Saturday, January 28, 2012

A chat with Ian MacKaye: From Minor Threat to Fugazi to fatherhood

Ian MacKaye at Dischord House. (Pat Graham photo)
"I feel like right now while we're talking, there's some kids, if they're not already playing it, they're cookin' it up-- it's comin', can't be stopped. And if it can be stopped, then we wouldn't be talking, because I wouldn't have been able to do it back then. It's never over."

By Andy

Ian MacKaye is never at a loss for words -- he's about as outspoken and insightful as they come on music (above quote), life, politics and whatever else comes down the pike.

The Washington, DC native, who will turn 50 in April, has certainly been around the block when it comes to hollering (and softly singing) into a microphone and strapping on a guitar and bass for the last 33 years. He forged his way onto the music scene by playing with valiant hardcore, post-HC bands Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Embrace and Fugazi, and for the last decade, he's pulled up a stool and toned down the tunes in the indie-rock duo The Evens.

We spoke by phone Jan. 20, about an hour before he rehearsed with drummer Amy Farina, his bandmate in The Evens, at Dischord House:

--How's that all going, you guys writing new stuff, new material coming out?

We put a single out in November and we're working on trying to finish writing an album. These last few years have been pretty quiet for us-- actually, our lives have been busy, but in terms of the band, we haven't gotten to do a lot of work. It's taken us a while: We've (Ian and Amy) got a kid who's 3 years old now, and that and along with a lot of other stuff that's been going on with our families and also with Dischord. Dischord had to change distribution three times in the last three years, so it's been an enormous amount of work, but things have settled down and I think we're finally at a time where we can finally get back to work and make it back on the road, which would be nice.

MacKaye and Farina: The Evens. (Harumi Aida photo)

--Speaking of parenthood, how's that going there for you?

Great... it all makes sense to me.

--As far as parents, what kind of an influence did they have on you to go through life and do what you've done over the last 30 years; any words of wisdom from them to keep you going?

I think my parents, with all their kids -- I have three sisters and a brother -- there was no pressure to make money or no pressure to sort of be successful in anything other than what we wanted to do; they didn't push us in any direction. For some people, that could be, many people could feel, 'Oh well, I didn't get enough encouragement.' I think in our case, our parents felt that our hearts were more important than our billfolds. I would say they had a pretty profound impact on me in terms of really pursuing music the way I have, or thinking, 'This is what I wanted to do.'

I actually think life is a wide-open field.

(He likens society to an imaginary grid, like on a football field) ...

If you're within it, you feel compelled to play by the rules. My parents at least got us to understand that there was a grid and we could choose to be in the grid or not-- it's up to us.

--(With Dischord) How does it feel 30-plus years later to have gone beyond those first couple releases and to have made such a huge impact on the alternative-music landscape?

I don't think, 'Wow, I've really accomplished so much' or, 'Wow, I've really affected culture' (laughs). I just can't think like that, because my work is always in front of me.

I think at the time, all we were doing was putting out those singles, because that's what was in front of us. And now I'm trying to finish this record with Amy and work on the archives stuff. It's what's in front of me.
I just do the work, that's all I've ever done.

-- As far as Dischord goes, there's a lot of releases over the years, is there maybe one or two you feel have really stood the test of time for you?

I have to say most of the records on the label stand the test of time for me; there's some where the production value, the way some of it is recorded, like the technique of the recording, maybe the style, the way the effects were put on it, maybe that is kind of a give-away, that might be a little dated. But in terms of the actual songs and the band, none of those things feel dated to me-- they're actually great, I just love them.
There are some bands, for instance, that I was really, really connected to-- my brother's band The Faith is a band that was very important to me; and a band like Lungfish, extremely important to me.

The Faith. (Malcolm Riveria photo)

Having said that, every once in a while, when I'm working I'll pull out some Dischord record and I'm really just blown away how good these songs are; these people are writing these great, great songs -- I love 'em.

(He finds it sad and frustrating that Dischord often gets pigeonholed as a strictly hardcore, straight-edge label, when in fact, they're just putting out great music-- period. The label features a variety of music, from Minor Threat to Shudder to Think to Slant 6 to Beefeater and beyond. He calls Dischord's catalogue a folk-music collection: musicians speaking about politics and their community and world.)

