Ian MacKaye: Steady Diet Of Nothing
“These are our demands: we want control of our bodies, Decisions will now be ours. You can carry out your noble actions, we will carry our noble scars.” ‘Reclamation’, 1991
IN THE late 70’s fifteen year old Ian MacKaye’s Team Sahara, a teen collective of skaters from Georgetown, Washington who sported a uniform of black and gold T-shirts, were offered sponsorship and places on the in-store team of The F & R Sunshine house, a skate shop in the affluent Virginian suburb of Bethesda. Ultimately it meant that the confident teenager and his gang of lower middle-class road rats – who also included the slightly older and physically stronger Henry Garfield (later Rollins) - could get a tonne of cool free shit for continuing to pursue the endless possibilities that the asphalt terrain of the capital offered to those unafraid of cuts, bruises and the occasional baton-wielding cop. Anyone who has ever skated knows that it means more than just a frivolous way to pass the time. Skating is about seeing your urban surrounding through new eyes and re-inventing it as your own playground; it’s about subverting architects’ blueprints and making them your own. Where others use handrails to steady themselves, you use them to launch yourself. Where others sit, you slide. Where others walk, you fly with the wind in your hair. Skating is an expression of pure, untempered energy that requires nothing but the get-up-and-go to do it. And in the 70’s when skating was still a goofy attempt at surfing inland and not yet a bona fide sub-culture, it was still very much an unquantifiable pursuit – sport, hobby, toy, menace to society, or what the hell?
In a move that would set the tone for the rest of his life, MacKaye put his size seven foot down and affirmed Team Sahara’s non-aligned, independent stance. No company, however small, would commodify their fun:
What can you tell me about your background and the influence that your parents have had on you and your work? Didn’t they write a book together at one point?
“Yeah, basically all of my family are writers. My father’s father was a magazine writer who was based in London during World War II and was involved with the propaganda and information people. He also wrote a few books about generals, plus some true crime books and some mystery books. My grandmother was a mystery writer, a front-line correspondent during the war and she also wrote a column called ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved? ’ here in DC for a magazine called Ladies Home Journal, which was really considered to be the first of the advice columns. My mother’s father was a sports writer for a newspaper here in Washington and his wife was an English teacher and magazine writer. Then there’s my mother who wrote for magazines and is a historian/journalist who conducts immense amounts of unpublished research that is stored away for future use and my father who has been a newspaperman for twenty-five years. He’s now an editor who continues to run a Seminarian journal. My parents actually met at a school in DC called Sidwell Friends, which is a Quaker school, and they wrote a book about the place together in the 1970’s. My older sister, another word champion, is a poet, my other sister is a linguist, my brother studies English and my youngest sister is a writer too. The written word has a lot of weight around the house. So, yeah, I guess it’s safe to say that this background had a profound effect on me.”
Was there a point where you realised what you wanted to do with your life?
“No, because I don’t think about things like that. Never. I’m not a futurist. I don’t think anybody has any fucking clue what’s going to happen in the future so I never wondered about what I was going to do. All I have ever really wanted to do is live in the present moment. This doesn’t mean that I live entirely for the moment, but rather just make sure that I’m doing the right thing for the time. My theory is that the future is a point just around the corner, yet you never quite get to see it and therefore you can never bank on it or against it. But what you do have control over is the vehicle which you are riding in and you should take care of that vehicle so that maybe one day you can get around that corner and meet that future. Obviously, I’m a fairly responsible guy anyway. I don’t burn my bridges.”
Plus that live-for-the-moment, carpe diem attitude that is such big part of rock ‘n’ roll is often interpreted as some sort of hedonistic, fatalistic approach to life, which of course you have proved doesn’t have to be the case at all.
“Yeah and because of that I’m quite confident about the future - I just can’t pretend to know what it will hold. So all along I have never had a plan. I didn’t go to college because I wanted to continue what I was doing in the Teen Idles or Minor Threat and live in the moment completely. Actually the real reason I never went to university was because at the age of sixteen or seventeen – probably when I was in 12th Grade - I realised that if I was to be hit by a car I would have spent the majority of my cognizant hours in school, so it seemed kinda crazy to go back to school again after leaving. I wanted to wake up in the morning and really live, yet I was finding the educational structure that I was in a little crippling. Plus, at that time I also felt that American universities were indoctrination camps – that you basically went there to learn how to fit in. I didn’t fucking want to fit in.”
So do you feel this way about the current US college system?
