interview by Jeff Jetton, photos by Dakota Fine
There is no shortage of journalistic ink spilled on the topic of Ian MacKaye. The Fugazi frontman’s reluctantly been called the voice of a generation, but really he’s just a misunderstood dude with a house full of awesome stuff. We’re not suggesting he should be on an episode of hoarders or anything like that. It’s actually just kind of cute. We recently sat down with punk’s founding father to talk about everything from Little League to the Grateful Dead. And no, if you were curious, he is not a teddybear. Nor a librarian.
Ian MacKaye: I have a guy coming to pick up some tapes. An old band called Trench Mouth, just wanted to let you know, he’ll be here soon. DC Trench Mouth.
Jeff Jetton: Fred Armisen’s band?
IM: No, the original Trenchmouth. Did you see this Hard Art book yet?
IM: Trenchmouth, really great band. Look…there’s a picture of me when I was seventeen. Here’s a photo of them in 1979 playing the Valley Green projects. Teen Idles played with the Bad Brains in the same exact place in 1980. It was an incredible, unusual experience. We ran a cord through the window and plugged the PA and amps into that and played right in the courtyard. It was an incredible experience. It was just local kids.
JJ: Was it exposing them to new music?
IM: Basically, literally, yeah. [Bad Brains’ singer] HR’s concept at the time, in England they had done what they called “Rock Against Racism,” but HR saw it as white bands playing to white audiences, which he wasn’t against, but his idea was to take Rock Against Racism, to take one band from one side of the city, and play it on the other. So in this case, a band played in the courtyard of a housing project in Anacostia. At that time, pre-metro, there was no Green Line. There was a dearth of connectivity. Anacostia was always a segregated part of town. There was a kid there with his mom who was touching Henry (Rollins) because it was the first white person he had ever seen. The Valley Green Projects are gone now, they were all knocked down.
So anyways, I digitized all these Trenchmouth tapes, I had to rebuild these old cassettes. They fall apart.
IM: What I did was take a good case, I crack open the old one and re-house the hub. As you can see inside the old cassettes there’s that little felt piece, those always dry up. And a lot of times the tape itself rides poorly. And for some of them I bake them-
JJ: You put it in an oven?
IM: Well, you basically put it in a box with a light bulb for an extended period of time.
IM: The idea is the tape is a plastic strip, with magnetic particles adhesed to the strip. Magnetic particles get the information that becomes sound. The adhesive that holds the particles to the magnetic strip can dry up or otherwise something can go wrong with. What picks the sound up on a tape deck is a magnetic head. So if your particles aren’t adhesed correctly they don’t get picked up correctly. If you bake it in a box with a lightbulb, it reactivates the adhesive. I digitized all these Trenchmouth tapes and a bunch of other tapes.
JJ: Did you ever imagine yourself as sort of a rock and roll librarian?
IM: I never imagine myself as anything. I’ve never had a goal or any future vision at all. I just do what’s in front of me. Hence this interview.
JJ: You were talking earlier about people’s perception of you and how you manage that. Is that difficult for you?
IM: Difficult is not a word I would use.
IM: Annoying, maybe. The thing is that I largely don’t really give a fuck what people think about me. What does bother me is that I have to spend time and energy dealing with the ramifications of what people do think about me. Let’s say for instance people say, “He’s a really totalitarian, strict guy, he’s hard to work with or whatever.” I don’t think it’s true, but people’s perception of me leads that direction, like I’m a fundamentalist person. I end up having to spend extra time saying, “I’m not a fundamentalist.” I have other stuff to do. Or for another example, I’ve been a vegan for the past 26 years, not a big fucking deal for me, it’s just a decision I made. If I go to someone’s house for dinner, people get weird about it, but it’s something that I don’t like to broadcast if they don’t know.
JJ: Why do you think people particularly care with you? It seems like you are someone that people particularly care more than with anybody else as this celebrity or anti-celebrity or whatever… it seems like what you say matters more to a certain subset of people…
IM: I have no idea. I don’t know if that’s true.
JJ: It almost seems like a curse. That people really give a shit what you say.
IM: The people who are benevolent about it, it’s fine, I don’t really care. People who have their own problems and decide to take it out on me, then I have to deal with that. When someone writes a really nasty piece about me. I think they’re generally untrue because I think I’m a nice person. But they say, “He’s an asshole, he ruined music, he’s no fun!”
JJ: Ian MacKaye hates fun!
IM: People will approach me and ask me how I feel about those pieces, when I haven’t actually given them any thought at all.
JJ: But does it hurt?
