An Interview with Ian MacKaye

In the ’80s underground music scene, integrity was everything, and D.C.’s Fugazi had more of it than anyone. They only played five-dollar all-ages shows and their sole merchandise was their music. A mere mention of the band’s 1995 post-punk magnum opus Red Medicine to a once indie-leaning man will likely reduce him to babbling admiration.

Fugazi’s singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye was often thought of as the group’s ideological figurehead. Years before, he had fronted what many contend to be the perfect hardcore group, Minor Threat, and founded the D.C. punk label Dischord Records. One of the key Minor Threat tracks, “Out of Step,” contains the simple verse “Don’t smoke / Don’t drink / Don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think” that became the unofficial mantra of the straight-edge movement. Likewise, MacKaye became the movement’s adopted poster boy.

After three years with Minor Threat, MacKaye spent nearly two decades in Fugazi until the band went on extended hiatus after the release of The Argument in 2001. Since then, he has formed the Evens with Amy Farina (of the Warmers)—she on drums, he on baritone guitar, both sharing vocal duties. The songs hark back to Minor Threat’s pointed knifing at the status quo, but use a stripped-down version of Fugazi’s intricate textures.

I caught the Evens in New Orleans at the punk-rock collective Nowe Miasto. The band kept the audience rapt for an hour, fielding questions between songs, answering heckles with dry humor, blurring the barrier between the stage and the crowd. “We make the show together” was the pledge he made to the audience. MacKaye was besieged with fans after the show, signing things and congenially answering questions, even handing his guitar over to a curious onlooker, so this interview was conducted by phone, about a week later, after the tour was finished.

—Alex V. Cook


THE BELIEVER: Why do you keep playing alternate venues? Earlier, with a punk-rock audience, it was necessary; it was likely the only sort of place you could play. Why do you still do it today?

IAN MACKAYE: Tell me why you think people always play in the same places.

BLVR: People play the same places to attract the audience they’re looking for, and because proven places are profitable.

IM: And why is it profitable?

BLVR: I’m not sure why it’s profitable. I guess because those places are where music happens, and people’s behaviors are governed by patterns.

IM: Well, my theory is this: Music has been relegated to the hawker, the incentive that pulls people into a certain kind of business. So for instance, you might go to a certain tire store to get your tires on because they give you free popcorn or something; you like a business because it offers a little premium. And music, over the years, essentially has been a proven gathering point. Music is where people are, and at some point, industry has figured that when people are gathered, it’s a great opportunity to make a pitch, to sell them something. Think about the history of music—say, the traveling medicine show people. They would travel around on wagons, and they’d get to a frontier town and set up and have a performance, have music and maybe some comedy, and people would gather, and then between the acts, somebody purporting to be a doctor would step out to sell his various tinctures and potions, you know, snake oil. Most of those things were basically some kind of herbal concoction with alcohol. So what was going on was, the “doctor” was selling alcohol. But if they had just set up the wagon, they wouldn’t have the crowd. Music is what grabs the crowd. So, if you go down the line and start thinking about it, music has been linked to alcohol and that industry, to the point that there is a sense people have of there being an actual connection, that those two things actually belong together. I don’t think people realize how powerfully that industry has worked to make people believe that. It’s like a diamond ring—people believe that diamonds are something that everybody has always had, that they have always been considered this incredible symbol—if you want to show someone you love them, you give them a diamond ring. This is something that, if a hundred years ago you’d said that, people would have laughed in your face, it would be such an absurdity—you would wear a diamond as quickly as you’d wear a tiara or something, or a crown. It would be absurd, it was reserved for royalty. But at some point, the diamond industry realized it had this vast untapped market which was all these people, where all they needed to believe was that diamonds represent love, and so they put them into the movies, with an engagement scene where they’d offer up a ring with a diamond, and the woman would start to cry, and it created a sense that there was this intrinsic value here, and then it got into the fabric of our society. Now it goes without saying that if you get engaged, you get a diamond ring, that they have a value! What value does a diamond have? So in the same way, music is now considered a natural companion to the consumption of alcohol. That, to me, is a fallacy; it’s something that has been foisted upon the people by the alcohol industry itself, and now the rock industry, because the two are intertwined. So what you have is that virtually all music, except the super high end music like opera, is essentially available only in bars. If there’s music, there’s booze. And you don’t need to look any further than the laws dealing with age limits to recognize how insidious that arrangement is. How could it be that someone under the age of twenty-one is not allowed to see a band? I mean, did you like music when you were under twenty-one?

