Vol. 2, Issue #20 October 26th - November 8th, 2007

Interview with Ian MacKaye
By: Graham Lee Brewer

There is a little piece of Ian MacKaye in every punk rocker. Every true punk rocker, at least. Ever since he founded both Minor Threat and Fugazi, Ian has played a vital role in the evolution of the post-hardcore, punk and emo movements. To me, the most amazing thing about Ian isn’t the music he’s made over the years, it’s the way he’s done it. He doesn’t promote music through mainstream mediums, he never overcharges for a show or a CD, he supports independent music, he tours and records with a DIY mentality, he ejects violent fans from shows, he makes sure any fan has a chance to get into a show no matter how young and, most importantly, he doesn’t listen to the fucking radio. Before we spoke, I knew this was going to be one of the most fascinating and refreshing interviews I will ever do. Had I gone into the interview expecting a religious experience, I think I would have been better prepared.

Graham: I know there was a lot of moshing and slam dancing involved in the early punk scene of D.C., and that you took a strong stance against it. I’d like to talk about your views on that aspect of the music scene and why it was something you had such a strong opinion about.

Ian: In the very beginning of the D.C. punk scene and hardcore scene, I was certainly somebody that was dancing. Other people called it moshing, but we called it dancing. I certainly jumped off stages and in the early days I think that punk was something that was sort of revolutionary and new and created conflict. There were a lot of fights, and I was involved in a lot of fights during that time, 1980 and 81. But I think that I had this sort of philosophy which was that I would bruise the ego and not the body. In terms of fighting, we were trying to protect ourselves because as a punk rocker you were kind of picked on and targeted. Being in Washington, we are surrounded by military bases and there is a certain neighborhood here where all the Marines would descend on the weekends and if you looked funny they would pick on you.

I think initially we were sort of circling the wagon, and that was our thought about it. Partly because violence results in more violence and the media was of course obsessed with what they saw as Nihilism or the violence of the punk scene. So the media talked a lot about that. Hollywood and television had these sort of cartoonish punk rock characters who were super violent. Then people saw that and would come to a punk show and behave like that. So, then we saw ourselves as defending ourselves against people like that who just came to the shows to fight. Ultimately, the philosophy that I had about bruising the ego and not the body was a conceit. I certainly couldn’t superimpose my philosophy on other people. That became clear that violence by 1983, 84 was pretty epidemic in this town.

Every show, there were fights. The fights didn’t really have any basis anymore. People were being beaten up for wearing the wrong colored shoe laces. We started to get other rightwing and nationalist people, and I would imagine racists. Although, it’s very difficult to be an outwardly racist person in Washington D.C. because you’ll get your ass kicked. So, I think essentially it became clear to me that what was happening was extremely divisive, and it was especially noticeable because there were a lot of people who were not interested in violence at all. They would first move away from the stage where the action was, then to the back of the room, and eventually out the door. So you ended up having these shows where you were playing essentially to all tough boys. That’s just not punk to me. I made a decision in my life that not only was I not going to fight anymore, but that I was going to be outspoken about it. I was not going to provide a soundtrack for violence, and so that’s what I did. But, for instance, jumping off of the stage at a Bad Brains show, I can make the connection. But at some point, by the mid ‘90s, there was a great story someone told me about being at a Bob Dylan show and someone did a stage dive there. At that point, it was just a behavioral trend or ritual. People thought that’s just what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to jump off a stage no matter what the music is. It didn’t have anything to do with anything anymore. It’s just something that someone saw on television.

Graham: Is it true that if someone was acting violent or too aggressively at a show that you guys would escort them out and give them a $5 refund for the entry fee?

Ian: Fugazi wouldn’t provide a soundtrack for violence. So, when people were fighting and wouldn’t stop, then we would offer them their money back. Sometimes we had it in envelopes, sometimes just we just kept money on top of my amp and we would hand it to them and walk them out the door. It’s just not worth it. I mean for $5, just get the fuck out of here. Most gigs, if they go south, it’s usually one or two people who are responsible for it. Violence is just ugly and has no place in those kinds of events.

Graham: One thing I liked that you guys did then, and I see that you still do now, is how you liked to play at unconventional venues.

Ian: I think with The Evens it’s much more successful. With Fugazi, because of the size of the band and the number of people who wanted to see us, it was a lot more difficult. So quite often we would end up playing places that were not necessarily untraditional venues, but we would go in with our operating style. They would have to be all-ages, have a low ticket price, treat the people with respect. With The Evens, probably because we’re not as popular as Fugazi in terms of numbers, and maybe because we tour with our own PA and lights, we can play almost anywhere. So we’ve really managed to stay out of the club circuit altogether.

Graham: So, you still like to incorporate that kind of DIY, low ticket price approach when touring today?

