Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ian MacKaye

Illustration for article titled Ian MacKaye
Photo: Martyn Goodacre (Getty Images)

Since his early days in the late-’70s/early-’80s D.C. bands The Teen Idles and Minor Threat, singer, guitarist, and Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye has never wavered from the ideals that first inspired him to play harsh, challenging punk. Eschewing multimillion-dollar label offers and lucrative tours, Fugazi–the 12-year-old band featuring drummer Brendan Canty, bassist Joe Lally, singer-guitarist MacKaye, and singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto–has maintained its rare integrity, continuing to charge no more than $10 for CDs and no more than $5 or $6 for tickets to its strictly all-ages concerts. Of course, this wouldn’t matter much if the music didn’t remain vital, but it does. Fugazi recently released a two-hour documentary video (Instrument) and a rarities-dominated, mostly instrumental soundtrack, then embarked on a spring tour of Europe. Before leaving, though, the always amiable and outspoken MacKaye spoke to The Onion.


The Onion: There’s been a lot of talk about the impending collapse of the record industry, in light of all the mergers, the growth of the Internet, and what many perceive as the declining quality of the music being put out. At this point, do you sort of feel like, “I told you so”?

Ian MacKaye: No. For a lot of my friends who signed to labels, I just feel bad for them. They worked really hard and were trying to make things work for their bands. Everyone has their own deals, their own realities to sort out, so I can’t sit in judgement of them on that level. It’s certainly not a surprise to me; it’s just sort of depressing. Joe [Lally] and I were walking down the street maybe three or four years ago, and we ran into a friend of ours who we hadn’t seen in a while. He’s in a band. I asked him, you know, “How’s the band?” And he’s like, “Oh, we’re getting fucked by our label.” And he told us the story about how they were under contract but couldn’t put anything out, and they couldn’t put anything out anywhere else—the usual kind of stuff. So we said goodbye and continued walking, and Joe said, “How depressing is it that, for the next 10 years, we’re going to hear that from so many of our friends?” Those exact words: “We’re being fucked by our label.” It’s really depressing. But it’s sort of a peripheral thing for me, because I really stayed out of it. The mainstream industry is not something I have any involvement with whatsoever, so I’m just sort of hearing about it. It’s sort of like when people complain to me about how their bosses suck at their office jobs. I feel bad for them, but I’m not going to say to them, “Ha ha, I told you not to go work for an office.” They made their own decisions. It’s not always a bad story: Sometimes things work out. It’s just a little more hit-or-miss, and from my point of view, I was never really interested in even being a part of the record industry. I’m still not interested in it, and I think that confounds people, because in some ways my ambitions are so eccentric. I don’t have an ambition; for me, the idea is to document something. I don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse, you know? There was music that was important to me, and there were people who were important to me, and there was a community that was important to me, so I kind of felt like that was what I was doing: documenting that. And the fact that other people were interested enough to help me realize it is amazing. I never, ever had it in my mind that I wanted to be in the record industry, because I still contend that the record industry is an insidious affair. It’s this terrible collision between art and commerce, and it will always be that way. It has to be, because the people who run labels… No matter how on-time they were in the beginning—no matter how much they love music—at some point, if you just turn a label into its own entity, its sole purpose is to profit. And once that is established, you know that people are going to be mistreated, ideas are going to be mistreated, and the art is going to be mistreated. It has to be. But I also think a lot of people misunderstand me: They think I’m like, with major labels or major distributors… I’m psyched for people when they work hard and are successful. I think what most people don’t understand about my situation is that we worked hard in creating an infrastructure that can distribute our music, and within it, we’ve been very successful. With a lot of bands, they’ve never had this infrastructure, so for them, they’re left high and dry. I’ve had people call me from bands that are very popular, and they’re like, “What do we do? We want to do what you do.” It’s almost impossible to do what I do, because you would have to start in 1980. You can’t just do it. It has to grow. So I’m excited when people who work hard are successful. Regardless of all the crap with lawyers and managers and all that shit, if they worked hard and created something that was unique and not just commercially angled, and it was so good that it couldn’t be denied, that makes me happy. I’m always happy when I hear about people selling records or selling books or selling movies. It makes me proud of them. My principles are not based on hatred; it’s not about hating. I don’t hate things. It’s not that I’m out to smash the state. I’m just interested in building my own damn state.


O: Do labels still make offers?

