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June/July 2006
The World According to Ian: Part 1: Politics and Otherwise
The Satya Interview with Ian MacKaye

 

Photo by Amy Farina

Years ago I worked in a small independent record store in Soho. I was in my early 20s—young and sure of myself. I’d heard Fugazi’s collection, 13 Songs, and dismissed them and Ian MacKaye’s previous band, Minor Threat, as just so much angry yelling. “They’re just noise,” I sniffed, “and a total guy thing!” But my older (and wiser) colleagues knew better. One day when the store was packed, they put on Fugazi’s album Repeater. When I heard the opening base line of the first song, it was all over—it was perfect.

I listened to the lyrics and discovered they’re not your average punk band. Instead of the party punk of the Ramones or the over-the-top political theatrics of the Dead Kennedys, Fugazi was serious. Ian MacKaye sang about real stuff, like politics, consumerism and nonconformity, and how it all relates to the individual: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying and receiving undefiled” (from Repeater’s “Blueprint”). In less than four minutes, who else could make you think hard about your complicity as a consumer in an unjust system? In the thick of the hypocritical politics of the first Bush regime, the honest energy and solutions balled up in Ian’s music were really inspiring. Sure, it was angry, but it was righteous anger.

I also learned about the principles behind Ian MacKaye’s independent record label Dischord. While stocking the store, I noticed recordings by Dischord bands were always sold at a certain price—CDs were always $9.99. In a store where all prices were jacked up, it was noteworthy. When I traveled to their hometown of Washington, DC, to hang with my best friend in the early 90s, we saw Fugazi perform. Their DC shows were pretty much always free, unless they benefited a local non-profit. When Fugazi played New York or anywhere else, the cover was always only $5—always. And they were always all-age shows—even in bars. Clearly, with Fugazi and Ian MacKaye, more than just punk music was happening, there was a principled philosophy at work.

That’s what’s so remarkable about MacKaye. At 44 years of age, he remains a steadfast example of uncorrupt principles, and with his music, record label and politics, continues to strike his own path and transform the world around him—especially with youth. With his current band The Evens, a duo with Amy Farina, the music may seem a little mellower, but the message is still as uncompromising as ever. In addition to playing music, Ian travels across the country conducting question and answer sessions about his life, music and politics.

Catherine Clyne was able to snag a private question/answer session with Ian MacKaye. So enjoy politics, analogies and social justice commentary, but stay tuned for Part 2 of Satya’s Interview with Ian MacKaye and learn of his thoughts on straightedge, veganism and more.

What kinds of connections do you see or not see between the different things Satya covers on our masthead, animals, the environment, social justice and veganism, and how does that relate to your artistry and activism?
I think it’s fair to say that human beings are born with nothing but love, no poisons. Generally we start from a pretty clean perspective and everything after that is additive. All decisions are additives. So when someone thinks about their life, they think about their impact on the world and the impact of the world on their life. It’s like cleaning a window—you just start seeing things. Once you think about one thing, you become empowered and it leads you to think about other things—social justice, animal rights, veganism, whatever. Once you enter the part of life where you actually engage in thinking about who you are, what you’re doing, and how it affects the world, it can’t help but shine light on all sorts of things.

Social justice is hard work! I don’t believe the end result of social justice is ‘it’s fixed!’ I think that, like weather, something’s always going to be blown down and we’re always going to have to put it back up. It doesn’t get fixed permanently. It’s just the nature of the situation.

Speaking from my experience, I was sort of led to believe that we as Americans were leading in the direction of “progress,” that things would get better, we would evolve. And I would say in the past ten or so years, I’ve been kind of disappointed with that thinking [laughs].
Progress. I mean, first-off, my point is this: it’s incremental, and it doesn’t only go in one direction. It goes back and forth. It’s like if you get a car stuck in the snow, and you’re trying to get it out, you push forward, you rock it, you let it come back, you use the momentum to push it forward…and eventually you get it over the hump. Historically, with things like civil rights and the anti-war movement, that is what’s happened. And there have been achievements—certainly. If we think about the way human beings are treated in this country, there is a pretty broad injustice sweeping over everybody, but for the most part, it’s not centered on particular people in the same way. [For example,] there’s no doubt there’s still an incredible social injustice for African Americans, but they’re not considered property.

