Features | Interviews

Ian MacKaye

By Peter Hepburn | 1 October 2004

Over the course of the last two and a half decades there have been few figures more important in the development of rock than Ian MacKaye. From his work with Minor Threat and Fugazi to his position as the founder and manager of the legendary Dischord Records, MacKaye has more than carved out his niche in the pantheon of punk rock.

So far this year, among a slew of minor releases, Dischord has put out two excellent punk albums: Black Eyes Cough, a personal favorite, and Q and not U’s brand new Power. MacKaye helped to produce both of these albums, and the label’s next major release will most likely be MacKaye’s own debut album with the Evens, a project he has undertaken with his long-time girlfriend.

MacKaye agreed to meet with me and talk about music, politics, and Washington DC.

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CMG's Peter Hepburn: How important has the setting of the district been for you?

Ian MacKaye: Well, on the one hand, it’s everything. I was born here and raised here so obviously it’s played an enormous role. I can’t really compare it to anything else—I’ve only been here. What I can tell you is that growing up in Washington—I was born in 1962 so in the '70s—this city was going through the beginnings of the home rule issue. I also went to all public schools here, and something you learned about public schools in Washington DC in the '70s you just learn how to wait in line. Basically you have bureaucracy in its rawest form, and you essentially learn that you should never ask for permission because the answer is always “no.” That’s how bureaucrats work essentially; they don’t want to deal with it because they have their little piece and they don’t want anybody to mess with their piece. They just want to do their piece and get out of there. Living in a town where you learn these kind of lessons, it just became clear to us that if we wanted to get anything done we had to do it ourselves without asking permission. We didn’t ask for help putting on shows, we didn’t ask for help putting out records, we did it ourselves. That was it. To that degree I think the culture here has had a great effect on our interest in self-definition.

In terms of it being sort of a political city, where did you grow up?

CMG: Minneapolis.

MacKaye: Okay, Minneapolis, I’m trying to think what the economy there is like. Lot of medical stuff. But that’s sort of just the factory in town, and that’s how I think of the government. I’m a Washingtonian. I’m a fifth generation Washingtonian. The government, that’s the federal city, and them people they’re just coming and going; that’s the business. For those of us that live here, we just have to put up with them like anything else. I have a cynicism about the government to some degree, but I think I’m pretty idealistic about the ability to think about things and actually do things.

CMG: Where did you grow up in the District?

MacKaye: Right here [the very un-punk rock DC neighborhood of Burleith]. I was born at GW hospital and we had a house on Beecher street, just around the corner.

CMG: As a Georgetown student I’m always interested to hear the rumor that you saw your first show on campus. Any truth to that?

MacKaye: Yeah, at Hall of Nations. I saw the Cramps there in January of 1979. One of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to in my life. I used to spend a lot of time at Georgetown.

CMG: What was the punk music scene like in that period of the late 70’s/early 80’s?

MacKaye: Washington had an underground punk/new wave scene, but it was largely people that were looking to New York or London for fashion sense. It seemed more like people who were interested in copping a look. We were teenagers and we just wanted to play music. We had heard about punk rock, and what we got from punk rock was the idea of being able to create our own thing. Again, not waiting for anyone’s permission.

There was no music scene in Washington, really, that’s my answer. What’s interesting about this is that in the late '70s Washington just had no presence on the underground music map. People did not talk about Washington at all. In fact I was told that to be a punk rocker I had to move to New York, which is of course absurd. The early Dischord records, we used to put a slogan, “putting DC on the map,” on there, which was tongue in cheek of course. Obviously, Washington DC, of any western city, on any map in the world is going to show up. Our sense was that we were going to create something here in Washington on the musical map. A lot of people now would think of course Washington has a musical scene, but that was not always the case. Washington was a place you might stop. If you were playing in New York you might come down and play a show here, maybe.

CMG: Why did you decide to set up Dischord Records?

