’s still tons of Fugazi business to tend to all the time and we’re on it and we’re taking care of business. At the same time, we’re also taking care of new business and new plans, new projects. Our interest has always been, making things available to people who are interested in them and trying to make it as accessible and as high quality as possible, and as respectful as possible and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do with things like the Live Series. This book isn’t a self-generated thing; it’s Glen’s project. But whatever support we can give to it, we think it’s cool. A lot of people still have curiosity about the band and I think it helps supply information at a time when we’re not out there working. It gives people a chance to check out some amazing photography and read some interesting perspectives about the group and I think it’s important in that light.

When you mention weekly Fugazi business, what kinds of things are you working on?
Well, for example, this week Ian is mixing Joe’s new solo record, which I did some work on, so tomorrow I’m gonna go to the studio with Ian and we’re gonna do some work for Joe’s record. Stuff like that, and then… a lot of it is so mundane. Really what it is an avalanche of crazy e-mails every day. Like, ‘this person wants to use this for that.’ A lot of times there’s these cool political organisations that want to use our music for something or movie people wanna use it and we have to go through it. All that kind of stuff…

Something like this obviously…
And something like this; we do interviews. Even beyond the band stuff, we’re in touch with each other, as friends. We’ve logged a lot of time together and we’re basically family to each other, so there’s a lot of stuff to mull and chew and flap the gums about. [Laughs]

I gather there are no future plans. Is there anything more that you can tell me about the hiatus?
I probably know as much about the hiatus, as anyone else. [Laughs] We decided at a certain point that we needed to take a break and that break just kept extending itself, to the point where people are just busy and working on things. I think if there was active interest from the four of us to do something, then we would sit and talk about it. Maybe that will happen but I have no sense that that’s imminent in any way. One thing people should know is that, certainly there was never any acrimony. It was more a question of, having worked together for 17 or 18 years, we needed a chance to open some other windows and check out some different things and that’s what we’ve been doing.

I hesitated to ask that question but I’ve asked it of Brendan, Joe, and Ian, thinking you’d all have different perspectives on it, so I thought I’d ask you as well. It was pretty much what I was expecting.
[Laughs] No big bombshells…

No, but I appreciate you answering the question. I’ve long wanted to interview you but I wasn’t really sure what you’ve been up to. I know you’ve produced some records and Joe once suggested you’ve been recording with a new band. I also heard that you worked with A Silver Mt. Zion on a new Vic Chestnutt record; is any of this true?
Pretty much everything you’ve said is actually accurate.

That’s good; I do good research.
You do. I’ve mainly been producing records for bands — groups like the Gossip, the Blood Brothers and Casual Dots. I’ve been producing records even since before the Fugazi hiatus but I’ve been much more active with it now and really have been enjoying it. It’s kind of a cool way to vicariously be a member of a bunch of different bands that you don’t actually have to join, y’know? It’s been pretty awesome. Besides that, I did just play guitar on a Vic Chesnutt record up in Montreal that we did at Hotel2Tango with a bunch of the people from Silver Mt. Zion. I’m gonna tour with Vic in Europe in November. I think we’re gonna put together a band using Mt. Zion people and me and Vic and go out and do some gigs, which I’m really, really excited about because I haven’t actually toured in a long time and I really do miss it. And I have been recording and playing with people in DC for about four years now but it’s stuff that I’m still keeping close right now. It’s more like playing music for the sake of playing music and making tapes for the sake of making tapes. I have so much stuff stacked up and I don’t know what it is even any more. [Laughs] It’s an enormous amount of material but, when and if I go back out or work with a new band, I want it to be right so, I’m working on it.

Did Fugazi’s hiatus affect your interest in writing new music? Like, when it stopped were you just like, ‘Huh. I don’t quite know what to do with myself?’
There were so many things going on in my life at that point that that was just one more factor in terms of me having… it was a rough patch… a bunch of stuff I need to figure out. But I never lost my interest in music. I’ve actually performed live a few times but I was doing a lot more improvisational stuff and working with improvisational musicians and playing European festivals. I did one solo event in Belgium based around a film that Jem Cohen had done. So, I’ve been playing sporadically but it was not… I mean the one thing about Fugazi, it was so completely, insanely full on and when we toured, we would tour lengthily and it was really… once you get off that kind of manic horse, it’s like ‘Whoa.’ It’s like this time warp where, all of a sudden, things were very different. So, I’ve been playing but it’s like one festival here and then three months would go by and I’d do another one and then I’d be off producing a record. It seems less streamlined but it’s just more spread out; I’m just doing more different things. It’s kind of taking me in different places and I’m not as focused.

