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Sieve-Fisted Compositions

Chris Lawhorn edited the Fugazi discography down to a concentrated album-length study of rhythm and tension.

By Marc Weidenbaum

It’s a fierce object, many-layered yet taut as could be. It’s a dense field made of raw materials so rarefied that even in combination the resulting effect is singular, tensile. The album in question is Fugazi Edits, for which Chris Lawhorn took the extensive discography of the hardcore band Fugazi and combined multiple songs into new hybrid compositions. The opening track combines parts of five Fugazi songs (“Nice New Outfit,” “Greed,” “Walken’s Syndrome,” “Facet Squared,” “No Surprise”) and every other one of the album’s 22 cuts combines four. The album was produced with the approval of Fugazi and was released yesterday, October 30.

With perhaps a few minuscule, split-second exceptions, Lawhorn focused entirely on the instrumental portions of the Fugazi songs, just the tight rhythmic play of bass, guitar, and drums. Among other things, lyrics would have made the specifics of the songs self-evident, while the played passages are aggressively restructured to make the most of parallels and contrasts. The songs on Fugazi Edits range from momentum-charged ragers to extended surveys of tone and other sonic nuances. The result isn’t just a reconsideration of Fugazi’s work, but a valuable document of music-making in the early 21st century, a moment when matters are splendidly confused in regard to tensions between copyright and originality, between fan fiction and homage, between consumption and production.

In an extended back’n’forth email correspondence in advance of the album’s release, Lawhorn talked about the pleasures of cutting things up, about the varying density of the resulting material, and about pondering with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye the discrepancy between the words “edit” and “remix.” What follows is a lightly edited transcript of this email discussion:

The full album is streaming on SoundCloud at Lawhorn’s account.

More on the record at chrislawhorn.com.

Marc Weidenbaum: Which of these tracks came most immediately to you, which was the most difficult, and why?

Chris Lawhorn: As for the most difficult, it’s tough to say. There was a whole stretch in the middle of production wherein I’d gone through all the main ideas with which I’d come to the project — and had to start pushing into new territory. So, that was tricky. But, it also led to some of the most challenging, adventurous mixes.

As for the most immediate, it was probably the final track on the album. It was one of the last ones I did. It fell into place really easily. And it had the right … arc, for lack of a better term, to close the album.

Weidenbaum: Which track exemplifies “the main ideas” with which you had “come to the project” and how would you describe those ideas?

Lawhorn: If any track gets close, it’s the last one. That’s probably got the best mix of quiet stuff, experiments, and riffs.

Weidenbaum: I may be mistaken, but even though the album is built from instrumental parts, I’d swear I can hear bits of vocal in the opening track, “Nice New Outfit – Greed – Walken’s Syndrome – Facet Squared – No Surprise.” Are there fragments of vocal in there, or am I hearing my memory of the song?

There is one track, I can’t remember which, that I think there might be a vocal in the mix. It’s just a little burst — I’m not sure if it’s a person or feedback. But, it’s buried in the mix — and I notice it every other time I listen to the album. But, I’ve not noticed anything in the opening track.

Weidenbaum: Can you take one track and talk through the production process? This is as much a matter of technique and process as it is of technology.

Lawhorn: They were all different, really. And, I was trying to approach each one from a different angle. Having said that, I used [the software package] Ableton Live throughout. And one of the things you can do there is move individual beats forward or back a bit. It’s ideal for music made by live musicians — because even the tightest band will have some idiosyncrasies. In the context of a single song, that’s not really an issue. But, if you’re layering passages of one song over another, you’re effectively making the band jam with themselves. Usually, that’s a bit of a train wreck. So, you can use Ableton to move bits and pieces — even a single snare hit — around so that everyone stays in time. In a club, you’d use that to transition between two songs seamlessly. Here, it’s the same principle. But, instead of one track giving way to another — the tracks all come and go.

Weidenbaum: How did you decide which segments to combine? Were the tracks largely planned in advance, or did you mix and match and experiment?

Lawhorn: A lot of it had to do with tempo. Namely, if you mix a fast song with a slow one — and force them into the same tempo — it changes the pitch of the music. You can use effects to mask this or override that. But, I wanted the album to have a somewhat coherent feel. So, I tried to group the tracks with other songs from the same tempo range.

Weidenbaum: Was it a conceptual challenge to try to use each song once, and to make sure you used every song on every record? What exactly was your selection process?

Lawhorn: Honestly, I just needed a way to make the project finite. With access to the whole discography, there are an infinite number of variables on each track. So, for me, the easiest way to make that manageable was to use every song — but not on more than one track. Technically, there are still infinite possibilities. But, it gave me a limitation set within which I could work.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned “effects” in a way that suggests you avoided them. What tools did you allow and not allow yourself when putting this music into effect? And in particular, what tools did you consider employing and then decide against?

Lawhorn: Originally, I didn’t think I’d use any effects at all — as I didn’t want to fiddle with their sound too much. But, I ended up using them to highlight elements that might otherwise get lost in the mix, and to shake things up a bit — as I started to feel like I’d gone as far as I could with just sampling and editing. I didn’t, though, add any new elements — no beats, no synths, etc.

Weidenbaum: I was wondering which track is the most dense with material?

Lawhorn: Track eight — the one built around “Last Chance for a Slow Dance” — is probably the densest. It might not sound that way, as it’s got a fair amount of dead space. It also sounds like it’s got a ton of effects on it. But, it was made almost entirely by layering very small samples over each other.

Weidenbaum: Did the music end up sounding like you’d expect it to sound, or did it take you in an unexpected direction?

