To Take a Measurement: Jem Cohen and Fugazi’s “Instrument”

To Take a Measurement: Jem Cohen and Fugazi’s “Instrument”

In 1999, Dischord Records released Instrument, a collaboration between filmmaker Jem Cohen and the Washington D.C.-based post-hardcore band Fugazi. Eschewing the familiar format of concert films and music documentaries, the film proposed a different way of portraying musicians and their fans, largely comprised of footage shot by Cohen between 1987 and 1998. Two decades later, it still feels like a diamond in the rough amongst the hegemony of music documentaries and concert films, with few other examples matching its broad scope and varied formal elements, drifting between performances captured on 16mm film in a single take, Super 8 footage slowed down and accompanied by Fugazi demos, portraits of and interviews with concertgoers, archival interviews with the band, clips of them recording and rehearsing, views of landscapes and buildings around the United States, and more.

Fugazi remained fearlessly independent via Ian MacKaye’s label Dischord Records, responsible for releasing highly influential bands from the D.C. area. Despite being headhunted by major labels throughout the ‘90s, when alternative rock music was becoming increasingly commercialized, they stuck to their own ethics, striving to keep their shows all-ages and their admission prices to as low as $5 wherever possible, and playing over 1000 concerts across the world, until their indefinite hiatus in 2003. The punk scene that Dischord Records and Fugazi emerged from encouraged picking apart established systems critically and redefining creative pursuits, something that undoubtedly left an imprint on Instrument as it took shape.

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Still of Guy Picciotto in “Instrument”

Cohen, who went to high school with guitarist MacKaye, established a friendship with the band early on, his short film “Glue Man” (1989) being an early collaboration with them. Revolving around the alarming footage Cohen had captured of someone sniffing glue outside of his apartment in New York, the film would use a demo of the band performing a looping riff and a text Cohen penned for guitarist Guy Picciotto to read. The process later inspired the band’s song of the same name, with Picciotto building upon Cohen’s words. Collaborations, both on and off stage, were highly encouraged in the band’s early days, resulting in Picciotto’s own addition to the group after he began joining them on stage as a second vocalist. “Before I started playing guitar, there was a lot more room for chaos in the shows,” he recalls, discussing the infamous moment where he climbed into a basketball hoop whilst singing “Glue Man,” the footage of which was given to the band ten years later by filmmaker Todd Crespi, and included in Instrument.

Cohen would go on to contribute photography and design work for several of Fugazi’s album covers, and began shooting some of the band’s performances. “He would come down with his Super 8 reels, and we would sit in Joe’s [Lally] room and project them on the wall, playing them in slow motion,” MacKaye remembers, though they were unsure how to utilize the footage, given the silent nature of the format. “I guess in some ways it doesn’t make any sense, but it made sense to me at the time because it encouraged me not to be locked into a sort of traditional idea of what it was to document a band,” says Cohen about shooting on Super 8, “It just seemed like something that provided an image that had a lot of soul to it.” Another complicating matter was the band’s distaste for the then overbearing presence of music videos. While discussions continued on how a concert film or a similar production might work, it was agreed upon that Cohen would continue to shoot the band, expanding his arsenal by renting 16mm Bolex and video cameras, allowing synchronous sound.

Stills from “Instrument”

But it was the soundless Super 8 that would prompt a major component of the film: its soundtrack, which began when MacKaye sent Cohen a two-hour selection of various archival audio recordings. “They were like these earlier versions of songs or just musical meditations that didn’t really make sense in the context of a Fugazi album,” says MacKaye. In the film’s opening moments, the song “Slo Crostic” — an alternate and vocal-less version of the song “Caustic Acrostic” found on the band’s album End Hits (1998) — accompanies gold-tinted, slowed-down Super 8 footage of the band playing, emphasizing the movements contained in their cathartic live performances and sometimes inheriting the magnetism of the motion studies carried out by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey prior to the advent of cinema. Vignettes like this recur several times throughout the film, usually centered around specific performances, such as at the St. Augustine’s Church Hall in Washington D.C. in 1990 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert for Justice in 1993, with the Washington Monument as its backdrop.

