Ian MacKaye IS Washington DC punk rock. Beginning his recorded career with high school punk band Teen Idles, he went on to found Dischord Records, lead seminal harDCore band Minor Threat, pioneer emo-punk with Embrace, and create some of the greatest, smartest guitar rock of all time in Fugazi. These days, he's recording with his partner Amy Farina as The Evens, caring for their infant son Carmine, periodically conducting live Q&A sessions for fans, and continuing to run Dischord with founding partner (and former Minor Threat drummer) Jeff Nelson. Thanks to the persistence of Citizine editor Thom White, Ian was kind enough to take 90 minutes out of his morning one cold March day to talk to me on the old telephone. Unfortunately I had just woken up and was a bit groggy and out of sorts. Thankfully, he was NOT! My questions are in bold print; his responses are in straight edge.
Hey, Mark Prindle.
Oh hey. Hold on one second, okay? Let me put you on hold.
I've got a huge gig ahead of me today, but I have a few minutes now if you want to do a little bit of work. I gotta write royalty checks today. We've had all sorts of problems, including that snowstorm yesterday, so today's my big day. It takes me about, I don't know, five or six hours of writing checks. It's insane. I do it twice a year. But I kinda like doing it. I think it's good. I do it by hand, and it gives me an opportunity to kinda think about everybody in all these bands. Because basically I'm paying royalties on some records that have been out for almost 30 years now. It's kind of amazing, so I sort of take a second as I write each check to think, "Oh! Where the hell is that person these days?" Yeah, do you have a recorder?
Do you want to check it and make sure it's working?
Yeah, it's going.
Is today okay?
I think we should just go for it, and at some point I may get a call. They gotta print out and analyze some stuff before I get on it - the other people in my office - so I've got a couple minutes now. I was actually just getting my desk cleared off so I could do that work. I can talk to you while I'm doing all that.
Okay. So you're a father now, right?
How's that treatin' ya?
You getting much sleep?
I've never slept much, so it doesn't make much difference to me. I mean, I think people often.... Well, first off, I'm not particularly inclined to make this a 'He's a Dad!' kinda interview, but I will say this: that I was, and I continue to be, struck by the deep cynicism that surrounds people becoming parents. It's sort of like the weather conversation; when people know you're about to have a kid or if you have a kid, the first sort of comments are like "Oh, how hard is it? Your life's really different now! Get ready; your life is gonna change!" and all this really strangely negative tonality, which really was striking to me, especially right before our son was born. I'd meet people and they'd say, "Oh, it's hard. It's just awful." What are people talking about here!? Surely this is the most organic act in life! And though I don't recommend that everybody do it, that's not the point but rather that, for those people who decide to engage in it, what possible constructive purpose is there in these really negative kinds of warnings and cryptic comments?
And obviously, again it's like the weather, one of the first things most people say to me always is like "Getting any sleep?," that sort of thing, which I don't think of as necessarily.... Again, it's like a "Boy, it's cold outside!" kind of conversation, but the truth is that human beings, when they're new to this world, they're not on a particular, like - their cycles are different. And by and large, I think that the cycles that most of our society operate on are deeply unnatural, because they're keyed to the workplace. So yes it's true that, for instance, Carmine, our son - he got up this morning at around 5:00. Or 5:30 or whenever he did, I don't remember. But he wakes up periodically because he's hungry or disoriented or because he's a baby! And of course I wake up as well, or Amy wakes up. But here's the deal: you're being woken up by a human being which you actually were partly responsible for creating! That's okay! It's okay to be woken up by that. It's kind of incredible, when you think about it. It's sort of like a gift; you wake up and you're like, "My God! This actually... Did I have something to do with this?" And another point about rest and all that is that - you know, tour with Fugazi. Go on tour, get up at like 4:30, play a show til 3:00, get up at 6:00 to drive to catch a ferry to get to Denmark, drive all day and then play another show and don't get to sleep til another 3:00 in the morning - THAT's tired. This is easy. The baby stuff is easy.
Have you seen this Ben Kingsley video?
Yeah. By the way, I'm not saying -- if you have a question about it, I'm happy to talk about it. I'm just always leery, in terms of the kid, of sort of like, you know, "MacKaye and Fatherhood." I just find that kind of angle really -- it's strange to me, because it suggests somehow that for everybody it's this sort of total conversion, and for me it's all one thing. Did I see the Ben Kingsley video? Yeah. I was well aware of that thing, yeah.
What is it? What was it for? What was it made for?
There is a magazine from Los Angeles called Mean Magazine, and they have sort of developed this stylized approach to interviews. What they do is they interview people and then they have these highly sort of conceptual photo shoots for the article, and they videotape the actual shoot, which is then used on the web site as sort of something you can do, just a way to s-, I don't know - synergy! Or whatever the fuck. So in the case of the Ben Kingsley - they actually contacted me and asked for my blessing. The guy that was interviewing Kingsley, or I think it was one of the editors, is a Minor Threat fan. And when Ben Kingsley had a new movie out, probably his publicity person was knocking on doors trying to get him interviewed. They were interested in talking to him, and, while thinking about what to conceptualize this photo shoot, the editor was thinking about Kingsley, and of course one of Kingsley's most famous roles was that of Gandhi. And because this guy was such a huge Minor Threat, and he said that he often associated ME with Gandhi, he thought, "That would be funny!"
He pitched it to Kingsley. He told me that Kingsley knew nothing about me or Minor Threat or the punk underground; he just didn't know really anything about it. But then they looked at some videos on the computer, and Kingsley was really kind of like, "Oh, this is cool! Okay, let's do it." And Kingsley said, "I'll give you forty minutes." Or half an hour or something. So they basically hired an audience; they paid a bunch of people 25 or 50 bucks to come out to a club. They essentially recreated the Minor Threat At 9:30, which is the show that is on this Minor Threat live DVD, which is probably the best visual evidence of the band that exists. Moving visual, I guess. They kinda recreated that, and Kingsley studied the video - looked at me in the video. It's interesting to me to see his technique because you can see that there are, you know - it's been a while since I've seen it, but there are certain little things he does - he picks up on very subtle gestures. By and large, he doesn't look anything like me to me, but there are moments where I'm like, "Oh! He's actually acting here!"
