June 3, 2012
IAN MacKAYE INTERVIEW PART ONE OLYMPIA 1994
This interview took place 7/16/94
PART TWO can be read HERE

When I was in high school in San Diego my crew of friends and I missed no chance to drive up to L.A. or San Francisco on the weekends to hang out with our friends and hopefully see a Punk show. Whenever we made it up to The Bay Area our first stop was always the MAXIMUMROCKNROLL house, first at its location in Berkeley and then later in SF when Tim Yo and the magazine relocated to The City.
The first time I met Ian MacKaye was during one of these trips up north in 1985. It was in the post-Minor Threat/pre-Fugazi era and he was out west visiting Cynthia Connolly, his long term girlfriend at the time, who was in town for an extended stay at MRR. I don’t remember a whole lot about that encounter except that they both were very cool and that I was surprised to see him sporting a full head of corkscrew hair.
In the following years I made it back to Washington a number of times and I was very taken with the people that made up that wonderful scene. When I was in town I always stayed at the Dischord house and had a great time every time I visited. I was moved by the down-to-earth, loving atmosphere of the place. I loved the dogs, the good food, the music, and most of all I loved the friendly, brilliant people I met there. Ian himself couldn’t have been a funnier or more gracious friend and host.
I have fond memories of going to a family dinner at the MacKaye’s Beecher St. house, where I met everyone including Alec MacKaye, another well-known D.C. Punk who would also become a friend. Later on in the Fugazi era I even remember once jamming in the basement with Joe and Brendan on Ian’s white SG while they were waiting for Ian and Guy to show up for practice (all I could think to do was to make Ian’s chugga-chugga sound). How’s that for a D.C. moment?
Now I’m just tooting my own horn.
I should keep this intro short and tell you a little about the interview. This conversation with Ian took place one sunny afternoon in Calvin Johnson’s front yard in Olympia. He was in town visiting his many friends while also checking out the Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go Music Festival that was happening that week. I interviewed him with the intention of putting together a zine that was to consist of two back-to-back interviews each issue.
I had recorded a conversation with Beck the day before, who was in town playing the fest. These two interviews were going to make up my first issue. For whatever reason, the zine never came out. In fact, I never got around to transcribing either interview until now: 18 years later! Better late than never I suppose. I haven’t listened to the Beck interview but I will soon. Luckily, I still have that cassette too.
Of course Ian has been interviewed countless times and some of the stories he tells in our conversation may be familiar to anyone who knows him personally or who has paid attention to his career over the 30 plus years he’s been an active force in the culture. What I think makes this particular interview unique is the slant it takes toward the mysterious, the strange, and the inexplicable. To give you a feel for what I mean, the term “straight-edge” never comes up once but we do talk at length about religion, death, ghosts, UFO’s, prophetic dreams and the mystery at the heart of the human experience. It’s a fun and fascinating read. I had a good time working on it.
I hope you enjoy this walk on the weirder side with myself and Ian MacKaye.
Were you raised with any religious beliefs?
I was baptized Episcopalian, my dad is definitely an Episcopalian but we went to a super, super radical church in Washington. A place called St. Stephen and the Incarnation. Throughout the 60’s, when I think of church it was embroiled with the Vietnam War protests and stuff. The church was a sanctuary for protestors and there was always all sorts of radical stuff going on there. They had soup kitchens, the first gay marriage, the first gay priest, first woman priest in the city, all that sort of stuff. It was an inner city church in what was called “crimes square” which at the time was the worst, so-called most dangerous block in Washington, between 16th and 14th on Newton Street. It was a super active, inner city church, it wasn’t a real standard “Christian values” kind of thing although there obviously were Christian values…
Truer Christian values?
…you would assume, what I would assume is a Christian value. You know, they were looking out for people. I can remember on Palm Sunday 1968, it was the day or two days after Martin Luther King was killed.
How old were you?
I was 6 and there was major rioting going on 14th St. which was like a block and a half away and the whole church marched down the middle of 14th St. and buildings were still on fire.
Were you a part of this march?
Yeah, I was totally there. People ask me what my earliest memories are and that’s gotta be one of my earliest memories. I might remember something before that but that’s the earliest memory I can actually date. I know I can remember that, straight up. That was the kind of upbringing I had. My parents…my mom is a Catholic but she converted to Episcopalian when she married my dad, but as time went on she started to go back to her original Catholic stuff, although she’s not a practicing Catholic in the sense of going to any kind of church, she’s just more of a Catholic expert. Both my parents are totally smart about all matters theological. They’re totally brilliant.
My dad actually was the religious editor for the Washington Post but I don’t think that had a whole lot of bearing on anything for us. The kids were made to go to church, we all had to go right up until about the early 70’s. Then the family kind of went haywire, as a lot of families did in the 70’s. Everything just kind of went to hell and it was sort of like…my dad was the only one who ever went to church after that. I stopped going to church in 19…I would guess…74 or 75.
My mom would never go back to church, the kids would still go on Christmas Eve with my dad because he still goes to St. Stephens. He’s still a super active person there, he’s on the board of the Washington Free Clinic which operates out of the church, they do a lot of AIDS outreach stuff. That church is, even today, and this is just relatively speaking, as way more mainstreamy and soft-core as they are, still compared to other churches, they’re pretty radical and they’re still super involved in the neighborhood. He still goes, we all go on Christmas Eve as a family. We come out, like “Hey it’s the kids!” shake hands, make an appearance.
I think none of my grandparents were religious at all, in fact they were almost all kind of anti-religious. My dad’s parents did not practice at all, he got into it on his own. He wanted to be a priest. My mom’s parents didn’t practice. My grandmother was a Baptist, a Hard Shell Baptist. Which means…Hard Shell Baptist means that sin doesn’t really count with them because they’re such good Baptists that sin just kind of bounces off them. So they can get away with all kinds of stuff. You know what I’m saying? That’s what a Hard Shell Baptist is, it’s not like the fundamentalists. My grandfather came from a super Catholic family but he didn’t practice. My mom got into Catholicism through her aunts.
It was weird, there was a lot of religion around us, my family knows a lot about religions, not just religion but religions. We still have a lot of dinner table arguments about it. None of the five kids, I have three sisters and a brother, I don’t think any of us are practicing anything, or have any interest in practicing anything, that I know of. I could be wrong. I personally totally have major problems with all organized religion. I don’t have a clue, I don’t have clue about how people can actually embrace something so preposterous. That’s my religious story.
What is your idea or concept of a higher power, or of God? Do you have one?
I don’t know. Ultimately for me something exists that gives people some kind of strength or faith or whatever. I don’t know what it is and I certainly don’t perceive it as anything really tangible other than the fact that it seems to really ease some people’s load. I think what it comes down to is people are terrified of death. Lord knows I am! But whatever, if by creating a scenario…well, you know… It’s sort of like outer space…what’s beyond it? You can say “it’s a sea of cotton candy” if that makes it seem good to you at least it’ll be fun and sweet. Fair enough! If it eases your load to think that, then cool. For me, when I think about it in terms like that it actually just exacerbates it because I know I’m bullshitting myself because I don’t really believe. I don’t think I’m an atheist…but I don’t even think I rate as agnostic either.
A lot of people say “well yeah, there’s a higher power or whatever” but I’m not even exactly so sure about that. I just think that something exists within human beings that makes them able to create something, and manifest something within themselves that gives them solace. I could be wrong, that’s okay, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. People can get terribly offended when you doubt their decision, but it’s not that I so much doubt their decision, it’s that I doubt mine. They can do what they want.
I talk about this stuff with my dad all the time. I go to these Christmas Eve masses and I listen to these sermons and I think “this is just rife with fuckin’ contradiction and hypocrisy!”  and I go back and I argue with my dad…I go like, how can you…like the Nicene Creed, are you familiar with it? It’s a creed that says something like “I believe there’s only one God…blah, blah, blah” It’s a creed, like The Pledge of Allegiance for Episcopalians. It terrifies me! It terrifies me because if there’s ever a major default self-destruct button in a religion for me, it’s when it refuses to acknowledge other religions. It immediately says “my fuckin’ pie in the sky is real but yours isn’t” Which is just bullshit. I have a lot of problems with that.
When I see people who are totally devout and really comfortable though, that’s cool…I envy that…at least I envy their ability to create that appearance. Some people might even assume I have that too. They might think “that guys really got it together, he’s really got it figured out” HA! (laughs)
