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October 10, 2006

Long distance runner: The private and public evolution of Ian Mackaye

The EvensThe social evolution of Ian MacKaye has been fairly remarkable in the sense that society — well, a rather large collection of its smaller parts — has actually evolved around him. He is practically a humanized punk anthem, one whose earnestly liberal leanings have earned him a massive, loyal following. In an animal sense, he is a subspecies of human that has survived because he has refused to change with the times; more particularly, he has held ground when the storm was fierce and ugly, and his house is still standing without the slightest crack in the mortar.     Perhaps the most inspired question for MacKaye, then, would be a simple “How’d you do it?” How did you create a record label that’s now in its 20th year and still functions without contracts for its bands and shares heartily its profits — rightfully, dutifully — with the artists responsible for the art that generates them? How can you succeed in one of the most recognizable indie rock bands that never sold out, Fugazi, and still charge a handful of dollars at the door for most every show? How can you make it when you simply reject, as an economic principle, the entire corporate structure of rock music and its live performance in bars and clubs?     But we didn’t really get into that much on the phone last Thursday. For MacKaye, it’s just a matter of keeping his head down and charging forward. It’s the power of a new idea that keeps recharging the batteries, for he is — as goes the Fugazi song — a long distance runner. None of those are questions worth asking because MacKaye isn’t a businessman as much as a pragmatist who also happens to believe in something other than profit pursuit. People continue buying the records that Dischord puts out because they’re good. People keep coming to his shows because his bands are, and have always been, very good.     Which brings us to The Evens, the band he and partner/drummer Amy Farina (of The Warmers) started a couple years ago, shortly after Fugazi went on hiatus. They’re a duo, whereas MacKaye has always played with at least twice that; they both sing, whereas other men have always augmented MacKaye’s idiosyncratic vocals; the main instrument is a clean baritone played at low volume, whereas MacKaye’s other work is loud as fuck.     The band is touring in anticipation of its new, second album, the masterful Get Evens, which I was lucky enough to hear for the first time Wednesday and which will, quite effectively, blow you away. It is stark and instinctual, earnest and politically explosive, as MacKaye will never stop protesting that which he thinks is unethical or imprudent. He told me protest is a way of life, an ever-evolving process of discovery and change that unfolds as a result unto itself rather than offering an instant sort of quantifiable mark on the measuring stick of American society, and that makes sense to me. If there’s any way to think about just such things, it’s with the means in mind, not so much the end. Ian MacKaye: We’re brining our own PA, and we made our own lights sort of. LEO: Really? IM: Yeah. We’re trying to be self-contained. LEO: How come? IM: We can play anywhere anytime. We’re not beholden to anybody. We have some ability to establish some quality. We have some quality control, whereas a lot of times you pull into a place and there are no lights or you’re playing under fluorescent lights. Or you go to a place and they’re like, Oh, we have this PA but it’s kinda busted. So you end up playing through a busted PA. The idea is to have some kind of basic — it’s not a fancy affair by any stretch of the imagination; however, we’re serious. I think it’ll be nice. LEO: It sounds like it’ll be. Quality control in shows is obviously hugely important, and taking it all into your hands — I like the idea. IM: I think part of the concept of pulling out of the rock rut or the cycle that people kind of get into where you’re touring and you’re playing basically the same black holes over and over, it’s like the clubhouse mentality: people are there and after a while they’re just like, eh, I just don’t care enough to do anything about it. You ever work in a record store? LEO: I worked in a bookstore. IM: Well, you know what the bathroom looked like in that joint? I mean, usually they’re pretty tragic in those kinds of places. Because it’s just like, eh, we don’t care anymore. I think in a way the concept of what we’re trying to do is actually — it’s not a really lofty thing, and we’re certainly not The Evens all rock clubs are evil — the idea is to be able to pluck it out of that environment. Essentially, it’s an economy based on self-destruction. That doesn’t mean everybody who’s involved does that; it’s just that’s basically what’s going on. Music, I don’t