Fugazi Loves You: In on the Kill Taker at 30

Music Features Fugazi
Fugazi Loves You: In on the Kill Taker at 30

In the photo collection Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85), it’s easy to find pictures of a young, Minor Threat-era Ian MacKaye. Depicted in kinetic photos preserved by Cynthia Connolly, Leslie Clague and Sharon Cheslow, he’s everywhere, snarling into a microphone, diving into a mosh pit and running a hand over a fuzzy straightedge buzzcut. Nearby, there are tales from a scene marked not only by musical experimentation and community-driven politics, but radical acceptance. There’s Bad Brains sets at Madam’s Organ full of jazz covers, $5 shows and all-ages policies, a “strange woman” singing cabaret numbers onstage at a gig.

Banned in DC documents the network of “harDCore” that was changing and evolving by the time Fugazi kicked into the Billboard charts with 1993’s In on the Kill Taker, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today. In the wake of Revolution Summer and the midst of DC punk redefining itself, McKaye, Joe Lally and Rites of Spring’s Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty were in the lab, fine-tuning the sounds of Repeater and Steady Diet of Nothing. Audiences at their constant shows were growing and growing, and rumors were abounding of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love showing up at Fugazi sets and Michael Stipe dancing with Canty in the street.

“Suddenly, all the major labels were jumping in,” MacKaye tells me of this time period over the phone, on a dreary day in the DMV. “There was this tidal surge of record sales.” He still doesn’t know what to make of that sudden success, but In on the Kill Taker asks those who have just started paying attention to catch up. With its hazy Washington Monument on the front, it’s an album rooted in and reactive to that DC scene, with an expansive palette of influences from the alternative and emo movements Fugazi helped create.

At one point in our conversation, MacKaye calls punk “an extended family of people who give a fuck.” In a certain way, the first few songs of In on the Kill Taker feel like a family intervention. “Facet Squared” is a head-splitting opener that’s grounded in the band’s commitment to each other, leading with a heartbeat-monitor guitar riff from MacKaye. Lally’s bassline propels the track to a breaking point until Picciotto takes over, ripping across the fretboard while MacKaye takes to the microphone. The lyrics decry nationalism with a subtle, semiotic wit—as MacKaye reminds me, the title comes from a homonym of the acronym “Flags Are Such Ugly Things.” But “Facet” is quick to warn against nihilism too, naming irony and disaffection “the refuge of the educated.” The double-edged critique continues in “Public Witness Program,” where Canty sets a pummeling tone on the drums while Picciotto excoriates bystanderism and insists you pay attention with a cry of “Can I get a witness?!”

In on the Kill Taker’s rage is pointed and self-referential, insisting upon change, and by “Returning the Screw” it seems directed toward the meaningless cruelty that made its members ditch hardcore in the first place. Unlike “Facet Squared,” the music is tense and restrained here. The lyrics are largely passive: “The point has been recorded, the malice has been revealed.” It’s only after naming bad behavior for what it is that catharsis is reached, with a lurching, guttural groan from the rest of the band as MacKaye issues the warning that “it comes back to you.”

There’s a foundational rule of moshing (even though you probably shouldn’t mosh at a Fugazi show): If someone falls, pick them back up. At its core, the success of any scene relies on community care. Fugazi’s onstage banter has been memed into oblivion, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Picciotto’s “ice cream-eating motherfucker” monologue was an effort to ask their audiences to be kinder to each other. Their work, in MacKaye’s words, “was about love”—love for each other, love for a community and love for the hope of a better world.

That idea is laced through Kill Taker, which, despite claims of the contrary, is also a prime example of Fugazi’s sense of humor. Like “Facet Squared,” “23 Beats Off” is a play on a play on words, referring not only to the obvious entendre but the Repeater song “2 Beats Off,” itself a reference to Wire’s “106 Beats That.” “Cassavetes” mimics the bassline of “Waiting Room” while Picciotto praises DIY by inhabiting an unhinged film director, screaming “Gena Rowlands!” In fact, that sense of humor is the reason MacKaye’s quotes are in this piece. I wasn’t planning on speaking with him—until I found out he recently commissioned a painting of Garfield the Cat from the conceptual artist Garfield from Memory, a cousin of mine who set us up to talk. MacKaye has politely requested I include this backstory in the final draft, but there’s something resonant in it: bonding obsession with weird art; the families we come from and those that we choose.

Right around the halfway mark, In on the Kill Taker gets quiet with “Sweet and Low.” The downtempo instrumental track is anchored by Lally’s bassline, which MacKaye and Picciotto weave in and out of as Canty punctuates on the hi-hat. “Sweet and Low” is a good segue to the album’s B-side, creating a space to breathe between “23 Beats Off” and “Cassavetes,” but its presence on the album is much more than purely functional. It’s a moment of softness that emphasizes the harshness of the rest of the album; the kernel of tenderness unmasked from all of the noise. At the end, that tenderness returns with the Picciotto-led closer “Last Chance for a Slow Dance,” which plays with musical peaks and valleys as the lyrics mourn a self-destructive person who refused to ask for help. They may have refused to accept it, but that doesn’t mean that the love isn’t there—as Picciotto promises, it’s waiting right outside the door.

After In on the Kill Taker, Fugazi continued the experimentation they set out on and completely overhauled their recording process. For 1995’s Red Medicine, they stopped trying to relay their legendary live show straight to tape, opting to direct that intensity into self-directed production and the incorporation of newer and weirder sounds. In on the Kill Taker brought Fugazi new and unprecedented levels of attention, and it also opened the floodgates—Red Medicine would go on to be the group’s highest-charting album.

Since then, everyone from Pearl Jam to Paramore has name-dropped Fugazi as an influence. Jeff Rosenstock has explicitly cited not only their sound but their ethos as integral to his own work, and Johnny Marr has called Ian MacKaye one of his favorite guitarists. Back home in Washington, Fugazi’s legacy can also still be felt. Dave Grohl sent a fan letter to MacKaye as a teenager in suburban Virginia; The Dismemberment Plan took the idioms of In on the Kill Taker and made !, then, later, Emergency & I. Hamilton Liethauser helped engineer Red Medicine as a teenager on a summer job, and Beauty Pill, whose music is now getting a long-overdue critical re-evaluation, found a home at Dischord to continue pushing rock to the edge. Today, “mascara moshpit” punks Ekko Astral are pairing innovative sounds and community-building with trans liberation.

For his own part, MacKaye is happy to be a part of that legacy. “We made a ripple,” he says towards the end of our chat. “I’ll take that as something.”

Annie Parnell is a writer, radio host and audio producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Virginia Literary Review, Pop Matters, The Boot and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @avparnell and at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.

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