Former Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman and Dischord Records owner Ian MacKaye on self-preservation, digital obsession and finding your life tree trunk.
The former Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman and Dischord Records owner talks self-preservation, digital obsession and finding your life tree trunk.
This story first appeared in Huck Issue 49 (2015). During lockdown, we’ll be republishing longreads from the print archive to help keep you occupied during the long days indoors.
Ian MacKaye knows that I cannot look him in the eye. He shows me around a cluttered corner of Dischord House – the storied home of his record label since 1981 – and lets me peek inside the kitchen. The wall behind him rises like a cluttered tomb, enveloping him in a monument to vinyl. Every surface is covered in records, every shelf stacked high with CDs, The Faith, Minor Threat and Snakes LPs acting like a kind of self-authored wallpaper. There’s a worn crumpled map pinned just behind his head, but where it points to is entirely blurred.
Skype is fucked, when you think about it. “You’re in your house in London, I’m in Arlington, Virginia, and I’m looking at you and we’re talking. This is just… insane!” says Ian, reaching for his tea. “I used to think people were being deferential because they always lowered their eyes. Then I realised they’re looking at the picture instead of the camera. But what you do with your eyes when you talk to someone is so important. Look at me… see!”
Two bright blue beacons flick up at me; they pierce across 4,000 miles.
Eye to eye with Ian MacKaye is a pretty wild experience. Not because he’s widely admired for injecting punk with its own fierce philosophy – a wholesale belief in self-reliance, as expressed through Minor Threat and Fugazi. Or the fact that in Dischord Records he built a seedbed for those ideals and never swayed when others chose the pay cheque. It’s not because history will call him a custodian of D.C. hardcore and punk, a cultural movement that has long been the subject of wistful documentaries, many of which, to Ian’s mind, distill the experience of thousands of narratives into one oversimplified arc. The man is just so wise. It’s like dialling into a Google hangout with Aristotle – if Aristotle wore a beanie and was kind of sweary.
At 52, the kid who played bass in a band called Teen Idles, and started a record label just so that people would listen, is a little further down the continuum. He wakes up most mornings, heads over to Dischord House, and goes about his business. Part of that business is about preservation – uploading every live show Fugazi ever played into a digital archive that spans back to 1987. It’s a chronicle of life. A legacy. The breadcrumb trail of a person who just never stopped.
And it has absolutely nothing to do with survival.
You got me thinking. When I mentioned this issue was about survival, you said that wasn’t something you could relate to.
It’s the word survival – the idea you would ‘survive’ something. I understand that people, melodramatically, may consider life something one has to survive. But you’re alive, that’s what life is, you are surviving. It plays into this idea that people’s lives are narratives – that it’s a film or book and you have to survive all this craziness. I think it’s a disservice, ultimately, because it makes others feel like their lives aren’t crazy enough.
In my mind, life is not a war – although human beings create conditions that make it feel that way – and I think that navigation is a fairer term. I see life essentially as an empty field. The construct of that empty space has to do with society, but it also has to do with us. The only real question is how are we going to navigate that space, from beginning to end. If people thought of themselves as navigators, maybe they would have more purchase. Navigation is about having a say in the matter, whereas surviving is about dealing with things being thrown at you. With navigation you get to decide whether you want to be in that situation in the first place.
How does that feed into ideas of success?
You could say society sees success as absolute – you’re either winning or you’re losing. Can success be interpreted as just keeping going? Success is a perpetual state of affairs. With my music for instance, I’m not goal-oriented. The decision to be in a band was huge for me. I came to a realisation that I could do this, because punk gave me the permission slip. I was able to play bass, which is crazy – here’s this animal beating on a wire, and a tune is coming out. That is success. Then I played with other people, and these animals organised those sounds in a way that was recognisable. That is success. We wrote our own songs. That is success. We played a show. That is success. Every day is a success – if you’re in the moment.
I think you’re right about society seeing success as a brass ring. Have you heard that term? In America, on merry-go-rounds they had these brass rings just off to the side, beyond arm’s reach. If you could lean out and hook that brass ring, you could redeem it for a prize. So that’s the term, ‘Going for a brass ring.’ It’s that idea of trophies, where success is always the endpoint. Whereas for me, success is fluid.
