Ian MacKaye currently plays guitar and sings for Fugazi, in addition to running Dischord Records.
How have you seen punk rock change since you became involved with it?
Ian: It's almost indecipherable to me. I wouldn't be able to explain to you because I've been involved with it for so long. I could tell you it's changed, sort of like if you're around somebody for a long time, things just change and it's in such small increments, all the changes, you don't really notice it until it's pretty different. In the last 17 years since I've been going to shows, not only has punk rock changed, but so has the world, so have I and so has everybody I know so it's kind of a perpetually shifting thing. I could tell you that in Washington D.C., a lot of the people who I was good friends with in 1980 and 1981 and 1982 are still my friends and they're still fairly active, they're still around. I would say that with me, some things haven't changed very much here, but on the other hand, on the many, many tours that I've done, very few people that I knew back then are around anymore and if they are, they're completely involved with other things at this point. People ask me that a lot, like "How would you compare this to that," but I don't really compare because it's impossible. It's just apples and oranges as far as I'm concerned. The biggest difference I would say is that at one point, at least for me, punk rock represented a gathering point that was in spite of what mainstream America had to offer and the whole idea was not to go along with it and it was definitely not about financial success or being involved with the music industry or any of that kind of stuff. It was completely in opposition to all that kind of stuff, so that's rather different now. I used to talk to people about bands and we'd always talk about the music or the ideas they had, but now when people talk about bands, they just talk about either what contract they signed or what label screwed them over. It's quite boring to talk about bands now.
Is it better now or worse than when you got involved?
Ian: Again, it's a question I can't answer. For me, obviously when I first got involved, it was one of the most important things that ever happened to me in my life. I guess I could still say that, but at the time it was thick, man. It was a buoyant time in my life. I was totally involved with something. I was swept along with it and it was a really amazing time in my life so at this point, I can't complain. I still feel like I'm really deeply involved with a really big community of people who either are part of or have been a part of the whole punk rock thing and I'm very interested in seeing how things have evolved and changed. Again, I can't really compare am I happier now than then. I don't fucking know.
Do you think there's anything wrong with punk?
Ian: I think all these questions would be easier to answer if you could actually define punk rock. Certainly, in some aspects I can think of a lot of things that could be fixed, but what I think of as punk rock is still quite perfect. I don't think that what I think is punk rock is probably what anybody else thinks it is so it doesn't make any difference. The beauty of punk rock was always that it was just a term. It has regional definitions and even within regions, one person can say punk rock and get one picture. It's a secret language, frankly. You can say it to one person and they get one idea and you say it to another person and they get a totally different idea from the same words. It's really just a secret language and people who know, know, and people who don't, don't. When you talk about punk rock, what are you talking about? People say to me that Fugazi is hardly a punk band, but in my mind, we are a punk band. In a lot of ways, we're way fucking more punk than most other bands but primarily because I don't think we stick to any kind of set definition which always struck me as the first particle of punk, not to follow the rules.
What's good about punk rock?
Ian: For me, what was good about punk rock and what continues to be good about punk rock was that the music was a currency that a lot of people exchanged, and those people were able to be exposed to radically different ideas about, obviously, music, but also about philosophy, lifestyles, sexuality, theology, everything. Political aspects of life. For me, at least, it opened up an entire universe of different opinions that shared one thing which was that they were not part of the mainstream. When I was in high school, I was really upset about the idea that you just got out of high school and that's it, just jump on the machine. I just couldn't believe hat there wasn't something else in the world that didn't offer other kinds of options. When I got involved with punk rock, I discovered that it was, but I didn't see it because it was underground. That's where most good things always exist, underground.
How have you seen the crowds and people at shows change?
Ian: In the beginning, people didn't have much to work with as a history so they were kind of making it up as they went along. Then the next generation of people had a little bit more of a clue, so they had a little more to go on, but they still were interpreting things in their own ways and then a couple of generations past that, they would rebel against the previous generations and they would keep fucking around with things. People kept reinterpreting it, but I would say now that kids today have a much difficult time because there's so much history that it's really hard for them to get away from what punk rock was supposed to be. It's been around for so long and so many people have been involved with it that it's really difficult for people to really establish something that is just their own, a really original idea. I definitely would stress that I have totally no disrespect for people involved with punk rock today. A lot of the kids I meet on tour have totally great vision and I think are involved with important things in life but they're working with a different set of cards, like a different set of circumstances than I was. It's actually really cool and I'm actually really struck when I meet bands or people who are doing things, whether writing or playing music or making films or whatever they're doing, when they still can run against the status quo, even if the status quo is everybody who goes to see Rancid or something. I find that kind of freedom still really exists. People still really play with ideas and that's really the best aspect of it anyway, to play with ideas, and maybe change yourself along the way.
Do you see any problems with the way people act at shows?
Ian: Well, there's never been a shortage of assholes. I would say the last couple of tours we were on were actually some of the best as far as crowds being nice. In the beginning, we had way more problems and it was way more confrontational. I remember when we first started playing as Fugazi that people could not believe that I was saying anything to them about their behavior. They thought, "You're a fucking fascist, or whatever. You can't say stuff from the stage," but that's because they've forgotten something. They forgot that I'm a human being and I'm just in the room like them. People at that point had reestablished this wall between the audience and the band, but from my point of view, that was exactly what we were trying to defeat in the first place, and if I'm in a room and I'm seeing people doing things that I think are fucked, I'm definitely going to say "That's fucked." What was funny to me was that if they think that was bad, they should have seen Minor Threat and the earlier bands because back then, if somebody in the band saw someone doing something fucked, they probably would just jump out and beat the fuck out of them. It was a much more interactive thing at those times and I would say that as bad as things have been and as stupid as some of the crowds may be now, I certainly saw way more fights and way more crazy shit in the early shows but I think that's also because at the beginnings of things, there's a lot more fire and brimstone. It was a violent beginning. It's like a volcano or something. It was a really major eruption and there was a lot more aggression whereas now it seems like if people want to be aggressive, they join one kind of group of people. There's the aggressive kind of clothing you can wear and then you can get into fights. Then other people aren't into that so they have a different kind of clothing or whatever. It's a lot more segmented whereas back then I think everyone was going crazy. Again, I'm not saying it was better. It just strikes me as interesting when people say, "Crowds, they're so stupid now." I don't think they're s stupid. It's harder for them to digest things because they have such a past already to base it against. When I first saw the Bad Brains or the Cramps or whatever, I had nothing to weigh it against at all except for Led Zeppelin and Ted Nugent and Seals and Crofts. I had no idea who the Stooges were or the Velvet Underground or anything. All I knew was really what Americans were getting back then which was a pretty steady diet of Top 40 rock 'n' roll and disco stuff, o from my point of view, seeing those bands was completely fresh out of the oven. I had no fucking clue what to make of it and I think now it's a really different thing. It's been so established and people have this sense, like, "Oh yeah, there have been so many bands for 15 or 20 years now." There's a context which is really different. The context is a lot more dense now than it was at the beginning. I guess the context when I first started going to shows, these bands were just completely revolutionary. I couldn't compare them with anything. Obviously, the more I got involved, the more I learned about the past underground which has been going on for quite a while.
What can we do to make the scene better?
Ian: Build things. I've always thought that construction was the most interesting aspect of punk rock. Just build new things, keep fucking with ideas. That's the only the only thing I've ever found interesting, bands who play weird music, do something weird. Just build. That's all I've ever tried to do.
Final thoughts? Anything you'd like to add?
Ian: Of course, the missing ingredient is always going to be the definition.