What an honor to have Ian MacKaye co-founder/owner of local DC independent recording label, Dischord Records, with us in the studio this week! SCROLL DOWN to see the video, info, and transcript
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FROM THIS SHOW
Trans Am, by Teen Idles
Waiting Room, by Fugazi
King of Kings, by The Evens
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Fri Feb 9
Aztec Sun @ Pearl Street Warehouse by the SW Waterfront
Sat Feb 10
--@ The Hamilton by Metro Center - Love Songs: the Beatles Vol 5 ft Ken Wenzel, The Cowards Choir, and the 19th St Band up in the Loft
--Turtle Recall @ Whitlows in Clarendon, VA
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Uptown Boys Choir @ Pearl Street Warehouse by the SW Waterfront in DC
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VIDEO - BIO - LINKS - TRANSCRIPT
Ian Thomas Garner MacKaye is an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, musician, label owner, and producer. Active since 1979, MacKaye is best known for being the frontman of the influential hardcore punk bands such as Minor Threat, and post-hardcore bands such as Embrace and Fugazi He is a co-founder and owner of Dischord Records, a Washington, D.C.-based independent record label. He started it as a teenager in 1980 with partner Jeff Nelson. Their original intent was simply to release a single to document their recently defunct band, at the time, the Teen Idles. However, the label has since gone on to release music from more than 60 bands, with more than 160 albums.
More resources about Ian:
Dischord Records: https://www.dischord.com/band/ian-mackaye
Ian MacKaye: The Teen Idles, which is I-D-L-E-S idles, and after a year of playing, we put out this first record, which I think this track is from.
Brian: There it is. Let's do it. This is Trans AM from Teen Idles and the album Self Titled, Teen Idles.
Ian MacKaye: Alrighty then.
Brian: There it is.
Ian MacKaye: First off, I should say that there's no self titled album. This is a seven inch. This is Dischord number 100'd, and this is not even actually their first record. This is ... When that song was record, it was actually our first recording. It was done at Hit and Run studios in Rockville, Maryland. It was done the Spring of 1980. It's a demo version that we just sat on for decades and we finally put it out to celebrate Dischord number 100. It's a seven inch. It's a six or eight song seven inch and that song Trans AM actually was a slinky song originally. That was one of the songs ... Yeah, yeah. So, I wrote that with my friend Mark Sullivan. It's funny you played that of all songs. That one's actually even before the record. That's not even the first Dischord record. That's like our first demo. It's probably my first recording session, ever.
That was in the Spring of 1979 and it was weird to go into a studio. First off, we were not a particularly accomplished band. We were kids trying to figure out how to play instruments. Going to the studio was exciting, it was also rather humbling, because you don't know ... You just don't know what you're going to come out with and I think that situation, it's funny when I hear that. Like, I love it now, 'cause I have this perspective, but at the time, I think that's not the way it feels to me when I play it in practice. That's not the way it feels to me when we played it live. That's one of the issues with recording. Sometimes recording, it's like the wrong mirror. It gives you the wrong reflection. That's why it's very important to find studios that really actively try to support your vision with what it is you're trying to do with your music. It's a funny track to play. It's appropriate in one sense, but it's also funny, because it's even more rudimentary than I was expecting. It's funny.
Brian: Right. I mean, it's way back in the beginning, which I guess is ... And, you know we talk about in the beginning. I've been wanting to ask, can you describe the scene when you decided that Dischord records was going to become like, we're going to put out a label, can you tell that story? Were you sitting in a garage with, his name was Jeff, I believe-
Ian MacKaye: Jeff Nelson.
Brian: Whose idea was it? Like, you said "Oh, let's do it" and Jeff was like "Okay", or how did actually it come around?
Ian MacKaye: Well, earlier in the show I think I was just saying that Teen Idles had at the end ... We had this tape, we had this money. We thought well, we can split the money up or make copies of the tape just for ourselves, or we can document it. It was a band decision to use that money to put out this first record and ask I think we talked about earlier, there's no other label in the world that was going to put out our record. Why would they? I mean, why would they put out our record? It's ridiculous. We were some little bunch of kids from Washington, DC, and I have to tell you that Washington, DC was ... I mean, it was a convenient stop for bands that were playing in New York, but that's about it. There was no ... I mean, can you name for instance, a rock band from the 1970's that really identifies as Washingtonian?
