Sunday, March 10, 2019

MacKayes are woven together, through punk rock and beyond / Feature story

Alec, Amanda and Ian MacKaye, exclusive 2019 photo by Allen Beland.

By Andy

With dad taking his spot, front and center at the stove, the MacKaye family dinner is a vital Sunday fixture in their schedules in the Washington, DC, area. Whipping up vegan delights, the elder MacKaye is a culinary threat as he grips onto cooking utensils instead of a microphone or guitar that his children -- Ian, Alec and Amanda -- have wielded during their time on stage with their various bands over the years.

This is where the MacKayes thrive, as a family, more than they do anywhere else in their lives.

"For us, the MacKayes, we all still hang out with each other," said Amanda, 49. "It wasn't temporary. A lot of people when they get to this stage of life, their siblings are far-flung or they don't really get along with their siblings or whatever. A lot of this is just part of who our family is, we have Sunday dinners, we're together. We have one sister who lives on the other side of the country, but we're all still connected. And we're all still into whatever the other one is doing. We're all still pretty interested in each other."

Currently, Ian, Alec, older sister Katie and their dad Bill all live in DC; Amanda (the youngest) resides in nearby Arlington, Va.; and another older sister Susannah calls Oakland, Ca., her home. Ian said it was a treat to have Susannah back on her home turf of DC this weekend to celebrate her birthday.

Ian, 56, noted that his parents were only children, so the MacKaye siblings grew up without any uncles, aunts or cousins. They learned from and inspired each other along their life paths, which eventually led them toward punk rock and embracing the idea of residing outside of the mainstream. He laughs about the MacKayes being a weird family that way.

They're close-knit to the core.

"We are the MacKayes. Especially our mom, she really emphasized, we are a family," said Ian of mother Ginger, who passed away in 2004. "We're fifth-generation Washingtonians. My mom was born here and it was just important to her this idea of being Washingtonian. I think we're just committed to each other. We're a family and there's times where people get steamed with each other about something, but we never have like the awkward Thanksgiving nonsense. But partially because we see each other every Sunday for dinner almost anyway."

If the conversation roams toward music at the family meal, Katie can certainly chime in about taking Ian to his first concert, featuring Queen and Thin Lizzy in 1977. Ian noted that Katie always possessed cool records and was ahead of her peers in the music game. She wasn't a punk, but was a proponent of going to see live music of all sorts, including arena-rock bands and tunes with a faster bent like witnessing the Ramones with Ian in 1979. Katie still attends gigs, and aside from venturing into the music scene, she's voyaged across the country twice on her bike. She's a badass, Ian said.

Alec, 52, remembers Katie toting a clutch of records back from England around Christmastime in the late '70s. Generation X, Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Damned and a 10-inch sampler featuring X-Ray Spex were soon blasting throughout the household.

"The moment I heard it, I was just clocked in. It was the best thing I had ever heard," Alec said.

Ian was a self-proclaimed Ted Nugent "Double Live Gonzo" devotee before latching onto punk music a few months before Alec in '79 or so, thanks to his high school friend Bert Queiroz lending him some Sex Pistols, Damned, Clash and Tuff Darts records.

"I had to really get in on it and think about it 'cause I was so puzzled by the whole thing. But I gotta say, it clicked and I was like, 'Oh, I'm in, I love this stuff,'" said Ian, who remembers debating with kids in high school about whether punk sucked or not. When Ian cut his hair, he recalls rocker Alec and his friend teasing him about the new look.

Soon, Ian and Alec would be a punk duo, delving into the music together, attending gigs in DC and performing in bands like the Slinkees, Teen Idles, Untouchables, Faith, Minor Threat and more. Further down the road, Embrace, Ignition and Fugazi would continue to put the MacKayes and DC on the map.

Little sister Amanda got in on the punk action as well. It wasn't just the music that spoke to the MacKayes, it was the surroundings that punk offered and a way for them to click with family and the other like-minded people they encountered.

Amanda's entrance onto the scene occurred at age 9 and was captured in a classic photo of her and Katie watching the Slinkees play a garage gig in August of '79. Amanda laughs when the photo, featured in the book "Dance of Days," is mentioned.

