Ian MacKaye: ‘If You Want To Rebel Against Society, Don’t Dull The Blade’

By Ally Schweitzer

The Dischord Records co-founder talks D.C. punk history and more with WTJU.
The Dischord Records co-founder talks D.C. punk history and more with WTJU. WAMU


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Back in March, WTJU veteran Aaron Margosis borrowed a WAMU studio to interview Mayor of D.C. Punk Ian MacKaye. Their fascinating, in-depth conversation aired April 8 during WTJU’s Rock Marathon fundraising campaign and briefly lived online, but it’s since expired from the University of Virginia station’s website. So with Margosis’ blessing, we decided to post it on Bandwidth in the name of preservation—something Dischord Records, the iconic label MacKaye co-founded, has proven extremely adept at over the years.

Over nearly two hours, Margosis and MacKaye spin some tunes and talk Dischord history, straight edge, L.A.’s punk scene, Henry Rollins, Nazi skinheads, Fugazi’s record sales, getting courted by major labels and all sorts of subjects that would excite even a casual fan of MacKaye’s now-legendary bands and record label. For Margosis, the interview must have felt like a flashback; according to MacKaye, the former University of Virginia DJ was the first to play Dischord music on the radio.

The entire interview can be streamed right here—and I recommend listening to the whole thing—but I’ve also transcribed some choice snippets from the conversation, below. Read on:

On Dischord Records’ approach to the music industry:

Ian MacKaye: My interest in the record industry itself is actually extremely low. In fact I generally think of it as pretty odious. So in some ways, the only way to get my music out, the only way I would feel comfortable doing it, is really by putting it out myself. But in terms of the business, I can’t stand it. Never used a contract on the label ever, no contracts. No lawyer. Don’t have a lawyer. Never had a lawyer. I think a lot of times people felt that Dischord—the approach we had, Dischord was too idealistic. But considering that the label is now 33 years old and we have a staff of four or five people who are at least reasonably paid with health care and so forth, I’m wondering if we’re real yet. I suspect we are. Maybe we weren’t too idealistic after all.

On his attempt to sell Dischord’s first release—Teen Idles’ 1981 eight-song EP—to Newbury Comics:

Some of us went up to New England or something on vacation, just go to record stores. I remember I went to Newbury Comics in Boston and I had the Teen Idles single and I went in there and I said, “I wanna sell these. Wanna buy ’em? A dollar each.” And the guy said “Well, I’ll take five on consignment.” I go, “Consignment? Come on, they’re a dollar each!” I go, “I don’t live in Boston!” But you know, I think he actually ended up taking ’em. But these are records that are now, they’re worth $1,000 each or something.

“The media was portraying punk as this extremely self-destructive, nihilistic, sadomasochist kind of nonsense… [So] people who were really into nihilistic and sadomasochistic and self-destructive tendencies said, ‘Oh I must be a punk!’ and started coming to shows.”

On how Bad Brains changed the D.C. scene:

I can tell you that I think the band to really turn the corner on things was really I think the Bad Brains. They started playing in late ’78. I first saw them—I guess it would be late ’78 they started playing. I remember first seeing them—my first show I went to was the Chumps, Urban Verbs and The Cramps at the Hall of Nations in Georgetown. … And the Bad Brains guys were there. They were in attendance. And we were just thinking like “Who are these guys? They are the coolest-looking guys.” They had “Bad Brains” written on their pants and stuff. We kept seeing them around, and finally in June of 1979, the Damned from England played the Bayou and the Bad Brains opened for ’em. And we were at that show, and that was just absolutely life-changing gig. That was the greatest gig—it was the first time we saw the Bad Brains. And from that point on, it was sort of like… this is gonna happen.