At some point, I hope people would recognize that what Dischord is is a documentation, a way of showing what was happening with an underground music scene in Washington, DC: a vibrant, thriving underground music scene that went on for a solid 20-25 almost 30 years, and maybe longer depending on whatever the hell happens next.

I hope that people at some point will kind of go back in and revisit these records, and without the kind of notion that it's, 'Oh, more straight edge, drill-sergeant stuff' ...that just drives me crazy. It's first of all inaccurate, and second off, it'd be like getting a really delicious steamed vegetable, but then dousing it with some A1 sauce or something-- you can't taste the vegetable, and I think people's perception of the label ... I think they don't actually get to the actual taste, which was what the point was in the first place.

Minor Threat: MacKaye, left; Henry Garfield (Rollins), center, skanking; Lyle Preslar, right. (Susie Josephson photo)

-- I can attest that listening to Dischord records from Day 1 'til now, it always made us think what it was like to be there in DC, and especially when the photo books came out, it kind of gave us the full picture, and I appreciate it the whole way through (the bands, and definitely the DIY ethic).

I would say that you and people like you are precisely the reason we continue to keep going, that's why we make records, because somebody out there was getting it.

If nobody is interested, I don't want a record label-- this wasn't my idea in the first place, I just wanted a way to get the music out. The actual record-industry aspect of it is horrible for me, I don't give a damn about it; I've never been to a music conference; I don't have a lawyer, I'm just not involved with any of that stuff. I'm just putting out records.

-- I always try to look for the most current news on a certain band, and I was just watching this thing on VH1 Classic the other night, this 'Metal Evolution' series they have, and they have this thrash-metal episode, and they had some Minor Threat at the beginning of it, as far as maybe being a bit of an impetus for that scene-- did you see that?

No, but I'm not surprised.

I think Minor Threat, we had a refined sound, and also we'd seen the Bad Brains and the Circle Jerks, we were aware of those bands. Minor Threat... those guys were super players, three of them: Brian and Jeff and Lyle. I think especially Lyle Preslar, the guitar player, I mean he's one of the most unsung guitar players. He's playing full, six-string-position barre chords at that speed-- that's just insane. His accuracy and his rhythms are so incredible.

When I was in the band, we were just caught up in the moment, and obviously being kids, teenagers, we were spending a lot of time screaming at each other, it was such a crazy time. It wasn't until years later that I actually, when I was working on putting together the DVD of some of the videos, that I had kind of a perspective to look at the band and think about their musicality -- and I was stunned, really, to think that Lyle was 17-18 years old and playing that way is just phenomenal.

Minor Threat setlist from San Diego gig. (Andy/Cat archives)

Minor Threat. (Susie Horgan photo)

Jeff was a great drummer... I'm not taking anything away from my work or whatever, I had a really clear vision about the music. A lot of the songs I wrote... I think that that music was something that really resonated and continues to resonate with people. And I understand how like the thrash thing, Minor Threat would have been one of the bands that would have led to that scene, because it was fast, aggressive and that really connected with a lot of people.

See, I wasn't coming from a metal place, I didn't grow up on metal. Hendrix was a huge influence, continues to be a huge influence to me, so was Janis Joplin and the Beatles.
I think for a lot of kids in the '80s era, they were into Ratt and bands like that, more metalish kind of hair bands, so that collusion of the speed of Minor Threat and punk rock joined with the sort of squealing kind of guitar of metal, I can see how that could come out. It's actually something I really love -- I love the way all the various tributaries run together to form creeks.

--(In a bit of a rambling statement, I note that I'm on the fence about old hardcore bands reforming for nostalgia's sake, adding that a retro-type band like OFF!, while sounding great, doesn't move forward musically. It's here where the conversation veered, and then he touched upon the initial subject.)

