Fugazi's Ian MacKaye

Written by Big Smile Staff

Posted Jul 13, 2010, by The Bear.

Featured Artists: IAN MACKAYE; Genre: Hardcore; Punk;


This is an interview with Ian Mackaye, member of Fugazi (at that time) and many other bands. I taped this in early 1999, so now you know that not only is this interview not new, it is positively ancient by the standards of popular culture. It aired on KSCR, Los Angeles, in March of 1999, about two years after I started The Bear’s Den.
Why would I want to post it on Big Smile’s site now after all this time? Good question. This interview was originally transcribed to be posted on the old “Bear’s Den” website shortly after airing. A few years later I included it in my USC Master of Professional Writing thesis project, which was made up of a collection of 19 interviews from my show between 1998 and 2002. As such, it was printed out, bound in hardcover, and a copy now resides somewhere (most likely gathering dust) in that obscure part of the USC library system where they keep old masters theses.
However I have a copy of the book in my possession and I was looking through it not too long ago when I came upon this interview. In certain ways this interview, perhaps more than any other from the early years of The Bear’s Den shows both how much things have changed in the music business, and also how, in some ways, they haven’t changed very much at all.
Fugazi was always known as a DIY band, which as we all know, means “do it yourself.” This is a subject that we do cover in the interview. Looking back at what that meant in 1999 as compared to what it means now is very revealing. In a lot of ways it’s a lot easier to do it yourself than it was in 1999.
For those of you about to dispute the previous statement please consider the following facts: in March of 1999 there was (among other things):
1) No Napster – it wouldn’t begin operating until 3 months later, bringing the file-sharing revolution with it. Consider that MP3s were also relatively new at this point.
2) No online iTunes Store – wouldn’t appear until April 28, 2003.
3) No Myspace – wouldn’t be founded until mid-2003.
4) No Facebook – wouldn’t launch until Feb. 4, 2004.
5) No YouTube – wouldn’t appear until Feb. 2005.
6) Pro Tools was a still relatively new system that hadn’t yet caught on in the big way that it did in subsequent years and it was a lot more expensive. It was much harder to record music unless you were doing it in a music studio.
7) Internet radio was still quite new. KSCR had only started broadcasting online about a year earlier at this point and we didn’t fully appreciate that we could get a potentially much larger audience through the internet which could be picked up all over the world, than through a traditional radio frequency of limited range.
In short, when this interview was recorded and aired we were still operating under the old system where bands needed the support of labels with wide distribution to sell their records and the help of radio DJs and music critics to get attention for their work. How things have changed!
And yet in some ways they haven’t changed at all. A lot of the interview has not dated because many of the things that we discussed are still relevant. Bands are still formed by friends who want to play music and have fun; they still practice in garages and play backyard parties; and for the most part they still have to depend on themselves and their friends to get the word out on their stuff. The main game changer is that instead of relying on some kindly label rep. or indie rock DJ possibly smiling on their demos, they now have a lot more ways in which they can make their music available for people to hear.
As for Ian Mackaye, the subject of this interview, he is a man who needs little or no introduction. As the bassist for the Teen Idles in 1979-80, the leader of Minor Threat from 1980-83, co-leader of Fugazi for many years, and the head of Dischord Records (among other things) he is well known to just about anyone and everyone in Punk, and is widely known beyond the underground scenes. His current band is The Evens, who have released two records in the past decade. He is one of the most influential people I’ve ever had on my show and I was very lucky to get him.
Regarding the interview itself, this introduction is a new one that I have written specifically for this re-publishing. There is a different introduction that I wrote for when I put this interview in my thesis book. I’m not reprinting that here as most of it is probably not so relevant now (if you would like to read it drop me a comment at my profile page). However I will quote this one paragraph from it regarding how this interview was done because it’s illustrative of the lengths one sometimes has to go to get an interview:
“This interview aired just as Fugazi was preparing to play on the West Coast. Getting an interview with Ian Mackaye is never easy, not because he's a snob (he's not), but because he's very busy between running Dischord Records and playing in Fugazi. The only way I was able to interview him was to call him up when he was in his office and tape the interview over the phone. I had to do this at my apartment and, as I did not have an adapter that would hook my phone into my tape player, I had to put my phone onto "speaker phone" and tape the interview from that. The resulting sound quality was indeed primitive.” {NOTE: That it was, and transcribing this interview was not fun!]