Brian: I would say not many. I mean, it seems like punk and Go-GO are the ones that identified DC, but the other ones tend to shy away.
Ian MacKaye: That's right, but did you know for instance, like members of Jefferson Airplane went to Wilson? People who came out of ... There's a lot of great music in the Washington history, but for some reason, I think people who are living here, they play music here until they could get out. I think it really has to do with the fact that the town does not support, as a whole, there's no industry here. If that's the way you think about music, you can't really be supported. That's the way this town works. Now, in the Go-GO situation, they're super regional and they made it work. The Go-Go guys, they really created something that was regular, they were tenacious about it, and they were so localized they couldn't really get out of Washington. Go-Go has never really taken hold anywhere else with the exception of maybe Hampton Roads down there and Virginia Beach down that way, and maybe somewhere in North Carolina, a little piece of it or something, but by in large, all Go-Go bands come from Washington DC, or the surrounds, right? That's just the way it is.
Go-Go music was much more difficult to take out on the road. Punk bands, conversely, we lived to go on the road, and if you're from DC, you had a chip on your shoulder, 'cause you're the people that didn't move to New York, right? Like, everybody said you gotta move to New York. People would tell me-
Brian: It's true, yep.
Ian MacKaye: I mean, straight up. There was a guy. He had a store right near here as a matter of fact, in Arlington, and he told me "If you want to be in a punk band, you have to move to New York City." That's crazy. That's crazy to tell someone who wants to create that you have to move to New York or somewhere else to create. That is nuts. Creativity, passion, boredom, anger, expression. These are not geographic terms. These occur in all places. So, I think our position was, and again, as I mentioned earlier, we were in high school. So, we weren't moving anywhere anyway, I mean, I was an elder and I was 18.
Brian: We'll be here and we'll do it-
Ian MacKaye: Right. So, we're going to make it happen here. That was the thing about punk. Punk gave that permission. When I saw the Bad Brains, I mean, my god. What an incredible band. Or, the Slickee Boys, a phenomenal band. There were bands like The Razz, there were bands you know, The Urban Verbs, and White Boy. There's all these bands that you would see and they were just great bands, and we were just like that's ... We don't need to move anywhere, all the music is here. The thing is, if you identify as a punk, for instance, or a new waver, at that time, if you wanted to see them ... You could listen to records, but if you actually wanted to see it, you had to see local bands. Those bands that took that form, 'cause there weren't that many bands of that ilk touring, right? So, if you wanted to see punk or new wave music, the bands who were playing it were local bands. So, it developed into a really hyper-local scene.
I think it's worth pointing out. This is a very interesting and weird factoid, but by the late 80's, the DC music scene, the punk scene was so strong that touring bands had to open for local bands.
Ian MacKaye: That's for real. The touring bands would open for the locals, because the local bands had the following. Now, this also had to do with the fact that there was no radio here. There was no punk or new wave radio, so you only knew about bands through record stores and friends talking about records, or magazines.
Brian: Oh, that makes sense.
Ian MacKaye: But, the bands you saw and heard all the time were local bands. So, they developed these devout followings. So, you had bands like Artificial Peace, and Marginal Man, and Government Issue, and Scream, and I could just name ... Black Market Baby, I could go on, and on, and on with these names, but those are the bands we went to go see. So, if a band was touring and they wanted to play a show in DC, they would open for these bands, because these were the bands that were ... So, Washington is a fascinating town. It's a fascinating town, because there's so much emphasis on the federal government that there's this shade that's created, and what grows in the shade? Something nutritious and profound. It may not be marketable necessarily, but man, it's something good-
Brian: I love that phrase, "What grows in the shade?" Yep.
Ian MacKaye: Yeah, it's something good, you know? My father told me, he said that DC is the town where movements are started, and New York is the town where they're sold.
Brian: Got it.
Ian MacKaye: Right?
Brian: It makes sense.
Ian MacKaye: So, I think that in way, so the idea that you can actually present a new idea here, you could have a new idea and you could work on it, and no one's racing it to market, but if you're in other places like in New York of Los Angeles, anywhere the entertainment industry is really strong, the moment you have anything that could be potentially sold, somebody's try to sell it for you. But, here, people just ignore you.