I met some Buddhists a few months ago. There were these priests that were traveling around the country from Southern India, they’re exiles from Tibet. They were opening for The Beastie Boys in Washington, there was a benefit…
They were doing music?
Yeah, it was The Artists for Tibet, it was a benefit. The monks chant, they did music. There’s a lot of mystique about Buddhism and stuff like that, and whatever, I don’t have a lot of time for that kind of stuff. The guys were amazing though, they were very interesting fellas. They were all older dudes and they laughed all the time and seemed quite confident. I enjoyed being around them and they made me feel like they were actually kind of holy guys.
I talked to this woman who was traveling with them as their handler, and while they were watching The Beastie Boys play, it was insane of course the kids were going nuts, and those guys were just laughing and laughing. I said to the woman, “This must be pretty crazy for them.” She said “Not really, they’ve had a crazy tour this time…” I asked her “What do you mean?” She told me that during the trip their spiritual leader had died. He’d just dropped dead at age 90 or whatever. I said “Oh my god! Was it devastating for them?” she said no, for them it’d be sort of like, you know, if you and I were friends, talking and then one of us got on a bus to go to Denver. For them it’s like, oh well he’s just over there now, we’ll see him at some other point.
Then she told me they had been in Salt Lake City doing a performance in a library or something and some guy who had some kind of grievance with the world decided to take advantage of this gathering and he took it as an opportunity to kidnap some people and kill them. So this guy kidnapped the Buddhists and a handful of other people and while he was doing that there was a meeting next door of a bunch of off duty police and one of the cops happened to notice something amiss and he stepped out as the guy yanked the hostages into a room and he jumped in with them and became a hostage too.
Apparently the bad guy said to the hostages “okay, I’m gonna kill a couple of you to let them know I’m not kidding around, how many people have I got here?”The cop said “You got sixteen people including me.” So the guy says, “okay, line up against the wall, who wants to die first?” or whatever, you know, this is my version of the story she told me, which is probably her version of what happened…although she was there…
As a hostage?
No, not as one of the hostages but she was at the event where this went down. So anyhow she said this woman started to flip out, one of the hosatges started to flip out, and was screaming and she distracted the gunman and right when he turned the cop pulled out his gun, killed the guy, shot him in the head and dropped him. This was all in front of the monks, they were right there! She said the monks immediately ran over and circled the guy. He dropped on the floor and they circled the guy to make sure he had a good send off because, you know, the circumstances of his travel were not good. He was in a really bad karmic cycle at that moment. (laughs)
I’d say so!
Yeah, so I thought it was…they impressed me. I really respected the fact that they were so…I’ll just say they impressed me. So anyway when I came back I said to my dad, “Ya know, I think I’m gonna become a Buddhist.” of course, ya know, totally joking…and my dad was like, “Look, give Christianity a chance!”
I appreciate people like these monks or people like Mother Teresa or Father Wendt, the priest who baptized me who was a total fuckin’ fighter. The Barrigan brothers, Mitch Snyder, even people like Jimmy Carter, who talk about their faith being such a big part of what they do. Those people, that’s where faith seems pretty darn good. That obviously is, of course, totally offset by endless, stupid, silly wars and power struggles because of the whole organized religion thing.
But those guys, I think it’s cool when I’ve met Buddhists. I’ve been to protests, like once I was at a protest at The Department of Energy, everyone was like “We’re gonna shut down the DOE! We’re gonna block all the doors!” It was pretty terrifying. There were a lot of cops. We were all just standing around like, let’s all go get beat up! Then these Buddhists came, these guys with drums, and they start playing and everyone was less scared. It was really cool.
I’m not a Buddhist, I know some Buddhists, I’m not interested in being a Buddhist. I just think the one’s I’ve met, they’re at least using the stuff kind of right. Even with all the mystical stuff, I still have to say fair enough, good enough for them.
I usually don’t talk about religion at all because for me it’s a subject that’s really closed. I don’t talk about it except with friends. You know we (Fugazi) have a lot of Christian followers…
I was gonna ask you if you did.
We get tons of them and they often want to talk with me about Christianity. When I say to them I’m not really a Christian, although my dad would argue with me about that, but I say I don’t buy into that. A lot of times these kids want to know why I’m not more overt with my Christian message and I tell them it’s becauseI don’t have one. I don’t buy that. They think it’s bullshit. They accuse me of telling half the truth. I say to them “Fuck You! Don’t ever fucking tell me what my truth is!”
I had a Mormon kid come up to me once and tell me that he felt like it was really good I was doing such good work but that he felt bad because I wasn’t quite there and he gave me The Book of Mormon. I wrote him a letter and said, “I didn’t say fuckin’ shit to you about your fuckin’ religion, don’t ever, ever presuppose anything about me or my beliefs!”
My beliefs are complicated. What we’ve just talked about, that’s just the surface of it all really. Like I say, I don’t like talking about religion for the most part because it’s tedious, a lot of it, because if someone believes in something, anything you say to them at all to suggest that you don’t fully believe in it immediately throws them into a really weird defensive posture or mechanism because this is what they’re hanging their fuckin’ hat on. This is what makes them not scared. If you say to them “I don’t really think your truth is everybody’s truth”it immediately means “You’re fucked!” but that’s tough. That’s their decision.
I’ve known plenty of people who are totally religious and I feel like, well, cool. I guess I kinda equate that with people who are in really good shape and who take good care of themselves. They’ve got something covered and that’s really, really good but just because I’m kind of out of shape, or I’m in less good shape I should say, that doesn’t question their…it doesn’t mean I can’t admire them for having that part of their life sorted out.
Do you really think they’ve got it sorted out?
They seem to be at peace. If they are at peace, I’m happy for them. I don’t know…
Many people see in you, and in Fugazi’s music generally, a higher, more refined set of ideals and values than is typical for an artist working in your field. The power of your playing and your presence combined with your obviously serious message and intention, as you’ve said, have lead some to think of your work in spiritual terms. Does your own experience making music give you a sense of the spiritual or of a transcendent feeling of some kind?
Well, when people use words like “spiritual” I just feel like…well, whatever…we’re a band. We play music. When you say “spirituality” it suggests to me that something special needs to be accessed to get into it. Like you have to be “spiritual” to reach that. But that’s bullshit. To me it’s like music is the thing…there is a spirit to music, that’s the whole point!
People often ask me, “what is your message?” They ask if I can state my message more clearly or whatever and I tell them, “The message IS the music and the music is the message!” That’s the whole point.
Music is powerful, powerful stuff. It’s been trivialized because it’s a marketable thing. There is the commercial music that can be sold. That has trivialized it. To me though, if you think about a lot of the music that’s sold by the major labels, that’s bought and sold, a lot of it is like the Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker version of religion. It’s packaged and delivered, it’s easy to digest. But true religion, as practiced by people who are fully down, you can’t package that stuff. Music is the same. It is the real thing. It exists on its own. It doesn’t need to be qualified as “spiritual music” or as “political music”. Music, unto itself, as a singular thing is enough. It doesn’t need to be qualified by anything.
When we play, the way I look at it is any show, any show has potential. You have a venue, the setting. You have people, you have the band, you have the people in the crowd…then there are the circumstances around the gathering, you have the weather…there’s all these different things. The potential for something really good to happen is there. Because when people get together it’s an opportunity for this energy thing just because everyone is there. I see so many bands and frankly, I’m surprised how rarely it happens that people actually take it to that level. I think it has something to do with someone not giving it up right. I’m not saying it’s the band, it could be the crowd, it could be the band, it could be the setting, whatever.
The way I look at it, when I’m playing at least, I know I’m just there for the full…when I play, that is…I think it’s as free as I’ve ever been. Straight up. Because I just don’t give a fuck anymore. When I’m playing I try to go for the full commitment. The times when I’m not happy are the times when I’m aware that I’m playing. Those are the shows that suck. When I become self-conscious I hate it. When I’m just out there making a total fool of myself, just being totally gross about it, that’s fun.
When you and the band write songs, is that process of creating similar to the live experience, in terms of seeking a feeling of flow? I guess what I’m asking is how much is your material a product of conscious thought and what part of it is the result of letting go of yourself?
Musically or lyrically?
Is there a difference?