“I don’t know because I have never been, but since you’re asking me I would have to say that higher learning in American is probably even more institutional now than back when it was more of a concern for me. The same could definitely be said for college radio, which is something I know a little bit more about. Certainly twenty years ago college radio stations were places where kids could engage in a creative approach to something useful and entertaining, whereas now it’s really just a training ground for people who will go straight into commercial radio. In college radio now they have to follow all sorts of rules and everything seems so scripted – including which songs are going to be played. And when something is so uniformly scripted one has to wonder who is writing the script in the first place? That’s when you realise that the people writing the script are writing it for every fucking thing. And it’s creepy.”
“How many times have you felt like a bookcase sitting in a living room gathering dust full of thought already written ?” ‘Furniture’, 2001
INSPIRED BY the near-religious live shows and ‘positive mental attitude’ philosophy of local Rasta-punks Bad Brains who were fronted by the iconic HR (a band who did more for race-relations and the breaking down of boundaries within music than a millions Bono’s, Paul Simon's or Sting’s could ever dream of) MacKaye formed The Slinkees whilst in high school, who in turn quickly morphed into the Teen Idles. With MacKaye on bass Rollins was offered the position of singer, but declined because his girlfriend didn’t approve (some tough guy).
Too young to play proper venues and the threat of harassment always near by thanks to the anti-social nature of their finger-pointing speeded-up punk, the Teen Idles formed the core of the G-Town punk scene, an instinctive close-knit self-protecting youth movement who sneered at their dope-addled, long-haired 70’s burnout contemporaries. This was a time when the wrong haircut or a ripped T-shirt was enough to warrant an ass-whoopin’ from less progressive people. MacKaye found the band shows in DC – usually in community halls or basements in order to circumnavigate the stringent licensing laws and hard-line ID approval - before taking a Greyhound bus cross country in order to plays shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles where the likes of The Germs, Black Flag, Flipper, Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys were reclaiming punk rock back from the British and turning it into something faster, uglier and hungrier. Energised by the trip and the new-found realisation that there were teenagers and early twenty-something’s just like him and his Georgetown friends three thousand miles away, MacKaye embarked upon a mission to record everything that happening around him with the release of Teen Idles’ ‘Minor Disturbance EP’. The cover depicted a pair of cross-fisted with big black X’s penned on them – a satire of the DC bar policy of ear-marking all underage gig-goers so that alcohol is prohibited it to them and one, which true to his nature, MacKaye manipulated to his own advantage by openly offering to sport X’s and promising not to drink to other club door-men in order to just to get in to see the band. Needing a name for their own one-off label, MacKaye chose Dischord:
You’ve been running Dischord records as an independent label for twenty-two years now – how have you survived in a time when the major labels seem to be increasingly gaining control over things and therefore forcing smaller labels into liquidation?
“We put our first record out in December 1980. The most obvious reason is the fact that we have some bands that have proven to be relatively popular, in particular Minor Threat and Fugazi. Minor Threat still out-sells every band on the label and that’s pretty crazy when you think about it.”
Minor Threat still sell more records than Fugazi?
“It’s hard to compare because Minor Threat only had one CD whereas Fugazi has eight or nine. Put it this way, in the last six months the Minor Threat ‘Discography’ has sold twenty thousand copies. We also still sell tonnes of cassettes and some vinyl so in total it’s probably topped half a million copies, whereas Fugazi’s ’13 Songs’ sold less but still sold more than our newer records. It’s weird.”
But there’s a lot more to Dischord than just being an outlet for the bands you play in?
“Well I just wanted to be straight-up about that from the get-go. To some degree the timing of the label was pretty good, which obviously helped us define who we are and what we did pretty early on. We happened to stumble into punk rock or it stumbled into us at a time when it was definitely of the moment. It was happening there and then. A lot of those early bands became defining bands and Minor Threat is definitely one of them. We never had a mission or board meetings because we weren’t interested in running a label, we just wanted to document our friends here in Washington. In the very beginning the initial concept was to put out the Teen Idles single and that would be it, but then people started saying ‘Well, what are you going to do with the money?’ because there was a lot of sensitivity about selling out - early on punk rockers weren’t even interested in putting out records, that’s how hardcore some of them were. To some people, merely realising a record was selling out. So we decided that any money would be spent communally in releasing our friend’s records. This music was fucking important to us and it remains fucking important to us and fortunately we had the good sense to document it. We could not have known that this would be something I’d be discussing twenty years later. But we were interested in what was going on in LA, or maybe someone there might be interested in DC, so things grew naturally through word of mouth and mutual interests. Of course, Washington DC has no rock ‘n’ roll business and have has, so we weren’t effected in the same way that people in, say, London, Chicago, LA or San Francisco were and still are today. We had no bad influence because the industry machinery wasn’t in place. For instance, in London bands get involved in the whole promotional aspect of rock ‘n’ roll and the way the machine works is really established. In this city we had to do everything ourselves because basically it’s a city saturated with the federal government. The fact of the matter is though there are a lot of people in Washington DC who don’t give a damn about the government. It just happens to the factory in town and when the wind changes we have to deal with their smoke, but for the most part we go about business ourselves. We don’t ask for their permission or guidance because they don’t have a clue.
