Interview: Ian MacKaye
Originally published in Verbicide issue #13
March 7, 2005 marks the release date of the debut album from Dischord Records’ The Evens. Though the moniker may be new and the material may be fresh, the band’s two constituents are familiar veteran musicians from the DC area: Amy Farina (formerly of The Warmers) and Ian MacKaye.
With Farina on drums and MacKaye on baritone guitar, it is rather surprising the first time one hears the duo perform. Though every bit as impassioned as the most urgent Minor Threat anthem, the songs of The Evens are forthright yet subtle, performed quietly, more akin to folk rock than punk rock, staged in an intimate setting. At an Evens performance the audience is likely to be small, sitting cross-legged on the floor and gathered about the performers, while MacKaye and Farina, both seated, each play their respective instrument and perform gentle vocals that compliment the other. Their live show is straightforward and engaging, often incorporating dialogue and audience participation, and commands the attention of everyone in attendance.
“I’ve often thought that if you want people to listen,” says MacKaye, “speak quietly.”
Ian MacKaye is the first person to be interviewed twice for Verbicide. The last interview took place almost precisely three years previous, in January of 2002, and was conducted by Douglas Novielli and myself for Verbicide issue five. Doug and I both found it to be a very enjoyable interview. At the time, Doug noted that general human instinct to be voyeuristic provokes us to seek out what makes entertainers tick, but we agreed that in regards to MacKaye, the desire to question runs deeper than that. He has performed great music for a long time, and has run a successful label with Jeff Nelson for 25 years now — founded in 1980, the same year I was born. With a steadfast work ethic, strong moral regard to how a business should be run, and a mind full of rational thought, MacKaye isn’t someone who should be admired — he should be emulated.
The Evens debut album comes at a time that I personally feel is a rather stagnant, boring point in independent music. Smaller indie print zines are dying off as trends move toward staring at a computer screen to read repetitive websites; smaller independent record labels that once thrived now struggle to survive as the sounds they helped to establish are co-opted by conglomerates and mimicked by dime-a-dozen bands. It may be an age-old complaint in the world of underground rock, but believe me, it rings especially true in 2005.
MacKaye points out that a lot of music is the product of a market “driven by the idea of youth” — a reflection of what the profit-driven industry believes their target audience wants to buy.
“And I don’t give a fuck about the market,” he states. “This is my music.”
First of all, I was wondering, when did you and Amy begin playing together? When you started playing was the thought in mind that you’d establish yourselves as a formal band, or was it more informal jamming?
Well, we’ve been friends for many, many years — over a decade. She used to be the drummer in a band called The Warmers that my brother was in, but she was in a band before that called Mr. Candyeater that actually played with Fugazi, and were friends of ours. She and I, for years and years, have gotten together and talked about music. After The Warmers stopped playing, she was working a lot, and…she wasn’t really playing — and I was in Fugazi, of course, and when we played, we played a lot! But one aspect of Fugazi, which was a little bit problematic, was that there were also long periods of time where we didn’t do anything because people were having kids… So Amy and I would talk about the idea of, you know, that we should get together and play some music. We’d see bands, and hang out at shows, and in talking about the music we’d say, “That was incredible; we’ve got play music together!” So, finally — after talking about it for years — we finally got together and played. That was late summer — August, I think — of 2001.
I remember that because Fugazi had been out on the road and doing stuff, and then Joe [Lally, bassist of Fugazi] and [his wife] Antonia had a kid on the way in September, and they said, basically, “the kid’s coming, so as of August 1, the band is on an indefinite hiatus” — which is the way we’d done it with Brendan’s two prior kids, or also when people’s parents got sick or died. We would just take time off. So in August of 2001, I said to Amy, “I’m out of commission if you want to play some music.” And she said, “Sure!” We finally sat down and started playing together, and it was great! We were so happy to play, and we played solidly for almost two years…all the way through 2003, writing songs for each other.
So do you write songs separately and bring them to each other, or is the songwriting process generally collaborative?
Hmm, it depends — basically, we just write the songs together, work together and talk about the music and so forth. In the beginning, there were songs I was working on on my own; things I had sort of been kicking around. But anyway, we were just writing songs together, and then at the end of 2003, we decided that we’d been playing together for a long time, and maybe we ought to go to Inner Ear Studios and record the songs.
