Despite Fugazi's "indefinite hiatus", Ian MacKaye has been as busy as ever; in addition to recording a new album for his current group, The Evens, he’s been producing albums for other D.C. bands, touring, doing Q&As, managing the Dischord label and, as always, personally responding to all his mail. The Evens second album, called "Get Evens", is being released today. The duo features MacKaye on vocals and baritone guitar and Amy Farina on vocals and drums.
We saw The Evens the last time they were in New York when they played for the East River Music Project in the Spring of ’05 and were spellbound. The Village Voice’s Status Ain’t Hood calls Farina’s “crystal coo just about the prettiest thing I've ever heard” and declared the band to be “criminally slept-on” by the music media. (Though NPR did do a feature with MacKaye, which can be heard here.)
MacKaye recently spoke with Gothamist about the new album, the rock and roll economy, CBGB and why people talk during concerts.
GOTHAMIST: So the album’s called "Get Evens", the cover art seems to depict a model of the Capitol building half-buried in dirt and it’s being released the day before the mid-terms. Did you time the release to coincide with the elections?
MACKAYE: Not at all. In fact it didn’t even occur to me until about two weeks ago. I don’t really think about midterm elections because I live in Washington, DC.
GOTHAMIST: I thought maybe you’d be registered to vote in Virginia.
MACKAYE: I had been for while but I live in the district again, where I am registered to vote. So that was a completely coincidental release date. The album cover is some kind of metal badge that had the Capitol on it and had fallen into the street. The photographer found it embedded into the asphalt.
GOTHAMIST: Any plans for The Evens to play in New York City?
MACKAYE: I think we’re going to be up there in early December; we’re trying to get it sorted out.
GOTHAMIST: Did you ever play at CBGB in any of your various bands?
MACKAYE: Minor Threat played there twice.
GOTHAMIST: Any thoughts on all the media hoopla about CBGB closing?
MACKAYE: I guess not. I don’t know what to say. People are like, “Oh you must be so upset!” And I’m not upset. It was a place. And it had a hell of a good run. But I don’t get sentimental about stuff like that. CB’s certainly was a location that really gave a stage to some really creative people.
The one thing I will say is that I found it really interesting that the Bad Brains era of CBGB’s was really kind of largely left out, I thought. For instance I saw this CB’s book which was very nice with great pictures and everything but it didn’t have a single picture of the Bad Brains, which was shocking.
GOTHAMIST: That’s weird. They did play there toward the end.
MACKAYE: I heard that. But no, as a matter of fact it’s kind of funny; I’m actually kind of tired of hearing about CBGB because there was a big hoopla about their 25th anniversary. They were doing a movie and they had all these bands play there like The Cramps and at some point someone called up Fugazi and asked us if we would play there for the anniversary. But Fugazi had never played there because at the time CB’s wouldn’t do a proper all ages show. They would do 16 and up and we said, “No it has to be for everybody.” And they said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” So we said “All right, we’ll play somewhere else.” And we did.
So when this guy called me he said, “Fugazi should definitely play here, you’re such a part of the spirit of the place.” But we never played there and they wouldn’t do an all ages show back when we called them. It was just funny.
I don’t really have any beef with CBGB; it’s just a place. I’m glad that people have tipped their hat to the significance of that music but if they really want to honor a place like CBGB they should be looking out for the little rooms where incredible music is being made right now. The bands that are together today are always more important than the music of yesterday; they can actually do something.
GOTHAMIST: All the concerts on the recent Evens tour were five dollars or less, just as it was for most of Fugazi’s shows as far as I know. I have a friend who’s sort of a walking Fugazi encyclopedia and he keeps saying he would gladly pay upwards of 30 dollars a ticket if it meant Fugazi could tour on a small scale and support their families. Have you ever considered adjusting that sort of mythical five dollar figure?
MACKAYE: Well Fugazi did play for 7 and 8 dollars so I think your term mythical is even more accurate then you realize. Some shows were more. The 5 dollars was just a convenient way to figure the economy out, to say, “Okay, 100 people, 500 dollars.”
It’s really just a low door price concept. The Evens, the way we operate, have been able to do that. Fugazi at this point probably couldn’t tour at that price; although Fugazi hasn’t toured in the US since 2002 so I just don’t know where things are with the rock and roll economy. The rock and roll economy is so twisted and so illusionary because it’s driven mostly by the prices the bands are asking. That has a lot to do with what drives the ticket price.
What happens is the bands demand more money and a guarantee and then the clubs in turn need to cover a potential loss in case people don’t show up. So they want more money, and then the people who are working sound and lights also start saying, “Well if you’re going to make this much money then we should make this much money!” And it all becomes comparative pay scale stuff.
The thing about it is if the ticket price is a pie and the band is eating three quarters of the pie and the club eats another two thirds of the remaining slice, leaving a third for everybody else, they’re not going to take smaller slivers - they’re going to make a bigger pie. So everyone’s greed and selfishness breeds this inflation. Whereas with Fugazi and The Evens and all the bands I’ve ever been in we’ve used the ticket price to dictate the economy of the evening. And it’s actually incredibly doable.