IM: It doesn’t hurt me on a personal level, but it hurts me on a larger level of like, why are people so stupid? Why do we have to go through these unnecessary exercises. Fight crime, don’t fight me. If you really want to make a difference don’t fight me or Fugazi.
We had punks literally protesting Fugazi. I respect a boycott. I respect a conscionable boycott, but of all bands to boycott? Fight crime. If you really want to get out there, go fight crime. Why us? It makes me sad, the way human beings talk smack. It’s why I don’t like irony. People are too gleeful to put some teeth into something. Publications have run really nasty things about me or us, and then I end up having to console other people about it and not necessarily myself.
I think about Dischord. There’s been a pretty consistent notion that Dischord have been some sort of “overlords” of the scene. Some people have felt ‘they are too cool for us, or they won’t put this out, etc. All we’re doing is our own work, our own thing. That’s all we’ve ever done. Our work.
JJ: What is it? Maybe people can’t see your sense of humor?
IM: Probably not, because my humor is very dry. To me it doesn’t make sense. You’ve known me for a while, how often have you ever heard me say something nasty about anyone?
JJ: You’re just a misunderstood teddybear maybe?
IM: That could be your characterization, I do not consider myself a teddybear. Just to be clear, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for it, it exposes the foible of human interaction. Of all the paths that people would choose to go down, these are the paths they choose? But it’s nothing. The fact that the U.S. government spends millions of dollars to send murderous robot planes into other people’s land to murder them, into other countries, that’s a problem. That’s what people should be concerned about. The fact that other people don’t understand me is not a problem. I keep things in perspective.
JJ: How do you feel about the 80s DC nostalgia that’s currently around? I.e. the Corcoran retrospective.
IM: I wouldn’t characterize it as an 80s nostalgia thing. For me, at least. The Corcoran show was actually almost a reportage. The exhibit was, in many ways, pretty unique. It was one of the first pieces about DC culture that doesn’t include some marble building or the Kennedy Center. I’m sure there were some “back in the day…” sentiments at the opening, but I was not one of those people saying that.
JJ: Are you immersed in the memorabilia so much that it’s not a forgotten reminder for you?
IM: I wouldn’t use the term memorabilia. For me it’s not a reminder. I work at a record label where I have archives. These things occurred and are important to somebody, and they’re important to me. I find the record industry largely repellent. This music, the Teen Idles, all of that stuff, is important to me. I don’t have lawyers, an agent or a manager. However I find the music industry largely repellent. I just make records because that’s what I love to do. So I think that era, those pieces of media, I keep in my collection. I have stuff from 1979, 1980 in my collection. But I also have things from 2012. So I don’t know if it’s memorabilia as much as it is holding on to things that I find relevant that most people might not. I don’t know what the point of the archives is…
JJ: You don’t have long term goals for this archive in terms of future generations, meaning beyond your death and the deaths of your family, etc.?
IM: I do not. However I believe the first thing to do it to get it organized so I can make sense of it. I have a lot of stuff. Slowly I’m getting all my materials organized.
IM: I have other projects to do. I try not to let that documentation interfere with my present day. I have this interview to complete, and then when you leave I’ll probably go work on digitizing some more shows. There’s just a lot of going back and forth. I jump from one thing to the next but try and strike a balance. But it’s not nostalgic in the sense of ‘those were the good old days and now we’re not there’. I don’t think like that. Not my way.
JJ: There must be a certain aspect of those were ‘certain great times’ and ‘oh that sucked’.
IM: Of course, but that’s just being a human being. Obviously there’s Fugazi, and Minor Threat, and Dischord stuff in the archive. But there’s also a lot of skateboard stuff, because I was a skateboarder. Somewhere around here I have one of my original boards.
JJ: Do you run across things that are surprises?
IM: Occasionally there are materials in the archive that I have completely forgotten about. Archiving is extremely expensive and time consuming. I’m sure an archivist would tell me I’m doing it wrong. It’s an industry that’s built upon essential ideas, and some of those practices are abusive. The archiving industry, much like the funeral industry and the wedding industry, these industries can be very exploitative. The amount of money that people spend on saving stuff, they try to feed you this idea that’s it’s more important. Getting your letters or pictures digitized. I don’t think it’s that important. The more you spend on your materials, you’re given the sense that those things are more important due to the total amount spent. You’d probably be better off giving that money to a soup kitchen.
JJ: It’s all going to end up in an estate sale anyways, right?