IM: No. You’ve got to figure that A&R people are always, like, 20 years old for the most part, and a lot of them are either fully knowledgeable or they just don’t give a fuck about us. And also, I think the labels were sort of excited about us because we were a much more proven quantity than most of the bands they were signing, so I think they felt like we would have been a safe return. There used to be this sort of theory or guess, where people used to say, “You can sell twice as many records on a major label as you do on an independent.” So I guess by that reckoning, if someone sold 5,000 on an independent, they could sell 10,000 on a major, no problem. So if we were selling 200,000, they’re thinking, “We could sell half a million.” I don’t really know if that’s true, and in fact, I think it’s a bit of a legend. For a lot of people who sign, they forget that with independent labels—at least in the underground punk community—you had longevity. You had a community in which you continue to sell records. So you may not get the big, “Ta-da!,” where you sell 30,000 records in the first week, but you may well sell 40,000 records in a year. All I can tell you is that our best-selling record is probably our first record [13 Songs], and that came out in 1988. And it still sells better than the other records. And the Minor Threat CD [Complete] still sells ridiculous amounts to this day. It’s just insane. The problem with the majors is that the records come out, and what sells in the first month is it. By the time your record comes out, people are already working on something else. That’s it. They have to, because it’s all about hustle. This may well change, but you’ve got one shot: You put a record out, and if the first single hits, bam, they’ll work on it, and if it doesn’t, they’ve got to get on something else. They’re not going to sit with it for a while. No time! It’s all microwave ovens now, baby. They’re not gonna let it simmer. When people talk to me about majors, a lot of the time I tell them to think about it like the lottery: They buy up all these bands like they’re at a 7-11 buying up lottery tickets. You only need one to hit, and that pays for all the other ones easily. Most bands end up torn up and on the floor. I can’t criticize those bands; in fact, I’ve always leveled most of my criticism at the mid- to late-’80s independent music labels and distributors, who I feel behaved really poorly. They had a unique situation, and they obviously were going to sell fewer records than majors, but what they had going for them was a different way of doing business, of interacting with people in a way that allows you to give them more attention. And instead of that, I feel like a lot of the large independent labels kind of took the major-label template and just acted like regular labels, except that they weren’t selling as many records. You end up thinking in terms of, “Hey, I could be treated like an asshole and sell 10,000 records or I could be treated like an asshole and sell 100,000 records, so I’m gonna sell 100,000 records.” It seems totally clear to me, and I just feel like those labels fuckin’ blew it. But even that end of music commerce is outside of our domain, because from the very beginning, this label was created to document music here in Washington—our friends’ bands. I’ve never wavered from that, and there never was a moment when I considered branching out or looking for exciting new acts. If you look to the history of this label, there were years when we put out 20 records and there were years when we put out one. It really depends on the flow of what was happening here. Right now, we have three bands on the label, and who knows? Maybe next year there’ll be none.


O: No one has contracts.

IM: No. It has to do with the community that I feel I’m connected to, and it’s a challenge: We’re getting close to [Dischord’s] 20th anniversary. But I like it, because I’ve always kept these parameters on this label. I’ve never had to be concerned about what was going on anywhere else. And I don’t really care if Seagram’s buys everybody. I’m not surprised about it. I don’t care. I feel bad for my friends who got sort of crushed up in the merger, just because they’re my friends, but I’d feel bad if they worked at a cannery that got shut down. The thing is, people can’t complain about profit-oriented moves if they’re only interested in profit themselves. You can’t have it both ways. If they’re willing to polish up a gift and sell it to make money, they can’t really complain about the fact that somebody above them has sold them down the river. That’s the way it goes.


O: How do you maintain the energy? Is there a point at which it just becomes too exhausting?

IM: Well… [Pauses.] In this interview, you’ll hear me use the word “community” about a thousand times. But for me, it’s always been about a collection of people who were really marginalized for whatever reason. And here in Washington, because it’s such a non-industry town, there was no music scene, and because we weren’t taken seriously by anybody, we decided that we would have to take each other and our community seriously. And we were able to create something that had an incredibly lasting effect on us. The people I’ve been running with I’ve been running with for many, many, many years. I’m not a religious person, and I’m not too interested in being a part of a religion, but I do like having some sort of communal gathering, and having some sense of peoples. It gives me a lot of energy to have the chance to be around my friends and family and the people here at Dischord and the bands—all these people who have donated their time and energy and commitment to be a part of this. And I feel like I have a responsibility to represent them in a good way, since they have all entrusted me with that. Keep in mind that I don’t see Dischord as something that’s happening today; I see Dischord as almost a library. Over the years, all these bands, all these people, all these artists have committed their work to Dischord. So I feel that it’s very important to continue to represent them in the best way possible. So I guess that’s a good enough reason for energy, and also, I’m a bit of a fighter, and I feel like there’s stuff that can be done. A lot of the problems I encounter on a local level—which, to me, are kind of indicative of the world’s problems—are easily solvable with a little bit of work. It’s not so much that I have this incredible amount of energy; it’s just that it takes so little energy to fix things that it’s a shock that people don’t even want to expend that much, because they’re so concerned about their own well-being. One of the most disappointing aspects of American society is that people put their own wants, needs, and desires so far above the simplest of problems. They’re not interested in dealing with those things. So as a label and an operation and a mission, a lot of good has come of it—and I’m not talking about just for me, or for Fugazi, but within the people I count as my friends in my collective group. There are so many people doing such good work in this world that people never know about, people who are working at youth centers and hospitals and homeless shelters, people who are doing outreach work, people who are doing all kinds of good stuff. These people aren’t on any records, but they are lynchpins of this community, people who grew up here, and they’ve said to me, “Well, Dischord has been a big part of our inspiration.” And I’m like, “Well, fuck, man. You guys have been a big part of mine!”