Brian: That's really, I mean, true of the local music scene today. There's so much great ... I mean, we've got 300-400 bands in the database of local artists, and most folks don't know about them. So, it's kind of what we're doing with DC Music Rocks, but it's also true of the DC scene, which is there's beautiful art, and beautiful music that's available here, and you have to find it.
Ian MacKaye: And, theater. My god, there's a profound theater community here, there's great art here, and I'm not a booster. Don't get me wrong. I come at this weird. I'm a fifth generation Washingtonian, so, I know this town. I know the sights, the smells, the rhythms. This is where I choose to live. My family's here. I don't think this is the greatest place in the world. I don't think like that. I think that wherever you wake up is probably okay. You know? If you're waking up, you're in better shape than most, when you think about it.
Brian: That's a really low bar, Ian, but I love it.
Ian MacKaye: Yo, that is the highest bar.
Ian MacKaye: Every day's a good day in the land of the living, right? So, that's the highest bar. So, I feel like because I'm here though, I want to make good music, or be a part of music. Music speaks to me and I should point out, by the way, two things [inaudible 00:10:44] I think it's worth pointing out, 'cause I use the word "Punk" all the time, and I just want to define it for people. That might be helpful, 'cause punk obviously has a lot of different definitions. There is clearly a sound or a look that is associated with punk, an attitude that has been associated with punk. These things are ... There's some general kind of consistency, but largely, it's geographic. So, someone in one place may be a punk that I don't think is very ... They may do things that I think are just, I think they're just jerks. They might think it's punk and I don't think it's punk. I'm like the punk that doesn't do vandalism, doesn't do graffiti. I'm the guy that doesn't get high, didn't drink. I didn't steal. Other people think it's punk to steal, I don't. I think it's greedy to steal-
Brian: I think that's where the term straightedge came from, right? If you look online, you're kind of associated with that term?
Ian MacKaye: Well, I coined it. I wrote the song.
Brian: Was that in an interview? No, it was the song.
Ian MacKaye: I wrote a song called Straightedge in 1980, yeah.
Brian: And, it became a movement in the [inaudible 00:11:50]-
Ian MacKaye: It became a movement that I'm not a part of that movement, but I wrote a song about the fact that in the 70's while everybody was partying, I didn't drink, or get high, and I didn't want to, and I was ridiculed by my friends. So, I wrote a song about my right to live my life the way I want to. That's it. Ironically, my probably all time favorite musician is Jimi Hendrix, and there's a song called A Six for a Nine by Jimi Hendrix, and in that song, the tail of that song he says, "I'm the one who has to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to" and I thought, "I agree with him." So, even though it could be argued that he was singing about being a freak, or getting high, or whatever, 'cause clearly he used a lot of drugs, it's what killed him. What I heard was the right to decide how someone wants to live his or her life. That's what I was singing about and it became, when I wrote this song, it resonated with so many kids around the country. I was surprised, actually, that it did.
Then, out of that, it started to develop into, actually ironically, first there was a reaction. There was a thing called the bent edge movement. So, I wrote this song called straightedge and we were on tour, Minor Threat, and we get to a town like Phoenix, Arizona, and a gang would show up, and they were identified as bent edge, and they tried to beat us up. They thought we were a straightedge gang. We weren't a gang. We were just a band and I was singing a song about my right to live my life the way I want to. So then, later, a straightedge movement formed that was actually ... We say movement, it wasn't organized. There wasn't meetings or anything, but there were people who really felt like this was a ... Religion is too strong of language, but it was a code of behavior that they defined, and then they tried to hold other people to. That is contrary to my point, which was people should be able to live their life the way they want to.
Having said that, I stand behind the lyrics. I still live my life the way I want to. I still don't drink. I still don't get high. It was just never something I was interested in. I don't think poorly of people who do. People I love the most in my life certainly do. It's not an issue. If they're destroying themselves and I'm worried about them, that would be true if they either were using heroin or a hammer. Either way, I would tell them that's probably not a good idea. But, going back to this thing about this definition of punk. About five or six years ago, I thought my definition of punk is, it's the free space. What I mean by that is a place in which new ideas can be presented without having to serve profit. So, this is interesting. If you're an artist or a musician and you have a new idea, you make sounds that no one's heard before, good luck getting a gig at a local club, because local clubs, they are a business. Usually they're a bar and bars require clientele. Our audience is their clientele. So, if you have a new idea, what's the audience for a new idea?
