If Ian MacKaye had a different value system, he could be one of the wealthiest men in the music business. After all, he was the primary force behind Minor Threat and Fugazi, two of the most revered rock acts of the past three decades, and he co-founded and continues to run Dischord Records, among the most influential indie imprints in existence. Problem is, MacKaye has this weird habit of charging the bare minimum for appearances and refusing to exploit the bands on his label. But if he's not rolling in dough, he remains a fascinating figure, as he proves in "Dischordant," a November 11 Westword profile, and the following Q&A, which is among the most expansive and wide-ranging MacKaye conversations available.
The exchange begins with references to Denver's Jeremy Gregory, who runs a local organization called Bands For Lands and believes so fiercely in community radio that he's publicly stated his intention to broadcast events without a license, thereby tempting the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. (Read more about Gregory in "The Construct Pirates Community Radio," a June Message column.) Gregory has billed MacKaye's upcoming talk at the LoDo Tattered Cover on Saturday, November 16 as a "colloquy" -- a word about which MacKaye has an opinion, unsurprisingly enough.
From there, MacKaye touches on his approach to public interviews; his opinion about celebrities who overshare; his unlikely fondness for "Owner of a Lonely Heart," a widely disliked song by one of rock's most critically contentious bands, Yes; his disinterest in most major-label releases; his insistence that he never intended to become an icon of the straight-edge movement, a punk lifestyle named for a Minor Threat song; the genesis of Dischord; his contention that his current group, the Evens, which pairs him with Amy Farina (the mother of their newborn son, Carmine), is a logical next step in his musical evolution, not a significant departure; an approach to artist marketing that frankly baffles plenty of younger groups; and his take on the elections. Because the chat took place the day before the vote, he didn't know who would win, but he knew who would get his vote. It turned out to be the same person.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Jeremy Gregory, who’s putting together your appearance in Denver, describes what you’re going to be doing here as a colloquy…
Ian MacKaye: A little lofty, isn’t it? There’s actually a religious kind of bent to that. I don’t think he meant it that way, but if you look up the definition of colloquy, it’s a religious dialogue. I think that’s the proper usage. Now I think people think of it as just talking.
But what it is – it’s a public interview, a question-and-answer session. Right now, you and I – I assume you do a lot of interviewing, so you know what we’re about to engage in is an exchange. You have questions and I have answers. And I imagine that if you’re talking to somebody who’s kind of interesting, or interested, the conversation goes somewhere and your questions lead people into other ideas and you can investigate other things. Or you have people who just say “yes” or “no” – or they’ve done six interviews that day, or ten interviews that day, and they have a kind of a rap. Like, “Oh, we were living in New York and I’d just gone through a divorce…” [Laughs.] Whatever their rap is.
WW: The canned answer…
IM: Right. Now, I’ve done thousands and thousands and thousands of interviews, and I quite like them. I like talking and I’m interested in investigating or delving into my past or my experiences or my point of view. But most interviews I’ve done – or all the interviews I’ve done, really… In the beginning, I talked to fanzines, and the people who were interviewing me were fans – punk-rock kids who were part of the general movement I was connected to. And later it got into more political stuff, but there were also music magazines and lifestyle magazines and newspapers and radio stations and so forth. I’ve done so many interviews, and while I enjoy doing them, I know that these interviews, by and large, have a bias to them. The interviewer is usually speaking on behalf of a certain publication to some degree. Or if they’re freelance and they’re trying to sell this piece to a specific publication. Like if they’re trying to sell it to a skateboard magazine, skateboard magazines have a very specific energy or point of view. And then of course you have editors, who have a whole other kind of bias. They decide what’s going to make the cut or not – and quite often, you get nothing at all. I just did an interview with the L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Times leading up to these talks I did out there, and neither of them got run.
WW: Not even online?
IM: Yeah, they ran in a blog. I got blogged! [Laughs.] But in any event, 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. And that’s straight up. I think initially, I’d been invited to come speak to a college, and I don’t really have an agenda and I don’t really have anything to sell. I didn’t really have any prepared remarks. But I said, “If people are interested, if they have questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer their questions.” And as it turns out, people are interested – or at least they want to get together and talk. So at worst, it’s just a nice way to spend an evening.
WW: Do you take part in events like this one on a fairly regular basis?
IM: I have done a few dozen over the years. I don’t do them that regularly. Right now, I’m on paternity leave. Amy and I had a son back in May…
WW: Congratulations. What’s his name?