O: Do you ever get cynical?

IM: I don’t think so. I’m not a very cynical person.

O: I mean, this is a very cynical view, but it’s often sort of expected in society that if you’re idealistic, that idealism will fade. You’ll…


IM: You’ll get real. And again, that’s part of the American culture—that sense of, “You’re a kid until you grow up. You can play around until you get real. You’re on a farm team until you get called up to the majors. You’re an apprentice until you become a professional.” There are all these stages, and in music, people don’t take you seriously unless you’re marketed by a major label. The only stamp of validity has to come from these heinous corporations. And it just seems so strange that people like Sony would have that special stamp in art. “This is an artist, and everyone else is not real because they’re not willing to make money.” Which is fucking utter bullshit. When I first wanted to play music, I thought I’d never get to, because it seemed like music—and the whole industry surrounding it—was really for professionals only. And therefore, there’s no point in me even trying. And punk rock was… I first started hearing about it in 1978 or ‘79, and it was like I had discovered this portal, this small window into a world that I knew must exist but could never find. And suddenly, here it was: this place where you could explore all sorts of unconventional ideas and approaches. People were just fucking around with good, creative things, and there are bad and good things going on. But it’s important that you can have a place where bad things can be done. This world is not just about the good, and any time you’re in a place where only good is being offered, you know that something very evil is working somewhere else. To get things right, you have to be able to make mistakes, and you can’t be ashamed of that. That kind of thing can’t really work in an arena that is completely predicated on profit. If you only have rock clubs, they won’t book bands unless they draw, and a lot of new ideas can never be floated because people are never initially attracted to them. With bands like Minor Threat, people are like, “Oh, what a legendary band.” But Minor Threat played in front of 20 people! Any band, like The Germs or anybody, that played in the beginning played to nobody. Punk rock was a place where I actually felt like, “Here is an area…” And I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the only area—it’s just one that spoke to me—but it was an area where you didn’t need to make money, because the music was the point, or the community was the point. People were just, like, “Fuck money.” The first band I was in, The Teen Idles, played for a year in Washington, and because we were white kids from Washington in a punk-rock band, all the anarcho-yippie guys who ran the commune we used to play at called us things like “suburban white-boy punk-rockers” and “capitalists.” God knows why, because every penny we made went into a cigar box. We never split our money up. We saved everything, and that money is the money we used to start the label. For us, it was never about making money; it was always about trying to create our own scene, because we wanted something to do. We were bored as fuck. So, finding this sort of thing made me realize that here is an area that is not about getting real. It never occurred to me that you would have to get real sooner or later. People were saying, “Well, if you want to be in a punk band, you’ll have to move to New York.” And that’s ridiculous. This is for real! In 1979, in Washington, D.C., not only if you wanted to be in a punk band, but if you wanted to be a punk, you had to live in New York. And I thought, “How could this be geography-based?” Since when are anger and boredom and frustration limited to one city? It just doesn’t fuckin’ make sense to me. So we were, like, “Fuck that. We’re just going to start it right here.” We just did it. In the early years, there was this sense of always proving to people that they were full of shit. Even in the early days of Fugazi, for the first year, people used to say, “Well, you can do this five-dollar deal now, but you’re going to have to raise your cover prices when you get into bigger rooms.” Well, it’s 12 years now, and granted, some of our shows are $6, but for the most part, I think the point is pretty clear that those people were incorrect. They were wrong, and they were wrong because the limits they were drawing were their own. They didn’t ever test the waters. So we’re in a weird place as a band. People say, “Well, if you ever want to go any farther with the band, you’re going to have to sign to a major label.” Well, they’re wrong! They’re just wrong! Now, someone could say, “Well, you could have sold a million records.” Who knows if that’s true? But more importantly, who knows if that’s important? Who cares? If you can continue to work, and you can still feel challenged… We’re talking about 12 years, and we still practice three or four times a week. We like each other. We still work hard, we’re still doing things that are creative and interesting, and apparently somebody else thinks so, too. So maybe people shouldn’t always think in terms of escalation; maybe they should think in terms of consistency.