Still of Ian MacKaye from “Instrument”

Released on Dischord Records alongside the film, the soundtrack also features an interesting detour from Fugazi’s usual sound: a piano-based song performed by MacKaye titled “I’m So Tired.” “This is a song I wrote in the early ‘90s,” says MacKaye, “and they couldn’t figure out how it would work in terms of Fugazi.” He later decided to record the song while the band was demoing tracks at his grandparents’ house in Connecticut, and when Cohen later arrived, he filmed MacKaye playing the song back to him and included it in the film. As a result of its appearance, the song made its way on to the soundtrack, giving something that had once been left in limbo a new life. “I don’t know if there’s actually any way to tell, but I suspect — based on YouTube — it’s the most covered Fugazi song,” suggests MacKaye, given its simple but memorable piano melody and the ease with which it can be adapted to other instruments. The song’s catchiness is reflected in the film with Lally seen whistling its tune afterwards. Elsewhere, Cohen captures Picciotto and MacKaye comically screaming at their instruments following a take of “By You” during recording sessions for their album Red Medicine (1995), with that take appearing on the record itself.

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Of course, the film has plenty of moments where the band plays songs with synchronous sound too. Often the only camera operator, Cohen’s positioning on stage for some of these moments proves instrumental to the film’s engaged portrayal of musical performances, with an emphasis on being present in the moment ultimately shining through. Cohen presses for proximity and action in equal respects; getting close to MacKaye as he pushes his guitar’s headstock into the amp to get feedback, moving behind the drum kit and doing a skilfull job of tracking the band’s movements, without ever descending into music video stylistics. It’s also a bold move on behalf of Cohen and the band that, soon after the gold-tinted opening sequence, the film presents the eight-minute single-take recording of “Shut the Door” at the Capitol Theater in Olympia. “I love that it opens up with that eight-minute-long song,” declares MacKaye, “Jem said just start with that and if you can make it through that, then, you know, it’s sort of a throwdown — are you in or are you not?”

Stills from “Instrument”

The different ways in which Instrument presents the band’s music both diegetically and non-diegetically is owed to the wide range of formal techniques employed, as well as the film’s collage-like editing, rupturing the possibilities of what a film concerning musicians can attempt to accomplish. “We were trying to get at a feeling, and we got at that feeling by pulling things apart and recombining them, and it became, I think, analogous to what the dub musicians had done in the studio,” says Cohen. As a result, the film freely transitions between elements, but does so in a way that allows for different tangents and thematic threads to intersect. For example, after a spoken list of locations ending in “home” is read to the viewer over footage of the band traveling, the band’s performance in front of the Washington Monument is seen immediately afterwards, underscoring both the geographic scale that the band traveled and their political ties to Washington D.C., where they would exclusively play benefit shows. The film also comes to rest in D.C. at the end, with members of the community seen coming to watch the band at a benefit show for the Latin American Youth Center, held at the Wilson Center, a well-known hub frequently used by the community support group Positive Force. Mark Andersen, one of the primary organizers of Positive Force, can be seen at multiple points in the film, both in an interview outside of a show and watching the band at the aforementioned Washington Monument performance. Other notable figures from Washington D.C.’s musical scene can be spotted congregating in the film’s final moments too, including Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe and Nation of Ulysses’ Ian Svenonius.

