Interview conducted by Osty Gale
Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Ian MacKaye over the phone. He is one of the founders of the Washington D.C hardcore punk scene that emerged in the early ’80’s. With renowned bands such as Fugazi and Minor Threat, he started the “Straight Edge” edge movement, from the song of the same name, released with his band Minor Threat.
As well as a musician, he is the founder and operator of his own record label, Dischord Records, in Washington, D.C. In this interview, we talked about the Do-it-Yourself movement, the music industry, the educational and gun control systems within the United States, and his best friend, fellow hardcore founder, Henry Rollins.
So starting at the beginning, can you talk about Washington D.C and what it was like growing up there?
It just is what it is. I don’t have any reference points other than that I grew up here. I think I’m a 5th or 6th generation Washingtonian, so my family, we were born and raised here and I never left. I love it here. So how was it? Yeah it was good I guess, I don’t have any complaints.
What’s your take on the sudden fascination with the DIY movement? Does it seem a bit odd that people are suddenly taking up a cause for which you’ve been an advocate for years as if it were something new?
I think that your question presupposes that the fascination is something new but it’s not. It’s been going on for years, and people have been interested in this stuff, and there’s always been a minority of course, because the majority our respective nations don’t give a fuckin’ rat’s ass about DIY. But I think the thing is, is that although I may have been one of the early sort-of practitioners of what was called DIY – the truth is that I was not one of the first DIY people, the hippies were the DIY people in the late 60’s and before them were the beatnik poets of the 50’s. DIY is nothing new, it’s just a different name for the underground. And as long as there’s been a mainstream there’s been an underground. So you know, you have the overground and the underground. In terms of expression and culture: Jazz, blues, punk, Rock and Roll, all these things, they’re all coming from the same place and at some point in time they are the voice of a counter-culture and an underground and I don’t see what you refer to as the “current fascination” as being anything new. I see it as what it is; there will always be an underground as long as there’s an overground. In terms of my role within it and how I feel about it, I think that in my life I decided long ago that I was interested in being a Pilot light and it may not always be “hot,” but I’d like to be part of the mechanism that might reignite something. I feel that I was deeply fortunate to come upon the underground and this counter-cultural world, like through music and punk, whatever you want to call it. I feel like I am indebted to it and I like to maintain a pilot light so other people will come across it. You don’t necessarily have to do what I do, but hopefully it’ll be a way for them to learn about it, the same way I learned about it through other peoples work.
Do you have any memories of the first couple of shows you played?
Of course, I remember all of the shows I’ve played. The first show I played, I played bass in a band called The Slinkees. We performed in a garage on Macarthur Blvd in August of 1979, we with a band called The Zones, which was the first show I ever played. The next band I played with was a band called the Teen Idles. From there, it was Minor Threat and then Fugazi. Now my wife and I have our own band called “The Evens.”
Regarding America and its history with gun control, what do you see needs to be done for a more peaceful, controlled nation?
I think guns and all bullets should be destroyed, that’s what I think. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t like guns, and I’m not interested in guns, nor am I interested in the right to own guns or the right to bear arms; I think that’s just ridiculous. Like a lot of other things, there’s a huge corporate influence that has made everybody go crazy and it’s sort of like – guns kill a lot of people in this country; so do drunk drivers. Drunk drivers aren’t drunk on air, they’re drunk on alcohol. There’s some level where you have to wonder like: What is going on in our culture where alcohol is so ubiquitous where you can’t.. people talk about alcohol like ‘oh look, a new bar opened,’ and they review beer and it’s like an ongoing thing and at some point you have to wonder why/ how this is so pervasive in our societies and you realize it’s because there is a huge amount of money involved. It’s not that I think or feel somebody can’t go buy a drink or own a gun for that matter and I don’t believe that but I do think that there’s a certain point where you have to think what kind of world we’re in when the sort of sheer profit mode ends up influencing society in a way that ends up in so much carnage.
Same with the health care system. The health care situation here in the United States is appalling [with] the damage it does to people. The fact that it’s so expensive that it influences people to be resistant about taking care of themselves. You know, scare people away from the doctor and then they’ve have problems which multiply because they go unchecked and eventually the great irony of this of course is by the time a poor person, whatever their health issue is, [gets the] healthcare they need, their medical situation has fully blown up. At this point they have to go into the hospital to pay for it, with either Medicare or Medicade. So at that point, the government is paying for it, so essentially it is universal healthcare. The great irony of it is that these three things, that’s ultimately the reason that this country cannot get its mind around something as clear as taking care of each other is because the profit involved is too great. When President Obama reformed healthcare, the people who wrote that reform were working for the insurance companies… So what does that tell you?
But what would I do about guns? If it was me, I would just make them disappear! That’s just me but I can’t do that. I don’t like guns, I don’t have guns, and I don’t need ’em.
It is well-known that you’re best friends with Henry Rollins, since you two grew up together in downtown Washington. Could you describe to me what it was like first meeting him, and how besides similar musical interests, that you’ve kept that interesting relationship with him all these years?
When I first met Henry Rollins, I thought he was a pretty cool kid with a snake, a BB gun and a bunch of cool records. I don’t really know how we’ve been friends for all these years. We have a really shared experience with one another. In 1978 Henry and I took a Greyhound bus together, I was sixteen and he was 17. We took a Greyhound bus to California to go skateboarding together, and then we took the bus all the way back. That was about 7-8 days on a fuckin’ bus and we just rolled. It’s not like we always got along. We certainly had some tough patches over the years you know, but at the end of the day we sort of signed onto one another as family.