“Having no real idea or plan we approached things organically. We’d make a record, figure out the costs and sell it for a reasonable price so that we didn’t lose money. We didn’t bother with lawyers or contracts – that was the rock ‘n’ roll business and we were punk rockers. We didn’t need their blueprint or their schematic to figure out how to run a business because it really is very simple. In fact, it was so simple that it surprises me when people struggle with running a record label. I actually think about this a lot because when I very first started playing music in High School there were other kids who would be considered to be in the more successful bands, though they never did anything but play cover songs at parties. And they used to ridicule us because they said that we couldn’t play our instruments – that may have been true but we were fucking playing shows and they were not. We were touring and putting out records and they were not, so who the fuck were the real musicians?
“The same thing applies to running the record label as some people tend to see Dischord as like a boutique operation or some weird cult, but the fact of the matter is while they’re sitting around talking about things or trying to figure out how much to pay their lawyers, we’re releasing records. We never sat around waiting for things to happen, we just put out records, because that’s what labels are meant to do, right? This kind of fragmentism or straight-forwardness enabled us to focus on what we really wanted to do, rather than focusing on some lame business agenda:
I remember reading interviews with you around the time of the great grunge gold-rush of 1991 where, as some sort of warning to new, young so-called ‘alternative’ bands, you named bands who had sold millions in the 80’s yet were practically unheard of and historically irrelevant only a few years later. Do you feel vindicated now?
“Yeah, I think I referred to awful bands like Ugly Kid Joe or Loverboy – long-forgotten bands who are meaningless today. For instance in the early ‘90’s a lot of people in so-called alternative bands thought ‘Oh, we’re all going to be rich!’ and they loosened their belts a little because they thought they were going to get fat, when really they got so skinny their pants fell off and that was the end of many of those bands. The early 90’s was like a big period of bloodletting in music because there was a sudden surge of cash largely inspired by Nirvana. All of a sudden we saw all these major labels come storming into the valley with bags full of cash, but by the time they left it was almost as if most people had forgotten to grow their own food.
“Vindicated is not necessarily the word I would use because I don’t wish ill on these bands. What I was talking about was just trying to get people to think about what really has value and what doesn’t. Obviously if someone wants to be in an extremely popular band that no one will remember in years to come, that’s fine because someone has got to do it. But I also think that many bands were missing the mark in terms of making something of any real substance.”
...Whereas you have eschewed financial success for critical and, more importantly, lasting success?
“I’d say so. I think that in American culture – and British culture, for that matter – there is such an emphasis to define all success in terms of finance and cash, but really that way of thought just plays right into the entire corporate, market-place structure. If making money is the ultimate form of success, what do people do with all their cash? They spend it in a market place which thrives on money and consumerism and which perpetuates this notion. That’s why success will never be defined by, for example, volunteerism, because they can’t sell you anything as a result. Volunteerism is not reliant on a marketable product.”
Plus, of course, musical success is rarely judged by the influence that a band can have or the fact that is has provided a good career to people who might otherwise have done nothing with their lives.
“Right. And if you look at all the Top 10 lists of records, movies, books or whatever, it’s always going to be the biggest selling ones and that just doesn’t equate good-ness to me. Frankly, if something sells right across the board I mostly likely think one of two things. Firstly: if it’s homogenous enough to appeal to people across the board with all their varied tastes, then the chances are it’s going to be bland. Secondly: once again it’s just proof that advertising works. That’s no great surprise, is it? Certain types of music are really no different to, say, Twinkie’s or certain brands of soda pop – they only sell well because they have a very cohesive type of advertising. So, in other words, there are occasionally records or bands that sell well and may even fall into the genius category, but largely…it’s just a bunch of bullshit.”