MacKaye: I was in this band called the Teen Idles, and we played for about a year. We had recorded a tape, and we had saved all the money we had made from our gigs. We played maybe 30, 40 shows. We had about $800 in a cigar box and it was decided when we broke up, well, we could either just make cassette copies for ourselves and take $200 each, or we could take the $800 and the tape and make a record. We weren’t really thinking we would make our money back, we just wanted to document something that was important to us, because it was important to us. That’s really the point. The Teen Idles was extremely important to us, and it was important to our friends, and to make essentially a record of what we had done. It took us three or four months to figure out how to make a record, ‘cause we had never done anything like that. We just asked for phone numbers and started doing it. And in that time another band [the legendary Minor Threat] started to form and Henry Rollins formed S.O.A. There was all these bands that were coming up and we decided that in the event that we were actually able to sell these records, we’ll use that money to put out our friends’ records. That has really been the mission, the idea being that we would stay focused on D.C., just put out D.C.-area music.

CMG: A lot has been made of the Dischord model, characterized by cheap shows and $10 CDs. How much of this was a reflection of your views on the ownership of music and how much is a reaction to the music industry?

MacKaye: I’d say none of it’s a reaction to the music industry. I don’t give a damn about the music industry. We don’t have to deal with them, we’re not a part of them. If anything, I did it because I hate the music industry, I didn’t want anything to do with it. So it wasn’t a reaction in the sense of, “oh, they do this wrong or that wrong,” or “I’m gonna do it right,” but more “how should it be done?” In other words, if I was to open a restaurant, well clearly it would be vegetarian; it would be affordable, nutritious, and thoughtful. I’d be thinking about creating an environment where people actually want to come and where they could get food that’s actually good for them. If I was to do that, would you ask me am I starting it in reaction to McDonald’s? No. All I’m trying to do is create something that seems good.

The record industry, it’s disgusting. In this city there is no music industry really to speak of, so if you want to do it, you had better love it, and you better hope not to really make any dough out of the deal. If there’s no money to be made, and you’re just doing it ‘cause you love it, then approach it with some creativity. Make it interesting.

CMG: Were there any labels that you used as sort of an inspiration, or have you seen any that have taken on the Dischord model?

MacKaye: Sure. Aesthetically there’s a label called Dangerhouse in Los Angeles that we thought was really an incredible label. I don’t know about their business practices, but the way things looked—I thought they were a very interesting label. They only put out about a dozen records.

In terms of the politics of it, it just seemed fair. Once we figured out that it costs $1, maybe $2 to put out a vinyl record it seemed fair enough to sell it for $5. Plastic CDs, jewel cases and artwork cost maybe 40 cents a piece, so how does it make sense that they are $19.95 list price? It’s just insane. Those are obviously not the only expenditures that go into it, but it’s something to think about. I think one of the reasons major labels feel threatened by digital downloading is primarily because they curry no favor with people. They have abused the public, so the public is like, “fuck you. I don’t care, I’m gonna take it for free.” I think in our case people want us to survive as a label and they are happy to support us. We charge $10 for a CD that cost us probably $1, cause we don’t have the same kind of resources as a major label. At the end of the day I think it seems like a fair enough trade. I’m not thinking of it as how I can glean every last fucking penny off a consumer, which is essentially what a lot of the labels do.

CMG: How did you develop the contract system, or rather lack thereof, for Dischord?

MacKaye: Well, we were working with friends. And the whole point of keeping it local is that I want to be able to sit down with people. Also, I’m not looking for a contractual obligation with people. I want them to do a record with us because they want to. Most businesses in America are thinking about what the market will bear, they’re expansionist. I don’t believe in any of that—I actually think it’s voodoo. I think it’s possible to create something, make it good, be thoughtful about it, be generous, not be abusive and people will be happy to buy it. It’s so bizarre to me, the way a lot of the labels operate.

