I had the occasion this evening to speak with Ian MacKaye, the former frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi, who will be visiting Ypsilanti this Friday evening to play an all-ages show at the Dreamland Theater alongside Amy Farina, in their heavy yet minimalist two-piece band The Evens. Here’s a rough, slightly-edited transcript of our conversation, followed by the raw audio, which I believe may also find its way, in a somewhat reworked form, onto the airwaves of WCBN tomorrow.
After thanking Ian for being a longtime advertiser in my zine, Crimewave USA, I just jumped right into the questions…. Here goes…
MARK: I’m curious as to how this show came together and what you have planned for Ypsi… You’re doing a show in Ypsi on Friday, and a show in Detroit the next day… Is that the whole tour, and then you’re headed back to D.C., or are you…
IAN: No, we’re going to Chicago and back. Amy and I, for the last four of five years of our lives, we’ve been dealing with things that have required our being here (in D.C.). We became parents and we also had a lot of family stuff going on. And a bunch of stuff with the label. Just tons of work. And we just finally managed to finish the record, and got that out last fall, and we were like, “Great, now we can just play.” So, throughout the fall, when our kid was in school, on the weekends, we’d just go. Basically we had a three hour radius. (We’d just pick) somewhere that we could get to and back without too much pain, over the weekend. And, then, in April, we took a couple of weeks off and went to California, and did about about six shows in Southern California. The plan all along had been, once our son’s school was over, then we were going to do a couple of short tours over the summer, fitting them in between various things that had to be taken care of here. So, I was just looking at maps, and Amy was going, “We need to do that tour,” and I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it figured out.” But then I was like, “OK, this is it. Let’s just go to Chicago and back, and do a north route.”
So, we’ll do Pittsburgh, and, then, I was thinking, the Ann Arbor area, Detroit, we have friend in Kalamazoo, Chicago, and back through Cleveland, Akron and Morgantown. Very simple. Very clean. And, because of the way The Evens operate… First of all, we don’t play rock clubs. So we don’t ever have to deal with scheduling issues, and that world. I mean, most clubs are booked out months in advance. And, frankly, most clubs now, the booking is monopolized by agents. So, if you’re a band, you have a very hard time booking shows, because agencies have holds on dates as much as six months out. But, because we operate outside of that – we have our own PA, our own lights, and we’re not terribly loud, we play by ourselves, and we play early shows – it suddenly opens up a whole world of potential venues that most people wouldn’t really think about. So, because of that, we’re able to book shows that would be impossible, just weeks out. I booked the Morgantown date last week. It was literally two weeks out when I was able to get that last show nailed down. Or, actually, the Ypsi show was the last one, I think, because initially Shelley (Salant), who booked the show, had been thinking of a couple of different spots, but just wasn’t having any luck getting anyone to respond.
MARK: I understand that you’re quite firm on the kinds of venues that you’ll play, for the reasons that you outline, so I think that she had trouble for one reason or another with things lining up… with the vision you have for the band…
IAN: What we’re looking for are rooms… I understand it’s a semantic thing, but (I don’t even like) the idea of “venue”… We’d almost rather play places where there’s never shows. Then you’ve just opened up a whole world of possibilities. So, for instance, in Frederick, Maryland, we did a show in a bike shop. They’d never had a show there, but they were psyched. They moved the bikes out of the shop, and we set up and played there. And we had 150 people there. And it was great. And we did a yoga studio in Winchester, Virginia. We played a thrift store in Ventura, California. We played a used book store in Harrisburg, and had almost 400 people in there. These rooms, most people just don’t think about them as potential because they’re not considered venues. And that’s precisely the idea. We bring the show to wherever we go…
The only reason we try to avoid established venues is because every established venue, and you know this, has an air to it, from the experiences in that room. I’m sure there are certain clubs where you’re like, “I don’t want to see a band there,” because the kind of air that exists there. But if you’re playing a show in like a multi-purpose room in a library, there’s just no stink on it. It’s just weird. The idea is that it’s just the music at that point. And I think, in trying to find that room, it’s mostly just trying to think outside of the usual suspects. But, like the Neutral Zone (where we thought about having this show), we support Neutral Zone, because it’s an established kind of all-ages place, and we support their mission. And there are house shows, and collectives, and stuff like that, and we support that as well. And, quite often, we’ll play in rooms like that. But what we’re really interested in doing is breaking out of all that, and putting on shows where you don’t ever see bands.
MARK: I like the idea. It’s like pop-up retail. Pop-up music. You just find it somewhere that you wouldn’t normally see it. It’s like an opportunistic kind of creature that just sort of moves around from shell to shell, you know?
