Ian MacKaye is a lot of things, but he’s best known as the co-founder of Dischord Records and the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. One of the ways he came to punk practices was through skateboarding, which he describes as a discipline, a way to reinterpret the world. Punk, as he explains below, is also a way to reinterpret the world. If languages are our lenses, then these are his native tongues.
I found Minor Threat in high school, after they’d already broken up. I got both of their cassettes at a record store in a mall on a trip through in Huntsville, Alabama. From there, I followed Ian through string of bands—Egghunt, Embrace, Pailhead—but when Fugazi came together, it was clear that something else was going on. My friends and I didn’t know that their first self-titled EP was the beginning a phenomenal 15-year run, but we knew it was something special. Where Minor Threat helped define the genre of hardcore, Fugazi was beyond that, a little bit outside of the genres we knew at the time. I remember driving to the skatepark in my 1973 VW Beetle shortly after getting that first tape. My friend Sean Young sat in the passenger seat rewinding “Waiting Room” over and over the whole way there. The opening chords of that song sound as fresh now as they did then.
Fugazi went on an indefinite hiatus the same year that MySpace launched. The timing is significant because MySpace briefly became the online place for music, for bands and fans alike. In 2018 they lost 12 years of their users’ files in a server migration catastrophe. The lost files include everything uploaded between 2003 and 2015, over 50 million songs by 14 million artists, as well as countless photos and videos. As we offload and outsource our archives to these services, we run the risk of losing them without recourse.
If there’s a lesson there, it’s the same one MacKaye lives by: self-reliance. He’s been keeping his own archives all his life, but I’ll let him tell you about that.
Roy Christopher: You and I both came up and were introduced to this culture through skateboarding. How did you initially get into punk?
Ian MacKaye: It was around late ‘78 that I first encountered punk—really encountered it—meaning that I thought about it. I’d obviously seen it years earlier because the media was talking about it, but my friends in high school started talking about it, and I started to really have to give it a think. One of the dilemmas of punk for me at the time was that punk and skateboarding were opposite. So, the punks that I knew would never skateboard because that just seemed silly, and the skateboarders I knew just thought punks were freaks. Of course, the skateboarders were largely guys who were jocks or who just wanted to party, so it made sense that they would hate something new. I had to make this decision about wanting to be a punk or a skateboarder. Now the good thing about skateboarding, given that navigation was so central to the practice, is that it was like learning a language. They say that it’s easier to learn a language if you’ve learned another language, and I think it’s because you’ve gone through the process of reshaping sound already so you understand that it can be done, you can communicate with different sounds. So, I think in the same light, the time I spent skateboarding and looking at the world differently was perfect practice and preparation for punk. Because punk required looking at the world differently.
RC: Oh, yeah.
IM: It was actually in many ways a perfect way to enter it. Now, ironically, as we all know, punk and skateboarding became almost synonymous later on, which is not surprising to me, but at the time it was separate. It didn’t occur to me since I wasn’t living in Los Angeles where you had the first skaters who really got into punk. They picked up on the sort of the radicalness for the freedom of it or whatever. You have Steve Olson or Dwayne Peters, Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and that crew, once they got into it, then suddenly, like within a couple years, you had skate punks.
RC: Yeah, by the time I came in, which was during the Bones Brigade era, they were already merged.
IM: Right, exactly.
RC: I didn’t know this about you, but I found out recently that you don’t have any effects on your guitar, and you did that on purpose because you wanted to push those limits.
IM: Not only that, but I’m anti-option. I’ve been a vegan for 35 years and whenever somebody asks me why, I always say, ‘why not?’ Because there’s a million great reasons to think about what you put in your body. The primary one is convenience, which is of course the death of the world, but I think that one of the great silver linings for me, especially in the olden days—not so much now because now it’s become more common—but what was so wonderful was that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time looking at a menu because there was one thing, and I was going to eat.
I like simple things like just in general. I think options are designed to confuse and delay. Another reason that I think there are so many options in our marketplace especially is to create sort of brand obedience. For instance, if you go to a larger grocery store and you go to their bakery section and you want to buy some bread, there’s usually about, 25 different kinds of bread, which is a lot of different kinds of bread when you think about it! Or cereals. There’s like 50 cereals! Yeah. That’s a lot of cereals, but I think the only way that one can retain their sanity and navigate that many choices every time is to pick the one thing, right?
IM: They pick the one kind of bread that they like. With the cacophony of options, they just reach in and grab the one, but here’s the thing: They’re all owned by one or two bakeries anyway.
The illusion is that we have all these choices we can make, but the net effect is that we don’t make choices because there are so many that they become incomprehensible. You can’t deal with it, so you just end up buying the one thing or getting the one kind of gas or the one whatever. I’m not suggesting that there were some evil geniuses thought this up [laughs]. I’m not like that. I’m not like a paranoid dude or a conspiracy guy, but—and this is a little bit like the skateboarding thing—I just learned how to look at things differently.
So, for me, options sort of get away from the beauty of a simple life. So, when you were talking about my guitar, yes, it’s true. I don’t like pedals. I never used them. I just thought it was interesting to just have one setup and then to use my body and the available volume knobs, the tone knobs, those things on my guitar and on the amp. What can I do to manipulate those things to create a variety of sounds, without having a computer just dial them up for me. I think one of the reasons that society is in a bit of a malaise is because of computers. The options provided by computers are completely overwhelming.
For those of us who were pre-internet and post-internet, we can really see the distinction. I’m not a Luddite and I’m not nostalgic. I don’t care about any of that. But the reality is that the relationship I had with music at a time where I would only be able to afford one or two records, and I would just have to go and listen to that record until I get to save up for the next record. I would listen to one record, you know, 40 times in a row. That experience is much more difficult when you have 4 million musical choices at your fingertips.
