Monday, 18 July 2011

Ian MacKaye

This Ian MacKaye interview was a long time coming. Interviews with him are scarce, since he is not in the business of self-promotion, and throughout his time in Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi and now The Evens he has steadfastly refused to speak to the music press. I'd starting exchanging emails with him about six or seven months ago, trying to figure out a good time to call. He's endlessly busy all the time, running every aspect of Dischord Records - as he always has. Even during our conversation I could hear him working away. The label does not employ a lawyer, a press agent, an accountant or a booker - Ian does everything himself, down to driving the tour van. Another thing that held this up was the death of my father, and despite such opposite lifestyles, I'm pretty sure he and Ian would have got on. 

Fugazi with Jem Cohen. Photo By Michael Ackerman

What are you up to right now?
There's always lots of crazy administrative stuff going on, at all times. At this point Dischord has a fairly vast catalogue, and we keep all the records in print in one form or the other, and we pay royalties on all the records so we're always looking after everything - keeping records in press, and right now we're re-issuing some things. Like a Faith re-issue that has their first demo on it, and a Void demo record that's going to be pretty mind-blowing. It's a demo that nobody's heard and that the band doesn't even remember making. It has 20 songs on it, it's pretty crazy. So I've been working on that, and on trying to work out what we're going to put out in the fall. I guess just digging around, but digging around means me going into my archives and for the last couple of years I've been working on organising that, and that's a huge job still.
I've also been working on this Fugazi live series website which we're hoping to start up in December, which basically, eventually - we have about 850 recorded shows - we're going to put them all up by the end of it. That's an enormous amount of work. We've created a massive database with all the shows, all the opening bands, all the information we can get about each show. We've created a page for each show. We've played about 1,100 shows so we're going to create a page for every show and post as many photos as we have for each show, flyers, anything like that. So we've been building and building that. It's huge. 

Will people viewing the site be able to contribute?
Yeah, that's the idea eventually. Eventually you'll be able to post photos and whatever, but that's still being built. Now we're just trying to get the basic frame of it up, but every page will have a comments section and a scrapbook where you can post photos. 

Ian MacKaye. Photo by Amy Farina

There's a massive amount of bands reforming just now to play their so-called 'classic' albums. What do you think about that? It seems to be happening at every festival now.
I'm not too interested in that concept. I actually just read an interview with Barry Hogan, who does ATP, and he was saying that people want to hear bands play the albums. He might be right, but I don't really care if that's what people want. It's not something I'm interested in. Actually, I saw Devo do their first album and it was nice to see tham play such great music. It's always nice to see these people play, these geniuses, who've created something that's so good, that it couldn't not exist. Depending upon your relationship with the music. A lot of the music... they're just like perfect songs. All these bands and musicians have created things that are somewhat forever and so it's always nice to see the people, but I was very struck by this idea of sticking to the format of the album. An album format does not jive with live music. When Devo made their record for instance, it was vinyl. It was two-sided. You would start your record with songs that were strong, and the middle of the side was songs that were slightly less strong - especially into side B. The songs at the end are not necessarily songs that are the real corkers. But if you see a band play live, at the end of the show you want to kinda come out swingin'! So it was interesting to see them play the last couple of songs. They're good, but you could tell that the emotional arc of the show was an uncomfortable one because it wasn't related to the audience. To Devo's credit they did the whole album except for the last two songs, and then they came on and did the last two songs as the encore which was just weird because they're not the strongest songs. But then, because the crowd was unsatisfied to say the least, and the lights came up and the music came on, people kept screaming "More, more", and then they started chanting "Bullshit, bullshit" and Devo came back on. They did a couple of their other songs and it was great. Suddenly you saw that these are people, not actors. 