"It was like a lightning-bolt moment for me. The funniest part of the memory for me is that Kim Kane of Slickee Boys, he just was so kind, he is so bright in my memory of that show. It's just interesting to think about that of all the things to remember about that moment, is someone I wasn't even related to," she said.

A young Amanda, center, with Katie behind. From "Dance of Days."

While she doesn't remember any of the music, "I remember, and this is probably sort of like the core of my feeling about punk, is I just  remember the freedom and the intimacy. I think I was wearing a Johnny Rotten button, but it was a homemade one that Ian or Alec had made. You're in a garage, there's not like a real stage, just running around with people I didn't know who were happy to see me. We're all just there and there's like this joy, which this is what I think of, that sensation is what sort of propels me in every aspect of my personal definition of punk. It's wrapped with this joy."

For Alec, dipping his boots into shows in the punk realm marked both an advancement into his formative teen years and a punch of chaos into his musical tastes.

"I think I liked the intimacy of it all. Before that, I had just been to see arena rock, some of the huge bands like Queen and Santana and large-scale things. Then going to smaller shows was really the ticket for me -- it still is," said Alec, who mentioned attending small shows by Bad Brains, Slickee Boys, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs at first, and bigger ones with the Cramps, Damned, Clash and B-52s.

The energy of those shows was infectious.

"I really was digging on that abandon, you could really lose yourself in the music. Everybody else was on the same page and it didn't seem like it was very well-controlled and that part was super exciting for me. That was what I was responding to right away," Alec said.

Alec began his punk transformation on the clothes and hair front in middle school and said that people thought he was a nerd or a freak. At age 14 and now in high school, he joined his first band, the Untouchables.

He's still singing today with Hammered Hulls and Ian plans on taking them into the studio soon.

On initially getting up on stage, shouting out lyrics and bouncing his body all over the place, Alec said, "I was pretty introverted before that, and I still am in a certain sense, but I also became an extrovert by being in a band and not being afraid to be standing on stage and doing things that a lot of people would not be up for. I was up for it, 'cause it gave me license to act out in ways that were just fun. So that was a big change for me. With punk rock, it felt like I had a new persona and had a little bit more vigor."

Ian's mind was blown when he saw the Cramps play in DC in '79. It was his first punk show and was a seminal event for the area's punks.

"I thought it was incredible. The first show was the Cramps and that was complete chaos and really, really exciting and so dangerous feeling and terrifying," he said. "At that point, I had seen Queen twice and Nugent three times, and they were all arena shows, so my relationship with music was really, when you saw bands, you saw them in that kind of setting, and bands were, as you know, unapproachable in that setting."

The Cramps show in a hall at Georgetown University was wall-to-wall packed with punks. And it was nuts.

"(The Cramps) were so in your face and everybody was really losing their shit. People were jumping up and down," said Ian, noting that as the sold-out show progressed, the long tables that people were standing on soon began to break and he could see "human formations descending into the crowd." People also were seen squeezing through transom-style windows to get into the fray.

"Punk was wide open, and I just wanted to get in," Ian said. "It was instantly just on, so I felt it was great. Super engaging. It was like you're walking down the street and you find a box, and you go, 'That's an interesting box,' and you bring it home and when you open it, it's a box of infinite learning -- and I'm still learning."

"Some people in the world think of life in terms of phases and then there's other people who think of it in terms of flights of stairs, and that's I think where we're at," he added about the MacKayes.

Ian's still got the Evens, a two-piece with him on guitar/vocals and his spouse Amy Farina on drums, in the back pocket but they haven't been active lately. Another band with Joe Lally on bass, Farina on drums and Ian on guitar/vocals is nameless at this point and they have a record in the bag and awaiting a future release. They played two gigs last November, but the band is on hold until Lally returns from tour with the Messthetics, which also features former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty.

Ian and Amy with the Evens. (Cat Rose photos)

For Ian, after the seeing the Cramps, he felt that what they were doing was pretty straight forward and so he got the Slinkees happening.

"I wanna be in a band, I just wanted to play music. I wasn't then and I still don't think of it as a career. To me, I just wanna play music. I just do the do, I just work with what's in front of me," he said.

That Slinkees garage show, with his family members in the crowd, kicked things off and the MacKayes have never stopped. The punk ethos still rings true. The idle teens are adults with children and they continue to make an impact in the music world and on the people they encounter in their day-to-day lives.