IM: Carmine. And since Amy and I are the entire band, we’re on paternity andmaternity leave at the moment. [Laughs.] This all kind of came up when I got contacted out of the blue by a couple people. They were like, “We know you’ve done these talks before and we’d like to invite you to come talk at our school.” And the Denver show… Well, I was initially invited to speak at a school in Austin – and coincidentally, I was invited to talk at a school in Reno. And I thought, “Let’s see how this would work.” And they were like, “We’ll pay for your travel plans.” So I was like, shit, let’s look into this. And all the flights I could find, they either connected through San Francisco or they connect in Denver. And I thought, fuck, if they connect to Denver, I should get out of the plane. I like Denver [laughs].
I had a really good talk there a few years ago, and Jeremy and I had been in touch recently, just in regard to the Democratic National Convention. And I was like, “Well, maybe at some point, I’ll call you.” And when I did, they were interested in doing something, so I thought, it’d be fun to do that. It is what it is. It’s just an evening of talking. And I think also, people, if they do come out, they end up hanging out, and it reinforces the idea of who’s around. You get a chance to visit. I think in our culture sometimes, people can get very isolated. And this is a way for people to hang out a little bit.
WW: Given this kind of a format, it’d be easy to come across as the expert, the know-it-all. But it sounds as if, for you, one of the appeals is that you may learn as much from the people who show up as they learn from you.
IM: Absolutely. First of all, I am an expert on myself. I know more about myself than anybody else. I know more about my life than anybody else.
WW: Just as anyone does…
IM: Of course. But I think what people might be interested in about me is, in my life, 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. 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! What I think point of my talks is to reveal the latter. This is how I did it. If somebody asks specifically how I did something, I’ll answer it. Like, I thought about people who I was really interested in their work – I thought about how nice it would have been to actually speak directly to them. To actually have been able to ask them, “How did you guys do that?”
I ran into Wayne Kramer from the MC5 recently, and coincidentally, I’d been listening to this tape of White Panther Party meetings that John Sinclair released. I was really hearing the kids working out their ideas at these meetings. They’re talking would be like, “No! That’s not the way it would go down with this theory!” So anyway, I was like, I have a few questions – really specific questions about particular people and things like that. I was just interested in it. And if there’s something about me that people are interested in, I can share that. And I am learning, for sure. I talk to people, and I learn from the kinds of questions they ask – and even the kinds of answers I give. It’s my way of grappling with ideas – how am I approaching them?
I don’t prep. I just show up, and then people ask me questions. Like in California the other day, somebody asked me, what are my guilty pleasures? And I’m like, “Huh.” First of all, I have to think of what that phrase means: guilty pleasures. And then I have to think about if I have anything that would fall into that. And if I do, if and how I would discuss it in a public forum. Because I do think about the appropriateness of the way some people do interviews. Sometimes in interviews, I’m shocked at the way people talk about their lives. I’ve read interviews where people would say, “I had a miscarriage, and then I did this…” And I’d be like, “What are you doing? What the fuck are you thinking?” Do you know what I mean? It’s completely insane to me…
WW: Insane that people would share very personal matters, as opposed to talking about things that matter to the rest of the world?
IM: Right. There’s this idea of selling your soul, and it’s often talked about in a non-secular capacity. People talk about, “You sold your soul,” or whatever. And if you think about it, they really are selling their soul. They’re trading on their personal experiences, their intimate personal experiences that quite often involved other human beings. And they’re putting that up as a way to get some traction for their product, whatever it is.
WW: Oftentimes, the product is them.
IM: They become the product. Exactly. And I’m not a religious person. I’m a non-subscriber. But there’s a truism to that idea – that once you’ve done that, you’re done. And I find it shocking – the way people engage in talking about their lives. And then who are they? They’re done. So anyway, that all came out of that question about guilty pleasures, which gives you an idea of my process. I have all these ideas, and I have to think, if I have something to say about that, how would I answer it? Or would I answer it? Is it appropriate for me to talk about? I’m not going to engage in a cult-of-personality type thing. I’m not going to go into, well, “I had this issue,” or “a family member did this, and that’s why I did this.” And I’m like, “Come on! Reel it in!”
I think all of us, all people, all of our lives, are legitimate – and we’re all dealing with the same kinds of things in one form or another. And more important to me is the idea that creativity and expression is something that should be taken very seriously, and not merely as a way to make money.