I will make note about two items you will NOT find discussed in depth here. First: Straight Edge, which Ian Mackaye will probably always be associated with creating because of the Minor Threat song he wrote by that name which is credited with sparking the Straight Edge movement. Even in 1999 he was sick of discussing it. I knew that, and since I didn’t have anything to new to add to the discussion we didn’t talk about it for this interview. The other thing we didn’t discuss was a history of Minor Threat; even by 1999 this had been well documented in many places. The only detailed question I asked him about that band was about its legacy many years after its break-up.
As for the rest of it Ian Mackaye preferred to dwell on “the potential of the present.” This interview stems from a time when we were on the cusp of huge changes in the entertainment industry – we just didn’t know it yet and it shows. I hope you enjoy this Bear’s Den classic, literally from an earlier century and millennium!

(The photograph of Ian Mackaye was taken in 2008 and comes from wikipedia where it was posted by David Shankbone, who I believe also took the picture).

THE BEAR: We're talking with Ian Mackaye of Fugazi. Welcome to the show.
IAN MACKAYE: Thank you.
BEAR: Fugazi is gonna to be out here in California on tour in just a couple of weeks: in the L.A. area at the Glass House on the seventh of March, and at the Palace for three nights, the eighth through the tenth. So be sure to catch 'em. How are things going?
IAN: Good. I'll fly out there in about five days. I'm just trying to finish up everything here; finishing up the details of the tour.
BEAR: I just found out a short time ago that a documentary about Fugazi is about to be released. This is right?
IAN: It's a film by Fugazi, directed by Jem Miller, and I guess it's about Fugazi. I think it might be stretching it a little bit to call it a documentary, although there are certainly some true things in the movie. It's a bit more of an unstructured piece of work. We refer to it more as a visual record.
BEAR: How did this come about?
IAN: An old friend of mine, Jem Miller, who I went to high-school with, he's a friend of the band's and has been around since the beginning in 1987. Jem has been filming us over the years, and he has managed to collect an awful lot of film and videotape material. I think somewhere around 1992 we started thinking that it might be nice to try to document the band in a way that we could put our vote in about how we'd like to be represented in that form. It seemed almost inevitable that if someone wanted to see us after we stopped playing they would have to turn to television or a movie theater or something, so we decided to create our own sort of representation. At that point, in 1992, we started to dedicate something to this particular project. It's been a long project but we finally decided to cut it off at this point, put it out and stop thinking about it.
BEAR: It sounds a little kind of like a -- I remember the Talking Heads in '83 or '84 made a concert film.
IAN: It's not a concert film. There are some live songs in it, but it's certainly not a concert film.
BEAR: We're following Fugazi through the years in this? How does this differ from the regular documentary?
IAN: I couldn't really tell you. We put our records out; we don't try to explain the records because that's why we make them. It's the same way that we are with the film. The film is our attempt to represent the band in a visual manner. It's not a dupe. [It's] a two hour long film and we approached it pretty seriously. I felt fairly comfortable with the result, and I'm curious to see what people will make of it. I'd hate to get into too much description.
BEAR: When is it being released?
IAN: We're gonna release it on videotape through Dischord at the end of March. We're also trying to set up various screenings -- obviously we're far to obscure a band to be in general distribution. We're not going to be shown in regular theaters. We're hoping that people who are curious and interested and have some energy might want to contact us about projecting it in Art Houses or in schools, or whatever venues we can find that would work outside of the industry.
BEAR: You say that Fugazi is not that well known a band. I have to disagree with you as a fan. Just about everybody I know has heard of you; you've been around a long time.
IAN: Yes, but my point is that if you did a movie about a number of bands who are able to sell millions and millions of records you could go to a number of movie theaters and have the film showing in general distribution. There are a number of bands that have done that. I don't think that we're that kind of band. We are well known within our context but I think it's obvious that sure, we can sell out the Palace but if we played at the Coliseum I think we'd be laughed out of existence.
