The Word Is…

A 1991 Interview with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye

Original Publication
And When There’s Darkness, June 1991

In 1988, when I was 16 years old, I started a zine. Shockingly, it wasn’t very good, but over the years (I managed to stretch it out, in fits and starts, into the mid-1990s) it got better, and occasionally it was even OK. There are worse things to be embarrassed about than how earnest and comically passionate about social issues you were as a teenager. In 1991, I interviewed Fugazi vocalist/guitarist Ian MacKaye, and it remains probably the thing I most enjoyed doing—not just because it was Fugazi, and I think the interview is not bad for something conducted by a teenager, but because of the way in which the interview was conducted. I sat on a curb behind the club at which the band had just played (Tewligans, Louisville, KY—you can download it from Dischord’s live show archive) with MacKaye, and in short order the interview became a group affair, with people who had been at the show drifting in and out to ask their own questions.

I thought then, and think even more so now, the communal, off-the-cuff nature of the interview embodied what drew me to punk rock in general and what made me love, to this day, the punk scene in Louisville in particular. Even in my darkest, most disillusioned moments, I look back at the fact that young people all over the world, with no “training” and often nothing in the way of resources or “business infrastructure,” and just as often with overwhelming social forces working against them, managed to organized political movements, form bands, meet each other, write zines and books, and tour the world—with no internet!

I also took some photos at the show. It was the first time I got photos back and thought, “Wow, I might actually be able to take OK photographs.” I then proceeded to dice them up, paste them into layout, and lose them forever. So I’ve done what I can with the poor quality xeroxes.

So here’s the 1991 interview, with questions both reasonable and awkward. Those present included: me; good friend Christi C.; Sunspring/Metroschifter guitarist/vocalist, K Composite editor, Slamdek Records founder, and future mayoral candidate K. Scott Ritcher; Endpoint drummer Lee Fetzer and guitarist Chad Castetter; Cerebellum/Crain guitarist, Parlour founder, and graphic designer Tim Furnish (he was silent the whole time); someone I didn’t know; and my best friend and zine co-editor throughout high school, Amy G. (also largely silent, though on the original recording she supplied much laughter and groaning at some of the dumber questions). And thanks to another friend, Amy C., who actually kept the issue of the zine in which this interview originally appeared.

Ian MacKaye

KEITH: OK, well, it was kind of hard coming up with questions you haven’t already been asked…

IAN: I’ll bet!

KEITH: But we did our best and this is what we came up with. So here’s the first one–how many interviews do you do on the average tour?

IAN: Good question, and the reason is this: in the beginning, and let’s just keep this to Fugazi, because in the last eleven or twelve years I’ve done hundreds of interviews, but in the beginning we would interviews, like two or three a night. And we’re still happy to speak with any fanzine if we have the time. We’re always willing to sit down and talk to people, but what we’re finding out is that the fanzine people, a lot of them considering us untouchable, like they’re intimidated by us. They might think that we’re not going to talk to them, because when you’re playing a show with, like, a thousand or fifteen hundred people, I think first off a lot of times the clubs you play make the band a little harder to get in touch with, which is a problem.

And secondly, I think a lot of the people assume that when a band plays a show that big that they’re not going to talk to fanzines or whatever. But pretty much, at this point, we’re only interested in doing interviews with fanzines or true music publications. And when I say true music publications, that does NOT include Spin or Rolling Stone, or a lot of magazines like that. Maybe something like Option or Musician I might do something with. Actually, we’ve been asked to be interviewed by a lot of the bigger papers, and we turn them down.

CHRISTI: Do you not want all that type of publicity or not think it’s necessary?

IAN: I think we just feel that the kind of hype that’s generated…I mean, a lot of bands and a lot of people really try to get into these magazines. They really try hard, and it’s like, that’s the way they try to promote themselves. We don’t try to get in those magazines. Sometimes we end up in those magazines. You get thrust into a certain limelight that will, eventually, thrust you down just the same. I think we feel like we get a certain amount of…the word “success” isn’t exactly the word I want to use, but I’ll use it. We’ve reached a certain amount of success working in the underground, working with the people in the underground. And we obviously sell a bunch a record, a lot more than some of the major independent bands or whatever, and we have really successful tours. But the reason we do the band is not for those ends.

