Ian Mackaye’s been asked every question your could ever imagine.
My motivations for this interview with punk legend Ian MacKaye were twofold: one, check the box on my bucket list next to ‘have a chat with Ian goddamn MacKaye’, and two, tell Ian about a cat I used to have—a Russian blue I named ‘Furgazi’. I completely forgot to tell him about the cat, but I did get that chat, and a lengthy one at that. We were on the phone for about an hour and there was never a dull moment. For me. He was probably bored out of his wits. He is a patient boy, though, so… (boom boom). Anyhoo, the following represents a small fraction of my interview with Ian, but I’m certain you’ll find it enlightening and enjoyable, and it might even change the way you think about a few things.
I’ve read a lot of your interviews.
There are a lot of them.
And, man, you have been barbecued. You’ve been asked everything. I tried to come up with some shit you hadn’t been asked. My first question: You’re a pretty active guy; do you ever procrastinate? Are you ever like, ‘Come on, Ian. Shake a fucking leg. Let’s move.’ Do you ever do that?
Hmm, let me think about that. Yeah, it’s interesting; the reason I’m hesitating to answer is—like, the hesitation I’m employing now is because sometimes it takes a while for ideas to come together. I think in the past I’ve done some things, kind of rammed things through or have been really impulsive, and they’ve kind of come to a sour end. At some point I realised: just let things evolve as a matter of patience.
So it could be procrastination, or it could be patience. Depending on how you look at it. There are times when I think, Fuck, man, that’s five years that just went by and I haven’t done this, I haven’t done that, and I haven’t been in touch with so-and-so. Time is always elusive; that’s just the nature of life. Because when you’re doing something you’re not thinking about it. Currently, I think there is an added dimension to this dilemma: we are being absorbed by screens and I think that the quality of time is really changed by that experience. One could find oneself spending an hour and twenty minutes watching fatal Nascar crashes from 1975, or squirrels-in-the-snow videos, or doing research on some obscure 1973 hard-rock band from Omaha, Nebraska. I mean, the kind of information and quality of the way the information is received is really distracting. For instance, I know there are things I need to get done and I will still sit down in front of a computer—I don’t even engage in social media—but still I will spend, fucking, two hours looking at the news or whatever. I guess that’s a form of procrastination, and there’s probably an aspect of it that’s healthy. You’re meant to look out the window once in a while, and I do look out of it. I’ll sit down with a cup of tea and do some thinking, or I’ll sit and play guitar by myself for forty-five minutes, just knocking the strings around to see what happens. The answer to your question is yes, I’m sure I procrastinate. I don’t really know what it means; it depends what we’re talking about.
I guess just putting off things that you know you need to do—finding anything to distract yourself.
I’m not scared to jump into things. For instance, I don’t mind… like, I’m doing taxes right now—basically, I’m just organising my receipts and totalling things up and it takes me hours and hours and hours. And I don’t mind doing that. What I need is just a block of time in which I won’t be distracted. So today is a good day for it because there’s no one else here and I can spread my receipts out, poke through things, and it’s relatively quiet. I wasn’t like, Oh, I’m dreading this—I don’t really dread things.
No, I don’t dread things. I think, fucking, just do it.
How many unanswered emails do you currently have?
I currently have 1,400 unanswered emails.
It drives me insane. I try to answer people’s questions, but it’s just an awful lot of writing. I prefer to talk on the phone—I can get shit done much quicker and much more efficiently; plus, I think when you can hear the tone of someone’s voice you understand where they’re coming from.
Do I sound different from my emails?
Of course, yeah. That’s why you just get on the phone. I think the problem with email and text and those forms of communication is that it’s left to the receiver to supply the tone.
So you don’t know. If I wrote you back and said, ‘So, you want to do an interview?’ I could be genuinely asking, like, ‘You want to do an interview?’ or ‘You want to do an interview?’ It’s really left to the reader, the receiver, to apply that tone, and I quite often find that people who’ve got themselves into a pickle with somebody else, it’s usually more to do with the medium than their communication. If they’d just pick up the phone they’d know that nobody is trying to get over, we’re just trying to get through. So I’m slow on the email and I feel like social media—the idea of getting involved in that world—is just too exhausting. Frankly, in our situation, at this moment, we happen to be on opposite sides of the globe and it’s amazing that we can speak to each other on the phone; however, I would far prefer to have this conversation in person.
Right, me too.
So there’s an element of that for me—I do really miss the actual connection as opposed to the virtual connection, I guess.
Do you think there’s something sinister in the ever-diminishing human contact? You don’t have to go to the supermarket anymore, you don’t have to talk to people anymore if you don’t want to, etc…
‘Sinister’ is too strong a word. I do think as a society—at least in the Western, more affluent societies—we are stoned on technology, and so at the moment we’re having a hard time understanding that these things are just tools and the tools have too much power. At some point, people will come around to realise that these are just tools and we can get back to being people. I don’t know if it’s sinister, but it’s fucked up. ‘Sinister’ suggests that somebody had a plan; I don’t think anybody had a plan. It’s a little bit like a gun: at some point somebody’s like, ‘Hey, here’s a way to make a little explosion and you can send a missile out! That’s weird… Oh look, you can kill somebody with it.’