BEAR: Usually at this point I would ask for a little history of the band. Fugazi's been around for a long time, and there's a lot of stuff that came before Fugazi. I don't know how much you want to cover, so --
IAN: I want to cover specific questions. I don't want to write a book about it. If you want to ask me a question I'll answer it.
BEAR: Certainly. This is 1999, the 20th anniversary at some point of the first Teen Idles EP -- [NOTE: Actually 1999 marked the 20th anniversary of the forming of the Teen Idles, not the release of the EP which happened in 1980. This was a slip of the tongue.]
IAN: It was in 1980 that we released the first single on Dischord, yes. Actually it was in January of 1979, it just occurred to me, that I've just celebrated the 20th anniversary of my first Punk gig.
BEAR: And what was that?
IAN: The Cramps.
BEAR: The Cramps?!
IAN: Yup.
BEAR: What was it like seeing The Cramps in '79?
IAN: Possibly, in my mind, that show will stand out as one of the greatest events in my life. I thought they were incredible and I know that show changed my life. I know it was my introduction -- sort of a portal -- to the underground that I had been looking for.
BEAR: What had you been doing before that specifically?
IAN: I was a skateboarder. We had a skateboard team here. Actually Henry Rollins was with me here. We were on a skateboard team together. We were skating, living in Washington, city kids, just doing our thing, and Punk Rock came along.
BEAR: What was the first wave of Punk like? I hear a lot of people saying it was a revelation. You've just said you saw The Cramps and it practically changed your life --
IAN: It did change my life.
BEAR: What was the impact exactly of Punk at the time?
IAN: I can't really explain it to you other than to say that from my point of view in the late '70's there was a sense of despair from what I could tell. Everyone felt like "Oh well." The cynicism that followed the '60's was so pronounced and people were just -- in the '70's everyone partied so hard that there really was a very bleak future for everybody as far as I could tell. The choices we had didn't seem to be very interesting; you either could be a complete burnout, or you could be a super straight money making kind of person, like all you want to do is get a job and do that. It seemed there was no healthy or creative cultural movement; there were just two really bleak options: move to suburbia or be a drug addict, or do both. I think that from my point of view Punk Rock was the counter-culture I had been looking for, and was the place where all these different conventions that were hemming me in or made me feel that I was hemmed in were being challenged. It was musically challenging, it was politically challenging, it was sexually challenging, it was the whole thing. It was here was this whole community of outcasts and people who felt marginalized and alienated by society had found a gathering point and music was the currency. I think that at the time the mainstream was so dominant that to have this defiance was really really really important. It's a lot more difficult now because the mainstream now is largely constructed of these ribs of "subversive," but with quotes around it, music forms. It's much more difficult to find a really clear alternative to all this stuff because "Alternative" is a trade mark. I think kids today are really up against it, but there still exists this free space, this area where creativity, performance, thought, people can play with these ideas and it's not predicated on profits.
BEAR: A lot of bands are doing it because they want to do it. If you're not in music for that why are you in it in the first place?
IAN: That's a good question.
BEAR: With all this going on in Washington how did the Teen Idles get together then?
IAN: We were just high-school kids.
BEAR: You were all friends?
IAN: Yeah, we were at shows together. We were all friends, and we just said "let's form a band."
BEAR: You took a famous trip to L.A. that they still talk about. What was the L.A. scene like? Not much is written about the early L.A. scene as, say, the New York scene or the British scene.
IAN: I certainly found it preferable. I think it was actually an incredibly vibrant, creative and strong musical scene out there. Those are the bands that I really listened to -- the Germs, and the Weirdos, and --
BEAR: Did you meet Darby Crash?
