Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Interview: Ian MacKaye

The following interview originally appeared in Fuck You Fanzine (Volume III, Issue # 1) back in January 2003. Enjoy. --Ronny

BBHC: Does the Dischord House feel like a tourist attraction? I know when I first moved to this area, my friends asked me “what sights do you want to see first; The White House, the Washington Monument?” I was just like “THE DISCHORD HOUSE!” So we did a drive-by one day. A lot of my other friends have done it as well. I hope that doesn’t creep you out.

Ian MacKaye: To some degree I suppose there is a “tourist attraction” aspect of the Dischord House, but the “tourists” are almost always incredibly cool, so it’s not a bad place to be. The irony of this is that the address that most people assume is the Dischord House (3819 Beecher Street) is actually my parent’s house. Dischord House is in Arlington, just across the river. I was living at home when we started the label, and when we moved into Dischord House (October 1, 1981) we decided to continue using my parent’s address figuring that we may not stay too long in Arlington. As it turns out I’ll be celebrating my 20th Anniversary in the house this year. People do come up to the door of the Beecher Street house and are usually met by my Mom and her dog, Lula. She enjoys meeting the visitors and usually has time for a short talk. In fact, she actually gets mail, fan letters of sorts, from people who have met her while looking for Dischord. One aspect of Dischord and the work we do that has always been important to me is the idea that this is for real. That if people came to check it out, that they would find operating evidence that kids can start and maintain a business and an ideal. So with that in mind, I’m glad that there are people who come to D.C. and search us out.

BBHC: Fugazi has been credited with championing the five dollar show. It is very often the standard that the scene lives and dies by. My question is this – Fugazi is huge and I think that it’s awesome that you play shows for such a low price. But do you think that ethic can hurt smaller touring bands that don’t have the draw that Fugazi does, and could benefit from an extra dollar or two at the door?

Ian MacKaye: I tend to think that we championed the idea of the low door price, not necessarily the $5 show. While it’s true that the $5 figure is what most writers have picked up on, our point has been to try to keep the shows affordable. Initially, the $5 was the simplest figure to work with in terms of making change at the door and counting out at the end of the night. Then it just became something humorous for us to pull off. The point is that if approached with economy and efficiency, these shows don’t really need to be any more expensive. Inflation is obviously something that has to be considered, but it wasn’t until the last few years (after the major label circus came through town) that the cost of doing shows went up enough to make us decide to charge $6 for most of our shows. The idea was never to force other bands into charging $5 for shows, it was what we felt comfortable charging for our concerts. By having the lower door price, we felt that there was less of an onus upon us to provide “entertainment,” thus freeing us up to try different things. This provides for a better forum for something interesting and fresh to occur in our opinion, and if it doesn’t pan out…if we end up sucking on any particular night…at least people can walk away feeling like it cost them less than a movie. While it’s true that the venue ultimately decides what they will charge at the door, it’s also true that the bands ultimately decide whether or not they will do the show. For every gig we have played, I assure you there are 5 or 6 that we said no to for various reasons. We have almost always played for percentages, as opposed to guaranteed fees, so the venue has no real risk of losing money on the deal. The challenge is to cut the costs of the production down. This means no paying someone to load our gear in (we do it ourselves) and not having light shows and extensive backstage food requirements. It also means that the venue has to back off on what, is almost always, inflated figures for rent, staffing, sound system, advertising and so forth. When faced with higher guarantees, the club makes it a point to jack up their own costs to make sure that they actually make some money before the money goes into the percentage split. Anyway, I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of business stuff, but I wanted to give you some idea into our approach to this stuff. It’s not just some purely idealistic ceremony, this is a way of doing things that attempts to bring things into real time and real cost.

BBHC: How did you end up in a studio with Al Juergenson when you recorded the Pailhead e.p.?