Ian MacKaye: Right, 'cause it hasn't been thought of, yet.
Brian: So, you have to build it, which is a challenge.
Ian MacKaye: Right. So, punk for me was an environment where people gathered and said "Give us your new idea". It didn't matter. People think of punk like ... When I was going to see shows, it wasn't just a bunch of guys with Mohawks beating the crap out of each other. I was seeing crazy stuff. I saw people playing on kitchen equipment. I saw people ... Just so many weird performances and really, they were challenging our ideas of formality, and formality is precisely the ideas that need to be challenged. You want to play a song?
Brian: I do. I want to play one and I want to hear about life now today for you, but first I want to play, this is one of those songs that goes way back to ... Many people know this one, but I want to share it with the listeners who might not know you and this one. It's the Fugazi song, I want to play Waiting Room and have you talk about it, but here's the song Waiting Room by Fugazi.
And, that was Waiting Room by Fugazi. While the song was playing, you mentioned a funny mashup. You were saying-
Ian MacKaye: Oh. Someone did a mashup on line, I'm sure you can find it. A Destiny Child's song called Independent Woman and they've taken the two songs and put them together, and made it ... It's pretty incredible sounding. They did a really, really good job. I like when I hear that kind of stuff. I like people messing around, taking ingredients and making something new. I think it's fascinating.
Brian: It kind of goes back to that mindset about punk, right? You're doing something different that-
Ian MacKaye: Of course.
Brian: ... Didn't exist before, so trying something new.
Ian MacKaye: Right, you know.
Brian: I do want to hear aBout life today for you today nowadays. What part of the city are you in? What is a regular day in Ian's life like now?
Ian MacKaye: I live in Mount Pleasant. I've been there for 15 years. I have a nine year old son. Amy and I have a nine year old son. I still work at the label pretty much every day. I mean-
Brian: Where is that located? [inaudible 00:17:28] record label?
Ian MacKaye: It's here, it's here. Still in Arlington. Dischord House is still ... I mean, we moved in Arlington. I mean, I grew up in Glover Park in DC. Then, when I was 19 years old, and we all graduated from high school, and we were just kind of living at home. Our parents were about to say "You know, if you're not going to go to college ..." It's all right. We'll find a spot. We also needed a place to practice.
Brian: That makes sense.
Ian MacKaye: We needed a house that was detached, right? Because, you're going to make music and I grew up in a row house, and you can't do that there, be that loud, you know? 'Cause, people complain. It had to be cheap, 'cause we were broke. Super broke. We were high school kids. I mean, a year out, I had a little bit of money, but I was working at that time in a movie theater and an ice cream shop in Georgetown. Then, it had to be relatively safe, because we knew that when we opened this house up that all the other punk kids would come hang out. They were all still in high school. So, they could be 14, 15 year old kids, and they would come to wherever we are. We'd be a place that kids would go hang out. So, we had to be in a neighborhood that was relatively safe. Especially at that time. We were punk rock kids and though it's, I mean, I wish in a way I could somehow illustrate to people, or give people some sense of how much the other we were at the time. I mean, it's cliché to talk about people jumping out of their cars and trying to beat you up for the way you looked, but that was a reality.
So, we found this house. It's ironic actually, we looked in a newspaper under houses for rent, and we found this house over in Lyon Park here in Arlington. It's the first house we ever looked at. We walked in and I remember there's some college dudes there and I go "What's it like living out here?" They were like "It's cool." I'm like, okay. We kind of looked around like [inaudible 00:19:36], none of us had ever gotten a house before, we didn't know what was involved. Then, the landlord came. It was an independent guy and he brought this lease. I said, "Oh, I don't know if..." I just took a pen and drew a line through one year and put six months, because I thought there was no way I was going to live for more than six months in this house. I just couldn't imagine being in Arlington for a year. It seemed crazy. A year is too much. At that point, it would've been the 18th of my life, right? So, I ended up living there for 21 years.