RC: How do you even know what you like?
IM: Right?! As a resource, it’s amazing. There’s a lot of times I’ll read some book about music, and they’ll mention some very obscure recording, and then I look and boom, I find it. I can’t believe it’s all there. So, I love the resource aspect of it, but I do think that that the relationship that I developed with music, maybe it’s harder. I don’t know. Because looking at my kid and other kids, they love music, but they’re kind of overwhelmed with options and choices.
So, I’m a little tongue-in-cheek when I say convenience is the death of the world, but I think options and convenience are cousins for sure.
RC: You could definitely make the argument.
IM: I like fewer options.
RC: I struggle with my students to get them to take notes or pay attention to things that they don’t need right at the moment because they live in such an on-demand kind of culture. You have created an archive—a Dischord archive, a Fugazi archive—and that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to argue with them is that they need to be holding onto their own stuff and not relying on companies online. So, what was the impetus to build this massive archive of your stuff.
IM: Well, I mean, the Fugazi Live Archive is just one part of a much larger archive of Dischord- and Fugazi-related materials. I think the impetus starts with a very simple reality, which is I am 60 years old, and in my entire life I’ve only lived in three houses. I own two of them, and my dad still lives in the first one. As a result, I didn’t have to make that kind of painful choice about what I’m bringing and what I’m leaving or throwing away. So, there’s that. That’s just a reality. Then my mother was a journalist in the true sense of the word in that she kept journals for 60 of her 70 years. Not only did she keep journals, but she also typed them up and edited them. She kept filing cabinets of journals, letters, correspondence, genealogical work. She was an absolutely brilliant, brilliant person. She had a Panasonic cassette deck, and she would just leave it recording in a room. I used to think it was nice that mom liked to hear our voices when we were away, that she would record us. It wasn’t until she died that I realized, it wasn’t for her. It was for us, so we can hear her voice.
There was an emphasis on the idea of hanging on to things because they would take a different form as time passed. Maybe they would become more important, and you can always throw something away later. It’s not like you have to make that decision today. Later you can put it in the trash, but if you don’t need to throw it away now, then maybe don’t.
Then the next level is that I met Jeff Nelson in high school. He was in the Slinkees, and the Teen Idles. He’s my partner at Dischord Records. Jeff is a saver, a collector. I got hit by a car once and years later, I found that he went out and he scooped up all the pieces of the shattered headlight that broke. He still had that stuff. It’s just the way he is. He just has that kind of mentality, which I think resonated with my own tendency. So, both of us were just saving things because we thought they were important. I mean, you have to remember that this why Dischord Records was started: Not because we wanted to have a record label, but because we wanted to document something that was important to us. We didn’t think the world need to have a Teen Idles record. We wanted the Teen Idles record. It was important to us. So, things that were important to us, we hung onto, and we continue hang onto.
As a result of all those things I’ve just described you, these different circumstances, I essentially ended up with this massive collection of things. About 10 or 12 years ago, I had a number of friends die, and one of the friends who died, he had named a mutual friend to be the executor of his will. At some point, I asked our mutual friend how it went, and he said it was the greatest of gifts. Our late friend had basically identified, enumerated, and directed everything he had. I thought about it, and you know, my brain is big, and I know everything in Dischord House, but my brain stops when I die. So, I realized that I have all this stuff, but if I died and Amy and the others were going to have to contend with it, figure out what to do with it all. It was all mixed up because my life, my personal life and my musical life and the label life were all tied together. I know everything, but that’s what really got me thinking about time to start cleaning up and get things organized. I still have miles to go, but at least now things have been split.
I have all my personal correspondence at home, my other house: 40 years of correspondence. I saved all the letters that people sent me—90% of them or something. So, I had boxes of these letters in my eaves, and I sat for four years with an archivist named Nichole Procopenko, and we went through every letter. We put into a collection. We have a large collection that breaks down into different subsets, and now it’s researchable.
RC: Oh, that’s amazing.
IM: So, someone calls and says, ‘I’m looking for this early-eighties punk from Des Moines,’ and I’m like, ‘I can help you!’ [laughs] I freak people out because I can lay my hands on things almost instantly that are in the database. It’s all organized. Same with the tapes and fanzines and photos. That’s the archive. People keep saying, ‘aren’t you going to scan everything?’ No, I’m not. I have scanned the flyers because they’re the most liquid of things.
The other thing about it, which is interesting, is a part of what has affected your students is that… I can’t say this for sure, but I strongly suspect that the punk scene is probably the last youth movement that used paper. Like I know hip-hop came a little bit after punk, I just don’t think people are using as much paper. They weren’t corresponding as much. I think that there’s something really interesting about that. I think it’s important too, because the world that I’m a part of and was a part of back then was one that was beneath the radar of the industry, and since the industry controls history, that’s their job. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they celebrate industry figures. The Grammys every year hand out awards for best Song of the Year, but every one of those songs, if not on an actual major label, it’s distributed by a major label. What are the chances that of all the songs that are being written in the, in the world on any given minute of any given day, that every single best song of the year happened to go through a major? Statistically impossible. But that’s the way it works. They own the history. So as a result, knowing that, I feel like it’s important to hang on to evidence of prior civilization, the pottery shards that let people know that they weren’t the first.
RC: Those are awesome stories, Ian. I won’t take up any more of your time. I appreciate it. I’m glad we finally got to do this.
IM: All right, my friend. Good talking to you. If you ever find yourself in Washington, drop me a line, and I’ll show you this madness. You’ll probably get a kick out of it.