It was touching, and flattering of course, but mostly it was just fascinating to me to be an observer of a phenomenon. The one thing about any time Minor Threat or Fugazi pop up in that way, I find it encouraging because I can say for sure, 100% positive, that neither one of those bands is being inserted into public discourse by media handlers. And I can say for sure that we're not connected to any major corporation and there was no synergy involved; like we didn't have a new Minor Threat release that we were trying to promote. So when Fugazi or Minor Threat or any of the Dischord bands pop up in this way to the surface of American culture, it's nice to think that those channels still exist. The fact that the corporate media, the larger media and the labels - the machinations that are behind that haven't managed to completely sew the whole affair up. Do you follow?
So when, for instance, Fugazi's "Waiting Room" was suddenly being played at Redskins football games, people were outraged - which I appreciate, because it's nice that people were like "What the hell do they think they're doing?" - but it's also kinda funny to think that somewhere in the bowels of that stadium, or in the bowels of that organization, somebody who's responsible for picking the music, like, put a Fugazi song on there! It was not of our doing! We didn't have anyone placing it. I can say again with absolute 100% positive assuredness that there is no insertion going on. This is actually people's choice. And I like that. I think it's reassuring. I don't like it because it makes me feel good about my music, or I don't like it because it helps advertise my music. Rather, I like it because it means that the channels still exist, and that's a nice thing to think.
Do you think that Fugazi is permanently retired now?
I don't know. I'm not trying to be vague or coy. I have no idea. I can tell you that we are very close friends. We are constantly in touch with each other. We have worked with each other on various projects, not all musical, but we're a family. And I don't think there's a single one of us who doesn't have deep love for the others and for the music and the work. But we also made a decision to go onto an indefinite hiatus, and that indefinite hiatus, again though people thought it was really sort of a cheeky phrase, it wasn't meant to be. It just means exactly what it says. We didn't know what the future would hold; we still don't know. But we chose that because we don't see ourselves as like -- we're not a store. We're not out of business. And we're not even a band, in a way. We just can't simply break up. We've known each other for many many years, and we were in a band together for 15 years, and that is an extremely intimate experience, the amount of time we spent together. And our development in our lives, in the way we grew up and all the developments in our lives, were deeply affected and attended by the others. So it's not something as quite as simple as, you know, "Fuck you! I'm gonna quit the band." It wasn't like that. It was rather a moment in time in which circumstances in our lives made it impossible to continue working in a way that was necessary for Fugazi to work. Would I like to make music with those guys? Well, of course! I mean, are you kidding? I loved it. It was amazing to work with them. And I do occasionally play music with Joe, or work on some recording things or mix some stuff or talk about music with Guy or Brendan or whatever, so it's entirely possible. But I will say this: at the moment, Joe's living in Rome, which throws a pretty interesting little monkeywrench in terms of rehearsals. But we'll see. Who knows?
There's a pretty major, major change between what you were doing before Fugazi and then Fugazi. And then as Fugazi kept going, each record seemed sort of different from the others, yet each record was smarter and more - you just seemed to keep it fresh, but it was just (sigh). The question I'm trying to get to here is how did you manage this? I mean, was it different music you were listening to, or did you guys purposely try to come up with album sounds you hadn't done before? I mean you started off as hardcore in Minor Threat, and Fugazi was just so smart and full of all the guitar interplay and just (sigh) I don't know. I'd just like to know the -
Well, how long have you been writing?
How long have I been writing?
Mmm, about 15 years.
So have you ever gone back and listened to your earliest writings?
Would you say there's been any evolution since that time?
Just over 30 years ago, right now, I decided that -- Jeff and I had seen the Cramps. It was our first show; it was February 4th, 1979. No, February 3rd - which is 30 years almost to the day before Lux Interior died. The first show that I ever saw was the Cramps. Also ironically, I didn't know Guy at the time, but it was his first show as well. But when Jeff and I and all the rest of us came out of that show, we were absolutely committed to forming a band. Because it was just so incredible. "We gotta make a band!" I had never been in a band prior to that. The only thing I'd really ever played was a piano. I'd never played a bass or a guitar. Hold on one second, okay? Speak of the devil, it's Jeff Nelson. I'll be right back. Hold on a second.
(*holds, because former Minor Threat drummer JEFF NELSON has called Ian on the other line*)
Hi. Sorry about that. So basically there was four of us at Wilson High School - Geordie Grindle, Mark Sullivan, Jeff Nelson and me. And Mark and Geordie had been sort of in bands before; Mark was a singer and Geordie was a guitar player. Jeff had played tympani in the school orchestra, so he had to be the drummer. And I said, "Okay, I guess I'll play bass!" That was 1979. So essentially I just taught myself, and Geordie taught me how to play bass. We just played, and then over the years obviously if you keep working on something.... Music was never a choice for me. The instruments and the approach - that I will say is a choice. But the music is coming out one way or the other; it's looking for the portal. It's looking for the way out. I would actually say that - you know, Slinkees and Teen Idles, I mean, okay that's maybe rudimentary music. I actually think that Minor Threat was extremely smart music. I know that it seems simple, but try playing it some time. Or try writing a song that sounds like it. It's hard! It's not quite as simple as it may seem. And I can't really take credit beyond, I mean obviously I wrote the lyrics. I wrote a lot of the music, but really it was the way that Brian, Lyle and Jeff played music. They were phenomenally good! Lyle Preslar is a very underrated guitar player. The guy played lightning-fast with incredible precision, and he played - do you play guitar at all?
Lyle played six-string bar chords. It wasn't three strings. To this day, when I play a bar chord it's just the top three strings really. Lyle is playing full-position bar chords at that speed. The guy is a phenomenal guitar player. So I think if you listen to Minor Threat - for instance if you were to study the discography, you'd hear the beginnings, which is songs like "Stand Up" or "Minor Threat," these sorts of things. They were my songs for the most part. But then you start hearing the sort of evolution where, I mean "Out Of Step" is actually quite a departure! The "Out Of Step" album, when you start hearing songs like "No Reason" and "Think Again," you can hear evolution coming in. And then "Salad Days" - it's just pursuing music and pursuing this ideas of the sound - trying to understand it. I will say this: I've always resisted change, but I've always accepted evolution. The idea of deliberate change - let me rephrase that: I have resisted deliberate change. "We need to make different music." I actually think we're gonna make different music, because every day we're different people. We just need to be organic about it.
