ART: interview with Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye is an icon in the realm of hardcore, punk and the DIY movement. Frontman for legendary bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, MacKaye also created a unique business model by refusing to sign with a major label. He is a man of conviction, and so instead created Dischord Records, which is known for affordable releases, low ticket prices, and treating their bands well in handshake deals.

Ian has influenced a world of artists, though most find themselves unable to stay within the pure model he has set forth. I know he was and is a huge influence in my life.

** If you’d rather listen to the interview, I’ve provided the audio at the end of the transcribed interview.

Ian MacKaye
Washington, D.C. – 11/05/08

Shane Bugbee: When we originally did the trip and we said we were going to D.C., I said I have no interest in going to D.C. except for the Dischord House. It was just one of those things, that’s just where my politics reside, with the old school music I grew up with that was political.

Ian: Music is still political. I think all music is political, everything is political.

Shane: Even Britney Spears?

Ian: It’s political, everything is political. See, that’s the thing. In this country, think about it like this, you have two dominant political parties that everyone talks about, the Republicans and the Democrats, but ultimately, they are not the party that has been responsible for what is happening in this country culturally, the Apathetic Party is that. That’s who has really dominated our politics. That’s how really short sighted, small minded people get to control vastly powerful instruments like the government.

Like the Bush administration, it wasn’t that so many people voted for them, it’s that not enough people voted against them. See what I’m saying? So many people just didn’t vote because they felt disconnected entirely.

So if you’re in a band, I’m not saying every band should sing about politics. I’m saying, if you’re going to engage in expression, whatever you choose to do is a political act. If you’re singing about how great the government is, or you’re singing in a way that supports the idea that our society is so great, so wonderful, but meanwhile this country is paying to explode little children in other places, that is a political act. It’s just part of the propaganda. Everything is political, everything you do is political, always.

It doesn’t mean you need to walk on pins and needles, it just means people should be mindful of how they live, and think about what they do. That’s all.

Shane: So you do vote?

Ian: Of course! I should tell you how I vote. My first vote was in 1980. My voting, because I live in Washington DC, because I know that Democrats and the Republicans are essentially the same, basically. The government in itself, structurally, is a problem. That fact that we have to choose between two parties just limits the situation. Then you have this weird Red and Blue, it’s nonsense. Ultimately there are large, huge, vast amounts of money that are being managed, and the people who are managing it all end up falling into that structure. So you start to recognize what is really happening in Washington D.C. is in fact, it’s just a big company. It’s a giant company.

If you lived in a town with a coal mine, or it’s a big garment town, or in Detroit you have auto, or Los Angeles you have Hollywood, each town has it’s major dominant industry. In Washington D.C., that major industry is the federal government, so if you are aware of that, then you start to recognize, you think about the effects of that company, what is that company doing? In my mind, whoever ends up being the president of the United States, this country deserves. Either they deserve it because they voted for that person, or they deserve it because they allowed that vote to be robbed, to be cheated.

Like I think almost certainly in 2004 Republicans stole that election, almost certainly, but we as a culture, as a people, we allowed them to do it. We didn’t put up enough of a fight.

Shane: What could we have done?

Ian: I think if people were really against it, look at what happened with Viet Nam. I think people could have put a stop to the madness. With Viet Nam, at some point the momentum of the people rose up. My point is whoever is elected is what this country deserves, however, the world does not deserve it. The world does not deserve the American President. The world has no vote for or against, the world has no real power in terms of who ends up running this country. The United States of America has a profound impact on the rest of this world, and the most direct sort of illustration of that power is war.

Obviously, there’s economic influence, there’s all these other influences. There are good things that America does, and there are a lot of bad things America does, but the most deeply wrong form of influence that this country has over the rest of the world is war. So, I always vote for the person, of the two possibly elected people, who is least likely to go to war. That’s how I’ve always voted.

Shane: So you vote for the lessor of two evils?

Ian: I vote for the person who is least likely to go to war. Not necessarily evils, I’m just saying that is what is most important to me, I think that is a fundamental. Two things I would like to see, the war issue, I am just opposed to all war, if someone has it in their mind a mentality that war is actually a way to sort things out. If you look for instance at the Bush White House, I have tried in all my speaking to never formally ever refer to what is happening in Iraq as a war. It is not a war, it is a military action. There is no
other side. Part of the war stuff is the profiteering that is going on.

