Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
For years, the D.C.-based band Fugazi took their local sound to stages around the world. Unbeknownst to many of their fans, the band recorded the vast majority of those concerts – hundreds of which are now available online as part of an ambitious archiving project. Kojo talks with Ian MacKaye, a founding member of Fugazi, about the online archive and the window it provides into our musical history.
- Ian MacKaye Musician, Founding Member, Fugazi; Co-Founder, Owner, Dischord Records; Singer, Guitarist, The Evens
Fugazi performs “Turnover” live in 1991:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We talk a lot on this broadcast about the things that connect our neighborhoods and communities in the Washington region with the rest of the world. And during the past several decades, few artists from D.C. have had as much local-to-global reach as those who belong to the legendary punk-rock band Fugazi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey crafted a sound unique to this city, and they took it everywhere, from church cafeterias in Columbia Heights to correctional facilities in Virginia to sold-out venues in Europe, Asia and South America. And it turns out that they recorded hundreds of those performances, which, starting last month, they began to make available through an ambitious archiving project, a treasure trove of musical moments that provide a window into the spirit of the District, whether you have memories of seeing them all the way in Osaka, Japan, or at a public park just across the street from this very radio station.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIan MacKaye joins us in studio. He is a founding member of Fugazi. He's the co-founder and owner of Dischord Records. He also plays music in the band The Evens. Ian MacKaye, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. IAN MACKAYEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe thought it would be fitting to start off playing that performance of "Waiting Room," which you played at Fort Reno in 2002. That's the public park across the street from this radio station and for your Alma matter, Wilson High School, the venue which has been a home base of sorts to musicians like yourself for decades, but you and your band mates recorded hundreds of your shows from those here in Washington to those in places as far off as Japan. Why did you start recording them, and why did you decide to start sharing them now?
MACKAYEFirst, one note about that particular show at Fort Reno, that's actually the last show we played in the U.S. That was 2002, and after that, we did a short trip in England. But our last show we played was in November of 2002. So, actually, that is -- that was our last U.S. performance.
NNAMDIIn nine years.
MACKAYEYeah, nine years. I'll tell you the story about the archive. In the very beginning, when we first started playing, you know, I think -- first off, I've always been a bit of a documentarian. I've always like to record practices and just, you know, I like documentations. I mean, I have a record label. That's part of the reason I have a record label. In the very beginning, the band -- a friend of ours -- we had a couple friends who were recording our shows and giving us tapes. It was just nice to hear the songs.
MACKAYEOne thing about music is that when you write a song, when you're practicing, in some ways, a song doesn't become actualized until it goes into somebody else's ears, until you actually present it.
MACKAYEI mean, it's not -- it's a series of ideas or notes or words. But when you play it, perform it and people hear it, it becomes a song. And in the very beginning, it was an opportunity to hear these songs being played live, you know, like, wow. Now, it's a song, and you can sort of hear how maybe other people are hearing what you're playing. Then, you know, we just started playing, and people would come to our shows. We'd always let people tape our shows, and they might hand us a cassette in a night or mail it to us a few days later.
MACKAYEAnd in 1989, our friend Joey Picuri, who was our soundman, he started traveling with us. And he just started making it a regular practice to record our shows.
NNAMDIJust about all of them.
MACKAYEYeah. I mean, we started out -- I mean, there -- the first couple years, '88, '89 are probably the years that we have the least amount of tapes because Joey wasn't on tour with us. But after that, we would just buy boxes and boxes of blank tapes before the tour, and he would just run tape every night. And we never listened to these tapes ever. It just wouldn't -- the idea of listening to -- after you play -- if you're playing, you know, like, six, seven shows a week for two months straight, pretty much the last thing you want to hear in the van while you're driving is yourself.
MACKAYEIt's a nightmare. I'm sure in your world, like...
MACKAYE...you don't really like hearing your recordings and...
NNAMDIYes. I go into people's cars, and they have...
NNAMDI...tapes or podcasts of the show, and they want to play. And I'm like no, no, no...
NNAMDI...I've done that all week long.
MACKAYERight, exactly. And so I think -- I mean, there are occasions where, you know, there might something incredible, might have, like -- or something very unusual might have happened at a show. For instance, like, you know, we've had situations where, like, the stage might collapse. And, you're like, what did that sound like? You know, that might -- that would be very interesting, like, to hear something along those lines, so we might cue the tape up just to hear that one moment.
MACKAYEAt some point, a couple hundred tapes into the project, we suddenly realized wow. Now, we kind of have to keep going. It just didn't...
NNAMDIWe're now documentarians.