And obviously Embrace was a different kettle of fish and different people in the band -- people who were in different places with their ability and their styles of music. And Fugazi - first off, we practiced for a year before we played a show. We toured for a year before we put out our first record. We practiced, even throughout the '90s, we would practice three, four, five times a week for at least two, three or four hours a day. We played a lot! That's what we did; we were playing music. And then when we toured, Fugazi played over a thousand shows. Played a lot of gigs! And just the sheer reputation of that, that constant work -- one's relationship with their instrument, one's relationship with their music, one's relationship with each other, the interplay with each other, one's perspective on it is so affected by that. You just can't deny it. For instance, people who are fans of, say, Fugazi -- they may think that a song like "Waiting Room," for them, the version that is on that record - the first song on the first record - that is the definitive version. For me, it is not. That is a baby picture. I played that song thousands of times after that, and it changed and changed and changed and changed. It grew up. So in terms of the way that Fugazi developed, I like to think that we always responded to the moment. And if you respond to the moment, then you always have a fresh moment in front of you, so it's always going to be fresh.
This is just a side question - something that I've wondered about for years. What is "Epic Problem" about?
At the time, I read the lyrics and it seemed like it was about writer's block, but there didn't seem to be any evidence of writer's block on the record, so -
That is very interesting. Well, first off the title - "Epic Problem." The title "Epic Problem" was actually a working title for that piece of music, and the reason it was called "Epic Problem" is that the foundational bass riff of that song is something that I wrote in 1990. And it was something that we kicked around for a decade trying to make sense of it. It became a problem. It was our epic problem! We kept going back to it, and we just called it "Epic Problem" because we couldn't figure out how to get our minds around it. It never seemed to make sense entirely. I have probably a dozen different arrangements of that thing - this is all instrumental.
So that at some point led me to this idea of what an epic problem might be. An epic problem is a problem of the ages, you know? I mean, I'll have to think back; my relationship to my lyrics is a strange one, so I'm gonna have to think about what the actual lyrics are. But as I remember, it was a song about appearance, and how quite often people think of me specifically as somebody who doesn't have any problems. And everything's just fine, they don't have to worry about me, and also it results a little bit in abuse because they figure I can handle it. So like with somebody else, they'll be like, "Oh, you know, don't give that person a hard time because they're really sensitive" or whatever, which means that if you give me a hard time, that would suggest that they don't think I'm sensitive. Everything's sorted out and fine - I'm fine, you know? I think the idea of "Epic Problem" is that on the outside I'm working, but on the inside that's not necessarily the case. I am a sensitive person. I do actually feel things. What I feel though is interesting; I don't take things like personally, but I do take affronts as discouraging reminders of the human capacity for cruelty. I'll use a very simple example, for instance. Are you familiar with Poison Idea?
They at one point released a 12" EP, and the cover of this was a close-up of a giant spread asshole, and the record was called "The Ian MacKaye EP." I don't know those guys. I've never met those guys, or I had not met them at the time; I may have met one of them since then. I didn't have any problem with them. I didn't know anything about them. But that was, you know, "Hey! What did I do!? What did I do to deserve THAT?" And at some point I read an interview with them where they said, "Well, you know -" Or no, actually I think the guy that was distributing it contacted me and sent me a copy of it. And he said, "We just wanted to let you know that we weren't going to hide this from you. We did this and we're not trying to hurt your feelings; it's really aimed at the people who think you're a God." And I can't say that it hurt my feelings, because I just thought, "This is so ridiculous!" But it does actually make me feel bad, because it's just such a pointless exercise. You know, fight crime; don't fight nice guys! What the fuck did I do? Furthermore, they did not understand -- and I think that people who often do this sort of tactic like "Well, it's not really about you; it's about the people who worship you," this sort of thing -- what they don't understand is that by assailing me, by throwing stones at me or my name, if they don't think that they are injuring me, then they must think I'm impervious. They must think I'm a God! So in fact they are reinforcing the notion that I am not a human being, because they are taking shots of me and expecting me to not fall. Do you follow?
Over the years, I've had a lot of inconsiderate and sometimes cruel and sometimes destructive pranks done in my name. And it doesn't hurt my feelings personally, but it is again a discouraging reminder. So the point of "Epic Problem" anyway is that I am actually a human being. And there are sets, there are sceneries, I do actually put things up because it's not something that I'm necessarily going to discuss or share with people, but at the same time it's something that I'm wrestling with. It's an epic problem. It's a way of like "Well, how do I go forward?" I'd have to go through the lyrics; I can't remember the rest, and there's a bit more of a stew than that, but that's a couple of potatoes.
The thing I remember from back in those days when I first saw Maximum Rock & Roll -- which was pretty late actually, not until '89 or '90 -- is that there seemed to be a group of people who didn't like you because they thought you were really judgmental.
Do you consider yourself judgmental? I mean, I know you have a strong -
No actually, I don't. I don't think I'm judgmental. I don't think of myself as intolerant, and I'm not a fundamentalist. I think that is other peoples' issues, not mine. I mean, what does it mean to be judgmental?
I guess stuff like when you - I mean, I understand why you did it, but stuff like being up onstage making fun of people for slam dancing or that kind of thing.
Well, I don't see that as judgmental; I see it as a way of defusing an ugly situation. It's very difficult out of context for people to understand what was really happening. But for those of us who stood night after night on stages, in which you had -- I had situations, for instance once in Tampa, Florida, where I had 40 or 50 white power skinheads sieg heiling and beating the crap out of people. And of course most importantly, and this is most serious, there are situations -- I think probably half a dozen, maybe fewer, or even if it was just one! -- but situations in which people left our shows strapped to gurneys, backboards. They'd had their necks broken. And you're a writer. Imagine that every time you wrote an article, there was a frenzy to get to the newsrack, the newsstand or whatever publication your piece is appearing in, and people were trampled to death or to injury. At some point, you might think, "Well, this is absurd! I don't think I should be writing these articles, because I don't want people to be killed or injured in pursuit of this. Especially since there are plenty to go around!"
Jesus. I didn't realize it was that bad.