WW: About that guilty-pleasures question: Our music editor, Dave Herrera, rejects the entire idea of a guilty pleasure. He refuses to feel guilty for like a song that most other people don’t like, for example. So how did you end up dealing with that question?
IM: First of all, I talked about the idea of whether there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure. Now, this person, I don’t think he was specifically asking about music. I think he was asking me about anything in my life. But I did actually end up using an example of music. I worked in a record store for many years in the ‘80s, and when I was working there, Yes put out this “Owner of a Lonely Heart” record. Do you remember that?
WW: It’s funny you would mention that. That’s probably the only Yes song that I’d be able to put on and enjoy.
IM: Right – and that’s a really interesting thing. Because most people I know would say, “Yes is horrible. How could you listen to that?” 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. It was really kind of a radical production, and I was really struck by it. I thought, wow. And I bought the single. I worked at the store, so I got it for $1.50 or something – and I still have it in my collection. It’s not a record I listen to very often, or ever, really, but I have it.
A few months ago, I had a friend from Japan visiting. He’s a record-store owner and he’s a very serious collector guy. He’s going through my seven-inches and he’s just having a meltdown. Everything I have is the stuff that, in his store, people would pay a fortune for it. He couldn’t believe it. And I’m not a collector at all. I just happen have bought the records when they were coming out. And then he gets to the Yes record and gives me this weird look – like, “What?” And that led me to this whole other stream-of-consciousness thought about Fugazi. When you spend a lot of time together in a van, you have these various themes you study. You kind of get into discussing them, and there’s this one thing we spent a lot of time talking about. We called it “The ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ syndrome.” This is the capacity or the ability of a band to have a hit or be very well known for one specific genre of music – and then to take on another form and have a hit in another form of music. So that would be a good example of it.
“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen is another one. Incredible. This is a band that was able to really recreate themselves and have a real hit. Or obviously the Beatles are an incredible example of that. They kept changing their music, their style, and yet they kept connecting. And the Beastie Boys? Check Your Head was such a departure from Licensed to Ill, and yet it really resonated with people. So this is just the ability for some artists or bands to be able to recreate themselves and be met with a form of success, whatever that means. It’s not necessarily that they were all number-one hits. But they were able to sort of convincingly recreate themselves.
WW: I suspect that some of your fans would be surprised at how knowledgably you can talk about Yes or Queen. Do people have the impression that you’ll only listen to independent rock of a certain stripe, whereas you’re actually open to all kinds of music and culture?
IM: I think the people who I would think of as fans are probably not surprised that I’m well-versed. I think actually it’s the more slightly marginal observers who think that every day I’m consuming a steady diet of really specific monochromatic music. Which has never been the case. My interest in music has never been genre-specific. Rather, what I find compelling is music made by people who don’t appear to have a choice in the matter. I don’t care what kind of music it is. If it speaks to me and I think, “This is coming from someplace real,” then that’s interesting to me.
That’s why, by and large, major-label releases, especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, don’t connect with me. I think that by the time it goes through the buffing and the waxing and the sugaring and the sweetening and the tweaking and all that crap – by the time it goes through all that process, it’s very difficult to hear the artist any longer. And furthermore, in the amount of time that you and I speak today, there will probably be enough music created around the world to listen to for about a year. And if that’s the case, why would I spend my time listening to music that is being carefully cultivated for sale – and being forced down my goddamn throat. There’s always going to be more interesting music elsewhere, especially when you take into consideration what seems like an infinite amount of recorded music that you could study, if you wanted to.
I think people do have a misconception about me, because I don’t put my personal life on the block, usually. I think quite often people think, “Oh, he’s not very funny,” or “He’s very serious. He’s austere.” 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. [Laughs.] I’m just an interested guy. I’m interested.
WW: You’re seen as the icon of the straight-edge movement – but I’m sure that’s not something you set out to become. It just happened because you lived your life that way and people connected to it.
IM: That is true. And again, I think that the people who are more interested to my work, or connected to it, are aware of that. And it’s the slightly more marginal observers that think otherwise. Which makes sense. If they’re out of range, then what they know about me is largely what they’ve heard about me. And by the time anything gets repeated enough, it gets boiled down to the most simple, base version. Like, “He hates people who do this and wants to stop them!” [Laughs.] I don’t know…
WW: It’s not as if you set out to become an evangelist first and a musician second.
IM: It’s not as if I started out to become an evangelist, period. Evangelists are actually selling something. I don’t believe I am, actually. If I’m advancing anything, it’s only for people to engage in life. 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. Like, I’m actually encouraging people to recognize that I see life as a concert of individuals. That’s how I see it.
