Today is Ian MacKaye's birthday. Best known as the frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi and as the co-founder of Washington DC's influential Dischord record label, the 52-year-old musician has an iconic reputation within the punk rock world, his name a by-word for uncompromised integrity, independent thought and principled self-determination.
Ian MacKaye on Minor Threat, Fugazi and the power of Punk Rock
On the occasion of Ian MacKaye's birthday, we present an unpublished interview with a punk rock icon
In 1991, I interviewed Ian MacKaye about his life's work in a cafe in the Georgetown district of his native Washington DC, for a university dissertation. Twenty years on, we met again at the same cafe to pick up on that conversation...
The last time we were in this café, 20 years ago, you told me about seeing your first ever punk rock show – The Cramps - a stone’s throw from here, at Georgetown University’s Hall Of Nations in February 1979. What changed for you that night?
“Well, I must have told you last time, I had a couple of friends at high school, Jem Cohen, the film-maker, and Billy Albert, who was in a band called The Zones, a kinda teen-punk band in my high school, and we talked about music a lot. I liked hard rock – Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo and Zeppelin – and I was a skateboarder dude, and they were getting into New Wave, which encompassed punk rock, and so we were talking about bands like the Ramones, and it was one of those teenage ‘They suck! They’re good! They suck!’ arguments, and at some point it just became time for me to actually listen to some of the bands they liked, because most of them I’d never actually heard, apart from maybe at parties. So in November 1978 I borrowed some records from them - Nevermind The Bollocks, the first Generation X album, the first Clash album, a band from New York city called the Tuff Darts, and maybe The Damned -and at first it was just too hard for my ears, it didn’t make sense, it was just too grating . I could tell that they were all different, but mostly I couldn’t understand it: there was elements of rock in it, but it was clearly not rock 'n' roll and it kinda freaked me out. I mean, The Sex Pistols just fucking scared me. I was just freaked out by it. There was something about that record that was creepy. I mean Bodies, especially, that's a great riff and a great song but the lyrical thing was mindblowing. I mean, people tend to think of the Sex Pistols now as kind of a cute cartoon band, but that record is unbelievable. And then I started to hear it, and I started to understand it, and I was blown away and I started wanting to hear more. I mean, the Tuff Darts were kinda… it was kinda a version of punk rock, an imitation, but when I heard stuff like X Ray Spex it was like ‘Oh my God!’ So, by the time I saw The Cramps, I’d been listening to punk rock and I understood punk rock. But when I actually saw The Cramps it was just wild. The place was way over-packed, to the point where people were crawling in through the windows to get in. The Chumps and the Urban Verbs, two DC bands, played first and they were very different from one another, so I was already seeing that punk could mean different things to different people. The crowd was such a mixture too, challenging every aspect of convention in life, with fashion, and sexual politics and politics. They guys from Bad Brains were there and it blew my mind to see them, it was like ‘Oh my God, who are <<those>> guys?’ And then when The Cramps played it was just incredible. Their presentation was very visual and they were great players and totally uncompromising in their vision and then they were dealing with the situation in that room, and it was like ‘We’re all freaks, fuck you!’ And then Lux threw up onstage and it was just ‘Whaaaaaat?’ And then chaos just ensued. The tables that people were standing on collapsed, and then chairs started going throw the windows, and everything just got wrecked. As an introduction to live punk rock shows, it was pretty memorable.”
We’re not really going to talk about Teen Idles or Minor Threat today, but I did want to ask you about an interview you did towards the end of Minor Threat with maximumrocknroll, which was a roundtable interview with Vic Bondi from Articles Of Faith and Dave Dictor from MDC. You seemed pretty disillusioned with punk at that time, and at one point you said something like ‘Punk rock has got more assholes per head than any genre I know, they have no respect for anybody.’ This was around the time that maximumrocknroll did a cover story titled ‘Does Punk Suck?’ so I’m guessing you weren’t the only person sharing a certain sense of disappointment with the scene at that time.