On how Los Angeles’ punk scene blew his mind:

Our first show the Teen Idles ever played outside of Washington was not New York. In fact, we never played New York. We took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles because we were so interested in Black Flag. They’d put out that single at that point, and maybe even Jealous Again, the second record. The Germs, The Weirdos, all these bands, all the Dangerhouse stuff, that scene was something that we were extremely interested in…

So we went out there and we were like, “Whoa!” It was so much bigger and much more intense than I think we had expected. … We played a show [in Los Angeles but] we didn’t get a sense of the real scope of the scene there. But then we went to San Francisco and we did a show there, and the Circle Jerks were playing. It was a show with the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and Flipper. And a bunch of these L.A. kids came up for that show. And that’s when we got a sense of the real intensity of their scene. It was so extreme. Much more so than what we had seen here. And then we went home, and we were just like, “Wow, that was really exciting.” And they had stuff tied around their boots and stuff, and we started to emulate that. The look—we just felt like “All right, that’s our tribe.” Although in many ways they are really scary. Like much more scary than the people here. And they were unhinged, a lot of those kids.

On how media coverage of D.C.’s punk scene helped make it more dangerous:

One thing that was happening at that time was the media was portraying punk as this extremely self-destructive, nihilistic kind of sadomasochist kind of nonsense. Which then really created a lot of unpleasantness in terms of straight society towards punks. But even worse, people who were really into nihilistic and sadomasochistic and self-destructive tendencies said, “Oh I must be a punk!” and started coming to shows. And they would come to the shows and just start fighting. So at some point, people were [like], “We’re just gonna have to fight back.” So there was some stuff like that, but it wasn’t as wholesale as what we ended up seeing in Los Angeles, which was just totally crazy. And then by the early ’80s, it was just a lot of that everywhere.

On finding out Black Flag had recruited Henry Rollins:

Henry and I first met when I was 11 years old. We both grew up in the Glover Park neighborhood here in D.C. And we have remained best friends ever since. We just cracked 40 years of friendship. Once every couple weeks we talk on the phone. He’s in L.A. still. But I drove him to the Greyhound station the day he left to go to L.A. That was July of 1981.

Black Flag [was] looking for a singer [and] they had gone around the country trying people out. They had first come to New Orleans and tried out a guy named Dee Slut from a band called The Sluts. Then they went to New York and they asked Henry to come up there and he went up there—just drove straight up, sang with them then drove straight down to work at Haagen-Dazs in Georgetown where we all worked. And then he got the call.

And I remember he didn’t tell me he was gonna go up for [this audition]. I didn’t even know it was happening. He just called me one day and said “Hey guess who the new singer for Black Flag is?” And we’d all known that Black Flag was trying to find a singer—we had read about that and heard about it. And I was trying to guess all these people in L.A. [like] “Who? Who?” and he says “Me!” And I was like, “You! How? What?” It was just beyond—I couldn’t even process what he was telling me.

“In schools or any arena, the kids who were the rebellious ones were the ones who were hurting themselves. And that just seemed counterproductive to me. If you wanted to rebel against society, don’t dull the blade.”

On the fetishization of self-destruction in the 1970s and 1980s:

Margosis: The entire idea of rebellion at the time—this is late ’70s early ’80s—rebellion involving rock ‘n’ roll almost always involved some kind of self-destructive behavior. Drugs, alcohol, sex as conquest. And nobody had ever—and this was true whether you were rebelling against your parents and listening to Skynyrd or Boston or Journey or something like that or rebelling against your peers and listening to punk rock—nobody ever really came out with a really clear message that I ever heard before that said, “Hey, there’s another way to do this.”

MacKaye: None of us got high really, we didn’t drink. I just never did. It was something I was not interested in. … It just seemed so boring to me at the time. I also grew up thinking that at 18, you had to drink. Like it wasn’t a choice. You just have to.

I thought you couldn’t drink soda, and you had to drink beer from that point on. I just didn’t understand why anybody would want to hurry up to that point. Because as far as I could tell, you had to drink for the rest of your life, and miserably. Because I saw so many adults who were just such a mess as a kid. And I remember just thinking, “I don’t wanna be a part of that at all. Period.”

You’re absolutely right, in the late ’70s, it wasn’t limited to music, by the way. [When it came to] rebellion… the only option made readily available was self-destruction. So in schools or any arena, the kids who were the rebellious ones were the ones who were hurting themselves. And that just seemed counterproductive to me. If you wanted to rebel against society, don’t dull the blade.

On almost naming Minor Threat “Straight Edge” instead:

The name “straight edge” had been considered as a possible name for the band. Jeff [Nelson] and I took a drive right after the Teen Idles broke up, talking about new band names, and that was one of the names that was bandied about between the two of us. By then we went with Minor Threat, which of course is a play on minor, being underage. And echoing Teen Idles of course.