The reason we’re in the band is to play music, and we’re trying to be somewhat precious about that, and we try not to screw it up by being mistaken for a band that is shamelessly promoting itself. So anyway, we don’t do enough interviews with small zines…I mean on this tour we’ve been out for about five weeks now, and I’ve done maybe about twenty interviews.

KEITH: How do you think Fugazi is different from any of your previous bands?

IAN: Um, there’s different people in it, and it’s 1991. (Laughter. Amy G. makes a snort sound like a deflating tire)

KEITH: Okay, how do you think you’re different?

IAN: I’d like to make a subtle notation. I know it’s the way you worded the question, but it’s really not my band either. None of my bands are my bands; I’m always only in a band. Just careful, because I do talk a lot, and I do a lot of interviews, and am somewhat of a recognizable person, I guess, and have a reputation. But the fact of the matter is that I’m in these bands, but they’re not my bands. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.

KEITH: What do you think it is about the band that has gained it such a widespread popularity?

IAN: (shrugs) Um, people like it? I don’t know. (Laughter). I don’t know. Again, our purpose, the reason we’re in a band is to play music the way we want to, how we want to, when want to…just play whatever strikes us. From the beginning it’s always been like that. It was never something that was particularly premeditated. We weren’t trying to achieve some certain sort of success with it. I can tell you that if we played for like a year, played to a lot of…well, our first tour we had no record out, and we just played in art galleries and restaurants, anywhere we could…if we had broken up at the end of that year, I would have said, well, that was a success.

CHRISTI: Would you rather play smaller places like this or bigger places?

IAN: It totally depends on the crowd, the situation, the evening, our moods. There’s a certain kind of communication that you can get into in a small room, which is really nice. But also, there is an explosive potential, a really positive energy in a room with a thousand people. Unfortunately, that’s usually translated into people becoming ugly because they feel somewhat shielded by all this other mass of humanity. But when you have a good majority of that crowd just really getting off, there’s nothing that beats it. It’s just really, really great. And I’ve played some small shows, like twelve people that could have really fun, but instead, it’s like early at a party where people are standing around going, “Shit,” and scratching their heads and looking around at each other nervously. And that’s not much fun for me.

Even today was really intimate, which is good because sometimes people are like, “God, I thought these guys were going to really be…” but instead it was really kind of mellow and laid back. I mean, everybody in the world gets to see Fugazi in front of a thousand people, like screaming blah blah blah and blaring loud. So for me it’s kinda cool to play a really quiet, weird, mellow set. And it’s also nice not doing encores, because the encore thing is really perverse and weird. We’re really stuck between the duality. On the one hand, we played what we wanted to play, and we’re done now. On the other hand, knowing that if we don’t go back out, then we’re a bunch of rock star dicks. And it’s really nice to feel like wow, we played. And in a room this small, you almost feel like people can say, “Well, wow. Cool. They played.”

SCOTT: Don’t you think you might also be a bigger superstar if you went back in and said, “Okay, yeah! We’re back!”

IAN: Yeah, I mean today’s a great example of when you don’t have to go back, but at bigger shows if you don’t go back, then everyone thinks you’re a dick because they’re all going “More! More! More!”

LEE: Do you ever just take a rest on stage?

IAN: We’ve done that, yeah. Yeah.

LEE: Like, “We’re gonna play some more, but we need to take a rest.”

IAN: Yeah, we do that, but sometimes we’re really done. I mean, we don’t save songs. We really don’t literally have a set. Well, we don’t have a set ever. We always play off the top of our heads, and every night is different. But we have like forty songs, and there’s a lot of songs we could have played tonight that we didn’t play.

Guy Picciotto

CHRISTI: What about those people who yell “12XU” when you play? How does that make you feel?

LEE: No! I was one of the people tonight who did that, but it was joke! Because the first time you played here there was some guy who kept yelling it.

IAN: When was that? That was… New Albany?

CHRISTI: Yeah, but how does it make you feel when they’re doing it for real?

IAN: It makes me feel shitty, and you wanna know why?

LEE: Oh, I’m sorry!