Minor Threat, 1980, by Susie Josephson Horgan
I saw maybe one other band do that 'album recital', but it just doesn't mean anything to me. I'm not interested in that. I can always listen to the records. I kinda think that if bands want to play music- and they want to play music with each other- then that's great! And if the audience wants to go along with the journey, then great! If the audience doesn't want to go along with the journey, that's great too. But if it's a matter of getting together just to do these particular albums then I have to think that a central driving factor has to be economics. A fiscal rationale. No band I've ever been in has ever played music for money, so the idea just doesn't appeal to me. People listen to Minor Threat now and are like "You could make so much money from Minor Threat!", but Minor Threat never played a show for money, so why would we start now? Same as Fugazi! Fugazi never played a show for money, ever. We played a show to play a show.

From Jem Cohen's outstanding 'Instrument' documentary.

How do you feel about the maleness of hardcore music? Every time I saw Fugazi there would be people drunk, beer going everywhere and a lot of aggression in the crowd. If this is counter to all the things you stand for, did it not demoralise you? Was any of that what led to the Evens?
People who are drunk, and going crazy, do not represent everything I'm against, you know? What I'm against is war. That's what I'm against. You know - war and murder! People's perception of me in Minor Threat, people's idea was that I was a fundamentalist, that I wanted everybody to behave themselves - that's just not the case. That wasn't the case with Fugazi shows. What I wanted was to be at the table with everyone else. If I'm part of a band, and the band's playing a show, then we feel a responsibility to our guests. I don't care if people are drunk or if people are going wild. As long as they're not going wild on other people. If people are drunk, I don't care. I think you and I can both agree that alcohol is a toxic substance. That's just the reality. It's obviously a matter of how it's applied, but ultimately it's a toxin. Obviously I'd prefer if people didn't put poison in their bodies, that's just me, but it doesn't mean that people who do are not welcome in my life - they are, and they're around me all the time. They've always been around me my whole life. What was far more discouraging for me, and what was far more compelling about the Evens' approach was the business of it all. When you get to a certain level as a band, you end up being corralled into a really specific type of venue. Where do you live?

I'm in Glasgow.
So we'd be like "Hello Barrowlands!" That's the venue that we would play. And that's where we did play. Generally that's the room. In any given city there'll be one or two rooms like that. They're venues, and on any given night there's music being presented, or every other night or something. If you look at the upcoming shows there's like a hardcore band from 1987, then some band from Black Rock Arkansas in the seventies and then there's a trip-hop band. It's like you're just in this circuit of bands, and it's hard to transform those spaces because those spaces are process centres. Every night they process whatever sort of music it is. By and large with those venues their economy is based upon self-destruction because they're bars! This is not about drunk people, this is about the business of selling alcohol. There was something for me that was deeply discouraging, for me, that this form of expression that I got can only be presented in these specific kinds of rooms. It's very discouraging for me because I don't think of music as self-destructive, I think of it as self-constructive. It bothers the fuck out of me that you have to have alcohol at every gig. With the Evens, we did a show at the Canterbury UCA. and with the Evens we have our own PA and our own mics, and we've played all these galleries and all these museums, and we can play anywhere. We were invited to play this art college so we think "Great!", and we go down there and there's all these giant empty gallery rooms, just perfect for us. Perfect rooms. But we had to play in the pub. The pub, of course, is a noisy affair, with folk slingin' beer around. It's loud. A lot of people don't go to the pub to hear music, they go to talk.

The Evens, live in London at Regent Hall on April 7 2006

And to buy alcohol.
Right. And right next door there's this beautiful, empty, quiet room that we could fuckin' make magic. That to me was such an indication of this deeply perverse notion that music- popular music- must have alcohol. I think that people, by and large, have swallowed this hook, line and sinker, and that's why when people go to see shows they just have to have a beer in their hand.

That's why you get brewers sponsoring venues now.
Of course.