Ian MacKaye: I met Al at a studio in London in 1986 or so. He told me that he was getting into “hardcore,” which struck me as odd considering that Ministry, up to that point, was a college dance music band. It was also at a time when I was in the band Embrace, which was moving away from what many people considered “hardcore” at the time. He asked me if I wanted to sing on one of the tracks he was working on (he recorded a lot of music, and as he finished each piece he would decide what project-name he would release it under). At first, I didn’t think there was a chance I would do it, but when he played me the track (it would become “I Will Refuse”), I was pretty knocked out by it. I actually wrote the lyrics in an hour or two and did the vocals that night. It was partly inspired by the struggle with the major label that had signed Ministry at the time (Warner Bros.?), but like almost all of my songs spread out to cover a lot of different things by the time I was done writing. I didn’t really know in what form this song would be released, or if it would be released for that matter, but I liked what we came up with. A month or two later, Al asked me to come to Chicago to record a second song that would be used as a B-side to “I Will Refuse.” So I went out there and wrote and recorded “No Bunny” with him and Ion (Paul) Barker from Ministry and revolting Cocks, and a guy named Eric (whose last name I can’t remember at the moment) who played drums for Naked Raygun. I came up with the name Pailhead for the project and it was decided that it would be released with no name or pictures or information. This is not because we were ashamed to be connected to the music, or each other, but because it seemed cooler to do it that way. A year or so later, I went back to Chicago for a second e.p., and eventually all six songs we recorded were released on a single CD. I haven’t spoken with Al for many years, but I really enjoyed working with him and found him to be a sweet and brilliant studio producer.

BBHC: Pailhead wasn’t the only project that went under the radar. You were involved with another project that absolutely nobody is aware of. Can you explain your involvement with The Pickled Three?

Ian: Fugazi's drummer, Brendan, was doing music for a children's CD-ROM called "Chop Suey." I was over at his house while he was working on it and chipped in some ideas. One of the songs I helped write and record is "It's Alright if You Don't Like Me," which was sung by three animated pickles (Ian is the voice of the third pickle. Not only is the song really funny, but with some distortion and forceful vocals, it would make an awesome hardcore song -- ed.). I think it's a good track and hope that people will be able to check out Chop Suey for all of the other great stuff Brendan wrote for it. There are many D.C. punk musicians playing and singing on that thing, and much of the animation was done by Ian Svenonius, the singer of The Nation of Ullysses and The Make Up.

BBHC: Everybody knows that Uniform Choice was fond of swiping greeting card messages and skewbald songs. How exacltly did they get the lyrics to your song to put into "My Own Mind," which appeared on their first L.P.? Did you ever approach Pat about it after the fact?

Ian: Minor Threat broke up in September of 1981 when Lyle, our guitarist, went to college, and reformed in April of 1982, when he dropped out. In the intervening months Jeff Nelson and I were trying were trying to start a new band called Skewbald (my choice for a name) and Grand Union (Jeff's choice). We never managed to play out, but we did record three songs at Inner Ear Studios. The tape was traded around and I guess at some point ended up with the Uniform Choice people. Pat told me at the time he assumed it was a never released Minor Threat song, and since it was never released he figured they would do something along the lines of a "cover" of it. It was a little weird to hear lyrics so closely resembling mine released as a Uniform Choice song, but I never spoke with him about it.

BBHC: Did you produce the 7 Seconds tracks: Regress No Way, We're Gonna Fight, New Wind, Put These Words to Music and Still Believe? I swear I can hear you in the back-ups to Put These Words to Music. If so, were these tracks originally intended for a Dischord sponsored/split release for 7 Seconds, and if so, what happened to the record (because the tracks are split over two records)? Or maybe I'm way off base.

Ian: I produced two separate 7 Seconds sessions at Inner Ear Studios. Neither were enough to make a full album on their own, so songs were added from other sessions. They weren't intended to be a part of a Dischord split release because 7 Seconds had already gotten hooked up with BYO, but years earlier I had long discussions with Kevin about doing a split release with a label to document the Reno scene. Something along the lines of what we did with X-Claim! and the Boston scene, as well as Touch n' Go and the mid-west scene. I think the label Kevin had started was "Sceno" (I may be getting that mixed up with "Skene" Records), but the idea never developed. 7 Seconds ended up doing records with Alternative Tentacles, and then it was BYO, and then it just went on from label to label after that. I was always a little bummed that 7 Seconds were never really taken care of early on, as they were such a great band and such good people. I don't believe they were ever really fairly accounted to, and that's a drag because I think they sold quite a few records. Of course, I may be misinformed about this, in fact I hope I have been, but the last I heard they were never paid for most of those early releases. I am still a fan of the band, and while it's been a while since I have been in touch with Kevin, I think I will always feel a connection with him.