Shane: We got to go to a Halliburton picnic on our travels, a BBQ for only about 2000 people and how much would you say they spent? $200,000?

Amy: Easily a quarter million dollars, and when it was over they just threw stuff away. There was so much abundance and waste.

Ian: Was everything salted with blood?

Shane: If they did it was good. We didn’t know until we were on the way there that it was Halliburton. I was really paranoid the whole time, I thought we might end up in a ditch.

Ian: You know, it’s funny in those situations, people are good. People who work for it are not necessarily bad people. They are just people.

Shane: Yeah, they kept asking us, “Please tell the world we are good people”.

Ian: Yeah, but they are doing bad things. Structurally, this is the thing, the problem with security is that it’s based on fear, it prays upon people’s fear and especially people’s fear of the “other”.

I don’t know why in the human race there is always all of this brutality. Like the Cambodian killing fields, what was happening to people? How did they get to the place where people could be like ‘Okay, you’re an artist, you’re a teacher, you’re a scientist, I’m going to shoot you all in the head’. Who is pulling the trigger, and what’s on their mind? How do they reach that numbness? They
didn’t think about the fact that ‘You’re a person, you’re a person, you’re a person, I’m a person’?

I feel like institutionally there’s a culture, like if you for instance lived in a house, and in the backyard everyday there was kittens being killed. You may like kittens, I don’t know if you like kittens.

Shane: I don’t want them killed, but I don’t like them in my house.

Ian: Well I don’t know which animal you might like. What animal do you like?

Shane: Puppies.

Ian: Okay Puppies. So everyday out back there’s a guy who kills puppies, and it’s completely sanctioned and legal, but it’s right outside your window and you live in that house. At some point, you’re gonna stop feeling it. It’s the only way to contend with it. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s nonsensical that he would kill the puppies, they are doing nothing, they are just cute.

Shane: Or you are gonna lower yourself to the level of
him, you are gonna go outside and brain him with a rock.

Ian: That’s the same thing, it’s incomprehensible. So I think ultimately that numbness is what allows the government then to say ‘we can do that, so we can do this’, and the fact is the government has been drawn into these really horrific situations. The thing about Iraq, it’s not some guys in a hummer driving around checking up on possible insurgents, people are being eviscerated, incinerated, this is chaos. We’re in a culture that says ‘Well, that’s war’. Fuck war.

Shane: Where did we go so wrong? It does seem to be against the human animal, I mean there is violence in the animal kingdom, but not…

Ian: I don’t think it’s conscious violence.

Shane: Right it’s not like murder or mass murder, it’s territorial, so where did we go wrong?

Ian: I have no fucking clue.

Shane: The Unabomber would say it’s the industrial revolution.

Ian: Yeah, you’re right Kaczynski would have said something along those lines. He does have a point, of course. In my mind, at least in our culture, the overriding emphasis is on profit and wealth. I think it’s actually the modern form of power. Before there were royalty and kings, or this guy has the biggest knife and cuts off more people’s heads. Now the warriors, the really powerful people are the rich people, and profit is so dominating in all business conversations. For instance, if I told you, ‘oh, I’m a football player’, I love to play football, and you’re like really? And, I’m like yeah, and you’re like ‘who do you play for’? Oh, well, I just play around, and you’re like, ‘well, you’re not really a football player because you’re not playing for the NFL or something’. But, what if I love football more than anybody. Or what if I’m an actor and you’re like ‘what movies have you been in’? And I’m like, I just act with some guys in a corner, and you’re like, ‘well, you’re not really an actor’. Because what makes these people is the NFL, it’s the money, it’s just the money.

Shane: Is Capitalism a cancer?

Ian: I didn’t go to college. I didn’t study any of these things. I don’t know the actual definition of these things. I wouldn’t say capitalism, certainly I would say that in my lifetime, in my estimation the way capitalism has been practiced in this culture, I would say it is a deeply diseased system. I don’t know if it’s a cancer or not. Cancer at the moment is apparently incurable so if I was to pass it as cancer then I might think it’s hopeless. I’m pretty hopeful. You don’t have to look any further than the healthcare system. Why is it so hard to fix? It’s because it’s just money, it’s always money, it’s just money.

