Ian MacKaye’s Visceral Relationship With Life
Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman discusses a truly independent mindset.
Posted Apr 10, 2018
“You tell me that I make no difference
At least I’m f*ckin’ trying
What the f*ck have you done?
It’s in my eyes
And it doesn’t look that way to me
In my eyes”
—From “In My Eyes” by Minor Threat
Ian MacKaye was not always “Ian MacKaye.”
It is only now with the benefit of historical perspective that we can properly evaluate how groundbreaking MacKaye’s music, personal ethos and business model have been. MacKaye not only helped shape hardcore punk with his bands Teen Idles and Minor Threat, but also he went on to create the “post-hardcore” music genre with his band Fugazi.
And when MacKaye came into the punk rock scene, “sex, drugs and rock and roll” was the norm. However, MacKaye decided that he did not want to numb himself out. And with the song, “Straight Edge,” he inspired others to take on a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle, giving birth to the Straight Edge punk rock sub-culture.
Prior to MacKaye co-founding the record label, Dischord Records in 1979, most bands sought only to play music while leaving the “business” of the band to labels, managers and other handlers. Bands typically had very little interest or say in things such as ticket and album prices or whether shows were accessible to kids.
But rather than work within that model, MacKaye, along with other hardcore artists such as Greg Ginn of Black Flag and Jello Biafra of Alternative Tentacles, decided to take a Do-It-Yourself approach. MacKaye recorded and distributed his bands’ music, as well as the music of other bands in his hometown of Washington D.C., such as Government Issue, Scream, Marginal Man, and Jawbox. And he insisted that shows be all ages and that ticket and album prices be affordable so that his music and performances would be accessible to the kids who made up the hardcore scene.
While MacKaye was lauded for his ethical approach, some questioned its economic viability. But now we know that MacKaye’s instincts were right; 37 years later, Dischord Records is still thriving and is considered the pinnacle of ethical independent label success.
In short, when MacKaye was just another kid trying to figure out his way in the world, he could not have known that he would one day become a living legend. Mackaye’s ongoing influence in music and culture is perhaps best summarized in the book American Hardcore by author Steven Blush, who wrote that MacKaye “… set in motion an aesthetic that begat almost everything we call indie music.”
And so I talked with MacKaye to understand how he was able to cultivate an ethos that was so creative artistically, innovative professionally and ethical personally. During our conversation, three very clear principles emerge that have guided his approach to life. First, whereas others passively accept what is presented to them and may actually find comfort in societal norms, MacKaye questions everything.
“I ask why? It’s a way of navigating – looking at things from a different point of view. Our society is largely predicated upon, ‘This is how you do this … This is how this is done. Now you’re here, you must do this,’” MacKaye told me. “I had found that by and large the people in the world I existed in – it wasn’t that they weren’t good people or they weren’t capable of asking any questions. They just didn’t know that there were any questions to ask.”
Second, do not wait for others to do things for you. By doing things yourself, you are more likely both to achieve your goals and stay more engaged in your life.
“I have a philosophy about life in general, which is ‘That’s the weather, dress accordingly’ … There are a lot of things that are not right and not fair and not good and I get it,” MacKaye said. “So figure out how you’re going to deal with it. That may play a role in my constant thinking about things. I was put in circumstances beyond my control. So the only thing I could control is how to navigate within those circumstances.”
Accordingly, MacKaye does not define success in terms of money, but rather by the degree of connection to one’s life. “I just don’t give a f*ck about money – not in the way other people do. I’m not goal-oriented. And I’m not success-oriented – at least not by other people’s definition. It depends on how you define success,” he explained. “There are bands that are not nearly as interesting or as talented or creative than some of the bands that I’ve been in, but who have been vastly more popular and who made exponentially more money. They have people do sh*t for them. And that’s success for them. For me, it’s not. I feel like that visceral relationship with life is really important.”
And third, in addition to connecting with himself, MacKaye wanted to connect with others – particularly those who value challenging conventional thinking. He rejected the notion of competition with others and felt that he was strongest and most fulfilled in the midst of a like-minded community.
“I was looking for a counterculture, an underground – something that would question conventional thinking in society,” MacKaye described. “I always see people as fellow travelers. I don’t think of people as competition. One way to be a star is to be part of a constellation … you are with other stars that you feel connected to,” he said. “And I don’t mean rock star or movie star. I mean literally a light – a star. And that’s why we seek these connections.”
As MacKaye describes the different choices he’s made across the different areas of his life, you can see these three principles resurface to varying degrees. As a result, MacKaye found himself repeatedly in circumstances in which he was pushing the envelope and forging his own path rather than simply accepting the road presented to him. One of the first issues MacKaye confronted was the expectation of a conventional educational path in which college was assumed to follow high school.
