His influence on the world of underground music cannot be overstated, from the small but perfect cannon of Minor Threat and the possibilities of a self-reliant DIY community, to the inspiration of clean living and the rejection of corporate mediocrity.
Ian MacKaye is known for a lot of things, his bands: Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens, Teen Idles; founding and running the uber indie/alternative Dischord Records; being the inadvertent creator and leader for the Straight Edge movement; someone with fierce, occasionally outspoken, political beliefs and a passion and dedication for all things independent that he’s seen as some sort of DIY mogul for many that have followed in his footsteps.
Now approaching 53 years of age he may be less active musically (The Evens is his only currently active band) but he’s no less busy. Taking time out of his hectic Dischord schedule, he gives me a couple of hours to talk through his life and career and offer his insights from the point of view of someone who has maintained ethics and principles staunchly throughout a 30-year period that has seen the greatest and most significant changes and fluctuations in music’s history. He is just waving off someone from an old DC punk band called The Penetrators who had popped in to his office.
Does he get a lot of pop-ins, I enquire.
“No, I wish I did. I like fucking pop-ins. You don’t get a lot of that; most people just don’t think it’s done. I’ve noticed this thing when people come to visit and they’ll call and say: ‘I’m on my way out’, and then they’ll call and say: ‘I’m out front’. Well, knock on the fucking door! God damn!”
It’s an animated start to our conversation and emblematic of Ian’s general approach: clear, to the point, honest and he loves to throw in a good “fucking” here and there to hit home a point with hammer-like force.
Growing up in Washington DC, Ian struggled to find a sense of identity during his teenage years. “When I was in high school, around thirteen or fourteen, kids were already talking about ‘got to move to New York, got to get out of here,’” he tells me. “It’s not a good town for teenagers because there’s nothing to do, especially around then, it was a 70% black town and white kids were kind of invisible in a weird way. Nobody should feel sorry for them, of course, it was just this weird cultural void. I used to say that Washington DC has two distinct cultures: the federal culture – big business, Hollywood movies, network television, major label music, anything the federal government are involved with; then there was true culture, which in a 70% black town was black culture. What was the white culture? None of us had any clue.”
Skateboarding and punk music were his saviours.
“I started skating about 1975/76 and though I had met Henry Garfield who became Henry Rollins earlier on – I met him when I was 11 – we really bonded over skateboarding. We had this gang of kids and we decided to form a team so we just formed our own skateboard team even though we had no sponsor – it was like a street gang for us. It was a tribe thing. I think I deeply desired a tribe, and the skateboarding thing gave me really good practice on how to define the world around you… [then] what I got from punk was this sense of… a call for self-definition. That you can make your life what you want it to be, that you didn’t need somebody else’s approval and maybe even that you needed somebody’s disapproval.”
Ian saw the same potential in punk that he experienced growing up immersed in 1960s counter-culture as a child. “I was born in 1962 and I was here in Washington right through the civil rights stuff, the anti-war stuff, gay rights. My parents and I went to a church that was radical liberation – very, very left, it had a woman saying mass in 1972, gay marriage in 1974, the Black Panthers spoke there, rock bands played there – it was radical. I was raised in that environment so I thought that’s how society would be. Then the ’70s came along and you had this period of people partying and disco music and such obsolescence, it was such a bummer and I felt so disconnected from it. I was like, ‘where’s the counter-culture?’ It seemed so real to me as a child but as a teenager it was gone.”
During this period, Ian realised the drugs and booze lifestyle he saw going on around him was not going to work for him. He tells me: “In high school, the only form of rebellion that seemed to be on the menu was self-destruction, in other words getting high or drinking. That seemed to be a rather inert form of rebellion because you’re neutralising yourself. If rebellion is pushing back against a system then by neutralising yourself I don’t think you’re a danger to that system, it’s not offering up any options.”
A life-changing Cramps concert – a poster for which he has framed on the wall at Dischord’s office – came next, in February 1979. He says there were probably 800 people there, “so many freaks.”
“I thought, ‘I’m home,’” he says. “Because in my life I wasn’t partaking in what everyone else was partaking in I felt different and I felt marginalised. Then I found myself in a room full of people who, for varying reasons, where the same. Maybe they were junkies, maybe they were transgender, maybe they were politically anarchistic, who knows? Whatever it was they were in that room and they were full of ideas and that’s what I was looking for – ideas, people who were interested in kicking around some thoughts instead of letting things get blurry.”
Ian’s first band, The Teen Idles, were relatively short-lived. However, they saved every penny from their gigs and this money led to them putting out their first ever record via the newly formed Dischord Records that Ian set-up with band-mate Jeff Nelson. Even when he was barely out of his teenage years he had manage to fuse seething passion and intensity with astute pragmatism. “I assumed that was normal,” he tells me now.