Yeah, I think it's like the blues or something. You think of a form, and I think OFF!, for instance, not only their pedigree, but they're also good at what they do. Obviously, Keith and Steve are serious veterans, and they were sort of the architects of that form with Red Cross and Circle Jerks, and the other guys are clearly -- Dmitri and Mario -- they're just great players. I think in terms of the form, I think they present it really, really well.

A friend of mine once called them reenactors, but it can still be really effective. I also believe that Keith, he's the real deal-- he's just not a bullshitter. And they've gone out and done the work-- they go and throw down pretty hard.

Keith Morris sings with OFF! (Andy photo)

(He stressed that OFF! is unlike punk bands from the past that have returned to the stage to make some cash by playing big punk fests. That's fine, he says, but it doesn't interest him.)

Obviously, I've pondered this a lot. Black Flag, for instance, they just did this thing with the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary, and Chuck and Keith and Bill Stevenson and Stephen, so those guys did that thing and, on the one hand...
I mean, Black Flag for me, that's just one of the most important bands of all time.

(He spoke about getting Flag's 'Nervous Breakdown' EP and calling Dukowski on the phone after seeing the band's number listed in an ad in Slash or Flipside. He wanted to know more about Flag and 'I couldn't stop listening to that record.' He became friends with the band through more phone conversations, and when they came to the East Coast for the first time, Ian and his friends went to New York to see them; and when they hit DC, they stayed at his mom's house when he was living there.)

That band was just so deeply, deeply important, that music was so important to me. So, on the one hand, by hearing those songs performed by Keith and Chuck (today), there's something very heavy about it. And, on the other hand, it's so out of context, I find that it's hard to take for me, to see it in this setting, like kind of a 100-percent professional production, like if you look at the staging and the security. But even the people-- it's almost like a snow globe, a bunch of people standing outside of the snow globe.

For me, part of the visceralness of punk, what was so important about it was that it was a joint effort, the band and the audience, they fused together to make something that was transcendent. So that music, I think of it a lot like gospel music in a way, because when it was live, it took on a spirit of its own and was largely fueled by the audience. So now it's sort of like a weird, slightly different thing, because the audience has a different relationship with this music.

So, it's a puzzler for me, but ultimately, it's fine: I'm sure people were psyched to see it, a lot of people were not even born at that time. I'm not somebody who thinks, 'Well, too bad, you weren't there.' It's fine.
For me, it is a puzzler, it's just a different way of thinking about life and the way time works, and how people perceive things. Having been there, and having been there in my own brain, right? because everybody was there in their own brain, they have their own takes on it. My relationship with that music ... it can't be replicated just because the same people get up on stage with instruments-- because things smell different now.

--You know from our blog entries that we've been going to shows for a long time. It's weird how time goes on and you've got your own memories of things. And it is weird to see that happen with the Black Flag thing.

But the thing is, you were there and you got to see some of that stuff, and there were plenty of people who never did-- to actually see Dukowski play live, that's kind of exciting.

Dukowski plays Black Flag songs at the Goldenvoice gig. (McHank photo)

I've been to jazz fests in New Orleans, I saw some jazz stuff, and I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm actually seeing this person play.' And even though I know it's a far sight from where this person has made their bones or whatever, just to see them in flesh and blood and actually play, cuz that's the thing, Dukowski is the real deal, he's not a bullshitter, and when he plays he's not kidding. When you see it, it's pretty mind blowing. I think especially now, it's important for people to actually experience things in the flesh and blood. Just to be there, it's pretty good.

--I'm stoked for those folks that are able to see it, kind of pass the baton in a way, 'This is your turn to check it out.'

The way I kind of try to counterbalance it is I'm always looking for the band or the musicians or the scene that is doing that thing now. And also understanding that it's gonna be a different music: they may look different, they may act different. Somewhere, something real is always happening. So I'm always interested in that. For me, the greatest moments have almost always been in rooms with like 50 to 100 people. So I just keep looking. Not only is it time-specific, but it's also geographically-specific. So had you come to Washington, DC, in 1979 or '78, it would be like, 'OK, well there's nothing going on here.' But if you came two years later, it would be like, 'Wow, what the fuck? There's so much going on here.' So I think that you just have to wait.