“By the time you are able to be consciously aware of your surroundings, you’re in a structure of school. It’s always omnipresent. It’s always looming. It’s always what you do – you’re in high school and so now you go to college,” MacKaye described. “I’m not against learning more. I’m not against college necessarily. But I’m certainly against the idea of ‘now you go to college.’ It felt like a slippery slope. And that just seemed insane to me when I was in high school. Why would you go to college after 12 years spending all of your time in an institutional setting? When do we get to be alive?”
Part of the reason that college felt like a deadening experience was that it came with severe financial baggage that would further limit his freedom and flexibility.
“There’s something I want to make very clear. There is a sense that I must come from a wealthy family, and that I am able to do these things because I have reserves. And I just wanted to state for the record that is not the case,” he explained. “I graduated in 1980 and my family would not have been able to afford my college by any means. I had no money and would have taken loans. The ink on those loans wouldn’t have dried before those loans would come due. You’d have to go right to work to start paying it off. And that to me felt like indentured servitude. It just seemed like a sad way to operate. It’s not the way I want to live. I just couldn’t bear the idea of immediately subjecting myself to another grid. I wanted to have some open space.”
MacKaye found early on that it wasn’t just school that could feel restrictive and inflexible. His experience with music instruction, where one may expect an outlet for self-expression, was equally constraining. For example, MacKaye started playing piano on his own when he was 3 or 4 and composed several songs by the age of 8.
“They were very fundamental, simple songs – garage rocky 1-4-5 simple kind of songs,” he recalled. “But I liked them, I liked playing them and I loved the piano. I would get lost playing the piano.” At around that time, he began taking formal piano lessons at American University. And at his first lesson, his teacher asked him to play some of his songs. “He stood there and listened to them,” MacKaye recalled. “And after I finished he said, ‘That’s nice. It’s not piano, but it’s nice.’”
MacKaye found that his relation to the piano was different from what his teacher envisioned. To MacKaye, piano was a vehicle for expressing himself, whereas his teacher saw piano as a discipline to which MacKaye should submit himself.
“The whole point of the keyboard was to interact with it as you are, and to make sounds that make sense to you. That was the relationship that I was having. What he was talking about was a formal relationship in which you are following certain strictures or structures or rules or approaches that would play a role in a different arena,” he said. “I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. But then it became clear to me that when he said the word piano, there was a capital ‘P’ in front of it. There was a formal sense of what piano is. And for me piano was a lower case ‘p.’ It was more like breathing.”
MacKaye eventually found his constellation – his tribe – in the punk rock world. In the punk rock community, he found kindred spirits who embraced his alternative viewpoints and approach to music. In the punk world, originality and intensity were valued over formal training and structure. So, whereas many bands made up of teenage kids were focused on formal training and learning cover songs, MacKaye was focused more on expressing his original concepts regardless of whether he was considered skilled at his instrument by conventional standards.
“We didn’t cover songs … the time was high school. Nobody wrote their own songs. It was very rare or they wrote one or two blues songs, otherwise, they were doing their version of recognizable top 40 hits – so-called classic rock. But we just wrote our own songs. That was not a common practice. But it made sense to us,” MacKaye explained.
“The first thing you hear if you want to be in a band is you have to learn how to play an instrument – in the structure of formal lessons or whatever," continued MacKaye. "And I just rejected that. I thought it was ridiculous … I wasn’t going to pay someone to teach me how to play guitar because that’s not the kind of guitar I wanted to play. Not only didn’t it matter if you didn’t play formally well but it was actually to your benefit if you didn’t because it was more rigid. Punk gave me full permission to do whatever I wanted to do. In my mind punk was an audience for new ideas.”
But even punk rock had its rigid traditions. And one of them was that certain cities mattered whereas others did not. At the time that MacKaye entered the punk rock world, it felt as though punk rock could only exist in two places – New York City or London.
“So, this is an ongoing thing for me, to look at situations and figure out how I can navigate them in a way that makes sense to me, that feels right to me. When I got into bands, for instance, when I got into punk even, there was a sense in Washington that you couldn’t really be a punk rocker in Washington, D.C. because it wasn’t gritty enough or you weren’t lower class or working class. There were all these reasons you couldn’t be a punk here. Maybe if you moved to New York, you could be a punk.
“In my mind that was insane because it would suggest that creativity, passion or desire for tribe or community or boredom or frustration or anger – that these were geographically designated states – which is ridiculous. Things spring everywhere. Ideas spring everywhere. And what people are confused about is they think that New York – at least on the east coast – is where the industry would support music, the industry would support fashion. In their minds, it didn’t make any sense to be a punk in Washington because you couldn’t make a living from it. But, I wasn’t interested in that anyway. So, when I was told I had to move to New York, I’m like, ‘I’m never moving to New York – I’m going to do it here. Besides, I was in high school so what the f*ck?”