MACKAYEYeah. We're just doing this. And, I mean, I will say this, that these are not -- I mean, these are pretty basic recordings. And they're just two-track for the most part, usually (word?) tapes, meaning that what you're getting is sort of a mix that was coming through the P.A. or the -- you know, they're -- some ways very disembodied because you're not hearing a lot of the room or the audience, which is very strange since Fugazi shows were really -- they were the product of the band and the audience.
MACKAYEAnd to leave one of those elements out is a little bit odd. On the other hand, that's what we've got, you know. That's it, so we're sharing it. I mean, at some point, so -- I'm -- so we had about 200 tapes, 300 tapes, and we started thinking, what are we going to do with all these tapes? The initial idea was maybe we would maybe do one-to-one cassettes as per request. People could write to us, say, do you have this show? And we'd make a cassette copy. That just seemed insanely clunky and certainly would never end.
MACKAYEAnd then the Internet, you know, sort of showed up. And then speeds picked up, and memory got cheaper. And, suddenly, this, like -- this became a possibility where we could actually have a central well of recordings, and people could just take them or leave them. Either way is fine with us.
NNAMDIEither way, you're going to have to, at some point, listen to all of this stuff. If you'd like to join this conversation with Ian MacKaye, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have memories of watching Fugazi perform? Which ones would you like most to go back and listen to if you bought one of their performance recordings from their new archives? Call us at 800-433-8850, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIYou told The New York Times recently that most labels put out a record to get a band known, but that you created Dischord, your label, to document something that already had energy, the music that belonged to this D.C. scene. Where does this archiving project fit into that? What do you think you learned about that Washington scene from digging through this archive? What was that like?
MACKAYEWell, first of all, I should say that in -- I still have not listened to these tapes. Like, I just work on the -- I work on the database. I've worked on -- like, I kept all the facts, the figures. I did most of the -- I booked the band, so, by and large, I kept all the records of all the shows we've ever played. So that aspect of it I've done, and the tapes I've kept. But the actual listening to all these tapes, that is something that I just still don't really do. I have a -- you know, other people (unintelligible) into it.
NNAMDII was wondering about that.
MACKAYEIt's actually -- 'cause people -- 'cause I think most people -- people said, God, you must be sick of hearing it. I said I actually have not listened to most of these shows. It's as much of a mystery to me what's on these tapes as anyone else.
NNAMDISo where did you start when you decided that you wanted to do something with all of these hundreds of tapes that were basically, what, sitting in your closet?
MACKAYEQuite literally, yeah. Well, we had a tape -- you know, we had -- you know, I have a house. And in the house, there was one room that had an air-conditioner in it, and that was the room where all the tapes were.
MACKAYEAnd, really, the genesis of this particular project really lies with the entrance of this -- a fellow named Peter Oleksik, who was NYU archival arts student, and he asked if he could use me sort as sort of his thesis and come down work on my collection. And he came down and saw the tapes and was, like, all right, let's get these organized. And we -- I had them chronologically in order.
MACKAYEThey were separated between DATs and cassettes, and they were labeled. If I could label, they were labeled. And they were kept. And that actually is the key to all of this. Anybody who's interested in archives, the number one component of any archive is you have to keep the stuff. You can't archive anything unless you actually have it. So he came -- so, well, you have these tapes. Let's create a database. So he spent -- I don't know -- a month or two months really creating this insane...
NNAMDIGoing through them.
MACKAYEOh, my God. Just typing in everything he could find about it, and, really, he created a rough database, which then I went through and had to correct 'cause, you know, I actually was there. So he would have trouble figuring out what the -- like, I knew the routing. I could figure out what -- well, this is wrong. There's issues with, you know, the U.S. style of dating and European style of dating.
NNAMDIOh, of course, yeah.
NNAMDII grew up in the European style.
MACKAYERight. So, like, you know, there's -- so you would -- so he might -- we might have played a show in England on the 2nd of December, but the tape would have said 2/12...
NNAMDI2/12, that's correct.
MACKAYERight. And then he would put down -- so you have a tour -- a February tour where we played, like, you know, Richmond, Raleigh, N.C., London, England, Columbia, S.C. You know there's something wrong there, right? So this is the kind of thing that we -- you know, I would go, and I was doing the corrections and filling things in. And, slowly, once -- then we started the actual process of digitizing.
MACKAYEThis is another issue that, you know, tapes -- cassette tapes are pretty hardy. DAT tapes, you know, DAT tapes are not. And Peter was very instrumental in helping us getting these things digitized. I think once we started that project of conserving these tapes, saving these tapes, then I think that opened up this idea of, like, hey, let's create an actual online archive.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about cassettes and about DATs because here is Danny in Fairfax, Va. with a question about essentially that. Danny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANNYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I want to say, first of all, one of the best shows I ever saw live was Fugazi at the Peppermint Beach Club in Virginia Beach. It was visceral and impressive and a pretty amazing show, so I just wanted to say that. And I wanted to just ask or comment on, you know, from the early days of Minor Threat, you had technology that was basically seven-inch vinyl, and, you know, we've come all the way to basically purely digital recordings now.
