I write about a lot of improv music which, I think, hits a peak when the artists reach what I like to call an ecstatic state - kind of like they're speaking in tongues, or not fully in control of themselves. The closest I've seen to this happening in a punk or hardcore context was the times I saw you onstage performing with Fugazi, and I sense it in the raw energy of the Rites of Spring demo. Over the years have you felt like you weren't always in control of yourself when you were performing?
Rites of Spring never played that many shows. We counted once and we played 20 or less shows. A lot of that was because we didn't have any gear and were always trashing our stuff when we played. I was thinking about the experience of playing with that band: The adrenaline was so extreme and the opportunity to play was so rare that I would have a really hard time physically playing the songs because I was so amped. I remember that feeling of trying, but kind of being out of control, even when we practiced.
We practiced for like a year before we ever played a show, and we trashed so much shit in practice that it's crazy. There's something about being that young and being that jacked ... For me, getting on stage and performing has always been this intense carbonation - a sense of not being able to control the feeling - and Rites of Spring was when that was the most extreme. At least in Fugazi we ended up playing hundreds of shows a year, and after a while you adapt to that environment and become attuned to being at those kinds of peaks.
To me, it's all about the real-time experience. The music on this demo isn't about reflection, it's about a channeling a heart-wrenching experiences into the moment, which I think is what people mean when they talk about "emo," which seems very misguided ...
Just a little bit [laughs] ...
Were you a Buzzcocks fan?
Yeah, we all were! Even when we played in Insurrection. We were into some really specific bands: Discharge was probably the number one band that we were into, and we were super into the local band Void, and the Faith. We were also into a lot of English stuff - Blitz, Dead Wretched, Tank, and Motorhead. I had always been into bands like the Beatles and the Zombies and Dylan - stuff form the '60s. But the Saints, from Australia who were a huge band for us. The Adverts, particularly the second record, Cast of Thousands, which most people write off. We were really into that record. We all worked in record stores, and were always digging around and listening to stuff. We were certainly into Black Flag and the Meat Puppets and Rudimentary Peni, but the Saints and the Buzzcocks were huge for us.
The Buzzcocks were a machine, man. Their records were produced like a motherfucker, and their rhythm section was amazing. Super incredible. There are a lot of instrumentals on their records that are just really wicked playing and cool syncopated rhythms ... They're definitely undervalued; I don't think there'd be a Smith's without the Buzzcocks.
I kind of don't think there would be a Rites of Spring, either.
We were really young. I was like 17 when the band started, and I don't know if I was 18 yet when we did the demo. I might have been turning 19 when we made the album, End on End. To me, what's most interesting about hardcore was that you had bands like Minor Threat, SOA, and people like Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins - who was Henry Garfield at the time. They were slightly older at the time, but most of the kids in those bands were 15 or 16 years old. I don't think there's a comparable art or music scene or movement that was that young and made music that people are still talking about now, for whatever reason. It's kind of insane, and there's something about being really young and the kind of volatility that made it distinct and extreme. That music was incredibly extreme, and incredibly rigorous and played incredibly well. Listen to a Minor Threat record: That shit is played so well; it's amazing sounding and, looking back on it now, it blows my mind that it's a bunch of kids playing it.
They were pioneering a genre, so there were no hang ups or expectations.
You were getting information about bands, but not all of the information was valid, or even made sense. You were always interpreting these things that you would hear about. I went to my first show in '79, I was 13 years old. ... Back then you would hear these things about bands from overseas and from California, but it had been filtered through so many weird channels that you didn't know what was true and what wasn't true, so you would build up this mystery in your head.
... So much of the music was local back then, too. The DC scene was really small and the friendships were really intense. Rites of Spring: We were really tight, even before the band started, or had a name, or knew what we were doing. We just hung out, and the big thing about the demo, to me, was that when we weren't writing songs for what we considered our real bands, we were always making tapes - literally all the time! There were bands like the Dancing Crabs, the Popes, Proctor Silex, Black Light Panzers, different groups of us would get together, go see a movie - The Thief Of Baghdad - and then we'd do a whole tape about it.
The 10-inch has a lot of tape collage on it because we wanted to use all of those cassettes from different bands. There's a lot of stuff in there in the sense that we cut in all of this random other band tape shit. Our bass player had left and we recorded the demo to capture the songs, because we thought the band was breaking up. We didn't have a name, but we knew that our bass player, Mike Fellows, was moving to California, so we were like, "Shit, we should go into the studio." Ian [MacKaye] was nice enough to take us in and tape it, not in the sense that it would ever come out, or that the band would do anything, but as an act of friendship. I had never really sung in practice, and no one had ever heard me sing, so when I sang in the studio that was the first time I had ever sung anywhere, really - the first time I had ever sang into a mic in a non-fucking around kind of way for a cassette. The idea was to finish the demo, mix it, and send it to Mike in California. It was never supposed to be a record, or anything like that, it was supposed to just be about our hang.
It starts with Mike talking about singing the song "Arbor Day;" that's him on a cassette that was recorded at like one of our houses. We were just fucking around, and instead of continuing into a jam we started feeding all of these tapes into it and turned it into this other thing.
Slightly more refined versions of these songs showed up later on Rites of Spring's album, End on End ...