know why something as sacred as music ended up getting consigned or relegated to that particular setting. LEO: I saw something you said, I can’t remember where I read it now, talking about that and how alcohol plays such a part in rock ‘n’ roll, the traditional — IM: That’s just fact. As if there was a moment in some point in history where a birth was given and there were twins: Rock ‘n’ roll and alcohol. (Laughing) Completely ridiculous. So fucking bizarre. LEO: It is bizarre, but — IM: Again, it’s sort of tricky territory for me, because obviously I have a reputation of being a teetotaler and so forth, but the truth is, it’s not really an ethical thing, it’s just a pragmatic one for us. We just got to thinking about it, and it just seems like, well, why is it this way? There’s also an economic aspect to it — it’s sort of an economic protest. Things in this country end up happening for usually economic reasons. And tremendously bad ideas are forwarded and really bad behavior is enacted in the name of dough, and I think we’re just like, Well, if we can make this work outside of that, let’s do it. LEO: The alcohol industry clearly makes tons of money off the music industry. IM: They’re pretty good to each other. I can’t believe that people play shows that aren’t all ages, but I know why they do, because that’s where you get the dough. You’re basically being underwritten.     I just like the idea of creating alternatives. Just because, a lot of people, they’re not going to have access. One thing about the rock club world is that there are only so many nights, and everybody’s vying for the same stage. The other thing is, what’s interesting about the bar world or the club world, I think, is that there’s essentially, they need an audience, because audience is the clientele of the bar. But check it out: new ideas don’t have audiences. They haven’t been thought of yet. So what this kind of reinforces is either circumstantial acts, like a band featuring this person or that person from this other band; referential acts, this band sounds like so and so or such and such; or a genre act, which is, this is a ska band. That’s all fine. But what happens is that, new ideas, people are coming at it from a totally different point of view, they can’t get on that stage. That seems like a shame. I like the idea of new ideas. That’s punk rock for me. That’s always been punk rock for me. The most amazing shows I’ve ever been to have been 15 or 20 people. LEO: I want to talk about politics a little bit. What is wrong with America and how do you change it? IM: Well, it’s changing. It’s always changing. I’m 44, and I can definitely tell you that I saw this country change. It’s pretty insane. But I also think it’s a big wheel, and it’ll come around. It’s a painful process.     I remember the end of Vietnam, and I remember thinking, this country is just crazy, this is completely insane that this country is murdering these people. And when the war ended in 74, or when America finally left, I remember thinking, ah, see, there we go. People realized this is untenable. I actually thought there would never be another war. But that shows you, that’s me. I knew Reagan fucked around in Grenada and fucked around in Panama, and Clinton fucked around and whatever. Ultimately, when George Bush won and went into Iraq, I was so surprised. I thought, well, this will never happen again. I just figured we got past it. But apparently we went back in. I figured it would just take awhile.     So how do we change it? Well, I think it is changing. It’s just a matter of, in my mind, staying encouraged. You know what the most powerful party in this country is, right? It’s not the Republicans, it’s not the Democrats, it’s the apathetic party. It’s mostly people who are either discouraged or have checked out or whatever. They’re the ones who are calling the shots. I feel like a lot of times, people become discouraged in life, and they’re like, I don’t care. Whatever. Then they become apathetic. How do you affect change? You become encouraged. You find courage.     I remember the day before this current military action in Iraq started, there was a guy calling me to come up to a teach-in in New Jersey for the weeks leading up to it. We had been working on a particular date, and then it just so happened we got to the point where, hey, George Bush II had decided to set a date. And I talked to this guy in New Jersey and he told me, he’s like, Well, I guess it’s over. I guess we’re going to go to war. I said, well, I don’t think so. He said, how could you say that? I said, because I guess I feel like, if you’re trying to stop war from starting, then you got to at least believe it can be stopped. But don’t worry: if they do bomb, I’ll immediately start working on stopping the existing war. But if I’m trying to stop them from going to war, I have to believe it can be stopped. Otherwise, you’ve become discouraged and you just give up.     