Yeah! It was bad! And worst of all is that it had nothing to do with the music. There was no relationship to the music. It was a behavioral ritual which then was fanned by MTV's insanity in the aftermath of Nirvana. There's a great story - a friend of mine was doing production work for rock gigs and he was working for a Bob Dylan show. And he said that Bob Dylan was playing, and suddenly a kid was crowd surfing and did a stage dive! My friend's a punk rocker and he was appalled! Like so embarrassed, because it just seemed completely so embarrassing. But then he heard a couple of Dylan's people in the back saying, "Wow, that was so exciting! That's really good for Bobby, you know? A little excitement. That's the kind of energy we want." And it just goes to show that it has really nothing to do with the music. And I don't think the people who were crowd surfing by and large intended to really hurt people; they might have on some level, but I don't think they were really thinking, "I'm gonna cripple somebody." I do think they were just exhibitionists. They were goofballs for the most part. However, it got to the point where it was just -- it's hard to play a show when the people in the front row, who by the way are often your biggest fans, are being perpetually injured. They don't need to have their necks broken; just think about having a 180-pound boy land on your head from behind you. Can you hold on one second for me? Hold on.
Cool. That's my royalty call. I've got 15 or 20 minutes. So also, there's another component of this, which is that Fugazi worked very hard to bring music to people. We did venues that we thought were humane, venues that were open to all ages, that were safe places, and for $5 - really low ticket prices. The economy of rock and roll is deeply fucked up and largely driven by guarantees that bands make and the greed that exists in that world. We did not operate on guarantees; we worked on percentages. And by working solely on percentages, you're able to then readdress the way the economy of the gig will go. If you're demanding money, then the ticket price is not really yours to claim, you know? It's not for you to set. But if you're doing it by percentage, you're showing that you're willing to risk it along with everybody else. It also sets a certain cadence in terms of how much money can be spent. Let's say the room holds a thousand people, it's $5 a head, so we know right there that the gross is maximum $5000. So then we start factoring out what the rent's gonna be, how much it costs for the PA, the staffing, all this sort of stuff -- you gotta take that off the top, and then what's left we do a split with the promoter. Usually 70/30 - 70 to the band and 30% to the promoter. The promoter gets a little bit less money than a promoter might get at another gig; on the other hand, it's a no-brainer and it's no-risk because there's no guarantee.
So we put in enormous amounts of work constructing these things and working on these gigs, and we spent an awful lot of time double-checking and triple-checking and trying to make sure that everything was good and right and okay. Because of the fact the way we worked was so unorthodox, it meant having to go over it with people, because they were so used to the other ways of doing things. Even to the day, when we'd get to the gig, we had to remind the guy at the door, "Oh yeah, it's all ages. You don't have to card people." It's that sort of thing you have to go over, because they're just so used to the other way of doing things.
Now think about the fact that one of the skyrocketing costs of all the shows was security. I mean, there was a show we did in Chicago where the barricade made four times as much money as we did. The BARRICADE. And because you have a barricade, then you must have security people. You have to have security people - crowd management people - between the stage and the barricade. Because the barricade is a hole. So once you put a barricade in, then you have to staff the barricade. So it just costs more and more money, and this results in higher ticket prices. So these people that were just 'having fun' and just 'going off' - what they were really doing was they were perverting the peoples' music. They were creating a corporate climate. Do you follow?
This is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I mean, this barricade in Chicago - we played at this place called I think the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, and at that time there was these 'T' barricades. Are you familiar with that? It was a giant room that held 5,000 people, and the barricade was shaped like a 'T,' so you had the horizontal bit in front of the stage, but then right in the middle there was a barricade that goes straight down dividing the 'pit,' so to speak -- or the 'crowd,' if you prefer -- into two. But then you had to bring in even more security people to be in the middle slot. And we argued and argued about it, but the fix was in. The security people were connected, insurance rates drove up costs, and everything was just creating this insane confluence of things that jacked the cost of the show higher and higher and higher. I couldn't get them to waive it, so finally I said that I insisted that we include in the budget 100 balloons and a can of helium. And the guy was like, "What? What are you talking about!?" And I said, "If you're gonna have such a draconian set-up, and since when people are entering the room that's the first thing they'll see, it sets a contrary tone. So as a form of protest and an absurdity, I would like to soften it by having balloons tied to it all the way around." They did it! But I was just spitting in the wind, because that night we just got banged. We had 3900 people at that show, and we made less than the guy that drove the forklift. That's the risk we took by working percentages.
So what drove me nuts is that punk rock for me was, at the beginning, kids writing their own songs, forming their own bands, making their own music, putting on their own shows and creating their own scene completely off the radar. And part of being off the radar is, like Dylan says, "to live outside the law, you must be honest." So our point of view in Washington was we don't do vandalism, we don't shit where we live, and the rooms that would let us play were important to us. When there were scuffs or scrapes at those shows, it was people being basically served for like smashing a bathroom. "You can't do that! This is our lifeline!" So the idea was to stay off the radar and stay out of the view of the police. I didn't want the police to come to our shows. I wanted the shows! So this extended all the way through Fugazi -- the idea that so much energy and effort was spent, and so much MONEY was spent dealing with such a minority of people - and ne'er-do-wells! Did you ever see me give people their money back?
We always had an envelope with $5 bills onstage. And there was like a show in Olympia where these skinhead guys were going crazy, and I said, "You know what? Time for refunds." And I got off the stage and I led a dozen guys out to the lobby and gave them $5 each and let them out the door. It's just not worth it! It's not worth 60 bucks! The show was so much better after they left. But in our society, the way we have a consumer mindset, the consumer is always right. The customer is always right, so therefore they think that by paying $5, they get to call the shots. Well fuck that, the $5 is just the turn of the key! We're just trying to make the gig happen! They don't get to call the shots. We collectively call the shots, and I'm at that show too.
That brings up something else that I wanted to ask you. By your refusal - not your refusal, that's not the word - by your decision not to compromise your beliefs or your art over all these years, did you end up having to worry about money a lot? Or was enough money coming in?
I've never worried about money particularly. I am frugal. Extremely frugal. And I'm not a cheapskate; I just don't need much. I see waste in most areas of our society, and it's so easy to avoid and just to live simply. I prefer to live simply. Hold on one second; let's see who's calling here. Oh, it's Brendan! Hold on a second.
