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Of the members of punk rock's second generation—Bob Mould, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, etc.—Ian MacKaye has had the greatest influence on music and commerce: The DIY ethos he and his peers established in early-'80s Washington D.C. affected the genre as profoundly as his music. When his high-school punk band, The Teen Idles, decided to release a single, he and bandmate Jeff Nelson created Dischord Records, which remains one of independent music's most respected labels. Musically, MacKaye made his first big impact in legendary hardcore group Minor Threat, which helped establish D.C. as a punk hub in the early '80s. The Minor Threat song "Straight Edge," about MacKaye's choice to eschew drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex, fomented a youth movement that has since warped into a cottage industry. After Minor Threat, MacKaye briefly led Embrace, whose deeply personal style gave birth to emocore—and the bands selling a lot of records today. In the late '80s, MacKaye formed Fugazi, which became one of the most important bands of the era, and easily the most influential post-punk group of its generation, before going on hiatus in 2002. Now in his 40s, MacKaye remains contrary with his latest group, The Evens. The duo—guitarist-vocalist MacKaye and drummer-vocalist Amy Farina—plays understated, quiet songs through their own small PA, which makes virtually anywhere a performance space. This quiet M.O. may be MacKaye's most revolutionary idea yet. Just as The Evens' sophomore album, The Get Evens, came out, MacKaye spoke to The A.V. Club about his new approach, his past, and the porn director who took his name.
The A.V. Club: The Get Evens is your first attempt to record an album yourself. Why go that route?
Ian MacKaye: Part of what was going on for us was that, with the first record, every studio ultimately, a repetition is developed. Because of that, the sound starts to come off as processed. There are certain sounds that in recording get smoothed out… The first record, a lot of people responded to it. We were surprised by the response, because they said it sounded great. But I don't think most people really got it that we were a two-piece because it just sounds full. The illusion was maybe a little too effective. There were no overdubs—just a baritone guitar and drums. There's a lot of overdub vocals, but the music itself is live. So we were thinking we'd really like to record something, try to make it a bit more rough-hewn, because then maybe it would be more revealing of the actual content of what we're doing here… We just thought this would be a good experiment. Ultimately, I'm quite happy with the sound. It was a bit daunting in terms of the technical problems we had.
AVC: Like what?
IM: Things were sounding weird. We had all these things, and you finally have to execute what essentially would be the "definitive" version. It was pretty goddamn daunting, but that ain't nothing new. There's always something. I think it's my nature to engage in things that are more difficult. Keep in mind, we still book ourselves. We have our own PA, our own lights, we do everything on our own. It would be a lot easier on some levels to just have other people do all those sorts of things—you know, do what everybody else does. I've often thought about it—like, you could drive from Chicago to Washington in 12 hours. You just take I-80 across. You hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike, all that. Sure, [you could] take the major highway system. It's an effective vehicle if that's the way you want to travel, but the little roads will get you there as well. It might take longer, but you might see far more interesting things—and somewhere in there, there's an analogy for the way I go about doing things.
AVC: Do you think you'll hear a lot of first-timer's mistakes in time?
IM: Maybe, but first-timers' mistakes can be first-timers' charm. The first time I ever recorded, which was into my boom-box, I was like, "Wow, check that out." It sounded great. The narcotic of it was so intense—it was pleasurable. I was like, "You sound like a band." Then I ended up spending the rest of my life trying to chase that initial high again. With Fugazi, for instance, we played a thousand shows or more, and I can tell you now that the definitive version of those songs in my mind was not on any of those records, because I played versions of those songs at some point, at some show, at some circumstance that was just incredible. There were times for a while, where hearing a Fugazi record—and I don't listen to them hardly ever—when I thought, "Oh, the version on the record is just so not right." But at some point, Fugazi stopped playing shows, and [there's] this idea that we may never play a show again. To that degree, the versions that exist, they're about as good as it gets. I think it's the same way, listening back to anything. I'm not that critical. I don't have regrets. I certainly don't have shame, like "Oh, I can't stand this." I'm actually like, "Right the fuck on! We did it!" If anything, it inspires me. If there's a beef, if I have a problem with any recording or the process, then I try to figure out the better way. It keeps me perpetually engaged.
AVC: It takes a long time to figure out.
IM: And once you figure it out, you become predictable. But you can never figure it out, because it's always moving. If you think you've figured it out, then you're just a hack. I can tell you now, I definitely don't think I've ever figured anything out.
AVC: Especially with recording, because the technology changes so often.
IM: I'm really anti-option, so computers have been my nightmare with recording. I don't want endless tracks; I want less tracks. I want decisions to be made… Now, it's like you could be making decisions forever! You record, and you could just take the whole thing and break it into a million little dots, however you want to. Madness! Madness, I say.
AVC: Then you have people like Axl Rose, who's been making a record for 15 years.
IM: Ultimately, I'm not the most prolific person, but I've been doing this for a long time, and I keep on putting out music. The only thing that drives music is the people who are making it. There are people who wonder like, "Wow, it must be so discouraging for you to not be in a band that immediately will sell 100,000 records." I don't think about that. We play a show, and there's a hundred people, and people will say "You must miss playing to a thousand people." But I don't. I might miss playing. That's what I would miss, but I don't miss it, because I am playing. I feel completely fortunate to have this outlet for something I don't really feel like I have a choice in, to make music. I've got to make it. And the fact that people care enough to want to come see me make it, or buy a recording, or want to call me up to talk about it? Fuck, man, I think that is gravy.