Their family is your family. We're all in it together.

"I honestly wasn't thinking about sort of the juxtaposition of me as an audience member or me as a performer because that's kind of the point, they're not that different. We're making a show together, that's what we're doing, the audience and the bands," Ian said.

Alec knew he would be a punk-rock lifer from the get-go.

"I gotta say that there never was even a doubt in my mind. I have known people in my life that, 'that's a closed chapter,' they move on, they grow up, they put away childish things or whatever. I think when I got into punk rock, in my head it was a forever thing that I would be 120, if I ever live that long, and still be doing it, on some level, I just didn't know how," he said. "So that's been a thing that as you go through life, navigating how you can still relate to it and how it can work in your life. It just stayed with me, I never stopped listening to music and I like the energy."

"It's a feeling and it's real as they say, as I said in a previous band," laughed Alec, who works full time in an art museum and thrives on learning about history, philosophy and cultural things.

He also gets to travel the world, and recently attended a hardcore show in Tokyo while his art colleagues took in different sights. Some things never change, right? Keep your key in the ignition of life and go wherever the fuck you want.

"It's astonishing to me that when I was in Tokyo, there was a flier for a Faith/Void re-release. To me, it's been almost 40 years of doing stuff and it just keeps going," Alec continued.

On a recent day, I walked into a Barnes & Noble and saw a Minor Threat record with the first two EPs at the front of the M rack. Alec sits on the cover with his head buried in his arms. It's an iconic image that I first witnessed when I purchased the original red 7-inch at Zed Records in Long Beach, Ca., in 1981.

Alec said that someone recently showed him a photo of that image emblazoned on someone's back as a tattoo.

"That particular image is not me, it's anybody. That's the one that the  everyman punker can relate to. Yes, it's a trip to see that everywhere still. It's really got legs," he said.

Like a lot of us who got into the punk scene back in the early '80s, those early MacKaye bands had a major impact on Amanda. As a youngster, she had those tunes at her fingertips, literally right when the tapes came hot from the studio into their home music deck. Lives were changed when the play button was pressed.

"They were my older brothers and I already looked up to them and tried to do whatever they were doing. I found the whole thing instantly exciting. The energy of it was just hypnotic for me and I immediately sort of gravitated to it," Amanda said. "My parents played a lot of records and my mom played piano. There was other music, we didn't really listen to mainstream radio that much. I definitely was aware of 'mainstream rock,' but really at a very early age, like 10-11-12, I was in a conflict with my peer group because I was listening to Minor Threat and they were listening to (mainstream music)."

"Some of the general-population music stuck with me, but mostly I was sort of in an instant weirdo zone because when I was trying to get people to listen to my Walkman, it was Minor Threat and they were like, 'Eww. Why?'" she added with a laugh. "Some of the 'why?' for me was that I was totally awestruck at my brothers and I was super proud of them and wanted to tell everyone like, 'No. No. No. I'm related to these people.'"

Like family members do, the self-proclaimed tomboy gravitated toward whatever Ian and Alec got their hands on: football and baseball cards and muscle-car Hot Wheels because Alec made models of those vehicles.

Amanda, who these days works at a public high school with her husband, said that as a child, "I think that I always sort of felt like outside the circle. I felt like our family just didn't look like everybody else's family, we did things that were a little bit different."

She tried to fit in with the other kids by playing soccer in elementary school, but she was admittedly a terrible player and hated the experience. Kids were mean to boot.

"I couldn't wrap myself into it and maybe that added into why when I saw this group of people in this garage, who were like, 'Oh, hey, you're outside just like us,' maybe that's why it felt so good," she said of the Slinkees gig. "I'm still attracted to that warm embrace that punk rock gave to me as a young child. I love it when I find bands that are just warm from the get-go. You meet them and you feel like you've known them for a long time, or they play music and you just feel like, 'Oh, yeah, this feels right.'"

Following in her brothers' footsteps, she formed her first band, The Headaches, as a pre-teen and they performed in living rooms. A quick insight into the experience was their theme song was ripped off from The Monkees and they had personas (she was the tough, cool person who looked like one of the Blues Brothers).