(*holds, because Fugazi drummer BRENDAN CANTY has called Ian on the other line*)
Hey. He's just coming down here to pick up something. But also, Fugazi worked REALLY hard, and we sold A LOT of records. First off, Minor Threat -- and this is crazy, but Minor Threat has sold collectively like well over half a million records. And Fugazi, I think "Repeater" probably sold almost half a million records. So we sold a lot of records. And though our records are cheap, we were also super-efficient in making them. "The Argument," our last record -- we spent the most money on that one of all our records in terms of recording, and that was probably about between 12 and 14 thousand dollars. By some standards that may seem like a lot, but for a record that sold a couple hundred thousand copies, it's nothing! The first record - the one with "Waiting Room" on it, that thing? We probably spent $1200 recording that. And we never had a manager, we didn't have a booking agent, we didn't have lawyers, I don't have a lawyer, Dischord has never used contracts, so there's ways of doing things. It's creative response. It's like looking at a situation and being like, "Okay, how can I navigate it?" The amount of money you save by not engaging in business as usual is incredible. So I've never been particularly worried about money.
I will say that I also don't think in terms of making my money from my music. People say, "Well, this kind of stuff is easy for you to say, because you can make a living from your music." I make my living from my work. I'm not playing music right now. I am WORKING right now. I will be writing checks for five or six hours today. I haven't actually practiced with Amy for a month and a half. I'm not playing music everyday; I am running a label, and returning to Fugazi, there was so much administrative work. That is WORK. It's just straight-up work. One aspect of DIY that I think people really miss out on is that you actually have to "Do It" yourself. It's work! It's not just a classification, like "Well yeah, I'm DIY!," then you sit around at home. If you're DIY sitting at home, NOTHING is happening. It doesn't make any sense! The work has always been central, but I like to work. And of course I always have to credit reading a Black Flag interview in Damage magazine from San Francisco in probably 1980 or '81. I think Dukowski the bass player said he'd rather work a day job for the rest of his life than ever become dependent on his music. And I thought, "That resonates with me in a hell of a way!" I don't want my art to be compromised by my monetary issues. So I decided that that wasn't going to be the case. It wasn't going to happen. It was deeply liberating.
Who aside from your own bands are the most popular bands, or the best-selling, on Dischord?
Well, Jawbox of course sold quite a few records. Nation of Ulysses sold quite a few records. Dag Nasty sold a lot of people. Rites of Spring sold a lot of records. Shudder To Think did quite well. Lungfish have eleven records, so cumulatively they're doing pretty damn well. I mean, none of their records have been huge sellers, but they do well. Recently, Q And Not U did great. None of the bands come close to Fugazi or Minor Threat in terms of sales. I think probably the best-selling records of the bands that are not by either Fugazi or Minor Threat sold probably about 50 or 60 thousand.
Me and probably most people, when they look back at their teenage years or early twenties or whatever, kinda cringe at certain things they've done or certain ways they've acted but, at least from the outside, you seem to have always had it together. Even in the earliest Minor Threat lyrics, your moral ideas seemed pretty solid, and I was just wondering -- were there things you did either artistically or personally that you look back at and go, "Jeez, I can't believe I did that when I was young"?
Not artistically really. If I have sort of a tender point on that front, it's usually things that I did in the name of humor. Sometimes I'll hear things I did that I thought were very funny at the time that are just not very funny now. And of course in the early days, there was a lot of tension and a lot of misunderstandings, and I think if I looked back, I might think, "Oh, I wish I had been less defensive." I think I was pretty defensive. I was extremely defensive and very territorial in terms of Washington, and very provincial in terms of like DC pride, that sort of thing. And of course there was a lot of violence going on, and I was certainly a fighter in 1981-82. But it seemed at the time to make sense, and I also had developed what I thought was a very ethical code of 'Bruise the ego and not the body.' That was my sort of mandate in terms of violence. But it was a conceit because obviously violence is not containable, and even if I was able to maintain that code, certainly the people around me weren't. And it spilled over into something that was very ugly.
And I think that's one of the reasons that I'm so outspoken about violence. I'm not shying away from my responsibility or my role in that virus. At some point, I was a carrier. I don't think I created it, but I definitely carried it, and it became suffused as at least one component of hardcore punk. And today there are people that will trumpet it in their recollections; you know, people talk about war stories. Especially people who I think are somewhat circumstantial or peripheral players in their connection with the American underground -- often they like to sort of trumpet about the violence and the nihilism. And I feel disappointed because I wish that I had been able to be more prescient in terms of my behavior, and to have not been a contributor to that. I can't say I regret it, because it's brought me to where I am. And at the time, I think I felt pretty clear that it was the right thing to do.
Regret is a tough one for me. I'm not George Bush, and I definitely will admit some mistakes, but I gotta say that I see life as a flight of stairs and every step brings me to where I am. And I'm not a 'phase' person; I don't look back like "Oh, I was that person then, and I'm this person now." I was real since Day One; that's the way I've looked at it. In the American society, there's this idea that you're a teenager or you're a young person, and then at some point you gotta get 'real.' I would submit that we are real, period -- that kids are real, teenagers are real - it's REAL! It's something we should be mindful of and thoughtful about. I don't believe in phases, at least not in my own life.
So to answer your question -- no, I don't really think about it that much. Occasionally, like I was just transferring some tapes the other day, and there was some incidental stuff on the recordings. It was a control room tape of some Fugazi stuff. It was just like the tape running in the control room while we were doing vocals or something, and it's very interesting to hear the process. But I was making these jokes, and I'm like, "Oh, these are terrible jokes!" Because I'm being obnoxious. I mean, I can be obnoxious but I don't really mean to be. I don't want to be cruel. And sometimes I hear myself saying things that, like I know I didn't really mean to be cruel, but if someone else heard it, then it might hurt their feelings. I don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings.
I did also have an interesting experience not so long ago. Mark Andersen, who did the book "Dance Of Days," which is about the DC punk scene -- now I've never read this book, because I decided that I didn't want to read about basically my own history. But I know Mark, and I know Mark Jenkins, the co-writer, and we're friends. In a discussion with Mark Andersen, we were talking about the process of putting that book together, and I knew he had interviewed many, many, many people in the DC underground. And I asked him about cassettes, and he had a crate of maybe 200 or 300 cassettes just sitting in his basement. And I said, "Listen, I'd like to digitize those." Because they're 90-minute interviews, I now have 400 CDs of interviews. It was an enormous project; it's been a year of just knocking these things out. But I've realized what an incredible treasure it is from the point of view of a sociological study or something, to be able to hear that much information and that many observations about a specific music scene or social scene.