Yeah. Musically we write together as a band. The four of us just write. Sometimes we have an idea, then the four of us just mess around with it. We’ll tear it apart and play it like 10,000 different ways. Everyone just tries different things and we keep hammering away until something makes sense. So musically it comes really naturally. The four of us just play together. Brendan might come in with an idea or a piece and one of us might not be able to play it so we might say, “I’ll do this instead.” All four of us write our own parts for the most part.
It’s funny because sometimes when we try to remember songs, I’ll say “well, the song goes like this…” then I’ll play my part and that part will totally mean nothing to Guy or Joe, they’ll just look at me and go “…uuuh…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So it’s like that. If someone forgets their part, the rest of us are of no help at all.
Lyrically, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue. I actually wish I could write a song right now. I haven’t been able to write a song in months and months and months. I’ve written like one half-assed song in the last two years and it’s really a fuckin’ drag to me. Actually, that’s not true. For the band I’ve written one half-assed song, for myself I’ve written a couple songs that I’ve felt pretty good about but they’re not really band songs. I can’t really explain to you why they’re not either. They’re just not.
When I’m writing a song, when it’s happening, there’s really no formula. A song like Repeater I must’ve rewritten that thing about 200 times. I’d just walk my dog every night and I’d keep going over the lines over and over and over again. Changing up certain lines, trying different ones, totally taking it apart because you know, that song has such a small amount of lines. Lyrically it’s sort of a bunch of interjections. So I was trying to find the most powerful lines for the eight lines that make up the lyrics. They had to be really concise.
Then for a song like And The Same, I swear to god…I know you hear people say this kind of shit all the time but I swear to god I woke up one night, I had this idea for a song, I turned my light on, sat up in bed, got a pad of paper and wrote the whole thing from the beginning to the end, straight out. Man, I wish to god I could figure out how I did that, cause I can’t do that anymore.
The same went for the Pailhead stuff, I used to write that stuff from beginning to end. I’d just sit down and go Plooowah! and just write it all out. Even on And The Same I have the original lyrics and there’s nothing even crossed out. There’s a song I’m working on now, I’ve replaced every line like 25 times and it still isn’t that great, it’s just okay.
You know what the problem is now? The problem is I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about! One thing that has changed is before, I had a really clear vision of who I was writing to. Throughout the time I’ve been writing songs I’ve been a part of a community and I knew who I was singing to. In 1994 I don’t have a fucking clue who I’m singing to anymore. This is due partly to the phenomenon of Fugazi, which crosses so many various lines. I mean we have Punk Rockers, we have skater kids, we have the political guys, we have the indie rock kids, college kids, older people…all these different types of people who come out for shows and who like us. It’s too hard to write…I just don’t know who I’m writing to at this point.
So if I write something really direct some would say “well it’s just typical, trivial political posturing” or whatever. “There’s another fucking didactic rant, another Sermon from the Mount.” Which I totally hate, I just hate that kind of shit. I mean opinions become sermons because you sing them? Then if I try to use a lot of metaphor and I try to smudge it a little bit, people say “He’s backing off and can’t be straight forward” or “He’s trying to get an “A” in some college poetry class or something” or even worse, they assume I’m actually singing about the metaphor! So like if I use something like this tree (taps on the tree) as a metaphor for a community or whatever, kids say, “Dude wrote a song about a tree!”
Ian’s some kind of Arbor Day freak?
Exactly, like if I used a thunderstorm as a metaphor for war they’d be like,“Dude’s into weather I guess.”
A Punk meteorologist…
Right! It’s partly because Fugazi is a phenomenon on the level it is but it’s also, I think mostly due to the fact that the music I’m involved with is just completely under siege at the moment. 95% of it is a fucking joke because the major labels have just come in and uprooted everything and changed the language. They’ve just completely changed the circumstances to the point that now the lines are so blurred, you have no idea…
On one hand it’s like, fuck the majors, fuck’em, fuck’em, fuck’em they’re such bastards! They buy up stuff and use money to undermine everything.  On the other hand, I have friends who are on majors and I’m like hey, good for them, they’re getting some money, they can live. You know, fuck man, I’ve been playing music for a long time, people I’ve known for years play in bands, tour, get home and work their day jobs. For me that was sort of the point, it was okay to work a day job. It wasn’t really a goal to make music into a meal ticket. But what can I say? I haven’t worked a day job in a lot of years. On the other hand I would, I did work at a record store up until about 1987/8. Then again I could argue that motherfuckin’ Dischord is a day job!
I was gonna say, I think of you as someone who is on the clock 24 hrs a day.
The whole major label thing today has turned into a mess. I did an interview with this guy recently and I made an analogy to him about the majors, it went something like…
….In the beginning Punk Rock and underground stuff existed and we were like farmers who had a valley, a secret fertile valley, and everybody had a little plot of land and everybody took good care of their little plots of land or if they didn’t that little plot would die but everybody around them could still maintain theirs. Like every little indie label was a little garden in this valley. The valley where everyone was doing their thing and kicking ass. The valley didn’t make a lot of extra food but it made enough to keep everybody fed. It was a really healthy thing. No one was getting rich but we were all stayin’ warm, ya know?
Then one day someone left the valley and said to the factory guys “yo! I got this really fertile little piece of land over here, why don’t you check it out?” The factory guys say, “Cool! Let’s go check it out!” So they go to this one fuckin’ little garden and it just explodes with bounty. So immediately all the factory guys come in and buy up as many of the gardens in the valley as they can. They want what the land produces, they don’t want to reinvest in it, they just want to rape the land because that’s how they work…they’re factories.
They want to pull as much out of the land as they can and then they fuckin’ leave. All I’ve ever been interested in is maintaining and defending my little plot. I don’t want to sell it to anybody. This may be a totally bullshit analogy but for me it kinda makes sense. If I’m wrong, then at least I went out wrong on a poetic note. I am an idealist, a lot of people might say I’m a fucking idiot. Maybe I am an idiot! I guess I just feel like it’s far more interesting to go out like that. It’s just too predictable to become one of them.
Part of it is that I come from a point of view where I remember when it was us and them.A lot of kids nowadays see it differently, and I’m not saying anything bad about them, it’s just not as clearly defined as it used to be. Before it was way obvious. When people say or ask me “How can you say no to major labels?” I say…
How can you say “yes”?
Exactly! How can you say “yes”? Are you kidding? What do they have to do with anything? They just say “What’s the problem? They’re just trying to help you get exposure to reach more people.” I just say puh-lease…
I remember a time when the majors were totally disinterested in anything to do with us and I was happy about that. I loved the idea of us building our own world and the thing was, we DID! There was a network way before Nirvana did their record. I’d been all over, traveling the world before that. I knew people all over the country. The network did exist and everyone was perfectly happy about it. Then as soon as someone made some money people looked around and said, “This sucks! I want to make some money too!”
On the other hand, not only was it bound to happen, it’s just as well that it did. Everything just goes on. It only gives us all a new set of circumstances to work in and keep ourselves entertained. It has resulted, at least in this particular place and time, in the situation I find myself in though, where I don’t have a clue who it is I’m singing to.
(sound in the mic of a gust of wind…)
Fuck that!
…about 20 apples just fell out of the tree we’re sitting under…
I wanted to ask, and I’m not sure exactly how to put this but, I’m wondering how what you’re talking about might relate to what happened with Kurt Cobain’s recent suicide. I’m talking about the issue of not knowing who you’re singing to. Kurt was obviously someone who cared deeply about his music. Do you think the sort of disconnect you’re talking about might’ve played a role in his tragic end? I’m not suggesting that his signing to a major label killed him, I just see this disconnect between serious artists and them finding mass appeal as being a potentially treacherous issue.
I was talking with Beck the other day and he was telling me that as his own star is rising he feels the contradiction of drawing people together through music but then having stardom and all its trappings erect a barrier where there didn’t used to be one. I think this mix of adoration and alienation could act kind of like a speedball or something it’s a rush that can kill you, and maybe in Kurt’s case it is what killed him…
…yeah it did…
Do you ever find yourself struggling with these sorts of issues related to Fugazi and your own popularity and “bigness”?
No, not so much because I think I do a pretty good job of sort of…
(A guy walks up looking for Beck who was staying at Calvin’s house)
I feel like I’ve done at least a fairly good job of meting it out. I’ve had a lot of transition time. I mean by the time you first started going to shows I was already kind of a well-known figure. When was that?
1982.
Yeah, so it’s been like 14 years (laughs). I’ve had a lot of time to transition. Kurt’s transition was like, Hi, I’m in a band called Nirvana, we’re from the Northwest, we sell like 10,000 records… to the next day being...Hi I’m the guy who just sold 4 million records….