I want to ask how you feel about the sort of disposable state of music these days. That really precious sense of discovery is disappearing because everything is accessible instantly. What do you think of that?
When we first got into punk, Henry Rollins and I were best friends; we met when I was eleven and he was twelve. By the time I was seventeen, he was eighteen, and we got into punk. We would go to the record store together and we would both buy records; we didn’t have that much money so he’d buy one record and I’d buy the other. Then we would come home, put the record on and listen to that thing 100 times in a row, and then trade and listen to the other one 100 times in a row. So we were really doing deep study on this stuff. I’m not saying it was a better thing—it was just a different thing. That was a result of our circumstance, and I can guarantee you that had we been able to listen to any fucking punk record in the world instantly, God knows it would have been a different process. You’ve got to remember that it was just a little over 100 years ago that there was no way to listen to music other than live. For a millennia you couldn’t bottle music; you could either play it or hear someone else play it. You couldn’t sell music. Record labels don’t really sell music, they sell plastic; and now computers don’t sell music, they sell code. That’s what record labels do, mine included.
That’s so weird.
In my mind, as crazy as things seem, musically or culturally, at this point, it just is what it is and humans are humans and they’ll figure it out. I think there is a transitional time that’s a little uncomfortable and it is disorientating for me. I was just listening to a podcast with a bunch of guys talking about what they call ‘post-hardcore’ and ‘emo’ and they’re talking about Fugazi and Rites of Spring and the Get Up Kids and Thursday and all these bands from a twenty-five- to thirty-year span as if they’re all exactly the same era.
That was their perception of it; it was very interesting to hear that. In my mind those bands… Black Flag, for instance: the intensity of that band and the kind of catharsis that their music provoked—they were a truly visceral band and I don’t think that will ever translate on a video. That’s the part you can’t get across. Early on, when iTunes showed up—this applies to all music players, by the way—I thought about what the net effect would be of having all bands’ names and song titles in the same exact Helvetica or Geneva or whatever the fuck their font is. Now they have a graphic… but you’ve bought a record in your life, right?
Oh yeah, yeah.
So you know the impact of the record cover. And you know when you see the thumbnail that shows up on a screen it just doesn’t have the same effect; it’s been neutered, in a way, by the screen itself.
Do you think that’s a tangibility thing? You know, you’d buy a record and you’d listen to it but you’d physically hold the album, you’d be able to inspect both sides of the cover and read the small print and that sort of stuff. Do you think that’s part of it?
Yeah, I also think there’s an actual effect—that anything on a computer screen is ultimately broken down to uniform pixels and because of that it’s an artificial form; there’s almost, like, a gloss. Anything you see on a computer, to me, always has this weird, unreal… If I see an actual record cover I might go, ‘Wow’; if you see a hand-printed poster or something, you can really feel it.
But if you see a photo of a hand-painted thing, it’s not the same thing at all. You see it presented, but it doesn’t have the impact.
Do you think there’ll be a generation of kids who recognise that and reject it? Maybe that will happen, or there will be another technological leap that will then make people nostalgic for computers.
Speaking of computers, you’re archiving stuff, right?
Yeah, but that’s outside the computer—that’s actually archiving.
I thought I read you were digitally uploading stuff.
The Fugazi Live Series. We created a site—it’s been up for about four or five years now—where we basically have a page for every show we ever played that includes information about the date, the venue, the opening bands, the ticket price and so forth. And then, of those shows, we have close to 900 recorded, and all of that music is available. That’s amazing. And then for every show, if we have photos or scans of tickets, stuff like that, we have images that people can look at. The idea is to create a resource, because we, for some reason, had recorded so many goddamn shows and I had saved all this stuff. It’s a bit of a fool’s errand, I think—that’s not lost on me.
I read something you said that I thought was really cool and I’d love to hear you talk about it. You describe success as a fluid thing, and I think our readers would benefit from hearing your philosophy on that. The whole idea of goal-oriented success and that sort of thing.
What I’m talking about is I don’t think in terms of goals, because I don’t think that’s how life works, really. We can’t control everything around us—you just have to navigate. Like, we had a blizzard here last weekend and everyone’s like, ‘Fuck! I had to do this, that and the other thing,’ but in my life I try to remain flexible. I’m always focused on the work that’s in front of me.
So the success is in the journey, I guess is what you’re saying? Yeah, but I think that’s what everybody gets, and people just aren’t aware of it. The thing about people who are so focused on goals is that their failure rate is so high, but if you don’t have a goal you can’t really fail.
Right, and you’re not going to beat yourself up.
I don’t think of life as a contest; I think of life as something to do. The things that I want to do. That’s pretty fucking successful, if you ask me.