Yeah, you guys did a demo, right?
We did the demo in December  and that forced us to kind of commit to versions of the songs — we didn’t ever have to finish the songs before because they weren’t for anybody to hear! And then, once we had the songs finished, we said, “well, maybe we should start playing them live!” And then six months after we started playing them [live], we decided, “well, we probably ought to record them again!” so we recorded them again, because performing them live changed them.
Something I observed in seeing you perform last summer—and if I’m off on this, let me know — is that it appears that you and Amy sing most often together, rarely one without the other, but you alternate a whole lot as to who is the lead vocalist from song to song. I was wondering, is the lead vocal in each song a reflection as to who is mainly responsible for the writing of that song, or at least, the lyrics?
I think so — but it just depends. I guess there isn’t one way…I understand your question, but we’re actually working on songs now, and the way we’re working on them is totally different than any way we’ve done before. I think it’s safe to say that if there’s a song where one of us is sort of singing by ourselves, chances are fair that the lyrics were written by that person.
How long have you been playing baritone guitar? Did you two initially start writing songs with a baritone guitar in mind, or was it something you picked up one day on a whim in place of a regular electric guitar?
I bought my first baritone guitar probably about five or six years ago, and I just had it sitting around. The first one I had was sort of a modern Danelectro, and it was like $250 — they’d done these reissues, and they were super-cheap — and kind of crappy — but I bought it and just liked playing it around the house, unplugged. And then, when I started playing with Amy, I initially just had some songs I’d written on a regular guitar. I knew that if there was going to be no bass…low-end is super important to me, and I was trying to think of a way to fill out the sound. So the guitar I was playing, I’d actually put flat-wound strings on it, which is a really interesting sound.
They’re called flat-wound. It’s a little technical…and flat-wound strings are something you’d usually find on a bass — have you ever heard a bass that sounds really resonant, and ringing? Those are round-wound strings, like on a piano. Really resonant. And then sometimes you hear a bass where it almost sounds padded — like Paul McCartney, for instance, his bass had an almost pillowy sound. Those sounds are usually flat-wound strings. It gives you a different tone, but it’s very rare to find guitar strings that are flat-wound because they’re generally considered more percussive — and guitars aren’t usually known as percussive instruments. Whereas basses actually are percussion instruments, and I don’t think most people realize that.
I’d never really thought of it like that, but I guess it makes sense being that they’re part of the rhythm section.
Right, if you think about the role they play, there is actually a percussive element to them. In any event, at some point I started using my baritone, and I just thought, oh, this is cool.
Regarding lyrics, I noted at your performance in Bowling Green [Ohio, on June 19, 2004] that you had some pretty intensely political lyrics, including a song where you referenced a motor governor’s function to keep a vehicle running at a slow pace as being akin to the shady workings of some bureaucrats, as well as a sing-along questioning police [authority]. My question is, after being in many bands in the past that — in addition to lyrical content — used loud volume as a method of getting a point across, how has the experience been for you delivering highly political, even angry, messages in a quieter setting, where most of your audience is sitting cross-legged on a floor?
It’s great! I mean, to me, it’s totally natural; it feels perfectly organic. One of the aspects of Fugazi that was so frustrating… [Fugazi’s] music is so important and precious to me, and the band is so important to me — that [band] is my family. But the context in which we were placed, a lot of times, was very discouraging for me. I felt like we — at least, I — was largely having to present my work or my art in the sort of settings where the economy was based on self-destruction, in kind of predictable “rock ‘n roll” settings. I think volume has it’s place, but I also think volume became a kind of “smoke screen” for behaviors. I’ve never thought that anger could be expressed only in a loud fashion. In fact, if you think about it, when someone’s yelling, that’s unnerving. But to be angry and quiet? That’s scary. And I guess my point of view is that, it’s not that I’m any more or less angry than I’ve ever been — and anger’s not even necessarily a word I use, I think it’s really an issue of, you know, just thinking about things, and I’m trying to work them out, and one way I work things out is by singing about them. And I actually love the setting; I loved that Bowling Green show. It was really enjoyable, and I think it’s important — I know that Fugazi was loud, at times, but we were also an enormously quiet band.