Stills from “Instrument”

One of Instrument’s most defined facets is its focus on the people surrounding Fugazi, with Cohen’s long durational portraits of fans standing out prominently. Even well-lauded concert films such as The Last Waltz (1978), lock the viewer into a certain field of vision that often reinforces the vehicle of star power and a sense of hierarchy. The act of turning away from the musicians to portray the crowd underscores that there are other people contributing to their performance. “When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Woodstock (1970) and Monterey Pop (1968),” says MacKaye, “and both films actually have pretty generous amounts of audience footage, and you get a sense of the context, the atmosphere.” Monterey Pop is an often overlooked but highly significant music documentary credited as influencing the organization of the Woodstock festival, and much of that can be attributed to the focus on the festival’s attendees, marking a significant moment in hippy counterculture. Like the crowds in Monterey Pop, Cohen’s portraits in Instrument are sometimes able to reflect the commercialization of alternative rock music at the time, with the emerging popularity of acts like Marilyn Manson and White Zombie becoming apparent through various T-shirts worn by concertgoers. As Cohen’s subjects look directly into the camera for the long durational portraits, blurring the lines between moving image and still photography, an intimate sense of getting to know that person arises. MacKaye greatly values those portraits, reiterating how much of an effect watching those people over and over has had on him; “I’ve never seen them again, most of them, but they’re burned into my head and I always think I’m going to run into them.” Cohen also regularly observes concertgoers as they watch the band, in some instances finding those he captured outside.

Cohen also interviews concertgoers, bringing a range of perspectives into the film, particularly in the case of Fugazi, whose low-cost tickets encouraged a broader range of people to attend, including those who would come out of curiosity or those who even disliked the band. “They knew that their audience was a wide mix and that was a tension that was sometimes fascinating to them,” recalls Cohen. The interviewees include fans arguing about whether the band had “sold out” or lost the edge of their sound with later albums, and someone complaining about the band’s policy of confronting or ejecting violent dancers. Though it’s often a source of humor, keeping the critical responses to the band in the film ultimately demonstrates the heavy reliance of talking heads in other music documentaries, in which the majority of interviewees are safe bets and often set the precedent that only a privileged few have the ability to relay a band’s history. Originally, the band wanted to include solely negative comments as it was amusing to them, but Cohen convinced them otherwise, emphasizing how important the band was to people. A married couple enthusiastically proclaim their love for the band outside a show in one interview, and if you go back to an earlier sequence in the film where the band wrestle with select audience members intent on violently dancing or spitting at the band, the same couple can be seen singing along at the side of the stage. It’s a moment that underscores how, through an emphasis on the audience, the concert halls become phenomenologically active spaces with the subjectivities of everyone in that room engaged.

Stills from “Instrument”

Elsewhere in Instrument, a high school television interview with MacKaye and Picciotto discussing the etymology of the word “America” is thematically followed by footage of advertisements and shops along American highways. Cohen would later create an uncanny patchwork of such locations in his 2004 film Chain, juxtaposing them alongside a fictional plot featuring two women affected by the dominance of them, and it’s interesting to see the groundwork of that being laid in Instrument. The commercial infrastructure of the United States was something regularly reflected upon in Fugazi’s lyrics, making heavily branded spaces and building sites an apt backdrop for moments in the film, further strengthening the community found in the film’s depictions of audiences. Likewise, the importance of certain spaces as environments for subjectivities and art to flourish and interact in is a theme that runs throughout Cohen’s later work — gaining Museum Hours (2012) critical praise for its gentle depiction of a relationship formed in and around Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Stills from “Instrument”

As one of many available documentations of the band, Instrument sits within a much broader infrastructure of resources. Aside from Fugazi’s discography of six albums and four extended plays released over the course of their 16-year run, there’s also photographer Glen E. Friedman’s book Keep Your Eyes Open, and more recently the Fugazi Live Series website. Sitting somewhere between a thorough documentation of the band’s live sets and an invaluable resource for fans looking to relive or discover select shows, the Live Series primarily draws from the hundreds of tapes that Fugazi’s long-term sound techs Joey Picuri and Nick Pellicciotto and various fans recorded. In many ways, Instrument and the Live Series are similar projects; both are born out of long-form archives and a need to make them available. The expansion of the archive into the public realm of the Internet has proved invaluable for fans, with some getting in touch with MacKaye and asking if they could sync audio to full sets that they had recorded back in the day, making them available on YouTube. With so many songs to choose from at any time, and their foregoing of setlists, the band rarely played the same set twice, meaning that the Live Series offers an expansive documentation of the various changes and rarities that the band might have presented in different locations.