The use of drugs and alcohol have historically been rampant in the rock music scene in general, and punk rock was no exception. Some of MacKaye’s heroes such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died of overdosing on drugs, as had punk rockers Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders. And even among MacKaye’s family and friends, drinking was simply a rite of passage.
“I have this recollection that it wasn’t that you get to drink beer when you turn 18, which was the drinking age here at the time. It was that you had to drink beer – that was the adult soda. That’s how my mind worked. When you were 18, that’s what you had to drink from now on.
"Every adult I knew drank – period. My grandparents, both my parents, every adult that came into our house drank and I thought that’s what all adults do. Adult men – they have to shave and drink beer or alcohol. So I thought that’s just a part of life.
“My friends, when they were all getting high and drinking at age 12 and 13, I thought why do you want to do this now, when you have to do it when you turn 18? Why not enjoy being a kid? But, also, it just seemed boring. I was like, ‘let’s go build a fort’ and they were like, ‘let’s get drunk.’ It just seemed stupid. Maybe I missed the boat that they all got on … It was another example of having an exterior or observational point of view. I was on the outside.”
But for MacKaye, rejection of alcohol was not a simple matter of teenage rebellion. One of the primary reasons people enjoy drinking alcohol or doing drugs is that they get to temporarily escape from their current reality. But that was exactly why MacKaye did not want to use.
“One reason that I never got involved with any drugs and didn’t drink is that I just want to be here. I just want to be present for it all. I was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix as a kid – still obsessed with Jimi Hendrix – I’m a 55-year-old. But I remember in 1975 I’d met people who’d seen Hendrix – he’d been dead for 5 years. And I said, ‘What was he like?’ And almost every person I asked said they couldn’t remember because they were too high. And I thought that’s crazy. I want to remember forever seeing the Bad Brains. I want to remember forever seeing Black Flag. I want to forever remember seeing the Cramps.
"But I also grew up at a time when there was so much damage being done. I mean Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were people who I absolutely loved … clearly substances were not good for them. Someone once said to me, ‘You love Hendrix and Hendrix was so creative, and he was using all kinds of drugs.’ I said, ‘Sure, but I want to point out two things. First, who knows what he could have done if he hadn’t addled himself? And second, he’s dead.’”
But alcohol use was not something that MacKaye rejected simply for his own ability to be present and focused. It was also something that directly interfered with his ability to connect with the punk rock community he loved. Specifically, at the time, most shows only admitted kids who were of drinking age, which at the time was 18 in Washington D.C. This meant as someone under 18, MacKaye would not have been allowed to attend the shows that were so influential to him because of alcohol sales. This did not sit well with MacKaye.
“When I was first seeing shows I was 15 years old. In June of ’79, The Damned were coming. And they were one of our favorite bands. And Henry (Rollins) and I listened to them all the time. The Bad Brains were opening for them and I had not seen the Bad Brains – I’d seen them around town. This was a really important show. And I had to get into the show but I was 17 years old and had already been thrown out of other venues or had been refused because I was underage.
"So, I wound up making a fake ID and then arguing my way in … I can’t imagine having missed that show because both bands were so incredible. But the Bad Brains especially – seeing local kids on stage making music like that … that was a profound defining moment in my life. I would not have been able to attend based on the fact that I was born in 1962 and the show was in 1979.
“The idea that people are locked out of those potential moments based on their age is insanity. Especially since kids who are 15, 16 years old – music is their safety net. That is the thing that they are using to define themselves and who they are. That’s how they’re finding their other people and their tribe. Music is so important … not all people, but most people. And yet these same people are locked out based on the sale of alcohol. And that is tragic and obscene.”
For MacKaye, this realization was part of how he developed his business practices with his bands, and eventually Dischord Records. Rather than being profit-focused, he was focused on experience and community. And it, therefore, made no sense when it was his turn to be in a band, to lock kids out of shows. Why would he want to limit his community? So, he focused on putting on all-ages shows and selling tickets and albums at a lower price.
“I wouldn’t want to pay it – why would I want to charge it? If you have lower door prices and lower record prices you make less money. That’s just part of the deal. And I don’t have any problem with that because the money was not really the point. The point was interaction.
"It’s in those exchanges in many ways that I derive the most pleasure. When I book a show, I like playing the show, but I also really enjoy talking with promoters and working out the details. That to me is the best value of the whole thing – the interaction … It’s not cost-effective. I have worked most of my life to do only all-ages shows. So, in DC we have an unusual scene where the primary venues are all ages and people growing up in the city don’t have to think twice about it. You always get to see these bands.”
