Interview: Ian Mackaye

Ian MacKaye

The Evens are the sort of band that in many circles needs no introduction. The band, consisting of former Fugazi and Minor Threat member – and owner of the venerable indie mainstay Dischord RecordsIan Mackaye, and Amy Farina of the Warmers, has been creating music together for the past decade. Their latest album, The Odds, is immediate and plangent. The duo returns to the northwest for the first time in several years to play a series of solo-bill shows beginning Friday, September 27 at the Vera Project and Saturday, September 28 at Olympia’s Eagles Hall.

The Evens are playing a single band bill, which is very uncommon within the indie and punk communities, how did that come about?

Ian Mackaye: The reasons that I end up doing this are pretty pragmatic. Amy and I decided early on that we wanted to play shows outside of rock clubs. I have played many rock clubs in my life, and I have many friends who work at them, so I have no disrespect for those places; however, they are essentially bars. While alcohol is not an ethical or moral issue for me – but there is actually an issue with the alcohol industry. The alcohol industry in our opinion has really taken music hostage for its own means. You don’t have to look further than the fact that most club shows are not all ages. Many will not let anyone under 21 in. That is insane. That fact alone, to me, makes it clear that the relationship between the alcohol industry and the club industry creates a deficit in creativity because every band has to play at these clubs, and because you have to fill the space new ideas don’t have audiences. So our idea was, “let’s just get out of the clubs.” It’s not, “Let’s shut down the clubs,” I don’t mind them, I go to them, I just feel like the Evens wanted to play outside the club circuit. A secondary fact is many clubs book 3-6 months out, I just don’t operate like that. Another reason is we wanted to play early, we wanted our shows to be over by the time most shows begin. It’s nice, we like it.

How have people reacted?

IM: Some people say, “Oh, it’s just for older people,” fuck that! I don’t see that. In the early days, the early punk rock days in DC we used to have these matinees and they were epic, people loved them. It wasn’t because we were old or we were kids, but that music should be everywhere at every-time. That’s our opinion.

There’s a history with that idea, even with things like the CBGB matinees.

IM: That was a little later, the hardcore matinees at CBGB were largely, I think, predicated on the 9:30 hardcore matinees that we did here in 81 and 82. At CBGB it really was an age issue because kids couldn’t go to the later show. Where 9:30 was all ages. We started going on Sunday afternoons because we were kids, and like, “Hey I’m out of school and we can play, and my parents don’t mind me going into the city if it’s not 11 o’clock at night.” So there is a slightly different arrangement. But in any-event we’ve play bike shops, yoga studios, we’ve played bookstores…

Playing bike shops or bookstores, how does the space effect the musical experience?

IM: For me music should be anywhere, so I actually feel like in settings that you don’t typically see bands, quite often it is really transformative for the space. Surely you know that venues take on certain aires. A band is playing in such-and-such venue there is a certain vibe, like a metal bar. So if you see a band of a certain kind of music you like playing in venue with a different kind of genre identification it just seems disorienting. Whereas if you have music in a place where you never see a band, it is actually disorienting in a positive way. It’s not weird, it just is; especially bookstores.

You know in Olympia we have shows at our library.

IM: Olympia has always been one of the few places in the country that I can think of that has consistently been about challenging conventional ways about how things are done. Especially when it comes to music; and I really attribute that largely to KAOS, then K Records and Kill Rock Stars, and everyone else who came along. There has always been a rather left field bent to the proceedings out there that has always been really positive. So when I talk about this stuff it should come as no shock to people in Olympia, but when I go other places people are like, “Why are you playing this art gallery? Or what are you doing here?” I mean it’s okay, it’s fun.

Olympia and Washington DC has had a long history of inter-connectivity, and I’m curious how that has shaped your career or experience?

IM: I can’t really define how it has defined my experience, because I am only myself and can’t juxtapose against anybody else. But I can say that I have had very close friends and a real affinity with people in Olympia. I think there has been some really incredible experiences for me. I think the International Pop Underground (IPU) festival that Calvin did in 91 was such an incredible thing, and there was some Yo Yo a Go Go’s after that which were pretty amazing. Those events were so off the radar in terms of not just the major label music label, but also the sort of established, so called, independent world. There was no business there, it was just music and it was just such a nice setting for it. I feel like Olympia, and even the rest of Washington, that ultimately it is an art of necessity; if you are going to do it, then you have to create it. But in Olympia, probably because there is something in the water out there, but also because of Evergreen, there is just a profound amount of really interesting, crazy ideas. That always gives me hope in the world – because the crazy ideas are really the ones that are the new ideas.

I’m really interested in what kind of contemporary or modern music enthuses you, not really a specific band, but idea or scene?

IM: I can’t say that there is a whole lot of something – it’s interesting because largely the fount of my information is the same of everyone else’s, the internet. Which is too bad, historically you curate your companions, and your companions help keep your ear to the ground to find out something interesting. Out of that came a filtration system where you could really discover things in an interesting way, now it’s just all out there. A lot of times I just trip across stuff. Sometimes someone might send me a note about something, and I go to the webpage and find a link to a label and I think, “Oh, I didn’t know about that.” I’m honestly glad you asked me to try and identify something, because I don’t think I could identify something. Another side of the coin, it’s really difficult because there is just so much. There are so many little scenes, and I just don’t have the same kind of feeling of a really focused idea. I haven’t seen a band recently where I can say, “Wow that band is not kidding around”, I can’t get the same sense through how it manifests on a computer, which is not a good way to consume music. Most things I look at on the computer end up being bands that I have seen live, or I already know, so I can translate what’s being represented in pixilated images and digital sounds… Or, conversely, I’m just not as aware; I mean I’m 51 years old and my peers may not be as interested in music as they used to be, or they are not at all, so I don’t have the same kind of flow where I hear about things in the same way. Unfortunately for me music is very singular, because I don’t live in a group house or I don’t work in the same building as the Dischord office, I work across the street in the Dischord house – so I don’t experience it in the same communal way. Which is probably why I am so hell bent on making music that really tries to push music as an idea of something that gathers people together, rather than just another night at the club or something.