The website also invites fans to submit their own recordings so that absences can be filled. The ability for tapes to be lost, stolen, or not recorded is something that made its mark on Instrument too: “One of the cosmic jokes of our whole project is that when I shot ‘Waiting Room,’ which was an encore in Knoxville, Tennessee, the board tape wasn’t recording,” recalls Cohen. This was the same show that the aforementioned couple can be seen singing at. “The show had been so punchy, filled with starts and stops… it was a real uphill battle,” says MacKaye, “and for the second encore we just did ‘Waiting Room’ — the place went nuts, it was a great moment.” “Waiting Room” remains one of the band’s most recognizable songs, so its absence from the film is ironic, but the experience perhaps best underscores how intertwined Instrument and the Live Series are, as Cohen was utilizing audio from the sound desk recordings when filming on 16mm. As a result, someone can now theoretically seek out the full audio recordings from the shows that Cohen captured certain songs of. The comments on the page for the Olympia show at the Capitol Theater in 1995 reflect that this opportunity has in fact been taken up by fans looking to hear more of that set.

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The editing process of Instrument involved Cohen negotiating cheap editing time at facilities in New York, and MacKaye describes the process as quite intensive, with the film being around four hours initially, and the band regularly comparing notes. Towards the end of the process, it was primarily Cohen and Picciotto who would edit together and bring the film to its fruition. The two have since continued to collaborate, both contributing to the late Vic Chesnutt’s 2007 album North Star Deserter and creating a live score for Cohen’s Evening Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008) with Chesnutt and members of Silver Mt. Zion and The Quavers for the Vienna International Film Festival. A similar group of musicians also contributed to 2012’s We Have an Anchor, and Picciotto also composed music for the Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street series (2011–2012). Fugazi’s drummer Brendan Canty has also continued to engage with filmmaking, producing concert films for Wilco and Eddie Vedder, and the Burn to Shine (2004–) series of DVDs, built around the formula of finding an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished house and inviting musicians from that respective city to perform a single song each. The project is an interesting anomaly that pre-dates the wide availability of live session videos produced by KEXP, Audiotree, and NPR online, with MacKaye’s band The Evens appearing in the Washington D.C. edition.

Stills from “Instrument”

Meanwhile, the allure of Instrument, released when the band was still active, has changed somewhat in the years since they haven’t played together, particularly for a younger generation of fans who’ve never had the opportunity to see the band live. “I’m really glad that there’s documentation,” says Picciotto, “particularly because the live show was such a huge part of what the band was about, and it’s not really available anymore.” In many ways, it’s hard to definitively portray the nature of a band through film, with MacKaye pointing out that the amount of time they devoted to booking tours and unloading gear is hardly represented in Instrument, and that the footage has a geographical bias towards the United States. But the film is nonetheless an interesting experiment that stands out as a distinctive take on how musical performances can be rendered on screen. “You’ll see the ‘Top Ten Great Rock Docs’ or whatever, and it’s never going to make it in that list I don’t reckon,” MacKaye contemplates, “because it’s just too prickly… but it was Fugazi.” In the case of Fugazi, the variations employed in Instrument worked in the context of their music and ethos. Perhaps then, in the wider practice of music documentaries and concert films, it’s not the exact blueprint that Instrument sets out which is required, but rather the practice of experimenting with conventions and employing different formal strategies that is needed to reinvigorate a form that has largely remained stagnant.

Instrument is available on DVD through Dischord Records, with “Glue Man” included in the special features.

Thanks to Jem Cohen, Guy Picciotto, and Ian MacKaye for their time.

About The Author

Andrew Northrop

Andrew Northrop has written for Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, and MUBI Notebook amongst others. He is based in London and his interests include archives, restoration, essay films, and coming of age/"slacker" narratives.

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