“Well, if you put a piece of food out on the table and leave it, it goes stale, and a crust starts to form, or it starts to mould. For me, a big thing about punk rock was new ideas and constant evolution, but for a lot of people who are traditionalists or conservatives they sort of set upon a form and don't want anything to change. And at some point the visionaries move on, and then all you have is the people who are largely practising it are coming into an already formed mould and trying to make themselves fit. And usually then the mould that they're trying to fit into is one that has been fed to them by the media, like ‘This is how you're supposed to do punk’. And so, yeah, by 1983 I was pretty disillusioned. When Minor Threat were touring the country then I was really surprised to see so many bands that I really admired just behaving like rock bands, behaving very poorly, being chauvinistic and ripping people off and just being dicks. And the skinhead violence thing was coming up too. I mean I fought in the early ‘80s, and I knew the culture of that and I could see the trajectory of how that could go, so by the beginning of 1984 I was like ‘I’m not fighting, I’m done fighting, I’m going to be a pacifist for the rest of my life.’ I mean, I was always a pacifist, even when I was fighting - my philosophy was to bruise egos, not bodies – but even if that was a reasonable philosophy, and I’m not saying it was, it didn’t matter, because all other people saw was fighting. It was just toxic. And I could see that it was unsustainable. One thing about me is I'm not a fucking tourist. This [punk rock] is where I live and I'm going to be here forever, so I could see that if I was fighting all the time, I just wasn’t going to survive. And now, 32 years down the road, or whatever, I think my point is kinda well proven. The guys who were kicking ass in 1981 probably aren’t kicking much ass now. But also, by 1983, Minor Threat were not a happy band, we were not getting along at all, and a lot of my friends were moving away from the scene and going to college, so at the time I was doing that interview you mentioned, I was probably pretty bummed out with how things were going for me personally, as much as being disillusioned with the American hardcore scene. And then Rites of Spring came along in ’84 and that kinda lit a fire under everyone.”
In what way?
"Well, they were just an incredible band. And suddenly we thought ‘Actually, we’re going to stake out our own ground, we’re going to keep making music and make our own scene.’ It was like ‘We’re not going to shut down your punk, have your punk: we’re going to have our own punk.’ I mean, one thing that punk did was give me a sense of self-definition, a sense of self-determination. It allowed me to be who I was, and allow us – as a scene, our set – to be who we were, in relation to each other, in relation to the people around us, and in relation to people from other cities. And around that time we all decided that we should use this knowledge to make some fundamental decisions about how we were going to live and what we were going to do in life – thinking about things like the peace movement, and feminism, and racism – and just trying to get to some kind of truth. And, I have to say, to this day I continue to work on this, it’s unending, it’s a perpetual thing.”
So when Revolution Summer ended, were you even more disillusioned than you had been at the end of the American Hardcore era?