IAN: We tried like hell. But Darby was not around. We got a message from him after we left. We went up in San Francisco and a friend of ours that we ran into later on had bumped into Darby and sent us a note saying he was sorry that he had missed us. I was really disappointed. We really wanted to say hello to him. Of course Black Flag was hugely important to us. Henry actually was our roadie at the time on that tour, and the Zeroes and the STICKies and all these really early L.A. Punk bands were all bands I listened to all the time. We were all listening to them. I think that we felt that at the time in Washington there was a sense that New York was so snobby and arty and they felt that we were like country kids or something down here. We had an inferiority complex with old New York, and that probably was a direct result of their superiority complex. We started to relate a lot more with Los Angeles because it seemed like people in Los Angeles were just playing music and it wasn't that kind of snootiness about it at the time. Coming out there was really quite an experience although we didn't see as many bands as we had hoped to see. We saw some. We actually saw the Circle Jerks on that trip and they were awesome. We saw a show with Dead Kennedys, Flipper and the Circle Jerks in San Francisco in the [name indecipherable] Gardens that was incredible. An amazing show.
BEAR: I wish I could have been there!
IAN: Yup.
BEAR: Too young.
IAN: Not your fault.
BEAR: Yeah I know, or my parents as well.
IAN: Don't worry. You can tell somebody ten years from now that you saw somebody ten years ago and they'll say "Ahh, I wish I could've been there."
BEAR: That's true. Everybody asks me about the Sex Pistols' '96 reunion which I went to see, "were they really as bad as we were afraid of?" And I'm like "No, they can really play."
IAN: I didn't see them.
BEAR: I know Jeff works at Dischord with you. Do you still keep in touch with the other members of the Teen Idles?
IAN: I know Jordie. He grew up in my neighborhood. I see him every now and then. We don't run around together but I bump into him. And Nathan -- I don't speak to Nathan that much. He lives out here in Arlington somewhere. I don't see him very often at all. He's kind of a homebody.
BEAR: But he's still around at least.
IAN: He's around but he's not playing music. He's not really connected with it.
BEAR: That's too bad.
IAN: Yeah, it is.
BEAR: Moving on a bit, this next question is one that I would rarely get to ask anyone, but is sort of a legacy question. I've been to a lot of Hardcore shows. Sooner or later everyone plays a Minor Threat cover. I'm curious, because this is not something I get to ask people very often: Minor Threat infuenced, everybody! I can name like seven bands who have covered Minor Threat. I wonder what it's like to look back on something like this and think "Yeah. I did that, and look what happened!"
IAN: I never think of it like that. I feel music is a very powerful thing; it's been really important to me in my life, and I've been really inspired and motivated by other bands and other peoples' music. I'm not surprised that music has that effect. The fact that I happened to be playing that particular music just means that -- I think more in terms of the power of the music rather than my power. I'm very happy that Minor Threat has proven to be -- it's pretty long lasting when you get right in there. I'm really happy that people still like the band. I think it was a good band. But it's amazing to me that people still even talk about the band. I guess I don't think about it too much because I'm not a nostalgic person. While I have fond and warm thoughts about the past and I may have nice memories, and some bad memories too, the past is done. It's written. The future is the question mark. To me clearly the most important time frame is the present. It's the only one that has any real potential in my mind. The future will come and when the future gets to be the present then it's got potential but you can only act upon the things that are in your hand, that's the way I look about it. I'm always happy to think back and I'm glad that I have the memories. There are a lot of people I know who don't even remember a lot of stuff. I've really enjoyed thinking about stuff like that, and thinking about all the bands I've seen and I've just loved so much of it, and also just glad to have been around for as long as I have been, but I don't think about it like "Oh, well what a great band" or "Oh what a great time. It's never going to be the same." [bleep] that. I'm just way more interested in what's going on now.
BEAR: Sixteen is sixteen whatever year you're sixteen in. That's what someone said. It's always going to be the same.
IAN: Right.
BEAR: You mentioned the potential of the future. Now that it's 1999, what would you say is the potential today?
IAN: I said the potential of the present. I didn't mean of the future. When the future becomes the present then it has potential. Oh, what does 1999 have potential for? Is that what you're asking me?
BEAR: Yes. In your view.
IAN: Good things man. I know for us, we're happy in the band. We're happy that we're getting ready to come out there to play. We've got this movie finally done, the soundtrack is coming out with it. We started working on new songs, our lives continue to evolve, we're still interested in what we're doing, we still feel a challenge, an urgency, and that makes me happy. There's things going on here in Washington that I'm looking forward to, I'm involved in this place -- we're trying to create this performance space and free stage.
BEAR: What is that?