What about when that perpetual state is propelled by an imperative of growth. Capitalism seems to be founded on this idea that you have to grow in order to keep moving forward. Have you ever felt those pressures?
I reject that concept wholeheartedly. Dischord was just some kids who put out records that nobody cared about, except for those kids and their friends. But it was such a valid time for me. When you are the one actually glueing the records, that’s the record industry for real. All the money generated stayed in the label, but it never occurred to me that it wasn’t working. I had something I wanted to do every day – what more could you ask for in life?
Ten years later we were selling hundreds of thousands of records and that presented other challenges, but I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, now we’re successful!’ I thought, ‘Now, it’s today.’ The label is smaller now, but it doesn’t feel any less significant. The hardest part is the observer’s perception of the situation. Relevancy, or irrelevancy, isn’t a concern for the participants. The people who are actually the doers don’t do it for relevancy, but they are judged by a society that focuses on abstract and ridiculous concepts of what is or isn’t relevant. This is fucking art, people!
If it speaks to you, it speaks to you, even if it doesn’t speak to other people. The idea that you have to grow all the time… I mean, visualise a person, you or me, perpetually growing. It’s not a pretty picture. At some point we’re going to burst. And that is true of all things. The real issue here is a different word that starts with G R. Greed. That’s what we talk about when we talk about growth. More for me – that’s the concept.
What about greed in terms of popularity? In my industry, statistics seem to be the new barometer of success. It’s as ridiculous as how many Twitter followers you have. How can we navigate that notion of success and find fulfilment?
If you have a certain number of followers, you’re relevant. If you don’t, you’re irrelevant. I just think it’s nonsense. This one situation came up when a local paper wrote an article about the fact that Urban Outfitters was selling Minor Threat T-shirts. They called to see if this was true and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Another company makes them, and I just don’t give a fuck. The headline was something akin to, ‘Ian MacKaye Doesn’t Care Anymore’.
This set off a day-long siege of comments. It was just so absurd. Friends called to say, ‘I feel terrible, you’re getting your ass kicked online.’ But you know, the internet is an aquarium. There could be the fiercest battle – like the fish could be going at it, just tearing the crap out of each other. The castles could be knocked over. The gravel displaced. But for those of us outside the aquarium, not a drop gets on us. It’s just not real. If people want to engage in that communication, I’m not judgemental. But if it hurts you, or it’s dispiriting, then get out of the aquarium. I mean, you spend more time in that world, what do you make of it?
I feel like it’s a beast that has to be constantly fed, but you never really understand it. So for me, it’s a permanent anxiety. In publishing, we’re judged on how well we engage our audience.
My response to people judging you on ‘Likes’ would be, ‘Fuck that!’ It’s just bullshit. This notion that we are judged by clicks on buttons – we should resist that as a form of navigation. My take is that you’re a writer. What a shame that you spend time dealing with the machine as a barometer of your work.
Frankly, I’m a musician and I spend way too much fucking time dealing with email. Like, when you sent me an email, it was a glacial exchange. Then you got on the phone and things make sense. Should we not have an ocean between us, I’d say come over and let’s talk. That’s the most rewarding thing, spending time with people. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t do it to be by myself. I’m interested in riding this world with other people.
Do you think technology is a good thing for the culture you have been a part of?
There will always be people who identify themselves as punk who recognise that technology is a tool not a lifestyle. So, I think punk will survive, or navigate that just fine. But when you say, ‘This culture that you are a part of,’ I don’t think that you can define what that culture is. I mean… could you?
It depends on how you define the idea of punk, or DIY. To me, it’s about whether you value self-reliance above anything else. I think all kinds of people would be inspired by that, beyond music. Is it a good time for young people to make something happen for themselves?
I think it’s always a good time for that. My definition of punk is the free space. It’s an area in which new ideas can be presented without having to go through the filtration or perversion of profiteering. So, if we’re not worried about selling things, then we can actually think. The problem with new ideas is that they don’t have audiences. And in terms of the marketplace, an audience equals clientele. If you have no audience, it’s not profitable.
But punk was an area, for me at least, where it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t know any punk rocker who thought, ‘I’m gonna make a living out of this.’ The ones that did quickly left. What I received from the counterculture was a gift; the permission to create freely. And my reaction was to take care of this gift and keep it alive because it continues to give. Of course, there were some people who thought, ‘Wow. If I polish it, I can sell it.’ And then it ceases to be a gift.