"Well, Revolution Summer was our own thing, we were trying to evolve and change things, with meetings and talks and protests and group houses, and own idea that came out of all this was ‘Let’s get busy. Let’s make things happen.’ And that was in, like, the autumn of 1984…but there was no Revolution Autumn. So then Amy Pickering made her little ransom note letters and sent them out in the mail to people anonymously, and they were saying ‘Get ready, it’s Revolution Summer’, just as a reminder to us about what we’d been discussing that previous year, saying ‘Get up! Get up!’ It was a spark for us all. I mean Embrace became a band because we thought we had to do a band, it was Revolution Summer, we had to do something. Originally I was going to do a band with Mark Sullivan singing, and me playing bass, Mike Hampton on guitar and Jeff Nelson playing drums, but then it didn’t work out with Mark so then we tried other variations, and it became Chris Bald on bass, Mike Hampton on guitar, Jeff on drums and me singing. But then Jeff and I couldn’t be in a band anymore, because of too many years spent together, and Ivor (Hanson) just happened to be in town so we asked him to play. And obviously Mike and Chris and Ivor were in Faith, and they’d already had a horrific break-up, so jumping into a new band just wasn’t going to work. And it sure didn’t work! We only played, I think, twelve or fourteen shows. I think Rites of Spring only played nine. Insane, right? But yeah, I think I came out of that experience thinking ‘Okay, what do I want? I just want to play music.’ Sometimes relationships get in the way of love, and sometimes bands get in the way of music, because you’re so focussed on making a band that you forget that it should be about music first. Music is not an artifice, it’s a form of communication that pre-dates language, it’s why you’re here and it’s why I’m here, it’s nothing to do with a magazine or anything I’ve ever done, music is a deeper language, it’s real and it’s infinitely bigger than any industry. So in 1986, after Embrace imploded, I decided that I wanted to play music, without forming a band. It wasn’t disillusionment for me, it was a big spark, I understood then. I was like ‘Okay, I’m going to take my time, I’m going to wait.’ And then…Waiting Room, that was the point of the song. I knew Joe (Lally), because he roadied for Beefeater, and he’d be around my house, because Thomas from Beefeater lived in my house, Dischord House, and I remember one day they were packing up to go on a summer tour and I got talking to Joe about The Obsessed and The Stooges and James Brown and he seemed like a super nice guy. When they came back from tour they did a show where they played Bad Brains Pay To Cum, and Joe sang it, and I thought that was kinda cool, and then Thomas said that Joe played bass and I was looking for a bass player so I asked Joe if he wanted to play together a bit. And so we got together with Colin Sears from Dag Nasty and we started playing. I said from the start ‘This is not a band, we’re not playing shows, we’re just playing music, do you want to do that?’ And so we played together from August or September of ’86 right through to January and then Colin went back to Dag Nasty and we needed a new drummer so as Happy Go Licky practised in my basement I asked Brendan [Canty] if he wanted to sit in. And so we did that for another five or six months, and then he went out west to see his parents who’d moved to Seattle at this point, and so we started playing with other drummers – Ivor Hanson, and Jerry Busher, who was part of the Positive Force Collective – and I talked to Dave Grohl once. And then Brendan came home and I said ‘Do you want to do a show?’ and that was September 3, 1987, the first Fugazi show."
I have a bootleg of that show, and Fugazi already sounded like a fully formed band to me…
“Well, we’d been playing for a year, we practised all the time, so essentially we were just practising in front of a crowd. It made sense to me at the time as a natural evolution. We were a three piece then, Guy wasn’t in the band. We tried to get him in the band before then, but he was not into it. He was like ‘I don’t know, I can’t see where I would fit’, but by the second show he was roadie-ing for us and singing backups. At the third or fourth show he sang Break In and then he was in.”
I read once that the original concept for Fugazi was The Stooges plus reggae...
“Hmmm, maybe MC5 plus reggae. That might have been something Joe said. You have to remember that at the time, in America, in the punk underground the dominant sound was kinda metal-tinged hardcore, often allied to extreme straight edge ideas. So that was the world we started playing in. And a song like Waiting Room was not in any way 'hardcore' by those standards... We loved reggae, we loved rock, we loved The Obsessed, we loved punk, so there was a lot of different things feeding into our sound. And people were kinda freaked out by it, because they were expecting this real fast, loud, hardcore sound. And then when we did the second record it was kinda different, and Repeater too. And people were like 'This is weird, you keep changing.' Of course we are, we're human beings. You and I sat at this table 20 years ago, would you say you've changed? I certainly hope I have. We were operating in real time, because we're human beings, and everything we experienced was constantly moulding and shaping us, so obviously the music we were expressing was connected to everything that was going on. We never wanted to sound different, we wanted to sound like ourselves.”
Minor Threat never played outside North America, and Embrace barely played outside DC…
“We played Baltimore once…”
Okay. So did you make a conscious decision that Fugazi wouldn’t just be another local band, because you came to Europe really early in ’88.
