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|November 13-19, 2008 The conversationalist
Ian MacKaye is taking questions and delivering answers
by Elliott Johnston
Ian MacKaye can talk. A rare musician who can be as thought provoking onstage as off, MacKaye has been landing well-argued jabs on the status quo for years. Present-day D.I.Y. rock is almost impossible to imagine without his bands — seminal hardcore punk group Minor Threat, post-punk innovators Fugazi, and his latest two-piece project The Evens — and his label, Dischord records, where he still logs hours. While indie-rock has become more of a genre title (i.e. sounds like Modest Mouse) than a true definition of production, MacKaye has hardly wavered on his Gandhi-like stances.
If the Gandhi analogy seems excessive, consider some of the practice-what-you-preach ideas MacKaye and his bands have touted and implemented over the years, and then consider sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-as-usual. As a teenager with Minor Threat in the ’80s, MacKaye became a visible proponent of straight-edge, which loudly ignored smoking, drinking and drugs. In the ’90s, Fugazi became code for integrity. Despite punk’s newfound status in the mainstream, the band insisted that their shows and albums remain affordable and available to all ages. The Evens, MacKaye’s new duo, actively seeks alternative venues like art galleries and schools.
MacKaye’s current solo tour isn’t musical, and true to form, it breaks with convention. He’s dropping by various bookstores, high schools and colleges for Q&A sessions, or, as he calls them, “public interviews.” Boulder Weekly recently spoke with MacKaye about his tour, his strange form of fame and why he hopes that his Q&As will change some minds about his “extremist” reputation.
Boulder Weekly: How long have you been using this format and when did you decide that it was something you wanted to do as a specific Q&A tour?
Ian MacKaye: I understand that the format strikes some people as odd. People ask, “So you just go and just answer questions?” And the answer is, yes. That’s exactly what happens. It just turns into a conversation essentially. I don’t have a publicist. I’ve got nothing to sell. It’s just me; I’m just coming to talk.
I first started doing this maybe five or six years ago. I had been contacted by the University of Iowa, I think. There was a woman who ran the communications department, and she wanted to know if I would be interested in coming and doing a talk for them. And I said I didn’t really have anything prepared, nor did I have anything to sell or any agenda to promote. I didn’t have a speech. And I said, “However, if the students there are actually curious about something, I’m happy to answer a few questions.” And she said, “OK, well, why don’t we just do that?” And I thought about it and I thought, “That’s an interesting idea: a public interview.”
A public interview of course, which would then be, essentially, free of the bias of these papers or magazines or radio stations. Because every publication or outlet has sort of a bias. Doing a public interview means that anybody can ask anything. It’s a way for me to investigate my experiences to some degree by talking about them, but also, it’s a way, I hope, of revealing the path that brought me to where I am.
Largely, I think that in our culture, there are people who are perceived as being in elevated positions. This is usually based on their fame or notoriety. And I think that, for instance — in some people’s eyes, not most people’s, but in some people’s — I’m in that elevated position. And I think that what I have found about people who are in this position, quite often, they don’t really want to talk about how they got where they were. Because it somehow would compromise, in their minds at least, the justness of their position. Whereas, they might say, “I was basically a fan, and then I just did this and people started to like my work.” Which is basically the story of everybody: I was a nerd, and then people started to like me.
BW: Some musicians might say that it’s pointless to talk about music because it is so powerful and listening to it and playing it is such a visceral, spiritual, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it experience, that talking about it just doesn’t compare.
IM: I actually would agree with that person. I’ve often said that if I could put music into words I wouldn’t have to play it. To talk about music — that’s difficult to put into words. However, to talk about the structures, the attitudes, the perception, the energy around it, the machination of it — that’s of interest to me. And I think it is of quite a bit of interest to other people, too. Generally speaking, I think most people when they do interviews… Are you a music writer?
IM: So I think you know that generally, when you are speaking to somebody, they are on a promotional tour of some sort. So they are actually promoting something. So the tenor of their conversation is always going to be skewed by that. Obviously, there are exceptions, but I think that’s generally the rule. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised that when you talk to, say, an artist or musician, that he or she had done five or ten other interviews that day. And you can probably even hear the repetition, or the effect of the repetition in their voice.
And then, of course, you are faced with a very difficult dilemma, because you essentially have to write about something, which is music, which is impossible to write about. And yet, what you are given, usually, is basically a line about it. Like, “This is our urban record,” or, “This is the one-of-our-parents-died record.” And then you kind of frame it around that.
In essence, I think this is what has happened with musicians. They are endowed with the perception of having super powers. And they never do. They are just fucking people.
BW: Would you say that you were able to avoid some of that? Maybe because you’ve always put out your own stuff?
IM: Right. I’ve always preferred to do things on my own. And I think it has resulted on the one hand that I am completely invisible on much of the cultural radar. And I am deeply visible on other parts of it.
I’m a strange dude. My life is very unusual. I mean, I think if you were to walk down the street in Denver and take a poll of the first hundred people you saw, I would be surprised if more than two had any idea who I was. But at the same time, I was recently portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley in a video. That’s fucking weird.
One thing I do like about the Q&As is I like to think that it gives people the opportunity to sort of see me in a way that would prove their preconceptions about me incorrect. I think that people think of me as somewhat extremist or fundamentalist or somebody who has no sense of humor. But actually, I think that those are all completely wrong. If I’m extreme, it’s only in my desire to live and learn and to experience.
On the Bill:
Ian MacKaye will answer questions at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 15, at the Tattered Cover, 1628 16th St., Denver, 303-436-1070.