Q&A with Ian Mackaye
Punk Pioneer Ian Mackaye talks Bad Brains homophobia, Vaporwave, and technology in the music industry
Local punk pioneer Ian Mackaye recently talked with the Scene regarding his musical career in the District, technology in the music industry and the controversial recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination of D.C. band Bad Brains. The D.C. band has come under fire for decades for its promotion of homophobic ideals.
Mackaye, the front man for the influential hardcore band Minor Threat and singer for alternative rock group Fugazi, is famous for coining the term straight edge from his song, which entails a lifestyle of not using any drugs or vices both legal and illegal. The 54-year-old has helped shape the D.C. music scene into what it is today, as he founded and continues to work at Dischord Records. Dischord Records specializes in producing punk, post punk and alternative rock music.
The Eagle: Roger Daltrey recently said that rock is dead and that it is incapable of any more evolution, and that rap is the future. What is your take on rock at the moment as a genre?
Ian Mackaye: I don’t know what he was talking about. I don’t know the context that this conversation was occurring, in which he said these things, but music is music. And if there might be music that has sort of, more rock based, or rap based, or maybe ska base, or reggay based or what ever dance based what ever, but it’s music. And maybe what he is talking about is that there is a certain form of rock that, you know, managed to perforate in an era, say The Who in the late 60s and the early 70s.
When circumstances in society and culture made room for this sort of that particular form… Maybe him saying it can’t evolve any more is him saying he can’t imagine it evolving, because it has evolved so much that he can't recognize it. It’s always going to evolve, because, you know, every generation of people, they inherit what’s there and they interpret it. That’s evolution. It can’t be stopped.
E: How has technology contributed to punk rock? Have streaming services contributed or tarnished its DIY (Do It Yourself) roots?
IM: First off, I’m not an expert so I don’t know, it depends on how you define DIY or punk rock. I think there are a lot of people in the underground that feel they’ve run out of flourish, using online streaming and download services… Every time I look at the show listing, there will be shows at the 9:30, Black Cat or Rock and Roll Hotel; and these are bands that I know nothing about. You know eighty percent of the bands I have never heard their name, but then when I talk to the club owners they are like ‘yea, they don’t sell a lot of records but they are huge on the Internet’… I think that there was a period of time where local music would reflect a local idea, because that’s where people were.
And I think the Internet is a much larger flat playing field. The kind of musical conversation that is going on, you know, people are sort of listened to or looked at different bands and kind of say that they are going to take that and take those ideas. To me that means less originality maybe, but certainly less regionalism and that was always to me I found that I really liked in my early punk days, was going out to different towns and seeing how they did it there.
E: Vaporwave, a genre of music which entails compiling old songs slowed down mixed with custom beats is one of the first music genres to ever originate online. Some say that it is one of the first post-music genres due to its sporadic and copycat qualities. Do you believe it's possible that the future of music scenes will exist online?
IM: No... Well because I think the role of music is ultimately to get together. Certainly it’s going to play a certain role, but I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think music lives here. I’ve often said music is a form of communication that predates a language, so it was here before the music industry. It was here before all industry, including the Internet.
You know people [that] are friends online are not the same thing as friends on earth, you know. And communications and community online is not the same thing as community on earth, and certainly connecting… So I imagine in this Vaporwave world people are messing with ideas, and I know that at some point when they begin to monetize it and make money from it that it's probably going to neuter the old creative part of it. But that’s the way it always is. Money always flattens out the creativity.
E: In this age of social media and mass communication via the Internet, many artists receive criticism for supposedly having bad attitudes or harsh views. For instance since the Bad Brains were nominated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the band has been marked as anti gay due to their past with the band the Big Boys and their lyrics for the song “Don’t Blow Bubbles.” If an artist or band is proven to have an offensive or bad attitude, how does that affect you as a listener listening to them, or a fan?
IM: I guess it just depends on your relationship with the band, or the musicians. In other words, I suppose it's like being in a family with somebody, like somebody you're related to, and then later on you find out they have these flaws that you figure out. Well you know them and you know how important their work is for me and how important they are to me, so I’m aware of it.… For me with a band like the Bad Brains they were- I knew them before they were Rastafarians. They were not Rasta to begin with, they were just kids growing up here in Washington and there was not [a] hint of fundamentalism at that time.
I’m very good friends with the Big Boys, so I knew and was very aware of that situation. And I felt terrible because the Bad Brains were sort of my favorite band, but the surviving Big Boys to this day just hate the Bad Brains. It's really an unfortunate thing… But in the case of the Bad Brains, it just got picked up by, you know, the other people involved, other bands and other magazines and stuff that really seized upon that. And in some ways you wonder, like, had it just occurred and then it was stupid and everyone forgot about that in some ways wonder if it would have been less. I suppose it could be argued that had they not been confronted on it that they would have continued to practice it. You gave me two examples can you give me a third one?
IM: Right because those are the two empirical answers. The second one, “Don’t Blow No Bubbles,” that one is more of an interpretation. Probably. HR is crazy- but the language about being miss interpretive. It didn’t say anything about don’t put a penis in your mouth. I don’t know. I’ve actually never really studied the song. I just thought they had lost their minds, or HR sort of lost his mind. And as time has proven that he has been treated for schizophrenia or something some other mental thing. Having known him, imagine this conversation that you're having with me now, and you might be like he is listening to what I am saying and he’s responding [to] me and were having a conversation. Would you agree that’s sort of fair assessment of this conversation?
IM: And then imagine 10 years from now you spoke to me and everything you say to me I just start talking about martians. You know you would be like I don’t understand. That’s the way I felt about HR. HR was such a good smart and inspiring guy and then he just went crazy.
E: If you could talk to yourself while you were young and describe the music industry what would you tell yourself?
IM: Just keep doing what you’re doing. Because f--- the music industry, because punk rock was to me why I seceded, so I don’t care. I wasn’t out to change the music industry so it does what it does same way as in, I’m not out to change the fast food industry. It does what it does. It provides service for people who want that sort of thing, that’s fair enough. I just wanted to be able to make music when, where and, how and why I wanted to with other likeminded people. I wanted to be apart of an environment and do what I could to help create that environment, and that’s what I did and I like to think that’s what I continue to some degree.