DANNYAnd I wanted to ask Ian if he -- what his feelings are about how that's impacted the kind of DIY, do-it-yourself ethic and if he's seen the emergence of any efforts or projects akin to what Dischord did in the '80s and early '90s that have come out of that advancement in technology?
MACKAYEWell, first of all, I should say one thing, that -- like, I'm interested in the technology. I'm interested in the way, you know, the -- how much easier it's become to record. However, one aspect of that, I think, is -- that is sort of negative is that, I think, it has taken the emphasis off songwriting. The beautiful thing about a cassette is that there's basically play/record, and that's it. So if you want to impact somebody, if you want to make a difference with your music, then you'd better write a damn good song, you know, if you're just going to hit play/record.
MACKAYEI think that sometimes, with technology, especially now with computer recording, your options are almost unlimited, or they seem that way. And, therefore, I think there are probably many, many, many people toiling away forever and ever making their songs perfect. But, of course, a song doesn't exist, as I said earlier, until someone hears it. I quite loved cassettes in terms of the simplicity because it really did force bands to just commit to the moment. I do think that technology -- like, the changes in technology will make things easier for people.
MACKAYEAnd I imagine, at some point, people will get their minds around it and recognize it as a tool and be less sort of obsessed with all the crazy -- like, the whirligigs of technology. But, by and large, ultimately, I'm always interested in the song, the song, the song.
NNAMDIDanny, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. Where do you think you can still see the spirit of the D.C. punk scene that Fugazi carried the flag for? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Make a comment there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ian MacKaye, founding member of the band Fugazi. He's the co-founder and owner of Dischord Records. He's also playing music in the band The Evens. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have memories of watching Fugazi perform? Call us. Share those memories with us at 800-433-8850. Let's take things back to where they started for a minute because one of the shows available in the archive right now is the very first show you performed with Fugazi at the erstwhile Wilson Center in Columbia Heights. And here is what that sounded like.
NNAMDIWhat memories do you have of playing that gig in your neighborhood?
MACKAYEWell, Wilson Center was a really incredible spot. I mean, Wilson Center was the basement in a -- it was a hall in the basement of a church that had been closed. I forgot what the church is now, unfortunately. My brain has lost that.
MACKAYEBut in 1981, this local band, the Bad Brains, had come to us to say, hey, we're going to put on shows ourselves. We found this hall in Mount Pleasant. It's right on the border of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.
MACKAYEAnd I was in the band Minor Threat at that time, and we did this epic show at the end of April 1981 with -- you know, it was like every -- and for people who know about punk rock, this show would be -- is crazy, the amount of bands that played. You know, there was, like, Minor Threat, S.O.A., Youth Brigade, you know, the Untouchables, Black Market Baby, the Bad Brains, Void. I mean, it was just incredible lineup. And it was -- I think it was $3 for the show. All the bands shared equipment, and most bands only played for 15 minutes.
MACKAYEBut this room -- this hall was really, like, a significant place, which is -- it was a place where these new ideas could be presented, and something that had been crafted here at home could grow 'cause clubs are not really great Petri dishes, really, ultimately, when you think about it. I mean, clubs, quite often, they have a bottom line. This is not to say they're wrong or evil or bad, but rather that they have a bottom line. They need to have audiences 'cause audiences are the clientele.
MACKAYEAnd the -- I think that the -- you know, I think that the -- for new ideas to really grow, to blossom, you need these independent spaces, these spaces that are just off the radar. And we were doing shows there, and nobody ever said boo. We could just do shows. The people who ran the place didn't care. And it was a really amazing experience. After a few years, that room -- there was these kind of -- there was a tough era in the mid-'80s here in Washington with kids who were doing a lot of fighting.
MACKAYEAnd that -- we lost that room, but in the late '80s, that -- you know, Wilson Center came back, largely the results of the work of this group called Positive Force, which is a political activist group here in town. And it just dovetailed perfectly with the beginning of Fugazi. And our first show was Sept. 3, 1987. It was a good -- it was in the -- you know, it's funny. In my mind, it was just a good show, but I don't have anymore to say about it than that, you know.
NNAMDIWell, what happened to the Wilson Center is that, today, the Wilson Center is the home to a charter school. But, in some ways, this archive is a history lesson in the local music venues of the Washington region.
NNAMDIYeah. And you went back to the Wilson Center a few years ago. You noticed that the school still had preserved the room with the stage as a kind of multi-purpose room. And you played a new -- a gig there with The Evens.