Ian: Yeah. I say it’s way more that way today. We don’t really enlist the help of most promoters. We’re doing the show at the City Arts joint in Oklahoma City. It’s way more underground. I think it’s because we stay out of the rock clubs that it’s more independent. We’re not involved with that industry as much. The show is five bucks and all-ages.

Graham: So Fugazi is on an indefinite hiatus...

Ian: Well, circumstances in our lives, at some point in the late ‘80s, arranged themselves in a way that made it possible for the four of us to get together and work. We were able to tour a lot over the next 15 years. But then, in the early 2000s, because of families, not just of children, but because our parents were getting sick and dying and we had been in the band for 15 years and touring sometime six months out of the year; the band was front and center in our lives, and at some point it just became clear that circumstances had to change for us to keep working in the way we had become accustomed to. We had to stay home for a while. Instead of putting the band on a temporary hiatus, because it’s a little bit maddening for some of us who wanted to play music, we decided to go on indefinite hiatus and see what happens. I talked to everybody in the band just yesterday and we’re a very tight family, but we decided that we needed to take the band off of the front burner for a while. I know it can be a little bit of a head-scratcher for some people. They think of bands as like stores. Is the store open or closed? Fugazi is not a store, we’re a band. We’re four people and it seemed absurd to say “the store is closed now,” but rather we said let’s just put it on hiatus. Who knows? Circumstances might change, maybe not. We’re all quite happy and everyone is living their life.

Graham: I’m extremely curious what someone with your background and musical history and influence feels about the modern music community. And I’m not just talking about the shit that makes it onto the radio these days, but the modern rock and punk movements in general. Do you like the music that’s coming out now? How does it contrast and compare to when you were starting out?

Ian: It’s very difficult for me to compare, just because it’s a totally different context. I still see a lot of shows. Last month I saw two bands that I thought were incredible. One of them is real obscure; they’re called Ponytails, they’re from Baltimore. They are tiny, I mean nothing, and they were great. I think that there is probably a lot of music I think as being very punk and underground, but other people wouldn’t because I think that their idea of punk is something that has more of a form based on aggressive, Nihilistic energy. But for me, punk is the wrinkle, where people are doing something new and fresh and not aping a sound. They’ve received something and said “here’s our version of it.” So, the bands that I’m thinking of tend to be bands that are pretty weird, but I sure love them.

I actually think that punk will never die because there is going to be a new bunch of people every year. That’s life. Kids are going to keep coming and inherit whatever has been left to them and say “okay, thanks, but here’s what we got,” and that is interesting to me. But in terms of the sort of more classical aspect of punk, I just don’t find that particularly interesting. Especially bands that are on major labels and have managers, that to me is just not interesting. They have managers and publicists and it’s like this structure. The delivery system has all been worked out. There isn’t any content, real organic content. That stuff doesn’t interest me.

Also, I don’t listen to the radio. I stopped in ‘79. Straight up. I don’t know a Guns N’ Roses song. I know there’s that one song, I think it’s called “Welcome to the Jungle.” Is that what it’s called? I don’t know any Oasis songs, or Marilyn Manson songs, or Green Day songs. I just don’t know those. That’s commercial music. In the space of time that you and I are speaking, more music will be created than you and I could listen to in a lifetime. So, if that’s the case and there is this amazing wealth of music out there to listen to, why would I just want to listen to the stuff that’s being advertised and pushed in my face? I’d rather listen to the stuff that doesn’t have the help of multibillion-dollar corporations. I’d rather hear the music that just refuses to shut up. People are going to put out music without the assistance of those organizations. I find that interesting.

Graham: Are there any specific bands or movements that you are really interested in right now?

Ian: I see bands from time to time. I can’t say movements because I don’t know much about that. Occasionally, I hear about some crazy underground hip hop dance movement that I think is pretty interesting. I think it’s called Baltimore quick stepping or something like that (laughs). I think there are some great bands that are playing right now. I saw this band called Monotonic, and they were fantastic. They’re from Israel and they were insane.

At this point I turned off the recorder and took Ian off of speaker phone. We kept talking for a while about independent music and what music meant to us. Then he made a correlation that blew me away. We were talking about stereotypical ideals about music and how they create unnecessary labels called genres. He said music should be viewed for what it’s worth. People always associate folk music with acoustic guitars, banjos, and maybe a harmonica, but folk is endogenous music, made by a community of people about the community, with political undertones. So, really, punk music is folk music. It’s endogenous, made by a specific community, and definitely has political undertones. He doesn’t see why people have to restrict themselves through associated images or labels with their music. My God, I thought, he’s right. Punk is in essence the folk of that particular generation. What an amazing and insightful observation. Now, do you see what I mean about having a religious experience?

Be sure to catch Ian with his latest musical project, The Evens, when they come through the City Arts Center in OKC on Nov. 9, a show his good buddy, Oklahoma native and master bike thrasher Matt Hoffman helped him set up. Show is at 8 p.m., doors at 7:30 p.m.

Only five bucks to get in!

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