The way I look at it is, there’s a perception of protest, that you do it and you affect instant change, you have results. I think protest is a lifelong endeavor. There always will be people who aren’t thinking, and there will always be people who are agitating for thinking. And in the thinking, somewhere in that balance, when enough people think about something, things change. You go protest. You get engaged at whatever level. It’s not a cop-out; it’s actually a cop-in. The idea is that if you actually feel like there’s something going on that you’re concerned about, then you lend your energy in whatever form it takes. LEO: Do you think that just happens naturally? IM: Oh yeah, I do. You’re in the business, you know what happens. Things catch fire. Suddenly, everybody’s concerned about this, or this happened. Things catch fire. I couldn’t believe, I’m still actually in shock when I see the proliferation of American flags. I find it shocking. Somehow it caught fire. LEO: Why is it shocking? IM: I’ll tell you why it’s shocking. If you see a sports person, and you see they have a flag on their helmet, and everywhere you see there’s flags, and if you blur your eyes and you put a swastika on there, it’s so fucked up looking. It’s not merely the evil nature of, say, the Nazi Party. It’s actually the concept of a nationality as a brand. That is extremely creepy to me. When I see it being implemented as a brand that many people are wearing, and certainly every professional sports figure, they have flags on their uniforms. It’s curious enough that people have to sing the national anthem. It’s just weird. LEO: Is it not also, in a way, quintessentially American, to brand your very country and sell it. IM: That may be a condition that has developed. It certainly is not quintessentially American throughout history, no. America was essentially an isolationist country for a hundred years or more. But it’s true. Americans just love spreading the word. (Laughing) What a horrible word they spread sometimes. I find flags to be ugly. All flags, not just American flags, because they represent generally imaginary designations.     I’ll give you an example of this. One of the reasons that the White House, one of the things they used to vilify Saddam Hussein, along with a lot of hoo-ha, one of the things they talked a lot about was how he poisoned his own people. If you think about that, what they’re referring to, I assume, is the gassing of the Kurds. And the Kurds are actually not Saddam Hussein’s people, they are actually a different people, but the reason I think the White House referred to them as his people, the rationale was that these people existed within a geographical designation, which was Iraq, right? But if you go there, or if you fly over it, you tell me if you see a line in the ground. You won’t see one because there isn’t one. It is an imaginary line. But if we’re going to use that kind of logic, that these are his people because of a geographic designation, that he’s sharing a piece of something with these people, let’s take it back a few steps. Let’s back away from the picture and take a look at the whole world. That is a factual, geographic designation, the world. So, in effect, the United States, by throwing these horrific exploding metal things into Iraqi people, is killing its own people. LEO: By its own logic. IM: By its own logic, but even a more proven form of it. I’ll opposed to war. LEO: I’m with you. It seems like the opposition to the war is getting louder in America. What do you see the point at which it’s going to break and there will be some kind of change in policy? IM: I don’t know, I don’t think like this. I don’t really think about what will it take, or what to do. LEO: Just keep your head down and keep going? IM: Yeah. I’m a long distance runner. I’m serious. This is who I am. I work in the day. I believe it has to end. Which war hasn’t ended? LEO: Well sure, but — IM: I understand there’s conflict forever, but really, every war ends. Every horrible dictator, every despot in the history of the world has left office. It’s a fact. By hook or by crook. By breath or by death, they fucking go. There are things I think that are outside of our control. I remember when the planes crashed, I remember thinking, well, I had nothing to do with anything leading up to it, anything to do with the actual occurrence, and I’ll have almost nothing to do with what happens afterward. I have no control over any of it. It’s like weather. What can you do? What could you, individually have done, to stop that madness? So then I think, well, it’s not productive or constructive to think, we have to stop people from doing that. It’s impossible. All you can do is change your atmosphere; mostly, if you want to deal with weather, you just prepare yourself in a way that makes you less