MACKAYEYeah, The Evens, yeah. In some ways, they actually improved the room. I mean, it was not the greatest sounding room, and they did a pretty good job of it. It's a Capital City charter school now, I think.
MACKAYEAnd that is a nice -- the room was really nice, and we did a benefit there. I mean, one thing I should say about Fugazi that maybe is of some local interest is that, starting about 1989, we decided that, you know, we all grew up here, you know, and, you know, I'm a native. Guy is a native. Brendan and Joe lived here their entire lives. And we were deeply connected to a punk scene that was identified very much as a community here in the city. And we felt that what we could do as a band in terms of our relationship with this town was to not get paid to play shows here.
MACKAYESo every show we played in the District -- this is Fugazi, and The Evens as well now -- we never were paid for a show ever. Every show we did, we either did benefits and gave all the money to the local group that we were working -- we did a lot of work for the Washington Free Clinic, the Whitman-Walker Clinic. We did prison reform, and there was a Salvadoran bank collapse once. And we did -- you know, we raised money for that. So we did a lot of benefit work, and we also did free shows or protest shows.
MACKAYEBut the idea was this is our form of community work, which we thought was deeply important. It also was -- on a pragmatic level, it took away any kind of discomfort in terms of who's going to get paid what because we're going to paid zero. And that's what we expect everyone else is going to be paid, too.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of people who want to talk to you on the phone, but you mentioned prison reform. And I know that there was a point at which you performed at Lorton Reformatory here in the District...
NNAMDI...because not all the shows in this archive took place in typical punk rock settings.
MACKAYEThe show you did at Lorton was the day after Christmas.
NNAMDIAnd it was in the Lorton youth correctional facility. And I love the way you interacted with the audience. Here's what that interaction sounded like.
UNIDENTIFIED MALERock and roll forever, dude.
MACKAYEI don't know if it's rock and roll. Really, it's a little more noise. You know that.
MACKAYEI'm not real sure if it's heavy metal either, but we'll figure out something.
MACKAYEAnybody here go to Wilson? Class '80, Wilson's high school.
MALE(unintelligible) up here.
MACKAYE(unintelligible), I don't know that song.
MACKAYEBut this is a -- I don't know what we played, just a lot of noise, really, you know?
NNAMDIWhose idea was it for you to play at Lorton?
MACKAYEYou know, I think Guy from the band -- we had done a number of prison reform gigs, raising money for various groups. And at some point, the idea was offered up that maybe we should take it to the prison, like, go -- really go play in a prison, and just, why not? You know, they're people, and let's figure this out. And again, Positive Force -- Mark Andersen and Positive Force, you know, we contacted him about it. And he made some calls, just figuring out, like, what the process is.
MACKAYEAnd we were very surprised to discover that Lorton -- the people at Lorton said, you know, oh, if you want to come down, then, yeah, you can come down and play. Just tell us when. The only thing that they were -- we had to do. We had to pay for the PA ourselves.
MACKAYEAnd I think that the reason that so few bands never played there is that, I think, everybody wanted to be paid to play. And Lorton just didn't pay -- weren't going to pay bands. And, in fact, when we were done, the kids told us that pretty much the only bands that ever played there were evangelical bands, you know, Christian and soft jazz kind of things. And -- but I'll tell you a really funny story about that gig. We drove down to Lorton, and we went through the process.
MACKAYEWe parked in the parking lot, and then you have to get processed through a building. If you've been down there you, you have to...
NNAMDIOh, yeah, I went many times.
MACKAYERight, so you know the process. And they would -- you know, they searched us, and they -- you know, I remember they took my Chapstick from me. And I was like, why the Chapstick? And then we go through the -- you know, the chamber, and then we get released into the yard. Now, all of our gear was on a step van with the PA. And for that, they just opened the gate, and the truck just drove on. They didn't look at it -- and I thought, like, I could -- there could be, like, you know...
NNAMDI(unintelligible) penny-wise, pound-foolish kind of thing.
MACKAYEYeah, there could be 60 M16s in there. I don't know what they were thinking...
MACKAYE...but, obviously, we didn't have them. But it was an incredible experience. And one thing that really has lasted me, we made it a point to bring in, for the PA music -- before and after our play, we played local go-go bands. And that -- I think those guys were really -- they were psyched. They enjoyed our show. I think they enjoyed the wildness of it to some degree, but they were really happy to hear, you know, Rare Essence over the PA. Who wouldn't be?
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here is Carl in Arlington, Va. Hi, Carl.
CARLHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I really appreciate it. I just wanted to -- I had a comment and a question. The comment is that I was -- I grew up in Michigan. I now live right near D.C., which is immensely frustrating when I missed the scene when it was going on. But I was taken to a show by friends in 1993, really, before I was fan. And the live show turned me into one. I just thought it was really cool the way you guys played, how real you were and how nice you were.