The Evens have a song called ‘All These Governors’, and it’s not a song raging about how government is inefficient, rather it’s about how government in many ways is extremely efficient. The lyric is, “when things that should work, don’t work, that’s the work of all these governors”. The idea behind that is the government is largely acting on behalf of the corporations, so to keep the power in the hands of those corporations they will undermine things that could naturally work out.

Like last night, you were in Washington D.C. and the streets were filled with people running around, all sorts of different kinds of people, but no one got shot, nobody got killed. People don’t hate each other, they don’t want to do that. But, I can tell you, having gone to many, many, many protests, the problem was not the people, it was the police and anyone who was in St. Paul will tell you it was the police, it was not the people.

Shane: I always wonder why people can’t see that when they watch TV. A lot of people complain about protesters, but none of those protestors came with guns. They’ll say, ‘that stick is a weapon,’ Come on. Guns are in the high schools, pistols are easy to get.

Ian: I think this is one of the other most central issues in this culture, like another thing people have been blind to all along, that the violence comes from the police. That behavior creates situations that then become distractions. And this is the idea of it, that government will always trip things up, because if it could just go smoothly then they’d have nothing to do. There would be no way to profit on it because people would just be like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna grow some food, you want to buy the food or trade me’? Now, I’m not talking about a utopian existence, I’m just talking about a reasonable… why does everything have to be so hard???

Shane: Do you think revolution is possible?

Ian: How do you define revolution?

Shane: Rising up. I define it as an actual moment, like the ‘68 convention, where people are rising up and create an almost immediate change.

Ian: Might have seen one last night.

Shane: Might have.

Ian: I think with the ‘68 convention, if we were sitting her the day after that, we might be saying ‘might have’. You just don’t know, these things resonate.

Like with sound waves, the higher frequencies are short but the lower ones are very long. It’s like how thunder rolls, or a train horn, or a whale call, those are long low waves, on the low end it’s long, and it takes longer to develop. A lot of times transformative moments occur, the effects of which you don’t really start to grapple with until years later.

In the sixties, having grown up during the civil rights stuff as a child, and being so connected and remembering when Martin Luther King was assassinated. For me there are not many things in my life I think are gross, but seeing somebody being hit by a cop, that makes me sick. That to me is obscenity.

As a child it was usually a black person, that’s what I was seeing, and civil rights stuff has upset me in a way, I still am not over. Seeing that imagery as a child, it didn’t make any sense to me, what was happening with White America and Black America. I couldn’t figure it out as a child, I was like ‘What is the problem’? I remember when King was assassinated and riots spread through
washington, and I seriously thought we would be killed by black people. I was six and the whole thing was really confusing.

The point of this is, the civil rights era and my subsequent study of it, had a really profound impact on me. And, I have to say last night watching the Obama acceptance speech, it blew my mind, because that is a long, long, long wave – Forty years.

Shane: So, why do what you do?

Ian: What else should I do? Why shouldn’t I do it? I can’t think of why I shouldn’t. It just seems to be the thing to do.

Shane: Just wanting to know where it comes from, the spark. Like you were talking about the civil right spark and how it’s still resonating.

Ian: Probably my parents first and foremost, and then the kids I grew up with, and of course somewhere my brain is involved, and my being. Growing up in Washington DC I think had a pretty profound impact on me. Growing up in the era in which I grew up in was profound.

I think I was raised to question authority and to not trust the government, not that the government can only do wrong, but not assuming it would always do right. That’s when you get into real trouble, when you trust in your government. You gotta check them, you got to follow up on these things. They’re just people. They’re just trying to get through their day and they’re making decisions.

Especially the way things are structured, and again corporate, bureaucratic structures are anti-human. That’s their job. I mean that’s precisely the point, it’s not profitable to be human. If they could make it all machines, then you’d have the perfect corporate structure, there would be no human error whatsoever, it would just be perpetual computer machinery.

I think that I was just raised in a time that it was normal to question authority. Like I’m not a religious person, I’m not a member, I’m not a Christian. I’m not a subscriber to anything. I don’t have any agenda like that whatsoever.