When the Riot Grrrl Movement that started happening in the early to mid-nineties, what were your thoughts on it, and what are your thoughts on such a movement happening now?
I knew the people in the beginning of the movement. I knew the woman who coined the phrase, Kathleen Hanna, she’s a really intelligent woman and I was around for that and I thought it was fascinating and pretty exciting. Like a lot of things though, it got complicated.
You’re known as an avid collector, or shall we say, a preserver, so what are your thoughts on digitizing media, that in the not so distant future could be extinct, in physical form?
I don’t really care about the music industry (laughs). What I care about is music and I prefer vinyl records, but that’s what I cut my teeth on. I like listening to records, I have a relationship with listening to music on records. But with that said, I also listen to music on cassette, CD, and computer. If you ask me, I prefer to listen to music on records, that’s just what I’m used to. Music defies formats. Music is beyond formats. Formats are a part of the industry, the music industry, again, something that has enjoyed a monopoly for more than a hundred years so whatever happened in terms of format, it didn’t make much of a difference to me. As I own a record label, it could possibly knock me out of commission because of people not wanting to buy records anymore. Conversely with people and all these digital downloads, it’s weird you know, our bank accounts go up because iTunes wired money into it. We don’t do anything at all. At least when you own a record label you make records; you get them manufactured, you get them housed, you count them, pack them, and ship them. You do all that stuff and there’s work and you have a tactile relationship with what you’re doing. But with the digital thing, it’s like: you do it one time, and then for you know, in theory at least, from now on. Every time someone downloads something, the numbers in our bank account and website go up. They just go up and we don’t do anything. There’s no way to count them. iTunes could be putting four cents or four million dollars into our accounts and we have no way of proving how many records we’ve sold one way or the other. How do you count a download? How do you hold one? You don’t.
As far as formats go; some people listen to music on cassettes, while others on records. To me, I don’t really care. I’m not really a formatist. It’s just what people want. I assume it will take another form when it’s all said and done.
What are your thoughts in regards to the education system today, as opposed to when you were attending school?
It seems to me, I have a five-year old son, and he’s in Kindergarten. So I’ve been engaging in school for the first time in…I don’t know I haven’t been in school since I was 18. I graduated and never went back to school, so I haven’t dealt with schools until now. So I’m in kindergarten and I’m really seeing how the public school system in Washington works and I’m really stunned to see how much of the privatization of it has occurred with the financial district.
In terms of what they’re being taught, it’s a concern but ultimately for me, is that children have an opportunity to spend time with, who they wouldn’t have spent time with, ever again, if it weren’t for this sort of structure with public schools. The thing with public schools is that, with private schools, you’ve got a commonality; a Christian or Jewish school, or Quaker school, or you’re just rich you know?
Basically, private schools reinforce a bias. But in public schools, you’ve got a diverse group of people; both rich and poor, black and white, people that would never spend time together forever, and never will again really. But they’re a certain age and they live in a certain area and I think there is something really beautiful about that and something super instructional. It helps people understand what it’s like to be alive, because that’s life! We live in a world. Think of our world as a school: Rich and the poor, and the blacks and the whites, and every other diverse group and we all have to live together and I think that’s good training. I’m not exactly knocked out by all the weird, voodoo-y educational scheme, but I think it’s great that my son is attending school and he’s engaging with all these other little kids.”
What would some advice you would give to an aspiring writer, musician, or journalist starting off in this era of creativity?
As a journalist, I would encourage you to not ask questions about how things feel. Those questions are really difficult to answer and I think that they ultimately usually provoke clichés, so my advice to you would be to really think about questions that are really coming from a fresh perspective. Ask fewer questions about people’s feelings and more about what they’re thinking. People often ask: how does it feel to be the Godfather of Hardcore music? And I’m like “I don’t fuckin’ know, ya know? I don’t know. Or they’ll ask: How does it feel to wake up and be you? I just wake up and be me, I don’t know. My advice to a journalist is to think hard of questions that don’t inspire cliché answers, because we’ve all read those before.
In terms of what advice I’d give to anybody, whether it be a journalist, musician or anybody else is, my suggestion to them is general, but it’s worth considering. [The suggestion] is: whatever a person decides to do, I would think that he or she should really love it and love the time they spend doing it, because that way if there comes a time in their field where they feel as if they haven’t achieved whatever they think is success then at least they would’ve spent their time doing something they loved, which most people I think don’t do that. Most people are speculating. They’re doing things they don’t want to do and thinking that if they continue that job, that they will get somewhere successful, wherever that is, and then all the while doing this, they’re unhappy. Life is fleeting, so you might as well fucking love what it is that you’re doing.”
What are some bands that you’re listening to at the moment, and do you have any questions for me?
I don’t have any questions for you, but my grandmother, she was a journalist in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s and she would counsel married couples going through a marriage crisis and I’ve been finding these boxes of tapes and trying to organizing them. I’ve been recently listening to these people talk about their lives; it’s been pretty damn interesting!
Thank you so much for your time Ian; it was wonderful talking with you.
Thank you. Good luck my friend, have fun transcribing it!