Random Questions With: Ian MacKaye
Thirty years after launching his music career, what does it mean for Ian MacKaye to be a punk rocker? In the 1980s, MacKaye rebelled against popular culture as the front man of the influential D.C. punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and founded his own label, Dischord Records. These days, he maintains the label and plays in a more stripped-down outfit, The Evens, with his wife, Amy Farina.
MacKaye may have changed stylistically, but his core values have stayed the same. He leads a clean and sober ("straight-edge") life, has stayed true to the DIY ("do-it-yourself") punk ethic, and keeps his shows affordable and open to people of all ages by performing in nontraditional spaces, like barns and art galleries.
At NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., MacKaye chatted with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg about why he likes performing for audiences with the lights on. His reason is simple: He wants to know who he's talking to. MacKaye also shared why he encourages people to not fight at his shows. "It would be if like I was having you over for dinner and someone started stabbing you with a butter knife," he said. "I would encourage that person to stop. It just seems obvious."
After an enlightening interview, we put one of MacKaye's fans to the test about the punk rocker's personal tastes. Does he use an electric or manual toothbrush? Which old school media format does he prefer: vinyl or tape cassette? Get ready to discover some things about MacKaye that you never thought you'd know.
Don't miss MacKaye's Ask Me Another V.I.P. Challenge, wherein he teamed up with NPR's Stephen Thompson for a game about classic punk songs. And listen to MacKaye's story about his impromptu 1981 Saturday Night Live adventure, in the Web extra on this page.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and we're live from Studio One in Washington D.C. Right now please welcome our VIP D.C. punk pioneer Ian MacKaye.
EISENBERG: Ian MacKaye.
IAN MACKAYE: Yes.
MACKAYE: Thank you kindly.
EISENBERG: You're very well known, obviously, for the way that you ran your live performances. Very specific. All ages was very important. Low ticket price, no more than $7. And then it was also how you dealt with the behavior of the crowd. And I do a lot of live standup. I deal with the behavior of the crowd all the time, telling people not to ruin it. And I know that you also like the lights on.
EISENBERG: The audience. I like them in darkness. But you like - why do you like them on the crowd?
MACKAYE: I want to know who I'm talking to.
EISENBERG: You want to see their eyes specifically.
MACKAYE: Of course.
MACKAYE: Right now I'm in the band The Evens.
MACKAYE: And whenever we play we always start by saying if you were not here, we would be practicing. Right? And that's just the truth of the matter. And I think, in fact, what's going on, the lights are masking the audience and it excuses them from actually having to participate. Now, this particular experience right now, if this audience was not here it would be very different.
MACKAYE: The energy of this show is coming from these people.
MACKAYE: You all are very funny and you're a good musician and you're a good puzzle guru or whatever.
MACKAYE: But whatever it is you - whatever you claim, you're good at it.
MACKAYE: But these people are actually making the show.
MACKAYE: You know? So my position is sort of like when we play I like the idea that they have a sense of being connected to what is actually happening. Now, in terms of the behavior stuff, I assume you are referring to - like, often we would encourage people to not fight.
MACKAYE: Or not jump on people's heads. I don't know why this is notable.
MACKAYE: You know?
MACKAYE: I mean, it's interesting to me because it would be like if I was having you over for dinner and someone starts stabbing you with a butter knife. I would encourage that person to stop, right?
MACKAYE: It just seemed obvious. It's an obvious thing.
EISENBERG: Right. The idea that people having fun in a way that hurts others would be not acceptable.
MACKAYE: I think the idea of people hurting each other is unacceptable.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I would...
MACKAYE: It's not a matter of fun, even. I think that they are a behavior of ritual, you know?
EISENBERG: Now, The Evens, you guys are a mellower sound than, say, Fugazi. But that means that you can also play in a lot of non-traditional places.
MACKAYE: It seemed to us that music had been sort of forced into really specific kinds of venues, largely bars, and which is fine. I mean, I'm not against bars or clubs, but at some point if you have a situation where you can't see a band because you're not of a certain age and that age is specific to being able to drink, then you've got to decide who's calling the shots.
Let me ask you a question. Is music important to you in your life?