WW: Earlier, you mentioned musical transitions, and you’ve certainly made one – with the Evens. Was one of the appeals of that particularly musical approach that it was so different from what you’ve done before?
IM: I don’t think of it as much as a transition as I think of it as an evolution. I think if you were to listen to the Slinkees and then the Teen Idles and then Minor Threat and then Embrace and then Fugazi and then the Evens, I think you could clearly see a trajectory. In other words, to say it was a real departure from what I’ve done before is to say that everything I’ve done before was somehow consistently one thing. And come on. Fugazi and Minor Threat: It’s pretty different music when you come down to it, if you really listen to it. You can’t compare a song like “Screaming at a Wall” [from Minor Threat’s self-titled 1981 EP] to “Pink Frosty” [available on Fugazi’s 1998 album End Hits] or “Long Division” [a highlight of 1991’s Steady Diet of Nothing]. They’re completely different kinds of music.
With the Evens, it’s become the party line: “They’re a folk band.” But 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. Like, when Fugazi released our first record, people’s reaction to it was, “What the fuck is this? What is this music?”
WW: Which has kind of been forgotten over time.
IM: Yeah, of course. Now, it’s classic [laughs]. And that was the way with every record we put out. It was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is weird. What are you doing?” And actually, I think that’s a solid indication that it’s an evolution. I mean, look at your handwriting. How did it look then? And how does it look now? Your signature, your writing style: you evolve. And I like to think it’s just natural evolutionary growth. There’s no calculation, no blueprint, no chalkboard. It’s just making music that sounds like the music we want to make. And also, the other aspect of it is, in each of these bands, there are different people in the bands, and I’m a responsive person – and I respond to other people in the band. It’s not my music. It’s our music.
WW: That gets lost in the shuffle. You’re part of all these ensembles, so people assume you’re the one pulling all the strings – whereas you’re reacting to other people and they have a point of view as well.
IM: Of course. It would be very easy for me to assemble a bunch of musicians and tell them to do something – and they’d be happy to do it if I said, “This is what I want this to sound like.” I could easily do that, and I could probably have success. People would be like, “Wow. Cool. He’s doing the kind of music we associate with him,” or whatever. But that’s not interesting to me. What I’m interested in is the conversation, the musical conversation. All bands to me are relationships, and when I work with people, we’re creating something together. It’s like the quick nickel or the slow dime. If you jump into something and you want to have success, you think, “How could I go about doing this?” And you decide that you’re going to play things that people want to hear, then of course people are going to go, “Oh, great!” But shortly thereafter, they’ll be like, “Whatever. Yeah, yeah. We’ve seen this already.”
That’s why I’m more interested in letting things naturally develop. The Evens played together for a year – almost two years – before we even played a show. We weren’t practicing. We just played together. We’ve been playing for five years now, and we do things as we go. And people say, “It must be hard for you, having played in Fugazi, playing these smaller shows.” But actually, in many ways, smaller shows offer a certain kind of engagement that I find much more interesting. The larger the crowd, the more isolated the performer is. If you’ve ever seen a festival with 60,000 people are something, it’s like they’re playing to a mob. Do you know what I’m talking about? I went to Coachella one year, and I think I was watching the Chili Peppers play. I was on the side of the stage and I looked out and it was like the Middle Ages or something. I could almost imagine Visigoths battling. It was like this insane war going on in the crowd. It wasn’t a war, obviously, and they weren’t fighting, but the energy of it was so insane.
That’s a very interesting kind of thing to witness. But you have a different connection when you’re playing to a hundred people, or two hundred people – especially if you’re in a room that’s not a bar and you have your own little PA and you have your own lights. It’s a whole different kind of energy, and it’s something I find extremely interesting – and challenging.
WW: Is there a corollary between that and the conversations we were talking about earlier?
IM: Definitely, yes. In fact, I think having the opportunity to exchange with people on that level, it feels like something is occurring. Whereas with the Fugazi shows, there was something occurring, but it was a different kind of something. It wasn’t like, “I’m sick of this, and now I want to do this.” Rather, it’s more like, “This is what happened – and this is where we are.”
WW: Is that the same way you think about the evolution of Dischord – that you were thinking more about just getting your music to people, instead of thinking about how to do things different than the major labels did? And do you get any pleasure out of seeing what’s happening to majors these days, considering that the people there probably thought you were crazy for running your company the way you did?