“So many people have come to me over the years and said: ‘How do I start a label?’ and I just say: ‘Get a band. Get some music you want to document.’ I think so many people have been brought up around the idea that this is a career. Over the last decade there’s been all these advertisements on television that are like young people in indie-rock bands in their VW cars to carry their electric guitars or whatever and there is this weird emphasis of ‘we’re in a band now’ like it’s a career choice. I don’t think of it as a career, I think of it as something that just has to come out. I think of it as a form of communication that predates language. I don’t think Nina Simone was like, maybe I’ll be a doctor or maybe I’ll be a musician. I don’t think that happened, it was just something that had to come out of her. Today I think that mentality exists – ‘ah, I’ll be a musician.’
“Music is becoming content,” he continues, focusing on some of the major shifts of focus in music in recent years. “You can see it with these streaming services. You just sign up and subscribe to the service and you get all this content. It’s not music, it’s content. They don’t care – they do not care – the people that run those businesses do not give a fuck about music. What they care about is content; they want the subscribers. I think even labels are moving in that direction too.
“It’s really depressing but that’s the way it goes. If you think about the relationship people had to music in 1850, imagine what music meant to people, how rich it was; what’s happening now is music has been degraded. But music is deep; it’s deeper than a lot of people truly understand. I understand there has been a marketplace built around music but that’s not music that’s just the marketplace, that’s just business. Music was here long before the music industry.”
That includes music venues too – in their day, a key part of the DIY network built by the US hardcore scene in the early ’80s. In that early, disenfranchised world, fans would attend shows of groups they’d never heard of allowing bands a freedom that’s missing today.
“Venues, by and large, are bars and their economy is based on the sales of alcohol,” says Ian. “There’s no ethical or moral issue around alcohol, on my part, per se, but at the end of the day that is their economy so what they are interested in is selling alcohol and therefore they need clientele. A band’s audience is the clientele; the problem that you run into is that a new band with a new idea doesn’t have an audience yet, so if you’re a band who plays in a club, by and large, you’re already established. The economics of it discourages innovation, but what I loved about punk rock was that the audience was just there, almost by default – there was no profit; profit wasn’t part of the equation.
“I’m not a curmudgeon,” he insists. “I’m an observer.”
After The Teen Idles came Minor Threat, one of the most influential hardcore bands of all time, despite only releasing one album, ‘Out of Step’, in 1983.
Not wanting to change the habit of a lifetime, Fugazi (Ian’s longest standing group, operating from 1986 to 2003) inspired even more via a ferocious mix of experimental and noise rock that resurrected the lawlessness that has been dumbed down from hardcore’s beginnings.
Being involved in such truly seminal groups, it’s not long before talk turns to the reunion-heavy, play-your-classic-album period that music is currently immersed in. “I guess the bottom line, for me, lies in the answer to this question: would they have done it if there was no money involved? Would they have played together if they weren’t being paid? And if the answer is no then I’m probably not interested. It’s not that interesting to me, but if the answer is yes then cool, why not. I mean I saw Nina Simone in 2000 and I would imagine there was a lot of people who knew her music and saw her in 1970 who would have probably thought that show was terrible, but for me it was kind of life-changing – a hugely important gig. So I do see the value of these bands playing, they’re great bands. I mean, for you [at your age] a lot of the bands who are reforming and playing broke up before you were even born. So, that’s an opportunity to see them and one hopes that when you see them you get: ‘wow, these guys are not fucking around!’ When I saw [a reformed] Arthur Lee play I thought, ‘this guy is the real deal. He has to do this!’ For me, my favourite genre of music is made by people who have no choice in the matter. So when I saw him he was playing to hardly anybody but he was going so hard.”
It must be an offer Ian gets a lot, to reform one or some of his old bands?
“Well I think it’s pretty much on the record by this point,” he says. “I mean, Fugazi never broke up; we may or may not play again, we don’t know. We get an awful lot of requests for Fugazi but it doesn’t matter because we will play if and when we choose to. If we decide to get together again we will do so and if we decide to do that publically we will do that and if we decide not to, we won’t. We’re very clear about that. Minor Threat, I used to get people writing to me once in a while, usually from Indonesia, but it’s not even possible. Minor Threat broke up at a time when we were not getting along and agreeing on what the band should do; there was a split in the decision of if we should split or keep going. All four of us agreed that it’s just better to stop instead of perverting the name, of perverting the band just to keep the name. The twenty or so songs we did, it was kind of a perfect cannon. Anything we did now would be a disservice to that.”