CARLI mean, you kind of chastised the crowd to be nice instead of mean to each other, which I thought was funny. My question is whether you had -- excuse me -- any favorite shows that sort of stand out in your mind for any particular reason.
NNAMDII know you get asked that a lot. And it's difficult when you've done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of shows.
MACKAYEYeah. You know, what I can say to that is it that there are some shows that sort of stand out because of just the surrealness (sic) of the situation, for instance, the Lorton show we were just talking about. There was a show in Phoenix, Ariz. I was -- we were playing in a parking lot, and I fell through the stage. That was memorable. You know, that was an unusual show. We played a show in a town called Tromso, Norway, which is 500 miles above the Arctic Circle. That was interesting.
MACKAYEBut in terms of playing, you know, there have been a few shows -- and it's funny, the band, like, collectively, I think we all really love this one Berlin show from 1992. And I don't know what it is about that show. And it's actually -- I think it's on the -- it's up now on the site, but it was just a show that felt -- we played it in a circus tent. It was probably 3- or 4,000 people there, and it just seemed like we -- yeah, we were a good band that night.
MACKAYEBut I don't know. You know, I don't -- it's hard for me to say. Like, there -- it just depends on the mood of, like, if I'm listening to something, I might think like, wow, that was a really good show. But I think I also -- at some point I kind of -- they become -- it's hard to pick them out. There have been so many of them.
NNAMDIHey, Carl, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Where do you think you can still see the spirit of the D.C. punk scene that Fugazi carried the flag for? 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Ian in Stafford, Va. Ian, your turn.
IANHey, Kojo and Ian. First of all, kudos to you, Kojo, for having such a cool topic today. I'm loving it. I grew up listening to Fugazi, never got a chance to catch a show. I was out of the area, never catch a show, so a couple of questions that I have. One, when can I see Fugazi live in the States? In the D.C. area, it would great, but anywhere else would be cool, too. And secondly, what is the site where all these recordings will be made available?
MACKAYEWell, to answer your second question first, you can find -- the site is either fugazilive.com or just dischord.com, D-I-S-C-H-O-R-D, dischord.com, and either one of those will get you there. In terms of the band playing, in 2003 -- the beginning of 2003, you know, we decided that life's circumstances made it impossible for us to continue working in the way that we had been for the prior 15 years.
MACKAYEYou know, the beginning of the band, life circumstances made it possible for us to do just that, to go on the road for four or five, six months out of the year, and it was an incredible experience. We certainly made the band the central part of our lives, but at some point, it became clear that we had to make our lives sort of the central part of the band. And so we basically decided to go on what we called an indefinite hiatus.
MACKAYEWe're not trying to be cute with this term, but rather we're just being straight up that, you know, we need to work on these other things. And maybe we'll play together again. I think we still identify with each other as band members. I'm -- you know, I'm in regular contact with them. I've talked to actually all three of the other members in the last two days. We are constantly in touch with each other. We love each other. And I think if we miss anything about the band, it's really that time spent just talking, hanging out...
NNAMDIBeing on the road talking.
MACKAYEYeah, talking, being -- practicing, just -- that's the -- that connection is so serious and permanent. Whether we play again, I just don't know. So where -- you know, when we're going to play the next time, when you can catch us, I don't know. Let me know if you find out.
NNAMDIIan, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIAnd calling from Greensboro, N.C., here is Michael. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi. I'm really glad to be able to call in. It's a really big honor. I had two questions. I don't know if that's all right.
MICHAELMy first question was just you recently put out the Void re-release and the Faith re-release, which were amazing.
MICHAELAnd I was wondering if there were any re-releases (unintelligible) re-releases coming up or in the works.
MACKAYEYeah, actually, you know, I'm slowly going through my archives. I have -- along with Fugazi tapes, I also have, you know, hundreds of other tapes. I'm slowly going through that. I mean, to some degree, you know, the reason we are so glacial is that we are actually a very small operation, and it really is me kind of climbing through a lot of these tapes. And, you know, there are people who I've -- you know, who worked with me, but it's just all things are linear to some degree.
MACKAYELike this particular -- the Fugazi website, this is such an enormous amount of work, much more, I think, than I had even really thought about. And it didn't occur to me, actually, that once we actually turn the thing on that it would mean more work. But I thought, OK, when it's on, I don't have to think about this for a while. But, actually, it's been an incredible -- incredible how many submissions we've received in terms of photos and flyers, ticket stubs and, actually, recordings, which is really amazing to get -- you know, there's -- you know, we played 1,150-some shows.
MACKAYEWe have 850 recordings, so that means...
MICHAELEspecially from a pre-YouTube era, (unintelligible).
MACKAYERight. So there's -- that means there's 300-some unrecorded shows that -- oh, I would love to fill the dance card.