“The thing that you need to remember is that aside from the music stuff and the scene stuff and our personal stuff, there’s also the label stuff. In 1983 we were really up against it at Dischord, because the success of Minor Threat had been crippling for us: we couldn’t afford to keep the records in print and all the money we had in the world was going in to making more records and we wouldn’t get paid for months, so we were really in a pickle. And in like May/June ’83 Jon Loder from Southern Studios asked about putting out our Out Of Step record in England. I remember that Geoff Travis from Rough Trade was kinda interested too, but Loder contacted us and we knew he worked with Crass, so he seemed like a good guy. He came to see Minor Threat in New York and said ‘I wanna do your record’ and we said ‘We’re interested in that, but if you press the record could you press up, like, an extra thousand copies and send them over to us, because we can’t afford to press up records to sell anymore.’ And it turned out to be a really good arrangement. Jon was a genius and got really good deals with people, so then we started pressing Dischord records in England and shipping them over here. I’d been to England with Black Flag before, and so then I started going over there to do business, in like ’84 and ’85, and I started getting to know people and started seeing how things worked over there. I mean if Minor Threat had played in England in 1981 we’d have played to nobody: in the whole time the band existed maybe 30 people from England wrote to us, nobody really gave a fuck. When Black Flag went over in ’81, they were hated, for the most part, people were really not into it. Americans were not loved much in the British punk scene. But around the time I was developing my relationships at Southern I think Government Issue and Scream and Ignition had been over to Europe, and it kinda seemed like a network had started to form. So when Fugazi started we just wanted to tour – we did two or three US tours without even a record – so going to Europe seemed like a reasonable idea. Our first European tour was incredibly gruelling, something like 72 shows in eighty-something days, but all the shows we did kinda helped us get past the ‘ex-Minor Threat’ thing and helped us become our own band: by the end of that tour it didn’t matter if people were writing ‘ex-Minor Threat’ on the flyers against our wishes, we knew who the fuck we were."
Let’s jump forward: I remember you told me that once that long before Nevermind came out, Repeater had already sold about 200,000 copies. Those were huge numbers for any ‘punk’ band, much less for a band that started out not wanting to be band at all…
“I actually looked at my journals from 1991 this morning and it almost upset me to recall how <<insanely>> busy I was back then. One day I made a note that by 6pm I’d had 32 phone calls and I’d made another 15 myself: that’s 50 phone calls in one day on top of band practise, on top of bookings shows, on top of recording the Holy Rollers record and the [Nation of] Ulysses first album…I can’t believe how much I was working. So, yeah, I knew Fugazi were selling records, but I was too busy to spend much time thinking about it. We never had a manger, we never toured in a bus, we never rode in a limousine, so really things always seemed kinda the same for us, regardless of how many records were being sold. At some point it became clear that there were bands who were selling a quarter of what we sold, and they were a huge deal, with journalists and managers around them, but partly because we ignored the game, and didn’t talk to people, we were left alone.
I remember we did a show in January of ‘92, a Rock For Choice show in LA, at the Palladium: we were headlining and L7 played and I think Lunachicks played, and then a new band called Pearl Jam asked if they could get on the bill. We had no idea who they were, but the L7 people who were organising the show really wanted them to do it, so that was cool. And then I remember that backstage at the Palladium there was so much hub-bub around the dressing rooms, with so many industry people around because we had this ‘buzz’ band on the bill, but if you looked into the Fugazi one it was just us sitting there reading. There was no hype, or no-one handling anything for us, it was just us, so we’d just go out and play the show without any fuss. So I guess this is how I’m explaining that we never thought we were big: basically no-one was around us telling us we were big, so we just did our work, like we always did, and minded our own fucking business.”
At what point did the majors come sniffing around you?
“I think probably right around then. Actually I think at that Rock For Choice show Kim Gordon [Sonic Youth] said ‘I know you never would want to, but if you’d like to, we could talk about how things have been for us…’"
That was already post-Nevermind then, because that went to Number 1 in the US in the second week of January in 1992.
