The punk icon Ian MacKaye always wanted to create a tribe. Now an elder statesman of D.C. hardcore, the musician talks about organized religion, breaking toilets, and making peace with his mother’s death.
With his shaved head, bare chest, and the lurching, incantatory presence of an escaped mental patient gone defiantly off his meds, the punk rock singer Ian MacKaye made it impossible to look away from the moment he appeared on stage. The simple chords and direct lyrics of the songs that he wrote and sang for Minor Threat, the hardcore punk band he formed in 1980, plunged his audiences into a sea of roiling emotions while assuring them that they were not alone. Along with his friend Henry Rollins of Black Flag, MacKaye furiously rejected the stale and bloated sounds, emotional passivity, and the self-destructive ethos of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll in favor of the communal experience of music in which opposing poles of emotion were brought together in a chaotic, frenzied experience of something that sounded and felt entirely new—angry and caring, simple and emotionally complex.
Setting off small rooms of sweaty teenagers in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities that would tolerate punk and the increasing violence of the scene, MacKaye was part angry adolescent and part caring older brother. He used songs like “Good Guys (don’t wear white),” “No Reason,” and “Filler” to teach his followers to feel and express their emotions directly, to make art and meaning out of whatever materials were at hand. Railing against smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and other corporate-promoted self-destructive behaviors, MacKaye set himself apart from decadent punk progenitors like the Sex Pistols and created the musical sub-genre known as straight-edge punk. After Minor Threat disbanded in 1983, MacKaye formed the legendary 1990s indie rock band Fugazi, which blended poppy hooks with MacKaye’s emotional directness and a DIY ethos on hits like “Waiting Room” and “Song #1.”
MacKaye’s heightened awareness of the importance of music and ritual as expressions of the values that shape communities and hold them together are products of both the D.C. punk scene and of growing up in a family highly engaged with organized religion: MacKaye went to church every Sunday, and his father was the religion editor of the Washington Post. I attended one of the final Minor Threat shows, in Philadelphia in the summer of 1983, as a 16-year-old yeshiva student, and it rewired my brain in ways that continue to deeply affect my life. A few months ago, I went to Washington to meet MacKaye—who is now the father of a young son and the head of his own record label, Dischord—and talk about the energy I’d felt in that room when I was 16, where it came from, and what it meant to me and thousands of other adolescents yearning at once to escape and be on their own and to be told that they were OK. We spent an afternoon talking, drinking tea, eating whole-wheat toast with honey, and talking about music and other things that matter. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Do you remember playing a Minor Threat show in Philadelphia in the summer of 1983?
Where the kids were jumping off the sides? We were fucking good that night. That little run of shows, I just felt like we had hit our stride, we were back to the four piece, we were so lean and so fast, and everything just felt so right. We broke up two months after that. We played our last show on September 24, 1983.
I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, and I went down to Philly for that show, and it blew my mind.
Were you actually a practicing Orthodox Jew at that time?
I grew up in that community. Minor Threat was my favorite thing that I had ever seen. Seeing people my age fired up with that communal energy, which was weirdly a lot like the energy that I’d felt from religious people, except you didn’t seem to like religion very much, as far as I could tell from songs like “Filler.” You felt like everyone’s big brother, but you were also really pissed off.
I understand that a lot of the time I looked like I was enraged—I wasn’t really enraged. I might have been pissed about things in a song like “Filler,” in the sense of this is wrong, but what I really was doing was I was taking advantage of the speed of the music and the energy of the room to completely express, to go off, to make it real, to make it visceral.
You wanted to ignite the room.
You may have looked at me like an older brother, but I looked at everyone in the crowd like, “This is us.” We were all peers. The band wasn’t putting on the show, we were all putting on the show.
Straight up, I think music is sacred. I think music is a form of communication that predates language. Music predates religion, it predates business, it predates all of that stuff. It’s serious. It’s not a fucking joke. I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Jew, I’m not a damn anything. I’m not a team member. I understand why people are drawn to that, I respect it, even. But for me there’s something that’s even deeper, more sacred than all that, which is human beings figuring out how to gather. Music can set us free in that moment. And if we’re in a room with other people who are all being affected this way, then you get into that mass energy, this thing that can be really cathartic. And I think it is a really deeply important thing to have happen, catharsis. To go off.
The problem is, because people are drawn to it, because it’s so fucking important, people always say, “How can I set up a tollbooth there?” How can I get them to come to my place, so I can charge them and make money from their rite, their ritual.
When I was a kid, my family were Orthodox Jews, although my parents were complex because they didn’t believe in any of that stuff in a literal way, they just brought us up in that community, in that culture. And so, at one point when I was a kid—maybe 10, 11, I guess it was—things weren’t so good in my home, and there was this real deep Hasidic community in Brooklyn, black hats. And so this one rabbi in my school was like, if you want to go away for the weekend, we can find families and you can spend the Sabbath with them, and I did.
But the weekends were bad, because you were in school during the week, but the weekend was like the warzone.
Yeah, and these people were religious people, so you’d get some spirit or something from them, which sounds bad but it was actually great, and I loved them. They were just in their own world. They’d all eat together with their rabbi, and then at the end someone would start singing these songs and wordless melodies they’d carried with them from Russia, and they would then sing for five or six hours. And it would just be men in this room, singing, and you would feel that intense energy. The next time I felt that again was at your show. But it was different, you know.
My songs are made to be sung by many voices. All I ever want to do is make the whole room sing. Because I knew if everyone’s singing, they’re making a show, they’re part of the music. And it makes for something really phenomenal. I always tell people let’s all sing, sing the songs, let’s make music, fuck buying music, stop downloading it, make it. Be the song. Be the song.
But how do you keep that ritual part of it fresh? That’s the thing I always wondered. Your song with Fugazi, “Waiting Room,” is one of the best songs ever. Lyrically, musically, I never get tired of it. To the extent that there was one Fugazi hit, it was the hit.
That’s my hit song.
So, you played it what, a thousand times?
But what’s not repetitious about it is that every moment is not the last moment, and you never know. Like if you’re having sex with someone, maybe it gets repetitious, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It’s a song. Every time I played “Waiting Room,” there’s potential for that moment. That song hits people, they love it, it’s important to them.
Just as you were talking I was thinking to myself, there are all these Fugazi songs like “Song #1” or “Bad Mouth” where you could do such delicate, girly versions of them. They would be exquisite.
Yeah, like pop songs. They’re singalongs.
A song is a thing that other people can sing along with you?
I’m going to go pee and think about that one.
[Leaves and returns.]
It’s funny, for me, songs are kind of indefinable shapes. And this might be the difference between music and songs. Records are sonic illusions. We have this little boombox with the speakers that are like two inches big. You have these recordings you put it on, you play these things, and it creates a scenario in which I’m at a concert. But you’re obviously not.
I think of artists and other people, they’re translators. Visual artists see things, and they say, I’m going to translate this, and they take a picture or they paint or they draw. You compose things and you frame it for people, because the way they process they don’t see it the same way. They can see it, but they can’t catch what you’re seeing.
Musicians, I think we hear things in a certain way. I’ve taken out all this noise and I’ve given you this distilled version.
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