Glen E. Friedman
Glen E. Friedman is a world-renowned photographer who has rendered some of the most iconic pop culture images of the past 30 years. From his time as a youth in the 1970s documenting the nascent Los Angeles skateboarding culture in Dogtown, to covering emerging punk artists such as Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat, as well as hip-hop groups like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, Friedman has been there to capture truly revolutionary moments in our culture. He has authored several books relating to his photography including Fuck You Heroes, The Idealist, and he co-produced the award-winning skate documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. On September 3, his latest book, entitled Keep Your Eyes Open; Fugazi will be released; it documents arguably the most artistically and politically significant band of the end of the 20th Century, Washington D.C.’s Fugazi. The release coincides with the 20th anniversary of Fugazi’s first show together.

Glen, for the most part it seems as though your previous books have been anthologies of your work as a whole, not necessarily focused on one particular subject or artist. How did this idea for a book devoted solely to Fugazi came about?
Well, the idea for it came about four or five years ago. My most recent art book was also devoted basically to one subject but that was more of an artistic treatise. The fact is, I have more Fugazi photos than any other single subject I’ve ever shot, other than clouds, which was the topic of my last book. Fugazi have been the biggest inspiration to me, musically and artistically, for many years. When this date came up — the 20th anniversary of their first show — I thought, ‘They haven’t played for a while, no one knows if they’ll ever play again; why don’t we get together all these photos and put them out in a book [to] keep this thing that they were doing going.’

The scope of the project is truly incredible; you’ve captured Fugazi during their whole lifetime together, as an active band. Obviously something drew you to shoot them whenever possible; why is Fugazi so significant for you?
There’s so many reasons. Number one, because they’re friends and just great human beings. Number two, they’re inspirational because every single album is a natural progression. They’re one band that has never let me down from one album to the next; every time, it’s always something great and different and it’s so rare in music that you can say that. Most people, their first album is their best album or maybe they get their legs a couple of albums in but then they become disappointing after that. These guys — their output was always incredible. Then what they do business wise; it’s like no one else. They’ve had opportunities to do other things and go other places but they do it all on their own terms. And they’ve had opportunities to do it other ways. Plenty of people ‘keep it real’ and ‘underground’ and ‘DIY’ and whatever else you wanna call it, but that’s because they don’t have any other choice. Fugazi actually had a choice. I’ve actually been in the room when they’ve been approached by people with bags of money who wanted them to do things.

There’s a moment chronicled in the book where you mention that, in New York City.
Yeah, with the infamous Ahmet Ertegün. I mean, here’s a guy who signed Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and so many other people. He was way past his prime but the people at Atlantic Records figured, ‘Well, we can’t get anywhere with them, maybe they’ll be impressed with Ahmet. He’s from Washington DC as well so maybe he can get into them.’ It was a pretty funny moment actually because he came backstage when the guys were pretty much just changing after the show, with his wife, and they let him into the dressing room. It was a kind of peculiar moment but, true to form, when he talked about making a deal of some sort with them — something incredible that most people would think was unbelievable — they politely brushed it off and moved the conversation towards things that they would like to talk about, like their shared love of Washington DC and that conversation continued for quite a while. I think he got the message that these guys were kind of untouchables. That’s very inspiring. I mean, I live my life in similar ways that they do but, as a band of musicians, their incredible integrity and the way they do everything has really been an incredible thing that, like I said, continues to inspire me even in their hiatus or whatever it is. Just by listening to their records and keeping the legend alive, as it may be, with the photographs and the records, it continues.