While Ian is a straight talking kind of guy, there’s often been some retrospective misunderstanding and misconceptions about him and his bands. He says he feels he was “misunderstood in the beginning, misunderstood in the middle and misunderstood in the end.”
“One of the things about the Fugazi stuff,” he says, “if you listen to the early ’90s live stuff [Ian has painstakingly been documenting and uploading hundreds of live shows to the online Fugazi archive for the last five years] we have such combative fights with the audience and I think when people today listen to that they think, ‘what?! What’s up with this guy yelling at the audience?’. But people don’t have any real idea of how fucked up those shows were – guys were beating the shit out of each other, it wasn’t that they were laughing and jumping around, they were fighting. It was gangs of skinheads and we stepped to them.
“I’ve read things with people saying, ‘oh he just heckles the audience the whole time.’ They don’t understand that it was a reaction to the environment. I think when people go to punk shows today they don’t have any idea what those shows were like.”
Similarly, Ian’s desire to live his life a certain way also resulted in people attributing what became an entire movement to him. He was never happy being the figurehead of Straight Edge, although in retrospect he feels it is not the worst of responsibilities to be burdened with. “The whole idea of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll… or the idea of alcohol, who do you think really supports that notion? Who really supports the idea of alcohol being a huge part of music? The alcohol industry,” he says.
“When we grew up in America in the 1960s and ’70s I genuinely believed that milk was akin to air and water and that you would die if you didn’t drink milk. My parents didn’t tell me that, the fucking dairy lobby told me that. If you were in school you were taught to drink milk, it was insane, it’s bullshit, I haven’t had a glass of milk in 30 years and I’m still here. It’s so obvious to me that it’s a put on, that you have to be drunk, a fuck up, use drugs, I mean why? Music for me is sacred; it’s bigger than that. I don’t buy it, I don’t agree with it that those are some kind of prerequisites. So, when you have some band going: ‘oh, we were out of it, we didn’t care,’ well I fucking cared. That’s on you. I met a guy that was like: ‘oh, I didn’t really keep track of any of our stuff,’ and I was like: ‘okay, you didn’t. I did.’ There are some people that kind of thought it was cool to not keep track of things, that wasn’t what punk was. For me punk was construction, I’m a construction worker.”
I mention a friend of mine who used to stay up late on amphetamines listening to Minor Threat records in his room, and ask if this bothers someone who essentially wrote music opposed to such behaviour?
“All I can do is transmit,” he says. “I’m pretty sure Lightnin’ Hopkins never envisioned people driving around in a car, screaming along to his songs. Once music is out there it’s out there. However, because I’m opposed to ugliness and war and violence I am not happy about the idea that my music would ever be used, or to soundtrack, hurting someone. I don’t like that, I find that problematic but I can’t control it. There was a period of time when a white power group used one of my lyrics from Minor Threat on their website but what can I do? Your friend who was taking amphetamines and listening to Minor Threat, he was just coming from a different place. That’s what they needed. I think music is just part of that equation. I mean, I’ve thought about this a lot, as I’ve been someone who coined the term straight edge and sort of promote – although I didn’t feel like I was promoting anything – people not to drink or use drugs… well, good! Better that than singing about the joys of heroin, especially after seeing the amount of carnage that comes out of that drug. Or like the gang-banger gangster rap guys – they weren’t all gunslingers, those people; a lot of them were art school guys who went along with what was selling. I mean, I would feel terrible if I wrote a song that actually helped people kill each other. Like deliberately, like, ‘I’m going to take out my gun and blow your fucking head-off’, and someone went, ‘yeah, I’ll do that’.
“People have often asked me what it’s like to be a big influence or have people follow you and follow your model, and it’s like, well better than if I were singing about something really destructive.”
With having such a clear head for his entire musical career, an accurately kept archive, extensive diaries and notes, I wonder if we can ever expect a memoir of sorts from Ian? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as much a recurring conversation as more Fugazi shows.
“Yeah, people have talked to me about memoirs for years and I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure I like the idea. I’ve read books by many, many people that I have found inspiring but I’ve also read books by people who are just really mean and desperate. Here’s what I think: the world is filled with trash and I’m interested in not adding to that pile. I feel like a record you don’t listen to is a piece of trash, a book you’ve not read is a piece of trash, so if I make something I want to make sure it’s something that adds value.
“My instinctual approach to the past has been that I didn’t feel like I had a choice, that I had to write a song, so I assume that should I do it I would have to really be compelled to write. Then maybe I’ll think about a book but if I just sit down and do a book then I’m just filling in the blanks.”
Ian then has to dash to “go for tea” at his Dad’s house. He’ll then go back to being a construction worker.
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