Having a phone conversation with Ian MacKaye is like being lectured by an oppressively intelligent university professor who happens to have been one of the guiding forces behind 25 years of American punk and hardcore. Of course, like most professors, he ends up making quite a bit of sense.
In his feisty youth, MacKaye led Minor Threat, helping to establish U.S. hardcore and the twin ethics of DIY and straight-edge. By 1988 he was a part of Fugazi, which took on politics and social norms with an explosive, often perfectly executed fervor. And, in 2001, after Fugazi capped its tenure with The Argument, the band’s final studio album, MacKaye transitioned into the Evens, a duo featuring his vocals and baritone guitar and the vocals and drums of Amy Farina, formerly of The Warmers.
The political and social antagonism at the core of his old bands burns in the new duo, too. But MacKaye and Farina present those ideas with an economy and melodic sensibility that always get the most out of their two-person setup. It’s thinking-person’s music. But it’s also engaging, sometimes even beautiful, and when they lace their live sets with their keen sense of storytelling, the band’s music begins to feel like a new form of folk music.
On the phone from the storied “Dischord House” in Washington, D.C., where the Evens are practicing in anticipation of a tour to support Get Evens, their second full-length (to be released November 6), MacKaye proves to be as pragmatic, wordy, funny, whip-smart, and furiously opinionated as his reputation suggests. Our conversation isn’t so much a question-and-answer session as it is just answers, with MacKaye happily fielding my queries only to carry them off in whichever direction he feels like. Take it away, Ian.
On snake oil and the right to rock:
“Music has been largely hijacked by the alcohol industry. This is not a moral point of view. This has nothing to do with ethics or ‘straight-edge’ or any of that kind of thing. It’s strictly this: Music is something that we consider sacred. And it’s been consigned to being, like, basically, the snake oil.
“In the 19th century, these charlatans, these hucksters would be selling what was essentially alcohol. And the way that they would get an audience to come around — so they could check out their snake oil — was with music or other kind of performers … people like Buster Keaton’s father, people like that … And then, when they were gathered, the so-called ‘doctor’ would come out with all of his various potions. And, in a way, music is still being used in that sense. That’s fine to some degree, but it should not be the rule. And the fact that people under the age of 18 or 21 are not allowed to go in to see music just because of the fact that they’re not old enough to drink is just obscene. It’s completely obscene. Music was never meant to be parsed to such a tiny part of society.
“There’s no reason that music can’t be enjoyed by somebody who’s below the drinking age. I’d say, for most people that age, that’s actually where music is life. That you aren’t allowed to see this music that’s essentially your lifeblood? You can’t see it because you aren’t old enough to drink? By whose fuckin’ law can’t you go in there? That’s what I’m talking about.”
On Get Evens, and the “sphere of his relationship” with music:
“We recorded it here at the Dischord House on an 8-track, and we engineered it ourselves. It was the first time we’d ever done it, and it was a pickle. It was definitely challenging, especially since the 8-track was temperamental, to say the least. It’s more of a mechanical process, obviously, than digital stuff. The relay switches will not work, so, sometimes, if you want to listen to something back, even when you’ve recorded it, it’ll appear as if nothing is there and you won’t hear anything. But what we found is, if you hit the bottom of the tape deck with a small Mag-Lite, the track will come back to life. Try hitting on a computer with a Mag-Lite and see what happens.
“I don’t approach `recording` like, ‘Oh, analog is the only sound worth hearing,’ or whatever. It’s not like some kind of audiophile thing for me. Rather, it has to do with the sphere of my relationship with music, my relationship with the recording process, and the way I organize things in my mind.
“I actually am a person who benefits from less options in life. Like, that’s just the way I am. There was some artist, and I’m afraid I don’t remember who it was, but this artist said that he likes to paint himself into a corner and then paint his way out, and that’s essentially what I do. And that’s what I’ve always done, you know, if you think about it. Even in Fugazi, and other bands, there are certain frameworks or criteria which we work in, and then you try to grow something from that point of view.
“In terms of the economy of rock ’n’ roll, with a band like Fugazi, if you go into a situation and you already have set the criteria, say, of how much you want to charge at the door, if that’s the first thing you do, then it limits the size of the pie. And then, everybody, if they wanna eat, they gotta take less pie.”
On the Evens’ unorthodox touring style:
“I just book `shows` a few weeks out. We’re not going to play the usual venues, so we’re not really in that three-month taxi line like everyone else, trying to get into the same rooms. And, I think that our presentation is such that you have some leeway. We have our own little PA, we don’t use a light show. We’re the only band playing, we play at 8 p.m. — we’re quieter — so it’s a really different kind of thing.
“For us, the gig is a combination, a joint effort between the musicians and the people in the room. We’re trying to even the playing field, so to speak, to make it as engaging as possible. Because it’s boring to play the black holes.”