The Real MacKaye
Ian MacKaye is a man who likes to get to the point, so here it is: MacKaye was one of the primary architects of punk rock in America. The British invasion pulled stateside rock 'n' roll out of a creative morass in the early '60s. MacKaye--son of a U.S. senator and founder of the fiercely independent Washington, D.C., label Dischord Records--was a major figure in an early '80s punk scene that kept the flame of Amerindie rock burning deep beneath the candied glaze that coated the commercial charts and airwaves of that era.
Many also regard MacKaye as the moral conscience of punk. He and the other members of Minor Threat were the progenitors of "straight edge," a subgenre of punk whose adherents disdained drinking, drugs and carnivorous dietary habits while endorsing political awareness and personal responsibility for individual action.
MacKaye doesn't just talk the talk--he still makes a concerted effort to keep ticket and tape prices for his band, Fugazi, under six bucks, and the band's music is as wildly iconoclastic as ever. Red Medicine, Fugazi's latest, is anything but formulaic. At times hyperaggressive and confrontational, the album also provides moments of tense, hypnotic beauty that stretch the accepted boundaries of punk.
MacKaye's reputation as a rabid critic of the rock press precedes him, but in a recent New Times interview, he was forthcoming about Fugazi's new album, the current state of punk and his own emotional growth since his days in Minor Threat.
New Times: The new record has an almost jazzy feel to it at times. Have you grown bored with the hard-core form?
MacKaye: Personally, I haven't been involved with hard-core since 1983. Minor Threat was a band that was totally involved with that, but by the time I was in Embrace in 1985, I was playing music that wasn't even reminiscent of hard-core. I don't agree with any form, to tell you the truth; Ijust play music. I am interested in punk rock, but only from my own point of view.There is no set definition, there's no platform or program that I can tell you about.
This new record is just another record we put out, that came from the four of us, and it's what we want to do. I don't think it was any kind of deliberate reaction. I mean, obviously, everything you do is, to some degree, a reaction, but it wasn't like we sat down and said, "We gotta do something different." It was like we sat down and said, "We gotta do."
Punk rock has become big business. Led by Nirvana, which rewrote the music's syllabus in letters big enough for the unenlightened to read, bands such as Green Day, the Offspring, and Sponge have vaulted the charts and entered heavy rotation on MTV while racking up seven-digit sales. What's more, they all sound remarkably like Bad Religion, Social Distortion, and--no surprise here--Fugazi. It's a curious state of affairs for veterans such as MacKaye.
NT: What do you think about the success of "the new punk"?
MacKaye: It's not my place to be talking about other bands, but, from my point of view, when I got into punk rock, it was because major labels, and the industry as it stood, didn't pay any attention whatsoever to people with radical ideas or primitive approaches to music. And what I discovered was that, by becoming a part of a subculture like punk rock, there was a lot more room for freedom of expression.
And nothing has changed. The freedom still exists, although there are people in these bands who are punk rockers or whatever, and it's kind of hard for me to accept that they're a punk band if they're also fully engaging in the kind of machinery that's kept freethinking music down for such a long time. Every band is faced with a different set of circumstances in their own lives. I just don't recognize that as punk rock; to me it's pop/mainstream music now. It may resemble punk, and it may be perfectly good, but it's not what I'd call punk rock, because, to me, punk rock will always fly in the face of convention. Always.
NT: Hasn't the mass marketing of punk at least translated into more commercial interest in Fugazi?
MacKaye: We've always done really well, but in some ways it really hurt us because we get confused with all those bands. And spiritually, it hurts us because it makes me a lot less interested in playing music.
Rock 'n' roll, now as ever, belongs to the young. But the thing that made old-school punk a unique form was that, at its best, it not only drove your mom and dad crazy, but also demanded that you think for yourself. That is, it had an inherently political agenda. It's the lack of angry caring that upsets so many aging punks about the current punk revival.
NT: You've talked a lot recently about the death of politics in music. Could you explain exactly what you mean, and your strategy for keeping politics a relevant part of Fugazi?
MacKaye: Political songwriting and political agendas become self-parodies really quickly, because they're really predictable, and also completely time-lined. In other words, people who wrote songs like "Reagan Sucks" are not going to speak toanybody now because ... people could give a fuck about Reagan. So in my recording, I've always tried to stay away from direct issues that are tied to a date, because I think that I see things in a much more overall view. Political stuff is tied to its era.
I think also that, for a lot of people, there's been a total de-emphasis on lyrics, because there was such an intense kind of scrutiny on people meaning things; there was so much energy on the meaning and sincerity that people have become sort ofembarrassed to care. But that kind of goes along with all of America; the whole idea of political correctness is such a cynical, shitty idea. And it runs a parallel line with the idea that your lyrics shouldn't mean anything. Because people are embarrassed to admit that they care about theworld that they live in. It's really a shame.
NT: Are you angrier now than when you started Minor Threat?
MacKaye: There's no way to measure that. You can't measure anger. You can't measure it because circumstances are different. I mean, there might have been things when I was in Minor Threat that I had less control over that might have made me seem extremely more angry, or more defensive, or more violent, even. But there's a lot of knowledge I have now that translates itself into a whole different kind of real outrage, or anger that I have more control over, because I'm older and have more experience with my emotions. It just means that I don't necessarily go punch holes in walls.
Once upon a time, Ian MacKaye was infamous for punching holes in things--most notably, people who pissed him off at Minor Threat shows. But time has a way of changing a man.
NT: What's the best way to win a fight?
MacKaye: Don't. Don't fight. I haven't fought since 1983 or '84. Even though there's an interesting exchange of energy and great adrenaline rushes, ultimately, it's a dead-end road. I'm totally opposed to fighting. I don't have any regrets about what I did, I just know that it's not worthwhile; it really does just lead to more violence. I mean, there are so many people whose only language is violence. If you have to resort to fighting them, you're obviously speaking their language. And you can't always win; eventually, there's someone who's going to beat your ass, and then it doesn't make any difference. So people ask me, "What do you do to stay out of fights?"
I stay out of fights! I walk out of rooms. I'm not interested in fighting.
NT: What's the biggest misconception people have of you as a public figure?
MacKaye: Probably that I'm a superconservative zealot, or that I'm a fascist about my ideas. That I have a superhigh moral code. It's all nonsense. I think of myself as a totally normal person, and I'm surrounded by people who do all kind of things. I'm 33 years old, and there's nothing basically that anyone can do to offend me, or gross me out. So it's interesting that people have this perception that I'm like a monk or something. It's ridiculous.
So who is Ian MacKaye? Perhaps a clue lies in the lyrics of "Long Distance Runner," the final cut on Red Medicine: "If I stop to catch my breath/I might catch a piece of death," MacKaye whispers over a venomous bass line. "My fight's not with you/It's with gravity/I'm a long distance runner."
When the dust of the punk renaissance settles, and the music industry has moved on to claim its next victim, punk will be left again to the people for whom it has been, and always will be, a kind of religion. And MacKaye will be the man who is still there, and still running.
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