When the iconic American punk band Fugazi started playing back in 1987, it started taping, too.
"Our friend Joey Picuri, who was a local sound man — or a fellow who helped do sound for bands — he recorded the shows," Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye tells NPR's Guy Raz. "He just gave us tapes of our first show, and he gave us a tape of our second show."
From the beginning, the band appreciated his efforts: "It was just nice to be able to hear the songs realized, in that sense," MacKaye says. "In many ways, you can write a song and you practice it, but it doesn't really become a song until it goes into someone else's ears — in this situation, the audience's. So hearing it in that setting, it's like, 'OK, this is a song now.'"
For a lot of bands, that would have been it; record the first show, show it to your friends afterward, then forget about it and continue living the dream. But Fugazi isn't most bands.
"Joey started to travel with us as a sound man," MacKaye says. "He just started to record the shows out of habit. We didn't really plan on recording all the shows, but after we had 50 or 75 or 100, it seemed like, 'Well, we might as well keep doing it.' And we ended up with 850."
Not 850 tracks, or even 850 hours — 850 shows. Fugazi, one of the most important bands in the history of punk, recorded every single show it ever played. But what does a band — even one with as fanatical a fan base as Fugazi's — do with all that tape?
"At some point, we were around the 300 mark, and the band discussed the tapes," MacKaye says. "And we were thinking, like, 'We don't need these tapes.' We didn't even listen to these tapes. The first shows, sure, we listened to those things. But when you're on a tour and you play, say, 60 shows in 63 days, pretty much the last thing you want to hear is a recording of those shows. It's unbearable! We just kept stashing them in the closet."
It must be a pretty big closet, because the band has ended up with more than 1,300 hours of tape. "We were trying to figure out how to get all this music out there," MacKaye says. Now that technology has caught up with Fugazi, the band has done just that: Fifteen years of shows will be made available to buy off the Internet, warts and all.
"These tapes are not all good," MacKaye says. "I certainly cringe at some of the stuff I hear, especially sometimes when I'm talking to the crowd. I think sometimes my humor is extremely dry, and a lot of times I would say things that I thought were very funny but ... I have a reputation of — people think of me as a very fundamentalist, humorless fellow."
'At Least A Dollar'
Fugazi is employing a pay-what-you-want strategy for this enormous library, so listeners can decide how much these hyper-authentic recordings are worth to them.
"They have to pay us at least a dollar — there's no free on this one," MacKaye says. But with their purchase, listeners get a true oral history of the band, riddled with moments that would have otherwise been lost.
"There's a really great show from Munich, in I think the early '90s, '93," MacKaye says. "At that time, it was pretty typical for the audience to say things like, 'Get on with it!' and 'Play the music! Just play!' I remember we had come back on stage for an encore, and somebody was lost or confused, or I don't know; something had happened and somebody needed help. So we were trying to say, 'Hey, there's a woman back here, she's lost and she's looking for her friends.' And some guy was just yelling, 'Get on with it! Just play!' And at that moment, I understood the dynamic, what was going on in this relationship, where he was a consumer and wanted to consume. He wanted sound. So at that moment, we just all turned on our guitars and started feedback, and it was a wall of feedback. And it was like, 'Okay, here's sound. You just want sound.' There was no actual engagement with the music; it was just sound they wanted.
"So it's maybe five minutes of just feedback. It was a totally surreal moment, and when I hear that, I can smell that moment. It's so visceral to me, but it's one of my favorites, because we go right into a song from that. I'm not sure that's even up yet, but it'll show up."
Included is the band's last show to date, on Nov. 4, 2002, and its traditional set-closer, "Glue Man." These recordings bring MacKaye back; in reliving the moments he recorded, he remembers the moments that weren't.
"The truth is, what I really miss is the six-hour drive in the van with them, because we always just hung out. We did a lot of time together, and those moments, those are very difficult to come by at this moment. Whether or not we play again, I don't know. That's just the way that goes. In some ways, this has been such an incredible project, mostly because I've just been sitting on these tapes for so long, and I think, 'Finally, here, everybody else have at it.' "