AVC: With Fugazi, you've said you couldn't have discourse with the crowd, because you were playing in these huge places. Has that improved with The Evens?
IM: It's funny, the pundits are like, "Oh, now we're being lectured." It's so interesting, man. Talking to larger audiences, you're talking through a huge PA system, so you have that "voice of God" problem. It's just hard to have a nuanced discussion with like a thousand people, 30 of which are white-power skinheads. Also, when you have a room that big and so many people in it, the people in the back of the room are having a completely different experience than the people in the front of the room. There was always much derision about especially my kind of vocal, what people consider my "scolding," that I was policing the crowd, or that I was trying to control the situation. They were like, "Oh, you're anti-dance, you're always telling people what to do." The part that I think that people didn't understand, and they could never really understand, is from our perspective, from the stage looking out, the people in the front were just getting wrecked. How long have you been writing?
AVC: About 15 years.
IM: Fugazi played shows for 15 years, which is about right. In that 15 years, imagine that because of your writing, there's like half a dozen people who will never walk again. It probably would make you think about how you wrote. It's obviously not what you intend. My work, essentially, is playing music, and because we played music, and because people came to see us, and because of the behavior of some people there, there are people who lost the ability to walk. That's just insane. And the worst thing about it is, the people who usually lost that ability, they weren't doing anything. They were getting landed on. They were just in the crowd.
Now, with The Evens, the shows are smaller, and we're all in the same room, and because we're not playing in rock clubs, you don't have that kind of behavior. I quite like it, because essentially, I feel like I'm hanging out with it. Also, it cuts the wheat from the chaff, you know. People who are not into it—"Oh, fuck that, we're not seeing that again."
AVC: A few years ago, you had a temporary personal crisis because you thought you'd missed out by not going to college. That was interesting because it showed your humanity; so many people make you out to be this unrelenting force of nature.
IM: It's so interesting that humanity has to be defined by emotional strife or something. I don't buy into that. My point of view is, I'm just a person, and there are times when I look at other people and think, "My God, they spend so much time thinking about things that seem so absurd." But I'm sure people must think the same thing about me. I do feel like I have always, in my life, been inclined to be on the outside, walk a different path or something. Because of that, and increasingly over the years, my sense of distance from mainstream society or from the way culture works, I have a different kind of perception of it. There are many things that people do happily that I can't imagine why they would do it… But I have to say that even though I am critical or judgmental of society at large, I'm not critical of people individually. We are who we are. I think this is what's tricky when people think of me: They think that I'm super-judgmental, or that I'm really hard on people about things, but that's not the case.
AVC: It's interesting that you and Fugazi spent so long trying to be straightforward and honest, yet so many people have these misconceptions.
IM: That's one of the great fortunes of The Evens. At least getting into smaller shows, a lot of people are like, "God, you're not like this Charlton Heston character." It's so weird; I'm a super-approachable person. I'm not a mean guy at all… Somebody sent me a review of one of the songs on The Evens record, and it's this song, "No Money." The person's like, "Crotchety old MacKaye, still barking out his old marching orders about the evils of capitalism." God, that song is so not about that. It's so weird to me. All I wanted to say [was] "Did you actually read the lyrics?" Because so clearly from my mind, I know what that song was about: It was a song about dealing with people who have addiction. Their whole body system has been shifted by their loss to addiction, their reality has been skewed, and therefore their interaction with me and the way they valued my role in their lives was totally skewed. I know the title "No Money" is a softball for most people—you know, "He's singing about money again." But it's not about money. But that's all right. I give my listeners a lot of credit; I assume that they know. I think that unfortunately, the people who do the writing, they're the ones who can't get it, because they have like 30 records to review this week. They're just trying to get this shit done. Oh well, that's the great irony of it all, ultimately.
AVC: Somebody has a MySpace page for a sort of bizarro Ian MacKaye. It's obviously fake, but people still leave comments like, "Hey, thanks for the great music!"
IM: There's no shortage of those. I've had a couple of unfortunate situations of people supposedly being me, leading other people on, and it ending up on my porch. It's a bummer.
AVC: Then there's a porn director named Eon McKai. It's like, "What the hell is this?"
IM: It's life, man. It's so surreal. Can you imagine at some point, some fucking porn-director guy took your name? Wow, that's really strange. I don't know what to make of it. It's sort of like having your song played at a Redskins game: It's like, "What the fuck?" It's just like a continuing crisis. But ultimately, what I like about all of these weird things is that it's reassuring to me. I can tell you absolutely, there's no publicity machine involved with my work. I don't have a press agent. I do interviews. We don't have anybody exploiting our music; we do our own work. The idea that some of these images and music that we were involved with a quarter of a century ago still are surfacing—just recently, [the Fugazi song] "Waiting Room" was played on the World Series—it is reassuring to know that, despite all the attempts of the major labels and ad industry to control all of music, that something so totally independent can still pop up to the surface. You can still insinuate yourself into culture. That's reassuring, because I think most people think it's not possible, that your music could never show up without it being massaged by all the machinery. But I can tell you, I know it hasn't been, so all this stuff has happened. I kind of get a kick out of it.
My focus is always on the day. What I've done behind me, I try to have respect for it, and keep an eye on it, and make sure it isn't abused, and obviously be thoughtful about it, because it's all real to me. I'm basically in every band I ever was in, and the songs, I still mean them all. I don't take anything back, so I do look after them to some degree. But my main focus is on what I'm doing now. And hopefully, even if there are some misunderstandings about the past, that won't be a problem, because I'll be busy just dealing with the present.