I’ve also…my whole thing has always been about community. You know, people often have talked about Fugazi, especially in the beginning as being “Ian’s band” but it’s really clear it’s not my band. I’m comfortable being a part of a community and being a part of the band. It’s not just me, with Kurt it was kind of all on him. Dave and Krist were always sort of like the others in some peoples minds. For me it’s like fuck that, the band is the band.
Washington, you know, where I’m from is all about the community. The community there is a really heavy deal. I’ve always felt like that’s part of who I am. I’m from Washington not because I think it’s like the best place or anything. It’s just that it’s where I’m from and I’m acknowledging that this is not me, this is about us. 
I can take it to a further place with Punk Rock. It is a network I’m a part of. Even though I’m well-known and it can be frustrating when kids can’t relate to me as a person because of that, and I can find it hard to relate to them in return… but in the end that’s all just tough-titty, ya know? It’s partly due to age too. I’m 32 years old. A lot of these kids are 18, 19 ,20 years old or whatever. I understand that. That’s cool.
As far as I’m concerned, I feel really comfortable. Like when I’m at these shows (Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go festival in Olympia,WA.) I’m comfortable even though I know people are looking at me and saying “ “there’s the dude from Fugazi” or whatever. They may in their own minds have me confused with someone like a guy in Nirvana, they might think of me as a fuckin’ star or whatever but I’m really solid in my mind about who I am. That’s partly because I’ve had a lot of practice but, it’s also because I’m not shooting heroin. So it’s a little easier for me to hold onto my reality. I’m not a junkie. Whatever…with Kurt it was a combination of things. I mean a lot of people have to deal with fame and they don’t all die. He had a tough time, I don’t know…it’s not my place to talk about that though. The point is…
It is possible to stay grounded…
…well at least I can try. Maybe I’m not. Some people might say I’m not. Some people might say I’m a lofty little prick! I’d like to think though that if they ever talked to me they might find that I was approachable. I don’t walk around with an entourage or nothing. I’m just a guy who is around.
If I may I’d like to just switch gears completely here and ask you if you can think of an event or circumstance in your life that has been mysterious or inexplicable in some way. I’m interested in hearing about anything you’ve experienced that might’ve led you to question the nature of reality. Do you have a story like that?
Hmmm…you know when I was a kid I was really into supernatural stuff. I was fuckin’ fascinated by it. Totally. Ghost books, I loved that shit! Loved it! Any paranormal stuff, I was fully into it. As I’ve gotten older, and this is sort of one of the sad things of life, for the most part nothing that has ever happened to me has been beyond…well, there have been some coincidences that made me stop and go “Wow! That’s crazy!”
Can you think of one?
…oh I don’t know…stuff like where you’re reading the paper about some guy named Steve and the phone rings and what do you know…it’s Steve! That kind of thing.
Mundane miracles?
Yeah, whatever…I’ve seen music performances, seen things that have been totally mind-blowing but they’re just generated by people. That’s the thing, the thing I think is a miracle, what is unbelieveable is how insanely powerful human minds are. Things like ghosts and all that, it’s amazing that people have gotten themselves totally gassed on the idea.
I do remember this one time when I was kid, visiting this place in Washington called The Old Stone House. It’s the oldest house in Washington, built in the 1600’s. It’s in Georgetown and all my life I’d heard that place was haunted.
How old were you?
I’m not sure, maybe 12. It was a given, the place was haunted. It’s in the guide books, you know...no lamp will stay lit after 10pm, they go out inexplicably… that kind of thing. So we were down there one day, we’d go down there a lot, since it was in Georgetown we’d just stop by on our bikes and walk around. So anyway, this one time we were there and we asked the guy who worked there to tell us some ghost stories about the place. He told us about the lamps, and he told us about how a lot of people had reported seeing an old woman sitting in a rocking chair and we were like “Oh shit!”
Then he told us that sometimes just by talking about it spirits will enter the room! So any way, right when he says this a fuckin’ door just swings open! We all just totally flipped! Like…Fuuuuuuck!
There was no one there?
No. It was a big old door too, and there was no one there, it just opened. The guy was definitely nowhere near the door either. He didn’t push a button or anything. He even went “Whoa!” Most of that kind of shit, what’s amazing to me about it, is that our minds can just add shit up and be like…door opens: a fuckin’ ghost just came in the room!
Didn’t I hear once that Cynthia Connolly lived in a house in D.C. that people thought was haunted?
Yeah, I saw a ghost there supposedly. She lived in this house on Hawthorne St in Washington. It was a creepy house, it was definitely weird. She used to hear shit there all the time. It was a really old house, a Victorian they were renting. It was furnished too so there was other people’s stuff in there. It had a weird feeling, like someone else had set it up for themselves. It went beyond just that though. Like I’d be talking to her on the phone at night and at like 2 in the morning she’d say, “I can hear someone walking around in the attic.” This is when she was the only person there, ya know? Then she’d go “wait, shhh…” and I’d go “What? What’s going on?” She’d say “I can hear someone banging around up there!” I’d say…that sucks, ya know? She’d get freaked out then that would start to freak me out.
Once I was over there, this is my only experience with anything weird there, we were sitting in this room watching television andout of the corner of my eye I saw this woman, this blonde woman just come out of the kitchen and go by in the hallway, she just walked past the doorway. I assumed it had been her mom I’d seen and later we were talking and I asked her when her mom had gotten back from California and she told me her mom was still in California. So I asked her who was with us in the house, because I’d just seen that woman walk by and she goes “there’s no one here”. Maybe it was because all that other stuff had happened, it could’ve been a trick of my eye, I don’t know.
You know, when I was a kid, I’d be walking down the street…I’d be walking down the street, I’d be walking behind somebody, I’d see somebody walking ahead of me, and I’d look down for a second, look back up, and they’d be gone. That particular thing happened to me all the time. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that means they weren’t there, I just imagined that they were, or that I lost track of time, I’d been looking down way longer than I’d thought I had and I’d missed it when the person had walked up into a house or whatever…in my mind of course I thought they were disappearing. That they were ghosts. I really wanted to believe in stuff like that.
As I got older I realized it’s not so pat. There’s not just a heaven, it’s not so easy. Once I realized this my mind started to disassemble all the things like that. Whereas before true ghost stories were believable to me, like check out this picture of a ghost! I look at those pictures today and I’m like Come on, puh-lease! Somebody just blew some cigarette smoke or some shit. When I was a kid my mind wanted to believe bad. Now my mind doesn’t want to believe, it might have something to do with growing up, it might have something to do with megrowing up, I don’t know.
It’s kind of a drag. I gotta tell you it’s taken a lot of…I mean, it’s made me much more of a boring hang. I don’t gas on stuff. I don’t get all excited and enthusiastic about a lot of things. I’m just not a believer like that, I’m a real fuckin’ rationalist. I look at things and I go, if something happens it happens because of this and that happens because of that. In some ways it’s kinda too bad, but ya know, what can you do?
I’ve had the thought before that maybe people experience or are led to believe mystical occurrences and supernatural phenomena as a reaction to the mysterious nature of life itself. You know, as a reaction to the big questions at the heart of being, like why are we here, How are we here, etc. etc. Life is very mysterious after all.
Sure.
Maybe UFO’s and ghosts are a way for people to imagine the mystery of life as a concrete phenomenon that can be seen and maybe even understood?
Yeah, I’ve encountered tons of people who’ve told me about far-out stuff and they’ve told me this happened. They’re very sure of it and I’m like that’s cool. I don’t believe the stories though. They may be sure whatever they tell me happened but in my mind I’ve already figured out what could’ve happened and why people could’ve said that.
The way my mind works is that I always try to think around both sides of a thing. If someone tells me these people all saw Sasquatch or whatever I immediately think it just doesn’t make sense that this creature would come out in this part of the country at this particular time and never again. My mind wants to figure things out. Like UFO’s, how could it be that all these motherfuckers see a UFO and then the Air Force can just cover it up completely? It just seems unlikely to me that all these guys who work for the Air Force and are in on the secret would go to their graves without ever spilling the secret, it seems unlikely. I can’t believe that. I immediately start thinking of the things that don’t make sense.
Things like The Loch Ness Monster, it’s all too pat. I like the stories. I get a kick out of hearing about local monster lore because I think it’s funny. Not because I believe it. I guess mostly because that shit just didn’t happen to me. A lot of times when people say it happened to them and they make a big deal about paranormal stuff there’s something at stake, they’re getting paid for it in some way. When I heard the guy who took the picture of The Loch Ness Monster died and admitted it was all fake, I was like, yeah, big surprise!