Anymore. Yeah.
That’s a very important step. And that’s progress! It’s not like you’re cleaning your house and, ‘okay, that room’s clean. And now this one’s clean.’ It’s like you’re cleaning a huge motel, and you’re cleaning one room and then some jackasses come in the other room. The point is, you’re engaging with it, and it is a bit of a Sisyphean thing. We are always pushing a rock and then it comes back down. But the work is good for us, and I believe it moves slowly in the right direction.

George Bush and his people who’ve gotten control of the government are paving the way for their own dispatch. They have to go, no matter what—he’s got to leave office. And it’s looking increasingly like it’s going to be a rather ignoble exit because it’s such a mess! It’s just insane!

I am 44 years old. I was 12 years old when the Vietnam War ended, so to speak—1974. It had been raging my entire life, steadily increasing, more and more insanity, more people being killed. It was a perpetual war. So in 1974, when it stopped—again, 12 years old—I was like, ‘Wow! America just made a huge step!’ I thought that everyone agreed, like, war is bad. Let’s never do this again! I understand that America wasn’t a peaceful nation at times, but it wasn’t really until the bombing of Baghdad in 1991 that I thought, ‘My god, I can’t believe I’m witnessing this,’ because I really thought we’d agreed to never do it again.

And here we go again…

You know, junkies get clean and you think, that’s it. I would say this culture is definitely addicted to war. Think about the imagery; think about national holidays, statues—it’s all war! Everything is war! Everything’s about all the blood that’s been spilled for this country; it’s like religion. And if you’re addicted and you’re in that deep, it’s very easy to slip back. So once it gets in there—it’s generational. I believe that every generation moves a little bit farther. It’s just sad right now because we’re in a bit of a back draft or backswing.

Well, it scares me when people in their 60s act like, ‘Dude, where’s my country?’ and tell me it’s worse now than during McCarthyism. That kind of boggles my mind. But I feel like I have to take their word for it because I wasn’t there.
You have to be careful about that kind of stuff because for every 60 year-old who might say that, there’s 20 who are like, ‘Dude, where’s my golf course?’ Or, ‘Where’s my fuckin’ money?’ So that’s the thing. I’ve been involved with punk rock or the underground music scene for 27 years. You can imagine the number of fellow punks that I’ve known. There are a lot of passers-by—people kind of coming and going. I’m not being critical, I’m just an observer. People come in, they do it, and they’re like, ‘I’m done. I’m going to do something else.’ Fair enough. I don’t have any problem with that. But, when I run into them on the street, without fail, they talk about, ‘back in the day, when it was good,’ and they might say, ‘Well, punk died on this date.’ But it didn’t die—it just died for them.

So when people, in the same way, are critical of the anti-war movement now, or the left or whatever, it’s like because in their lives it died. It’s not because it’s dead. In the beginning of the Vietnam War, there were anti-war activists, but nothing on par with the amount of anti-war activity at the beginning of this war—or the last war. So, it’s early, yet.

My point is, I’m just thinking about the anti-war movement and my friends, people who were really politically active 15 years ago, got scared away a bit, and I think it was because they were using the wrong information. I also think they are tired. When people get tired, they kind of fall out. Instead of being at peace with it, and spiritually supportive of people who are going to get out there and get in the streets and do all this stuff, they interpret it as somehow showing they’re inactive. Then they have a knee-jerk emotional response: to be sort of disparaging of other people; not feeling good about themselves. They’re unhappy. And it’s just a psychological thing. People don’t want to be involved with the anti-war movement because it’s not significant enough for them.

That reminds me of a couple of months ago, when I interviewed Cindy Sheehan. She said when the war was starting, she didn’t agree with it, didn’t want her son Casey to enlist or go to Iraq, but she didn’t really do anything. It wasn’t until he was killed that she realized complacency and do-nothingness is a luxury.
The most powerful political party in this country is not the Republicans, and it’s not the Democrats, it’s the apathetic party. It’s not that the people are bad, it’s that they feel powerless.