IM: Well, no major label ever paid any mind to us when we started – and I don’t wish ill to them. I also don’t care. But my position was never, “I want to smash the state.” Rather, we wanted to create our own state, because the state didn’t have any interest in us. Remember, major labels operate on one premise, which is profit. It’s not to say that they’re evil, and it’s not to say that the people who work in this industry are all evil, and that they don’t love music. I’m sure they do. But the bottom line, always, is profit. That’s just it. It’s not the love of music. Not anymore – that’s for sure. There may be people within those industries that have a real love of music. But if someone’s not earning, I can assure you that the people behind the companies are just not interested.
I think in the beginning of Dischord, it’s not that we wanted to get our music to people. We just wanted to make a record. We had the money, we had a tape, and we were breaking up. This was the Teen Idles. And we thought, “Let’s make a record.” Shit, it was like a yearbook. We just wanted to document it. 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.
WW: So how did Dischord evolve? And how did your idea of how to run a record company evolve?
IM: I think it evolved primarily because we were never thinking about profit. We were just thinking about making records. In the very beginning, we thought, if any money comes back through this, we’re going to put it into the next project. And so immediately, new bands were forming – bands were forming like Minor Threat formed, and S.O.A. and all these other bands. And we thought, hey, let’s put out these records. Because we just wanted to create a scene – make a scene in Washington. And when you put out records, it creates an energy within the community – and then more people started forming bands. It was never intended. It just occurred.
Minor Threat just struck a chord with people – with a lot of people. And it continues to. I can’t say it was luck, because I don’t believe in luck. But clearly having a band like Minor Threat early on just kept us going. When Minor Threat broke up, we had all these other bands that had formed. And then Fugazi came along, and that was just enormous. At that point, we already had the label in place. So I’d say my philosophy, or the way I went about doing things, was to be responsive. To say, “Okay, what is the situation we’re in and how do we respond to it” – even with formats.
Unlike many labels, I’m not on the cutting edge of technology. Because I always think the cutting edge of technology is a vastly wasteful place to be. There’s a lot of speculation and you don’t know what the format is going to be, and you’re really placing your money on certain kinds of things that don’t pan out. So I figure, “Let the people decide,” and when they decide, then we’ll do it. Like with CDs, we weren’t really sure if CDs would catch on. And when they did, we were like, “Okay, we’ll do CDs.” Or cassettes. At first, we were like, “Cassettes? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But by the early ‘90s, we were selling more cassettes than vinyl. It was crazy. So like Fugazi’s Repeater record, we were selling maybe 100,000 in vinyl and then 150,000 cassettes. It was outrageous. And I was thinking, cassettes are like the light bulb. They’re only going to last so long. But that’s what people wanted. So we made them. And CDs, we didn’t know how long they’d last – and as it turned out, they lasted about twenty years. Because now they’re pretty much dead in the water.
WW: We were talking about Queen earlier, and I got a press release in the last week or so letting me know they’re re-releasing all the original Queen albums on vinyl.
IM: Of course. The download thing is the new format, and I don’t know what Queen is doing, but we’re putting out a record that’s vinyl and download only. Because I think CDs – people just aren’t interested in them anymore. Some of them still sell. It’s like a cassette. There was a period of time where every band’s cassette sold, and then there was a period when only the most popular band’s cassettes sold, and there was no point in making cassettes for the smaller bands. It’s the same way now with CDs. Like, we’ll still sell CDs of Minor Threat. But the smaller bands, there’s no point in it, because people just don’t want them. And the people who are buying music by the smaller, more obscure bands are happy with the vinyl and the download. So we’ll do it. This is it. We’re just being responsive and pragmatic – and, of course, economical.
WW: You also took an approach to artist equity that set Dischord apart. Is that something you didn’t really even have to think about doing? That it just made sense to be fair to everybody?
IM: Of course.
WW: You say “of course” as if everyone should think that way. But for most people, the profit motive rules all.
IM: Right – but like I said before, I wasn’t out to smash the state; I was out to create our own state. And in our state, we recognized that the people at the label were artists and the artists were the label. It was connected. We’re a partnership. We’ve had artists yell at us for the way we’re doing things, and we’ve been like, “Hey, this is our art. You’ve got to respect the way we do things.” If you’re not happy, I mean, how many labels out there are doing the same things – the same kind of arrangement? Where they use the same kind of promotion? For instance, how many CDs were you getting in your mailbox from some publicists? It used to be so ceaseless. Whereas we tried to be very thoughtful about how records were promoted and how we interacted with the bands. We do profit-sharing, and there are no contracts. We’ve never had a contract with a single band. If the bands are unhappy and they want to go, then we try to help then get to wherever they want to go. We’ve had bands leave the label and there’s no bitterness, really. And it’s not utopian. It’s real.
