In the latest issue of one small seed magazine, issue 25 – “The Bigger Picture” Issue – we feature an interview with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye To follow is an a longer version out of what became a two-hour interview with Ian.
Fugazi – ‘I’m so Tired’
Fugazi – ‘Waiting Room’
Ian MacKaye is somewhat of a ‘Doctor in punk rock’, the progenitor of the calculated use of sound to extend this aspect of punk culture. Founder and still-active owner of Dischord Records Ian is a musician himself and has earned respect through influential hardcore punk acts such as Minor Threat and Fugazi. He now forms half of indie punk duo The Evens with former The Wamers’ drummer and wife, Amy Farina.
It’s an enormous project. It’s something I’ve been working on for over two years now. It’s involved having to catalogue all the tapes, make a database, build a website, digitize all the tapes, and edit all the tapes. We started out with over 850 recordings. We now have about 1200 different recordings of different shows that we have documented, so it’s a pretty enormous project. Maybe on a scale too large.
What prompted you to undertake such an ambitious project?
It struck me as an interesting way to turnover these documents, these tapes that have been sitting in my archive closet here at the Dischord house. Why do we have these tapes? What’s the point of them? Are they just going to sit there until they meet some calamity? Will a fire take them or will they just rot?
Will my son have to figure out what the fuck to do with all these tapes? So it was just clear to me; let’s just do this. Let’s create an archive online for people – if they’re curious about hearing the band’s sonic trajectory, then why not?
I am a fan of music, I am interested in the way people have worked and progressed and it’s something that I think people who are fans of the band would be quite interested in. It’s a huge project and it’s something that’s a little too consuming at the moment. But that’s the way I work. I do something to the point where I’m finished with them and then I’ll do something else.
Do you have any comments about the whole SOPA issue?
The United States Government is essentially a corporate front and it has been so forever.
And the Lobbyists that are most effective in getting congress to pass laws are largely of the money variety and these companies, these giant corporations, have part of their quiver, these music labels. And they’re trying to come up with new ways of creating new revenue for themselves. They don’t give a fuck about anybody else. In other words, they’ll create these new structures to make sure there’s more money for them regardless of who gets caught in the net. It’s a little bit like tuna fish or sweeping up all the sharks and the dolphins. It’s just their greed. I think that since the internet and computers have become these vessels of communication and in many ways I really think the public domain. It feels to me like people should be able to operate how they want to operate as long as they’re not injuring other people.
So, I think that the whole SOPA thing is a bunch of bullshit.
Do you vote at all?
Well I live in Washington DC and we don’t have representation. Our votes are largely ceremonial. Furthermore, Washington DC is by far a democratic city. Having said that, I do vote every four years. My approach is pretty straight forward. I think whoever becomes president of this country, this country deserves. But the rest of the world does not deserve this president. However the rest of the world had no say in who got to take office of the United States. How does the American policy impact the rest of the world?
It seems to me the most profound habitual effect of the American policy is that it manifests in war. It manifests in the murdering of people in other countries by our machines, our weapons, and our people.
So my voting record is always vote for the person who is a potential candidate to be the person who is least likely to go to war. I think that is the best I can do. And in terms of a deeply unethical situation, I have to find someone who will murder less people in other parts of the world.
A part of society that is making enough noise that the media picks up on it? I think in that case it has already had an effect on society. The fact that you’re in South Africa and you’re asking me about it clearly means that the media has already picked up on it. So I’m assuming that you read about it somewhere, right? Then I would say that the media clearly embraced it. It also energized a lot of people. I think it’s already had an effect on politics and it will continue to. The thing about protest is that it’s an exercise. And you have to exercise your entire life. It’s not like you go out and protest and then, problem solved. It’s not that way. In my mind, there will forever be things to address. It’s a really important part of someone’s life to take a position that we want to think about what’s going on, because if you just leave power to run its own affairs, it’s going to step on people. Always. It’s just the nature of it. Surely you have heard the term we have, ’power corrupts’? It’s just that power corrupts absolutely. It’s just a trueism.
I was raised to question the government. Not because I’m anti-government. It’s because if you don’t question them then they become they fascistic in their own ways.
They just do whatever they damn well please. And because the government, as I said earlier, acts largely on the behalf of the people with the most money, imagine the things that they’re going to be doing? Poor people don’t get legislation, they get legislated. You follow? I’m in support of people who always question American policies. It seems so obvious, why wouldn’t somebody sign that?
So what do you think is next? What do you think will happen after the Occupy Movement?
Oh, I don’t know. I know that there are meetings going on. I don’t think about the future. I don’t like to speculate about these sorts of things. My impression is that the people that were involved with all of that, they were really energized by all of it. They learnt a lot about organizing. And it’s not like once they cleared the park, everyone’s minds went blank. And they were saying, ‘Let’s go back to work, let’s go back to our video games.’ I think that this was serious. And we’ll see other manifestations of this sort of thing.