However, I am baptized Episcopalian, both my parents are theologians, my father at one point thought of being a priest. He is still real involved in the Episcopal Church, but the radical church, and I was baptized at St. Stephen and the Incarnation. I went with my parents every Sunday, and that church was an inner city frontline church that was grappling with the issues of the people. It was on the forefront of liberation theology.

The director William Wendt was a really serious fighter, this was a church in one of the worst neighborhoods in Washington at the time, and he was instrumental in integrating the church, which resulted in the church splitting up. He was involved deeply with civil rights, the Black Panthers were in and out of the church pretty regularly, he had gay marriage in 1972 or 73. Father Wendt was almost excommunicated for allowing a woman to say mass long before women priests were allowed in. He was just a bad ass, and that seemed normal.

When King was assassinated and the riots broke out, this church is a block and a half from the 14th Street corridor, the epicenter of the rioting. There was terrible rioting and buildings were burning and it was Palm Sunday. The church decided we would celebrate Palm Sunday on 14th Street, so we left the building and marched together down 14th Street, amidst smoldering buildings and police. I mean there weren’t people shooting and running around, it was Sunday morning, and it was the residuals of riots. We had the service outside, and I have this very clear recollection of a woman named Mother Scott, who was a blues singer, she was a fixture at the church and she played this guitar and sang, probably ‘We Shall Overcome’ or something like that. But, whatever it was, at that moment I thought ‘Wow, look what music is doing right now’. Look where we stand in this situation, like we stand for peace, we stand for repair. We are not scared of the street, we are on the street, and music is glueing us together. That was like music is no joke, this is serious. That experience had a huge affect on me.

Shane: Are you a religious person then?

Ian: I will also say though, that very early on, in the early seventies, it became clear when I started to learn about all the infighting about church, I also started to think about the doctrine of it, and I was like I cannot hang with this.

Shane: So, is there a difference between religion and spirituality?

Ian: Of course.

Shane: Are you an atheist?

Ian: I don’t know. I mean if people ask me I say I’m a faithful agnostic. I don’t know, I’m just not a subscriber, that’s the main thing. I think a lot of times people think he must subscribe to something, he must be this, that, or something, and I don’t. I’m not. I don’t hate religions, I’m just me.

Shane: Do you consider yourself an anarchist?

Ian: No. In my practice, I’m probably more of an anarchist than most self described anarchists, but I’m not an ‘ist’ anything. I’m just a person, I’m not a subscriber. I’m just a person, I just do my work.

Shane: Is art necessary in our society?

Ian: Yes.

Shane: For everyone?

Ian: What does that mean?

Shane: When I grew up my family was a lot of plumbers, and they worked really hard and then they came home and drank really hard, and I felt like if they had art in their lives, or they beat their kids, and that was their art. But maybe if they had an outlet like a guitar or painting, things would have been different. Maybe not art, maybe creativity…

Ian: I think expression. I suspect, and I don’t know this, I didn’t go to college. Not that anybody in college knows either. I suspect that part of being a human being is that there is a component within us that is what we do, whether it is making music, or art, or building things, or cooking, or something. We are just connected to that. I don’t know how these things work. For instance you see, a dachshund, those long skinny dogs, you know what I am talking about? They are designed to go into holes to go after their prey.

You start seeing in nature there are all these different designs, all these animals have all these really different designs, and you start to think what is that really for? There are all these different ways that these animals have evolved, there is something to their actual being, I suspect that each of us also have something we just are, we just should do. I don’t know what it is exactly or how to describe that. For me music is not a choice.

I think probably people who beat their children are angry at themselves, but we often hit those who are within arm’s reach. People who beat their children are angry with themselves, and they are angry because they are not doing what they are supposed to or want to do. I don’t know what that is. That’s what I suspect.

So, I would say music is an expression, I have often said music is a form of communication that almost certainly predates language, so obviously it’s been around forever and ever. I’d imagine that visual art also predates language. I would imagine people would line things up, rocks or sticks, because they are translating, they are seeing something and recreating it. Artists are translators ultimately.