IAN: Oh no, no, no, It’s cool now. I get the joke, but I didn’t get the joke at the time. The reason it makes me feel shitty is mostly because everybody else in the band was not in Minor Threat. And it just goes on and on. We obviously don’t play Minor Threat songs. We’re not Minor Threat. Those guys were never in Minor Threat. All four of us work really hard for this band, and when you think about it, it’s gotta be a little discouraging to constantly be confronted with the suggestion, even the mere suggestion, that the only reason we’re on this stage is because I was in Minor Threat. It’s not the reason we’re playing or why we’re on stage. This band, Fugazi, has truly paid its dues. We’ve worked our asses off. We did a whole U.S. tour, a three-month European tour with no record out, playing the weirdest, smallest places, not letting Minor Threat be used. Like at that New Albany Show, we said, “No Minor Threat shit” on the flyer.

The whole point of that was to give the band a chance to sort of…grow into a band, to be a band without everyone instantly going, “Minor Threat!” We worked really hard to tap into that, and yet people continuously go on. I mean, people say, like, “What’s the big deal? Why won’t you play that song?” And the reason is, because, goddamn first off, I was the only person that was ever in Minor Threat. The other three people weren’t, so it’s not their song. Furthermore, the other people in Minor Threat aren’t in this band, and so they wouldn’t really be enjoying it if we were to go in and everyone was, “Yeah! Yeah!” But mostly, the most obvious reason is because this is 1991, and the present is far more important than the past, which means this band is far more important than Minor Threat ever was.

LEE: Do you ever have anyone yell for Rites Of Spring songs?

IAN: On occasion, but very rarely. I think that the Rites Of Spring people, and I’m not too proud to admit this, but I think the Rites of Spring people have a certain amount of class that a lot of the Minor Threat people don’t have. Not that all Minor Threat people, people who like Minor Threat don’t have class. But Minor Threat was a much more widely known band, particularly with thanks or no thanks to that fucking movie (Another State of Mind) that was on Night Flight every day of the week for a year.

The thing is, and I don’t know how much it’s true, but it seems to me that the power of television is so frightening. I mean if perchance I was in some stupid movie…I mean, I never thought that movie would be shown anywhere, because those guys were just the biggest joke, the guys doing the movie. And the fact that we ended up on some television show, every night someone goes, “So how’s Mike Ness doing?” I don’t fucking know how Mike Ness is doing! (More healthy laughter) I don’t have a clue. I haven’t talked to him in six years.

CHRISTI: Well, what about when you’re playing and somebody starts yelling like, “Suggestion?”

IAN: Well, it all depends on how you yell it. I mean, sometimes people yell songs and it’s nice. But we already know that we are gonna play whatever strikes us. And that’s just the way we work. On occasion, like tonight, for instance, somebody yelled out “Promises,” and I was thinking, “What should I play?” and then it was like, yeah, well, that will be a nice song to play. Since also we never play “Promises” live, or we haven’t been playing it since, like, last tour or whatever. But generally, it makes you feel like a big video jukebox or whatever. There are songs that some people like a lot, and it means a lot to them, and cool. But at the same time I feel that none of our songs are more important than the others. We’re trying not to let any of the songs become overtly highlighted.

The one song that really haunts us is “Waiting Room.” That song, actually, we ran into a situation where every night people were yelling for “Waiting Room,” and we thought, well, it’s just one of our songs, and for that reason we’re not going to play it. And we went off the stage, in Germany this was, and the people were all, “More more more!” so we went back on, and then “More more!” so we went back and did two more songs, and “More more!” and it finally occurred to us, these people, they’re waiting for “Waiting Room.” And basically, it’s like, if we saved it for last, it would be sort of like Queen saving “We Will Rock You” for last. I saw Golden Earring once, back in 1974, and they did “Radar Love” first and last.

So that’s a song we end up doing almost every night. We didn’t do it tonight, which was kind of cool for us. I mean, it’s a great song and all that, but it’s really nice when you’re comfortable with everybody, and you don’t need to pull out the really obvious song and all that. But sometimes we’ll do it just so that we don’t have to do it and have people think we’re saving it for some encore. It’s more embarrassing then. It’s just weird. It’s a weird situation. We’re really stuck. A lot of people, are like, easy going, nice people who are into us and understand what kind of band we are. But a lot of people are into us like we’re a really huge band and they have all these expectations, and we don’t to like…belittle or insult either group. But that’s a challenge we undertake and have to deal with creatively. And people say, “Well what are you going to do when you get bigger?” and well…goddamn, we’ll keep getting bigger and keep finding ways to deal with it.

