All Vegans are Fanatics
The Satya Interview with Ian MacKaye
Part 2: Shining a Light on Straight Edge and Veganism
Even in the “fuck
your heroes, believe in yourself” world of punk rock, there are
still a few icons whose words and actions are dissected as if they
were Hollywood stars in a sleazy supermarket gossip rag. Throughout
years as a punk and as a musician, there has probably been no more
revered or scrutinized punk rocker than Ian MacKaye.
After coining the term straight edge (the individual rejection of alcohol
and drugs) in a 1981 Minor Threat song, expressing his frustrations
with the drug
and alcohol fueled DC punk scene, Ian has become the unwitting symbol of an
international straight edge scene. Rejecting the idea that straight
edge is a lifestyle, Ian
claims the movement that has formed around personal choices has grown to an
extent he never anticipated, as is evidenced by the term “straight edge” being
included in the dictionary. Yet, to Ian, straight edge is simply what he calls
living cleanly and deliberately, nothing more, nothing less.
At the age of 44, Ian continues to create vibrant, relevant music, and still
cares deeply about the world beyond the tip of his nose, a rarity in the punk
scene, with its notoriously high burnout rate, and where 30 is considered old.
After all these years, he’s still straight edge, still vegan, and still
operates the 20-plus year-old record label, Dischord. To his credit, Ian has
withstood the constant scrutiny of both fans and critics alike. And, in a punk
rock world where your ethics mean as much as your music, Ian has stood as a
true testament as someone who continues to walk their talk.
In the June/July issue, Satya explored the ins and outs of Ian’s politics.
In “The Satya Interview with Ian MacKaye, Part 2,” Catherine
Clyne explores Ian MacKaye’s thoughts on straight edge, veganism, fanaticism
We talked about politics earlier, but in your opinion, where do animals and veganism
fit into the bigger picture?
For me, what I eat or don’t eat, sure it’s political, but everything
is political. Generally, I don’t engage in discussions about my diet in
interviews because then it starts becoming lifestyle. It’s a real conundrum:
the idea of doing an interview about why I’m a vegan supports the notion
that it’s a lifestyle thing that I would promote. In some ways I do, but
by example. Someone recently asked me, ‘Are you still living this straight
edge lifestyle?’ It is a reflection of the perversity of this culture that
it would be conventional to think that not putting toxins into your body would
somehow be a lifestyle, when in fact, that’s life.
I became a vegetarian in 1984, a punk rocker in 1979. But I absolutely believe
that my interest in counterculture, in the underground, led me to eventually
apply the same kind of critical thinking to what I was participating in. When
people ask me about my diet, ‘Why don’t you eat meat?’ the
response is always, ‘Why not? Why should I?’ I can think of a hundred
reasons why I don’t [laughs]. I’d eat a piece of meat just as soon
as I’d eat a piece of shit.
But generally I don’t engage in these conversations. It’s just ridiculous.
It’s not my job. I’m not going to defend my diet—they can fuck
off. If they don’t like it, that’s fine. I don’t ask people
questions about their diets.
[Laughs.] I know. My partner has been vegan since 1988 and is not one
for proselytizing. But he was in conversation with a vegetarian who knew all
the connections to
being vegan but said, ‘I’m not making the step to veganism because
then I have to become an asshole.’ It’s the impression that people
who are devoted to a cause, people who use the word compassion for being an ethical
vegan or vegetarian—yet it gets flipped around and they seem like angry
evangelizers. And he thought, ‘Whoa! How did it come to this?’
It came to that because there are practitioners of it. I’ve experienced
it. This raises what is called the straight edge movement, where people associate
straight edge with these really strict, disciplinarian kind of fundamentalists,
completely antithetical to what I ever thought about when I wrote the song and
coined the phrase. There are people, usually new to vegetarianism or veganism
or whatever, who, like any discipline, when they’re new to it their enthusiasm
gets ahead of them.
It’s this frustration we have with fanaticism.
The reason people equate fanaticism with veganism or vegetarianism is because
there have been a handful of fanatics who’ve practiced it. But those people’s
issues usually are not connected to diet but to their own violence or unhappiness.
And by and large, people who are the most emphatic about that stuff drop their
diet. They were passers by, just visiting. They can’t burn that bright
What appear to be these limited lifestyles provide a perfect nest for people
who are struggling with issues other than actually thinking about animals.
thinking about power. Because American culture is so rocked by violence on all
levels (rocked in all different senses of the word)—they love it, they’re
upset by it, but it resonates. Violence is a form of communication that is
just so sensational and so shocking.
Something I saw profoundly in straight edge was people who were increasingly
more and more violent—they were attacking people. Something like straight
edge, if approached as a code of conduct with clear rules, if broken, acts as
a trigger for violence. The point is that some or many of those individuals’ problems
had to do with their own violence, something in their belly trying to find
a way out.
You’re in a kind of strange predicament in that you are considered the
progenitor of the straight edge ‘movement.’ But you seem to reject
that idea, that it’s a movement.
It’s not like I thought, ‘Oh no, this is out of control—I
want to have anything to do with this.’ I wrote a song, called “Straight
Edge,” and it was about an individual’s right to live his or her
life the way they wanted to—it is they that have to die when it is time
for them to die. Ironically, if you want to cite influences, look at the song “If
Six Was Nine” by Jimi Hendrix. He says, “I’m the one that’s
gonna die when it’s time for me to die. So let me live my life the way
I want to.” He was singing about being a freak! And I realized I am also
I don’t think people who weren’t alive or weren’t teenagers
in the late 1970s really understand how radical it was to not get high! But I’m
talking about general people, kids who didn’t drink in a culture that is
just so alcoholic. It’s not weird—it’s actually completely
organic and natural to not put shit into your body.