I haven't listened to all these things, but I've listened to a handful and it's really interesting to hear. These are interviews largely conducted in the late '80s and very early '90s, and there are some times I'll listen to it and the person will just SAVAGE me! Like say the most really uncharitable things about me. And they're friends of mine! And I think quite often that they're incorrect. They're saying things about my motives, and they're not right about it. But they will say things that are really not nice, and I never think, "Well, fuck that person!" I never get angry. My feelings don't even get hurt. What I think about is "What on Earth was my behavior? How was I behaving that would prompt such an uncharitable outlook about me?" And I'm not mad at the people; it's just interesting. It's just a very interesting thing. I mean, imagine if you came across a box of cassettes where your friends are basically talking about your life together when you were 18. And they might say like, "Yeah well you know, Mark was a fucking greedy shithead." You'd be like "Whoa! Where did that come from!?" You'd think, "What did I do that made them want to say that? Or what was I doing at the time of the interview?"
See, that's the thing. That's the problem with doing histories. Quite often, histories are really skewed because they're retrospective, and the interviews are done with people after the fact. There's a book that I found very enjoyable called "City Of Nets," which is about Hollywood, written by Otto Freidrich. It's a really in-depth fascinating book about the origins of Hollywood, and Freidrich says that in doing the book he decided that to interview people in 1980 about what was going on in 1920 - even for those few who might still be alive, their vision of it would be so affected by the passage of time. Even in this conversation, I'm talking about my past, but obviously I'm, you know - I'm.... 'editing' is not the correct word. I'm 'repositioning' it in a way, because I'm me NOW! So I'm able to talk about it in a different light. So he didn't do any interviews with people. What he did was very intensive research, and he read especially magazines -- just thousands and thousands of magazines from that era, because those interviews were done in real-time! It was Bob Hope as like a 22-year-old talking about his life, or talking about his work, or talking about other people! And that's history. That's the reality of that time. And if you talked to Bob Hope now, Bob Hope might have a different way - well, he's dead now, but if you talked to him back in the '80s, then he would've had a really different outlook. He would've managed it a little differently. Do you follow?
Really interesting! So even in this situation with these interviews, they were five to ten years after the fact. And people - where they were in their lives, what was going on, and where our relationship was, like my relationship with them or their relationship with music - it was really relevant to the tone of their recollections. It's also interesting to discover just how somebody with an agenda can manipulate the past. Because the way people approach histories now, and certainly the way they approach documentaries, is they're hung on basically faux-narratives. They create stories and then they fill in the blanks. But life is not a story. It's just not a story! And in my mind, the DC punk underground -- that scene was not a story. It was an existence.
And don't get me wrong - again, I'm not being critical of the book specifically. It's actually just the notion of histories altogether. And I read histories, so you know - like I recently read a book called "Grit, Noise And Revolution" about the late '60s Detroit scene - the MC5, the Stooges and all that. Very interesting book! Fascinating. But while I was reading it, it's not lost on me that essentially there are probably people who were involved in that scene that are just like, "That book is... That guy missed this and..." So I accept it. I don't think that "Dance Of Days" shouldn't exist; I don't think that at all. What I think is that for my own sanity, I try to avoid reading about that which I've done, because I don't want it to interfere with that which I'm gonna do. How far down the list are we?
Oh, you can stop me any time. I'm just jumping around here. If you have to go....
Does this have anything to do with anything? This interview? Why does he want me interviewed anyway?
Because you're a legend! I wanted to interview you because I've been a fan of yours for so long.
You know, you and I have crossed paths before. And I actually figured it out at some point, but I can't remember what it was. Your name is so familiar, and just recently I realized, "Oh, THAT'S where I know him from!" But I cannot figure out what -- you don't remember ever interviewing me before?
I never interviewed you. I interviewed Guy once.
Oh! Maybe - what was that for?
Umm... maybe my web site? I don't know.
Maybe that's what it was. Just recently I came across your name again, and I was like "THAT'S what it was! There it is."
One thing that keeps showing up for some reason is that I asked Guy about emo, and he said something about "I don't attribute that term; I think it doesn't mean anything. I just thought the bands I was in were punk bands. What, were the Bad Brains robots or something?"
That quote is in a lot of places for some reason. Probably because of Wikipedia.
Ah, yeah. Guy's a genius. He's a deeply brilliant man. I love his interviews.
Yeah, he was really nice. Okay, I have plenty of other questions, but I'll -
Well, go ahead. The sand is going to run out momentarily, but -
Okay. A long time ago I sent ten questions to Henry Rollins, and one of them was what was he most proud of, and his answer was his friendship with you.
That's nice of him to say.
Yeah. And I was just wondering if there was any point during that weird period after he joined Black Flag and sort of shut himself off, did he shut himself off from you too?
Sure. There were certainly moments where it was tough. It was a hard time! But Black Flag was hard. Things got very dark with them. I remember very clearly a certain point in time where Henry and I had to have a sit-down basically to try to - I really was like, "Something's not right here. This is crazy." It was like we didn't even know each other. He wasn't happy. It was a terrible mindfuck, that band. But I did go on tour with them; I was their roadie in England, which was an absolutely incredible experience. It was good, but it was incredible. You have to remember, I've known Henry since I was 11. So there were even periods of time prior to Black Flag, where - you know, we're friends! And you kinda have moments of like "Alright, well fuck you then!" You know? And at that point in the early '80s, of course Minor Threat was in full throttle, and with Black Flag there was a little bit of -- I wasn't really too aware of it, but I think there was actually some kind of weird competitiveness. It just got very strange. And I was too young to understand the dimensions of it.
I hope someday that somebody will go and do a proper overview of Black Flag, because they were a really fascinating band and probably the most responsible for the spread of American hardcore punk rock and stuff. Those guys toured so hard; their ethic was so insane. They would do these tours where they would go around the country, do 30 or 40 shows, come home, and not even stop - just go back out AGAIN and play all the other cities. They lived out of a bag. They had two bags in their van for clothes: clean clothes and dirty clothes. Nobody had their own clothes; you just wore whatever was in the bag! I mean, you were just "Okay, my clothes are now dirty," put that in the dirty bag, and then you just reach in and get whatever you want out of the clean bag. But also there was really almost Machiavellian stuff going on within the band, I think. It was really very interesting. But it's difficult because you can't really write about the band - well you could, but it just would be bruising, and nobody wants that.