IN 1980 MacKaye and fellow Teen Idle/Dischord co-conspirator Jeff Nelson formed Minor Threat. Physically and musically lean, angular and stripped down (the rigours of skating and an alcohol-free diet, coupled with raging teenage hormones makes for an endless energy supply) Minor Threat quickly became the leading light in the nascent hardcore movement. Through songs like ‘In My Eyes’ and ‘Straight Edge’, MacKaye laid down a loose manifesto for a new generation of pro-active punks bored with pretty much everything that had gone before. The straight edge scene had a uniform (shaved heads, cheap T-shirts, Vans trainers), a naïve ethos (those who aren’t fucked up on drugs get more things done), a diet (endless cans of corrosive soda and, later, vegetarianism) and a clear goal: to exist as a unified musical entity completely independent of the established music industry. Minor Threat’s ‘Discography’ compilation on Dischord is one of the most pure, perfect and positive-minded examples of rock ‘n’ roll ever released:
Knowing what you know now, if you were given the chance are there any things that you would do differently with Minor Threat?
“No, I don’t have any regrets about anything in my life. I actually feel in some way that that band was as perfectly executed as it possibly could have been. I was actually just talking to Bob (Weston) from Shellac about this morning. I was telling him that during the band’s demise there was a point where the aspirations of the four individuals parted ways. It wasn’t that these aspirations weren’t always present, there just was no possibility of executing them, so they weren’t a pressing concern. Look at it this way: let’s say you and I go on a trip in the desert and you love swimming but I hate it. If we’re in the desert, it’s not an issue. But as soon as we get to a place with a pool problems will arise. In the beginning of Minor Threat we were just a punk band that no one gave a damn about so the issue of signing to a major label was non-existent. Later, towards the end of the band, some of these aspirations became problematic because we finally got to that place with the pool and some people wanted to swim, but some of us did not. This then brought about a stylistic shift in the band because once some members had decided to take a swim they then had to figure out what would be the most attractive suit they could wear, you know? And it was a bathing suit that I objected to whole-heartedly! Basically, we just disagreed as a band about where we wanted to go and the decision to knock it on the head when we did was great. I know that Minor Threat split at the right time.”
Part of the attraction of Minor Threat is that you left behind a pretty flawless legacy - a collection of short, sharp original sounding songs for a new generation to pick up on.
“I can actually think of a number of bands who didn’t make the decision to split and either went on to soften the intense impact of their work by putting out a series of confusing messages or muted weird-ness, or conversely, continued being a band that no one really cared about.”
Whereas Minor Threat have steadily got bigger since you split up without having to endure all the bullshit that goes with it.
“Definitely, we’re way more legendry now than we ever were when we existed, which is weird, but cool too. All bands have a beginning, a middle and an end and you can’t fuck with that. Obviously though the members bands can then conceivably do something to sully a band’s reputation, as is often the case.
“This is interesting and I was talking about it only yesterday. Here’s a funny story. When I first got into punk rock in 1979 we would go to the record store and pick up any import singles that we thought looked even vaguely cool. One time we picked up a couple of singles by the band Skrewdriver - the original line-up. At that time politically they certainly didn’t appear to be a Nazi band, like they became later. They were just this punk band singing songs like ‘You’re So Dumb’. Tough guys, yeah, but not really that hardcore. And I loved Skrewdriver. They put out this EP, broke up and I just thought ‘Wow, what a cool band!’, so in interviews that I did in 1981 I’d tell people that I really liked this band Skrewdriver. But in 1984 they reformed and suddenly they were these serious National Front, Nazi guys! It wasn’t even the same guys - just the singer Ian Stewart – but nonetheless it made everything that they had previously done stink. They immediately tainted their early work and it was just incredible because there I was going round telling people how great this Nazi band were. See, that’s the thing – when a band breaks up it’s hard to screw with what you had, but on occasion the behaviour of the members of that band can really, really have dire effects on the band’s work, their legacy. Conversely, if people go on to do really interesting things it can work the other way. I think Fugazi’s work has a lot to do with the continued interest in Minor Threat.”