IAN: Right, and if you step out of that kind of established venue concept, you also sort of free yourself of the calcified economy of rock and roll… Like the way shows have gotten increasingly more expensive, and… Every time you have an exchange happening, where money is passing hands, various institutions are going to find a way to insert themselves between those two sets of hands. So, for the rock club, there’s any number of people who sort of interject themselves. It’s like they set up little toll booths. And they have nothing to do with music at all, by the way. It’s just, that’s the way that business works. But, if you’re playing a show at a bike shop, you’re not worried about ASCAP and BMI, for chrissake.
MARK: I’m curious if this philosophy is something that might be carrying over to other bands on Dischord. Do you get the sense that other bands on the label are looking for ways to escape the existing paradigm and try new things out.
IAN: There definitely are people who do it. There aren’t many bands on Dischord that are touring, though. And a lot of them have setups that are a bit more formal… They’ve got guitars and they’re louder, and they need appropriate sound reinforcement. Which also means a (big) PA. Which means a club, or house shows. Also, I’m coming at it from a position of someone who has been playing music for three decades, and I’ve toured a lot, and if I say, “Hey, let’s do a show there,” people are generally like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” If somebody calling out of the blue, for a band that no one has ever heard of, though, it’s going to be a lot more difficult. And there’s enough interest in the band so that, if we do play a bike shop, there’s a good chance that people will come to the show. But this kind of harkens back to what punk rock was like in the very beginning. Clubs had no interest in punk bands. So we just set up shows wherever we could, and that’s why the flyer was god. The flyer was always about the band and the music. And then you’d find out where in the world, in the city, you were going to see this music. Then, after a while, things became reorganized, so the clubs became the place. So you’d just look at their strip ads. So flyers just kind of fell off. People don’t really look at flyers in the same way… And I have nothing against clubs, actually. I want to be clear. I’ve played so many clubs, and I have so many friends (with clubs) that have provided an incredible service. I also believe, though, that it shouldn’t be the only way to see music. And I think that people should always be thinking about other avenues and other possibilities for presenting new music, because new ideas quite often don’t have audiences, so clubs just aren’t able to present new ideas as easily, because there’s no audience, no clientele.
MARK: I’m curious… You mention traveling with your son who’s five. What does he do when you play? Does he sell records, or is he somehow otherwise integrated into the band?
IAN: He’s five. (laughs)
MARK: I know, but kids have lemonade stands, right?
IAN: This time, my sister is probably going to drive along as well. And they’ll hang. They’ll be around for the show. And afterwards… He likes to be around. Sometimes he can be a bit underfoot, but that’s alright. That’s why we play early. I think a lot of bands, when they tour with their kid, the idea is that you get a hotel room, and send the kid off with the nanny. And the parents do their work, you know? But, in our case, we’re just not set up that way.
MARK: Do you find yourself exchanging notes with other bands that travel with kids? Are you finding yourself having more in common with bands that you wouldn’t normally (because you have that link)… Is there a network out there…
IAN: Not that I’m aware of, no. I have a few friends who, over the years, have been in bands, and eventually had a kid, and, yeah, we’d ask them, you know, “How you do guys do it?” Because, in our mind, this is always exactly what we’d always planned on doing. Let’s put it this way, whether our son was with us (or not), we would drive up there in the minivan, with the gear, the PA, and the lights, and we’d play at 8:00, in a room, by ourselves, that’s not a rock club. So there’s nothing new. It’s not like we’ve changed anything to accommodate his presence. Conversely, in terms of, like our presentation, that’s just our presentation. So, we do have friends who travel with their children, and we’re curious as to their experiences… actually more-so when he was a baby. Because that was a weird time for us. We were thinking, “Well…” Like we were invited to come play Alaska, which we really wanted to do… And they were like, “Yeah, don’t worry.” And I think he was like one at the time. And they couldn’t fly out another person (to be with him). They’d just bring the three of us out. And they said, “We can hang out with him while you play.” But Amy was like, “He’s one.” (laughs) “And if he’s in distress, I can’t play.” Right? And that’s just the reality. And I was like, “Yeah, fair enough.” Now, he’s five. Obviously, if something horrible were happening, we wouldn’t play, but I think, generally, we’re able to explain to him what’s happening, and he knows the deal. He’s been to so many of our show… Anyway, the point being that it’s interesting to hear how (other people) navigate it, but it has very little to do with us, as nobody plays shows like we do.
MARK: Do you find yourself changing your material at all now that you have a kid? Are you writing for him at all? Or is it still the same as it would have been (without him)?
