Interview with Ian MacKaye
Ian MacKaye founded Dischord Records as a teenager in 1980. The label has released more than 160 albums over the last 25 years. Ian has been a member of Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi and The Evens. The creation of Rock Proper was inspired in part by Ian’s unique ways of bringing people and music together.
Casey Meehan: You’ve held many different positions in the music industry and have seen it from many angles, what insights have you gleaned from your different experiences?
Ian MacKaye:This kind of question is difficult because I’m only one person with one view. My perspective is that in life, there is goodness, good ideas and good people, and there are bad ideas and bad people. Not evil, I don’t believe in evil, but people who are misguided and misguiding. On top of that, if you take art and commerce and put them together, it can be a really ugly collision. And generally, commerce is going to win. Because you can’t really eat a song.
I’m not an expansionist; I’m not interested in owning everything. I just wasn’t raised that way. From my point of view, I just want to be able to play music and live life in a way that feels right to me. I’ve worked in a record store, I own a label, I’ve been in a band, I’ve put on shows, I’ve done production for shows, I’ve been in catering. People have asked me “What are you going to do in 5 years?” and the truth is, I don’t know. People have told me, “You have to have a plan” and I ask them “Why?” They never have a good reason why you should always have a plan. Usually what I find is that there are an awful lot of things people do that are unnecessary.
I remember when I started playing in bands in high school and people said to me, “You can’t be in a band here in Washington you have to move to New York” and “You can’t write your own songs, what cover songs are you going to play?” We’d tell them that we don’t play cover songs and were told, “You can’t do that.” Essentially, I have found that the record industry, like the rest of our American society, is filled with people who think you can’t do things because they haven’t bothered to try. If someone tells me something can’t be done, and I can’t think of a good reason why, then I’m gonna fucking try to do it.
I think of these things in terms of life insights. I am not really in the record business. Sure, I sell records but the actual “Record Business” is pretty loathsome. They are just selling records; I am involved with the connection between people and music.
CM: In the creation of our website (RockProper.com) we discussed the tricky relationship between art and commerce a ton. Can you expand on your thoughts regarding this relationship?
IM:Let me put it this way, many people talk about “touring behind the record.” In my mind you should put out records to support the tour, not the other way around. If you are “touring to support a record” you’re making the consumable product the apex of the work. I think the music or the gig is the most important, not the piece of plastic. That’s one illustration of the way the record industry has turned things inside out. When viewed in this way, suddenly the music belongs to the industry.
It’s not that I think you shouldn’t make money, the idea is that the music is the point, and the business is just the practical application. We need to eat, we need to live, we need to have healthcare. People ask me “How do you make a living?” I am actually not interested in making a living, I am interested in living. Look, I sell records, I have been doing it for a long time. I like to sell records, I like to buy records, I like to make records, I like to play shows, I like to get paid to play shows, it’s not mandatory I don’t have to get paid, I do some benefit stuff. For instance, if [The Evens] are putting on a show and we’ve been driving all day and we arrive in a place and there are some people gathered to see us, I don’t think of this as a payday… I think of it as a group of people gathering to collectively make this go. In return, music is the point of gathering. It gives people a sense of connection and that was the point to begin with!
Don’t forget that music is the form of communication that predates language.
To follow up on this, The Evens don’t play rock clubs, we play alternative spaces with our own PA and our own lights. We play at 8 o’clock, not at midnight after four bands. Our idea is to try to get people back into the music and out of the traditional structure. Clubs seem to set the tone of the event. For instance you are in a band, where do you live?
IM: So you know there are different clubs in town, there are some places that are more like the frat joint and others that may be more of the arty places, these structures actually have a strong effect on the event.
Our idea is to wrestle music back away from the clubs because they have an awful lot of control and set a certain cadence for any event. Plus, they are all bars. So, it is not the music necessarily, that people are going for. It’s certainly not the music that the clubs are interested in necessarily; the clubs have to make money and they don’t make money on the music. They make money on the bar. Also, I have never played a show that was not all ages, I think over 21 shows are insane. When did you start liking music?
CM: I was about 12 or 13 when I went to my first show, my brother had to sneak me in…
IM: So at that time, you had nine years before you could legally see the show. That’s just fucking ridiculous.
CM: If you were an unknown musician today, how would you go about “making it go”? Have you given this any thought?
IM: First off, I am a known musician on some levels, on other levels I am an extremely unknown musician. For 99.9% of the population of the world I will never even be a speck on the radar. I live in Washington DC where many would think I would be a fairly well-known dude but, in fact, I am rather invisible. When I tell people that I am in a band called The Evens, they look at me and they have no idea and that’s fine, that’s alright.
Look at it this way, Fugazi is a fairly well known band, we’ve sold an awful lot of records. Our best selling record has sold a little over a half million records. But that is just a fraction of the US population. It’s a big fucking world, we are still largely invisible.
To answer your question, after 30 years of experience, it’s hard for me to think about starting out today. However, I believe that the landscape is no less dire than when I started playing. At that time in DC, you had to be a cover band playing three nights a week, and if you were a punk you were just laughed at. We had to do our own thing, put on our own shows, and build our community. We wrote songs that moved us, and ultimately seemed to move our friends and other people around us.
To answer your question, if I had to do it all over today, I would do it the way that I am doing it. I would look at the landscape and try to come up with a creative response to get people connected through music.
My one piece of advice, always, is write a good fucking song. All these ways of getting the word out, various internet sites, etc are less important, far less important than what is obvious. Write music that people are moved by. You can have the best promotion in the world but if you don’t have any music, what the fuck are you? What kind of band are you?
CM: Any advice on writing a good song?
IM:I don’t have the formula for a good song, I don’t believe in that. I would guess that if you are connected to the world you live in, and you write music that is responsive to it, then people will connect to that. But I really don’t know, there really isn’t a simple answer to this.