Like it or not you’re seen as something of an iconic and influential figurehead in underground music and still regarded as the man who founded straight edge. What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
“I think people think that I’m a hardcore fundamentalist, when I’m not at all. Or if I am a fundamentalist then I’m only fundamental about tolerance, open-ness and joy. That’s where I’m coming from. A long time ago it became clear to me that the point of all the yelling and screaming in punk rock was that we were dissatisfied and not at peace with life and that things might change if we yelled at them enough and kicked up a stink. If that was my belief it seemed that it would be absurd to not actually be happy because you have to practice what you preach. You can’t say that you want change and then not even attempt to have it in your own life, so I think essentially people would be startled by just how much more approachable I am than they probably think. I’m a pretty easy going person.”
Another misnomer about you – and indeed much of the first wave of US hardcore – is that you lack humour. To me, many of Minor Threat songs were satirical, cheeky and full of teenage humour, as were Black Flag’s ‘TV Party’ and ‘Six Pack’ or Dead Kennedy’ prankster songs like ‘Too Drunk Too Fuck’. To me, it’s subversion through easily digestible humour.
“You’re absolutely right. I’m extremely dry. I’m a prankster and I’m a dry motherfucker, yet people tend to take so much of what I do so seriously that they don’t always get the joke. That’s a big misconception that people have”
…But then at the same time, straight edge had a pretty blunt aesthetic: shaved heads, the rejection of the trappings of all that was good about previous youth cultures - alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, casual sex – and an over-riding sense of male- dominated physicality and confrontation. Maybe that’s where your image stems from?
“Yes, and it’s also because anybody who shares an opinion is suddenly seen as if they’re giving orders, which is something which I never really did. I was always just saying what I felt, whereas lots of artists in music over the years have run from opinions, particularly nowadays. Look at how things are now lyrically in rock music – it’s incredible to me how far musicians will veer to get away from committing to any kind of point of view in their lyrics. At the moment things are really oblique and pretty shocking, frankly. I want my lyrics to speak, to sing. I want them to make sense to people so that I can engage them. I think since the early 90’s there has been a steady desire amongst a lot of punk bands, so-called punk bands or whatever-the-fuck bands to not take risks or go out on a limb. I mean, just look at the lyrics that punk bands were singing in the early 80’s compared to the bands of today….”
“Lights out for the cynical sharps for their wide-eyed foils and all attendant props supporters of flash and pan-fried fucks who grease like cops throwing round their weight and I feel dangerous and vexed swinging two tonne second guess and every motion just cuts too cruel…too cruel” ‘Caustic Acrostic’, 1998
MINOR THREAT split in 1983. During their three- year existence they released two albums, toured the States and inspired a new breed of bands. They got out just as hardcore – somewhat predictably, given it’s subterranean, elitist existence - began attracting jocks more interested in the physicality of the mosh-pit and the potential for violence rather than bringing about any real change. Worse still, rules were being applied left, right and centre.
Like British punk before it, hardcore quickly became predictable and, for the most part, boring. Once something becomes public knowledge it becomes misinterpreted. Straight-edge spawned endless arguments over, like, who was ‘straighter’ and soon prompted tales of beatings over wayward cigarette smoke. Plenty of good bands still exist to follow the design for life as laid down by MacKaye in 1981, but even more still go through the motions in an often stagnant, fashion-led scene. That said, the straight edge hardcore of today is still a genre that has largely thrived without interference from the major labels who generally swarm down on any new movement – be it grunge, gangsta rap or pointless latter-day punk bands like Sum 41 and Blink 182 - like a swarm of locusts, sucking it dry and stripping it of all energy and magic and selling back the bare bones and empty husks to a wider, more impressionable audience already headfucked from relentless corporate advertising campaigns and the constant flicker of MTV, an outlet whose projected lifestyle contributes to the kind of increased peer pressure that leads to high school massacres, yet is rarely accountable due to any negative attention generally being averted to individual artists. Perhaps hardcore’s limited commercial value and relatively ugly, brand-free aesthetic is one of its main strengths.
Unlike the keeping-it-real gangsta kids or fans of modern ‘grunge’ abortions like Creed and Staind, however, the hardcore kids of today don’t have to buy their music and their culture back from the few unseen fat cats who make the decisions at the ‘Big 5’ record companies, MTV, Nike (a perfect example of a white company exploiting Far East sweat-shops or desperate immigrants to sell over-priced, blanket-marketed products to lower income black kids) or Pepsi-fucking-cola. Sometime it’s hard to listen to music or eat a burger without wondering which company you money is being filtered back to and who had to sweat blood for chump change and your privilege. Sometimes it’s hard not to get conspiratorial when all you want to do rock. These thoughts and worries are of course by-products of life in a capitalist and consumerist age where Bush and Blair are don’t minding licking each other’s arseholes in full public view so long as power, order, profit and good PR are maintained.