Over here Miller do a weekly 'showcase' for unsigned bands, and all they sell is Miller. I can only presume that if any of these bands were to actually make it, they'd very much be under the control of Miller.
That's the thing. You know Kathmandu in Nepal? It's a city that's buried in the middle of a bunch of mountains, but it's an active city, and people have lived there for thousands of years. But at some point, the British decided to pay a visit, and take the fuckin' joint over, and they're like "What, you grow food on the mountainside? You do terrace farming? Here's a can of beans. Eat these instead." And then they start just flying food in, so people start eating the beans out the cans 'cause it's easier than farming. Then at some point they realised they forgot how to farm, and now the planes have to come in every day. They've become dependant upon that. I think it's the same in music. At one point people were playing music, and it was just a reality, and then the alcohol industry got involved and they thought "We can make this more lucrative, we can do this for you", and at some point the bands just forgot that they can do it without them- they've become dependant upon that industry. And that's exactly what they wanted. Precisely what they desired. And they got it. 

Fugazi. Photo By Michael Ackerman

Dischord releases are on Spotify now, whereas they were not before. Did something change in the Spotify model to elicit this change? Or in your own thinking?
Spotify is not really a known quantity here. I know it's huge over there, but it's not really made its way into America. How people want their music is endlessly baffling to me. I'm not a 'formatist'. I remember when cassettes came into demand. When 'Repeater' came out, I think we sold more cassettes than we did vinyl. We sold 150,000 cassettes or something, right off the bat. We were like "Jesus Christ!" Cassettes are just the worst format, in terms of quality. But I've always believed that if people want cassettes, we'll make cassettes. When CDs came along, we made CDs. We're never cutting edge, we always let it go for a while and see what the people want. When downloads had been around for a few years, and the bands said "We want downloads", we did downloads. Our basic premise is that we'll make it available, but there always has to be an option- an alternative, another way of doing it. So for instance if people have an issue with something like a Spotify service, then they can always come to Dischord and download from us. There's a guy we're working with who's looking after music services in Europe and I think Spotify fell into that. I can tell you from a label's point of view that it's absolutely mind-numbing the number of services and the different ways that they work, the different ways that they report, the different ways that they pay - if they pay - and so on. We're just trying to get our minds around it. With Spotify, I'd never really heard of it, but somebody was saying that it's absolutely massive in Europe. I'm assuming it's streaming?

Yeah, it's a streaming service. It's £10 a month for unlimited music, which I think is pretty reasonable.
I think it's reasonable. This is a thing that at some point people are going to have to make a decision- everything that's ever been recorded, in theory, they can listen to for free for the rest of their lives. If they're not interested in supporting the arts at all, if they're not interested in paying for anything or feel they shouldn't have to pay for anything, then they are going to risk not ever having new music again. There are actually costs involved with recording, you know? Even for me right now, I've been so busy dealing with the commerce of Dischord, and business stuff, that I don't have any time to write. Amy and I practice three times a week, but I have no time to write at all. I can't just sit down and finish a bunch of songs because I'm always working. People have to make a decision. I think if people didn't want to buy our records at all, then I'd be really screwed. The populous is going to think "We want new music!", and if that's the case then fuckin' stop thinking everything is for free all the time! There's two things going on. One is that people think they're patrons of the arts, and these are all billionaires who've just dropped off a $100,000 ranch or something. Another thing is advertising, and people assume that that's how you make your money. People say nowadays that the only way you can make money through music is to "have your music in ads". I think that's a load of fuckin' bullshit. The fact that that phrase has been repeated so often makes me think that in fact the advertising people themselves have planted that notion. It's not true! People become lazy. It's like "You can't get there unless you buy a car", and that's not true, you can fuckin' walk! You know? But if people just repeat something often enough it becomes true. I think that this thing about 'the only way you can make money playing music is making music for ads', that's just not making a living. That's just a bummer.