END OF SIDE ONE
PART TWO can be read HERE

(Photo of Ian MacKaye with my parakeet Tiny from my personal archives)

IAN MacKAYE INTERVIEW PART ONE OLYMPIA 1994

This interview took place 7/16/94

PART TWO can be read HERE



When I was in high school in San Diego my crew of friends and I missed no chance to drive up to L.A. or San Francisco on the weekends to hang out with our friends and hopefully see a Punk show. Whenever we made it up to The Bay Area our first stop was always the MAXIMUMROCKNROLL house, first at its location in Berkeley and then later in SF when Tim Yo and the magazine relocated to The City.

The first time I met Ian MacKaye was during one of these trips up north in 1985. It was in the post-Minor Threat/pre-Fugazi era and he was out west visiting Cynthia Connolly, his long term girlfriend at the time, who was in town for an extended stay at MRR. I don’t remember a whole lot about that encounter except that they both were very cool and that I was surprised to see him sporting a full head of corkscrew hair.

In the following years I made it back to Washington a number of times and I was very taken with the people that made up that wonderful scene. When I was in town I always stayed at the Dischord house and had a great time every time I visited. I was moved by the down-to-earth, loving atmosphere of the place. I loved the dogs, the good food, the music, and most of all I loved the friendly, brilliant people I met there. Ian himself couldn’t have been a funnier or more gracious friend and host.

I have fond memories of going to a family dinner at the MacKaye’s Beecher St. house, where I met everyone including Alec MacKaye, another well-known D.C. Punk who would also become a friend. Later on in the Fugazi era I even remember once jamming in the basement with Joe and Brendan on Ian’s white SG while they were waiting for Ian and Guy to show up for practice (all I could think to do was to make Ian’s chugga-chugga sound). How’s that for a D.C. moment?

Now I’m just tooting my own horn.

I should keep this intro short and tell you a little about the interview. This conversation with Ian took place one sunny afternoon in Calvin Johnson’s front yard in Olympia. He was in town visiting his many friends while also checking out the Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go Music Festival that was happening that week. I interviewed him with the intention of putting together a zine that was to consist of two back-to-back interviews each issue.

I had recorded a conversation with Beck the day before, who was in town playing the fest. These two interviews were going to make up my first issue. For whatever reason, the zine never came out. In fact, I never got around to transcribing either interview until now: 18 years later! Better late than never I suppose. I haven’t listened to the Beck interview but I will soon. Luckily, I still have that cassette too.

Of course Ian has been interviewed countless times and some of the stories he tells in our conversation may be familiar to anyone who knows him personally or who has paid attention to his career over the 30 plus years he’s been an active force in the culture. What I think makes this particular interview unique is the slant it takes toward the mysterious, the strange, and the inexplicable. To give you a feel for what I mean, the term “straight-edge” never comes up once but we do talk at length about religion, death, ghosts, UFO’s, prophetic dreams and the mystery at the heart of the human experience. It’s a fun and fascinating read. I had a good time working on it.

I hope you enjoy this walk on the weirder side with myself and Ian MacKaye.


Were you raised with any religious beliefs?

I was baptized Episcopalian, my dad is definitely an Episcopalian but we went to a super, super radical church in Washington. A place called St. Stephen and the Incarnation. Throughout the 60’s, when I think of church it was embroiled with the Vietnam War protests and stuff. The church was a sanctuary for protestors and there was always all sorts of radical stuff going on there. They had soup kitchens, the first gay marriage, the first gay priest, first woman priest in the city, all that sort of stuff. It was an inner city church in what was called “crimes square” which at the time was the worst, so-called most dangerous block in Washington, between 16th and 14th on Newton Street. It was a super active, inner city church, it wasn’t a real standard “Christian values” kind of thing although there obviously were Christian values…

Truer Christian values?

…you would assume, what I would assume is a Christian value. You know, they were looking out for people. I can remember on Palm Sunday 1968, it was the day or two days after Martin Luther King was killed.

How old were you?

I was 6 and there was major rioting going on 14th St. which was like a block and a half away and the whole church marched down the middle of 14th St. and buildings were still on fire.

Were you a part of this march?

Yeah, I was totally there. People ask me what my earliest memories are and that’s gotta be one of my earliest memories. I might remember something before that but that’s the earliest memory I can actually date. I know I can remember that, straight up. That was the kind of upbringing I had. My parents…my mom is a Catholic but she converted to Episcopalian when she married my dad, but as time went on she started to go back to her original Catholic stuff, although she’s not a practicing Catholic in the sense of going to any kind of church, she’s just more of a Catholic expert. Both my parents are totally smart about all matters theological. They’re totally brilliant.

My dad actually was the religious editor for the Washington Post but I don’t think that had a whole lot of bearing on anything for us. The kids were made to go to church, we all had to go right up until about the early 70’s. Then the family kind of went haywire, as a lot of families did in the 70’s. Everything just kind of went to hell and it was sort of like…my dad was the only one who ever went to church after that. I stopped going to church in 19…I would guess…74 or 75.

My mom would never go back to church, the kids would still go on Christmas Eve with my dad because he still goes to St. Stephens. He’s still a super active person there, he’s on the board of the Washington Free Clinic which operates out of the church, they do a lot of AIDS outreach stuff. That church is, even today, and this is just relatively speaking, as way more mainstreamy and soft-core as they are, still compared to other churches, they’re pretty radical and they’re still super involved in the neighborhood. He still goes, we all go on Christmas Eve as a family. We come out, like “Hey it’s the kids!” shake hands, make an appearance.

I think none of my grandparents were religious at all, in fact they were almost all kind of anti-religious. My dad’s parents did not practice at all, he got into it on his own. He wanted to be a priest. My mom’s parents didn’t practice. My grandmother was a Baptist, a Hard Shell Baptist. Which means…Hard Shell Baptist means that sin doesn’t really count with them because they’re such good Baptists that sin just kind of bounces off them. So they can get away with all kinds of stuff. You know what I’m saying? That’s what a Hard Shell Baptist is, it’s not like the fundamentalists. My grandfather came from a super Catholic family but he didn’t practice. My mom got into Catholicism through her aunts.

It was weird, there was a lot of religion around us, my family knows a lot about religions, not just religion but religions. We still have a lot of dinner table arguments about it. None of the five kids, I have three sisters and a brother, I don’t think any of us are practicing anything, or have any interest in practicing anything, that I know of. I could be wrong. I personally totally have major problems with all organized religion. I don’t have a clue, I don’t have clue about how people can actually embrace something so preposterous. That’s my religious story.

What is your idea or concept of a higher power, or of God? Do you have one?

I don’t know. Ultimately for me something exists that gives people some kind of strength or faith or whatever. I don’t know what it is and I certainly don’t perceive it as anything really tangible other than the fact that it seems to really ease some people’s load. I think what it comes down to is people are terrified of death. Lord knows I am! But whatever, if by creating a scenario…well, you know… It’s sort of like outer space…what’s beyond it? You can say “it’s a sea of cotton candy” if that makes it seem good to you at least it’ll be fun and sweet. Fair enough! If it eases your load to think that, then cool. For me, when I think about it in terms like that it actually just exacerbates it because I know I’m bullshitting myself because I don’t really believe. I don’t think I’m an atheist…but I don’t even think I rate as agnostic either.

A lot of people say “well yeah, there’s a higher power or whatever” but I’m not even exactly so sure about that. I just think that something exists within human beings that makes them able to create something, and manifest something within themselves that gives them solace. I could be wrong, that’s okay, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. People can get terribly offended when you doubt their decision, but it’s not that I so much doubt their decision, it’s that I doubt mine. They can do what they want.

I talk about this stuff with my dad all the time. I go to these Christmas Eve masses and I listen to these sermons and I think “this is just rife with fuckin’ contradiction and hypocrisy!” and I go back and I argue with my dad…I go like, how can you…like the Nicene Creed, are you familiar with it? It’s a creed that says something like “I believe there’s only one God…blah, blah, blah” It’s a creed, like The Pledge of Allegiance for Episcopalians. It terrifies me! It terrifies me because if there’s ever a major default self-destruct button in a religion for me, it’s when it refuses to acknowledge other religions. It immediately says “my fuckin’ pie in the sky is real but yours isn’t” Which is just bullshit. I have a lot of problems with that.

When I see people who are totally devout and really comfortable though, that’s cool…I envy that…at least I envy their ability to create that appearance. Some people might even assume I have that too. They might think “that guys really got it together, he’s really got it figured out” HA! (laughs)

I met some Buddhists a few months ago. There were these priests that were traveling around the country from Southern India, they’re exiles from Tibet. They were opening for The Beastie Boys in Washington, there was a benefit…

They were doing music?