If there are any unhappiness, it’s not because they’re ripping us off. They’re our friends, and we feel bad that they didn’t enjoy the dinner, you know? If you invite your friend over and they’re like, “I’m not really interested in going back,” you’re like, “Oh. Damn.” That’s what it feels like. You just want them to be happy. But I think one of the reasons we’ve always been based in D.C. and we’ve always been connected with the bands here is because that organically limits our reach – and therefore we’re able to stay in more touch with people, and we don’t get into the more sketchy, paranoid type of long-distance problems. You know, “We don’t know these people. They’re ripping us off.”
It’s interesting. And in many ways, a lot of the bands I’ve talked with over the years – and these aren’t necessarily people I’ve worked with, but just people I’ve talked to have discussed going to Dischord – I think, “Oh, I’m just way more punk than they are.” They’re approaching it like, “I guess we need to have a manager. How do we do this? Should we get our music into an advertisement?” And I think, wow, that’s just not my world. And there have been times where I think I’m like an aging hippie dude. But that’s all right. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care.
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. They’re really going for it. They want to make a living from their music, and they have these ideas about procedures. 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. I think that would be a better arrangement for you.” Even though I think the record would do fairly well, there was just no joy for me. And I’m interested in joy.
WW: You talked earlier about simplicity – about how people want to make things more complicated than they need to be. Is this last story an example of that?
IM: Yes. I’ve always tried to keep things somewhat simple and obvious. If you come from Washington, D.C., you’re not coming from an industry town. So when we started a record label, we had no idea of what it meant to be in the record industry, or to have a record label, other than, “We’re going to make records.” So we approached it like we were starting a pottery shop or something. Like, okay, here’s a hunk of clay. Let’s put it in a kiln. Now let’s sell it. We didn’t fucking know. We had no idea there were these weird, mechanical schematics or all this other crap – these basic rules of promotion. That just seemed ridiculous to us.
WW: You’ve been incredibly generous with your time, and I don’t want to take up too much more of it. But we’re speaking on the day before the election, and I’ve got to ask: Have you been involved in advocating one candidate or another? Or do you feel that the whole system is so corrupt that it’s not worth bothering?
IM: [Laughs.] Well, what I can say is, historically, I vote by a rule of thumb, and the rule of thumb is based on this: Whoever is the president of this country, this country deserves. And this country deserves this person because they actually voted for him, or because they allowed the vote to be stolen. I grew up in a Democratic family and I’m in a Democratic city, and I guess I consider myself a part of the Democratic party – and we know of the Republican Party and their dominance. But the real dominating party in this country is the apathetic party. It’s the people who don’t actually weigh in on a subject who are really making the serious policy decisions.
So since the country deserves whoever’s in office, you’ve got to think, “Well, that’s our problem.” But the world, on the other hand, does not deserve who the president is. The world has no say in this whatsoever. I’m sure if the world was voting, they wouldn’t have voted George W. Bush into office. I think the United States of America, due to its incredible wealth and also to its aggressiveness, has had a terrific and terrible effect on the rest of the world. Not all of it has been negative, but it’s been serious. It’s had a serious effect on the rest of the world. The single most direct effect this country inflicts on other parts of the world is war. That’s the most clear illustration of the kind of effect this country can have on other parts of the world. And since I’m opposed to war, then I’m interested in voting for the person who is least likely to go to war. That’s it.
I grew up in Washington, and I know it’s a company town. I know that the government is a company. I know that basically the choices you have from the Democrats and the Republicans – it’s a little bit like the difference between the way they fold their napkins for the most part. They’re ultimately beholden to the same kind of interests. But I do think that, at least in my lifetime, the Democratic Party has been a bit more dovish. So I vote for the person who I think is least likely to go to war. And in this situation, it seems clear to me that while Obama has certainly talked about war in terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan and so forth, McCain is a warrior. He’s just a warrior. So I’m going to vote for Obama. But it’s not necessarily based on my deep, abiding affection for him. Rather, in a country this large, with over 300 million people, our number-one responsibility is to try to stop the bombs falling on other people in the world. We have massive problems here, but they’re our problems. We shouldn’t be inflicting murder on other parts of the world.
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