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Long-Distance Runners

Ian MacKaye of Dischord Records and Fugazi discusses his 18 years as a linchpin of American punk rock

"Of course," says Ian MacKaye of Fugazi when asked whether he still considers Fugazi a punk band. "Of course," he adamantly repeats, "but I also understand that, like many other things, the word 'punk' is a matter of dialect. When I say the word 'punk,' it might mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. When you say the word 'boot,' in England a boot is the trunk of a car. So I understand that if I say 'punk,' it might mean something completely different to other people. As a terminology, for me I think of punk as being the time that I found this window to the counterculture -- to the true underground. I think a lot of other people, years before and years since, are going to find it in different ways, and what's complicated is the fact that that word got kind of -- someone tried to trademark it over at Sony or something in the early '90s, and I think that's a little discouraging. But not really when you compare it to flood and famine and that sort of stuff -- it's all nonsense, really."

There's no better person to ask about such nonsense as American punk rock than MacKaye: Over the course of 18 years as a linchpin of American punk -- as a member of the seminal Washington, D.C., punk band Minor Threat, co-founder of punk label Dischord Records and founder, after the demise of Minor Threat, of Fugazi -- MacKaye (and company) has carved a remarkable path that's stuck to its original do-it-yourself ethic by remaining defiantly independent, both of the major-label distribution system and the national-media machine (Fugazi respectfully declines to ship the normal hundreds of promotional copies of their releases to music critics). It also helps that MacKaye's mind seems to overflow with thoughts. Pose a simple question to him, and a flood of ideas streams from his brain. He's filled with knowledge on the history of American punk and loves to offer his opinions and thoughts on the subject. He peppers each with countless sidebar observations and recollections.

For 18 years Dischord Records has chugged along under mass culture's radar: no licensing deals with Sony or Warner Bros., no massive ad campaigns accompanying big releases (although Dischord advertises in countless zines), few reviews and features in major music magazines. Despite the band's unwillingness to participate in label politics and "acceptable" methods of mainstream media relations, Fugazi has continually landed on the Billboard album chart, a remarkable feat. And though the label and its bands aren't household names, its legions of fans sell out clubs and buy their records religiously. Dischord as a name brand (MacKaye would cringe at such a tag) has succeeded because the label's approach to releasing music is a simple one. Dischord documents the Washington, D.C., punk scene and always has. Its bands, while gaining international exposure through the label's success (and each band's unique take on punk), grew out of the same D.C. punk scene: Shudder to Think, Jawbox, the Make-Up, Nation of Ulysses, Slant 6, Minor Threat, Fugazi and a dozen or so others.

One key to Dischord's success is this simplicity of approach, says MacKaye. "Our reason to exist was something we articulated in the very beginning: that we were going to document our friends' bands, the music coming out of our community; we really said that we wanted to put out our friends' records. And we've been accused many times of being a clique and elitist, which is fine if that's the price we have to pay to retain our sanity -- because if you put out everything, you have no focus. For me, the only way we were ever going to survive was if we kept some sense of boundaries on what we would put out. And in a lot of ways, I think that has made it a lot easier for us, because we just know that, OK, we just don't do that, we just aren't going to put out a band from some other town."

MacKaye is an idealist; you can hear his eyes light up over the phone as he discusses the foundations of the American punk scene in the late '70s and early '80s. To his credit, Dischord (which he owns with Jeff Nelson, who also played in Minor Threat) is one of the longest-lived independent punk labels to retain this DIY integrity (Chicago's Touch & Go and San Francisco's Alternative Tentacles are two others). "At the beginning we really thought that because punk was so regional and each town had its own scene, it wouldn't make any sense for a band from Washington to do a record on a label from St. Louis, for instance. But it would make sense if a St. Louis punk band put a record out on its own label. It just made sense to me. I thought that that would be the ultimate strength, that if each town had its own infrastructure, its own label, its own bands, its own magazines, its own scene, then you could create a really strong network amidst all these things, as opposed to a national scene, which is much more diffuse and gets a little unbalanced on the power level. Whoever's in charge of that scene has too much power -- just ask the people at MTV."

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