Yeah. That's unfortunate for history.
But they were, God, such an important, amazing and influential band. And one that really had a profound effect on me. They were my favorite band before they were Henry's favorite band. Not that it was a race or a competition, but the point is that I was really passionate about them. I actually made the first contact with them; I called Dukowski up. I called the number at SST and said, "Hey, I'm from Washington DC," and we just talked for two hours. Their first show on the east coast was New York. A bunch of DC people drove up there - maybe 15 or 20 of us. And then they came down to Washington, and they stayed at my parents' house. Imagine coming upstairs and Robo's having pancakes and smoking cigarettes with your mother! That band - they're a deeply important band, certainly for me. But because of the kind of darkness in their history, it's kind of too bad because I think it's affected peoples' ability to -- no one can really talk about them.
Do you think you would've joined them had you been asked?
You know, people ask me that. Henry told me at one point that I was the next person on the list. They had done this sort of talent search. Dez wanted to play guitar; this is the story I was told at least. And they had toured the country and met people and seen people and heard records, and they wanted to go back out and try out a couple of people. They first went to New Orleans; there was a band called The Sluts in New Orleans, and there was a guy named Dee Slut who was the singer, and they practiced with him. And then they came up and practiced with Henry in New York. He went up to New York and practiced with them there, and they decided to go with them. Henry told me that I was the next person on the list. However, I think it's worth noting that I knew nothing about this whatsoever, and I don't know at what point I was going to be tried out. Somehow there'd been some negotiations between him and them, because he knew to go to New York.
And I remember really clearly, I was in Cynthia Connolly's house hanging out and the phone rang, and it was Henry. And Henry and I - we were best friends, but I think at that time there'd been a little bit of guff between us because he was singing for SOA and I was in Minor Threat. Lyle and Brian of Minor Threat went to GDS, which was Georgetown Day School. And Mike Hampton and I think Ivor Hansen or - well, members of SOA basically also went to GDS. They were younger than us and, unbeknownst to me - or Henry, I think - there was a really savage kind of competition going on with them. There was a lot of like smack talking. I was not aware of it, because it was their school. I had graduated high school. I went to Wilson anyway; I wasn't part of that scene. So there was a lot of smack being talked, and I think that Henry and I got kinda caught up in that. Because we were best friends, and yet somebody would say like, "Fuck those guys!" So we were in the middle of a quiet period. I hadn't seen him in a few days or something.
So he called me and he said, "Guess who the new singer for Black Flag is?" And we had heard of course that they were looking for a new singer, because this was always a perpetual thing with Black Flag. Like if you look at old Flipsides, Black Flag was always looking for a singer. And there were always these rumors like "Oh, Mugger's gonna sing!" or "Merrill's gonna sing!" or all these different L.A. luminaries. So I'm trying to guess who this new singer for Black Flag is; I can't guess, and he says, "Me!" And I was completely floored. I couldn't believe it! I mean, it was so bizarre! And then of course it was pretty exciting. And SOA played their last show opening for Black Flag in Philadelphia in June of 1981, or late May. And it was an absolutely chaotic show. There was this huge riot with these locals, and people were sent to the hospital. And Henry came home, got all his crap and brought it over to Dischord House - no, I guess he brought it to my parents' house, because I hadn't even moved to Dischord yet. I was still living at home. He got all of his records and everything he owned and just stuck it all in my parents' house, and then I drove him to the bus station and that was that. He went to Detroit and met up with Black Flag and off he went. But you know, we're probably closer now than we've ever been. We're really dear friends. He's a hero.
I'm not mad at him about Black Flag. Ha!
Have you ever wished for a different voice, or to be able to play other instruments, or anything like that?
A different voice? Yeah, I always wish I could sing better.
Do you listen to the same amount of music as you used to?
Yeah. But not new music. I listen to music every day, but I don't really follow new music that much.
Gotcha. What are you into besides music?
What are your other chief interests? I guess history; you were talking about reading -
Mmm, I guess. But I like to talk!
Ha! Do you have more of the interview dates coming up, or is that over?
I'm gonna do some more. I'm gonna do one up in Saratoga Springs at Skidmore. The thing is that it's sorta by invitation. If people like it, I'm gonna do it. But I should try and do more, because I like doing them. They're pretty interesting. Sometimes it gets a little disturbing because it becomes sort of a cult of personality. I'm also keenly aware that, you know, when The Evens play a show, people come to see us, there is money being paid and we're being compensated, and there's an exchange. And what I like to think is being exchanged is the music. When I'm doing Q&A's, I'm also being compensated, but I try to be really aware of the fact that, you know, "What is it that I'm selling at that point? What is on the block?" And the concern of course is that what is on the block is me - my personality. And I'm not too interested in selling that. So I'm trying to strike a balance between the kind of thing where I just lay it all out, talk about everything that ever happened to me and bring in all the personal things that have occurred and all my friends and all these really private things - you'll see this happen a lot with people who get in this position, where they'll start talking at length about these really intense personal things, because it's part of this sort of package. And I try to strike a balance between that and the idea of engaging with people in a sort of conversation and being - maybe 'transparent' is not exactly the right word, but it's something along those lines.
The initial idea of doing the Q&A's sprang from a couple of considerations. One was that in the early 2000s, the United States government was engaging and waging a war against other people in the world, and the media was really lockstep in favor of that and anybody who had access to the media basically seemed to be like, "Yeah, this is the right thing to be doing." I never agreed with that, I never believed that, and I think that there are many people who shared my feelings, but that we by and large were kept out of the mainstream media. This was most evidenced by the oft-repeated dismissal of artists by saying, "Well, what do they know about politics? They're just artists and musicians," and thus rendering our opinion as insignificant. And the first way I would respond is "What did the Bush administration know about politics? They're businessmen. They're not politicians; they were always businessmen." That was their concern.
But in terms of this idea that media was so monopolized by hawks - people who were pro-war - I felt that any opportunity to speak out against war, to speak out against the military crimes that were being waged on other people in this world by our government, I thought it was my responsibility to take it. If I had a stage or if I had a mic, I tried to get up and take a few minutes every night, not to condemn the government and expect that to change things, but rather to publicly declare it, so that people who have sat quietly will not feel alone. Then they'd realize, "Oh wait, there are other people who also agree with that." And I would like to think that the fact that there are enough people like me - writers, speakers and even just everybody - that it eventually did create a momentum and it did put this situation in Iraq into disfavor. There's still a lot more work to be done, but at least I like to think that, to some degree, it was a successful campaign to try to stop this disgusting insanity.