How has e-commerce and a decentralized market changed Dischord?

IM: The way we’ve done business has always been unorthodox, and the way we do business continues to be unorthodox. We still have never used a contract, we make records and we sell them. As terms of the digital stuff we just navigate the madness, it’s not that I’m in denial, I know it’s out there. For me there’s limitations, of course, but that’s specific to my outlook. For me to have a record label that is just digital you don’t do anything but move numbers. We make records, we put together the artwork, and they get delivered and we count them in – we sell them and count them out, there’s a physical engagement. Records that came out 25 years ago, we still make them, put them in boxes and ship them. We are engaged. With the digital stuff we do nothing. Every month this number on your bank account goes up, because some other entity has told their computer to increase that number; there’s no way to engage with it. Some pay you 70 cents some .00070 cents. What does it mean? I don’t know, but if that’s what people want then fair enough. It’s not to bite the hand that feeds you, there’s no question that downloads help keep the label going. But if we didn’t make records it would be a sad affair. I always think of things as tools. I’m not a cutting edge guy, never have been a cutting edge guy, I figure once someone settles down and figures out the tool, then cool I’ll use it commiserate with everyone else try and be honest and mindful of everyone else then cool.

But one part of your business, the Fugazi Live Series is very cutting edge.

IM: Yeah, well that’s just a project, a Fugazi project. We had 900 recordings of the band sitting in a box in a closet. So what’s the point, I’m not going to listen to them; so let’s do something with them. I’m four years into that project and still not done, it’s an insane amount of work with very little reward. It’s not paying for itself, but I don’t care, we just like the idea of making this available. It’s just evidence, I don’t think another band has done it.

Yeah, it’s pretty extreme.

IM: Yeah, and there’s more to come. As we are speaking I am digitizing more tapes upstairs as we speak. In some ways it has monopolized my time and I am looking forward to being on the other side of it, but then it’s awesome. It’s a real fascinating experience. The thing about Fugazi is we haven’t played a live gig in eleven years, but the four of us and still in the band together – we love each other, we talk to each other regularly and try to see each other as much as we can. So this is just part of us trying to be mindful of looking after our band. Making sure we are doing something aesthetically interesting and looking at how a band might operate and for what reasons a band might operate. We still think about it. We want to make sure we look after things that occurred in the past because we still think of ourselves as being in the band whether we play publically together again or not. That doesn’t matter I think we’re in the band for life; there’s no question. It’s been a really great experience, I never listened to all these tapes, so being able to listen to them there’s moments where I’m like, ‘that’s a fucking great band!’ but you got to remember I was in the band, and sometimes when your up an asshole, you just don’t smell the shit. You’re too close, it’s hard to know. It’s nice I can tell when we are on, when things are not so well, hearing the crowd noises; it’s really fascinating.

Now that you are not in a bigger group, how do you approach writing with only one other bandmate?

IM: It’s really different. In the early days, I started Fugazi with Joe. I met Joe when he was looking to play bass, and I was looking for a bass player. At the time I was like, I don’t want to be in a band, I just want to play music. I had been in this band Embrace that imploded in like nine months, it was just too painful, the desire to play in a band was greater than the desire to play music, so I decided I didn’t want to do that. We played with this guy Colin who played drums, but he left to rejoined Dag Nasty; so at that point I had written all the songs basically – then Brendan was practicing with Guy at Dischord house with Happy Go Lickey so Brendan played with us for six months – basically the first record I wrote all those songs for the most part. By the time Guy was really in the band and started playing guitar the songwriting really began to morph it wasn’t like I wasn’t bringing in full songs because everyone had their ideas. By the mid 90s nobody would dare bring in a finished song because the other three would tear the song to pieces; take it apart and put it together in a way the writer didn’t recognize it in the first place. It worked, but because I was no longer in a place where I had to bring in finished songs – that particular part of my musical ability atrophied and died and disappeared. So I lost the ability to just write songs. Then some years later I started to go crazy so I said to Amy, do you want to play music, and I started to writing songs. I had returned to my original form of writing songs. She doesn’t have a huge input because the riff is me, I’m the guitar player. It’s different because Fugazi was so collaborative affair, melodic three guitars, Amy has certain ideas but she isn’t a guitar player so there is a different approach. It isn’t any better or worse. I love working on songs with her, but I also really miss the kind of session that Fugazi would have which was really just sitting in our corners working away at making something come out of it, whereas now if I don’t have an idea nothing is going to happen.

How did you go about writing the third record, it has a more immediate sound, did you already have the songs written, or did it come out in the studio?

IM: Some of those songs were six years old by the time we recorded them. We started writing them in 2006. We tried to record them a few times but it didn’t work, and then we figured it out. Some of the stuff was spontaneous. Part of the process of recording, each record has a different approach. With the Evens there’s an illusion to sound partially because I play baritone guitar so there’s a lot of low-end, also Amy has some effects on here drums that creates some space. A lot of people are surprised there is just two of us, with the first two records there is very little overdubs, but with this record we tried make the sound more propionate. There are more studio overdubs and we played the studio more, we thought more about making sounds that have an error of mystery to it. I don’t know, I don’t fucking know. If I could put it into words I wouldn’t have to play it.

This interview originally appeared in SSG Music on Sept. 25, 2013. Audio courtesy of the amazing CAMPFIRE ISLAND


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