You’ve mentioned before that if people don’t support the arts they risk not ever having any new music again. Is this something that you worry about with running Dischord?
No. What I said was that if people want everything for free, they should be prepared to only have old music. If you can’t help pay for the music, then how could artists afford to make the music? I don’t think that’s really going to happen. I’m just pointing out to a certain part of society. And they are a minority that insists on not having to pay for anything. They’re just spoiled children, like people who are not thinking well. And I just want to give them a way to think about the situation and to realize that by supporting the arts would be to their benefit because then you actually make it possible to create new things. And art is. On the face of it people just think that it’s just a silly pass time, but art is real and it plays a profound role in our societies. In terms of the label, I don’t worry about these things at all. People support the label or they don’t. If they don’t, then we shut down. That’s alright. It’s been 30 years. I didn’t even want a record label, honestly. I just wanted to document the music I was making. And the actual music business is disgusting. If people are like, ’We’re done with you.’ I’m like, ‘good, I’ll do something else now.’
Can you explain the reason why you guys decided not to ever sell any merchandise or make any music videos?
I can sum it up in one sentence – we are a band and we play music. That was our idea, the rest of it is just this carnival surrounding the music business.
Are you recording any new acts for the Dischord catalogue or are you focusing on previous records you guys have put out?
I think at the time the label was created, it was to document what was going on in Washington DC – we felt connected to our community, but a lot of people have stopped playing music, or moved on, or whatever, so its really quiet on that front. There are a few still making some music but they do it really slowly, there’s not a lot of new stuff going on right now. This is typical, I think, with a label that has been around for many years. Dischord is 30 years old in December, but at this point I am starting to realize that’s my job [to document what was going on in DC]
How have you managed to keep Dischord afloat for so long?
We did the work with what was in front of us, and we did not pretend that we knew what was going to happen in 10 years. Also we were not expansionists… a lot of people say you’ve gt to grow – there is this idea that if you don’t grow a business you will die. I don’t agree with that, you know, if you are a baker and you make this nutritious wholesome loaf of bread, and people like it, why can’t you just do that? Why do you have to start making marshmallows and burritos? Why can you just make the bread? And keep on making it.
You once quoted in a previous interview that ‘in the 1970s when I was a kid, I felt like I was being ridiculed for being straight-edge.‘ Do you still feel as if you are being reduced for being straight-edge?
Yes! I mean I am 50 years old and people still ask me about it as if it’s some weird thing. Many people still think I am a fundamentalist. I still pretty regularly get calls from drunk girls in the morning, ’I am fucking drunk dude.’
For me, I don’t take personal offence; my worry is it reveals a deep pathology in our society, you know, that we feel it is somehow necessary or appropriate to attack people for being otherley. In my mind people think of the way I live as a lifestyle, like that’s your lifestyle. It’s not a fucking lifestyle, it is life. Last time I checked when we are born we are not using anything, we are not doing anything, we are perfect. I understand there are exceptions, like if there mothers were drinking or using drugs.
My point is, by and large, that when we are born what is necessary is food and water and air? I would just say I am being normal – its celestial to the fucking lifestyle. But the thing is I am not judgmental of people – a lot of people I love engage in all certain things I don’t do.
I have known drugs since I was a baby. I am not trying to create a perfect world, I am just trying to live my life.
What about pharmaceutical drugs? Is this age of Ritalin, Prozak – of consumption – perhaps a result of living in such a demanding, fast-paced lifestyle and a constant effort to succeed?
Yeah I would agree with you, what we have experienced in the last 10 – 20 years is an incredible rise in terms of the power of pharmaceutical companies, and people are being prescribed so many chemicals now it’s crazy, to me. I mean I am a guy that won’t take an aspirin to break a fever, I don’t even take vitamins. Food, water, air and fucking – that’s pretty much the four things that we need to keep this show going, everything else is by choice. In every other aspect of society – people choose that, these four things there is not choice. I feel like what happened is people became over medicated, and its an enormous profit centre I am no talking conspiracy theory, I am being straight up, I don’t think its always wrong to take medicine, I think people have grown to accept it…
A profitable acceptance
We should be suspicious of the companies that are play upon us, subconsciously playing with our insecurities. Playing upon our fears! Cause that is a big deal. They make a business, a lot of fucking money. I think that some of these things if not most of them are for the corporate good. I mean I feel you have to suspect a corporation an industry that is putting peoples heath so far behind their own pocket book. I think if you are being forced to pay for something or there is money being generated, its your job to look at it for sure
You get conditioned to it…
Right and like I said: Take invitatory to examine the things [you] have and [you] believe and to make sure they make sense when you step back. Change the source of the light and see if it is what it is cause a lot of the times its not, and we have just grown accustomed to it.
What are your simple truths?
Ian: well I think I have addressed that; air water food and fucking