One at a time: Ian MacKaye on rethinking rock ‘n’ roll

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“We’ve been playing for almost ten years now, Ian MacKaye said of The Evens.  “It’s worked out pretty well— and for the most part, the places we’ve played have been the right size for the number of people that showed up.” (Publicity photo) “We’ve been playing for almost ten years now, Ian MacKaye said of The Evens. “It’s worked out pretty well— and for the most part, the places we’ve played have been the right size for the number of people that showed up.” (Publicity photo)

For over 30 years, Ian MacKaye has been rethinking how rock ‘n’ roll should work. As a teenager in the groundbreaking hardcore band Minor Threat he wrote passionate, aggressive anthems that inspired generations of punk kids to question the world around them.

With his 16-year stint in Fugazi, he helped rewrite the supposed rules about how a rock band should operate, while stretching the boundaries of what a punk band was supposed to sound like.

Now, with his current group The Evens, the duo of MacKaye and Amy Farina have worked hard to create a situation where they can play the music they want, whenever and wherever seems best. MacKaye still operates the legendary Dischord record label, and occasionally finds time to manage the legacy of Fugazi’s long and illustrious career, through his stewardship of the extensive Fugazi Live Archive series.

Throughout his long career, in his many bands and projects, MacKaye has shown an intense dedication to the principles he believes in, which include personal expression, self-sufficiency, and a proud anti-authoritarianism.

“As far as I’m concerned, the music is always coming from the same place,” MacKaye said. “Obviously it’s different when you play with different people. Bands are relationships, and each relationship has a different quality. But when I was 17-years-old, learning how to play bass, playing in the Teen Idles, I was responding to life and the circumstances that surrounded me. And now that I’m playing baritone guitar in The Evens, I’m still responding to the circumstances that surround me. In terms of how it’s different it’s just: ‘how is life different?’ Mostly, I’ve just got to say that music, for me, is a perpetual question to be answered. And I just continue to try to answer it.”

The Evens play sporadically, rarely tour and never headline traditional concert halls, preferring one-off performances at non-traditional venues, including an upcoming February 2nd performance at Random Row Books in Charlottesville.

“With The Evens especially, I think we decided we just wanted to make music in places that were not in the system,” MacKaye said. “It’s a very consistent theme all along – ‘don’t play with the system.’ I don’t think the system is even wrong, or that it should be destroyed, I just think there have to be alternatives, always. “

“We have our own PA, and our own lights, and we can just bring them and set them up in these little places, MacKaye continued. “We can book the shows two weeks out, since there are never any conflicting dates. We played a studio in Winchester, and a bookstore in Fredericksburg, and I haven’t been to Random Row yet, but it seems like it’s the same kind of thing— it’s relaxed. It seems like a totally reasonable way for things to be.” 

One of the prominent aspects of MacKaye’s performances—one that he’s kept consistent for many decades— is to keep the shows accessible to fans, especially young ones. True to form, Saturday’s performance will cost $5, and be open to all ages, at a venue that doesn’t serve alcohol.

“I come out of punk rock, of course,” MacKaye said. “The founding principle of American underground music in the late ’70s and early ’80s—it was kids who didn’t have any access, kids who started putting on their own shows. Then we found ourselves in a pitched battle with the club owners, wanting to see bands, and getting locked out because we weren’t old enough to drink. I started playing music as a minor, and it just became so clear to me, the way the music industry works, it’s so deeply perverted; it’s been perverted by the alcohol industry, and that’s a real affront to the music.”

McKaye goes on to say, “I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve met, who are playing shows 21 and up, who tell me how important it was to them that they saw Fugazi when they were fourteen. And I’m like, ‘Then why are you playing shows now that are 21 and over?’ A lot of them say that Fugazi was in a special position to be able to do that— but you can do that too! For every show we played, we had to say no to dozens of other ones. And the only real power you have in that situation is to refuse to be a part of it.”