removed from your surroundings. In other words, if you’re going to live somewhere where you have colossal rain, or say, if you live in a place where there are earthquakes, don’t have houses made of bricks. If you’re going to live in a place that always floods, put it in stilts. And if you live in a world where there’s different kinds of people, acknowledge them. LEO: I want to change directions here radically if you don’t mind. IM: Is this about Minor Threat? (Laughter) LEO: Well, not that radically. I want to talk about The Evens. This band in general is different from Fugazi and from Minor Threat and — IM: Actually completely different members except for one. LEO: Right. (Laughter) IM: That may explain the difference. (Laughter) I’m just fucking with you. LEO: You moved to baritone The Evens for instance. It has a very different sound. Then playing as a two-piece. Do you like it better? Do you like it differently? IM: It’s good. You can’t say better. Look, I was in the Teen Idles, I was in Minor Threat, Embrace, Fugazi and The Evens. Each one of those bands was a relationship unto itself. What came out of each of those relationships was, really, the creative fold of the people involved. Those entities created those things. If you check, you’ll notice I never was in a band where someone left and they were replaced. I don’t think like that. We’ve had people kind of come in; for instance, Minor Threat had briefly another guy came and played bass, but the founding members were in the band from the beginning to the end. So these bands, they existed in their time, and we did what we did because that’s what was in front of us and, at some point, stopped for varying reasons. In the case of Teen Idles, somebody quit the band. Also, I was playing bass and I wanted to sing. In the case of Minor Threat, Brian was 16 or something when he started playing. We were kids and we were insane, we fought like hell. It was also punk. It was the hardcore explosion. There was such intensity; it was a wonder we managed to stick it out for three years. We were wrestling with all kinds of shit in our own lives, and then trying to figure out how to become bigger human beings. When you’re doing that trip from 15 to 25 it’s a heavy scene. Doing it with three other people, a couple who are younger than you and from different walks, it’s crazy.     Embrace was just a project that probably — let’s put it this way: it was me and three guys who had already been in a band that broke up once before. They already knew how to break up. (Laughter)     But Fugazi, that was a family. And it is a family. I can’t compare — Fugazi was, the people in that band, they’re my family. I saw Guy yesterday, we all live in the same town, we’re in touch with each other, we’re involved with each other’s lives, and it’s really serious. So it’s hard for me to say I like one thing better than another.     Amy The Evens, Amy’s my real family. We spend every day and every night together, essentially. When I’m not working at Dischord, we’re together. We play music, we travel together. We are family, and the music we make is the product of that relationship. At this point the conversation moves into a brief and enlightened discussion about the baritone guitar, and then into a talk about Fugazi’s altruistic show policy — door prices in the single digits and all-ages — and why they did it. IM: Fugazi played well over a thousand shows, and we played for 15 solid years. I booked the band, and I learned really, I became very intimate with the whole process of booking, and I’ve dealt with a lot of people and companies and organizations and venues that really were not — it was not really what I wanted to do. But I knew that if thousands of people wanted to see us, then it was my responsibility as a representative of the band, to find rooms that could safely facilitate that. And frankly, by and large, if you’re engaging in really loud music, rock music, the only venues you’re gonna find that are even within range of being affordable are going to be venues that are like rock clubs, because that’s what they’re made for. Basically, Fugazi had two — in my booking — had two basic plans of attack. One is, find somebody who is a bit of a visionary and isn’t scared to go into taking something as big as Fugazi to an unorthodox room. So, for instance, Jason Noble and others took us into that high school The Evens. Were you at that gig? LEO: Yes I was. IM: That was a really cool night. That would be an example of my preferred plan of attack. But unfortunately, it’s not something that most cities have. There’s not usually individuals or collectives who are going to step up because they can put on a show for 50 people, but you start getting to this higher number and it gets tricky. You can’t be in a situation where you have 500 to 1,000 people gathering and you put them in some kind of harm’s way. I’ve had really, really scary situations with Fugazi. We’ve had situations where it was touch-and-go.     