IAN: No… I don’t think I’ve written anything different at all.
MARK: I was thinking specifically about a video that I’d seen of you performing on Pancake Mountain.
IAN: Yeah, that was kind of a fluke. That’s interesting because that was written in 2004, four years before our son was born. It’s interesting how that particular song that you’re referring to, Vowel Movement… It’s sort of the manifestation of the power of the internet. I have a friend here who had an AV studio, and he got this idea that he wanted to do a local kids’ show… There used to be a show here called Wonderama… So he had this idea that he wanted to do a local kid’s show on cable television (like that). And his idea was to have bands play while kids danced. So he was putting on these little dance parties with kids, and it was pretty enjoyable… And, so, at one point he said, “Do you want to write a song?” And I said, “Yeah, I can write a song for you.” And Vowel Movement just jumped right out. It was very nice… an easy song to write. But basically done with a sense that it was for a cable television show that was probably never going to be made. And initially the idea was that we were going to play it for a room full of kids dancing around, but the it couldn’t be arranged for any number of reasons, so he said, “Can we just shoot a video for the song?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” Again, it didn’t occur to me that… This was 2004. And I think YouTube showed up in 2006 or something. So it just didn’t occur to me. And, then, you know, he had the video, and he was going to make DVDs or something… The TV show never actually happened. It was just this conceptual kind of idea. And then it became a web show. And people seized on it, like, “Oh, he’s writing kids’ songs now.” We did the video, but we never played that song live, and… I mean, it’s a good song.
MARK: Yeah, I wasn’t aware that it was written before you had your son. Somehow I thought the two things were connected.
IAN: No, not at all. Actually, I would never… In retrospect… I don’t have regrets for doing it, but also… It’s just so confusing. So many people, that’s the first Evens’ song they’ve ever heard. And that’s not the first step you want to make with people. You don’t want people thinking, “He’s making kids’ music.” But people are so confused by me in general that… It’s alright. I can handle it. The irony is, in fact, the first Even’s song that was ever made available to the public was an anti-war song. Sonic Youth had done an anti-war site, and they had a bunch of free songs. And we gave them an early version of a song called, “On The Face Of It,” which was definitely not a kids’ song… It speaks to (the problems with) society that far more adults were drawn to this slightly ironic kids’ show than they were to this anti-war site, when we were taking the country headlong into totally pointless bloodletting. But, you know, that’s the way it works.
MARK: Yeah, I’d wanted to talk with you about politics, and whether or not there was anything specific these days motivating your work… We just had the Supreme Court decision yesterday on the Voting Rights Act. And the one today with regard to the Defense of Marriage Act. And I was just wondering if you had any thoughts, one way of the other, on that…
IAN: Sure. I mean, I think it’s strange the way it’s set up, and it’s too bad that everyone has to wait for these decisions. I mean, living here (in D.C.), I’m just so used to the machinery of it all. I recognize that it’s all just very kabuki. You know, I’m glad that DOMA was struck down by the court, and I’m sad about the Voting Rights Act. You know, that should come as no surprise.
MARK: I wasn’t aware before I started reading up on your life earlier today, that you were a six year old kid living in D.C. at the time of the ‘68 riots… It seems, from what I’ve read, that those events had quite an impact, and likely contributed somewhat toward making you who you are today.
IAN: Sure. I can point to that because it’s a recognizable date, and event, but it was emblematic of a time. It was a very significant thing, but what was happening at that time was… There was social revolution in the air. I was around a lot of people that were anti-war and pro civil rights. And things were changing. That was the environment that I was raised in. Not that my parents were hippies, but they traveled in circles in which hippies also traveled. They were definitely left wing kind of people. But, mostly, they were like, “Let people live the way the want to live.” And, ironically, a lot of it came out of… Marching in the middle of that riot, it was really part of the fact that we were part of this Episcapalian church called Saint Stephen and the Incarnation, which practiced Liberation Theology, and they were really on the streets. That church was super radical. When I think about church… It’s always hard for me to talk about it, because I think that it invokes certain images in people’s minds, but, when I think about it, I think about having the Black Panthers come and speak, and having war protesters sleeping on the floor of the church, because it was a sanctuary. And seeing my first rock bands. You know, they’d bring rock bands in to play. And just being around a lot of people who were really challenging social convention, even within the church. So that experience make me think, you know, “It’s normal and healthy to question the status quo and authority.” It was obvious to me. And it remains obvious to me. And it seems more important now than ever. And, in way, I’m heartened by the speed in which society has turned the corner on same sex marriage. It’s really encouraging. It’s like, “Cooler and clearer minds will prevail.” It’s like, “It’s OK for people to love each other. It’s alright.” And I can actually… In my lifetime… Not that we were adamantly opposed to two people of the same sex being married. But it was just a weird idea. And it’s become so incredibly less so, even in the last five years. It’s powerful. It’s encouraging. And I wish that could extend itself to trying to stop the war machine stuff, which is just horrific.
