On the way to see Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell at the Ventura Theatre recently, one might have stumbled upon the sight of people lining up outside … the E.P. Foster Library?! Ian MacKaye, lead singer of hardcore band Minor Threat, riff-heavy dub-punk Fugazi and founder of seminal independent label Dischord Records spoke before a throng of more than 100 faithful hopefuls, discussing everything from the “indefinite hiatus” of Fugazi to his formative love of the music of Ted Nugent.
He’s been giving these chats since 2000, beginning at the University of Iowa – a public “interview” forged after an ice storm during his drive to Ames. This is his first tour made up solely of Q&A sessions – he mentions people of “elevated position” but considers himself as grounded, and the multiplicity of ages in the audience speaks to music connecting young and old. All of the bands he’s been in, incidentally, have never played anything other than all-ages concerts. His latest band, The Evens, is on break for maternity leave — Mackaye recently became a father — but new recordings are in the works, while Dischord re-masters the back catalog for re-issue on vinyl, the resurgence of which pleases him to no end.
On record collecting, he tells the audience, “A record that you don’t listen to is a piece of trash.” He explains he has no favorite Dischord album save possibly for Dischord 11 —Subject to Change LP by the Faith — and various heads suddenly nod in understanding and agreement, hailing pop ecstasy and the power of nostalgia. At Dischord’s download site, more than 1,000 Fugazi live actions have been made available online; “I have an enormous sack of legacy,” he admits, continuing, “I don’t think about what I’ve done — it gets in the way of the doing. …I’ve never thought about the future.”
The future, for the majority of people living the square life, means certain things held down by certain cornerstones. Yet MacKaye has never had a manager, has no attorney and draws up no band contracts at Dischord. He doesn’t even have a “personal listening device.” His thoughts on making recordings available online are pragmatic: “Information moves however it moves. …I support file-sharing.” Conversely, he entertains the crowd with stories of fake MacKayes appearing on
Friendster and Facebook and praises interfaces like MySpace because of the way they cut down on the time he spends listening to tapes and CDs. He celebrates vinyl and its various sides — “A CD only has one side” — and reveals that makers of the “Guitar Hero” video game approached Fugazi to license “Foreman’s Dog” — “The song that even we can’t play!”
MacKaye even takes a stab at defining what punk is: “Punk for me is the free space. People who say punk is dead usually pin the date to the year they stopped going to shows.” On motivation and inspiration: “The idea to us was to make music that was personally compelling, and hopefully was interesting to other people as well.” On virtuosity: “I never took a lesson, I don’t know scales. …I just know sounds.” Relentlessly upbeat, he’s asked if he’s ever felt despair. He admits that the only times he’s ever been discouraged involved violence — at which point he gives a short history of violence in the hardcore punk scene and how it acts as a language all its own, a concept recalling William S. Burroughs’ assertion that language is a virus. “Bruise the ego, not the body,” was MacKaye’s early coda when confronted with fractious friction, and that straight-edge (currently the scourge of Utah, apparently) is “Life, not a lifestyle.” So why not turn on and drop out? Why not play the field for some toot? “I want to be here always, forever,” he says about sobriety — a notion crystallized in “I Drink Milk” by the Teen Idles and “Out of Step” by Minor Threat, both anthems for the straight-edge ethos. After talking and listening for two hours, by the time he was done, MacKaye looks like the ripped-shirt Captain Kirk, while the prospect of yet another vapid and vacant rock arena extravaganza looks like Ensign Johnson (Ep. 426, uncredited). “Advertising with no adjectives — it’s just the truth” is his way of convincing people, and MacKaye tells these truths, without platitudes or pandering or sunshine inflating rectums hither and yon. Ian MacKaye told it straight, each inspiration and encouragement truer than the last — and everyone there genuinely needed to hear these words from this man, and at the end of the night the last hands shaken were in solidarity and friendship, not intimidation or misplaced awe.