BBHC: You were one of the audience members for the Saturday Night Live episode when FEAR was the musical guest. Who else was there with you, and can you give us some highlights of the night?

Ian: I was contacted by Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, and John Belushi and asked to put together a crew of people to come dance at the Fear appearance on the show. Belushi had been asked to make a cameo appearance on the show, and he agreed on the condition that one of his favorite bands, FEAR, would be invited to be the musical guest. He then insisted that the band should have some punk rockers on the premises to add some "authentic" flavor. He got my number from Penelope Spheeris, who directed "Decline of the Western Civilization" as well as "Suburbia," after she told him that the D.C. scene was the "happening" scene on the east coast. Anyway, they called and we agreed to come up to the show. As it turned out our good friends from Ohio, The Necros, were playing with the Misfits in NYC the night before the SNL show (Halloween '81), so we invited them along as well as numerous New York punks (I'm fairly sure that Harley Flanagan from the Cro-Mags was there). The actual experience was really disorienting. We were kept in a room until they were ready to have us appear, at which point we were led down through the backstage area and on to the set. The band would come out and we would all have to immediately jump into action. It was cold on the set and completely sterile, the music was quiet, and the people sitting in the crowd absolutely hated us. This was okay, beacause we hated them too, and we had chips on our shoulders. During the dress rehearsal (the show is run through twice, once as a dress rehearsal, and then the actual "live" show), a camera was accidentally knocked over and there was some damage, but the producers decided to let us come on the actual show. This was probably in some part due to Belushi pressuring them to let it go forward. The actual show was as weird as the dress rehearsal, though I think we were no longer interested in trying to keep things cool. As I remember there were even small skirmishes breaking out between audience members and dancers, and there was some headknocking going on between the punks themselves. Keep in mind there there was quite a bit of territorial friction going on in those early years. At some point during the show one of the D.C. punks, Billy Mackensie, jumped up on stage and grabbed a jacko'lantern pumpkin that the show had been using as it's commercial break transition shot. He hoisted it over his head and smashed it on the front of the stage in front of the band. We all started slipping and sliding on the pumpkin mush until the song was over. As it turned out the producers had cut away from the show the moment Billy appeared with the pumpkin, so no one ever saw the rest of the mess. When we left the room we were booed by the audience. We were locked into another room and told that we were going to be facing charges in connection to the "damage" done. Eventually, they let us go and in the days following the media picked up on the story. Before long, the story had blown into us "rioting on the set" and causing $100,000 worth of damage. It was, of course, not true, but SNL got some coverage out of the deal.

BBHC: I know that Eddie Vedder is a fan of Embrace and Fugazi. Did he ever seek advice from you when Pearl Jam went head to head with Ticket Master?

Ian: I think Eddie and I spoke about their Ticket Master situation, but the fact of the matter is that Pearl Jam are in a completely different arena and that our confrontation with Ticket Master (predating theirs by a number of years) was quite a different matter.

BBHC: Have you ever considered collaborating with Henry Rollins on a project?

Ian: I did produce the "Lifetime" album as well as a number of songs that appear on the "Do It" E.P. Henry and I are in constant contact, but we haven't ever really considered doing any sort of project together. We're both plenty busy with what we already have going on.

BBHC: If and when Fugazi calls it a day sometime in the future, will you do another band? Fugazi has been a standard for many years now. I have a hard time imagining you in any other band.

Ian: I don't think too hard about the future, it will get here in it's time, and while I can't quite imagine being in another band, I also can't imaging not having music in my life. So time will tell. Who knows, maybe Fugazi will play on and on.

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