Her punk path became more serious when she formed Sammich Records in high school and released an EP by her friends Lunchmeat and Mission Impossible and then many more records to follow. Ian helped her configure the label since he had experience on his side with Dischord rolling strong (Amanda and Alec also worked at Dischord for a awhile). At age 20, she began singing in Desiderata and later performed with the Routineers.

For the last 14 years, Amanda has booked shows at Fort Reno Park in DC, the spot where the MacKayes saw some of their first concerts.

She likens the free outdoor shows to an incubator for bands to give it a shot and play out. She's received feedback that people are thankful their kids can see them play and see music and be able to expose their kids to something that drives them forward, she said.

"I jokingly refer to it all the time as a labor of love. But it's actually much more serious for me than that, because at this point in the music industry or however you want to discuss it, the opportunity for people under the age of 21 or even 18 to see live music un-influenced by anything else is very rare in this area. It's like a dinosaur. I feel extremely emotionally  bound to do this because that's what helps me sort of dial in on what was important to me," said Amanda, adding that most venues -- aside from art spaces -- serve alcohol and have video or pinball games that infringe on the true musicality of the shows.

"It's really really hard to find a pure experience where you're seeing music and that's all you're seeing. You're with your friends or your family or just with like-minded people. So, I'm pretty impassioned about keeping it going," she said of the Fort Reno gigs.

Heaps of music and crucial life lessons that they gained through the punk scene remains with the MacKayes. As they gather for the Sunday meals and for Susannah's birthday, the conversations are sure to be lively and insightful. The MacKaye children of today will have enough of their parents' stories and anecdotes to last them a lifetime, and they'll feed off those discussions and create vital paths of their own and experiences to pass on as well.

"I suppose it's what I didn't learn that's kept me free," Alec said. "I'm pretty resistant to being led away from the things that I cherish. I didn't learn to grow up and be completely conventional, even though there's been plenty of peer pressure from adults. It's a cliche, but it's true, that you really need to stay true to the things that serve you best, and I've continued to do that."

"I have two daughters and that's another moment where I just didn't know what that was gonna be like, being a father," Alec added. "I wasn't really afraid of being a father, I was afraid of being a member of the village. You know, they always say it takes a village to raise a child... to me, the village just fucking bothers me and they should just go raise their own children and stay outta my face. That was something I was worried about, but I found out there's other villagers that feel the same way, so that was a relief. I can be a father that isn't like the ones that you think are perfect, and that's OK, and my kids love that about me."

For Amanda, she forever enjoys watching Ian and Alec perform and says it's a cool feeling to be still walking her own path.

"At this point in my life, it doesn't hurt to be different. When I was 12, it was really complicated and painful for me that all the kids in the neighborhood thought I was weird and I didn't really have any friends, except for Josh who introduced me to Joan Jett, which was incredible 'cause it's still very prominent for me," said Amanda, who's still in touch with Josh.

She's thankful for remaining true to herself since the day she stepped into the garage with Katie to watch Ian and the Slinkees. The high school she works at has a staff spirit week on tap and they're asking people to dress like they did in high school. Amanda and I laugh: "Same." (Except that she doesn't wear leather anymore, so that jacket of yore won't make an appearance.)

Alec jokes that Ian's the ultimate storyteller of the family. He remembers occurrences with exact dates and years and relays the information in great detail, with verve and a dose of humor.

Through the punk scene, the trio of MacKayes -- Ian, Alec and Amanda -- have woven themselves together.

"In the '70s and the early '80s, there was a lot of chaos in our family, with our parents, and I think that punk probably was something that was very anchoring for us," Ian said. "And I think the three of us especially, really that was an important connection. It was something that we could feel committed to and it was a safe thing."


  1. I loved this line " Keep your key in the ignition of life and go wherever the fuck you want."

  2. Such a great read. So much about the history of a generation. Thank you Andy!!!!!

  3. Fantastic piece. I treasure my Shudder to Think debut...on Sammich.

  4. Climbing the stairs of life..... 5 countries and 8 cities later and sucking the marrow out of every local music scene. Crazy to think it started out with sorties of piling into my pal's family van from Pa. down to DC. Thanks Mackayes for help lighting the fuse!

  5. Great read and they were great Beaches Street neighbors!

  6. Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks from The Netherlands.