IAN: It's just a space. We've been trying to find a place in Downtown industry, not part of the rock club world. A free space for exactly what I was talking about earlier, where people can try ideas out without having to worry about attracting enough paying customers.
BEAR: That would be a very good thing. I'm in a Playwriting Program so I know exactly what you mean!
IAN: This is not just a music space. This is also for Theater, for Film, also for political meetings, for poetry or whatever. It's going to be a free space; a radical performing space is the idea. It's still a year out, but I'm working on it.
BEAR: And how is the Theater scene in D.C.?
IAN: It's a fairly vibrant scene, but to be honest with you I don't go see that much because I find it prohibitively expensive, but also it's out of my language; like I don't know enough about it to know where to begin. I feel like I don't have the time to go see enough plays, although I really actually like Theater quite a bit. When I was in High-School I was in a Community Theater Group and I did a number of plays and I loved acting. I've always thought about doing it again but frankly I think I got through that particular Drama group just because I think they put up with me. I was just so unwilling to be off book until the day of the show that I think it would drive everybody crazy.
BEAR: That would drive a director crazy, yes.
IAN: I have to have my own Theater group to actually do it because then I can fit it in with everyone else's programs. That's typical of me.
BEAR: A new space is always good because there are never enough theaters for anything.
IAN: That's true. There is a really great Theater community here, I must say.
BEAR: Good. Now specifically with regard to Fugazi -- Fugazi's been together for many years now -- how would you say your musical style has evolved over time?
IAN: I couldn't articulate it. I mean, that's what it's there for. You listen to it, you decide.
BEAR: That's a good answer. Sounds like an artist. As a writer myself I'm interested in process –
IAN: I'm always saying that our music has changed like handwriting. You look at your handwriting from when you were fifteen -- how old are you now?
BEAR: I'm ** [NOTE: Sorry folks, that’s privileged information! – The Bear]
IAN: Okay so [look at] you were [15], and look at it now. With repetition certain things have improved, and certain things have disintegrated. I would say that with us the repetition of playing together there are a lot of things that are much more fluid. There are other aspects that have sort of been lost in the blur. It's natural evolution. There's positives and negatives, but it's real, that's the most important part. We're not really aiming to please the public as much as we're trying to satisfy our desires as far as whatever it is we're looking for musically, the sound that we're trying to find, that's what we're trying to capture and we're glad that people are interested in joining us for the adventure.
BEAR: I'm always interested in a person's writing process. I'm interested, like for instance, in the stuff you write about. Does it come from your own experience? Is it stuff you make up? Where does Fugazi's stuff come from?
IAN: It comes from everywhere. There isn't a formula. I couldn't package it up for you like that. Both Guy, and I, and Joe, all three of us actually, the people who are writing lyrics, we write about whatever strikes us and from whatever position we may want to. One of the benefits of being a part of this band is that you can do anything you want, and that's exactly what we're doing.
BEAR: For instance I was listening to the song "Five Corporations" a short time ago. Where does this one, for example, come from?
IAN: I think that song was inspired by the sense that the clustering of corporations, the clustering of powers, that continue to clump and absorb to the point where it seems that it always boils down to five universal groups. They're almost like nations. Just recently I read the entertainment industry is now down to five nations.
BEAR: I was just thinking that myself.
IAN: Which I thought was just good timing on their part! Now take Chicago in the 40s and 50s, the gangs for example. There were so many neighborhood street gangs, and these two particular gangs, well actually two bigger gangs, and when they would fight they changed the rules of what used to happen. You used to fight and defeat the other gang, and the other gang had their GRASS whipped, but they changed the rules so that when they would win a fight part of the punishment was the gang would have to become part of them; they would absorb the gang, and they would get more and more powerful. Eventually it really got to the point where Chicago was basically two street gangs. Sort of the same in Los Angeles I think probably with the Crips and the Bloods, although I'm not as familiar with the evolution of those gangs. But I'm talking about, I think, the Disciples and the Nation, what was it called? The name is escaping me at the moment. But I thought it's really interesting the way that developed and I think that that was a lot like how the corporations worked; they can buy everything, just buy, buy, buy. It seems disgusting to me that somebody who's making 140 million a year, finds it desirable or necessary to make 250 million a year. At some point the disparity of the situation is going to have to be changed because it's just not okay.
