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Interview: Ian MacKaye of Fugazi

Posted by September 21st, 2003 No Comments » Interview – Fugazi
Q & A With Ian MacKaye
By Justin Vela

Ian MacKaye leaves a very friendly message on his answering machine. He has to. The man is never home. Whether he’s producing French Toast, going to shows, or spending time with his parents, he’s constantly on the go. This also isn’t your standard interview. The man thinks about the world and life and is highly articulate. It took a trip to DC and three weeks of phone tag, but we were finally able to take a couple minutes back in July to discuss Fugazi’s hiatus, the effectiveness of protesting, bad interviewers and MacKaye’s love of performing. Whats up with Fugazi’s hiatus?

Ian MacKaye: Brendan, our drummer, and his wife had their third kid in April. We were on tour in October. When Michele started getting into the later part of the pregnancy, she couldn’t be alone. Brendan said he had to stay home and take care of his family. We decided it was a call to go dormant until a time when Brendan can recommit. About ten years into the band, about 1997, there was a series of events; I had a lung collapse and was in a hospital in Australia, some of our parents had gotten sick, Brendan and Michele had gotten married and were pregnant with their first kid. We realized the way we had operated up until that point was not going to work anymore

In other words, for the first ten years of Fugazi it was the most important part of our lives, but it was clear if we wanted to continue, our lives would have to be the central, most important part of the band. We would have to interrupt things and take our time. In this situation, the three-kid factor is a precedent; we don’t really know how to deal with it. The way we operate had always been contingent on a lot of touring and, because we’re not touring, Brendan just can’t travel, so if we’re not touring, the economic picture of it – he’s got a family to feed – forces him to work hard on soundtrack stuff. He was working so hard on that, he said he wanted to take a break from doing any band stuff for the time being. But we all see each other regularly; we’re friends, we’re all part of the same community. We’re all seeing each other; it’s just a matter of taking time off from the band.

NM: Which one of Brendan’s kids was on the back of (Fugazi’s 2001 album) The Argument?

IM: Leo.

NM: What projects are you working on right now?

IM: With the label (Dischord Records)? We’re making this Minor Threat demo and working on a Minor Threat DVD. I just recorded Q Not U. I did a single with them. I’m in the studio today with a band named French Toast. I’m in the studio a couple of weeks from now with a band called Antelope.

NM: As a producer?

IM: Yeah. That’s what I did the first five or six years of the label. I produced almost everything. I produced Brendan and Guy’s earlier bands. That’s how we ended up becoming such good friends. I was friends with their band. So, I’ve got a lot of producing going on. I’m playing music with my friend Amy in a project called The Evens. We have a song on an anti-war Website if people want to check it out. The song is called “On the Face of It.” We did that in maybe March or February. She and I are playing together. We haven’t played any shows, but we write songs and record. We may or may not play shows. We haven’t decided yet.

NM: How important to you think the need to protest this war was and do you think protesting works?

IM: I’m opposed to all wars, so I think it’s possibly important. It’s completely important. Do I think protesting wars works? Of course, because protest is an exercise and an opportunity to reveal the fact that there are people who are opposed to violence and you’re not alone. The way the media kind of portrays protests is that it’s just a bunch of cuckoo birds who think if they walk through the street the wars are going to stop. It’s not the case. When there are situations, whether they are nations or corporations, who are behind murder, I mean killing people is murder, and when that sort of situation happens, it’s very discouraging for those of us who believe that sort of thing is fundamentally wrong. Period. When I go out on the street, I’m very happy to know the other people on the street share that, so I’m not alone in that. It makes me feel very bolstered.

I believe that if you seriously talk to anybody, everybody would be opposed to war… if the war were on their head. If bombs were dropping on their house, they would be opposed to it. Period. The way war is clinically portrayed, through the media, gives people a sense of separation. Think about the kind of panic that spread throughout this country when those three planes crashed. People were terrified. Three planes crashed. (I counted four that morning, but I understand where he’s going with this… Ed.) In Iraq you had thousands upon thousands of planes dropping millions of bombs. What do people think is going on here? It’s not cartoons. I think that everybody would be opposed to war if they really had to contend with it. I think that any war is wrong. I’m always going to be opposed to it. I understand violence in times may be necessary, but it’s never okay.

As a pacifist, there are a lot of people who call me out and say, “What if somebody was attacking your mother or someone? Would you use violence? ” I would. That’s life or death. It may be necessary, but it doesn’t make it okay. It has to happen sometimes. At the same time I don’t think the kind of behavior that has been exhibited in Iraq and for the past thirty or forty years, has been necessary whatsoever.

NM: How do you get your news?

IM: I usually read the Washington Post. It’s a pretty horrible paper. I don’t ever look at the television. I don’t like the television news or television shows at all. If I’m at my parents’ house on a Sunday night or something, I might watch that Candid Camera show or The Simpsons. It’s funny because if you don’t watch television, if you just take your news from other sources, and then you watch it, you can’t believe it’s so crazy or in the same world. I think the media is in big trouble right now. There is a struggle between editorial and advitorial elements. The advitorial elements are winning out. There is so much emphasis on entertainment; it doesn’t have to deal with truth. Sports are the only unbiased things in real time. You can’t control where the ball goes.

(At this point Fugazi bassist Joe Lally comes in and Ian promises to call back. Two days later, we continue.)