Hardcore though, for the most part, is still a self-sufficient genre that operates efficiently through it’s own network of labels, bands, fanzines, distributors and promoters. It is free enterprise at it’s best. America should be proud.
By 1984 those who got into the scene right at ground level in DC decided to leave the many new bands to bash out their simplistic machismo anthems. As with any true innovators the desire to progress and re-invent was a strong one for MacKaye and friends, so rather than making themselves comfy in the rut in which them found themselves stuck, they decided something needed to be done. Something new for themselves:
Anyone reading an interview of this nature probably knows that Minor Threat were the definitive hardcore band and Fugazi are one of the most influential bands in alternative music in the 90’s and beyond, but they may not know so much about ‘Revolution Summer’, a scene that you were involved in whose influence has perhaps only recently come to fruition in the hardcore bands of today.
“Revolution Summer seems to have taken on a mythical quality. In the mid-80’s there was a breakdown of a bunch of the original DC bands, like Faith, Minor Threat and Insurrection, and there was bunch of boys and girls kind of at a loss and without any focus. The Washington punk rockers were like a tribe and we were all thick with each other; we were a cell within a much larger punk scene. But we weren’t that happy with what was going on in the DC punk scene – it just seemed like it had turned really macho and dumb. Violent too. At the same time though none of us wanted to straighten out and have to go get a job because we were punk rockers, we just didn’t relate to what was being called punk rock by a lot of kids here in Washington. So we decided we wanted to do something we felt good about. We wanted to be creative and re-energised. We weren’t interested in trying to take back the punk scene – they could have it – when we could just start another one. Something new.
“I was just one of a few dozen people in a crew of friends. There was actually a couple of meetings/get together’s/parties where we talked about what we could do. At one point we decided everybody should start a band or a fanzine or just get something new going by October of 1984, something we referred to as ‘Good Food October’ – the idea being that we would all get active by that time. But it didn’t happen and everyone was bummed, so someone said ‘OK, by the next summer we’ll have a musical revolution. Get your shit together and get active.’ Hence the Revolution Summer of 1985. We put up flyers in the places that we hung out basically saying, “come on, get it together!” And it worked. There was a definite swell of energy.”
What about the fact that all these bands were promptly tagged ‘emo’, thereby handily pigeonholing what you were doing. I mean, even within music as extreme and non-commercial as punk and hardcore, there’s a tendency to categorise and attempt to package something whose essence is its spontaneity and unwillingness to replicate anything that has gone before.
“Well, the emo thing is a different matter. The term ‘emo-core’ was a disparaging one that stemmed from a comment someone made about us saying we didn’t play hardcore punk, we played ‘emotional hardcore’, so we immediately rejected it because we were aware that it wasn’t complimentary. It was like the term ‘punk rock’ - it was originally meant as an insult but then kids adopted it and turned it into their own thing. But I never referred to Embrace or Rites Of Spring as ‘emo-core’. Ever. That’s just insane. I mean, Rites Of Spring are one of the greatest fucking bands of all time, yet a lot of people ridiculed and maligned them. They thought Rites Of Spring were a bunch of cry babies or something, when in fact they were bold, seriously bad-ass and their shows were just…epiphanal. Beyond any other bands in DC at that time, they were the ones who people were really psyched about and when they played everybody immediately wanted to go out and form their own band. Rites Of Spring’s music kicked people’s asses and they wanted to return the favour. They were an incredible band but unfortunately because of this jokey tag of ‘emotional hardcore’ people still didn’t get it. I don’t think people realise how intense these shows were and how hard these guys rocked, which is a drag, but that’s the way it goes.”
And now emo has been established as yet another punk rock sub-genre. Not so long back the NME did an emo special where they had cut-out-and-keep emo kids with their own accessories. I mean, talk about missing the point!
“Yeah, I heard about that. That’s the British music press for you. I’m really not at all surprised by that.”