Having a low ticket price sets a different cadence. First, you don’t use a guarantee, you work on percentages. So if three people show up then I’m not going to get paid like everyone else, but if three thousand people show up I will get paid like everyone else and there’s no risk for the people working with us on the shows. It’s a different way of approaching the whole thing.
Obviously to some degree it’s contingent on being in a band that people want to see. Although The Evens just played for 65 people in Charleston, WV and it was great. It’s not like we have a massive turnout, we play quite small shows. But given the circumstances I think they’re great and we never lose money.
With Fugazi obviously things became more complicated just based on the fact that so many people wanted to see us and if you have a band where thousands of people want to see you then it’s really your responsibility to find locations that are suitable and safe for those people.
So that was challenging: Finding rooms that were suitable for a band like Fugazi, for the volume we played at, for the number of people who wanted to see us, for the behavior of some people who came. All those things sort of landed us in established rock rooms and those, by and large, are bars.
And at some point even though I felt like we had worked really hard to tune the environment to our wavelength - in other words it was all ages, we were mindful about the lighting and making sure the security behaved themselves and we didn’t have inflatable beer bottles behind us - despite all that the irony was that my work - or art, or that thing that I do - was by and large being presented in venues where their economy was based on self-destruction. That was discouraging for me. Because ultimately the bar world is actually self-destruction. I’m not saying that alcohol is evil or there’s some moral issue on that front but rather that the [alcohol] industry traffics in self-destruction and ultimately smoking and drinking is sort of like taking yourself apart.
I also didn’t understand why music had been consigned to that particular arena. For instance: Why weren’t we just playing donut shops for the donut industry, why weren’t we playing tire repair shops to move tires? Because it’s essentially the same thing; a bar is just a commercial establishment selling a particular product and the bands are responsible for attracting their clientele.
It’s basically the same thing as the old medicine show concept in the 19th century where acrobats and musicians would roll into rural areas on wagons and people would gather to see the show. And then between acts some quack doctor would come out with all the snake oil. And if you blur your eyes it’s actually identical to bar shows. Again, I don’t think it’s evil and that it should be driven out of existence, I just think people shouldn’t assume that music can only be presented in that kind of a setting. It’s just different ways of looking at things.
GOTHAMIST: Yeah, the last time Fugazi played New York was at the Roxy and there was such a disconnect between everything Fugazi is about and the people crowding around the bar and blathering during the performance.
MACKAYE: Of course. It’s a really interesting thing. You know they’re just having a good time but they’re there for a different reason. I believe in music and think music is sacred. And I think if we all come in together, the band and the audience with the music in between us then there’s a potential for something really incredible to happen.
And you know the most amazing shows are usually when the audience is totally focused on the music. I saw Elliot Smith many times and I loved his music and really enjoyed his shows. Like Vic Chesnutt, his music can be very quiet. And I’ve seen them both play in rooms where the conversation starts at the bar with ‘What can I get you?’ and the talking just swells up from that point. The show would start and you could hear the conversation just start to grow like a cancer, spreading toward the stage and infecting the room.
Then I’ve also seen shows with those guys where the people were really into the music and the energy was really focused on the music and that made the shows incredible. People say volume is powerful but nothing is more powerful than silence; the most incredible moments in life are near silence I think.
I also think every musician’s mission is to somehow make music that people won’t talk through. The Evens have done shows with pin-drop silence. But we also played at a cultural center in France, and the way the event was set up we were playing in the foyer near an enormous bar that was about fifteen feet away. So there were about 30 people at the bar who were just talking and talking; they were not connected to the concert or paying attention. It was like a battle; at some point I had the entire crowd chanting “Silence motherfuckers!” But I enjoy those kinds of things. But I realized what I really need to do is maybe make music that’s so compelling people at the bar say, “Fuck I can’t talk I’ve got to listen.”
If you look at The Evens itinerary you’ll see we didn’t play a single bar. We don’t want to play them. People should go to the bars to drink and come to where the bands are for music.
GOTHAMIST: At some point this summer there was a Dischord news email mentioning that you and Amy Farina were working on a new Evens album and had equipment strewn all over Dischord House. How was the process working on this album?
MACKAYE: Fugazi had an eight track recording set up that we used to do demos. A lot of the stuff that’s on the Instrument soundtrack was recorded on that deck. It had been in storage for quiet a while so at some point when Amy and I were talking about trying other ways to approach recording we realized we had all this gear and we should just get it out of storage.
So we set it up at Dischord House and the first thing I recorded was half of Joe Lally’s solo record. I learned a little bit about how to use it because all the years I’ve been producing stuff I’ve never really done the engineering. Even though it was equipment that belonged to me and the rest of Fugazi, Brendan and Guy had done most of the engineering. So it was a bit of a serious learning process for me.
Amy and I started working in June and spent six weeks dealing with a lot of equipment problems and also learning. It was incredibly interesting but also at the same time it can be maddening if you’re trying to record the right version of a song and all of a sudden you realize the tape machine didn’t record it; that can be frustrating. However it all worked out and the album is done.