O: The flip-side of that is the desire to have people hear your music; the idea that if you were on a major label, you could reach a lot of people. Do you ever feel that way?


IM: A lot of people have said to me, “It’s criminal that more people don’t hear your music.” But our position is that our music is available to anybody in the world who wants to hear it. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easily accessible, but things that are good aren’t always easily accessible. I mean, if you want some food, you can walk over to the 7-11 and get some microwave whatever-the-fuck—you can get the food—but if you want something good, you’re going to have to walk a little farther. You might have to walk to a restaurant that actually gives a fuck about what they’re feeding you. You could just buy some frozen pizza and stick it in the oven, or you could maybe make your own dough. It’s going to be a hell of a lot better if you make your own pizza. Just because it’s more accessible, that doesn’t mean it’s good, and it’s usually quite the opposite. There are certainly good examples of incredibly brilliant, beautiful music that has been made commercially available and sold everywhere. But I would say that, for the most part, quantity certainly does not speak well for quality. And I think that part of what makes us go, part of our heart as a band, has to do with running things ourselves. Had we given up that part, it would have destroyed us. Of course I’d be happy if a million people bought the record; I’d love that, and it would make me feel even more justified in a lot of ways. I feel like it could happen. The problem is that there is a certain point where there is a cut-off, a chasm you can’t get across. When we’re playing gigs, we can handle up to about a 2,000-capacity room, as far as expenses are concerned. But after the 2,000, the costs just go insane, and it is impossible for us to play those rooms. Even if we sold them out, at our ticket price we wouldn’t be able to pay the janitors, because they’re all union. So I realize that that does exist. The same thing happens with record sales: I think we have maxed out as far as initial sales—at least, as far as the network we can operate within is concerned—because the majors hold the lock and key to the really super-widespread stuff. But so what? It doesn’t deter us from continuing, and we can still play shows. And who says playing in front of 2,000 people is all that much better than playing in front of 100,000 people? It’s a weird thing but, then, it’s supposed to be weird. It was always about doing something interesting. We already know the trajectory of bands that have started out, worked hard, created their own scene, signed to a label, gotten huge, and then stopped. We’ve seen that trajectory in various forms of success many times. But it’s not very often that you hear about a band that starts on its own terms and carries it out to the very end. It’s more unusual. That’s why I sometimes feel a little lonely, because I don’t think there are a whole lot of other bands in our position. In punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll, I don’t really know if there
are any bands. There may well be.

O: Do you wish you hadn’t called that record End Hits?

IM: No. Why would I?

O: Well, it sort of fed into this perception that the band was breaking up.

IM: Ah, but we knew that. It wasn’t like it was a surprise to us, because we talked about it. It’s more about the end of the century and the slow-moving apocalypse, so it was sort of like, “Here are some last words from the world.” But whatever. We were aware of the fact that people would construe that as a possible thing, but at the same time, it was sort of a joke. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to the whole record, but there’s a little piece at the very end that says, “Surprise—end hits.” And all it was was a botched attempt on our part… At the end of the song “No Surprise,” the song ends a certain way, and for some reason, all four of us just forgot to do the ending. I don’t know why, but we just did. So then we thought, well, we can just record it again and edit it onto the end of the song, because it was a nice version of the song. Well, it was in vain, because we couldn’t do it, but we ended up recording all these end hits—ta ta ta ta ta—to go at the end of the record. And those were the end hits. That was why the record was called End Hits. But it also drew on that notion of what I was talking about before, about the world’s sort of last… It has that sort of notion, but also we were just sort of fuckin’ around. That’s one thing about the band that people don’t know: Most of our time, our best moments are always laughing. I don’t know if you’ve seen our movie or not, but we just finished this movie, and a lot of people who’ve seen it are surprised that we’re not sitting around a table plotting. I’m a great, funny guy, but people think I’m this scary asshole. I mean, we don’t actively promote ourselves as easy-going, because who gives a fuck? We’re not that easy-going! We mean business. It’s just that we’re funny.


Fugazi’s albums and video, along with those of all other Dischord acts, can be ordered through Dischord Records, 3819 Beecher St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

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