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Fugazi: Ian MacKaye

Fugazi by Chris Summerlin

This is an interview I did with Ian MacKaye after Fugazi played at the Marcus Garvey Ballroom in Lenton, Nottingham in 1999. It was the second time I’d seen them play, they played for 2 hours and in the end the venue shut the lights off leaving them playing Arpeggiator lit only by the blue emergency lights in the room and the barrage of flash bulbs going off. Because I had my camera I sat on the corner of the stage to watch them. It was amazing. I interviewed Ian standing outside the venue. Thanks to him for being so easy to interview and so accommodating bearing in mind he’d just played for over 2 hours.

How do you reckon tonight went?

On what level?

Well, did you enjoy it? I saw you in Wolverhampton last week and I can never tell whether you are enjoying it or not…

Well obviously we all enjoy it or we wouldn’t do it. Obviously it’s beyond enjoyment; every show is really different. We play as we are. If we’re struggling: we’re struggling, if we’re happy: we’re happy; individually or as a band. Tonight I actually was in a pretty good mood to start with but, not so much those kids who I was tussling with but there was a woman who was directly in front of me who was being really weird and really ugly with me the whole time.

What do you mean?

She was just yelling at me and calling me a cunt and a whore the whole time! After a while I just started to feel like, well, this is too abusive. I can’t and I didn’t want to, like, interrupt the show again because people at the back don’t understand. I don’t think people really have any idea what it’s like to look from our perspective. I think most people think, like, “Oh, those guys are always yelling at people, they’re always giving people shit about stagediving” and that… They don’t understand, from our point of view, we’re onstage looking out and we’re seeing the people in the front row being, like, assaulted basically.

It must be hard for you to play and see all that going on…

Well, if you look and we do look, a lot of bands don’t look. I look, I need to look. When we play shows and we have light in our eyes and we can’t see the crowd it’s the worst shows for us, for me it’s the worst show ever because it’s not at all what I want. I want to play to people. I want to try and interact with people on a level that’s not just, like, me yelling at them but I want to have something, I want them to know that I’m in the room with them. I want them to be in the room with me. It’s a bit of a…toss-up every time. But it was a good gig… (Guy and Brendan are packing away the equipment and so Ian goes to move the van) Let’s go downstairs…

How’s Britain been this time? You haven’t been over for quite a while….

Good! I’m not really comparing. It’s hard for me to, like…everything is changing. We change, people change, the landscape, the cultural landscape is changing. It’s really hard for me to compare. It’s been a really pleasant trip, I feel we’ve been playing well, the gigs have been pretty consistent. Of all the gigs I feel I have 2 gigs that I felt were really a struggle for me but they weren’t necessarily even a struggle for everybody else. Each of us in the band have a different relationship with the music, it’s like it’s just…whatever it is. It’s like: you know how some days are good days and some days are bad days? How do you compare one week with the next? You can’t because it’s always changing…

I have a specific question about the film. You know the part in the car parking lot where there are interviews with people about what you meant to them and things? I wondered about how you felt about that going in the film as people might have thought that was being judgemental, not on you part necessarily but just in some way being judgemental towards the people because some of them came out of that quite badly. I wondered whether you were ever in 2 minds about putting it in or not?

Well we could have just put in all the people who were nice and had nice things to say and were articulate but it would have been inaccurate. The fact of the matter is we left out stuff, a lot of the people who were in there said a lot more stupider and uglier things that that and we didn’t rub it in. A couple of the kids were such assholes they had to get it! But you know there was one kid, with his glasses on he’s like, he goes “They’re sup posed to entertain me right!” but he also went on to say I was a junkie and he wanted to kill me! I didn’t put that in there, you know. But at the same time it was like…he was an asshole and that’s also who comes to see us. We’re actually representing, we’re saying here is a cross section, here’s who comes. It’s been really controversial those interviews. I feel, like, let the people talk! Let em talk. I’m into it and y’know, some of it’s just sense of humour for us. I mean there’s like one kid who’s like (adopts the accent) “C’mon! Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Fugazi”… (everyone laughs in recognition)

That’s a classic part…

That guy, he was such an idiot! I mean you should have seen the other stuff that he said…

Yeah, we saw it in the cinema and as soon as that bit came on everybody just laughed

Yeah, that’s good; it’s comedy. This is… look, tonight I played. There’s a woman in front of me all night calling me the ugliest names in the world, y’know, this is real. I had a guy, that drunk kid who came up. He was insane.

What did he say to you?

He was saying (in an English accent) “Top son”. He kept saying it over and over again.”Top son, Top son, Top son” (looks kind of mystified) This is real, this is what we have to deal with. I don’t want to be clinical about it. I don’t want to just clean up and not be representative of people because that’s part of our experience and actually, we could have played much worse stuff in there but we decided not to and we could have put in only those kind of interviews but we were trying to give a cross section.

Jem (Cohen) did a talkback session at the screening of the film that I went to and he mentioned that he thought you may have been reluctant to include some of the stuff where you were goofing around. He said he had to, not win you over as such, but he had to fight to keep some things in.