Yeah, it was The Artists for Tibet, it was a benefit. The monks chant, they did music. There’s a lot of mystique about Buddhism and stuff like that, and whatever, I don’t have a lot of time for that kind of stuff. The guys were amazing though, they were very interesting fellas. They were all older dudes and they laughed all the time and seemed quite confident. I enjoyed being around them and they made me feel like they were actually kind of holy guys.

I talked to this woman who was traveling with them as their handler, and while they were watching The Beastie Boys play, it was insane of course the kids were going nuts, and those guys were just laughing and laughing. I said to the woman, “This must be pretty crazy for them.” She said “Not really, they’ve had a crazy tour this time…” I asked her “What do you mean?” She told me that during the trip their spiritual leader had died. He’d just dropped dead at age 90 or whatever. I said “Oh my god! Was it devastating for them?” she said no, for them it’d be sort of like, you know, if you and I were friends, talking and then one of us got on a bus to go to Denver. For them it’s like, oh well he’s just over there now, we’ll see him at some other point.

Then she told me they had been in Salt Lake City doing a performance in a library or something and some guy who had some kind of grievance with the world decided to take advantage of this gathering and he took it as an opportunity to kidnap some people and kill them. So this guy kidnapped the Buddhists and a handful of other people and while he was doing that there was a meeting next door of a bunch of off duty police and one of the cops happened to notice something amiss and he stepped out as the guy yanked the hostages into a room and he jumped in with them and became a hostage too.

Apparently the bad guy said to the hostages “okay, I’m gonna kill a couple of you to let them know I’m not kidding around, how many people have I got here?”The cop said “You got sixteen people including me.” So the guy says, “okay, line up against the wall, who wants to die first?” or whatever, you know, this is my version of the story she told me, which is probably her version of what happened…although she was there…

As a hostage?

No, not as one of the hostages but she was at the event where this went down. So anyhow she said this woman started to flip out, one of the hosatges started to flip out, and was screaming and she distracted the gunman and right when he turned the cop pulled out his gun, killed the guy, shot him in the head and dropped him. This was all in front of the monks, they were right there! She said the monks immediately ran over and circled the guy. He dropped on the floor and they circled the guy to make sure he had a good send off because, you know, the circumstances of his travel were not good. He was in a really bad karmic cycle at that moment. (laughs)

I’d say so!

Yeah, so I thought it was…they impressed me. I really respected the fact that they were so…I’ll just say they impressed me. So anyway when I came back I said to my dad, “Ya know, I think I’m gonna become a Buddhist.” of course, ya know, totally joking…and my dad was like, “Look, give Christianity a chance!”

I appreciate people like these monks or people like Mother Teresa or Father Wendt, the priest who baptized me who was a total fuckin’ fighter. The Barrigan brothers, Mitch Snyder, even people like Jimmy Carter, who talk about their faith being such a big part of what they do. Those people, that’s where faith seems pretty darn good. That obviously is, of course, totally offset by endless, stupid, silly wars and power struggles because of the whole organized religion thing.

But those guys, I think it’s cool when I’ve met Buddhists. I’ve been to protests, like once I was at a protest at The Department of Energy, everyone was like “We’re gonna shut down the DOE! We’re gonna block all the doors!” It was pretty terrifying. There were a lot of cops. We were all just standing around like, let’s all go get beat up! Then these Buddhists came, these guys with drums, and they start playing and everyone was less scared. It was really cool.

I’m not a Buddhist, I know some Buddhists, I’m not interested in being a Buddhist. I just think the one’s I’ve met, they’re at least using the stuff kind of right. Even with all the mystical stuff, I still have to say fair enough, good enough for them.

I usually don’t talk about religion at all because for me it’s a subject that’s really closed. I don’t talk about it except with friends. You know we (Fugazi) have a lot of Christian followers…

I was gonna ask you if you did.

We get tons of them and they often want to talk with me about Christianity. When I say to them I’m not really a Christian, although my dad would argue with me about that, but I say I don’t buy into that. A lot of times these kids want to know why I’m not more overt with my Christian message and I tell them it’s becauseI don’t have one. I don’t buy that. They think it’s bullshit. They accuse me of telling half the truth. I say to them “Fuck You! Don’t ever fucking tell me what my truth is!”

I had a Mormon kid come up to me once and tell me that he felt like it was really good I was doing such good work but that he felt bad because I wasn’t quite there and he gave me The Book of Mormon. I wrote him a letter and said, “I didn’t say fuckin’ shit to you about your fuckin’ religion, don’t ever, ever presuppose anything about me or my beliefs!”

My beliefs are complicated. What we’ve just talked about, that’s just the surface of it all really. Like I say, I don’t like talking about religion for the most part because it’s tedious, a lot of it, because if someone believes in something, anything you say to them at all to suggest that you don’t fully believe in it immediately throws them into a really weird defensive posture or mechanism because this is what they’re hanging their fuckin’ hat on. This is what makes them not scared. If you say to them “I don’t really think your truth is everybody’s truth”it immediately means “You’re fucked!” but that’s tough. That’s their decision.

I’ve known plenty of people who are totally religious and I feel like, well, cool. I guess I kinda equate that with people who are in really good shape and who take good care of themselves. They’ve got something covered and that’s really, really good but just because I’m kind of out of shape, or I’m in less good shape I should say, that doesn’t question their…it doesn’t mean I can’t admire them for having that part of their life sorted out.

Do you really think they’ve got it sorted out?

They seem to be at peace. If they are at peace, I’m happy for them. I don’t know…

Many people see in you, and in Fugazi’s music generally, a higher, more refined set of ideals and values than is typical for an artist working in your field. The power of your playing and your presence combined with your obviously serious message and intention, as you’ve said, have lead some to think of your work in spiritual terms. Does your own experience making music give you a sense of the spiritual or of a transcendent feeling of some kind?

Well, when people use words like “spiritual” I just feel like…well, whatever…we’re a band. We play music. When you say “spirituality” it suggests to me that something special needs to be accessed to get into it. Like you have to be “spiritual” to reach that. But that’s bullshit. To me it’s like music is the thing…there is a spirit to music, that’s the whole point!

People often ask me, “what is your message?” They ask if I can state my message more clearly or whatever and I tell them, “The message IS the music and the music is the message!” That’s the whole point.

Music is powerful, powerful stuff. It’s been trivialized because it’s a marketable thing. There is the commercial music that can be sold. That has trivialized it. To me though, if you think about a lot of the music that’s sold by the major labels, that’s bought and sold, a lot of it is like the Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker version of religion. It’s packaged and delivered, it’s easy to digest. But true religion, as practiced by people who are fully down, you can’t package that stuff. Music is the same. It is the real thing. It exists on its own. It doesn’t need to be qualified as “spiritual music” or as “political music”. Music, unto itself, as a singular thing is enough. It doesn’t need to be qualified by anything.

When we play, the way I look at it is any show, any show has potential. You have a venue, the setting. You have people, you have the band, you have the people in the crowd…then there are the circumstances around the gathering, you have the weather…there’s all these different things. The potential for something really good to happen is there. Because when people get together it’s an opportunity for this energy thing just because everyone is there. I see so many bands and frankly, I’m surprised how rarely it happens that people actually take it to that level. I think it has something to do with someone not giving it up right. I’m not saying it’s the band, it could be the crowd, it could be the band, it could be the setting, whatever.

The way I look at it, when I’m playing at least, I know I’m just there for the full…when I play, that is…I think it’s as free as I’ve ever been. Straight up. Because I just don’t give a fuck anymore. When I’m playing I try to go for the full commitment. The times when I’m not happy are the times when I’m aware that I’m playing. Those are the shows that suck. When I become self-conscious I hate it. When I’m just out there making a total fool of myself, just being totally gross about it, that’s fun.

When you and the band write songs, is that process of creating similar to the live experience, in terms of seeking a feeling of flow? I guess what I’m asking is how much is your material a product of conscious thought and what part of it is the result of letting go of yourself?

Musically or lyrically?

Is there a difference?

Yeah. Musically we write together as a band. The four of us just write. Sometimes we have an idea, then the four of us just mess around with it. We’ll tear it apart and play it like 10,000 different ways. Everyone just tries different things and we keep hammering away until something makes sense. So musically it comes really naturally. The four of us just play together. Brendan might come in with an idea or a piece and one of us might not be able to play it so we might say, “I’ll do this instead.” All four of us write our own parts for the most part.

It’s funny because sometimes when we try to remember songs, I’ll say “well, the song goes like this…” then I’ll play my part and that part will totally mean nothing to Guy or Joe, they’ll just look at me and go “…uuuh…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So it’s like that. If someone forgets their part, the rest of us are of no help at all.