MARK: Yeah, it’s hard to be too enthusiastic, because there are just too many other fronts where we seem to be falling behind, the growing wealth inequality in the country, the war, the domestic spying, and everything else. Yeah, it’s a positive thing today, but, at the same time, it’s taking place against this backdrop of so much bad stuff that’s happening…. I’m curious. You mention that, in the 60s, you had the sense that things were really changing, and that you were part of a movement where progress was being made. And people were engaged and doing positive things. And I’m wondering what your sense is of the country today, as you travel the country and talk with people. Do you get the same kind of feeling that change is afoot?
IAN: It certainly seems less focused now. I think, largely, because people live in such massive online community isolation. And there’s just too much to think about. Too many things. Too many options. And it’s just driven people mad. There are too many ways to communicate. Even this interview required an email, a follow-up phone call, and call back on Google Voice. There are just so many things and I feel like it… One issue about activism. When you’re trying to get the word out to people, to get them to think about stuff, you kind of need to have them in a room. You actually need people to gather, so that you can actually try to make things happen. And it’s very hard to get people in a room now. I feel like, in the earlier years, people would actively seek out company – groups – to be a part of things. Because, otherwise, they’d just be sitting at home, looking at the wall.
MARK: There was an interesting interview I read with you in which you talked about the power of music to bring people together.
IAN: Music is still a place where people can gather… Another aspect of our doing our shows the way that we do them, is that, by ending early, and not in bars, the ideas is that, when the music is over, we’re all in a room together and it’s early. It’s not like 12:30 and everyone’s exhausted. Or drunk. It’s actually like, “OK, the night is still ahead of us, and…” Just to have people find themselves in a room together seems like a nice idea.
MARK: My question is, how do you direct that energy? I’d like to read this quote of yours… “Music can set us free in that moment. And if we’re in a room with other people who are all being affected this way, then you get into that mass energy, this thing that can be really cathartic. And I think it is a really deeply important thing to have happen, catharsis. To go off.” But I’m curious as to what’s beyond that. Is it enough just to have that catharsis, and that shared moment, or do you need to direct the energy?
IAN: I think that’s opening the door. I don’t have answers on that front. I never celebrate the destination as much as the journey. For me, I do think that people… most people I know who are activists… It’s interesting. Years ago, I went to a panel discussion with some 60s radicals, and they were talking about how nobody can organize because people can never get together. And they were just talking about the limitations of it. And they were saying the only real evidence of organization now was through the Christian right wing. And that shows you how effective organizing can be, if you do it though churches. Which is what happened in the 80s. It flourished. But, what’s interesting is that I was in a room with 300 people, and I sort of looked around the room – and obviously I don’t have everyone’s bio – but, just judging by the way they presented, my sense was that a significant portion of that audience came through underground music… punk, or whatever. So, obviously, music is still a place where you can organize. And I think that a lot of people who are involved with these frontline issues… in fact I know that, with marriage equality, there’s any number of people I know from my earlier music days who are involved with these state drives that are changing these laws. They’re all punk rock people. Well, not all, but many of them. And, in the same light, people involved in the environment, or the anti-war movement, are very music oriented. I don’t think we’ll have a show, and, as soon as the show’s over, I’ll seize upon the opportunity to hand out… I don’t like that, honestly. In fact, quite often people have come to me, wanting to organize something around an agenda, like, “We want you to get people together, and then we’re going to tell them the deal.” And I’m like, “Not interested.” It’s just not what I’m interested in. It’s not a bait and switch for me. To me, music is a legitimate and valid reason for people to come into a room together. And if that experience is all that occurs, that to me is legitimate and valid. It’s not like, “Then what?” To me, that’s plenty. But, at the same time, you might quite often find people who have their minds opened to possibilities, and they start to talk with other people, and you never know what may come out of it. It might be a political movement. It might be an art movement. It might be a restaurant. I don’t fucking know. And I don’t really care, honestly. Mostly I hope it goes toward making the world a better place, and not a worse one… That’s always something to strive for.
[OK, I'm falling asleep. I'll try to transcribe the rest tomorrow night. In the meantime, here's the audio. And I hope to see you all at the show on Friday. It's only $6.]
[And a big thank you to Shelley Salant for helping set up the interview.]