But I hate to talk so much about the fucking computer. The fact that it’s dominating this conversation is a sickness. All we can talk about is our devices. For the last decade, society has been stoned on technology. If we’re living through a screen, we’re not doing anything. I thought a lot about the psychological effects of an office. People working eight, ten, twelve hours a day. Look up from that computer, look around you, and nothing has moved. Never in the history of the world have people worked ten hours and nothing has moved.
Imagine if you were sweeping for twelve hours how clean your fucking house would be? The dirty plate next to your computer? It’s still there! As a society, there’s gotta be a psychological effect. I don’t know what it will be, but at some point, people will sit back and realise that this is a tool. And that life – real life – is outside of it. I can accept it’s a miracle that we’re talking across an ocean, but fuck if I’m gonna live in it! I wanna go outside, too. If you want to talk about real navigation, one should seek balance. If the right foot and left foot are out of whack, then you go down.
Do you relate that sense of bewilderment – at our obsession with technology – with any feelings that gave rise to straight edge? Were you just as bewildered by kids taking drugs?
Yeah, definitely. It never made sense to me. The structure of society is an oppressive concept. I don’t see self-destruction as a valid form of rebellion. If anything it’s an assistance; you’re a thorn in their side, so help them by taking yourself out. Today, they’re imbibing technology, a new kind of drug, and losing themselves. I never got involved with drugs because I saw the fallout from the ’60s. As a Hendrix fan, I’d talk to people who’d seen him play and they couldn’t remember it because they were high. It doesn’t make sense to me that you wouldn’t want to remember your life.
This concept of partying, it’s like you’re sweeping up after yourself constantly. You’re just sweeping away your memories. I like to be present, and keep it with me. Some people think of straight edge as a tee-totaling sobriety movement, but in my mind it was just about self definition. I found it unimpeachably positive. But people always find ways to be derisive. You’re in England – you fucking know that, right? It’s an extremely snarky society.
England has this tall poppy syndrome…
Tall poppy what…?
It’s this saying, like when the poppies grow too tall, someone will want to chop them down. It’s a totally different culture to, say, the American Dream, or rooting for other people. Here, when you do well people are more likely to say, ‘Don’t get too big for your boots.’
Are you familiar with the crab pit concept? You’re at a beach and you dig a hole in the sand and throw a bunch of crabs in, the crabs will try to escape by climbing up the sides. But if one should get higher, the others will pull him down. I don’t think it’s a vindictive thing, they’re just looking for anything to grab onto. So if one starts to ascend, the others see that as a rung on the ladder. The effect, however, is that they pull one another down. So the pit of the crabs is like a self-defeating concept. I find it very troubling, derision.
What about protectionism. When people become very protective of a ‘scene’ and popularity is seen as death. What do you make of that sense of ownership people have over a collective culture?
I supplanted the idea of ‘scene’ with tribe early on. My interest in punk rock was that I wanted to create a family. Most people I knew that identified as punk were marginalised. Maybe they had trouble at home or felt marginalised, politically, racially, for their sexuality – even for their gender! They felt they didn’t belong but I realised, ‘Oh, we belong to each other.’ When you’re young you want to protect that, like ‘This is fucking important don’t ruin it.’ At some point I realised overarching protectionism was ruining it because it conflicted with my attempt to create community through inclusion.
But then later I saw people who defined themselves through exclusion. Like, ‘We all wear purple jackets, and if you don’t wear a purple jacket you’re not one of us.’ That’s just unsustainable. If your heart is closed, at some point it’s gonna stop beating. Young kids who have a very orthodox view of punk rock are still learning – they’ll figure it out. But most people go through life as tourists. They’re checking out the sights and eventually they’ll go home. I’m always looking for the long-distance runners. The people who recognise that protest is a form of exercise and that life is there if you want it. You just have to be open, communicative and interested. That’s who I recognise as my tribe.
When you look back on your own history, do you compartmentalise it into different eras?
I’m definitively anti-chapter. It’s all a flight of stairs. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for the steps before.
Why are people obsessed with beginnings and endings. I feel like people would expect me to ask you about the ‘heyday of punk rock’, as if it was a defined period that just ended. Why do we compartmentalise things that way?
