Ian MacKaye talks about avoiding war, curating punk history and still dealing with the Straight Edge questions
One would think that a forum with Ian MacKaye two weeks before the most consequential presidential election in recent history might yield some pretty charged questions about current events. MacKaye is one of the founding figures of hardcore and post-punk through his work with Minor Threat, Fugazi and Dischord Records, and his almost 30-year career in music has been a real-time example of how to make records, a business and a family life off the grid of corporate influence.
Now that MacKaye is three dates into his seven-city Q&A speaking tour of Southern California, what's the one topic that someone, without fail, always brings up?
"There's always someone who asks a Straight Edge question," MacKaye said, referencing the Minor Threat song that sparked a lifestyle movement aggressively committed to sobriety that MacKaye has since distanced himself from.
"Many of the people coming out are interested in historical punk stuff or a particular Minor Threat song. It's challenging because I want to be fresh in my answers. The people asking these things are 18 now and wrestling with these ideas in their own lives. I remember going to see Abbie Hoffman speak 20 years ago, and he was pretty cynical and dismissive towards young activists. Running the label, the music is all still current to me."
MacKaye's done similar "group interview" tours before, but this one (which stops Sunday at Hollywood High) comes at a particularly apt juncture for the Los Angeles counter-culture and punk communities. The self-identification of young, arty rock bands with DIY culture and its "Our Band Could Be Your Life"-era ethos seems ever more visible in L.A. But for local bands operating so close to the vortex of the entertainment business and its increasingly myriad opportunities (or, some might say, necessities) to make money through licensing, MacKaye still sticks to his guns on ethical advice in an era of increasingly sophisticated means of using music to move product.
"Many years ago, Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag said he'd rather have a day job so he could be free with his music," MacKaye said. "I work! I run a label. I book bands. I'm on the phone with you. I work so I don't need to make rent through my songs, and I think if more people engaged with music without needing it to provide for their welfare, you're not beholden to anyone. I grew up in D.C., where the town's business was government, and in L.A., the entertainment industry is government. To me, music is no joke and it's not for sale. People who do [licensing] aren't necessarily wrong for it, but it's like paying your rent with prostitution. We should be asking why that economic system is in place at all. It's snake oil."
Those coming to his Q&A sessions should expect a pretty loose town-hall format: MacKaye isn't preparing notes, and no question, from the most obscure punk arcana to volatile political issues, is off the table. In a time when few new artists seem willing or able to artfully talk about social issues in their music, MacKaye's has stayed vital with three generations of young fans partly because he kept the politics personal. He makes a point that, unlike many punk bands of the '80s, he never addressed Reagan or his policies by name, and while a Fugazi song about missile defense systems would probably have been fantastic, the continued attraction of young fans to his Dischord catalog suggests that he may have made a prudent decision back then.
The one political topic he does seem to encounter every night of this speaking tour is the question of who he'll vote for on Nov. 4. His answer, he says, is the same it's always been.
"At every election, my vote goes to the candidate less likely to declare war," MacKaye said. "You're dropping hugely expensive pieces of exploding metal on a population. America deserves the president it gets, whether the country votes for them or allows their vote to be stolen, and the least we can do is to elect someone who won't do that to other people. It's like if you have a friend who you know is always going to get in a fight, you don't ask him to come with you to a restaurant because you know he's going to punch the waiter."
-- August Brown
Ian MacKaye speaks at 7 p.m. Sunday in Hollywood High's main auditorium, 1521 N. Highland Ave.; tickets $5, or free to Hollywood High students.