IM: The American underground punk scene, though, is a story worth remembering. And I’m not talking about what came later, indie music, or whatever you want to call it, but the music that came before that — that’s an important story. So many interviews with musicians get the time or context wrong. You have these older bands, usually men, who tell stories about “Oh, we got into this huge fight, this guy punched that guy,” that’s the wrong sort of story. My view of the time is truly pioneering. The landscape at the time was so locked down by the music industry. You had bands like D.O.A., or Black Flag, and a whole network opened up to trailblazer a counter culture movement. I’m more interested in the less sensational type of stories.
JJ: Where do you see the current music industry going?
IM: Oh, I don’t know. Record labels have enjoyed a 100-year monopoly of selling plastic and now they’re up against a different format. And I have a record label, so I can speak to that. They’re now erecting tollbooths at every corner to try and fight the new format. They’ll probably succeed to some degree, but we live in an age where you can easily circumvent those strategies too. I can’t predict things though because it’s almost impossible and I don’t care to. I don’t really give a fuck about it.
JJ: Did you ever consider “not cursing” as a tenet of Straight Edge?
IM: “Straight Edge” was a song about my life. There was no structure, no premise as if I was forming a club. There were no tenets. I mean I wrote a song called “Straight Edge,” I’ll take that, but the song was about my life the way I wanted to live it. For most people who have or who do identify as or with Straight Edge, I fee like for most people, they’re just trying to do the right thing.
IM: Structures can be manipulated for ill as well, especially when people are dealing with issues of power, or control, or violence. So they’re looking for ways to get those things out, so they look for certain lubricants or triggers, like alcohol, sports, or nationalism. I mean, why do people fight over sports? Because of the framework, the schematic of sports, those particular people seize upon these opportunities to be violent. And the number one problem using the same framework would be religion.
And I think that people use or used Straight Edge to navigate a tricky time in their lives. I’d much rather talk to a 30-year old that survived rough times in their lives [practicing Straight Edge] rather than someone that was harmed by a culture of violence.
JJ: Do you think you could ever see yourself leaving DC?
IM: I don’t know. My mom said that all four seasons are well represented here, so why go anywhere else? I mean, my family IS here. I have no aunt, uncles, or cousins. My sister and her partner live out of town. Otherwise, basically everyone is here. I’m a fifth generation Washingtonian and I was born and raised here. My kid’s a sixth generation Washingtonian. Honestly I wish people didn’t move because I love the people of the city. This is the curse of the jet age. Now anyone can move anywhere. I’ve made deep connections with people around the world since I tour everywhere that I will simply never see again.
JJ: But at the same time those connections wouldn’t have been possible in the first place without the ability to travel.
IM: Right, also true. But to answer your question, could I live somewhere else? Sure, but I don’t know in the end.
JJ: Your dad edited crossword puzzles?
IM: He was also the White House correspondent from 1963-66. Then the Washington Post Religious section editor from about 1966 till 1975 or ’74. And then he became the associate editor for the Washington Post Magazine till 1986. But he continued to edit their puzzle for a while. He also started a magazine called In Trust, made for the business-side of running seminaries.
JJ: How did he end up in the religious side of things?
IM: He was in a seminary until the Fifties. And then he dropped out to marry my mom and have my older sister.
IM: He’s still involved with St. Stephens, you know, where they still have shows.
JJ: Are you religious?
IM: I’m a non-subscriber. I stopped going around 1974.
JJ: Does that bother your father?
IM: No. First of all, [St. Stephen’s] is a radical church. It was one of the first DC churches to have gay ceremonies. A woman said mass there, which almost got a priest excommunicated there; Black Panthers spoke at the church; it was a sanctuary for civil rights protesters and anti-war protesters. At that time, the neighborhood, Columbia Heights was a poor, messed up area, and the church was in the middle of it. What happened inside was a reflection of the community. I actually saw my first rock concert on the altar of that church.
JJ: What band was it?
IM: I don’t remember, but I do remember seeing Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, one of those. It was a liberation theology venue. Anything radical seemed to be accepted there. I definitely picked up the idea there that you should question authority.
I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots broke out in the city. We celebrated Palm Sunday on 14th Street. I have a memory of walking down the street with buildings smoldering, and soldiers and cops everywhere. Anyways, it was a church that really taught me the things I needed to learn to not go to church. But I think it is a church that does great work, I went to a wedding there three days ago.
I’ve been there before where in one section of the church where was a b-boy battle going on, then in another room there was a Native American drum circle happening with a group of Native Americans that had just walked across the entire country, and then in another room there’s a sewing group [laughs].
JJ: Seems like more of a community center than a church?
IM: It is.
