Ian MacKaye

After 20 years, the Fugazi frontman and co-owner of Dischord Records is still a punk and a prince.

Published January 8, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

If you frequented the Georgetown Häagen-Dazs shop in Washington in the early '80s you are probably familiar with Ian MacKaye's early work. The singer, guitarist and underground entrepreneur developed his scooping arm there, alongside childhood friend Henry Rollins. MacKaye soon cut the apron strings and pursued full-time work as co-owner of Dischord Records and as a member of many legendary D.C. bands, including Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Embrace and Fugazi. Dischord turned 20 last month.

No one imagined that the then 18-year-old MacKaye and his Teen Idles band mates were launching a company, let alone one that would command the respect of critics and punks alike two decades later. It was an inauspicious launch -- the $600 for the production and distribution of an eight-song 7-inch came out of the band's cigar box -- but Dischord quickly became a fully articulated expression of the politics and passion that haphazardly brought it to life. Its sphere of influence has widened exponentially over the years, but Dischord has never veered from its original course. The two cd retrospective it plans to release by early summer attests attests to this.

Today, MacKaye runs the label with former Teen Idles and Minor Threat band mate Jeff Nelson and five other employees. Dischord's enduring success is due in large part to the popularity of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Minor Threat are among the few early-'80s American punk bands that continue to sell thousands of records both domestically and overseas. And Fugazi are responsible for the lion's share of the more than 1 million albums Dischord has sold, despite a deliberate absence from commercial radio and MTV.

The label operates in its original location, a bungalow-style house in Arlington, Va. The house itself is woven into modern music folklore. According to legend, when Pearl Jam visited D.C. on the group's first national tour, Eddie Vedder, unimpressed by the city's monuments, asked his unofficial tour guides to take him to the Dischord house.

It's hard to imagine where thousands of acts would be -- Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, Sleater-Kinney -- had Dischord never emerged on the cultural landscape in the '80s. Unlike many independents, Dischord does not behave like a miniature major label. None of the dozens of bands that have released records with MacKaye ever did so under any contractual obligations to the label. Compact discs, vinyl and all other release formats are congruently priced with production and distribution costs. The 26-song Minor Threat discography CD is available from Dischord, for example, for $10 postage paid.

MacKaye has been criticized for being the quintessential punk rock "no" man. Most critics of this mind-set hang their hats on the blunt, anti-substance-abuse lyrics he penned as a teenage frontman for Minor Threat. The same ill-fitting Puritanism has been forced on Fugazi. Yet in Dischord's endurance, and in Fugazi's demonstrated preference for social action over braggadocio's invective, MacKaye is proving he values affirmation over protestation.

Since his days as an adolescent ice-cream technician, MacKaye has lived out a simple yet revolutionary philosophy of dedication to community in art and ideology. Dischord buys advertising in fanzines that may only reach 30 people. MacKaye and his fellow Dischordites reply to all correspondence. Fugazi have more crowd-drawing power in every corner of the globe than many of today's multinational-backed rock bands, yet the group actively seeks out small, independent concert promoters. At every opportunity, whether it's providing healthcare coverage for Dischord employees or playing benefit concerts for local charities, MacKaye reinvests in community.

MacKaye spoke to Salon by phone recently: What makes running Dischord Records interesting after 20 years?

What's interesting for me is just the fact that people continue to come along and reinterpret things. They continue to challenge me musically or aesthetically. Music is a language and different people who come along are each using that language to do something different, but all coming at it in a similar vein inasmuch as it's always community based and for the most part nonprofit. Most bands don't ever come within a mile of profit -- clearly these people are not playing music to make money. So I feel really connected to that. I feel like with these bands today, while some of them were barely born when the label started, there is still a connection.

When I came across this counterculture world in 1978, it just made me so happy, because this is where I wanted to be. I've always felt really dedicated to the idea of continuing to support that area. When people come along with new ideas and new interpretations, I think, "Wow, it still happens." And who knows what will happen next year.

I'm not a particularly nostalgic person. The only reason I'm interested in underscoring the fact that we've been around for 20 years is that, for years, people considered Dischord a novelty thing, something that didn't really work because we weren't taking into consideration what they consider "reality." But I think if a label is functional and stays in profit -- manages to have employees and manages to pay them reasonably well and give them healthcare after 20 years -- that certainly refutes the notion that it was a joke or a novelty or due to sheer luck. It is certainly not a luck issue; it's always been about work.

For an independent record label, you've had some extremely long-term employees. Is there a secret?

I don't know how other labels work, so it's hard for me to say. We don't see it just as a label and our employees don't see it as just a job. The people who work for us decide their jobs, really. Being a boss means that I get to deal with the things nobody else wants to deal with. I don't tell people what to do. Everyone who works here also comes into it understanding the basic structure and the mission of the label.

One aspect of this label that I think has resulted in our longevity is that I hate the record business. I never wanted to have a record label per se. I wanted to put out records, and I hated the record business so much that I couldn't stand the idea of someone else putting out the records, because I could never trust them to do it. So I don't have any illusion that this [will always] be my livelihood. At some point I assume the label will stop and that's fine with me. I don't have any problem with that whatsoever. So once you don't give a fuck anymore, it's easy to go on and on.

I've always told the people who work for me that this is not the end, that this is not the last station for them. This is supposed to be an auxiliary job for them. They should be doing what their heart tells them, whether they want to make music or make art or write. Right now we have somebody who's in law school. Some people have come and been in school while working here, and then they graduated and got the gig they were looking for, and I'm happy for them.