BEAR: Have you ever had major corporations offer to buy out Dischord?
IAN: Sure. I know that's exactly the practice! Not that I think we pose any real threat but it's just another badge for them.
BEAR: Well in way, actually, you kind of do [pose a threat]. Your shows are always five dollars, your CDs sell for ten and never any more, and that's a lot cheaper than everyone else.
IAN: That's true, but there's two ways they combat that: one way is they buy us, and then they prove that we're just the same as everybody else [by raising the prices at chain record stores]. The other way they do it is to say: "Look, they're all rich" and that's the way that, I think, lot of people are like "well that's fine for you because you're Fugazi," or, "okay you guys can do it because you're Fugazi" That's exactly not the point. The point is that anybody can do it.
BEAR: I know that a lot of Indie bands do do it, I mean in that I hardly ever buy CDs in stores anymore, I buy 'em at shows. They're a lot cheaper there and the bands know it. A lot of bands try to form their own labels because they can't get distribution otherwise. What would you say to someone who's trying to do that and having a difficult time of it? It's a hard thing to do.
IAN: What aspect are you talking about? What's difficult about it?
BEAR: I mean a band that wants to put out its own records but no label can sign 'em, or will sign 'em, so they decide to do it themselves. And they don't know how. Or they know how but it's expensive and they're having trouble getting the word out or they're not selling enough and they're getting discouraged. What would you say to encourage them to keep going?
IAN: I think they need to investigate why they're playing music. If they're playing music because they love it then they don't need any encouragement. If they're playing music to be successful then they should examine that because to be successful, that's a matter of definition. Personally I would say that I was successful the first time I picked up the bass guitar in 1979, because that was an achievement. And the first song I wrote was a great success.
BEAR: What was the first song you wrote? [Pause] If you remember.
IAN: [Pause] Good [bleepin'] question. Um. [Pause] I was actually in a band called the Slinkees, sort of a pre-Teen Idles with a different singer. The first song I wrote was actually "I Drink Milk."
BEAR: Oh wow! That's a great song! That's on the Flex Your Head album.
IAN: Yeah, the Teen Idles did that song as well. That actually might have been the first song. That's a good question.
BEAR: We play that every time we wanna make fun of the really militant vegan Straight-Edgers because we like that one a lot. So, what's next for Fugazi? After the tour, after the film is released; you said you were working on new songs, Is there a new album you're going to be doing?
IAN: We're writing songs. I'm not very -- for me it's all process so I don't think about results. I think about what we're working on. If we write enough songs then we can put out another record. Right now we're just happy to be writing. We don't have a long range plan. We're going to touring the West Coast for a few weeks; I can tell you that we're hoping to go England in May to do a couple of weeks out there; our schedule has been radically changed with the advent of our drummer Brendan's son, Misha, who was born in October of 1997. He really changed our lives, just having a kid in the band. We're not going to be doing the two and three month tours anymore so much. We're just learning about how to make it work, and learning about how to deal with having a baby in the band. It's been a really amazing experience.
BEAR: Does the baby come with you on tour?
IAN: No, no.
BEAR: That happens occasionally.
IAN: Yeah, but for people who can afford nannies and stuff. Our whole set-up is completely different. We drive a mini-van, and I do all the driving. We are not like other bands. Someone said to us "It would be great if you guys could come on this radio station and play. You could come by the station before your gig." And I'm like I don't think people have any idea of what we do. On the day of the show we drive to the gig, we load our gear in, we set up, we sound-check, we do it all! It's not like we're waiting for the crew to arrive with the gear. We are the crew. We are the drivers.
BEAR: It's completely D.I.Y.
IAN: You have to be. That's the way we can charge six dollars or five dollars. That's the way you can do it, because we're not paying anyone. We don't have an army of people. The thing about D.I.Y. that I don't think most people realize is that it involves work. It's all work, and there's a lot of it, even for a band that's become so popular.
BEAR: But it's great when it pays off.
IAN: It's great when it doesn't pay off.
BEAR: That too. I want to thank you for talking with us today.
IAN: All right.

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