Ian Mackaye interview
Journalists have spilled more than a decade's worth of ink trying to explain Fugazi.
Their policy of $5 shows and $10 CDs, their snubbing of mainstream venues and press, and, most notably, their tough stands against sexism, violence, and drugs have earned them a place beyond an industry saturated by such excesses. As allmusic.com observes, "To many of [their followers], Fugazi means as much as Bob Dylan did to their parents."
Formed in 1987 by guitarists and alternating vocalists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, drummer Brendan Canty, and bassist Joe Lally, Fugazi rose from the ashes of some of the more established DC punk bands. MacKaye was the most prominent thanks to his self-started label, Dischord, as well as his bands Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and Embrace.
In 1998, high school filmmaker Jem Cohen (a past participant in the Virginia Film Festival, most recently for his full-length film, Benjamin Smoke), wove together an homage / documentary tribute to Fugazi from years of Super8 and 16mm footage.
Instrument is coming September 22, at 7pm, to Newcomb Hall as part of the Offscreen series. Following the film, MacKaye will speak with the audience.
I spoke with him by phone.
Talk about collaborating with Jem Cohen on Instrument .
Jem went to my high school. He was there in DC from the very beginning. We worked with him in the editing room, figuring out what and what not to use. We didn't want to portray ourselves in a favorable light, necessarily, but we did want to feel the final product was an accurate look at Fugazi.
Does the film capture the essence of Fugazi?
Yes. We finished it. A lot of people have good ideas, but we finish what we start... and that's part of Fugazi.
There's a legend that you respond to all of your letters because you called Ken Kesey in high school.
Well, I spoke to his wife, but she did answer a lot. That's the idea of punk– the accessibility. I'm happy to answer a question, but sometimes I have to avoid answering the invasive ones.
What do most kids ask?
When we're going to be in the area.
It's been almost 20 years since your days in Teen Idles and Minor Threat. Have your motivations to make music changed?
The social landscape has changed drastically, of course. I have tried to keep the music in a place that is honest. A lot of people don't understand. They have the perception that we're trying to force our rules on other people.
Critics tend to say the same thing that Fugazi is dogmatic.
Yesterday's news. The crowds are much different now than they used to be. I can imagine how 19 to 20-year-olds now can't see how we could have possibly been so vocal towards an audience. In 1989 or 1990, a gang of 40 skinheads might have been in the crowd. And those bands that didn't feel it was their place to stop them [from moshing], or were scared... Well, I for one am not going to stand and play music while people are getting hurt!
Your impressions of Charlottesville?
We last played in 1999, at Trax, and there have been people at the radio stations, college kids, who have been in touch with us all along. There's a community of people down here who seem to challenge conventional thinking. I like it.
Who are some artists or filmmakers you'd like to alert people to?
I can't really speak on filmmakers. I haven't seen a movie in nine months. I love the idea of film, but I'm so discouraged by movies now. In terms of artists, young bands are popping up around here [D.C.] with a lot of raw energy, which I like. Measles Mumps Rubella I think is very good. I don't listen to Blink 182. When I got into punk in 1979 or 80, I turned my radio off.
Were you into Bad Brains at that time?
Yeah, but they sure as hell weren't on the radio. You'll never hear Fugazi on the radio in this town [D.C.]. I don't know what radio is here.
Well, I'd blame the trend toward nationally syndicated programming.
It's destroying regional music! And even some community stations are starting to be more into career training than playing music the DJs really like. It's really a shame.
I've been working a lot. My philosophy of life involves keeping the lid on things, but I'm hoping the plot will thicken, so to speak.