“Actually I think a guy from Geffen was driving me nuts in 1991, just calling and calling and calling me. Husker Du were probably the first band to sign to a major, to Warners, in 1986, and then there was a whole SST meltdown which sent all these bands looking for a home, like Sonic Youth. Then it seemed like everyone was being signed, it was just madness: there was a time where every band who could sell like a tenth of what we could sell had been signed.”
There’s a story that a lady from Atlantic Records asked you what you’d want in order to sign Fugazi to them and you said, joking, $5 million and complete creative control. And then there was a pause on the line and she said ‘Is that your final offer?’ and you said ‘Actually, no, let’s say $10 million…’
“Haha. Yeah, that was just me playing around. For the record, we never had lunch with anybody, it was never a consideration. Ultimately, control was what we most dearly valued, and we knew that once we got into that, no matter what, it’d be compromised: the idea of creative control is a bit of a farce. Once you’re an object of investment, people will do everything they can to maximise their returns, and you can resist it, but it doesn’t make a difference... if someone puts something into you, you want to please your benefactor especially if you’re beholden to them, which you would be. It’s hard to imagine ‘creative control’ being a reality. We came out of punk, and our point was never to smash the label system, our point was to make our own world - leave us alone, and let us do our thing.”
There’s a great quote from Jose Ortega y Gasset on the inlay card of the cassette of Repeater on that theme… ‘Revolution is not the uprising against pre-existing order, but the setting up of a new order, contradictory to the traditional one…’
“Yeah, it’s a great quote, but actually we had nothing to do with that. That was put on there by our designer, Kurt [Sayenga]: we were on tour and we only found out about it when we saw it. That was his read on what we were saying. We were rather startled when we saw it, like ‘Where did that come from?’ But I mean, growing up in DC, there was no music business here: if you wanted to make a record you made your own. And again, punk taught us self-determination, do your own thing. By the time the majors came sniffing around – and the only thing they smelled was money, it wasn’t like they thought ‘We need to shine a light on this important music’ – we were already set up and so it was like ‘Er, why now?’ When SST collapsed Sonic Youth were a really popular band, and they had to make a decision on where to go, whereas we’d just grown slowly on our own terms. We didn’t need anyone, we never did.”
The ‘alternative’ world did change after Nevermind though. There’s a great quote from Guy in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life where he talks about Fugazi touring Steady Diet… in Australia after Nevermind had broke worldwide, and he said ‘We might as well have been playing ukeles for all the impact we were having…’
“I think that was a perspective we felt to some degree. It was just weird sometimes. So, okay, we’re having a conversation here, and there have been a couple of moments where the staff here turn on the machines and we get drowned out by their machines. And to some degree that’s 1991 to me. At times we got drowned out by the machine, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t talking and we weren’t communicating, we just got drowned out at times.”
But at the same time you had Eddie Vedder going on MTV with Fugazi written on his hand, or Kurt Cobain namechecking you in Rolling Stone…
“I knew Eddie, and I knew he was fan, we’d hung out. I didn’t really know Kurt until later, but it wouldn’t have been a total surprise to me to know that he was aware of our band, if only because some of my closest friends lived in Olympia at the same time as him. But when MTV got involved it did create enormous problems for us. And it was depressing to see. For instance, our low ticket price thing worked: we were able to do these shows and shift the economy. But when MTV started to embrace the underground, what they called grunge or whatever, the enduring image was crowd-surfing and stage diving - every video had it in. So then when you went to any show with rock connotations people would do that. And then people were being hurt, and there was a surge in neck injuries. And when there’s more money involved, there’s more lawsuits involved. So then the response is to put in more security, and barricades to protect the stage. And that stuff isn’t free. We played one show to 4000 people one night and the barricade made more money than we did: the barricade cost more than we made! And that’s not even factoring in the 30 security staff you have to hire to man that barricade. It was just psychotic, and it had nothing to do with music: it wasn’t a physical response to music it was like a behavioural hypnosis caused by television. Dealing with everyone else’s success was a headache for us, a real nightmare: it fucked with our thing and just gave us more work to do.
