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2005 Interview with Ian MacKaye-

Originally Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Written by: Sarah De Borre 

In between packing for a tour with the Evens and answering fan mail, Ian took time out to inspire hardcore girl Sarah De Borre with his beliefs and the word on bands, the Discord record label and the DC scene.

Ian MacKaye is one of the most recognized pioneers in a genre of music that is so multi-faceted it’s difficult to name. He went from high school band the Teen Idles, to one of hardcore-punk’s most notorious bands, Minor Threat, to Fugazi—a band who pioneered the post-hardcore sound, through to his current “quiet music” project, the Evens.

MacKaye started going to punk-rock shows at the age of 16 and as a man of 42 he still holds close the ideals and passions of his youth. He is just as outspoken about politics, straight edge and the monopoly that the alcohol industry has on today’s live music scene, as he was in 1981 when he was screaming the lyrics of Straight Edge.

In between packing for a tour with the Evens and answering fan mail, Ian took time out to inspire hardcore girl Sarah De Borre with his beliefs and the word on bands, the Discord record label and the DC scene.

“Part of the reason I got involved in punk rock or hardcore, or whatever you want to call it, was precisely because I wanted to be able to be a part of an extended family, which means engaging in communicating and having the time to hear what people have to say. If you don’t listen to what people say, you’re missing a lot.

“I think that music for me, and the search, looking through the underground—I, along with a lot of my friends, felt marginalized. That tends to be a theme that runs through punk or underground music, a sense of marginalization. Through the way society has evolved as a result of mass media, it has eroded the sense of the roots or the place. Instinctively we are looking to belong to something and music is a framework…it’s a secret language; it’s a currency. It’s all these things we can use to signal our leanings. I think music is sacred and I’ve always thought that. I think that music is no joke. I think that it’s kinda like one of the last refuges for people trying to create something outside of the mainstream at this point.”

Having been involved in music for well over two decades Ian has seen a lot of changes to the scene. “It’s always changing, it’s always evolving. But punk will never die in my opinion because punk is just the free-space. It’s where, every time there’s a new generation, you have new life. I’ve talked to people who have said, ‘Things have changed, it’s not the same any more.’ I use metaphor to try to explain the way I look at it. It’s like, let’s say you were sitting next to a river and you were looking at a certain curl in the water and this is a result of a small ripple in the river. You can stare at that ripple but the water that makes that ripple is passing you by. People who keep their eye only on the piece of the water they are looking at—you understand, the actual drop of water they’re looking at—they have to look downstream. They’re not looking in front of them anymore because there’s always another piece of water coming behind it and that’s what creates the curl. It’s the constant flow and that is life. Life is always flowing and people are always coming into the equation.

“And for me punk can never die. It may change shapes, it may change names, it may change all kinds of things but the idea of people wrestling with their equipment, their instruments, people hearing sounds and trying to recreate and translate these things will never stop and there always will be a place for people who just don’t fit in. That’s punk.”

Change within music scenes is inevitable and Ian’s hometown of Washington DC is no exception. “DC really blew up, there’s an awful lot of people, a lot of different scenes—it’s very difficult to sum it up. There’s music being played in three clubs every night. It’s constant. My interest almost always is in very small shows, like 25 to 50 people. I don’t go to the more well-known bands ‘cause they’re not that interesting to me. I’m glad that they’re successful but their music is not really that compelling to me.

“Most of the major label punk bands, in my opinion, are not really punk. There may be punks in the band, but if a band is signed to a major label, at least in this country, I just don’t think of them as punk. I feel that is antithetical to the idea. For me punk is always the free space and major labels don’t traffic in free spaces, major labels traffic in profit spaces.  A lot of the bands, they’ll play here and I won’t even recognize their songs because to be honest with you, [in] 1979 I made a really deliberate decision to turn off the radio and I’ve never turned it back on. What I mean by that is not the radio proper, I’m talking about the commercial radio world. You gotta remember, in this city until recently there was no station in the last 20 years that played anything other than mainstream major label music so until recently I never even heard Fugazi, ever, on the radio in this city.

“Washington DC is largely a black city so the one community radio station that’s here is jazz and blues; it’s just not gonna play punk rock. The college stations here are either all talk or they’re carrier currents, which means it just goes through the electric plugs on campus so you can’t get it if you don’t live on campus.

“A few years ago, some kinda rebellious visionaries in this city started a pirate station called CPR radio and it went for, like a block.  But they keep upping the power and now they get maybe five square miles or so. If you live in the neighborhood you’re really happy ‘cause you’re hearing imaginative programming, people playing music they like, not music they’re being told to play. It’s really refreshing to hear that. I mean they’re a completely illegal station cause you can’t do that in this country. You can’t just stick a radio station on the air, which is weird because the air belongs to us. But that’s the way it works here, I’m sure it’s the same there. So I’ve turned the radio off. I never listen to any major label radio stuff I just don’t know those bands. A band like Oasis, I wouldn’t know one of their songs if it came up and kicked me in the ass. I know their name because I’ve read about them but I just don’t listen to that music.