Since then I’ve recorded a whole album for Antelope, which I’m very happy with. So it’s going to remain set up at Dischord House and I think the idea would be that The Evens will return to recording again and next time we’ll have a lot more experience and hopefully take the whole process even further.
GOTHAMIST: You said something in an interview with Barrelhouse about struggling through a year of writer’s block. Was that something new for you? How did you end up working through that ultimately?
MACKAYE: Writer’s block isn’t something that was new to me because I don’t really have any idea how it works, the process of writing. I have bursts of creativity but I don’t know how they happen or how to tap into them. So over the years I’ve certainly gone through long periods of agonizing dormancy and I imagine to some degree I’m probably in one now having just finished the record; I haven’t written anything since. It has to do with the balance between the writing part of the creativity and the documentation aspect of it, which is a different kind of creativity.
Bands write, they practice, they perform, they record but it’s very hard to do all those things at the same time. In my case I find them to tap into different parts of my brain or something. Performing and going on tour takes a certain kind of mindset that - for me at least - is opposite from the mindset of writing. I actually need quiet.
Ultimately it’s not about trying to get control over these processes but rather just making peace with those things. So I don’t feel totally agonized by it. I’ve been playing music for 26 years now and writing songs for many, many years and as you get more experienced it gets more difficult to actually write something. Trying to be nuanced is really difficult; it’s a lot easier to pick one theme and jump all over it. But if you don’t believe it then you can’t sing it. I actually have to believe what I’m singing; every lyric means something to me.
GOTHAMIST: There was an article in the Times about the Q&A at the Guggenheim where you said that with the lyrics for Minor Threat you were trying to be as direct as possible. As the songwriting process went on for you do you think you wrote with more ambiguity and room for interpretation?
MACKAYE: I didn’t see that article but the analogy I use a lot is that if you’re making clothes, if words or songs or lyrics are clothes, then really direct ideas become uniforms that anybody can put on. So some people can use the uniform to further their agenda and they don’t engage with it, they just put it on. And in my mind I thought being really direct would make it much more difficult for people to abuse the idea, but actually it’s easier to abuse because the ideas were finished and they didn’t have to contribute any of their own selves to the situation.
I think [a song like] “Straight Edge” was clearly taken by any number of different people for their own agendas or power issues. And so in later years I thought I shouldn’t really produce finished articles of clothing, I should try to work on creating really quality fabric for people to make their own clothes. However, I’m still actually pretty fucking straightforward and I think when people say I got really ambiguous I think, ‘Really?’ Some of the songs aren’t ambiguous to me at all.
Also, I think once people start talking about you one way it just gets repeated. For instance, the so-called ‘Dischord sound’, which is something that has haunted Dischord since the beginning of the label. I’ve read in reviews forever this idea that there is a certain sound and then this or that band marks a departure from the ‘Dischord sound’. But if you look back over the catalog of Dischord it’s just obviously absurd. A band like Minor Threat can’t be compared to a band like Beefeater or Scream, for that matter, or Shudder to Think. I mean there are so many different kinds of sound but for some reason it’s just something people accept, that there’s a Dischord sound.
I’ll read a review of The Evens and it will say it’s a real departure from the Dischord sound but I think they’re just talking about what they’ve heard, it’s reporting on reporting. It’s just feedback. Do you know what feedback is? Are you a musician?
GOTHAMIST: A little bit.
MACKAYE: When you hear feedback essentially what’s happening is that you say something into a mic that comes out of a speaker and back into the mic, and then that comes back through and comes out and every time it comes through it speeds up, and this happens in the blink of an eye. But what you’re hearing essentially is just the thing being repeated so often and so fast in a circle that it goes into that whistle. That’s what feedback is and it happens a lot in society that things kind of go into feedback mode really quickly.
GOTHAMIST: Especially in music criticism where somebody comes up with one way to peg a band, like saying they sound like Gang of Four, and everybody parrots it.
MACKAYE: That’s for sure. I remember in the beginning of Fugazi everyone was saying “Oh clearly these guys have listened to a lot of Gang of Four.” But I had never listened to Gang of Four so it wasn’t actually accurate. And I wrote the songs people were attributing to a Gang of Four influence. Guy was a fan of Gang of Four but the stuff people were comparing to Gang of Four was written by me before Guy started contributing compositions. It was something that was factually inaccurate but it got repeated so many times it became true.
GOTHAMIST: So what do the next six months hold in store for you?
MACKAYE: Oh I don’t know. I’m learning how to play music. Dischord just finished up with a series of releases and this week is the last two. The Evens are hoping to go to Australia and New Zealand maybe at the beginning of the year. At some point maybe in January we may try to do some recording but we’ll see how it goes.
GOTHAMIST: Last question: A Bob Dylan musical recently opened on Broadway. How would you feel about Fugazi: The Musical?
MACKAYE: That would be absurd, but life is full of absurdities. Better than the plague. A Bob Dylan musical? Wow. Weird.