Access to shows and affordable prices were not the only ways that MacKaye conducted himself differently in terms of business practices. He also tended to avoid more of the formal business practices most people employ that would have tended to make the relationship between Dischord Records and the bands they represented more business rather than personal.
“So, it goes down the line – every time someone says you can’t do something, I’m like, ‘Well that’s weird, why can’t you do that?’ When I started a record label, they said you have to do all of the ‘officializing’ – of which we had none. They said your band needs a manager – I’ve never had a manager. I don’t have a lawyer and I don’t use contracts.
“The label turned 37 years old in December. If anything, I’d like to think that my work has been – if not proof, at least evidence of some sort – that there are other ways to navigate this empty field.”
To be sure, forging his own path was no easy task for MacKaye. For example, Fugazi was courted by several major labels, and they often had to turn down shows that didn’t abide by their ethical approach.
“People say it’s easy for you because you have a lot of power and you’ve been around forever and you have this sway and you can do things. But what people don’t hear and what people are unaware of is all of the times that we had to say no – all the shows we didn’t play when they refused to yield. When a venue said we are not going to do all ages, then we said we’re not going to play. And we walked away from things. And people are unaware of that because they weren’t shows.
“They didn’t know it didn’t happen because the show didn’t happen. So they’re like, ‘You can go ahead and change things because you’re in a position of power.’ My thinking is that the only way you’re going to rise in power is to know yourself. And the only way to know yourself is to say no yourself – to disagree. If you don’t agree with something, don’t do it. But don’t do it because that’s what people do. That’s war.”
From MacKaye’s perspective, he is providing an example to others that they too can do what he did. People can create something out of nothing, live a visceral life based on their ethical principles and build a community. So, he was shocked to discover that many people did not take home that message. Rather they stood in awe of MacKaye and saw his accomplishments as untouchable. He recounted hearing an interview of one of his heroes – H.R. of Bad Brains – in which H.R. felt that MacKaye’s accomplishments had isolated him.
“At some point, I came across a recording of an interview that H.R. did – probably late ‘80s, maybe early ‘90s. And the interviewer asked, ‘What about Ian?’ And the interviewer started to talk about me. And I felt my ears perk up because I’d never heard H.R. talk about me.
“And H.R. said something that was so startling for me. He said, ‘Well Ian has worked really hard to create something. But what he’s created is an island. And now all people can point to the island and say, ‘There’s Ian – he can live on the island, but we can’t.’
“And I was stunned. And I thought that was bullsh*t – I didn’t agree with him at first. But then I realized that people would often say to me, ‘Well, you can do that but we can’t … Fugazi can do that because they’re Fugazi.’ And I started realizing that was pretty evident in my other work – Dischord and my other work,” MacKaye described. “And it was very interesting to me because from the very beginning of my work in terms of punk rock, the whole idea was people saying, ‘Well you can’t do this because you’re just some kids. Well f*ck, watch us do it.”
This has been a bitter pill to swallow for MacKaye, who feels that his core message has perhaps been lost.
“I’m committed to the idea so people can say, ‘Yes we can do it. Because those guys did it, we can do it.' But instead, for some people, maybe even many people, it was ‘Those guys can do it but we can’t.’ And I think H.R. may have been right about that to some degree. It made me sad to think about but it was an observation that I had never really thought about. He thought I had isolated myself, which may be true.”
But MacKaye has no regrets. Years later, his creative approach, as well as his personal and professional ethics have proven to the world that people can be successful by being true to their vision. And he has continued to work on several projects, including (and at the risk of committing heresy, my favorite Ian MacKaye project) The Evens, a band that he formed with his wife Amy Farina and that Pitchfork described as “a wholly distinct and vital group … performances that MacKaye would likely have been unable to deliver in any other context.”
“There’s not a lot of people like me out there. Not a lot of 55-year-old guys who have record labels who are still wandering around Dischord House doing the sh*t that I do.” I always did all these things to be with people – that’s the whole point. I’ve still got my tribes,” MacKaye said.
And he is as defiant as ever – and hopes that people heed his example. Because for MacKaye, the times may change, but that does not mean that the spirit of innovation and creativity that he has employed has to change.
“I can’t stand when people say you wouldn’t have had this or that. As if in 1979 or 1980 there was opportunity abounding, which is ridiculous. The situation at the time was in some ways more dire in terms of how one gets into the music world, and being laughed at, frankly for being Washingtonians and playing music and not moving to New York.
“People say, ‘Could Dischord have been started in 2017? How would you have done it?’ I don’t know how I would have done it … But I’d like to believe that if I was 16 years old today, I’d look at the circumstances around this and say, ‘Alright here’s how I’m going to f*cking play this.’ I’m going to play it in a way that makes sense to me.”