I think it’s not just that. I think it’s also, getting back to talking about the weather, that some people do feel beleaguered. And I like hearing you almost enjoy describing life as a Sisyphean task, and I can understand people just saying, ‘You know, I’m kind of sick of trying to shove this rock up this mountain and I’m just going to step aside and let it fall. And I’m just going to sit right here, or climb up to the top of the mountain and hang out and fling my dollar at people…’
But they’re delusional! Because it’s always Sisyphean. I mean, look at the sun. It comes up and it goes down, every day, we start again. The people who don’t want to engage, think, ‘Well, I’m not going to engage in that because I’m not going to get anywhere.’ It’s like, we’re not getting anywhere with anything—that’s life! [Laughs.] We go round and round with the world. And the question is, do you want to leave a scar or do you want to take care of the tracks? That’s what I think about. How do you tread lightly on the earth so it’ll stick around? I know we all change the world every day just by being. But the question is how can I not participate in the sort of conscious destruction of the world or participate in brutality?

You know, I’ve always sort of stayed out of movements because, quite often, people are really passionate about an issue, and that issue trumps everything.

It’s all-consuming.
Right. And that doesn’t feel good to me. If I have a discomfort with the peace movement, it’s just the infighting and people not knowing when to stop. They’re needy or something, they just keep taking. I guess a lot of times, when I get involved with people, people contact me about things and they’re not contacting me as a participant, they’re contacting me as a mark. Because I think they think I have either money or some kind of…influence, or something that’s going to further their cause. And I have really dear friends who’ve been political activists for years, and it becomes reflexive for them. They’ll call me about something and then the next thing I know, they’re bending my arm trying to get me to do something. They just can’t see how dehumanizing it is.

It also puts you in the position of ‘either you’re with us or against us.’ So if you don’t accept the full club agenda, you’re against them.
Right. I’m not really a member of anything. I actually really believe in sort of a concert of individuals. You know, I like that idea a lot, that people work together, that we do our work and we support each other, sort of an informal collective. My sense is that it’s a little like that pushing the car out of the snow image. You hope you end up getting over the hump, but you might get in deeper. We’ve certainly seen evidence of that. We’ve seen really positive ideas become just positively scuttled.

Can you talk about your thoughts on the differences and similarities between the words movement and community?
When I think about a word like movement, I think of, say, the anti-war movement as a benevolent, good thing. I see it as open, the whole population is welcome. It’s community through inclusion. Those of us who believe that all war is a crime, or even that this war is a crime, those of us who believe that want company.

But the word movement can also mean community through exclusion. People use the word as a way to create identity through separation—it’s like you said earlier, ‘you’re with us or against us.’ And by editing themselves out of the larger picture, that creates an identity. I think with certain—or most—radical groups, once they remove themselves, or start to see themselves apart from American society, any society, or human existence, they lost the plot a little bit. I’m more wary of those movements because the issue starts to become more important than life. And if you’re not careful, they start to slip in the direction of armies.

Switching gears a bit…especially in talking about music politics and conflicts involving playing all ages shows, you’ve used a term—what was it?—the “alcohol economy,” that you reject?
Yeah, I did. Well, among everything else, the United States is certainly an alcoholic country. The alcohol industry is very dominant here. If you’re a musician, it becomes very clear. Because our work, my work, things that I do, my music—when people think about rock and roll, they say, “sex and drugs.” Why? The idea that rock and roll has to be attended by these other things, it’s just not true. It became that way because there was the economy, that industry just corralled music. And it drives me crazy. All you have to do is look at shows that are not all-ages, it’s right there. I mean, were you listening to music when you were 15 years old?

Oh yeah.
Was it important to you?

Oh yeah.
Would you say in some ways it’s more important to you then than it is now?

Oh yeah.
So, how bizarre is it that a band you listened to, that really was important to you, you couldn’t see for six years because you were not 21! It seems such a clear indication of the sickness, the fact that music has basically become the property of that industry. You know, bands say, ‘Well, we don’t know what we can do, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Sure you can, you can say no. We all have that power, we’ve always had that power. People think about Fugazi and say, ‘You guys are really powerful and you can do what you want.’ But what we can do is say no. That’s all we ever could do. And for every show we did, there was like 50 we said no to. We just said no. You don’t do what you don’t believe in. And if you have a problem with it, you don’t engage in it. You just find another way.

Well, it’s non-compliance with an abusive system.
Right. I mean, my position has never been to ‘smash the state.’ My position is to create a new state. And we’ll see what state burns out first.

To learn more about Dischord records, visit www.dischord.com. Make sure to get Satya’s August issue featuring The World According to Ian: Part 2 to read Ian’s rare disclosure of his thoughts on straightedge, veganism and more.

 


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