Lyrically, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue. I actually wish I could write a song right now. I haven’t been able to write a song in months and months and months. I’ve written like one half-assed song in the last two years and it’s really a fuckin’ drag to me. Actually, that’s not true. For the band I’ve written one half-assed song, for myself I’ve written a couple songs that I’ve felt pretty good about but they’re not really band songs. I can’t really explain to you why they’re not either. They’re just not.

When I’m writing a song, when it’s happening, there’s really no formula. A song like Repeater I must’ve rewritten that thing about 200 times. I’d just walk my dog every night and I’d keep going over the lines over and over and over again. Changing up certain lines, trying different ones, totally taking it apart because you know, that song has such a small amount of lines. Lyrically it’s sort of a bunch of interjections. So I was trying to find the most powerful lines for the eight lines that make up the lyrics. They had to be really concise.

Then for a song like And The Same, I swear to god…I know you hear people say this kind of shit all the time but I swear to god I woke up one night, I had this idea for a song, I turned my light on, sat up in bed, got a pad of paper and wrote the whole thing from the beginning to the end, straight out. Man, I wish to god I could figure out how I did that, cause I can’t do that anymore.

The same went for the Pailhead stuff, I used to write that stuff from beginning to end. I’d just sit down and go Plooowah! and just write it all out. Even on And The Same I have the original lyrics and there’s nothing even crossed out. There’s a song I’m working on now, I’ve replaced every line like 25 times and it still isn’t that great, it’s just okay.

You know what the problem is now? The problem is I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about! One thing that has changed is before, I had a really clear vision of who I was writing to. Throughout the time I’ve been writing songs I’ve been a part of a community and I knew who I was singing to. In 1994 I don’t have a fucking clue who I’m singing to anymore. This is due partly to the phenomenon of Fugazi, which crosses so many various lines. I mean we have Punk Rockers, we have skater kids, we have the political guys, we have the indie rock kids, college kids, older people…all these different types of people who come out for shows and who like us. It’s too hard to write…I just don’t know who I’m writing to at this point.

So if I write something really direct some would say “well it’s just typical, trivial political posturing” or whatever. “There’s another fucking didactic rant, another Sermon from the Mount.” Which I totally hate, I just hate that kind of shit. I mean opinions become sermons because you sing them? Then if I try to use a lot of metaphor and I try to smudge it a little bit, people say “He’s backing off and can’t be straight forward” or “He’s trying to get an “A” in some college poetry class or something” or even worse, they assume I’m actually singing about the metaphor! So like if I use something like this tree (taps on the tree) as a metaphor for a community or whatever, kids say, “Dude wrote a song about a tree!”

Ian’s some kind of Arbor Day freak?

Exactly, like if I used a thunderstorm as a metaphor for war they’d be like,“Dude’s into weather I guess.”

A Punk meteorologist…

Right! It’s partly because Fugazi is a phenomenon on the level it is but it’s also, I think mostly due to the fact that the music I’m involved with is just completely under siege at the moment. 95% of it is a fucking joke because the major labels have just come in and uprooted everything and changed the language. They’ve just completely changed the circumstances to the point that now the lines are so blurred, you have no idea…

On one hand it’s like, fuck the majors, fuck’em, fuck’em, fuck’em they’re such bastards! They buy up stuff and use money to undermine everything. On the other hand, I have friends who are on majors and I’m like hey, good for them, they’re getting some money, they can live. You know, fuck man, I’ve been playing music for a long time, people I’ve known for years play in bands, tour, get home and work their day jobs. For me that was sort of the point, it was okay to work a day job. It wasn’t really a goal to make music into a meal ticket. But what can I say? I haven’t worked a day job in a lot of years. On the other hand I would, I did work at a record store up until about 1987/8. Then again I could argue that motherfuckin’ Dischord is a day job!

I was gonna say, I think of you as someone who is on the clock 24 hrs a day.

The whole major label thing today has turned into a mess. I did an interview with this guy recently and I made an analogy to him about the majors, it went something like…

.In the beginning Punk Rock and underground stuff existed and we were like farmers who had a valley, a secret fertile valley, and everybody had a little plot of land and everybody took good care of their little plots of land or if they didn’t that little plot would die but everybody around them could still maintain theirs. Like every little indie label was a little garden in this valley. The valley where everyone was doing their thing and kicking ass. The valley didn’t make a lot of extra food but it made enough to keep everybody fed. It was a really healthy thing. No one was getting rich but we were all stayin’ warm, ya know?

Then one day someone left the valley and said to the factory guys “yo! I got this really fertile little piece of land over here, why don’t you check it out?” The factory guys say, “Cool! Let’s go check it out!” So they go to this one fuckin’ little garden and it just explodes with bounty. So immediately all the factory guys come in and buy up as many of the gardens in the valley as they can. They want what the land produces, they don’t want to reinvest in it, they just want to rape the land because that’s how they work…they’re factories.

They want to pull as much out of the land as they can and then they fuckin’ leave. All I’ve ever been interested in is maintaining and defending my little plot. I don’t want to sell it to anybody. This may be a totally bullshit analogy but for me it kinda makes sense. If I’m wrong, then at least I went out wrong on a poetic note. I am an idealist, a lot of people might say I’m a fucking idiot. Maybe I am an idiot! I guess I just feel like it’s far more interesting to go out like that. It’s just too predictable to become one of them.

Part of it is that I come from a point of view where I remember when it was us and them.A lot of kids nowadays see it differently, and I’m not saying anything bad about them, it’s just not as clearly defined as it used to be. Before it was way obvious. When people say or ask me “How can you say no to major labels?” I say…

How can you say “yes”?

Exactly! How can you say “yes”? Are you kidding? What do they have to do with anything? They just say “What’s the problem? They’re just trying to help you get exposure to reach more people.” I just say puh-lease…

I remember a time when the majors were totally disinterested in anything to do with us and I was happy about that. I loved the idea of us building our own world and the thing was, we DID! There was a network way before Nirvana did their record. I’d been all over, traveling the world before that. I knew people all over the country. The network did exist and everyone was perfectly happy about it. Then as soon as someone made some money people looked around and said, “This sucks! I want to make some money too!”

On the other hand, not only was it bound to happen, it’s just as well that it did. Everything just goes on. It only gives us all a new set of circumstances to work in and keep ourselves entertained. It has resulted, at least in this particular place and time, in the situation I find myself in though, where I don’t have a clue who it is I’m singing to.

(sound in the mic of a gust of wind…)

Fuck that!

…about 20 apples just fell out of the tree we’re sitting under…

I wanted to ask, and I’m not sure exactly how to put this but, I’m wondering how what you’re talking about might relate to what happened with Kurt Cobain’s recent suicide. I’m talking about the issue of not knowing who you’re singing to. Kurt was obviously someone who cared deeply about his music. Do you think the sort of disconnect you’re talking about might’ve played a role in his tragic end? I’m not suggesting that his signing to a major label killed him, I just see this disconnect between serious artists and them finding mass appeal as being a potentially treacherous issue.

I was talking with Beck the other day and he was telling me that as his own star is rising he feels the contradiction of drawing people together through music but then having stardom and all its trappings erect a barrier where there didn’t used to be one. I think this mix of adoration and alienation could act kind of like a speedball or something it’s a rush that can kill you, and maybe in Kurt’s case it is what killed him…

…yeah it did…

Do you ever find yourself struggling with these sorts of issues related to Fugazi and your own popularity and “bigness”?

No, not so much because I think I do a pretty good job of sort of…

(A guy walks up looking for Beck who was staying at Calvin’s house)

I feel like I’ve done at least a fairly good job of meting it out. I’ve had a lot of transition time. I mean by the time you first started going to shows I was already kind of a well-known figure. When was that?

1982.

Yeah, so it’s been like 14 years (laughs). I’ve had a lot of time to transition. Kurt’s transition was like, Hi, I’m in a band called Nirvana, we’re from the Northwest, we sell like 10,000 records… to the next day being...Hi I’m the guy who just sold 4 million records….

I’ve also…my whole thing has always been about community. You know, people often have talked about Fugazi, especially in the beginning as being “Ian’s band” but it’s really clear it’s not my band. I’m comfortable being a part of a community and being a part of the band. It’s not just me, with Kurt it was kind of all on him. Dave and Krist were always sort of like the others in some peoples minds. For me it’s like fuck that, the band is the band.

Washington, you know, where I’m from is all about the community. The community there is a really heavy deal. I’ve always felt like that’s part of who I am. I’m from Washington not because I think it’s like the best place or anything. It’s just that it’s where I’m from and I’m acknowledging that this is not me, this is about us.