I guess, because it’s easier to write about. The reason we like endings is that they’re manageable. Think about the effect of the electronic medium on the way we think. Radio, television, movies, computers. At some point things became serialised as stories.
But when you live in a society where you’re constantly being shown stories, our brains become reformatted to create narratives in our own lives. It’s misleading because life does not have a narrative arc. The world does not have a narrative arc. Or if it does, it’s bigger than anything we could ever fucking write about. I remember being in bands where someone would say, ‘Well, that’s the biggest thing I’ll ever do.’ Who thinks like that?! I don’t think of life as phases. I think of life as life.
That rings true of something I hear all the time, that life dramatically changes when you’re thirty. I see it in the culture all the time, this idea that you have to experience as much as you can before some arbitrary date. As someone who has defined what youth culture means for so many people, what do you make of that obsession with youth?
I think it’s bullshit. I don’t believe in youth culture. By embracing it you also embrace the expiration date. Not that I’m always young, fuck that! I’m alive! I’m living! When people say, ‘Urgh, I feel so old,’ I’m like, ‘What the fuck man! You’re not old, you just are.’ If you’re cold you can put a coat on. If you’re wet you can dry off. But if you’re old you can’t do anything. Let me ask you: what role have you played in terms of becoming thirty-one?
Um? Zero active participation.
Exactly! All you did was wake up! That’s it. We wake up! There’s this notion in American culture that children are not real. It’s pointed out by the statement, ‘Well, at some point you’re gonna have to get real.’ But people are real from the moment they’re born. They’re real and they’re valid. When a fifteen-year-old kid has an idea, it’s not an unreal idea. But if you’re told over and over again that you have to ‘get real’, it creates this mentality that it doesn’t matter what they do. Because once they become real they will be absolved of everything, so they take no responsibility.
This experiential thing? It’s a little touristic. Like, ‘I gotta taste it all!’ I know people who fucked one person I know people who fucked 100 people. Their experience may seem different, but outside pressures leave both people wondering if they made a mistake. I wish people wouldn’t spend their lives thinking about what they could’ve or should’ve done. I wish they would live their lives thinking about what they should be doing now.
Do you ever feel anxiety or have moments of insecurity?
I’m not an anxious person, at all. I tend to think of insecurities as reminders to go do something. As a teenager I was extremely self-conscious of my body. But at some point I realised there’s nothing constructive about agonising over it. So I filed that away, like, I can’t change this, so just do something – get to work.
As a young child, I couldn’t grasp the idea of death. It was so unbearable for me, I freaked the fuck out. But then at some point I realised I would never get an answer from a single person on earth. So I figured – just live. I think the most constructive way to approach a lot of this stuff is to make peace with incomprehensibility. I accept the things that I cannot comprehend, that I will never comprehend, and I have peace with that. If I feel an insecurity, I practise more. I write a song. Just do something.
That idea that you can be an active participant in life – that if you want to do something, you should do it – what separates you from people that never have that realisation?
I have no idea… We only wake up for a limited number of days. Although, ironically, I would say life is eternal, because I don’t think there’s any comprehension before or after it. So, if all we know is this, then it’s eternal. But if we’re going to spend time waking up, I can’t see waking up punching ourselves as any way to live. That just seems crazy. Same with the marketplace; the daily drill. This idea that people’s time belongs to companies?! It’s just no way to live.
Self-reliance is an amazing navigation tool, but what advice would you have for somehow who was crippled with self-doubt?
I have this concept about changing the source of light. The way things appear has a lot to do with where the light is. Sometimes things seem impenetrable, but maybe we just need to change the source of light. For instance, if you felt paralysed by your work – you’re miserable but you’re scared to leave your situation, because you think you’d become irrelevant – then I would say: stand back. Change the source of light. Look at the situation and realise that, though it is important to you – and I will say this to myself – though it is important to you, your work is ridiculous. And your fears are unfounded.
You said, ‘People are inspired by you,’ but however one rates my ‘celebritydom’ or fame or whatever the fuck I have, it’s worth pointing out that 99.9 per cent of the population of the world never has, doesn’t and never will know of me. I don’t exist. There are entire giant cities in Indonesia where not a single person has ever heard of me. The music I make does not matter. And if it’s causing me duress, I should realise it’s ridiculous and that my fears are unfounded. Because what’s the worse thing that could happen. Like, what would be the worst thing that could happen to you?