My second plan of attack of course is to take our politics and our agenda into the profit world. The way Fugazi approached things was, first thing we did, I think most bands set their price first. We set the door price first. That automatically creates a governor for everything else, so if you’re going to go into a room and you know your door’s going to be five dollars or six dollars or whatever, you know right off the bat what your potential gross will be, period. Then you start backing it out from there. You start figuring out how people are going to charge. So if the sound guy says, I need to have 4,500 dollars, then we can’t play.     In terms of Fugazi, the way we operated, many people have imagined that Fugazi uses its power as a popular band to force people to do things. That’s not correct. What we had the power to do was say no, and everybody has that power. For every gig we did, we turned down 50. Because they just weren’t possible. We didn’t play Boston for a decade.     It was deeply discouraging for me to think that, even though I was challenged and enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out how to navigate this situation, ultimately it was not lost on me that my art or my music or my work or whatever, was essentially being performed and presented in venues where, as I said earlier, it was an economy based on self-destruction. I don’t know what the LEO thing is, but imagine if the only way you could write was in Soldier of Fortune or something. At some point, you just think, this is a bummer. My work is so not related to this, and yet it’s the only outlet I have, is something that on another side, is deeply destructive. Again, it’s not the people who run the places or the people who work there; it’s actually just the culture.     So when we got to the point in Fugazi in 2002 where circumstances in our life made it essentially impossible for us to continue, then we thought, Alright, we’ll just take a break, we’ll go on hiatus and see if things ever change in a way that would make it possible for us to work. As soon as that happened, I thought: Alright, I’m not ever going to step a foot in these joints again if I can help it. I’ll do it if I was with Fugazi. I think it was time for me, I felt like, well, I want to fuck with the form. I want to see the people I’m playing to, I want to actually engage with people. The whole idea of punk rock for me was to be with, it was a social thing in a way, to be with people. How ironic.     There’s a great Janis Joplin quote, I always loved this quote, she said: “Every night I make love to 10,000 people and then go home alone.” Do you know that quote? LEO: Yeah. IM: Great fucking quote. The Evens Yo. LEO: Hey. IM: I can’t keep going for too long, but I want to say that, part of the deal was that I felt like it was so crazy for me that Fugazi was, we were playing shows to like 1,000 people and then, basically, the way things are laid out and just the logistics, it was impossible for me to actually engage, to actually talk to anybody. And so when Amy and I started playing, I was like, I’d love to be able to have a more intimate setting where I can actually talk to people. And it’s funny, every once in a while I read someone talking about The Evens and they’re like, it’s just kinda weird, he just talks and…it’s just funny. I think it’s so indicative of what’s happened with music, that it’s turned into — weird things happen with television and the way people think about music, they don’t like it when people talk back at them. They don’t want to be engaged, but that’s tough. I’m a punk rocker. LEO: Isn’t that why one would go to a show rather than listen to the record at home? IM: I think so, but I think a lot of people go to shows as a social thing, but also I think people go to shows because they want to get out of their parents’ houses or they want to meet people, but also they can say, oh yeah, I saw that band or I saw this band or whatever. We’re only talking about a few people here. There’s an awful lot of people who go and it’s great. It’s just that the people who bellyache, they’ll bother to write it down. LEO: (Laughter) IM: You’re a writer, you know that. (Laughter) Your people! I’m just fucking with you. LEO: Well listen, I won’t keep you any longer. Thanks so much for the interview. IM: Yeah, I have to say, I really enjoyed the chat. I do appreciate you saying some nice words about the record. You’re actually the first person outside of Washington who actually has heard the record. We just sent them out, so you’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s like, I don’t know you but I’ve heard your record, you know. It’s significant; it makes me feel like, that’s a nice thing to hear. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com.