Ian MacKaye Talks with LA Weekly in Anticipation of this Weekend's Q&A at Hollywood High
In addition to being one of the easiest and most pleasurable interview experiences you're ever likely to have, Ian MacKaye is a goldmine in so many ways. There's his record label, Dischord, which transformed the very way that small punk and non-punk labels conducted their business. It's a pretty basic model in hindsight: first, release solid, honest music by bands creating in your community (in Dischord's case, Washington DC). Then communicate the availability of said music through channels which support the community in which you would like it to be received. Use the money earned to invest not only in forthcoming releases, but also in the community. Repeat.
There's the music that he's made with his bands stretching back to 1980: Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi and, currently, the Evens. These bands share a few traits: integrity, bass guitar, drums, voice.
And, also -- and perhaps the most important vein in MacKaye's mine -- is his voice, which both as a vocalist and as a community activist has long preached the importance of truth in creativity, of being honest with oneself and others, of integrity. Combined, MacKaye has created a body of work and thought that has reverberated throughout the culture since the beginning of the Reagan era.
MacKaye is currently in the middle of a weeklong "tour" of Southern California. He's not playing music, though. Rather, he's sitting down for informal Q&As. These "conversations with Ian MacKaye" are open-ended forums which the artist will address any concerns/queries that arise. LA Weekly spoke to him recently via phone. He will appear at Hollywood High School on Sunday, October 26. There will be no advanced ticket sales, but, like all MacKaye-endorsed activities, it will require only a $5 admission (free for HHS students). Doors open at 6 p.m., with the event starting at 7pm. All Ages (of course). More information here.
L.A. Weekly: Hey Ian.
Ian MacKaye: Hi. I’m at the office, and I’ve got someone who’s going to through my archives for his thesis. So we’re just looking through the stuff.
What, like your paper archives?
Everything. My recordings, everything. I have thousands of tapes, and photos and fliers, letters, posters, artwork – basically everything that ever happened, I kept. I’m not a hoarder, though. I’m sort of a librarian.
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So you’re starting to think about your legacy?
No. It’s actually a living archive, and quite often people ask me for materials, and I just have it in boxes. So I want to be able to find this stuff, and I want to make sure that I’m storing it in a way that’s actually not destroying it.
Do you like doing that kind of thing? I recently had to go through all of my collected stuff and it was a strange feeling. It made me think a lot about my past.
Yeah, I actually quite like looking through things. I feel quite connected to the past, and my memory. Everything that I’ve ever done I can still relate to, and feel connected to it in a way. There’s no part of my life that I look at and go, ‘I don’t recognize that person at all.’ Everything I’ve done, essentially, has led me to where I am, and that’s essentially the philosophy of my life. It’s all one thing. So this idea of phases? I’m not a phase guy. There’s no, ‘this phase, that phase.’ Fuck that. Life is one phase. That’s it.
I guess the only issue I have in going through the stuff -- Dischord House, where I am right now, I moved into this house on October 1, 1981, and I lived here for almost twenty years. I now live in a different house, but I kept this house, and it’s filled. But you have to remember, when I moved to that other house, it was the third time in my life that I had ever moved, and I was 40 years old. Unlike most people who have had to run their stuff through a strainer every couple years, I just never did. Plus, I was on the road for a lot of it. That’s why that stuff went into boxes. I was touring, and I had to get rolling, so I didn’t have time to go through it.
So at this point I quite enjoy it, and it’s very interesting for me. But at times I worry that the sheer amount of time it takes to go through it maybe should be spent working on things for the future, like writing songs. Like if you’re spending all your time studying your past – and it’s like what I’m doing with these Q&A things – largely I’m drawing upon my past. What else are we going to talk about, other than that which is happened or is happening? It’s very difficult to talk about what will happen, because nobody actually knows. If I go out and talk about my experiences over the last couple of decades, ten years from now will I be talking about going out and talking about talking about the future? So there’s a little bit of a concern that addressing the past even by going through these things , or working on the archives, or any of that stuff, somehow maybe might interfere with the doing, with the present.
But sometimes it’s a good springboard into the present or the future. Going through the past will inspire you, or remind you of something that you had long forgotten about that’s of use in the here and now. It becomes the present.
That’s true, and I’ve definitely come across those things. As a matter of fact, coming out and doing this thing in LA, I’ve done two or three dozen of these Q&A things, and I like doing them a lot, but I’ve never done more than one or two in a row, ever, and the fact that I’m about to do six in five days is just crazy. They’re all in southern California. It’s going to be challenging. Because doing these things, people do tend to ask somewhat similar questions, and there are a couple of questions that are inevitably asked. And the challenge is, how do I answer them if I’m doing it four or five nights in a row? Can I vary the answers? It’s an interesting aspect to this, because it’s essentially oral history, but part of it is that I do have answers. You’ve interviewed people before, so you know whether you have someone who’s listening to your question and then they answer you. they hear you and they’re talking to you. And you have other people you ask questions and they just launch into basically the prepared story. This is what happened, blah blah blah. They lay it out. It’s not always a bad thing, but it can be a little numbing because you’re not actually answering the question. You’re plugging into a prepared message.
What do you think your goals are for these conversations?
Well, this got started because I was invited by University of Iowa, and she had a program there that dealt with the arts, and she asked if I wanted to come speak. I said, I don’t really have prepared remarks and I don’t really have anything to sell. I’m not going to do a reading and I don’t really have anything to say on that front. But if people are interested and want to ask me questions, that might work. And the idea that came up was twofold. I’ve done thousands of interviews in my life, and it’s a format that I quite enjoy, because I think of questions in interviews as an opportunity to sort of gauge my growth in a way. It gives me an idea of how I’m navigating this world that I’m in.
But most of the interviews I’ve done, if not all of them, there’s a bias. Obviously the writer may have a bias, but certainly the publication has a bias, if it’s a skateboard magazine or a music magazine or political magazine, they all have certain biases, and the questions are rather fixed. So if you’re a reader, you don’t have a choice in the questions. So the idea was to make a public interview, an unbiased interview. Anybody can ask any question, and it’s up to me to field it, and how I do it is my challenge. In my mind, if anything it’s a pleasant gathering. It’s a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
People gladly spend ten dollars to sit in a dark room and watch a very singular sort of image and fixed thoughtline projected on a screen. This is an opportunity in which it’s a living thing. The actual event is developing in front of their eyes, and they can participate in it. Furthermore, it’s a gathering so people can talk. These events, it seems it actually spurs conversation. Furthermore, as a point of gathering, it is a way for people to discuss and to organize. And in terms of politically speaking, it’s a way for people to be able to engage and see each other and maybe have a sense of a larger community of which they’re a part of. And the last thing I would say about it is, I’m interested in people’s work. There’s thousands of artists, musicians and writers that I’m inspired by. And very rarely do I have to opportunity to see people speak.
A lot of times, I think that most people who are in the public eye, there’s a sense maybe that they’re elevated in a way, and in my mind the idea is to reveal the ladder. My elevation has more to do with people’s perception of me than it has to do with me. All I do is work. I just do my work, and keep working on it. So if people want to talk about, say, the Teen Idles, which was my band in 1980, I have a good memory. I actually remember. And in fact, one of the central reasons why I never got involved with any drugs or anything is that I remember talking to people in maybe 1975 who saw Hendrix but couldn’t remember it. I was like, ‘How could that be?’
And I enjoy thinking about this stuff, so if people at all find it interesting, or a nice way to spend a couple hours, shit, it’s cheaper than a parking space.