Ian MacKaye talks about his thoroughly unconventional career
As the guiding force behind Minor Threat and Fugazi and the co-founder of Dischord Records, among the most influential of all indie imprints, Ian MacKaye is a legendary figure in post-punk music. But just because he's well known doesn't mean his public image is accurate, at least from his perspective.
"Quite often people think, 'Oh, he's not very funny,' or 'He's very serious. He's austere,'" MacKaye notes. "Or that he's a fundamentalist, a purist or whatever. And I'm sorry that people feel that way — and I'm not particularly inclined to go on a mission to try and change that. But, however, if people are interested in having a chat, they might be surprised that I'm not any of those things, for the most part."
The odds of engaging the average rock star in this kind of conversation are mighty slim. After all, celebrities tend to hide behind publicists and managers specifically to avoid such exchanges. But not MacKaye. A few years back, he was asked to speak at a college, and instead of preparing formal remarks, he told the event's organizers that if people had questions for him, he'd try to provide them with answers. The low-key get-together that resulted went so well that MacKaye has participated in similar gab sessions a few dozen times since then, and at almost all of them, he winds up revealing information that's at odds with the stereotypes that have developed around him. When the subject of guilty pleasures came up during a recent gathering in California, for instance, he mentioned liking the 1983 Yes song "Owner of a Lonely Heart" — an admission guaranteed to raise any number of eyebrows.
"Most people I know would say, 'Yes is horrible. How could you listen to that?'" he acknowledges. "And most Yes fans would say, 'There couldn't be a more horrible moment in the history of Yes.' Like, the progressive Yes people say, 'That's their worst song ever.' But actually, I remember when it came out, I was really struck by it. First of all, it's a pop song, and I'm a bit of a sucker for pop. But beyond that, it was one of the first commercial uses of samples. It was like a hip-hop song." The tune made such an impression on him that he wound up developing a theory about what he calls "The 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' Syndrome" — songs that succeed on either a commercial or creative level despite having almost nothing in common with a band's other material. He places Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" in the same category.
Of course, most people would rather jaw with MacKaye about his own history, not classic-rock oddities — and he understands why. "I've done music for thirty years and I've been involved in an underground scene, and I take an approach to things that people generally think is unorthodox," he concedes. "And I think a lot of people are very confused by that. I've heard people say, 'I don't understand how you could do that.' And it's so simple!"
That may seem true today, but only because MacKaye established the blueprint. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that he never made decisions believing that others might follow his lead. Take Dischord, which he launched in 1980 with assistance from Jeff Nelson. Initially, the concept was simply to press a record by one of his early groups, the Teen Idles, which was in the midst of breaking up. "Shit, it was like a yearbook," he says. "We weren't thinking this is something other people are going to want. We had to make 1,000 because it was the smallest number we could make. We hoped that people would like it. But obviously, at the time, we weren't thinking about starting a label. We were just talking about documenting this part of our lives."
They did much more than that. The success of the Teen Idles platter inspired MacKaye to release records by other bands in Washington, D.C., his home town, and by doing so, he helped boost the scene to national prominence — especially following the arrival of Minor Threat, a hardcore-punk groundbreaker that remains a favorite of skateboarders across the globe despite the relatively modest size of its output. The band issued only one full-length, 1983's Out of Step, and a handful of EPs and singles during its three years or so of existence.
Along the way, MacKaye made sobriety cool with help from "Straight Edge," a Minor Threat track that provided the name for a punk lifestyle that eschews alcohol and drug use. But when he wrote the lines "I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and fuck my head/Hang out with the living dead," he was merely expressing his opinion, not trying to start a movement. "If I'm advancing anything, it's only for people to engage in life," he says. "But there's no program. I have nothing to sell. When people use that word 'evangelical,' it's usually because they're like, 'Come on our team.' But I have no fucking team."
After Minor Threat came Fugazi, a group whose massive popularity was fueled by an astonishing live show and aggressively inventive albums such as 1990's Repeater, 1991's Steady Diet of Nothing and 1995's Red Medicine. But rather than attempting to turn the combo into a money machine, MacKaye refused to exploit his fans, keeping ticket prices at ludicrously low levels — usually $5 apiece. Likewise, he made equity a cornerstone of Dischord — and that philosophy remains in place to this day. "We do profit-sharing, and there are no contracts," he points out. "We've never had a contract with a single band."
That's not to say the relationship between MacKaye and Dischord bands is always smooth. Indeed, his anti-showbiz values and preference for boosting groups via grassroots methods can seem hopelessly out of touch to musicians who'd love for a company to use their music in commercials — and he understands. "There have been times where I think I'm like an aging hippie dude," he admits. "But that's all right. I don't give a fuck.
"I was having a discussion with somebody the other day, and they were talking about putting out a record, and they're very business-minded," he recalls. "And I was like, 'Look, I've got to be honest with you. I don't want to bum you out, and I definitely don't want to be bummed out by you. I feel like we're just too eccentric, and we're not going to change. So it's probably better for you to find a label that is going to behave in a more orthodox manner in terms of the approach you want to take.'" He adds, "Even though I think the record would do fairly well, there was just no joy for me. And I'm interested in joy."
No wonder, since a bundle of the stuff arrived this past May in the person of Carmine, his son with Amy Farina, his paramour and partner in his latest musical project, the Evens. The spare, comparatively simple songs on the duo's two albums to date (a self-titled debut in 2005 and the following year's Get Evens) have led most reviewers to describe the material as folk-based, but MacKaye is having none of that. "With the Evens, it's become the party line: 'They're a folk band,'" he says. "We're not a folk band; we're a punk band. But I just claim the definition of punk as the way we define it, not the way the rest of the world defines it. For me, the punk aspect of the band is the idea of always presenting new ideas and challenging ourselves — and thus challenging people's perceptions of what counts."
The same can be said for his meet-the-people events, which break down the barriers between performer and fan in a casually radical manner. Still, he doesn't consider the format to be all that revolutionary, even if it's every bit as unusual as everything else he's done in his career to date. "The idea of the Q&A was just that people read interviews — but if they're interested, I'm happy to talk to them directly," he says. "And that's straight up."
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