A lot of people are stunned that you personally answer all your mail and e-mail. This is an interview for a bigger-name magazine, yet we waited in line with all the fanzines. Is there any practical advantage to doing it this way?

There's no advantage. We just answer our mail. People write and we respond. It's a drag sometimes, mostly when I realize somebody's written to me about a report that was due three months ago -- I hate when that happens.

I do get overwhelmed. But when it's time for me to go see my mom and play cards, people are just going to have to wait. For me, an opportunity to sit down and talk to someone is always going to take precedence. That's what I'm doing this for. So if somebody comes in and they need to talk, then everybody else is going to have to wait. But on the other hand, we do answer all our mail. It was no formula; it just seemed to me in the very beginning that if somebody wrote to us, it would be nice to write them back. We're a little bit like the Luddite people -- we just do what we do. We're not thinking about how other people do stuff, and we don't really care how other people do stuff. This is just how we set things up and it seems to have done OK.

Do you get a lot of students contacting you for reports?

Occasionally. I'm usually happy to do it, especially for high school kids, because when I was in high school, I was notoriously bad about doing homework. I didn't do it, and any books that were assigned I never read. I had to do a book report for an English class on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I just didn't really get around to thinking about it. I couldn't sum up my feelings about the book. I did read the book, or parts of it. I ended up calling Ken Kesey because I was in a pickle and needed to get this report done. So I just called up Oregon information and asked for Ken Kesey and they gave me a number, which I couldn't believe. I called and he was not home, but his wife was, and she was so nice to me. She talked to me about some of the ideas he had, and I wrote it up and I got an A. I was pretty psyched about it, but mostly I was touched by the fact that this person would take time out to speak to me. So I just feel like I'm returning the favor.

Is the Napster phenomenon any more troubling to you as a musician and co-owner of a record label than home taping of music was in the '80s?

Not to me. We never had any problem with home taping. Again, this is not our commerce. I don't know much about Napster -- my computer doesn't go fast enough to fool with all that stuff. Certainly I love the idea of the application. I understand the issues a band would have if somebody were to take an unfinished tape from the studio and put it up on the Internet. That's a drag, because it's not something they're ready to have released. But I don't believe that it undermines the industry. Most people I know who use Napster listen to stuff they've never heard before. And then they get psyched and go out and buy the damn records. It's more like a sampler.

The home-recorded mix tape also played a huge role in the success of underground music in the U.S. Most people who got into underground music did so at least partly because of some mix tape.

Hell, yeah. The other day I was driving with a friend of mine. I had been going through some old tapes, and I put in this tape I had come across that had the Dickies doing the "Banana Splits" theme song. And I suddenly remembered that in 1979 I was with my sister Katie and we were driving in a Volkswagen Rabbit in Connecticut. We met her friend in Greenwich and drove up to New Haven to see the Ramones play. I was a young, fresh-faced punk rocker at the time. I'd just seen my first few bands; it was still a wide-open new world to me. And her friend was a very tall European guy, a very cool-looking punk rocker. He had a tape that he played in the car and it had that Dickies "Banana Splits" song on it and it just blew my mind! As soon as I got back I started searching out all these bands, because I was so intoxicated with all this music. So that's the one thing I really like about Napster.

Napster may go by the wayside because it may just sell out. That's apparently what's going on now. But people will continue to find ways to share the music that has affected them. With Napster and the sharing of music, of course, there are going to be people who exploit it. Greed has no end. But there's a lot of good that could happen. We shouldn't let the economic concerns of the major labels infringe on our freedom to share music. Fuck 'em.

One good thing about the Internet in general is that it maximizes the availability of music but doesn't eliminate the search. Having to seek out meaningful art and music is almost as important as finding it. Growing up in an isolated little town, Kurt Cobain had to go to the public library to try to find Clash cassettes.

I totally agree with you. I had this very conversation with somebody earlier this morning. He was saying that we should be more descriptive with our work, and we should tell people what the music sounds like. And I said that if you want to go to a restaurant that tells you how good their food is, they're everywhere, but if you want to come learn what you like by trying things, then come on. That's the point -- it's always about the journey. It's a sense of discovery that we're talking about here.

Does it take a shrewd entrepreneur to maintain a record label?

No. I was talking to a business guy once, an accountant, and he said, "They should invite you to come speak at Harvard Business School." And I said, "Well, I don't give a fuck about business." I reject the whole notion. American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it's profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It's just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you're making good food and people are happy. Dischord really does exist as a result of hard work and the goodwill of the people.

So much of our culture is built on the idea that what one does for a living isn't life -- life happens on the weekends and after work. Do you ever get to clock out?

I think that in the last 20 years, there may have been maybe two days where I didn't think about music or something to do with music. Part of the way the work world works is not so much creating a separation between your work and your free time, but creating the illusion of a separation between your work and your free time. Every day is the weekend for me, which means I'm always busy.

I can't imagine working at some of the jobs people work in. On the other hand, people say to me, "Well, you live off your music." That is just not true -- I work all the time. I haven't played a lick of music today; I haven't even listened to music today. I've been working all day. I'm writing stuff, I'm on the phone, I'm in the office trying to figure out some computer problem. I work every day, and I'm happy to do it.

By Peter Brandt

Peter Brandt is a writer living in Seattle. His work has appeared in Punk Planet, Insound.com, Buddyhead.com, Theryecatcher.com and the San Francisco Examiner.

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