BLVR: Of course.

IM: Did it mean anything to you?

BLVR: Yes, it meant everything to me, in fact.

IM: Of course it did. It is completely absurd and insane that because of the economic dependency that musicians have been faced with which maintains this status quo, that they are forced to say, “That’s the way it is.” And I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. I know music predated the rock club. I know music predated the music industry. I know music predates the alcohol industry. I know music predates it all. Music is no joke, and the fact that it has been perverted by these various industries for their own profit is discouraging to me. I don’t think that people who own rock clubs, people who go to rock clubs, or people in the alcohol industry are evil—I don’t think that at all. I do think that music should not be solely relegated to that environment. So Amy and I decided that we would only play music in places where all ages are always welcome, where the evening is not dictated by laws or the economics surrounding alcohol. We’ve played places where alcohol was available; we just don’t play places where it is the central theme of the room. Also, we think new ideas are hard to present in venues where profit is the primary motive, and what I mean by that is, the reason that clubs and bars—instead of having football on television—have a rock band playing, is it’s what draws people in. It’s important to note that, for a club, the band’s audience is its clientele. So if a band gets onstage with a new idea, something that’s never been heard, that there’s no established audience for, there’s also no clientele. So clubs are not in the habit of supporting that sort of thing. New ideas are born in free spaces, places like Nowe Miasto—or someone’s backyard for that matter, where people gather for new ideas. There’s just no money in it. Our interest is that we would like to support free spaces, and encourage people to work on new ideas. We don’t need any more old ideas. We have plenty of those.


BLVR: That kind of thinking ties in to how Dischord itself is run. For instance, you don’t have contracts with the bands on the label.

IM: That’s right.

BLVR: To a lot of people, that sounds like an insane business practice. The current music industry is focused, it seems, more intently on the management of intellectual property than it is on the grooming of bands, and what you are doing, operating without contracts—you are opening yourselves up to tremendous liability to be cheated.

IM: If you’re a doctor, and you work at a hospital, you think the world is sick. And if you’re a cop, you think the world is criminal—it’s your environment. The reason people think that operating on a basis of trust is insane is because they exist in a world of mistrust, and it’s a perversion of life and the way our society operates. From our point of view, the only time you need a contract, the only time a piece of paper becomes relevant, is in a court of law. The only way it would get to a court of law— I suppose there are some exceptions, but I don’t know of any—is if there is a significant amount of money involved. The lawyers are not going to touch it if there is no money in it. At some point, let’s say I have a dispute—and to be clear, we haven’t. We’ve never had a real dispute—but if we did have one with a band, the total amount of money we would be quarrelling about would not be worth going to court over. If you factor in that in December, this label will see its twenty-seventh year of not paying lawyers, that’s a lot of dough. If you’re not going to have a contract, you better know the people you’re working with. It’s one of the reasons that we keep things local, why we put out D.C. bands. We’re not making deals with them. We’re their partners. They’re not being paid on a mechanical basis, they’re not part of a profit share. They make the music, they play the shows, we make the records, and we sell the records. And we split the profits. We don’t get any money from their shows. They can play shows or not, they can tour or not tour, they can do interviews or not. It is really up to them. There isn’t a system that they have to follow. It’s a different way of approaching it, and people can say that it’s insane or idealistic but clearly it’s real, and has been for nearly three decades. I think we’ve had one year where we were in the red and that was very early on when we were figuring out how things worked. Every six months, if any of the records show profit, we send out royalty checks. I send checks to people who put out records in 1981. We have six employees, full-time, with benefits. Both Jeff [Nelson, drummer for Minor Threat and cofounder of the label] and I, as co-owners of the company, we’re alive, we live in our houses, you know. It’s obviously possible. I don’t know what to tell people. The proof is in the pudding.

BLVR: Because you’re so hands-on with the label, do you ever feel like you’re more of a small businessman than a musician, or is it about interlacing the two?