MacKaye’s career-long dedication to his principles has occasionally made him into an unintentional idol of sorts; perhaps never a household name or a celebrity, but MacKaye has become a figurehead for generations of punks, musicians, and activists.

Despite this semi-legendary reputation, MacKaye remains an almost disconcertingly grounded, thoughtful, and self-aware individual. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of MacKaye’s career — the implicit message in every performance, interview, and conversation — is that anyone could potentially achieve the same means through the basic application of hard work, careful consideration, and a dedication to living and creating by ones beliefs.

Although Fugazi has been on “indefinite haitus” since 2003, he says they receive “show offers, and tour offers, on a pretty much weekly basis; it’s pretty ridiculous.” Despite the many interview possibilities, speaking appearances, performing offers, and other invitations MacKaye receives, he lives in a space – one he’s worked hard to create for himself – where he can pick and choose his own projects.

According to MacKaye the main criteria is simply, “Whether or not it feels right. Whether it’s interesting; whether it’s constructive. Lots of people want me to participate in something because they think of me in a certain ‘persona’ way. Which doesn’t feel good to me. That’s not me. And every time you participate in that sort of thing, you kind of put a layer of varnish over it, to affix it even more. People’s perception of me is all over the map – and largely incorrect, I think. I wouldn’t want to participate in making it real. I’m not that way.”

Instead, MacKaye remains committed to his label, his family, and his music. He’s also spent a significant chunk of the past few years working on the Fugazi Live archive, a set of recordings of over 800 Fugazi gigs which are slowly being mastered, mixed, and released online (more than 200 are available already). “It’s on my conscience every day,” he said. “That was one can of whoop-ass I opened up on myself. It’s been going on for four years, and the amount of work involved is – we thought we had a pretty good system in place, but it didn’t really work.  But we’re reorganizing, and we’re just about to post a new batch of shows.”

The vast and growing archive of material functions as a peculiar retrospective of Fugazi’s career, detailing the changes in their performances. “Part of what was going on in Fugazi, when you listen to those gigs – you can hear the arc of when we first started playing, it was total chaotic pandemonium,” MacKaye said. “Every show was a confrontation with a skinhead army. It was total craziness. We just kept on doing our thing, and by the end, we played shows where people are so respectful that it’s almost kind of weird.”

MacKaye said he prioritizes an interesting document over a clean sounding recording; “The greatest shows are the ones where you can hear what we’re up against. People are always asking ‘which [recordings] have the best sound?’ — Who cares about the best sound? […] I spend a lot of time listening to Hendrix — my whole life, as long as I’ve been listening to music. I have a lot of live Hendrix recordings — I’m specifically interested in the last year of his life, 1970. He was in bad shape – hearing those recordings, he was out of tune, he was all over the place. But there’s something really interesting happening there. All of these circumstances, resulting in these, at times, transcendent performances.”

The idea of power and energy emerging from chaotic situations is also a neat summary of Fugazi’s achivements. The archive thus far is available at http://www.dischord.com/fugazi_live_series.

“At the end of the day, it pretty much lands in my lap,” MacKaye said. “The rest of the band is supportive. Guy is very supportive, although he’s busy, he has four kids. Joe’s living in Rome, so it’s difficult for him to be super involved.”

The desire to complete the project is slowed only by its magnitude. “If I could get off the phone with you right now and just sit down and finish the whole thing tonight, I would,” said MacKaye. “It’s so complicated, the sheer amount of material is insane. We’re talking close to 900 recordings. Everyone one of those recordings has to be mastered, edited into separate tracks, then profiled, then uploaded. And that’s before you get into all the photos, the ephemera, and then the website itself. […] But the idea of the Fugazi [archive] project was really to create a resource, and we’re doing that. We’re behind schedule, but I like to see a project through.”

The Evens perform at Random Row Books on Saturday, February 2. Doors open at 7pm and the band will perform at 7:30 sharp. All ages, $5 at the door.

  • Brad

    Great interview. So stoked about this show!

  • Brendan

    Anybody go to the show? I had two nine year old boys w me, so ultimately just drove by without going in.

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