I didn’t form a movement. I believe in evolution: you change and you grow.
And then every time you get somewhere, you stop, take inventory, and either fix
it or grow on top of it. When I wrote “Straight Edge,” it was really
just a song to the people around me. I definitely didn’t think it was going
to be something I’d be talking about in 25 years! It never occurred to
me there would be this slice of the world where it would actually be relevant.
I just wrote lyrics—mostly because I was angry with some friends of mine.
[Laughter.] I was 18 years old, just out of high school, and had been involved
with punk for about a year. I started making jokes like, ‘Yeah, we’re
punk rockers and we don’t drink beer, we drink milk’—that kind
of thing. But at the time, against the backdrop of Led Zeppelin, Lynard Skynard,
Kansas and all those bands, where partying and drugs were so celebrated and such
a holy practice, it just drove our high school friends nuts—and we loved
But I’ll tell you something, when I got into punk rock, people started
attacking me. There was aggression towards Minor Threat—I couldn’t
believe the kind of hatred it manifested. I think it was defensive. But in 1983,
immediately I recognized that people were reading those lyrics as a code of behavior.
In other words, that I was proselytizing—but I was not, I was singing, “I’m
a person just like you. But I’ve got better things to do than sit around
and say I, I, I. I’ve got the straight edge.” I’m not saying, ‘You
do this—stop it or I’ll kick your ass!’ I’m saying, ‘I
do these things.’
It’s really interesting that one of the inspirations for the song “Straight
Edge” was a Jimi Hendrix song saying, ‘Hey, I’m also a freak.’ Is
this about embracing your inner freak?
I’ve always thought of myself as an aberrationist. When I first got involved
with punk rock, what attracted me was people didn’t accept everything—they
didn’t accept life being laid out for them by the dominant culture.
It’s funny to me that people believe a kid’s choice for rebelling
is to self-destruct. That seems ridiculous. I believe that if you are a true
revolutionary, somebody who really wants to rebel—you don’t sully
yourself. Clearly human bodies become addicted to poison. I don’t know
anybody who could debate that. So why would it be revolutionary to put poison
into your body? I don’t understand it on any level. Economically, it’s
not revolutionary. I mean, who are we supporting when we’re drinking or
using drugs? Who’s making the dough?
One of the striking things you’ve said to me with regard to being vegan
was basically, fuck choices and rules, just live your life. And that’s
what you do. That’s a pretty powerful message for the more hardcore animal
rights activists and vegans to hear because some of them isolate themselves
by being so militant.
I think it’s a natural part of the process, especially with younger people
who first get into these things, they tend to be a bit more like zealots—because
it’s something that’s really kicked their ass. So they get behind
it intensely. But you know, they haven’t really considered the unsustainability
of the practice. It’s really no different than somebody who’s like, ‘I’m
going to party every day for the rest of my life.’ You know?
[Laughs.] We’ll see how long they last.
Right. At some point you’re like, ‘Uh, well. I’ve got to stop.’ So
to some degree, I think of it as a natural, organic process people have to
go through. And maybe it would be good for the really hardcore people to hear
But they might just reject it out of hand.
Right. Radicals might not care what this guy says.
I think a lot of people identify themselves through things like their diet,
and I don’t. I feel that to put our behaviors or practices or these sort of
things to the fore somehow suggests that that’s what we are before we are
human beings. It suggests these things are novelties and they can be dismissed
as such. I’m already dismissed enough as it is! For being sort of an iconoclast
or somebody who has really stuck to his principles, it isolates me. So using
my diet or something like that to identify myself, or even straight edge as a
form of identity, suggests that I’m not just a normal human being—but
I am. That’s sort of always been the point of punk rock for me, that
anybody can do it, anyone can make anything.
So I avoid getting into long discussions or polemics about my diet on the record.
I don’t want to be the vegan. I don’t think my work is to spread
veganism. My work, I hope, is to spread thoughtfulness. That’s what I
think of music and art and all these sorts of creations, what they require,
What are you working on right now?
An Evens record. We’re recording in this eight-track studio here in the
Dischord house. It’s been hard because we’ve been having a lot of
technical problems. It’s an old machine and it has a certain habit of either
forgetting it’s recording one track or it’s forgotten it’s
recorded a track. But I found out that if you just tap the machine with a mag
light, it’ll remember, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be recording!’ [Laughter.]
That’s how you get shit done.
You’re tapping it with a little flashlight? [Laughter.] That
sounds like a really great metaphor for life: just tap it with a little light.
I’ll go right with you on that one! It’s a metaphor I think about
a lot: light. A lot of times when I’m faced with dilemmas, before I try
to change the situation, I try to change the light on the situation to get
a further understanding. Instead of wading in immediately, fixing what I perceive
to be the problem, change the light.
What’s up with the name, The Evens?
Straight-up balance. There’s two of us and we see each other as even
and equal. We both sit down on stage, we both sing, we both play our instruments.
Even though obviously I have a bigger mouth than Amy [Farina] does. I think
really recognize each other as equals in the terms of our music and our work.
To learn more about The Evens and Dischord records, visit www.dischord.com.
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