When I make music, I am hearing something out there in the world, and when I play guitar I am trying to say, here’s what I’m hearing. I am going to filter it and put it in a distilled version for you. If I am a photographer, I just take a picture, but if you start thinking about what makes a great photo, it’s because photographers see a great composition of something, a photographer is able to see something, capture it, and say here’s what I saw. It’s translation, and I think that most people, or all people, there is something that they are made to translate. But, I think quite often again because of the structure of our society, because of the idea that making money is the primary goal, quite often that which they are built to translate, that which they are built to do is suffocated by what they think they are supposed to be doing in terms of making money or making a living.

Shane: Is there such a thing as too much free speech?

Ian: Not that I know of, what do you think?

Shane: Absolutely not. Not one thing should not be spoken.

Ian: I would agree with that.

Question: Have you ever been maligned, run out of town or picked on for your beliefs or what you do? Or maybe misunderstood?

Ian: I think that I am a bit elusive on that for people because I don’t expect people to understand me always and it’s okay if they don’t. I’ve worked hard to not see my life as a movie that everyone has to understand, and see, and get.

I’m just one of billions of living beings on this Earth. I mean for all the issues that we are talking about – You study this and I study this, and we think about it. It doesn’t mean a fucking thing ultimately. I mean, right now, at this very moment this entire block could just explode. A crack could open up and just drop us in, and we would be just eviscerated, and it won’t mean a thing to most of the people in this world. It will have zero effect on the revolution of this earth, like the earth will continue to spin.

Like when the planes crashed in 2001, the Pentagon is three quarters of a mile over there, I could walk to the top of the hill and see the smoke. I woke up, people were calling me. “Did you look?” And I looked, I turned the television on and saw the second plane hit and was like, ok, it was not an accident. I get it, human brutality again, and I just turned the TV off. I’m just not gonna
watch it. Because like puppy beating in your back yard, this idea that I could watch something and understand it. It’s not possible, it’s incomprehensible what happened.

To watch it over and over and over to come to terms with it, all that really is occurring is that one has to go numb. It’s incomprehensible. Once the gums go numb is when the dentist really kicks in with the violence, they don’t cut you and drill until you are numb. That’s the same, people are trying to look at this thing and understand they go numb, fear makes us go numb, and I am not interested in being numb. I want to be alive. So I turned off the TV and I went back and read a book and people are calling me, “What are you gonna do ?”, and I’m like, I’m gonna read a book. Then, I looked out the window, and I saw these trees outside this window and I saw some birds up there, and I thought. These birds in these trees do not give a fuck about what is occurring in New York City, or even a mile away from here. This means nothing to them, and if I have to align myself with living beings at that moment, if I had to align myself, I’m gonna align myself with the birds and the trees because, it’s not that I don’t care for the people involved, I do care, but I cannot get caught up in this cycle of fear.

I thought about World War One, a colossal, disastrous mess where hundreds of thousands of people were killed daily and still we can laugh and smile today. So I knew we would navigate this horrific incident. But I was not going to navigate it by becoming inured to my own feeling.

Then I sat right here and I got out all the mail, because people write me and I answer all my mail, and I sat and I dated each one of those things September 10th, because I didn’t want people to think I was insane. “What was he doing writing letters on the 11th?” I answered like thirty letters that day. And, every time I wrote it I thought, this is a vote for the future. I’m writing a letter someone will read on the 12th, the 13th, or 14th, and I know those days will come and that’s why I’m writing this – it’s a vote for the future. That’s just the way I live.

We can either behave like them, like the bad parts of this world, or we can spend all of our time trying to fight against them, but either way we get caught up in the same dance. Or, we just try to think about life straight up and be like, this is real, I’m here. I didn’t become real, I am real. I’ve always been real. As a kid I was real.

This is a big problem in our lives, people think “oh kids, you have to get real at some point.” Fuck that, you are real when you’re five, when you’re seven and ten and twelve, you’re real. You might be more real! I mean there’s nothing more real than a five month old kid who’s just like, “I’m shitting out of my ass right now.” “I just spit up.” “I’m tired.” “I’m hungry.” “I’m happy.” That’s just real, that’s just pure realness right there. He’s just a kid, he’s just real, and I think this idea that children aren’t real is nuts. But it’s again, it’s another aspect of our society that keeps us always scrambling, trying to get caught up, to just get back to zero.

Shane: What is the best & worst thing about America?

Ian: I don’t make lists.

Amy: Do you think the human race could live without war, or is that an inevitability?