One of the things that strikes me about your work with Fugazi is the intensity and intimacy of the images. The live shots often capture these wild and ferocious moments, yet the calm portraits of the band also contain this palpable tension. In the book you mention that Fugazi are quite photogenic and you obviously enjoyed shooting them but did they also prove to be a particularly challenging subject for you, as an artist?
Not really. I think we have so much in common — my own particular ideals, our taste in music, and our enjoyment of things in life — that actually, it was pretty smooth sailing most of the time. We have a respect for each other’s work to the point where they really let me do whatever I wanted photography wise. I was able to go on-stage and be wherever I wanted to take photos. We have similar sensibilities and I also didn’t take inappropriate photos; I wasn’t someone who was prying into weird, personal aspects that are just totally unnecessary, invasive, and don’t make sense in the way I try to portray things in an artistic way. When it came time to shooting some of the band portraits sometimes that got a little uncomfortable, only because you’re focused so much on the individual’s faces. We only did those photos for the fun of it and because that was something that press demanded. You wanted to have some portraits of the band throughout the years and sometimes that would be uncomfortable, as it is for anyone who’s not conceded to having their photo taken. Most normal people don’t like being photographed in that way. So, it was more relaxed when we were taking live photos, not that they were posing at all because they weren’t. It was really just a matter of documenting and me working around that, my compositions in the live performance. But when we did shoot portraits, it could be uncomfortable sometimes and other times we were more relaxed and things did fall into place a little bit easier. It was all about creating a certain moment and perspective and a way to represent the band that they would be happy with, as well as myself.

By the time Fugazi had come to be, you’d been shooting photos for quite some time. They can be quite frantic on stage, moving around constantly. Did you learn things, as a photographer from shooting them?
Well, from the skateboarding days is where I learned to capture action more than anywhere else. Shooting Fugazi or almost any band, it wasn’t that hard for me to figure out when the peak moments of action were and to be able to be there to catch them. But then to be able to compose them perfectly and incorporate all of the things that I always wanted to in a perfect Fugazi photograph, or even any band photograph, it wasn’t always the easiest thing and that was the challenge. With Fugazi, in particular, because all the members in the band are so equal in every way, one of the most important objectives for me was to portray everyone democratically and equally. In many of my photos you will actually see all four members at the same time, even if they’re not all singing at the same time. I liked that aspect of it; I really enjoyed being able to show the whole band rather than just focusing on the lead singer or player at that particular moment. Certainly there are photographs like that in the book where you only show one person but there’s a great percentage of them where you see the whole band and the audience and the room they’re playing in. It’ all very organic, for lack of a better term, just like the band is and that’s really what I was trying to convey. The whole idea behind taking these photos is really to inspire other people; to excite them about things that are exciting me.

I must say, that’s something that I’ve observed. Whenever I took pictures of Fugazi with a point-and-click camera, I think I was influenced by your photos of them — the idea of getting them all and the crowd and capturing the interactive experience. Are you conscious of the fact that you’ve influenced other photographers?
I’m not that conscious of it but I hope that I have. It sounds like from what you said that I’m doing what I set out to do. I am trying to show, with my work, a way to take pictures that really matter. It’s not just documentation of a moment but really an appreciation of that moment and a way to share that moment and inspire other people with that moment. It’s not just, ‘Oh I’m there so I’m gonna shoot and there — you should like it because I happened to be there at the time.’ I don’t have any time for that kind of methodology. It’s supposed to mean something; that’s why I’m doing it. I’m not lazy; I’m very serious about what I do.

Absolutely, that comes across. Finally Glen, I imagine most people are familiar with album covers you’ve shot such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys among many others; do you foresee yourself putting together other photo books focused only on some of these artists or is this Fugazi book a rare exception?
That’s a good question. It has crossed my mind. We’ll see if any of these other bands, throughout our lives, present themselves or make it something undeniable that needs to be done. I have thought of other bands that would be good to do a photo book on but, y’know, at this point in time, no other band has proven themselves the way Fugazi has and made it an undeniable fact that it was something that I had to do. Again, my archive is not as complete with any other subject, as it is with them. But, you never know. I’d give it at least another five years. I have a brand new son so I’m gonna put a lot of time into that for the next five years and take a break from making the books and we’ll see what happens after that.

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