MACKAYEI would love it. So we've actually gotten, I don't know, maybe 30 recordings since then. So -- but it take -- you know, I'm still sitting on a stack of email, going through all these things, trying to figure out, you know, how to process it in. And so at some point -- actually, yesterday I was having a quick meeting with the label, the rest of the people in the label, and they're saying, OK, we have to get some new releases. So, yes, there are some other older D.C. punk bands that, I think, that we're going to try to put together similar kinds of records, as the Void and Faith thing.
MACKAYEWe're trying to actually -- let me explain something about Dischord. This label was started in 1980, and the purpose of the label was to really document, at first, the band The Teen Idles, I-D-L-E-S, which I played bass. And this was a band of -- the product of Wilson High School, just across the street as Kojo mentioned.
MACKAYEAnd we had played for a year. We had saved our money. We were breaking up, and we thought, let's -- instead of splitting up the money, let's put out a record. Let's make a yearbook of our own, something that we can -- a keepsake. And in that process, we learned how to put out records. And then other bands came along. I was in Minor Threat. Henry Garfield, who became Henry Rollins, was in S.O.A. There was these other bands that started to form, and we said, let's document something that's so important to us, which is was what we did. So, since then, the label has continued.
MACKAYEIt's been 30 years now. We've put out exclusively D.C.-area music, largely underground. We're an unusual label. We don't use contracts. My general rule of thumb about advertising is no adjectives. The idea is just to document something and let people -- if they're interested, that's great. And if they're not, that's great, too. So, you know, at this point in time, the music that, you know, we largely were documenting, a lot of that is in the past.
MACKAYEAnd I realized it some years ago that I have a custodial responsibility now to all these bands who have entrusted us with their music. You know, think about it. They gave us music and said, OK, make it available to people. And they trusted us implicitly. And so, at this point, you know, it does -- it is hard, and I think, wow, this is a lot of work. But I think now is the time that, as long as people are interested, you know, if somebody in Greensboro is interested in these very obscure bands, then I think, yeah, let's make these things available.
MACKAYELet's continue to honor this music, which -- not because I think it's the most important music of all time but because I think it's important that music that is created for the sole purpose of community or music itself, something that represents what kids are doing not for any purpose other than to be connected with each other, I think that is something that we sort of need to be reminded about every day in this society, for sure. So I think let's just continue doing this work as long as people are interested. And when they're not interested, then we can stop. That'd be OK with me.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you very much for your call. I'm glad you mentioned that because some of these recordings are like time capsules. One of the shows available in the archive right now is from a gig you played next to the Supreme Court in 1992 that was part of the Riot Grrrl Movement. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDI"Dear Justice Letter." We also heard Guy's voice on that recording. When you hear a recording like that, from a very specific moment in time, where does it take you now?
MACKAYEWell, in that particular piece of -- I mean, it's funny to me there's so much a (word?) on the vocals, and that's just because Joey, who was mixing out front, was adding reverb. It's actually an outdoor show, so it's totally surreal to me. That -- you know, we did a number of outdoor shows and protest gigs in this town, and that particular one was pretty punchy. There was a lot of -- you know, the Supreme Court -- I think it was right around the time that, you know, the election was on, and we knew that this was -- it made a difference who was going to come into office.
MACKAYEAnd, I mean, that's been borne out time and time again. And, you know -- and I think that we were trying to get people to think in terms of the long view in which what an affect the Supreme Court would have on our culture.
NNAMDIYeah, 'cause this was just after the loss of Justice William Brennan.
MACKAYEThat's correct, yeah. So were very -- so this was a really pointed event. I will say that, you know, again, growing up in Washington, you know, we -- I think that we -- or I can speak for myself. You know, the government is the big business in this town. And if you grow up here, it's sort of like if you grew up in, I don't know, Pittsburgh, you know, the steel factories or you're in Detroit and you have, like, the cars or, you know, if you have the -- in L.A., you know, there's Hollywood.
MACKAYEBut -- and here, it's just the U.S. government. It's the Federal government. And there's a lot of money and a lot of power going on down there. I know -- I don't really pay much attention to all the gears grinding. It's not really -- I'm just not a part of that road at all. The guys never have been connected to what, you know, the federal government -- however, they have certainly impacted me. And so I think that, you know, we -- people often say, well, you're so political 'cause you live in Washington.
MACKAYEI actually think it's almost the other way around, you know. I think that, you know, we recognize that the government, largely, is not about politics. It's about money and power, and we try to speak to that.