Lawhorn: More or less. I had no idea each track would sound like, as I started it. But, I was trying to make something that was straightforward some of the time and experimental some of the time — not unlike a Fugazi album.

Weidenbaum: I like that assessment of the Fugazi approach: sometimes straightforward, sometimes experimental. What appeals to me about this record is its success is based in what long appealed to me about the band, which was its rhythmic intensity and the beauty in its sonic material, even putting aside the band’s ethos, its collective songwriting skills. What did you learn about the band’s music given all the time you spent studying it and working with it?

Lawhorn: I noticed a lot of little things — insofar as the way tracks were panned. I’ve probably spent more time listening to Fugazi on a stereo than with headphones. So, this gave me a chance to hear the songs more closely — without any distractions. Just me and headphones and samples for weeks on end.

Weidenbaum: How did you get this opportunity? Did you know members of Fugazi? Did you submit rough examples of what you intended to do?

Lawhorn: I’d been the resident DJ at Marie Claire magazine. And, when that wrapped up, I was trying to decide what to do next. I’d had something like this in mind for awhile, so I got in touch with Ian, made him a demo, and went from there.

Weidenbaum: What does that entail, being resident DJ for Marie Claire?

Lawhorn: Mostly writing — about what songs are popular in the club and what ones are good for working out. Things like that.

Weidenbaum: Whose idea was the charities, and how were they decided upon?

Lawhorn: The band was very generous — in letting me use their music and all. So, giving away the profit seemed like an easy way to both pass on that generosity on and simplify the accounting.

Weidenbaum: What’s going on in the album cover? What was the source material?

Lawhorn: It’s a picture of the band, digitally rearranged.

Weidenbaum: You were in a band, Cataract Falls, that you’ve rightly described as being “admittedly Fugazi-influenced.” I’m really intrigued by the extent to which when bands first form, they are in many ways, perhaps self-consciously, a kind of cover band, maybe a meta-cover band, in that they’re working on subsuming a whole lot of influences. Can you compare your experience playing in a Fugazi-influenced band and making these “edits”?

Lawhorn: I’m not sure how much of Fugazi crept into the sound of Cataract Falls. But, they were huge influence on the way we did things. Ethical stuff aside, I just didn’t realize how much of this stuff you could do yourself until Damian [Hade] — who started Cataract Falls and went on to play in Dead Letter Auction — started loaning me Fugazi albums and telling me about them. Prior to that, I think I was just writing songs and dreaming about getting a record deal. But, after I started listening to Fugazi and reading about them — I started buying recording gear, booking tours, and putting out CDs. None of this went very well. Everything lost money. But, it was an education. And, after about a decade of that, things started turning around.

Also, on a more practical, musical basis — the last half of the Cataract Falls album is all edits, field recordings, remixes, isolated tracks. It’s stuff with which I’d been fiddling, after the album was done, trying to add some kind of context to the music. And, all of that cutting and pasting was a precursor to the DJing I eventually started and, in turn, this album.

Weidenbaum: You’ve mentioned that this project let you explore two areas of interest at once: the music of that post-hardcore era and the cutting and pasting of sound inherent in hip-hop. What parallels do you hear between those two areas?

Lawhorn: There are lots of parallels you can draw — culturally, sonically, etc. But, mostly, I just like cutting things up and rearranging them. I like the sound of things overlapping. I don’t know why this is.

Weidenbaum: I’m intrigued by this idea of an “edit,” in contrast with a “remix.” I have my sense of what you’re getting at, but please describe it in your own words.

Lawhorn: Originally, I’d planned on calling the album Fugazi Remixes. And, Ian — from Fugazi — pointed out that they weren’t really remixes — in the sense that I wasn’t taking the original tracks and remixing them. It’s a fair point. So, after discussing a few other titles, I picked Fugazi Edits.

Weidenbaum: Can you think of precedents for this sort of work? Were any on your mind? I think a bit of the way the Who’s music was refined for the opening themes of the CSI shows, which use elements of Who songs, and more recently of the way Daft Punk edited Junior Kimbrough for a recent Yves Saint Laurent fashion show. I think of a lot of things, but I wonder if anything was on your mind in this regard?.

Lawhorn: I can’t really think of anything. I’m sure there are other cases where folks have done stuff like this. But, I’m just not aware of them. So, rather than a single album inspiring me, it’s probably just the convergence of a bunch of disparate experiences playing in Cataract Falls, making a rap album, listening to Brian Eno albums in college.

Tags: , / Comments: 10 ]

5 Comments

  1. [ Posted November 2, 2012, at 11:52 am ]

    Fugazi is a longtime fave band for their music AND their ethics.

    Lawhorn’s work on this project is totally aces…absolute respect.

  2. Crumbler
    [ Posted November 2, 2012, at 12:42 pm ]

    Really cool idea! Are the streams from soundcloud the full album or just snips from each piece? I only ask because the endings all seem really abrupt.

    • [ Posted November 2, 2012, at 2:30 pm ]

      Those are the full tracks, definitely. Glad you are enjoying the idea. They range in length from about 15 seconds to about 2:37.

  3. Ian
    [ Posted November 2, 2012, at 4:28 pm ]

    Great idea. Very inconsistent execution. Remember being a kid and taking out all the puzzle pieces, assemble a few, then getting bored and just throwing the pieces around?

  4. Ken S.
    [ Posted November 3, 2012, at 7:09 am ]

    I haven’t listened to it all yet, but I like the 1st track & love the idea.

    It reminds me a bit of John Oswald’s GREYFOLDED (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grayfolded). And while sure, I like the Dead and Dark Star is a great song to do that do, I really like Fugazi.

    Thanks!

    -KS

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