Ian MacKaye: Yep, and I bought it in 1994. So, it is still the house. It's still where the label is based. We have a separate office where the actual work is done, but I still work out of the house. So, I come out here four or five days a week. Practice four days a week in the morning, I play with Amy and Joe in the morning. We have a new musical project. We don't have a name, like I mentioned earlier. So, we practice from 9:30 till noon. I play guitar. I write all the time, just always. I don't finish things, but I always riff. Just write, write, write, write. I do a lot of time studying. I'll listen to music. I study music. I read stuff. I'm always thinking about things. And, I do a lot of interviews like this. I do a lot of talking.
Brian: When you say studying, does that mean studying to play the songs, or are you studying different kinds of music for influence? What do you mean by studying?
Ian MacKaye: Some years ago, I stopped saying that I listen to music. I say I study it, because I take it seriously. When I say study it, I mean, I can't play something honestly. My best way ... I can't read music, I've never been able to read music really, and I can't ... Unlike other people I know who I really very much respect, I can't listen to a song and play it. I can't do it. Now, I can understand the movement of the song, and I might be able to replicate it, but I could never do what people do, like if I hear someone else do it, I can't do that. The general shape, the chord changes, I can figure out by ear, but that's what I can play. I have relative pitch. So, if you get me started, I can go from there. But, I know people who can listen to a record and just play it. Blows my mind. I am not one of those people. But, when I say study it means that I think about music and I go in deep. I study it.
So, I might go into ... Like, some years ago, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I went to a Fela Kuti study. He's a Nigerian musician and I studied, and studied, and studied. I listened and studied. And, I'm still studying Hendrix. Today, on the way out here, I was listening to a bootleg recording of just him in the studio working out ideas, just him talking to the engineer, trying something out, and talking thread bare, but hearing him singing a song like Dolly Dagger in its infancy, when he's still working out the words and working out the ideas. I'm fascinated to hear how people work. It's just interesting. Also, I think this has to do with the fact that having played in some [music 00:22:55] for so many years, it's given me a new understanding of the process of what they're doing. I know what's going on now, so hearing people who before existed only in like a Pantheon, like Gods, now I understand the process. I'm like, well that is fascinating to hear ... To understand the genius that was at play there is mind blowing, you know?
I stand in awe of great musicians. So, it could be Jimi Hendrix, or Fela Kuti, or Nina Simone. It could be Black Flag, who I think they're ... Like, it could be all these bands. I'm constantly ... I listen to all kinds of music. Someone said to me "What's your favorite genre? It must be punk?" I said, "No, my favorite genre of music is the music made by people who don't have a choice in the matter." That's the music I like. If it's a job that's fine, but I'm not that interested in it. But, if it's because you have to play, because something is buzzing in your head, and you gotta get it out of your head to go forward? I want to hear that song. That's what I want to hear.
Brian: Right, I love that. So, I want to make sure that we say thanks and share with the folks, what is, if they're looking for ... If they want to follow what's happening at Dischord and the things that are happening with you, and over there, where's the best place for them to find that information nowadays?
Ian MacKaye: I mean, I only just look at the web [inaudible 00:24:17], to me, because it's dischord.com, but I'm sure that if you go there, you'll find ... I don't pay any attention to social media stuff. I'm sure that they've ... I know that there are social media things. I don't really care about any of it, but I'm glad that it's there and people like it. Go have a look at it. Dischord D-I-S-C-H-O-R-D.com. That site, I mean it's been up for many, many years. I should say one thing, if you're interested in Fugazi, that one of the projects I worked on that I've been doing for last, well, it's been almost eight years now, is that we created the Fugazi Live Series, and this is a section of the Dischord website that we've created a page for every one of the thousand plus gigs we've played and of 900 of those things, we have recordings.
Ian MacKaye: And, on every one of them there's information about the show, how many people were there, who played with us. If we have photos or other ephemera, ticket scans, or fliers, we'll post those things. For people who are interested, it's a deep dive, but it's there. I mean, it's an interesting project. I felt like we had the recordings, we had the materials, why? We weren't listening to this stuff. I was looking through this stuff, so let's make them available to people. What's interesting is even when you create a site of that magnitude, which is massive, the internet is a giant ocean. I don't think we even ... We don't even stand to be a fraction of a drop, but it's there if you give a damn.
Brian: If you want to go find it.