EISENBERG: Oh, absolutely.
MACKAYE: OK. Did you listen to music when you were 16?
EISENBERG: I listened to music as far back as I can remember.
MACKAYE: Right. Was it important to you when you were a teenager?
EISENBERG: Very important.
MACKAYE: Right. So think about the amount of times that band - where'd you grown up in?
EISENBERG: Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
MACKAYE: OK. So.
MACKAYE: I've played there.
EISENBERG: Yeah, we - of course. We snuck into bars when we were 14.
EISENBERG: Because that was the only choice.
MACKAYE: That's just insane.
MACKAYE: It is insane that that industry is calling the shots about music. That's our position. So we think it's not shut down the bars; it's rather prove that music can exist anywhere and everywhere. And that way new ideas have an opportunity to actually develop.
EISENBERG: So we're going to talk more and we're going to put you in the puzzle hot seat a little later in the show but right now I'm going to ask you to help us out with this next round. So we're going to bring on a contestant. Welcome Andrew Howard.
EISENBERG: Now, Andrew, we chose you based on a story...
ANDREW HOWARD: Yes.
EISENBERG: ...that you told us about a presentation you made in school in the ninth grade.
EISENBERG: Can you share with the class?
HOWARD: Why not?
EISENBERG: Yes, please.
HOWARD: I had to do a Tell Us About Yourself sort of thing on posterboard and I happened to read a lot of Guitar World magazine at the time. There just so happened to be this spread of, like, indie albums or something, like, from different decades. And I cut out the ones I really liked, including Fugazi's "Repeater." And I said in my ninth grade seriousness, these are the five albums that changed my life.
EISENBERG: So we know you're a big fan of Ian's music but we wanted to know how much you know about Ian. So before the show...
EISENBERG: Before the show we asked Ian a bunch of random questions with two possible answers. For instance, something like who's your favorite guitarist - Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. And what you have to do is tell us how you think he answered. So with that one, for example, Ian, what was your answer?
MACKAYE: That would be Jimi Hendrix.
EISENBERG: Jimi Hendrix.
HOWARD: All right. That's - I would have picked that. Yes.
EISENBERG: You would've gone that way?
HOWARD: Yes. Yes.
EISENBERG: You're going to be just fine. What's Ian's old school media format of choice: vinyl records or cassette tapes?
HOWARD: I'd go with vinyl records.
EISENBERG: Ian, what do you think?
MACKAYE: You are correct, sir.
MACKAYE: I don't have a problem with cassette particularly but they were very much like the light bulb of the recording industry. They did break. They just broke yeah.
EISENBERG: They were just all plastic....
EISENBERG: ...smushed in the end of cars.
MACKAYE: Very strange, very strange format but very popular for a while.
EISENBERG: Does Ian use an electric toothbrush or a manual toothbrush?
HOWARD: I'm guessing manual.
MACKAYE: You're correct, sir.
MACKAYE: I don't understand electric toothbrushes. I think it's crazy. I think that if you're going to brush your teeth, you should get to know your mouth.
MACKAYE: You should feel your mouth with your brush. I had a dentist who called me a dental missionary once.
MACKAYE: Can I give you a piece of advice? Take care of your teeth. Don't be scared of the dentist. Think of it like a massage. Seriously. Your teeth - when your teeth go bad, your life is horrible.
MACKAYE: Take care of your teeth. That's all I can tell you.
EISENBERG: All we do is learn from you, Ian. That's all we do. All right. And finally, coffee or tea?
HOWARD: I'm going to go tea.
MACKAYE: You're correct, sir.
MACKAYE: I've never had a real taste for coffee.
MACKAYE: No, never.
EISENBERG: But you - you have tried it.
MACKAYE: Of course, yeah. I'm not against coffee.
EISENBERG: How did our contestant Andrew do in that?
ART CHUNG: Andrew, you did a very fine job peering into Ian's mind. You are moving on.
EISENBERG: This was one of my favorite rounds of all time. Andrew, you're going to be moving on to our Ask Me One More final round at the end of the show, and Ian, we are going to be putting you in the puzzle hot seat a little later. But right now, let's hear it for Andrew and Ian MacKaye.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.