I think that you guys covered a broad spectrum as far as the types of music you played and the way you delivered it.
But what I found, though, is that when people, like at our shows…it was [during] our quiet songs where people would start—
Going off — not even talking! They’d be jumping off the stage, or whatever, and it’s because they were bored. And I thought, this is weird. In that context, music is so secondary. And I think that, from my point of view, music needs to be reclaimed from the clutches of that sort of setting. And I go see shows all the time, I see lots of loud bands, and I love it! It’s not that I think it’s wrong, or dumb, or stupid, or evil, or anything like that. More to the point, in terms of this music, I imagine that Fugazi is the last of the really loud rock bands I’m ever going to be in. And if Fugazi plays again, great, and if not, great.
But I’ve felt that in terms of rock ‘n roll, or whatever you want to call it — rock, or punk rock, or hardcore — I kept thinking about the way people devolve. It seemed to me that while it was completely normal to see older guys playing jazz, or blues, and all sorts of music, somewhere in the weirdness of rock ‘n roll, when older people were playing it, either they seemed desperate, or pathetic! (laughter) You know, it just seemed bizarre to me, but it’s because I felt like, for a lot of the examples I was [seeing], they were people who were thinking about [music] only in terms of a young person’s forum — and I think that has a lot to do with the market, because the market is driven by the idea of youth. And I don’t give a fuck about the market; this is my music.
I was really thinking about how to make music my music, in a setting that would be…you know, it’s still rock, to me! For me to sit down onstage, people are like, “well, isn’t that weird?” but it’s not weird, actually! First off, I want to be on the same level as Amy, because she’s not my drummer, she’s my even, you know? And also, I wanted to, again, bring the focus to the music, and I think that by standing up you’re almost compelled to start rocking out. (laughter)
So [playing seated] holds you back a bit, maybe?
Yeah, I kind of enjoy it! It’s more relaxed, and I think it’s interesting, it’s different.
Right, and as you say, “who gives a fuck about the market.” It’s a bit disappointing that some people can’t appreciate a musician’s evolution, or the different types of music that a band or one musician can deliver. I’m sure you’ve done a lot of speaking performances since then, but I specifically remember one kid at Macrock [March, 2003] asking — and even maybe giving you a hard time — about [Fugazi’s last album] The Argument being quieter than your earlier albums. You replied with something similar to what you’ve said today, that volume isn’t the most important method of getting a point across.
I’ve often thought that if you want people to listen, speak quietly.
You seem to keep people’s attention at an Evens show. Unfortunately, I never saw Fugazi play, but I would imagine that you must really enjoy the interaction with the audience at an Evens show, because I’m sure they’re typically a lot smaller than a Fugazi show, and you get to have a lot of back-and-forth dialogue.
Yeah. And I’m with Amy.
Yeah, you mentioned before that you are each other’s “even.” Is that, basically, the idea behind your name, The Evens?
Among other reasons, yes, there’s a balance.
I saw what I believe is the final artwork for The Evens album online, and it was a silhouetted elephant in a cage. Perhaps a bit of political commentary…?
Everything is a bit of political commentary, everything in the world is. I think that when you make a record cover, you try to figure out what picture or image you want to attach or what image don’t you want to attach. You want to set the scene for the music, and that was the image that really struck both of us, separately, without the other knowing it.
Where did you find it?
It was taken by my sister-in-law, actually. But I think you’ll have to see the whole thing to really get the sense of it. I hadn’t even thought about the more overt, obvious political reference. To me, there’s a whole other level. But I think people will look at it and take what they want; I think it’s a beautiful picture.
Ever since Fugazi’s indefinite hiatus began, you seem to have kept quite busy with Dischord, of course, and performing with Amy and doing speaking appearances. Are you finding some sense of creative fulfillment and satisfaction that was perhaps lacking before? Or do you feel more like you’re simply evolving and moving on in terms of your creative outlets? Like, “I did this for a while, and it was great, but now I’m doing this, and this is great, too.”