I can take it to a further place with Punk Rock. It is a network I’m a part of. Even though I’m well-known and it can be frustrating when kids can’t relate to me as a person because of that, and I can find it hard to relate to them in return… but in the end that’s all just tough-titty, ya know? It’s partly due to age too. I’m 32 years old. A lot of these kids are 18, 19 ,20 years old or whatever. I understand that. That’s cool.

As far as I’m concerned, I feel really comfortable. Like when I’m at these shows (Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go festival in Olympia,WA.) I’m comfortable even though I know people are looking at me and saying “ “there’s the dude from Fugazi” or whatever. They may in their own minds have me confused with someone like a guy in Nirvana, they might think of me as a fuckin’ star or whatever but I’m really solid in my mind about who I am. That’s partly because I’ve had a lot of practice but, it’s also because I’m not shooting heroin. So it’s a little easier for me to hold onto my reality. I’m not a junkie. Whatever…with Kurt it was a combination of things. I mean a lot of people have to deal with fame and they don’t all die. He had a tough time, I don’t know…it’s not my place to talk about that though. The point is…

It is possible to stay grounded…

…well at least I can try. Maybe I’m not. Some people might say I’m not. Some people might say I’m a lofty little prick! I’d like to think though that if they ever talked to me they might find that I was approachable. I don’t walk around with an entourage or nothing. I’m just a guy who is around.

If I may I’d like to just switch gears completely here and ask you if you can think of an event or circumstance in your life that has been mysterious or inexplicable in some way. I’m interested in hearing about anything you’ve experienced that might’ve led you to question the nature of reality. Do you have a story like that?

Hmmm…you know when I was a kid I was really into supernatural stuff. I was fuckin’ fascinated by it. Totally. Ghost books, I loved that shit! Loved it! Any paranormal stuff, I was fully into it. As I’ve gotten older, and this is sort of one of the sad things of life, for the most part nothing that has ever happened to me has been beyond…well, there have been some coincidences that made me stop and go “Wow! That’s crazy!”

Can you think of one?

…oh I don’t know…stuff like where you’re reading the paper about some guy named Steve and the phone rings and what do you know…it’s Steve! That kind of thing.

Mundane miracles?

Yeah, whatever…I’ve seen music performances, seen things that have been totally mind-blowing but they’re just generated by people. That’s the thing, the thing I think is a miracle, what is unbelieveable is how insanely powerful human minds are. Things like ghosts and all that, it’s amazing that people have gotten themselves totally gassed on the idea.

I do remember this one time when I was kid, visiting this place in Washington called The Old Stone House. It’s the oldest house in Washington, built in the 1600’s. It’s in Georgetown and all my life I’d heard that place was haunted.

How old were you?

I’m not sure, maybe 12. It was a given, the place was haunted. It’s in the guide books, you know...no lamp will stay lit after 10pm, they go out inexplicably… that kind of thing. So we were down there one day, we’d go down there a lot, since it was in Georgetown we’d just stop by on our bikes and walk around. So anyway, this one time we were there and we asked the guy who worked there to tell us some ghost stories about the place. He told us about the lamps, and he told us about how a lot of people had reported seeing an old woman sitting in a rocking chair and we were like “Oh shit!”

Then he told us that sometimes just by talking about it spirits will enter the room! So any way, right when he says this a fuckin’ door just swings open! We all just totally flipped! Like…Fuuuuuuck!

There was no one there?

No. It was a big old door too, and there was no one there, it just opened. The guy was definitely nowhere near the door either. He didn’t push a button or anything. He even went “Whoa!” Most of that kind of shit, what’s amazing to me about it, is that our minds can just add shit up and be likedoor opens: a fuckin’ ghost just came in the room!

Didn’t I hear once that Cynthia Connolly lived in a house in D.C. that people thought was haunted?

Yeah, I saw a ghost there supposedly. She lived in this house on Hawthorne St in Washington. It was a creepy house, it was definitely weird. She used to hear shit there all the time. It was a really old house, a Victorian they were renting. It was furnished too so there was other people’s stuff in there. It had a weird feeling, like someone else had set it up for themselves. It went beyond just that though. Like I’d be talking to her on the phone at night and at like 2 in the morning she’d say, “I can hear someone walking around in the attic.” This is when she was the only person there, ya know? Then she’d go “wait, shhh…” and I’d go “What? What’s going on?” She’d say “I can hear someone banging around up there!” I’d say…that sucks, ya know? She’d get freaked out then that would start to freak me out.

Once I was over there, this is my only experience with anything weird there, we were sitting in this room watching television andout of the corner of my eye I saw this woman, this blonde woman just come out of the kitchen and go by in the hallway, she just walked past the doorway. I assumed it had been her mom I’d seen and later we were talking and I asked her when her mom had gotten back from California and she told me her mom was still in California. So I asked her who was with us in the house, because I’d just seen that woman walk by and she goes “there’s no one here”. Maybe it was because all that other stuff had happened, it could’ve been a trick of my eye, I don’t know.

You know, when I was a kid, I’d be walking down the street…I’d be walking down the street, I’d be walking behind somebody, I’d see somebody walking ahead of me, and I’d look down for a second, look back up, and they’d be gone. That particular thing happened to me all the time. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that means they weren’t there, I just imagined that they were, or that I lost track of time, I’d been looking down way longer than I’d thought I had and I’d missed it when the person had walked up into a house or whatever…in my mind of course I thought they were disappearing. That they were ghosts. I really wanted to believe in stuff like that.

As I got older I realized it’s not so pat. There’s not just a heaven, it’s not so easy. Once I realized this my mind started to disassemble all the things like that. Whereas before true ghost stories were believable to me, like check out this picture of a ghost! I look at those pictures today and I’m like Come on, puh-lease! Somebody just blew some cigarette smoke or some shit. When I was a kid my mind wanted to believe bad. Now my mind doesn’t want to believe, it might have something to do with growing up, it might have something to do with megrowing up, I don’t know.

It’s kind of a drag. I gotta tell you it’s taken a lot of…I mean, it’s made me much more of a boring hang. I don’t gas on stuff. I don’t get all excited and enthusiastic about a lot of things. I’m just not a believer like that, I’m a real fuckin’ rationalist. I look at things and I go, if something happens it happens because of this and that happens because of that. In some ways it’s kinda too bad, but ya know, what can you do?

I’ve had the thought before that maybe people experience or are led to believe mystical occurrences and supernatural phenomena as a reaction to the mysterious nature of life itself. You know, as a reaction to the big questions at the heart of being, like why are we here, How are we here, etc. etc. Life is very mysterious after all.

Sure.

Maybe UFO’s and ghosts are a way for people to imagine the mystery of life as a concrete phenomenon that can be seen and maybe even understood?

Yeah, I’ve encountered tons of people who’ve told me about far-out stuff and they’ve told me this happened. They’re very sure of it and I’m like that’s cool. I don’t believe the stories though. They may be sure whatever they tell me happened but in my mind I’ve already figured out what could’ve happened and why people could’ve said that.

The way my mind works is that I always try to think around both sides of a thing. If someone tells me these people all saw Sasquatch or whatever I immediately think it just doesn’t make sense that this creature would come out in this part of the country at this particular time and never again. My mind wants to figure things out. Like UFO’s, how could it be that all these motherfuckers see a UFO and then the Air Force can just cover it up completely? It just seems unlikely to me that all these guys who work for the Air Force and are in on the secret would go to their graves without ever spilling the secret, it seems unlikely. I can’t believe that. I immediately start thinking of the things that don’t make sense.

Things like The Loch Ness Monster, it’s all too pat. I like the stories. I get a kick out of hearing about local monster lore because I think it’s funny. Not because I believe it. I guess mostly because that shit just didn’t happen to me. A lot of times when people say it happened to them and they make a big deal about paranormal stuff there’s something at stake, they’re getting paid for it in some way. When I heard the guy who took the picture of The Loch Ness Monster died and admitted it was all fake, I was like, yeah, big surprise!


END OF SIDE ONE

PART TWO can be read HERE


(Photo of Ian MacKaye with my parakeet Tiny from my personal archives)

  1. mayoknave reblogged this from jasonotraeger
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  6. repeateronetwothree reblogged this from jasonotraeger and added:
    background too! Thats hardcore….
  7. yerawizardbryan reblogged this from cinemaminimal and added:
    Word to that
  8. dreeemland reblogged this from jasonotraeger and added:
    interesting/good interview....definitely worth.../...
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