MacKaye with Fugazi. (Joe Henderson photos)

--As far as the Fugazi live series, how's that all going?

It's an enormous amount of work. A lot more work than I even thought. We probably spent two years putting it together, but just getting it started and up and running has been challenging. There's so many submissions, just trying to figure out the way to get all the stuff in and up and then, we have another 700 some shows to master and edit-- it's pretty daunting.

--Is it successful?

You know it's interesting, we have sold quite a few, people downloaded a lot of stuff, it's good. I'm a little startled-- I don't really check the numbers very often, but about a week and half ago, I did an interview with somebody from Italy, and they asked me about the numbers, so I asked one of the guys who looks after that stuff to do a report. So we looked at it together and I was really stunned to see that -- there are some that have been downloaded a lot -- but the number of shows, we have 150 up now, and a significant number of those, there's been one download. One. And I was shocked by that. 

(The cost of a download runs on a sliding scale from $1 to $5, and he said that a lot of people are contributing just $1. It's a vast archive -- almost too big -- he said, but he assumed that since Fugazi played to hundreds and thousands of people in each venue worldwide, there'd be at least five or 10 downloads apiece. The project is just 2 months old, so there's time for growth.) 

--I was always curious about, actually one of my favorite bands that you were involved in, was Embrace. That gets a lot of praise nowadays, people are digging back into that record or maybe for a lot of people, it never left... 

It was a band that was almost forced in a way by the four of us. The other three-- Chris, Mike and Ivor-- had already been in the Faith together with my brother singing and had already had a pretty nasty breakup, and through a series of almost comedic moves, they ended up being in a band together again.

MacKaye with Embrace. (Joe Henderson photo)

(A back story leading up to Embrace's formation:

MacKaye noted that after the breakups of Minor Threat, the Faith and Insurrection, people from those bands aimed to get new groups together in October 1984: Rites of Spring played one show around that time, but after a band member left town, they took a break.

Everything finally came together for Embrace and Rites of Spring in the summer of '85 -- dubbed Revolution Summer: 'The idea was that it was just a mark, it was a target for us all to get busy.'

Early versions of what eventually became Embrace featured, in three separate lineups: MacKaye first on bass, then guitar and finally, vocals; Mike Hampton on guitar; Mark Sullivan (from MacKaye's first band, the Slinkees, and later Kingface) on vocals; Chris Bald on bass; Jeff Nelson on drums; and then Ivor Hanson on drums.
The MacKaye (vocals), Bald, Hampton and Nelson lineup wrote songs and practiced -- a tape of that lineup exists somewhere.

As in Minor Threat and Teen Idles, MacKaye and Nelson disagreed on band direction, and Nelson soon left. Hanson returned from college and the band asked him to join.)

The problem was that they already had a breakup, the three of them, so the band almost from the beginning was doomed, and we only played 14 shows and we did two recordings. Then, that's the record-- I do think there's some great songs on there. The production value is a little tricky on that one for me, but that's an example of a really specific era of recording; but that has to do with the gear and the effects that were used. The songs were (great), Mike was such a great guitar player, they all were great at what they did-- I was really happy with those lyrics.

--It was good to hear you back in a band again.

It was also a super-confrontational time, there was a lot of problems with skinheads in this town. And that music was really not only a response, but also like a clarion call to arms, 'OK, we're gonna do our thing.' So, a lot of Embrace shows were huge confrontations with skinheads, like gangs of skinheads: They did not like the music, but that's alright, we did not like their violence. So we just stuck to it.

--With this Fugazi live series, is there anything down the road happening there (playing live again)? 

The thing about us that's just a little bit odd: the four of us, we never broke up; our lives just required us to not tour and make records. So I think in our mind, we're still in a band together. Whether we play together publicly again or not-- don't know. There's a lot of logistical problems (bassist Joe Lally is living in Rome, for instance), but I think that we're forever connected, and I think we always will just do whatever we do. And some people thought, 'Oh, does this mean you guys are playing?' No. It means that we have this archive that we want to share with everybody.

MacKaye, left, with Teen Idles. (Lucian Perkins photo)