“I listen to a lot of really eclectic stuff. Obviously I listen an awful lot of punk stuff from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and that music will probably always be my favorite music. I also listen to afro-pop and gospel stuff and a lot of jazz…all sorts of stuff but I just don’t pay attention to current popular music.”

On the subject of his hometown: “In the very beginning of my experience with punk rock, I was told it wasn’t just that if I wanted to be in a punk band I had to move to New York, I was told that if I wanted to be a punk, I had to move to New York. You just didn’t have punks in Washington DC—that’s how crazy it was. This city is a very odd town but I’m from here. I’m a fifth-generation Washingtonian and it’s just where I woke up; it’s my home and I couldn’t believe that things like frustration or passion or creativity were geographic, because they’re not, they exist within each of us.

“But all these problems, all these things were always connected to this damn alcohol industry and I don’t understand how [the] alcohol industry has come to basically embody music, or hijack music. I mean coming to Australia to do a tour and trying to do all ages shows, was so difficult no one could even conceive of it at first. [In] 1991, when we first came down there, almost everyone was like, ‘Can’t be done mate, can’t do it’. It was just disgusting, how could it be possible? At what age does music play more of a role in your life than when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old? I mean, music is everything! The idea that those kids, potentially the band’s biggest fans, can’t see them because they’re not old enough to drink? It doesn’t make any sense.

“It’s really, deeply, deeply depressing to me that people can’t see this. It’s so obvious. I wrote the song Straight Edge in 1980 and I didn’t drink, I didn’t take drugs. I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs now—I was never kidding around about it at all. But people who heard that song perceived it as a sorta fundamentalist, almost Christian tenet, which it was not. It was a personal choice in my own life about how I wanted to live. What I knew was that I wanted to remember things. I talked to people who had seen Jimi Hendrix play and they couldn’t remember because they were too high. And I thought, I don’t ever want to forget any great band or musician, I don’t want to ever forget any experience that I’ve had in my life, especially not if it’s because of some recreational drug. It seems so crazy to me. So it was really clear to me what I was getting at. I certainly wasn’t trying to form a movement and I certainly wasn’t trying to force other people to live like me. What I was trying to say was I don’t do these things. It’s my life, it’s my choice, don’t give me a hard time about it.  Because when I was in high school, I got a lot of grief for these things.

“But it became pretty clear early on that because I didn’t do any of those things, trying to play shows in this city, that the clubs wouldn’t let us in, and I thought this is crazy. Because I didn’t drink, it wasn’t even on my mind. It just seemed totally insane to me that I wasn’t allowed to see bands. I became a total warrior for all-ages shows and since…I’ve never done a show that was not all ages that I know of—ever. And I would never agree to do one. Music is for all people and when I hear bands say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it,’ that is just not true. A band always can say, ‘No, we’re not gonna play there,’ and the only way things are gonna change is when bands do that.

“So what is it that keeps us tied to the clubs? Volume. That’s it. So cut the cord with the volume, play quieter and we can play anywhere. The Evens are doing a gig next week, we’re playing in a museum underneath a whale skeleton, we’re playing in a library, we’re playing in a record store, we’re playing art galleries, we’re playing in a classroom. We can play anywhere because we have reclaimed volume; we’ve reclaimed the power of music. I think at some point sound reinforcement got out of control and people started to confuse the power of music with the volume of music.”

To end on, Ian gave some inspirational words for budding record label enthusiasts. “Make sure that one: there is music that needs to be documented, something that’s that important, that you feel committed to as music. Then you have a mission for the label. That way, if you make money, great! If you loose money, oh well. But ultimately the goal is to document the music.

“The second thing I’ll say is this: while you’re working, love it. Love what you do, because at the end of the day, if you put out one record or ten records or 100 records and whether you make money or lose money, whatever happens through all of that journey you will at least have spent your time doing something that you love. It doesn’t get better than that.

“One reason we put out that box set 20 Years of Discord, it was not—in my mind at least—an anniversary gift to ourselves, it was in fact a marker to point out that for many years people have told us, ‘You can’t run a business that way,’ because we run it antithetically to the American business model. And I just thought I’d put up a little marker to point out, ‘Well, I guess you were fucking wrong because it’s 20 years, two decades and the label still goes!’. We’ve put out all this music and had hundreds of people involved over the years and I think clearly it worked. I want people to know it can work.

“I think too many people like to give the impression that they arrived at some kind of elevated place like they got a ride from god or something but it’s actually just a matter of simple work. And that’s what I do: I simply work. And I’m happy to talk about it.”

Mother, wife, small business owner.

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