Minor Threat skateboarding, and Steppin' Stone live 1982

Do you ever feel like you've become some kind of underground legend in spite of your approach? To what extent do you think you can control what people perceive you as?
I don't try to control anything. So I can't control how anybody thinks about me. I can't control all the mis-information that gets handed around. There are so many things that people think about me that are so wrong, but who cares?! As important as you or I might thing Fugazi was as a band, 99.99% of the world will never even hear of us. At all. If Fugazi was to simultaneously explode, and every record disappear, the Earth's rotation would not be altered at all. It's just not that big of a deal. People who are obsessing about me, or about the band, or about the label, who are trying to steer things are irritating to me. But I don't care really. Ultimately it's a manifestation of their own power issues, their own control issues. When people try to steer you, or tell you what to do, that's because they are at a loss in their own lives.
You might say "What about at shows, when you're telling people not to jump on each other's heads?", and that's me being a good host. Asking my guests to not stab each other with forks at the dinner table. And I think that's fair enough.

The Evens- Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. Photo by The Evens

Despite being the home of the White House and of Congress, Washington D.C. doesn't have a senator, and its citizens are the only ones in the country without the right to vote for one. What's it like living in a place like that?
Well, I've only ever lived here so I don't really have any sense of what it's like to live elsewhere. What's maddening about living in the District, is that we are essentially under the control of the Federal Government, and we are- as a city - a very liberal town, so the conservatives always try to make an example out of us. So for instance, the District had a handgun control. In D.C. there are laws that you can not have a handgun. The Republicans were trying to get money for the City, and came up with a rider, basically, saying we'd get money for the City if we agreed to waive the handgun law. The people in the City don't want to have handguns, but the Republicans want to make it OK for us to have guns. That's frustrating, and it happens all the time. Just being told, "Oh, that's too bad. That's what's going to happen". D.C.'s people have to come up with creative ways to navigate these new laws. For instance, our court system here is Federal, because we're a Federal enclave, and the Federal guidelines about cocaine and crack are really, really strict. People are getting busted all the time for these things. The judges don't agree with the Federal guidelines for these things, but, by law, they have to follow them. So what they do, they way they navigate it, is that they change the charges. So instead of the charge being 'Possession Of A Controlled Substance', they might change the charge to 'Loitering'. They'll do something to get it away from these Federally mandated sentences. The people are still guilty, but they won't have to go to jail for something as ridiculous as having drugs.
I think living here has played a role in the way Dischord is operated. Washington D.C. is a bureaucratic town, and you never ask for permission, because the answer's always no. That's how bureaucracy works, because if you ask to do something, and they say yes and something goes wrong then they're in trouble. If they say no, then nothing goes wrong!

And everybody's safe.
Right. In this town I've always said "Don't ask for permission, because the answer's always no". If you think about our work, when we started Dischord we didn't register the name, we didn't copyright the name- we still haven't. We didn't get a business licence, we didn't get a lawyer- we've never had a lawyer. We didn't have contracts, we just made records because that's what record labels do. We didn't ask for permission, we just did it. If we had asked for permission, and we tried to do it formally, then I don't think we'd be having this conversation now. Being 18 years old, starting a record label and asking someone how you do this and they give you the formal structure? That would have taken the air outta that fuckin' thing right away! I would have quit immediately. But instead we just went in and did it. With Fugazi, we just played so many shows in D.C., and with the exception of the shows that we did on Federal property- the park system, where we had to get permission from the park police- by and large we never asked for permission or a concert licence or anything. We just did the shows. It's not hard to do! You need to learn that lesson- don't ask, just do!

Is there anything on Dischord that you think the readers in Europe should know about that they might not be aware of?
I always encourage people to listen to Lungfish. Lungfish to me is like a spring, a beautiful body of water that everybody should take a swim in. But nobody seems to know they exist and if they come across it they don't know if it's a safe place to jump in. It is fuckin' safe, jump the fuck in, people!

Lungfish - Love Will Ruin Your Mind

Big thanks to Radio Magnetic for letting me use their Skype computer to record this interview.


  1. Very inspiring interview. Thanks!

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