NNAMDIWe'll talk some more about that after this short break. We're talking with Ian MacKaye, founding member of the band Fugazi and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you ever purchase or download live recordings of concerts that you attended in person? What do you like most about having those moments recorded? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ian MacKaye. He is a founding member of the band Fugazi. He is the co-founder and owner of Dischord Records. He also plays music in the band The Evens. We got an email from John in Milwaukee. "I taught social justice at Gonzaga in the 1990s. I gave my senior students extra credit if they would attend a Fugazi show and write a reflection. I have always admired your commitment to social change and resistance, hunger, labor, poverty, prison issues, et cetera.
NNAMDI"Please comment on your commitment to social action through music." You have said, Ian, that you were shaped a great deal by the fact that your parents went to church at St. Stephens, a place where you came across social activists, members of the Black Panther Party. Stokely Carmichael spoke there. At what point did those experiences start to shape your own musical path?
MACKAYEWell, St. Stephen's, I mean, I think, was pretty clearly -- the effect to me musically of St. Stephen's was profound. They had a lot of bands play there. They had gospel people come in. There was also -- it was kind of an open-door church, so there was all -- any number of people walking in, playing the pianos, and it was a very -- this is St. Stephen and the Incarnation down at 16th and Newton. And it was a -- you know, a liberal theology church. It was -- yeah.
NNAMDIIt seems -- we remember the first gay marriage in D.C. being at St. Stephens.
MACKAYEThat's true. Well, there -- it was connected to it, yeah. Wayne Schwandt and John Fortunato.
NNAMDIWhoa. You're good.
MACKAYEThat's right. Yeah. But it was a -- and the father -- well, William Wendt, the Rev. William Wendt, who was the guy that ran the joint, he was really -- this guy was a powerhouse. And he was deeply committed to social justice and peace and love. And I think that growing up in that environment, you know, what I caught from that was that, you know, you should question authority. Not that it's always wrong, but it's good to question it
MACKAYEAnd that, you know, to ask why was a really -- it was a good thing to do. And in some ways, though, you know, asking why is what made me stop going to that church.
NNAMDIYour band and your label have always insisted on keeping things affordable for fans, keeping ticket prices low. You're using a demand scale to determine the prices for the shows in this archive. How does that work?
MACKAYEPretty well. I mean, we put on a suggested price of $5 because we thought it was funny 'cause we played -- our shows are always -- were legendarily $5 tickets. So we thought, $5 shows, why not, you know? But we also have a sliding scale, $1 to $100, which was sort of a joke for us. And there's been an awful lot of people who will pay a dollar a pop. Most of them seem to be journalists who are just doing research, and they're buying as many as possible.
MACKAYEMany are, you know, poor people, but -- or kids who say they have no money. It doesn't really make a difference to us. You know, we're not interested in putting up for free, even though as soon as someone downloads one thing, they can easily repost it for free. We don't care about that. We actually -- every song we ever play, we play to be heard. So it doesn't really make a difference whether we get paid or not.
MACKAYEBut our position on the free thing is that, ultimately, this is an issue that, well, in terms of music and today, that you can get almost anything for free, and if people want to only get their music or their art free, then, at some point, they're going to have to make sort of peace with the idea that they can only deal with the past because you can't make new things for free. So we're encouraging people to be a patron to the art in their own special way by -- you know, spend a few bucks.
NNAMDIHere's Andrew in Annapolis, Md. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWYeah. Thanks very much for taking my call. I just want to say great conversation today. I guess the point that I wanted to make was just -- you know, Ian talked about people being -- or going to the church and getting the message they did. I think that Ian gave that message at their shows, from -- you know, whether it was Minor Threat or Fugazi or whatever, these guys were incredibly accessible.
ANDREWYou could walk up to them on the street. You could see them. You could talk to them. You could write them letters. And I think one of the reasons they did make such a difference is because they really lived what they spoke about. They weren't some glam art group. They were real folks you could talk to and have a discussion with, just like you're having a discussion today. So thanks.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
MACKAYEThanks. Those are nice words.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. On now to Pat, also in Washington, D.C. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATExcuse me. Thank you so much for having me on. And thank you so much for all the work you've done, Ian. I just want to say I'm a member of Positive Force right now, doing a lot of -- we're doing a lot of shows right now at St. Stephen's. I just wanted to let people know that if they want to get involved, you should go to positiveforcedc.org...
NNAMDIOoh, the inevitable commercial.
PATYes. Yeah, sorry. Sorry, commercials for benefit. Come on. We have a couple of benefits -- we have benefits coming up on the 20th and 21st at St. Stephen's...
MACKAYEWhat's your question, Pat?
NNAMDIGood for you.
PATWhat -- sorry. And...
NNAMDIYou should make up a question, at the very least.
PATBut, I guess, just -- if you could just talk about what we're doing at St. Stephens now. Well, that sounds really narcissistic.
MACKAYEYeah. And you just did, so we're square.