Ian: I think it could.

Shane: Has it ever? Have we done without war?

Ian: I think we could, I’m sure there’s been a day or two.

Shane: When we started our trip, I really wanted to make a damning document of American and then say “Fuck You”, and leave, but we found out everywhere we went that people are good. There is more good than there is bad.

Ian: I think if you went around the world you would find that echoed, people are good. They are just good. There are problems certainly with power, but here’s the thing with power, it’s like winning, and to be a winner requires a loser.

Like I play a pick up softball game every week in the Summer. It’s a punk rock kind of pick up game, no set teams, whoever comes plays. And, I am an advocate for no scorekeeping, I just want to play softball. I don’t give a fuck about what the numbers are. There are other people who play who like the idea of a score, so I said we could do that. So, I was an advocate for what I call a “unified scoring concept”. The unified score is great, let’s say you have two teams and one team has scored five times and the other team has scored four times, then the score of the game would be nine. “Look, together we got nine runs”. I just like that idea.

Winning requires losing, and I don’t think we really have to have either. Like with bands, in the old days when bands used to open for other bands they used to screw their sound. The headlining band would not let the opening band turn up as loud or screw with their sound, and make them sound a little worse, so there wouldn’t be any competition, or they would cripple them a little bit. I just think that is not that way I would want to live.

I think there is plenty for everybody. Let’s just spread the wealth. It seems so obvious. I am all for spreading the wealth. I love how upset the Republicans were about that idea, apparently they’ve always been on one end of that, haven’t they? That’s their deal, like ‘Why should we share our shit? Fuck You’!

It’s like the idea of the three of us sitting at this table, and I have an enormous pile of food, and I am eating the food and you have none, and this just goes on for days. At some point you’re starving, and I have much more food than I can possibly eat by myself, so how would it benefit me to have you both die at this table? It would only be unpleasant really. You would be upset while you’re dying you might become violent, eventually it would probably be somewhat grisly, and then you would stink because you’d be rotting. How is that a good arrangement? Meanwhile all the food I have, I can’t possibly eat it all, so that food goes to waste, it just rots there as well. It’s not possible that people who have as much money as they have, they could never spend it, ever. They just want the piles, and they keep thinking, ‘That pile should be mine’.

I have this weird concept, the idea that one could be reasonable and good and wealthy, but to be rich, you have to be an asshole. What that means is, if you live efficiently, and you save, you may end up with a little bit of a pile, on which you can live off of, that’s being wealthy. Fair enough. But to be rich, that means if a dollar drops on this table out of nowhere, it just appears, and I’m like well that’s mine. And you’re like ‘Why, we’re here too?’ Well, fuck you, that’s my dollar. That should be mine, I’m entitled to that dollar. That’s being rich.

Shane: Would you ever consider running for office?

Ian: I’ve had some really good people say, ‘Oh you should run for mayor of Washington’, but I would lose. I don’t know if I could do that because there is a lot of bureaucratic bullshit. I think what they are looking for is somebody who is dependable. I think quite often because records are static, they are frozen moments, they are never changing, so they are dependable. And that’s why when bands or artists do something that veers from that, it kind of stains the record, or soils it or makes it unlistenable, because our relationship with records is so profound. I appreciate that people think of me as dependable, and I think I’m pretty dependable. What they are reacting to is wanting to be able to believe in something.

Honestly, if somebody said we really need you to do this, I would consider something, but that day will never come. I don’t know any politicians, I don’t hang out in that scene. Like I grew up in Washington DC, I don’t know the government people. Capital Hill might as well be Boston to me, not that there’s anything wrong with Boston, I mean I go down there and I don’t know any of those people, I don’t know anything about it. I’m not involved with it. I am no more welcome at the White House than you are. Just get in line like any other jackass. In fact, I may be less welcome. I don’t know what you do, I don’t know what you’ve worked on or what your life is. So maybe you have stuff in your past, or you said things, or you’re on record. I’m on the record saying a lot of things that would probably make me less inclined to be invited to the White House.

Shane: I am that person by the way, I have been run out of a town for stuff I said. That’s what started this trip.

Ian: So you understand, if you’re on record and you say stuff, eventually it can come back.

A thanx to Amy, my dear wife for helping out with this interview.

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