The second aspect of doing the Q&A's was the idea of revealing the ladder -- people who are in the public eye, if you were to imagine them as sort of being in an ascendant position, to be somehow raised. Because if you think about it, if you're in the public eye, then you must be, I guess, a little bit higher. Because if you're in a giant crowd and you're visible, then you must be elevated in some way. I think that many people who are in elevated positions would like other people to think that somehow they were either born there or that God delivered them there or that that's just part of who they were. Whereas I see that, if I am in that kind of elevated position, I clearly see it as a result of work. And I thought that for most people when they come to talk, if they have questions, what they're really interested in is how things work.
So for instance when you asked me about being judgmental, I went on at length about the machinations. I told you how things work! You see? And that was the idea - to talk about how things work, and let people know that there was actual thinking and rationale. It's not a gift from the Heavens; it wasn't like "Oh, I'm just that way! I'm a genius." I don't think of myself as a genius. I think of myself as a person. I just do the work, and I think about stuff. So I just thought it would be engaging to let people ask me any question they wanted, and it has been. I mean, there's a surplus of straight edge questions, but that's okay. I don't mind responding. I don't back away or back down from anything, and I stand behind every lyric I've ever written, so I don't mind talking about it -- to a degree. At some point, it seems like "Let's cover some other ground, for God's sake."
Ha! Yeah, I was watching one of them online a couple of months ago, and one of the kids asked you about The Obsessed or somebody?
Yeah, that was kinda cool. He asked you about Wino.
Yeah, I just saw The Wino Band about two weeks ago - his new band. It was fantastic!
He has a new band?
Yeah, he's playing guitar, and he's playing with Jean-Paul from the band Clutch and Jon Blank from a band called Rezin. It's just called 'The Wino Band.' I guess he's doing Obsessed songs, Spirit Caravan songs, he has a few new jams, and it was really a great nght. He's a super-hero.
Nice. Okay, I'll let you go now. You've given an hour and a half.
Alright, well I imagine you can cobble something together from all this.
Oh, of course I can.
Thanks for the good questions. You made me do some thinking; I appreciate that. You got me all fired up. Brendan will be here in a few minutes to pick up some stuff, and then I gotta start writing checks. So I'm ready. I'm ready to do it.
Have you had time to write any songs? I know you've been -
Yeah, I didn't think so.
That part is not, at the moment -- I mean, it's not merely being a Dad, although I gotta say that you're never bored, so the time spent with the boy is so incredible. Obviously, that has had an effect on my time, but the last year of Dischord has been very, very intense. We've just gone through an enormous shift in our operations. We'd partnered with this company Southern Studios for 25 years, and last year they shut down their Chicago office, so we've taken over all the production ourselves and rearranged everything. That's sorta the trouble with getting the royalties together this time; we've had to remap all the accounting and we just got the tax stuff done.
I'm also in the midst of a huge archive project, basically going through all of my collection and doing a database for all this stuff. In fact, in terms of Fugazi, we have a database and we're already over 1500 pieces for audio and visual-like things -- including 900 live recordings.
Ha! I mean, I've only lived in three houses my whole life. I lived in my parents' house, I lived in Dischord House, and now I'm living with Amy and Carmine in town. I'm at Dischord House right now! And my parents' house on Beecher Street is still - my Dad still lives there. My Mom died a few years ago, but my Dad still lives there. So I still have all my fanzines that I never got rid of in the early '80s. Because I didn't need to get rid of it; I never had to deal with it. So now I'm trying to get the collection organized to create a living archive, and I imagine at some point I may well give a goodly amount of it to a Collection or something. I'd like it to be used; I don't want to keep it to myself, but I'm also trying to come up with a really creative way to address making it really accessible. I don't want it to be an academic sort of thing; I want it to be open to all people. I want it to be open to people like me, and I'm not an academic.
So how much room does all this take up?
I don't know. A fair amount. I'm not a mess, at all. I'm not messy, but I also don't have time to sit down and label everything. So I have basically boxes where like, "Okay, in this box I have 10,000 photographs" or something. One of these days, I'll sit down and get these things organized. But I'm finally now starting to get to that process, because I'm working with an Archival Arts grad student and he's all over that. And this process also involves digitizing and basically trying to transfer -- probably half of the live recordings are on DAT tapes, which is a terrible format. So we're having to transfer all of those to a different format, because if we don't, they'll be lost.
I remember when DAT was the wave of the future! What happened to DAT?
Exactly. That's right. Remember, the cutting edge of technology is a very dangerous place to be. That's why I've never been cutting edge. I always let the people decide; once they decide, "Alright, this is what we're gonna use," alright then I'll use it. That's why it took us years to get a digital download thing. It took us years to get a CD out! Because we're not on the cutting edge; we're always waiting for the people to decide for themselves, and then if they decide that's what they really want, then we make it available. DATs were extremely pragmatic at the time. They were small, you could get up to 180 minutes on them, the quality was decent, but nobody had any idea how short-lived they would be. Terribly short-lived. They're falling apart already.
But here's the other thing, then I'll probably jump off. I do try to take care of this stuff and it is important to me but also, as a caveat, I always keep in mind that it really is nothing. If all this stuff were to disappear, it would be okay. I'm not made up by this stuff. I have this sort of "I care... but I don't give a fuck." I'm trying to do right, because I think that somebody else would enjoy that and it'd be good, so I'm trying to look after the stuff. But it's not my sole purpose in life. I'm enjoying it though! It's interesting. It's given me the opportunity to revisit a lot of stuff and think about it, which will help me talk about things. Always learning.
Good luck transcribing!
Hey, I'll have fun.
He's gonna put us on like a fucking half-page.
Let's do a book. Fuck that guy! Fuck him and his.... Nah, he's nice. Okay, I'll talk to you again.
Good job Mark!
One of the best quotes ever!
damn, what a guy.
I'd also like to thank you for the "Epic Problem" question - that's my favorite Fugazi song!
Take it easy.
Hope things are good Mark, nice seeing you on RedEye, good stuff there.
Return to www.markprindle.com for a delightful Guy Picciotto interview (and other things, possibly)