WOMAN I DIDN’T KNOW: What’s been the most unusual spontaneous occurrence?

IAN: On this tour or any tour? I can tell you, one of my favorite moments ever was in Scotland. We were doing “Suggestion.” It was the quiet part of “Suggestion,” and all of a sudden, this woman came pushing her way to the front through all these drunk, stupid guys, and she said, she yelled at me, “Tell the women to get up here!” so I said, “Here, you tell them.” And then she got up on stage and said, “Get up here! This is our fucking song.” And then suddenly, women, there were like thirty women up on stage, and they just took the mike and were totally testifying, and it was so beautiful. That was like total spontaneity. It was really wonderful and one of the greatest things I’ve ever had happen to me.

We always feel like…I wish people would come up on stage. If you want to sing, come on up and sing or whatever. Unfortunately, most of the time people get on stage and are just like, “Well fuck you! Bleah bleah.” But that was really really great. We had one night where these guys kept coming up to stage dive, and it was so incredibly monotonous and repetitive that finally we just handed them our equipment, and I introduced them as just, like, the Stage Divers, and they played a song. No one could play anything. They were just beating on the instruments. That was in Chicago. That was pretty cool. We let them play for a minute or so before we chased them offstage. “Get out of here. You suck.”

There’s just some really weird stuff, and it’s too bad that like. one person can’t come to every one of our shows. Being in a band, this band, sometimes is so highly unusual because so many great things happen. I mean, it’s not even weird for me anymore to look over and see, like, Guy [Picciotto] lying on top of some huge guy and kissing him or something, and the guy’s just like freaked out. Weird shit always happen.

CHAD: Someone told me that at one of your shows in St. Louis there were all these guys stage diving and you would kiss each one of them before they jumped off.

IAN: That was two years ago at Bernard’s Pub, yeah. That was pretty funny because those guys actually lined up because they wanted to be kissed.

KEITH: Okay, what else. Probably this question just got answered…what are some of the highlights of being in Fugazi?

IAN: Just being in Fugazi. If you ask that question, that’s what it is.

Brendan Canty

CHRISTI: What does Fugazi mean?

IAN: I was reading this book called The ‘Nam, and I saw this weird word, “fugazi,” so I looked it up in the glossary, and it said slang for “fucked up situation.” Anyway, it was so innocuous that I just thought, good name. Everyone has weird definitions of it. The love of all things. Out of control.

LEE: I was talking to somebody, and I said I was going to see Fugazi, and they said, “Oh, isn’t that slang for pot?”

IAN: Definitely. Oh yeah.

SCOTT: Why do you think people like to take pictures of musicians?

IAN: I think one of the reasons is that, a lot of the time when somebody is playing music it’s definitely a moment worthy of a photograph. There’s a lot of emotion and movement a lot of times going on on stage that is really fascinating, I think, to look at. It really is, I can tell you, what I do on stage is more completely free than any moment in my life. I mean, I can be a total idiot and not care. But also I think people like to take pictures just to document that they were there. Why do people do anything? It’s kind of funny when people ask you to pose for a photograph. There must be eight trillion pictures of me going like this (smiles dumbly and waves like either the Pope or Queen Elizabeth. There was debate as to which one). And then there’s the one like this, the Vanna White one.

KEITH: Okay, we also had are there any low points to being in the band?

IAN: Yeah

KEITH: How would you feel about sharing them with us? Some of them?

CHRISTI: The highlights of the lows…

KEITH: The low lows… lowerest, most low.

IAN: I think it’s really frustrating. It can be…I mean, we are desperately trying to maintain (background noise). If I am just standing in the audience watching a band, well, I can’t possibly watch the band without someone coming up to me and going, “What time are you guys going on?” or whatever. It just drives me crazy after a while. There’s this real struggle we get into; on one end, we’re trying to maintain this global atmosphere, but at the same time we’re trying to maintain a sense of sanity, that I am allowed to exist as who I am.

CHRISTI: Do you end up missing a lot of bands you would have wanted to see because of it?