“This is three minute access, so pop the question: Will we leave the last place burning? Or do we just get leaving? Red-light, red-light my mind moves to refuse that filter. Are you still surprised? ‘Exit Only’, 1991
DECEMBER 1998. I’ve just arrived in Fairfax, Virginia, forty minutes drive outside of Washington DC, to interview a fat white rapper with a Sinn Fein tattoo and a pace-maker by the name of Everlast when I get wind that Fugazi are playing. Tonight. In DC. A home-town show. Fu-fucking-gazi. Book the cab, I’m just going to change into my dancing shoes…
Leaving a dozen junket-drunk so-called journalists, taste-makers and photographers to their ever-increasing bar tab, me and the only other fan/writer present who appreciates a good band over a dull night in a dull hotel with dull people namedropping dull bands, navigate our way to Georgetown University. The cab costs us $60 – a bargain price to see Fugazi anywhere. We hit the campus and spend too long trying to locate the right building. Down winding tarmac driveways. Along the halls of academia. Time is ticking. The capital’s hot-bed of learning. Across well-trimmed lawns. Breaking into a trot when we hear the faint doof-doof of a bass drum. Silent planes above cutting through the clear Virginia night. Beyond them, just stars and satellites plotting our destiny and tracking our movements. Sweat on my back. Lungs raw (shit, I’ve gotta get fit, discipline, less-weed-more-speed). The music getting louder. Through a door-way now. Stuffing dollar bills in the hands of the bored girl with the little red cash-box. Charging into a too-bright hall.
No fancy lights, no theatrics, no dumb gutter punks at the punk rock show. Fugazi are onstage, hunched over their instruments. No one is speaking, smoking, drinking or interacting. They’re just staring at the sparse spectacle of four non-descript men hardly making a sound, yet are still emitting hypnotic electro waves out over our heads. Singer Guy Picciotto spread like spilled spaghetti across the stage. Ian MacKaye plucking baby-notes from his guitar, dripping down onto the front line. Bassist Joe Lally feet apart and poised. The inactivity and silence lasts forever and I look around at the misfits in knitwear and horn-rimmed specs, tall skinny boys with fringes and short dumpy girls with paperbacks stuffed in their back pockets and clips in their hair, heads nodding, poetry in their eyes – true punk rockers. None of this spit and sawdust macho shit like the…bong! drummer Brendan Canty taps his big bell and the song bursts into life, a maelstrom of sounds, a symphony of electricity like snapped cables writhing in the wet dead dirt of America, dark funk rumbling beneath it like a lay line coming to life. They reach a cymbal-crashing crescendo and cut the song dead. Kill it without prejudice. The band exit and the crowd drift away.
Fugazi meant “fucked up situation” in Vietnam. Now it means quality control. “No bullshit.”
MacKaye formed the band with Rites Of Spring’s Picciotto and Canty and bassist Joe Lally in 1987. In the subsequent fifteen-plus years Fugazi have been responsible for some perfectly-packaged and vital underground releases, albums and shows that have influenced everyone from big leaguers like Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and At The Drive-In to hundreds of lesser known bands currently criss-crossing the globe in their own little post-punk pods.
Entirely self-managed Fugazi have a policy of only playing for affordable ticket prices and often opt to play benefit shows rather than the usual circuit of venues run by profiteering promoters. They have played in fifty US states and every continent in the world, selling somewhere in the vicinity of half a million records on the way. And that’s without TV or radio airplay and very few mainstream interviews:
Fugazi continue to divide opinion within punk rock – which, for better or worse, is often an elitist and highly critical scene - even though you’re one of the few quality assured bands. I know that when I buy a Fugazi album that a) it will be different to the last one and b) it’ll be great. Fifteen years on from the band’s formation, how does criticism effect you?
“How do I deal with criticism? (laughing) I don’t give a fuck! Honestly, if you like the record that’s great and it makes me happy to hear you say that, but if someone doesn’t like it, that’s alright too. I don’t give a damn. I don’t care. If some kid wants to slag us off in his punk rock fanzine then…whatever, it makes no difference to me. There are plenty of people out there who have had a problem with me or maybe even hated me right since the beginning, but I can’t be bothered by them, I don’t care….
“Look: I don’t confuse myself, my work or my bands with anything that is necessary for life. Music is not oxygen, it’s not water and it’s not food, so on that level it doesn’t matter. People aren’t required to like me and that’s fine. There are five billion people in the world and I know I won’t come close to meeting a hundredth of them. Put it this way, four billion people could hate me but it wouldn’t change my life at all because if I don’t interact them, then what does it matter? Fugazi’s best selling record has probably sold about half a million copies – it was probably the first album – and that’s roughly…what? One-seventh the population of London or something? It’s not that big of a deal so if some kid says in a fanzine ‘Oh, Ian is a fundamentalist prick’, of course on one level I’d like to meet this kid and straighten his ass out, but I’m not going to write him a letter and I’m not going to defend myself because it doesn’t make any difference to me. If I was going to get hung up on bad reviews I wouldn’t be doing this interview today. I would have been a basket case about fifteen years ago. I just don’t respond to it. My general reaction is ‘So what?’ and then I’ll continue doing what I do.”