CM: In past interviews, you have mentioned how younger musicians who are learning to play their instruments may be trying to emulate a style or another musician but actually they are creating something brand new. Do you have any routines or rituals that help you keep
your creative process fresh?
IM: No, I don’t have any rituals. When I feel like playing guitar, I pick it up. I don’t really practice guitar, I never took any guitar lessons, I’m self taught. I just beat on it till something interesting comes out.
It’s frustrating for me because I always want to write a great song, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can write a great song. In my mind I have these ideas, I feel like I have a great song in my mind but when I pick up the guitar it becomes a separate, muscular activity. I just play until it starts to make sense. I can’t conceptualize it all in my brain, I know some musicians that can and that is amazing, I am not one of them. I just have to play.
CM: Are there conditions that you have noticed over the past years that have fostered good songs?
IM: Yeah, less fucking distraction frankly. It’s rare that I have 2 or 3 hours where I have nothing going on. I like to write when I can just sit for awhile, with no phones and no computer and get to that place where you start working on something and you can’t stop. I have a 8-track cassette recorder that I demo on but often I don’t want to turn it on because I know that if I do, I will look up and it will be four hours later, and I don’t often have the four hours to spare.
It’s interesting when you think about the structure of our society, free time is just not something that we are afforded. Less now than ever before. There is just no time. Especially with this incessant communication, where 5 emails have to be written where one phone call would do. It starts to drive me crazy. Don’t forget, I am in The Evens, but there is still a lot of Fugazi business and Minor Threat business all the time, I am basically a custodian for those bands. I also have the record label and other things in my life that I have to look after and do. There’s a lot of shit going on at all times. I like my life fine, it’s just jam packed, that’s all.
I don’t know how old you are but I’m forty-seven, and when I was a kid, I’m not being sentimental I just want to share some knowledge, when I was a kid, on Sundays everything was closed except the pharmacy and the supermarket. The bookstore and the bank and everything was closed. On one hand, it was inconvenient but on the other hand, it forced you to have some time when you weren’t doing anything.
Just cause you can do your banking at 4 in the morning, why should you bank at 4 in the morning? That’s craziness. People should think about this idea of convenience because convenience comes at a very high price. It is usually more convenient for the business than the consumer.
Shopping online can also be so time consuming, there is always some link that will take you down the rabbit hole. No matter what. You might be looking for a hard drive or you might be looking for some book but, no matter what, you are going to wind up looking at a video of some kid with shit coming out of his ears.
That’s one reason I don’t record on a computer. I know that those digital recording setups are probably more agile than, say, my 8-track cassette deck. But I feel like I spend enough time during the day staring at the light box. I don’t want that to be how I make music. I am not being a purist. It’s not that I think “tape rules” but for me, the computer is just a distraction ultimately and it absorbs your creative energy.
When I first started recording with Don Zientara, we were using a 4-track. During that time, we were talking and I said, “I don’t really understand how they recorded with just one track”, originally it was one track with a cylinder and Don said something like “there’s always decisions to be made, all that changes is the point at which you have to make the decision.” When they first started making recordings they had a giant cone in a wall, like a speaker. It would move back and forth when you made the noise. This motion would send electrical signals down to cut the wax on the cylinder.
The way you mix those records is by arranging the people in the room. The drums are loud so they would go in the back, the quieter instruments would be in front and the singers of that generation would have to shout loud enough to move the cone. All the decisions had to be made right then.
It wasn’t until microphones were invented that crooning like Bing Crosby was possible. Otherwise you never would have heard it. Next, you could record on separate tracks and if you want the bass louder or the drums louder you could make those decisions later.
Now days, with the computer, there are an infinite number of tracks available and infinite number of plug-ins and and infinite number of options, you never have to make the decisions and you can never seem to get things done.
CM: I have seen people in the studio who get lost in the confusion of too many options.
IM: Precisely. In my life, in general I am anti-option. Options can be enormous time wasters for those of us who are easily distracted. I don’t generally talk about my diet, but I have been a vegan for like 25 years. One of the reasons is because when I go to a restaurant there is usually only one thing on the menu that I can eat and that is what I order. When I go to a vegan restaurant, some times I become frozen because there are so many options.
CM: What was the last non-music job that you held?
IM: What does it mean when you say “non-music”? Frankly, even right now I’m not playing music, I’m talking to you. I live off my work not my music. I run a label, I have a staff, I have to pay taxes, most of the time I am awake I am not playing music, I’m working hard so that I can play music without having to get those two things necessarily connected. I work hard, so I can play music. I like working.
CM: I feel like there is an illusion that someone can get a major label deal and they will never have to work again.
IM: How would you feel if suddenly someone gave you 100K or 250k and told you that you are a genius, you are a millionaire, just sit here and write. We will do your laundry and pay your taxes, just sit and write a great song, we will take care of everything, just sit there and write a great song. I often think about Cobain, how that must have felt for him, it would be a ton of pressure.
CM: At that point you would be living in a vacuum…
IM: That’s right, you would be living in a vacuum and on top of that you are an investment, and all of these investors would want to make sure their investment pays off.
I have a lot of friends who are successful major label musicians. They live in a way that is insane to me, but it is just their reality. I also know a lot of other people, far more people, that may have been close to that and it just didn’t go anywhere. For every lottery ticket that pays off, there’s a hundred thousand on the floor, torn in half.
For me, I work to pay my bills, I don’t make my music do it. In Fugazi, I booked the shows, I drove the van. I’ve never had a manager, I’ve never had a lawyer. I run my affairs. When you called to organize this interview, did you talk to my publicist? No… I don’t have a fucking publicist. That’s not the way I operate. I can’t say that everyone can do this, but it’s possible.