I just wake and up and do. Part of being in Fugazi — I think that some people may have the impression that when we’re not on the stage or not in the practice room, we’re off playing golf or something…I don’t think all four of us have even been in the same room for almost two years, and it’s just because people have been living in different places and so forth — though I’ve talked to all three of the other guys in the last two days, and we talk all the time.
But even though Fugazi hasn’t played, we’re busy, we’re always busy. With Fugazi, there’s a lot of administrative stuff, there are a lot of things to deal with constantly. We did the “Live Series” [Fugazi CDs], we’ve been remastering the records, and there’s always stuff going on. There’s a lot of business stuff that needs to be contended with. So, I feel like, in a lot of ways, I’m still an active member of Fugazi, even though the band itself isn’t doing anything. In terms of my creativity…I think that part of Fugazi, the administration was such that it did actually interfere with my [creativity] because it was an enormous amount of work: we booked ourselves, we managed ourselves, we dealt with everything ourselves, and it could be so overwhelming.
There were times when it was said to me, “It must be nice to live off your music,” but I don’t make money from my music. I make money from my fucking work, and I work all the time. I’m not playing music right now! I haven’t played guitar all day. I work, I work every day. And I think that, sometimes, it gets out of balance because there’s so much to do, and that’s an aspect of “do-it-yourself”: you have to do it yourself!
You have to sacrifice some time you’d rather be playing guitar than working on your taxes, but you’ve got to work on your taxes.
Right! You do what you’ve got to do. In terms of, “how do I compare my time now to then?” I guess I don’t. I just wake up and do the work that’s in front of me, and I try to do it well. I know that The Evens want to play music, and we can play music, so we’re going to play music. That’s good.
How did you get involved with the kids’ show, “Pancake Mountain?” Are you still doing creative consulting?
(laughter) The guy that is the spearhead of that show is a guy named Scott Stuckey. He’s a friend, someone I’ve known for years, and he was a big supporter of Fugazi, helped us with a number of projects…when we were first screening Instrument he helped us with some things on that, technical stuff, and he also helped with the Minor Threat DVD. When I was working on the Minor Threat DVD with him, he had this idea to do a children’s show, “Pancake Mountain” — which, initially, was actually called “Monkeyboy.”
I saw it was produced by “Monkeyboy Productions.”
Yeah, he initially wanted to call the show that, but then Brendan [Canty, drummer of Fugazi, among other things] had written for another project a song called “Pancake Mountain,” which is now the theme song. That was for a CD-ROM that Ian Svenonius [vocalist of The Make-Up, Nation of Ulysses] was working on or something, I mean, this was years ago. Anyway, Brendan had this song lying around, so he gave it to Scott, and Scott said, “oh, I’ll change the name of this to Pancake Mountain.” We got to talking about it and I said, “Well, we could write a song for you,” and so Amy and I did a song for him called “Vowel Movements.”
I love the video.
Thanks. But that song we don’t actually [perform live], it was just kind of a goof. But Scott’s a good friend, and he was trying to figure out how to do [this show], and I spent an awful lot of time [with him] working on the Minor Threat DVD, but also being a consultant, just drinking some tea and having conversations about his project and giving him some thoughts. I think that my experience with business is such that I have a rather peculiar, unorthodox way of approaching things. But it’s also a rather utilitarian, practical, and successful way of doing things, and I think that a lot of people — especially in the TV business — it wouldn’t even occur to them that they could do things in that sort of unconventional manner. [Stuckey] has really gotten some things going now which are great. Every month he’s doing a dance party [for kids], and that’s going really well.
I was wondering if perhaps you could give an update on what the other members in Fugazi are up to. I know Joe [Lally] was in a band called The Black Sea [who changed their name to Decahedron] and now he’s done, and that Brendan and Guy [Picciotto] were doing some producing, but other than that I’m kind of in the dark.
Well, Joe’s out on the West Coast, and he’s actually moving up to Oregon now, I think, so he’s in the midst of that…and Guy has been doing the remastering stuff, and he’s also been doing little bits of recording here and there, playing with some friends…Brendan is working his ass off; he’s done a ton of production work. He’s producing Mary Timony’s new record, he’s doing a record with this band called “The Medications.” He also is producing this DVD series called Burn to Shine that was just released — [the first volume] actually has an Evens song on it.