When you get contracts involved, you obviously get lawyers involved, and that immediately jacks everything up. It creates an overhead that makes everything exponential. Dischord has never used contracts, we’ve never had lawyers. It’s not rocket science. If you work with friends, people you trust, then you’re alright. Lawyers come in when there’s an argument about money. If it gets to the point where it goes to court, I’d just as soon give the people the money. I’m just never going to go to court.

From the very beginning of the label we were told time and again that the way we were approaching the business was unrealistic, idealistic and ultimately unworkable. They said it couldn’t work and that it wouldn’t. Obviously, it fucking worked. Nobody is massively rich, but we’re still operating, working, involved, connected. At what point does it become a workable model? Two decades? Is that enough time?

CMG: How many copies does the average Dischord release sell?

MacKaye: Some records only sell three or four thousand, which is fine. Black Eyes will probably sell 15,000. Q & Not U will sell 25-30 thousand, Jawbox sold like 40,000. The next step up really is Minor Threat and Fugazi. Our best selling records, Minor Threat’s Discography and Fugazi’s Repeater, we’re talking half a million records

CMG: As a label head and musician, what is your position on file sharing?

MacKaye: I don’t mind it, doesn’t bother me. I like people to support the label, but as a musician, when I write a song I want it to be heard. So if you ask me would I rather have 200 people listening to that song or $200, I would take the 200 people.

I don’t think it’s nearly as dire as the major labels do. Anytime any corporation or the government starts talking about inflation or they start laying people off, it’s not actually for what is happening, but based on what they speculate will happen. They’re always looking ahead. The uproar over file-sharing, it really wasn’t damaging the major labels as much as they’re saying. They’re just predicting that if they don’t say something now it’s gonna get them later on. I say good riddance. If Dischord has to go as part of it, if it means destroying major labels, then I’m fine with that.

The creation of the record created a consumable. At that point, for the first time, really in the history of music, there was something to sell. I understand you could sell sheet music, you could sell piano rolls, but the idea of owning music as a consumable item had not really happened before. The record labels have had over a hundred years of a monopoly on selling music and they’ve twisted and perverted music to their ends because they want to make money. They’ve had a good run, and if they lose out, tough shit.

CMG: In this election year we’re seeing plenty of bands entering the political arena. What do you think the role of the musician should be in the political process?

MacKaye: I don’t think a musician can be so simply defined. If there are people who play music that feel concerned about the election process in this country, then they should use their music to express their concerns. Musicians are people. There’s sort of a tendency to excuse musicians from serious political conversation because they’re entertainers. I have two things to say about that. First, people should always speak up about things they are concerned about. I think that in terms of the way musicians are perceived, this is a result of the way of years and years and years of the industry sort of cheapening music. I think music is sacred. The record industry, by selling music in such huge numbers, has lowered the value of music. It’s like the lightbulb—if you make the filament too thick it’s not going to burn out. If you make a record that is too good, then people aren’t going to buy a record in three days. So you make it disposable. Second, I’ve often heard about musicians saying “what do they know about politics. They’re just entertainers.” What the fuck do the people in the White House know about politics? They’re just business people. It’s astonishing to me that somehow musicians are excused from having a serious political voice where these corporate CEO dudes are somehow given the go-ahead.

Do I think that people should vote? Of course I do. Do I think that as many people should vote as can? Of course I do. In fact, I think everyone should have to vote. If everyone had to vote we would have dramatically different kinds of results in terms of who’s being elected.

Let me tell you a little about my political position when it comes to the President of the United States. I have voted since 1980 every four years. It occurred to me fairly early on that when George Bush was elected, that’s what America deserves. If the people in this country allow themselves to be shaped and formed. Whoever’s in office, that’s what the country deserves. The people in this country allowed it to happen. If it was done illegally, we allowed it to stand. We deserve the unpleasantness we have allowed to take office. However, the world does not deserve it. The world did not have a vote on this. In what form do you think the United States’ government has the most effect on other countries?