NNAMDIOh, good. We're good with that. Fugazi was a -- you know, you began talking about cassettes and all the -- all of the ways of recording these days that cause there to be less emphasis on writing a good song. But Fugazi was at the center of another attention-grabbing project that hit the Web last year when musicians from Minneapolis mixed your music together with rap tracks by the Wu-Tang Clan. They called it Wugazi. Here's what it sounded like.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about that?
MACKAYEYou know, I actually have never listened to the whole thing. I was certainly aware of it because there was such a hubbub about it. I do think -- I think...
NNAMDII'm sorry to deprive you of the whole thing once again today.
MACKAYENo, no, no, no. I do think that the -- you know, it's a very interesting concept, sort of the mash-up culture. I think that there's obviously some really great ideas. There's a really amazing "Waiting Room" with Beyonce. That one -- I forget what the track is. It's "Independent Woman" or something or -- I don't know. But this is a great mash-up. People should look that joint up. That's a really good one.
MACKAYEBut, I mean, I think it's interesting, you know? I actually like collages. I like people looking at the world around them and making something with what's there because that's all I ever tried to do.
NNAMDIHere is Alex in Alexandria, Va. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. You know, I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about your work with Shudder to Think and whether or not Dischord archives have any of their material. Thanks.
MACKAYEShudder to Think were a band from the, you know, mid-'80s into the early '90s or kind of -- just a great band, later went on to sign to Epic and did a couple of records with them. Craig Wedren, the singer and songwriter, you know, he's gone on to do solo stuff as other guys have all been involved with various projects. I don't think there's a whole lot of stuff that we have in terms of outtakes or things in our files. But as I plow through the boxes, I'll let you know what I come up with.
NNAMDIHey, Alex, thank you very much for your call. A lot has been made about the banter included in this archive, particularly the band you were known for when you were in, well, crowd control mode -- moments when you would often call out individual people in the crowd for moshing or making people around them uncomfortable. Here's what it sounded like when you played a show in London in 2002.
MACKAYEI love you. You love me. Stop hurting these people in the front. You, stop. You, I love you. Stop. Does anybody else want to be loved? It's so (censored) tedious. Are we squared up, sir? Are you still angry with me, Mr. Tool? Are you angry with me? Are you giving me a (censored) off sign? Two (censored) off signs, wow.
NNAMDII read once about a gig that you played in Chicago when people from the audience rushed the stage, and you and your band mates basically just gave them your instruments and let them play a song -- or what passed for it -- in the middle of your set.
MACKAYEYes. That was an incredible experience. I have to say that the -- these moments, you know, like -- you know, you and I are sitting here at this console, this table. And imagine that you had a couple of guests here, and then one of them started to attack the other one with a hammer. Even though you're on the air, I imagine you might say, hey, stop...
MACKAYE...stop hitting with the hammer. You know, we're human beings, and we are playing music. And there was a period of time where there was a kind of a behavior that was attending the show where people are not thinking about other people. And there were people being seriously injured, and including a couple of people who lost the ability to walk. So I think that we were pretty vigilant about encouraging people to not hurt each other. It just seemed like the polite way to do it.
MACKAYEA lot has been made of that. Like, you call it crowd control. I just call it crowd reminding, you know? You just want to let them know don't hurt each other. It's straight up.
NNAMDIIt's also remaining calm in a situation where a lot of other people might have lost control. Finally, we're running out of time, but here's this from Dan. "In the mid-1990s to early 2000s, I played guitar in an indie band called Miss Lonely Heart. And we had the opportunity to open for Fugazi at a small, now-defunct venue in Hagerstown, Md., called the 180 Club back in May 1998, sold-out show.
NNAMDI"It was so hot that the wall was sweating. And I remember being just amazed at the energy, abandon, yet precision with which they played. It seemed they played almost every song they had, spanning many albums. And when they played their encore, it was like a whole second set for us to hear and see, the energy never diminishing. That show changed my life. Watching them perform made me rethink my ideas about music, performing, dedication, love for and giving of yourself to the music and the moment.
NNAMDI"I just wanted to say thanks to Ian and the whole band for many LPs of great music and the opportunity to play with them at such a powerfully charged show."
NNAMDIThank you very much for your email, Dan. Ian MacKaye, thank you so much for joining us.
MACKAYEThanks for having me. It's been a blast.
NNAMDIIan is a founding member of the band Fugazi. He's the co-founder and owner of Dischord Records. He also plays music in the band The Evens. And thank you all for listening. You know how to find the archive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo and guests explore what you can learn about D.C. by riding its bus system.
T.C. Boyle's latest novel explores the darker side of the American ideal of freedom, from a woman who follows the extreme libertarian "sovereign citizen" movement to a disturbed young man who models himself on the pioneer John Colter.
It's your turn to discuss these topics or whatever is on your mind.