One could argue that with the high tide all the boats rise, and so maybe we became more popular: In On The Killtaker was a very popular record, and I imagine that was largely the result of the tidal interest. But I imagine there’s more unlistened to copies of _…Killtaker _than any other Fugazi album, people sitting at home thinking ‘Why did I buy this?’ We were just trying to steer, just trying to manage our own world.
The way the music industry works, they seek the fertile ground and then they rape the ground and then they move on. They don’t take care of the soil at all, they don’t care: it’s just about maximising profits, get in, get out. So once they left, having taken everything they could take, the detritus had to be cleaned up."
Steve Albini has that famous essay The Problem With Music: do you broadly agree with his take on the industry?
“Well, I don’t think I’m as hardline as that. Everybody has to make their own decisions, including Steve. In terms of a spiritual level, it was more upsetting for me that in the '80s the conversations that existed were about ideas and philosophies and presentations, about how people were making music but after 1991, the conversation just became about business, about contracts and how much people were making. I remember one day Joe [Lally] and I were walking down the street and we met a guy we knew who was in a band who had been signed [to a major deal]. We said 'Hey, how you been doing?' And he said 'We're getting screwed by our label.' When we walked away Joe said to me 'We're going to be hearing a lot of that.' And we did. The conversations about contracts and managers, and I don't give a fuck about that. It was a very dark time in many ways for music I thought. It was like watching people being chewed up.
But, y'know, beyond that idea of 1991 as 'The Year That Punk Broke', there was much more significant stuff happening: 1991 was the year that America re-entered into militaristic operations, when the country invaded Iraq. There were weird little skirmishes in the '80s, like Grenada, or Panama, but much like the Falklands War was freaky for British people, the invasion of Iraq was mind-blowing for those of us who'd thought that America wouldn't ever be going to war again after Vietnam. An actual real war, with sustained bombing? That was really insane. Our 1991 started with a show in front of the White House, protesting about the war. And then we started Steady Diet... at the beginning of February and we finished it by the end of March and then toured straight through until the record came out. So all the hype about alternative rock entertaining the mainstream was kinda irrelevant to us, we were busy doing our work. By design, we started this band to do things our way, and we tried to not be deflected by other currents and tides and weather systems. We managed ourselves, we booked ourselves, we kept our own gear and put out our own records, and I don't think you'll find too many other bands who maintained that set-up for 15 years of playing, straight through.”
Let's get back to the notion of punk rock then: I once read a quote from Joe Strummer, where he said something like ‘Ian's the only one who ever did the punk thing right from day one, and followed through on it all the way…’
“Hmmm, I can see why quotes like that would annoy people. I once read an interview with HR from the Bad Brains and he was talking about me, but it could also apply to Fugazi. He said 'Ian works hard and creates something that only he can do, and everyone will point at him and say 'Yeah, but only he can do it.’ That’s exactly the opposite of what I've tried to achieve. My point is' Look, anyone can do it!' I've heard that a lot about our band: people will say 'Oh, Fugazi can do that, but we couldn't do it' and I'm like 'Why? Why not?’ I don’t understand that.”
Well, now, in 2011, there’s no Fugazi for other bands to measure up against…
“But I think we were kinda a freak show anyway. I feel like the world we exist in doesn’t really have much to do with us. And now? Well, we may never play again, or we may play a lot of shows, I have no idea. I’ve known Brendan and Guy for, like, five or six years prior to the band playing a note, and Joe and I lived together for 12 years and we all continue to be connected. We really still give a fuck about each other and the collective ‘we’. But our relationships tower above people’s need to have a tidy package, to have a neat conclusion to the Fugazi story. It's been a certain amount of years since we've done anything? Okay, tough shit, I don't give a fuck, I just don't care. Our band has always confused people. And no-one ever told us what to do.”