CMG: War?

MacKaye: Exactly, war. Throwing exploding pieces of metal into other human beings. That is the most direct affront to other countries. They didn’t vote for Bush and yet this country, under Bush, has gone to war and is blowing up people around the world. My vote is always for the person who is least likely to take this country to war. In this particular election we know George Bush will go to war, so I will vote for Kerry.

CMG: You are more of a Kerry supporter than a Nader supporter?

MacKaye: No, I’m more of a Nader supporter, but I’ll probably vote for Kerry because I’m very interested in getting somebody who will blow up other human beings out of office. I actually think Nader is a fascinating person. I voted for him in 2000. I have no regrets about it. I have friends who are like, “how could you?” I know how I could. I wrote Nader down, that’s how I did it. Do I think I put Bush in office? No. I know America did.

CMG: Who would you say are the major influences on your musical style?

MacKaye: That’s pretty hard to say. When I was a kid I listened to Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and Janis Joplin. In the '70s I was a huge Ted Nugent fan. In the '70s I actually thought of Nugent as an animal rights guy because at that time the everyone ate meat, you just didn’t even think about it. Anyone who didn’t eat meat was considered a freak and the meat we ate just came in these little packages. I read this interview with Nugent and he was saying “I don’t eat meat from packages and if I eat meat it’s the meat I’m gonna kill.” Now I thought that seemed fair enough. I had in my mind that he was a real animal rights sort of guy. He and I are politically eons apart but me and Rollins used to go see him play. We liked him quite a bit.

When I got into punk rock, Bad Brains were the greatest band of all time. Bad Brains in 1980 was in my mind the greatest band that ever was. So I listened to all sort of punk rock stuff, I still listen to punk rock. I also listen to Nina Simone, Al Green, Fela Kuti. What I look for in music, I want to hear music that’s coming from people where I get the impression they don’t have a choice in the matter; they’ve got to make the music.

CMG: What are some of your all-time favorite albums?

MacKaye: Well obviously Bad Brains. Ramones actually. That’s why people are still talking about the Ramones thirty years later. I mean think about New Kids on the Block. How many records did they sell? Millions and millions. What cultural impact did they have? Zero. But the Ramones? Those first two or three albums live on and on and on. As for other records: obviously Hendrix, old Beatles, Black Flag or even something like Lungfish.

The Ramones, even if they wanted to get rich, they obviously just loved their music. In fact Johnny Ramone saw Fugazi play once, and I had met him once or twice, and he said, “Eh. Good energy but no shtick.” Now obviously, that’s kind of a pan, but it felt like an incredible compliment. The fact that he even saw the band made me happy. Now we’re playing to packed rooms and he knows, but what I hear from him is that he doesn’t give a damn about how many people were there, he’s interested in the shtick, what we were presenting.

CMG: What have you been listening to lately?

MacKaye: I listen to a lot of DC stuff. This band the Beauty Pill, I quite like them. It’s funny in a way. There was a period of time when I would listen to brand new records and I would just be blown away by them, and that happens less for me now. I don’t know if it’s necessarily because people aren’t making good music, but I think it may have more to do with that it’s a different conversation. My aesthetic is quite different than other peoples’ aesthetic.

CMG: When can we expect the Evens record?

MacKaye: Well, we just finished working on the record. We’re in the midst of getting the artwork together. This summer we’ve been laying low. My mom died and I’ve been real busy with family stuff. We’re going to Europe in November and we’re hoping the record will come out in January.

CMG: And as far as the Fugazi hiatus goes?

MacKaye: It’s impossible to say. We reached that point where it was impossible to tour because of kids, and everyone was like let’s just call it for now. But basically Fugazi, the deal with each other is if anybody quits the band, the band breaks up. No one is replaceable. I would love it if something happened down the road where peoples’ lives aligned and we were able to spend time together. I think the four of us make really interesting music and I love those guys.