On Ted Nugent’s indirect role in “Straight Edge”:

MacKaye: I wanted other kids in the world who didn’t wanna party to feel like, “All right, yeah! I agree!” I can remember—honestly I loved Ted Nugent in the ’70s, which is horrific to say now, but at the time, part of the reason I found it so engaging [and] him so interesting was because he said quite publicly that he didn’t drink or use drugs, and I thought “OK! That’s cool!” I appreciated that.

Margosis: Ironic that the Nuge would be associated with taking a responsible position about something.

MacKaye: Well, yeah, it’s true. But I remember [being like], “That guy, he’s super radical,” and that’s a thing I respected. I mean, you have to remember that time—I was just reading a book about the early ’70s, a thing about those bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who. And I mean, John Bonham, he died at 32 years old, one of the greatest drummers of all time. He died after drinking, I think, a liter of vodka. That just can’t be good for you. And it’s such a bizarre way to go out.

“I always feel like you hear these stories about [idealistic] people… and then eventually a price is named, and they’re like, ‘OK, well let’s take that.’ And that’s kind of a sad story. Don’t you wanna hear the story where they never said yes?”

On Dischord’s best-selling records:

If you took the first Minor Threat single—we put the two singles on one 12-inch. You include that, and you include the cassette version of that and then you include the discography CD, which is all of the songs—if you add all those up, it’s just shy of a million, or maybe it’s over a million copies now. I don’t know. It’s a lot.

Fugazi, on the other hand, we had I don’t know how many records, eight or nine albums. And I think Repeater, probably the first one and Repeater were close to 500,000, maybe over, I don’t know. I don’t actually really keep too close a count. But cumulatively, we sold over 2 or 3 million records now.

On major labels courting Fugazi:

We were unique in the fact that by the time the labels came around to us [and] started sniffing around, we’d had a record label for a decade at that point. A lot of the bands who were in our position, where they were fairly successful, [were on] pretty unstable punk or independent labels, and sometimes those independent labels were actually terrible. People were just ripping people off. So I think those bands [were thinking], “Well, do we get ripped off by the little label and drive in a van, or get ripped off by the big label and drive in a bus?” You may as well take the bus in that case.

Our circumstances were that we’d had a label for over a decade, had a pretty good setup, and also I think we were just more stubborn than other bands. We always had said that we were just not interested in what’s on offer, which is that they’re buying the name of the band, they’re buying the control of the band. And we decided that there was no price that would be worth it to us to cede that control.

One label came and said, “Well we’ll just do a deal with the entire label.” And we said no… I always feel like you hear these stories about people like they’re really… idealistic or whatever, and then eventually, a price is named and they’re like, “OK, well let’s take that.” And I feel like that’s kind of a sad story. Don’t you wanna hear the story where they never said yes?

Margosis brings up an early ’90s Fugazi show in Orlando, Florida, that was paid a visit by Nazi skinheads:

I remember that, the O Town Skins, I remember them well. They were sieg heiling us. And I was just yelling at ’em. And then we came out and our tires had been slashed. Florida was rough! Rough and tumble.

…There were skinhead gangs in almost every city, and you know, Canada—you just saw ’em everywhere. I don’t know what happened at that time that made people so angry. I don’t know what was going on. But it was an epidemic for sure. And they were bad. They weren’t the worst. There was other shows. One of the worst skinhead things the band ever ran into was in Warsaw in Poland. Oh my God. We were having dinner at kind of a dorm near the venue, and maybe 50 or 100 skinhead guys attacked the entire building, smashing out the windows. It was incredibly crazy.

I remember we were doing a show booked in Eugene, Oregon, and these white-power skinhead kids put up flyers saying they were gonna like come to the show and straighten us out, basically shut us down. And the city council of Eugene shut down the show. And I thought, that’s a great way to empower the skinheads! That’s great! That’s a really incredible turn of events. I was shocked they would shut down the show based on what these kids were up to. But that’s the thing, like, I’m gonna use the word [a-hole] again, but [a-holes], they’re like a virus. They’re gonna always be around. They’re just gonna manifest in different ways.