NM: What have been your worst experiences with interviewers?

IM: My worst experiences with interviewers? There was a guy who once came to Washington and he stayed at the house as a guest. A few months later he was interviewing me on the radio. He started to ask me questions about the personal affairs of the people who lived in this house. His position was to compromise me or compromise the band, but first off, he wasn’t talking about the band, and second of all, he was at the house as a guest. He crossed the line. I said to him, “Fuck you.” I was getting ready to walk out and he panicked. I think the worst interviewers are the people who are smartasses. I did an interview with an English paper and they asked, “So, what do you want to talk about? ” I said, “Nothing. Don’t you have any questions? ” And they said, “No.” I said, “So I guess we’re done.” They said, “Usually bands gives us something to work with.” I told them, “That’s what the music’s for.”

NM: What have been listening to lately?

IM: Hendrix, a bootleg thing someone sent me. A version of “Back In Black” with the original singer, Bon Scott, singing. I’ve been listening to a compilation of people that are going to come out here soon. I just listen to whatever. I don’t listen to current music, except for some underground stuff from here. I’m not really interested in popular music.

NM: How many records do you own?

IM: I don’t know. A couple of thousand. Never thought about it.

NM: How do you organize them? 

IM: I have sections, but once they get full, everything gets put into a pile and mixed. I usually have them genre specific and sometimes within the genres I have them alphabetized. For instance, I have a lot of punk/ hardcore/ new wave from the early eighties. That stuff I would have in one section and it would be alphabetically ordered, because I usually go to those things in terms of reference. There are people who believe if you alphabetize your record collection, your cheating yourself out of discovery, in other words some people think its best to keep it mixed. That way when you’re looking for one record you come across another one. It depends. I have a soul section that’s just stuck in there.

NM: When did you start playing guitar? 

IM: Well, I started playing piano when I was about three. I started playing bass when I was seventeen. I was in a punk band called the Slinkys. I wanted to be in a band and that was the instrument I could figure out how to do. Once I figured out how to play the bass, I got the basic idea of how a guitar works too. I kind of learned guitar before, but it didn’t make any sense to me because it very hard to transpose piano chording and music to guitars. It’s a whole different concept. As early as 1980 I was sort of fooling around on guitars. Brian Baker from Minor Threat sold me an acustic guitar for twenty-five bucks around 1981. I wrote a lot Minor Threat songs on that guitar.

NM: So you wrote some of the music for Minor Threat?
IM: The first single I wrote almost all of it. We all worked on it together, but “Straightedge”, “Filler,” “Screaming at a Wall”… that’s all me.

NM: Do you still see all those guys?

IM: I see Jeff regularly, I talk to Brian occasionally, and I talk to Lye. Lye lives in New York. I talk to him pretty regularly, once every month or so.

NM: So you guys are still friends?

IM: Yeah. I mean we don’t hang out, but we’re certainly friendly. Lyle and Brian were younger than I was. They were involved in a different kind of community. But I consider them friends. I always enjoy seeing them and I feel very fortunate to have been in a band with them. Those guys were good.

NM: All right, back to guitar. Do you practice? I mean, how did you get so good?

IM: Thanks. I don’t know if I’m so good. I just play. I don’t think of myself as guitarist really. I just play guitar. I’m interested in an instrument and what sounds I can get out of it with a limited palette. I don’t use any effects. I’ve played the same guitar since the beginning. I’ve had the same guitars since the beginning. They’re SGs and they’re my guitars. I’ve broken them both and I keep putting them back together. I’ve had the same amp since the beginning of the band. I don’t change it up. I don’t try different things. I’m interested with what I can do with those instruments. I think that I could practice more. I would be more agile, perhaps. In terms of my approach, I’m very flexible. I just do whatever I damn well please. I’m not worried about protocol or proper playing. I remember when I played piano and then finally my Mom and Dad sent me to lessons. I was writing songs already. When I sat down to play with the teacher and played him some of my songs. He said, that’s nice, but it’s not piano. I thought, “Fuck you.” I was nine years old. I thought, man, I had been writing songs, right? Some people have ideas about what proper etiquette is. I’m just not one of those people. I think you can be whatever you damn well please. In terms of my guitar playing, its not that I don’t make mistakes. I’m just not embarrassed to. I’m flawed. I’m not worried about that. Most people don’t want to go on the stage unless they’re perfect. If you don’t go on the stage you’re never perfect. You’ve got to just go up there and play if you’re feeling it.

NM: You said in Instrument (the Fugazi documentary by filmmaker Jem Cohen) that performing is pretty addicting for you.

IM: It’s like a narcotic in a way. It’s so fulfilling for me at least. I love it so much and I just want to do it more. It’s hard to stop because once you do it you keep on going out and doing it again. It’s like learning a new language. Once you get a verse in it you want to do more of it. It’s a really interesting experience. Maybe it’s just me. I think it’s like a dialogue. It’s never a bother for me to go on stage.

NM: You’re communicating with people in the audience?

IM: I’d say the dialogue is the moment. There might be a moment worth remembering. But it takes everybody. It’s just a life experience. For me, music is sacred. I’m not talking about rock shows. I’m talking about the real potential of people gathering and making a joyful noise and reacting to that noise. It’s a communal thing. When I see bands, the music talks to me and I’m wrapped. I’m in and that’s all I’m trying to do. Return the favor.

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