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."

You probably didn't read many reviews of Fugazi's End Hits, which was released in May. Magazines (and weeklies, for that matter) have already written their Fugazi stories, and chances are it was a few years ago, when it seemed as though the band had hit its pinnacle of popularity and the Dischord empire was churning out album after album of fascinating D.C. punk. But End Hits still debuted on the charts at a respectable No. 138, and despite this lack of reviews, the record is the band's most adventuresome and diverse to date. The signature Fugazi sound: bass-heavy mantras provided by Joe Lally are the foundation of the steady punk that's peppered with the screaming throats of Mac-Kaye and Guy Picciotto.

The band's words are founded in the politics of their beliefs, leftist mantras that warn of corporate power structures, scream defiantly for the voice of the workingman and flat-out refuse to participate in many aspects of popular culture. More often they touch on external forces and draw them into their personal space: "No CIA/No NSA/No satellite/could map our veins," they sing in "No Surprise." The most fascinating aspect of Fugazi's evolution on End Hits is their willingness to expand the range of their sound. They sing more often (rather than scream); guitars once entirely distorted now ring cleanly on songs. Complex rhythms and intricate guitar patterns venture in different directions than before. The record seems to meander more than any of Fugazi's five previous full-lengths. MacKaye is hesitant to call the record more experimental than earlier records. "When we did our first record in 1988," he explains, "people found it very experimental and weird, because set against what was going on in 1988 it seemed very different, or it was a different kind of approach. And basically every record we've ever done, when it came out, people sort of took it as, 'Well, this is kind of weird, a new approach.' For me it's just a clear indication that we're not sitting in one place. So every record we ever do, people say, 'This seems experimental.' 'Meandering' is a beautiful word, and to some degree it may well be. I think that a lot of our records have really quiet pieces in them, and it's always been part of our style -- to play not only with tempos but with volume and texture -- we try and mix it up.

"I think that we're perpetually fucking with things, and that's the idea. For us, the band, we've been doing it for so long and people are always saying, 'When do you guys -- how long do you think you'll be together?' which is always the weirdest question in the world, because it has this insinuation of like, 'Why don't you break up?' From our point of view, the band will be alive as long as there's a reason to breathe, as long as we feel like there's a challenge and we feel inclined -- the four of us, individually -- feel inclined and feel challenged by the music. That we want to continue working. That it's something worth doing. We know how to play our songs, but that's not enough. Every idea that you repeat sucks out the energy of your past ideas. If you start repeating, you just wear people out. So we try to always move forward."

Longtime followers of Dischord, however, have noted of late of the dwindling number of bands signed to the label. At one point the label was releasing a dozen or so full-lengths a year. Now, only four bands are signed to the label, and it seems as though the locomotive is losing a bit of steam. MacKaye doesn't dismiss such observations: "Because we've linked the label so strongly with this community that we feel a part of, as this community gets older and begins to wither musically -- because people aren't playing music so much, or there just aren't as many bands or whatever within our direct peer group -- then the label withers a bit. And I think that's fine. I think that's actually kind of good. Do you know the Shakers? They were a group a little like the Amish. Eventually they died off. The Shakers were interesting because they didn't procreate, so they were destined to not -- there were no baby Shakers, so that was the end of them. I think the last one just died. Even though on the one hand people might say that it's tragic that they're gone, but they made some incredible furniture; they were some pretty amazing people. And part of what made them so fascinating was that they weren't proselytizing and trying to get everybody in the goddamn world to join their church. They were just trying to create a community to exist in, and I think that -- I'm not trying to attach overtly religious tones to Dischord because that would trivialize the Shakers. But I do think that, to some degree, our operation is really about this community. I'm not interested in being a record-label boss my whole life; I never was. From the very beginning I've always said that the reason I started a record label was that I hated the industry so much. So for me, as long as there's something to document, I'll be happy to continue working on it. But if there comes a time when it's not, then fine, we're done, and the story's complete for Dischord and we have this incredible catalog of stuff. Virtually everything we've put out is still available in one format or another. For people who are interested in what this particular area, if someone asks, 'What was going on in the '80s and '90s?' Well, here, here's one example of what was going on. At the same time, we might just be in a valley. That happened in this town before, where things sort of die out and then people get a hair up their ass and they go back in the basement and start fooling around with ideas."

Fugazi perform at the Galaxy on Thursday, Nov. 26. Bunnygrunt and 90 Day Men open.