Book Review: Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series)

Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series), (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2018)

The 33 1/3 book series contains over a hundred monograph-length treatments of classic music albums. It takes its name from an LP’s rotation speed, 33 1/3 RPMs. My friend Shawn Macomber sent me this one on one of my favorites, Fugazi’s 1993 In on the Kill Taker album. Gross interviews and quotes all four band members at length, and explores every facet of their careers.

It’s roughly organized as an introductory overview of the band followed by a chapter for each song on the album, plus occasional interludes. But within that framework Gross tends to wander quite a bit.

Fugazi actually recorded Kill Taker twice. The first attempt was in Chicago with Steve Albini, and did not turn out well. Albini is the singer/guitarist in Shellac, a well-known producer whose credits include Nirvana’s In Utero, and has an outspoken DIY ethos that meshes well with Fugazi’s. They worked well together and became good friends, but for some reason something was missing from from what they put on tape.

The band decided to try again at their hometown Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, VA with their longtime producer Don Zientara, and this time they captured the spark that was missing from the Albini sessions.

Gross, without being intrusive, goes into the band’s upbringing and personal lives to explain what made the band tick, and what was going on behind the scenes in the Kill Taker era. As a straightedge band— guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye (pronounced Mc-Eye) coined the term—Fugazi never had the substance abuse troubles and related drama that felled so many other bands. For the most part they have positive family lives, including the MacKaye’s parents’ famous Sunday dinner tradition, which the band, their significant others, and their friends scrupulously attended whenever they weren’t on tour.

But the album-tour-repeat grind was getting to the band a bit, and there is an undercurrent of weariness on the album. Of all Fugazi’s releases, Kill Taker is also the angriest. It marks a dissonant evolution from their earlier fusion of punk rock with dub reggae-style rhythms. The band members were only about 30 years old at this point, but they were already grizzled veterans of the music business. MacKaye had been in high-profile bands since he was a teenager, playing in the Teen Idles and then Minor Threat. Guy Picciotto, Fugazi’s other guitarist and co-lead vocalist, along with drummer Brendan Canty, was previously in the influential but short-lived Rites of Spring.

MacKaye’s co-founded record label, Dischord, was its own full-time business, and another source of stress. It started as a way to self-release MacKaye’s bands and document other local DC acts. But DC was home to so many top-notch bands that Dischord ended up becoming one of the country’s top indie labels. As of 2020, MacKaye still owns and runs the label, and is still putting out new releases.

Two other Dischord bands, Shudder to Think and Jawbox, signed to major labels around this time. The controversy this caused seems a bit silly in hindsight, but it was a big deal in the indie scene. Both MacKaye and the bands handled it with grace, but the experience was a headache, not least because of the fan outcry.

MacKaye, Fugazi, Dischord, and the DC punk scene have been covered in countless books and documentaries. MacKaye takes his role as a documentarian of DC’s punk scene seriously, and he has always been generous with granting interviews. But Gross still unearths a lot of fresh information here, about both Kill Taker and Fugazi’s career.

There are an unusual number of typos and misspellings for a book published by an academic press. But that didn’t take away from the joy I got from, for the first time in years, listening to Kill Taker again a few times through over the summer while reading this book, armed with new knowledge about what abstruse song titles like “Facet Squared” mean, and the stories behind lyrics I’ve wondered about or misheard for years.


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