Well… All I can say is there are plenty of funny things we thought we’d like to leave in that Jem didn’t want to leave in for reasons that made him, because there’s things that made him feel uncomfortable because we were making fun of him. Because he deserved to be made fun of on occasion because he’s…if you get to know Jem; I’ve known him since high school…

He’s pointing a camera at you as well so maybe he deserves it…

Right, so there was a little bit of erm…there were things we wanted to leave in that he couldn’t deal with. At the same time, like, we are funny people, we like to laugh but we don’t want to just make the movie like “Oh look, we’re a big fucking joke”. Who knows, we had 50 hours of material. We had to stop somewhere. There’s 15 songs we recorded live in sync and we put, like five in.

Yeah, when Jem did the talkback session this one guy was complaining that you didn’t put more whole songs in the thing and that the footage was so cut up…

Because you can hear whole songs all the time!

(Defensively) Yeah, I agree!

Jesus, sometimes you see a movie and the most boring aspect of a lot of rock movies is the in sync! We wanted to give people something else to chew on. It’s not just, well it is about the music but the film is about everything
that goes around as well as the music. So if we just had 2 hours of just us playing you would be bored out of your skulls. But anyway! It is what is. We did our best, there’s no “What if?” or “Why not?”

That’s fine…

Yeah, I’m just saying it is what is and we’re done with it that’s all I can tell you. It was thought out, we spent a lot of time working on it, a lot of years.
Fugazi by Chris Summerlin

I wanted to ask you about when you were playing in DC at, I believe, an event for Martin Luther King. How did you get to play there, what was that like? All you can see from the footage is the needle (monument) because it was from the back of the stage. Was it a proper stage set up? I was just really amazed by that whole section of footage…

It’s a small ampitheatre right there at the base of the monument. They’ve been doing shows there for a number of years… you can rent that, or like you can get a permit for that space. You seem to say we were doing like a protest or a demonstartion but it was a legitimate event, we got a permit from the park service and everything. It’s amazing to look out on the film and see how many people there were there. Well, it’s sort of an illusion I think. I actually can’t believe there were that many people there!

Do you want to do more stuff like the quieter stuff on Instrument?

Well, we don’t have a direction. We just work.

It’s weird because the stuff that ended up on End Hits that was demoed on Instrument were demoed as really quiet, I’m thinking about Slo Crostic in particular, and then it turned out much louder on the record. I wondered if you felt a need to, and I can’t think of a word for this, kind of Fugazi-fy what you do and make it more rocky when it goes to a proper album. I don’t know if it’s for the crowd or for yourselves or if you’re even aware of it but do you feel a need to rock it up?

(Big pause)

(Apologetically) I can’t think of a better word to describe it with…

No, no I see your point, I’m just thinking about it. I don’t think we think of it as a need to “rock it up” but I think that we…every song we write we go through, like a dozen different versions of it. We just fool around with it. When you first write a song you tend to be more tentative because you’re just fooling around with the actual parts and how they fit together. I think that we probably do have…there’s probably somewhat of an iclination to kind of overly structure. I think we’re kind of freaks about structure. We will take a song, a perfectly beautiful, simple song and chop it into so many pieces and rearrange it so many times that we’ll eventually drop it. We drop so many songs you can’t imagine. There’s so many pieces of music that never made it just because we just…we beat it to the ground, we just kept fucking around with it until it just doesn’t exist anymore: literally. So, I think that in some ways, for instance like Crostic, that was recorded that way on purpose, that slow weird version. That’s not the way it was originally. Originally it was a lot more like the way it was on the record.

You recorded it specifically for the soundtrack?

We just recorded it because we thought it would sound cool. And it did…

Yeah, it did…

But like, you know…with the more tentative stuff like the Rend It thing, that’s just Guy by himself on a 4 track in his room so he can’t “rock it up”. He’s just trying to work out the lyrics. But it’s a fair question, you’re right in some degree that we do… Put it this way: some songs we write are really unorthodox and I think they’re really cool because of that but then by the time they end up on the record they’ve become more normal.

I think as well it’s because I guess you see yourself as a live band more than anything…

It has to somehow work yeah…It has to translate. We play almost everything we’ve ever recorded.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I was watching you tonight from a lot closer than I did in Wolverhampton, because you don’t have a setlist are you mouthing what’s going to come next to each other?

Sometimes we mouth it and sometimes, you just know. You know every little click and chord and every sound, every rhythm; you just know. I can’t…it’s just…I dunno. Hang out with 3 other people for like 12 years and you begin to get a sense of it.

In theory yeah! (laughter)

OK gimme one more and then I have to pack up

Do you practise much these days?

Well, when we’re at home we never practise our old songs. We only work on unwritten stuff and we usually practise 2, 3 maybe 4 times a week 2 or 3 hours a day. We sit in the afternoon, we sit in Joe’s basement and just fool around with ideas and sometimes we’ll just get together and just sit around and talk for 3 hours without even playing. We just get together… That’s the way we do it.

OK thanks Ian…

Thank you.

This interview was first published in Damn You! fanzine

See also:
Guy Picciotto interview
Dischord Records interview

Fugazi website