IM: It’s all one thing. I’ve never really thought of myself as a musician or as a businessman. I think of myself as myself, and this is what I have to do every day. I come from Washington, D.C., so there was never any thought of someone else putting my records out. There was never any possibility of that. If I wanted to document something I did, I’d have to do it. Having made the records, I could either have them sit in my room or I could sell them, so I learned how to sell them. I started the label and I run the label because I want to make music. That’s the way I look at it. Did I set out wanting to own a record label? No. Do I want to be involved in the record industry? No. If this label was to come to an end, would I look for another job in the industry? No. I think it’s a despicable industry.

BLVR: The whole idea of the punk D.I.Y. aesthetic is that no one is going to do anything for us, so—

IM: Or as we used to say, and I still think, don’t ask for permission because the answer is always no. So you just do it. And you’re right. We are definitely punk-rock kids, but I mean, do you consider yourself a fairly knowledgeable music person?

BLVR: Yes.

IM: Are you familiar with D.C. music?

BLVR: Somewhat.

IM: Can you name a band from the last ten years from

the District?

BLVR: Q and Not U.

IM: OK, can you name one from the ’90s?

BLVR: Well, Fugazi is the first one that comes to mind.

IM: What about the ’80s?

BLVR: I don’t know the ’80s in D.C. that well. Bad Brains, I suppose.

IM: How about the ’70s?

BLVR: The ’70s—I couldn’t tell you.

IM: Well one reason you can’t tell me is because in D.C. at that time, there was no perceptible rock scene. There were a lot of great people and bands making music here, but a lot of the bands here in the ’70s were cover bands, and if a band were to become cohesive and get it together, they would move up to New York or head out to L.A. In our reality—the first band I was in was in 1979—I was told time and again that if I wanted to make it, I had to move to New York. If I wanted to be a punk, I had to move to New York. I thought, Why would passion, creativity, boredom, constructiveness, outrage—why would these things have geographic connotations? Why would they be qualities that could only be ascribed to you when you are in New York? I was born and raised in Washington, why would I have to go somewhere else to feel these things? The answer is: I don’t, and I wasn’t going to, and we decided to go ahead and make our own scene. And we did it. And I think within the rock/punk world—and I make that distinction because D.C. has plenty of other scenes: the go-go scene, a world-class bluegrass scene in the ’60s—but just in terms of rock, you’d be hard-pressed to name a rock band from D.C. from then. But we made our own scene, and suddenly in the ’80s, people can name bands from D.C., and we did it ourselves. There was no template to work from, no scene before us to tell us what to do. We had people who said, “Here’s the number for the pressing plant. Good luck.” We were just punks, and made our own scene. And I was under the impression that kids from all the other towns across the country were going to make their own scenes, and their own fanzines, and their own records labels, and it would be regional. That’s really how it started out. You had Touch and Go in the Midwest, you had Alternative Tentacles in San Francisco, Exclaim in Boston, SST and other labels in L.A., one in Texas whose name I can’t recall now, but you had all these small labels and fanzines and scenes around the country. It just so happens that we never stopped. The others, they either stopped or they broadened their vision, or whatever you want to call it. Whereas, from my point of view, Dischord is, by definition, documentation of the music from this particular scene in Washington, D.C., from the beginning to the end. That way, twenty or thirty years from now they can pick up a Dischord record, they will know it’s from D.C. and make that connection. I think that’s interesting. I like it.

BLVR: I can identify with that. Growing up in Louisiana, we thought nothing was ever going to happen here, we thought you had to go to Austin or New York or wherever to make something happen. And that’s such a ludicrous idea.

IM: Well, it depends on what you mean by “making something happen.” If you’re talking about making a living, then yeah, you might have to. If you’re talking about making music, why do you have to go somewhere? You can just pick up a guitar. I was recently talking to a friend of mine here, and he felt like he should be able to make a living from being a musician in Washington, D.C. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe you have that entitlement, to think that just because you want to make a living from music, you can. I don’t really believe in the idea of a professional original musician. You can be someone that plays weddings and bar mitzvahs; you can get that kind of work and do covers. But just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you get a job. So, living in Louisiana, you want to do something and there’s no scene for it, and if your idea of success is based on renown and financial gain, you may not find success in that sense. I don’t see success that way. If you are a musician and you write a song, then you’re a success.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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