[off-the-cuff exchange about Jeff’s interview with Noam Chomsky develops away from the mic]
IM: What I love about Chomsky is that he doesn’t give a fuck.
JJ: Right, pop culture is completely uninteresting to him.
IM: Well, because it’s irrelevant, most of it. Go back 20 years and what was the parallel to today is so, “Whatever, who cares?” to us today. It’s all frosting. Some of it is interesting, but for the most part I don’t give a damn. I don’t watch TV but occasionally I’ll read the Washington Post. I will say that sports are the only “real thing” on television. Everything else has a bias, or you’re being manipulated. And as hard as you try and create narratives about sports, once the ball is in the air, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, it’s just very real.
JJ: Like the Olympics?
IM: Well we only see the American, British, Russians, or Chinese. The way it’s being presented now is really curated and jingoistic, and that makes me sick. But if you happen to turn on the television or even if you drive down the street to watch a little league game, reality is in full swing, you can’t bias it. That’s interesting to me occasionally. I will go sit and watch Little League games.
JJ: Do you root for hometown teams?
IM: Not really, because I’m not a sports guy. However it’s interesting to be in a place where people have a sporting fever. One time I was in Italy during one of the European soccer cups, and it’s interesting because it’s so electrifying. Or back when the Redskins won the Superbowl, everyone was electric, similar to when Obama was elected. When the Redskins won it was a common binding effect for the whole town, like everyone was connected. So I’m not a sports dude, but I’m interested in the sociological implications of it.
JJ: Are you interested in the social factor of social media?
IM: No. I mean, it’s interesting to think about, but I don’t need any more avenues of communication, and frankly I think people are still working out to realize that it’s just a tool rather than something that you have to do or participate in.
JJ: Are you an embracer of technology?
IM: [laughs] What does that even mean, of course I am. I obviously use computers. My car is wondrous. My phone is amazing. I’ve already talked about the music I’m digitizing. Technology is fantastic, of course. The Fugazi Live Series site, when we realized the Internet, the way it works–the speeds and its development–made it possible to have one source of infinite copies, was incredible for us. Using tapes or CD’s to make copies would have been so unwieldy. We have shows that have zero downloads, which makes me sad, but they’re all freely available at any time. The most downloaded show was the one with the best audio quality, but I didn’t think it was a very interesting show.
JJ: I read an in-depth article in The New Yorker about the Grateful Dead and their archiving.
IM: I read that too. And I thought it was interesting that they played 2,300-2,600 shows, and I was shocked. I thought they would have played around 5,000 shows, or something way beyond what they actually did.
JJ: Did you ever listen to them?
IM: No. But I think they’re interesting structurally, in retrospect, for instance their business and the way they flexed their muscles in a good way. In the late 80s or early 90s, before Jerry died, they did these stadium shows, and they had their own ticketing system. They sold tickets directly, and at some point during this stadium tour, Ticketmaster didn’t want them selling directly. They told The Dead that wasn’t happening anymore, so the band told them, “Okay, you’re fired.” And then so Ticketmaster tried to backtrack. At least that’s what I heard, I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true. But anyways, they operated well, they weren’t bullied by the machine. You get that sort of power by saying “No.”
JJ: So you’re a vegan. Are you a foodie?
IM: No. Not interested in that at all. Totally another bread and circus, when you think about it. That’s a Roman concept where the government can do anything, as long as you give the people “bread and circuses.” And I’d say this culture right now is similar, as long as people have money, fun, and food, our government can do heinous, heinous things. Even against its own people. The food thing is crazy to me. In this town the beer thing is also crazy to me. Frankly even with Brightest Young Things, it’s such a celebration of [beer and food], all this stuff. I don’t think it’s bad or evil, but there’s something out of bounds. It’s like, “A bar opened!” Who cares? Think about that. Bars are meeting places and places to unwind. But at some point, what is culture unwinding from, and why can’t they meet anywhere else? Why do we celebrate the opening of a bar so much? I notice papers write about these bars–that’s a feature story now. I notice that a local band will get a paragraph and a micro-brewery will get a two page spread. What are we writing about here? What’s going on?
It’s like, “spend a lot of money and you feel like you’ve done something.” I had a bartender friend once tell me about a $14.00 shot of vodka, this was years ago it’s probably more now. I thought that was crazy. From what I understand, vodka has no taste. I think people like the taste of their money.
I don’t think it’s an ethical or moral issue, or even that people are stupid, but I do feel like as a culture things are out of balance, perverted, and inverted. Things that are ridiculous are worshipped, and things that are important are ridiculed. I think that’s something worth thinking about.