IAN: No, no, I usually end up watching from the side. But like right now, I’m just kind of burned. We’ve been on tour five weeks, so you can imagine, we see a lot of bands. Sometimes it’s a drag. You drive four or five hours to get to a show. You do the soundcheck and all of that, and it can get sort of tiring. So I miss some, but I always try to catch at least a song or two, usually more. It’s also just for the sake of my ears or eyes or mind.

LEE: Well, you can always just listen from outside.

IAN: Yeah, like today I was listening to those guys (Plastic Jesus) from out here and enjoying it. It’s sunny; we’ve got a nice breeze blowing. I remember this one club, it was just great. Inside, you know, it was crowded. You couldn’t see the band. But out in the parking lot where I was, it was great. There was this window, this screen window, right next to the stage. It was great because I could see the band and everyone. It wasn’t too loud. It was a totally great scene.

(More background noise, but the question was posed about things that distract from going to shows, seeing bands, etc.)

IAN: I’ll never forget, in Texas we went cliff diving. It was like this thirty foot tall cliff into a quarry. It was really fun. Really terrifying and great. You’re out there swimming around, and it’s just like, I’m never going to… I mean, why would I ever want to go into another gloomy club and blow my ears out and have all this cigarette smoke and shit?

KEITH: And next tour, bungee cords!

IAN: Yeah! There are times when we’ll stop, and go out into these woods or whatever and just stand around and go, “We’re never going to play another show.”

KEITH: Okay, here are some questions about the next record. I heard rumors it was coming out on Chrysalis records!

IAN: (Makes funny, twisted face and laughs) Next question.

KEITH: Okay, just making sure.

IAN: We’ve been called up by almost every major label (farewells are said to Plastic Jesus as they load up and head to Cincinnati). But we’ve been contacted by all these people, but, well, we’re just not interested.

KEITH: I read an interview with Henry Rollins (Sold Out ‘zine) and he said he got calls all the time from people who were like, “Call Ian and ask him if…” So, when’s it going to be out?

IAN: Hopefully by the end of this summer, but you never really know. I mean, like, this new Shudder To Think thing is taking forever, and the new Jawbox was supposed to cone out months ago and was just released, like, this week.

(More background noise, creating sound quality as if Ian was whispering to us from underneath a waterfall across the parking lot, but the woman I didn’t know brought up something about Dischord supporting other labels)

IAN: We’re just a DC label. That’s all we do, is DC stuff. When we started distributing our own records, we also started doing it for a lot of the other, maybe smaller labels in DC. But we’re really trying to keep it really regional because, on the one hand, I know that’s how we’re going to survive, but also because what I’m most interested in is documenting where I’m from. That’s what it was in the beginning. Like everywhere there were these little, regional scenes and everyone was starting all these labels to document that region, and I’m just like totally into it. I’d like to think that when Dischord is long gone, someone is going to have this record collection that is like, all DC bands, like Dischord from A to Z, and it’ll be like, “What a cool fucking idea.”

CHRISTI: How does it make you feel when you go somewhere or hear about like, a Dischord release that someone’s trying to sell for forty bucks or something?

IAN: Well, record collectors are record collectors and they’ll always be like that.

CHRISTI: Does it make you feel like you reached some sort of goal?

IAN: No, no, I’m not into that at all. It seems like now you can put out anything and just do like five copies on pink vinyl with bubble gum GI Joe stickers or whatever, but I’m not into that at all. It should be available for everybody. Like, when we recorded that Sub Pop thing, which…that totally backfired for us…we really made it a point to put it out on our own label for anybody who wanted it. So if you were a collector. you could kill yourself trying to get the Sub Pop one, but if you just wanted the music then it was there, too.

LEE: There are a lot of records that I’ve really wanted to get just for the music that I haven’t been able to because of stuff like that, though.

IAN: Yeah, it stinks. I totally agree. But on the one hand, there are records that I have that I really love. but if I didn’t have, then…I can guarantee you the world would still be turning.

KEITH: Well, that’s all I have, so any final words or closing comments?

IAN: Heh, good luck with your transcription!

Need more? A decade later, I interviewed Jem Cohen, director of the Fugazi documentary, Instrument. Have a read!

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