I’ve recently spoken to people like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot to see what the bands who influence today’s teens have to say – do you think these so-called cutting edge bands use their platforms wisely?
“I don’t really know anything about those guys. I don’t think I’ve heard either one of those bands, in fact. Clearly, kids are effected by them, but they’re really not my cup of tea. I know all about the Columbine High School shooting and the tenuous link to Marilyn Manson, of course I do, but I also think that some people are perfectly happy to trade on chaos and profit from the proliferation of it. But the profiting is very well organised so they can’t be that chaotic. Put it this way, Marilyn Manson is not a crusty. The crusties…now, they were chaotic and insane. Not that I think that’s any better because it isn’t, it’s just that there’s something particularly insidious about people who preach total anarchy and chaos. Anyone who is involved in music and touring, or especially if they’re playing in arenas to ten or twenty thousand people who have each paid $25, then it’s all highly orchestrated. It’s not like Manson is kept in a cage until show time, you know? It’s a business that trades on chaos. But do I think someone like Marilyn Manson is responsible? (laughing) Oh, I don’t fucking know! I guess I don’t really spend much time thinking about it. It’s, like, do you want me to talk about wrestling or something because to me it’s part of the same thing? If I asked myself whether wrestling is responsible, I’d probably say no, but it really doesn’t have a place in this interview, does it? And does Marilyn Manson? No, not in my opinion because to me he’s just another aspect of that same form of entertainment.”
Given that you’re from such a large family of writers and your punk rock childhood buddy Henry Rollins is having a fair stab at literary immortality, have you ever considered writing yourself?
“I’ve thought about it a lot and I think that someday I’d like to do some writing if I can get past this question: who gives a fuck what I have to say? That’s something I have to answer for myself. In terms of music and lyric-writing things are clearer and I know who I’m singing to – just as right now we’re doing an interview where I’m speaking with you directly and I understand who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about. I recently did a public speaking thing where I took questions from a group of a couple of hundred people and I found myself in a bit of a quandary because it really wasn’t clear who I was speaking to in the room. There were some fifteen-year-old kids but also fifty-year-old men, so it was difficult. Some of the people there were acutely aware of the minutiae of my work whereas others had never heard of me, so I didn’t know whether to get up there and say ‘So, I used to play in this band called Minor Threat….’ or whatever. I feel the same about writing. I like the idea of it but I’m not sure that I’m armed to do it yet.”
A lot of Fugazi’s lyrics lend themselves to poetry anyway. Regardless of the music, they look good on the page.
“Well, thanks. Ever since I was a kid I’ve written poetry and treated it as a craft. But also I’m loaded with fucking opinions or impressions or feelings. I think about stuff so much that it eventually comes out, which is what poetry is I guess.”
I gather that Dischord is planning to release a box-set to commemorate two decades of punk rock business – how’s it coming along?
“I’m still working on it. It’s a massive project to undertake, but one that is very cathartic. I’m having to go back through all the old releases and I’m finding it pretty interesting purely because I never think about Dischord in terms of longevity and because I just concentrate on work on a day-to-day basis. Like right now today I’m doing exactly what I have always done, which is basically sitting in my office returning calls and taking care of what needs to be done. That’s what I was doing in 1981, 1985, 1990, 1995…and now. It’s what I do. Every once in a while I do have an opportunity to stop, look around, and think ‘Wow, I got a lot of stuff done!’”
Finally then, here’s a question I’ve never heard you been asked before. What do you do for fun?
“Well you know I’m really not a hobbies type of guy and I’m not frivolous in any way. I do love to play music and I play outside of the band for enjoyment. Basically though I spend a lot of time with my family, who are very close. Aside from one of my sister’s who lives on the West Coast we all live in DC and meet up to have dinner every Sunday night. It usually turns into a big discussion of some sort and it’s great. Obviously, I’m also part of a big, old, deep community of friends so there’s always something going on. Never a dull moment….”
First printed in American Heretics: Rebel Voices In Music by Ben Myers (Codex Books, 2002)
Ben Myers – tMx 30 – 06/07
- advert: DAMAGED GOODS go and buy stuff