The songs on the 10-inch are way more psychedelic than the album. With the album, we'd played shows and had written a bunch of songs and recorded them almost live. We just ripped through the songs as if we were playing a show. With the 10-inch we overdubbed and did all of this tape collage shit cause we weren't really a band. We hadn't even played a show yet. We were just kind of making this art piece - that's what we were thinking in our heads.
The 10-inch does have an abstract quality to it - it's a different listening experience.
The songs aren't particularly different, maybe a little slower and a little more tranced-out. It's weird, we didn't expect Mike to come back and he just showed up one day unannounced. He'd taken a bus all the way across the country without telling anybody. He just showed up where Brendan and I had a summer job. He walked in the door and I think I fell down and hit my head - I was so shocked to see him. Within a week we played our first show. Mike had come back with a bunch of song ideas, and Eddie and Brendan and I had been playing the whole time he was gone - just keeping the flame burning even though we didn't have any idea that we would ever do anything again.
It's funny, before Fugazi I was in like 5 or 6 bands that were constantly breaking up; there was always this sense that I'm retiring ... At 19. I never expected anything to happen. Bands would break up and you'd say, "Ah shit ... Oh well." Then you would start playing again.
Did you have to clean up the demo before you released it?
I've only had a cassette of it all these years, and my cassette sounds like shit. So we went back and got the tape - I think we had to bake it to keep it from flaking off, but it sounded pretty good. It was mastered, but the tape itself was solid, once it was baked. There wasn't any remixing or anything like that. We couldn't have remixed it because the whole thing was all just tape spliced together as one 28-minute piece - there were no song breaks. It all ran together with the segue ways and sped up voice between every song.
The demo sounds like it was recorded impeccably well.
At that point, Inner Ear was a basement studio. The control room was in the furnace room of a suburban house and the live room was a small rec. room, and the tape deck had been a 4-Track, but it was bumped up to an 8-track, then we did the Rites of Spring stuff. Eventually it would all get be bumped up to a 16- Track, and then the whole studio wold be moved and become a full-on 24-Track studio. ... But in my opinion, the 8-Track stuff that Don Zientara recorded in the studio - that's everything from the early Bad Brains stuff, Minor Threat, and then the Rites of Spring thing - all of that era ... Don was genius. He managed to get stuff to sound really ferocious in that room. It was just a room filled with stuffed animals and his kid's toys, and when the Bad Brains recorded there they did the vocals in the backyard with HR flipping off a picnic table. Don was an incredible engineer and he doctored all of his gear himself and really knew electronics. But the best thing about it was the feeling of going in there was really free. It was really loose, and we approached it like we were having a good time.
Why release the demo now?
A lot of it has to do with Dischord getting their tape archive sorted out. A lot of tapes were just sitting around in closets at the Dischord house and I think Ian realized that he has a lot of material that needs to be catalogued.
We've also been working on the Fugazi live tape archive - putting our 3,000 shows on the web - it's kind of like house cleaning. There were a bunch of Void demos, and some people really love that band, and Void never released very much stuff, so for that record to come out was huge for people to hear other stuff that they'd recorded. The Rites of Spring demo was something we'd often talked about putting out but for some reason we all just agreed to do it now.
In D.C. the demo was around long before we played a show. People in town had heard the tape and that's what they thought was Rites of Spring. When they heard the record, they were like, "Ah man, this doesn't sound like the demo!" In D.C. the album was always second. But outside of the city no one had heard it.
What's most interesting, for me, is that it reminds me of making something not with little commercial aspiration, but with zero commercial aspiration. There was no intent of it being anything other than a document between friends.
Not many people saw Rites of Spring. We played so little and the group was so insular. We only played twice outside of DC, once in Detroit and once in New York City. There was no concept of touring for us - it was just a very different time to be in a band. It's like we were part of a hidden cult in our own heads, and there was no sense of speaking to anything or at anything. It was just a hugely hidden thing, but it was our whole world. I'm not even sure that we could have toured, frankly, because it was so jacked. If you break your shit every time you play, the idea of having to play in a different town just seems inconceivable. It was very weird to go on tour with Fugazi for the first time and learn to actually do it 65 days in a row with only 4 days off, and that's something I wasn't able or prepared to do when I was 17 years old.
Was it just a matter of pacing yourself?
No, it was a matter of beating yourself into shape! [laughs]
Could you play a Rites of Spring show now?
No plans, but the band reformed basically with the same members as Happy go Licky about a year after Rites of Spring broke up. Over the years we've all played together, not just Brendan and I in Fugazi. Eddie Janney and I have played together for years, Mike and I have played together, and the four of us have gotten together and played. It's a musical relationship - the friendship is solid. The idea of us getting together and playing Rites of Spring is inconceivable, but the four of us getting together and playing as people, that happens.
What else do you have in the works?
I'm playing a show in Toronto in December with a group of musicians that will be doing a live soundtrack for a film called We Have An Anchor. It's something I've done before with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mount Zion. For a long time I was playing in a large group with Vic Chesnutt, and I'm always making music on my own.
Will we see a Guy Picciotto solo record?
I don't know about that! [laughs] But I do hope to put out another record, and my hope is always to one day be in a band again.
Nashville has more dive bars than ATL now that sucks. tbh i think that new…
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.