That I miss my deadline. I have anxiety every week before we go to print – which is now. One voice in my head says, ‘You’re gonna miss it! You’re a failure!’ The other voice is like, ‘It’s a magazine, get a grip.’
Exactly, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Life is just a straight line. There are two definitive points, one at the beginning and one at the end. It could be argued that should you decide to procreate that may merit another point. Everything else is affection – accoutrements, add-ons, additives. The way we speak, the things we own, the way we identify ourselves, they’re all artifices on some level… While we’ve been talking maybe 100 people have been killed, maybe 1,000, who knows, and yet this development hasn’t affected our conversation whatsoever. If you put things in perspective one realises how it just doesn’t matter. So the value is up to us, and if we’re gonna assign the value, then why would we assign negative values?
I would say you’re in the minority – the enlightened minority – for being liberated by feeling like a speck of dust in the universe. And the rest of society is veering more towards this idea of, ‘I gotta make it!’ Why is the ratio skewed?
Well, I think that your definition of society is a little off base. People working in the fields of Vietnam, or whatever, I don’t think they’re thinking, ‘I gotta make it!’ I think they’re just doing their work. You’re in London. You work in a field that is obsessed with digital. I think probably the pure irrelevance of that medium, when you get down to it, is the reason people are so hellbent on wanting it to matter. It’s almost an inverse. It’s like they’re making cotton candy, yet they’re obsessed with nutrition. ‘It has to have nutrients in it!’ they say, because they know it’s cotton candy.
I’m not being dismissive. People freak out when they’re thirty, they freak out when they’re forty, mostly I think people just like to freak out. I guess it’s convention. Convention gives people a sense of comprehension. And people are not at peace with incomprehension. I read an article about a space craft that was tasked with taking photos, I think Carl Sagan was involved. NASA said we’ll only operate this camera until we’re at the edge of the universe. After years and years, when it slipped past the edge of the universe and NASA said let’s cut it off, Sagan lobbied to take one more picture – and it was of the earth. Can you imagine what Earth looked like from outside the universe?
Like a star?
It’s not even a star. It was a tiny little dot. And Sagan pointed to this little dot in this vast sea of stars, more than you can imagine, or ever count, and he said, ‘Every idea that any human has ever thought, every fight, every war, everything that has ever occurred, happened there.’ How insignificant, that people would die over property when it doesn’t even rate as a speck in the universe? I appreciate that idea. Because insignificance is liberating. If you stop thinking this is my land, then you’re free. If it’s your land – my property, my concept, my scene, my society – you have to defend it. You’re hamstrung by it.
What about legacy. Does that matter to you?
No. I already have a legacy and I realise how perverted it is, and misleading. I’m not interested in legacy in terms of my reputation. I am however interested in leaving a trail. I feel really clear that the work that I’ve done – that we’ve done – was about kids doing something they wanted to do and showing that it’s possible despite what the corporations say. Leaving markers, or breadcrumbs, so that people know this is a possibility – I hope that inspires other people who inevitably will come along to do the same.
So, yes, I am interested in documentation – I build archives precisely because I have a sense of custodial responsibility. A lot of my work has been focused on the idea that not only can you build your own road, but you can drive on it too. But the problem with these small roads is that they get built off to the side of super highways. They tend to be less used and they atrophy; the vines come over, then people think they’re not passable. That they’re not possible. But they are passable – they’re just not permanent. Super highways are permanent because the people who own the super highways, who erected the tolls, keep them that way. It’s just a different track. And it’s important that people know there are other possibilities.
What is the most important navigation tool that people should rely on?
I would never pretend to have an answer for you. But at some point in my life I decided that the basis of all my reasoning is this: pain hurts. That’s true for you and it’s true for me; I don’t wanna hurt other people because I don’t wanna be hurt. Keep things simple and they suddenly seem doable.
I read this book in my early twenties – by C.S. Lewis, I think. There was this image of life as a tree and each decision we made was a branch. And then every decision we made, once we were on that branch, were smaller branches and smaller branches until you got down to the twigs. The author explained that if you are on the wrong branch, if you made a bad decision, you have to go back to the trunk – because once you’re on that branch, every decision will be wrong. That was such a great thing for me. I was just navigating, I made a mistake, so I have to go back to the trunk. Because back at the trunk, life – simple life – is always right.
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