Ian MacKaye is an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, musician, label owner, and producer. Active since 1979, MacKaye is best known for being the frontman of the influential hardcore punk bands Minor Threat, the post-hardcore bands Embrace and Fugazi, as well as The Evens, and member of The Teen Idles. He is a co-founder and owner of Dischord Records, a Washington, D.C.-based independent record label. Ian tackled our Straight Eight with Pink Noise editor Catherine Vericolli.
1. So why make records?
I think making a record is the sum of the definition of the word ‘record’ itself- it’s a documentation. For me, music is sacred. There are things that occur in all forms of expression, but the things that happen in and around and during music are incredibly important to me. I make records to make a document. Either to evoke, reference or to remind us of those transcendent moments.
2. Is recordmaking still a politically and/or socially significant art form?
Music was here long before anything else. I’m quite sure of it. Music is a form of communication that predates language, and it will always be political. Always. There will be times (and this may be one of those times) where parallel forms referred to as music will be in the marketplace, and considered to be entertainment, but music will always be a form of protest. So records being the physical manifestation of music will themselves be political. Music on its own may not change the world, but the people who listen to music will. For example, historically if you consider serious political activists, many of them learned about the redefinition of the world and the society around them through their immersion in music. It allowed them to step outside of their pre-prescribed paths. It took them outside of what may have seemed like their fate, or that which was out of their control. The music and the community that surrounded that music, was something that gave them an identity and sense of power. Later they learned more and more about how to use that power in other areas of their lives. You’ll hear people say “[music] saved my life.” So it’s always political, and it will always be. I also believe that everything is political. If you make a record that is completely complacent, that’s a political statement. The largest political party in our culture is the complacent one. Those who do nothing. That’s the biggest vote in our nation. If people truly voted their conscience, shit would be very different.
3. Why do you think so few women are recordmakers and audioworkers?
Well that’s a really good question, and I’ve thought about it for a long time. I don’t think that it’s something that’s limited just to music. If you look into things like the computer world, software design and gaming, there’s obviously something about these areas that seem to either attract more males, is unattractive to females, or perhaps attract males that aren’t interested in females taking part? I’m not sure which. Who knows why the number of comic book writers and comic book collectors is so male dominated? It’s an interesting situation. I do think that there’s a component to being an engineer that requires someone to have a very specific kind of thinking or kind of mental process. It’s a specific kind of wiring. A fixation or organization, that kind of “nerd” part of it, that is totally male dominated. Maybe it’s something that’s been socialized or maybe it goes back to the hunter-gatherer days, but it may have something to do with the way that men and women are wired that started that process, and it was then exacerbated by the sexist component of our society.
I read this really interesting book about the way that men and women think, or more specifically the way they navigate. It said (although this is a total generalization) that men will more often than not give very detailed directions if you ask them how to get somewhere. For example, they’ll give specific streets to turn on and specific distances as reference. They have a very organized way in which they describe directions. Women however tend to give a different form of direction, describing buildings or landmarks as reference which is a very tactile form of navigation — much more tactile in fact. Neither of these forms is superior to the other, they’re just different. The theory the author was presenting was that during the hunter-gatherer days, men and women had very different roles. Women being the bearers and caretakers of the children, became sort of the home base, so their job was to make sure that everything was in it’s place. They developed this sense of tactile observation, and were able to immediately see if anything was amiss or out of place. They could count the children. Men however, being the hunters in those societies, would return from the hunt and have to communicate to other males exactly how to find the prey, thus developing a totally different way of observing as well as navigating. His point was that these differences were first developed as a result of biology, and to me it’s entirely possible that somehow this has been handed down over the years and evolved into this thing. I’m not really sure why.
I do have to say that as a musician I can recall when I was a teenager and just getting into punk rock, one of the things that was so mind blowing to me was that there was so many women involved. I mean it was crazy! I remember saying “Oh man there’s this band with a girl playing guitar!” At the time, it was just so weird. There were obviously some bands like Heart and Joan Jett that had just come on the scene, but by and large it was such a rarity. I think in my lifetime it’s become something that isn’t weird at all. It’s not a rarity anymore. People go and see bands all the time, and I never hear people say something like: “You should go and see this band with a chick on bass!” It’s no longer a qualifier. I used to hear people say stuff like that all the time. So in a way, I felt that kind of barrier that both men and women felt. I remember saying to my friends back then who were girls that they should form a band, and they would say something like “nah, that’s a boy’s thing.” I remember thinking- whoa, wait.. punk is where it’s at for you! If you wanted to be in a band, [punk] is a god damn good place to be!
I do feel like we’re moving in the right direction, generally speaking. I think it’s still a rarity for women to be involved as an engineer, or notable as an engineer, but I think it’ll become increasingly more common. It will follow suite in the same way that women have become musicians. Right now there are a lot of women who are making music and doing so much production work on their own. They’re so on top of their tech! So I feel like things are changing in a hell of a way, which is really good. I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good answer.
I don’t think there are good or bad answers to this question. I think everyone’s perspective will be different simply based on their experiences.
I guess the way I look at it is this: I loved rock and roll as a kid, and my entrance into rock and roll was that I really wanted to play the guitar. Growing up in DC, there was no rock scene that I knew of. There was no music industry. I didn’t have any idea how it was done. When I tried to learn how to play the guitar, it was so impossible because I was listening to people like Peter Frampton or Jimmy Page. I mean I was 14 or 15, and it just seemed totally impossible! It felt like there was just no way that I could do that. Punk was what made it possible because that was the first time where the audience wasn’t expecting you to start from a certain position. You started where you were, and you had an audience. I think that was really a liberating moment for me. When I started playing, other kids at my school who were in bands were appalled! They were shocked that we were writing our own songs. They thought that was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard. Had I listened to them, or had I decided to bend under the pressure of it all, I wouldn’t have done it. But as a punk I sure as fuck was going to do it! I just pushed through the veil. So I guess in the same way if women feel resistance from their surroundings, they’re totally on the right path. The just need to push through the fucking veil. I think women who want to do this work will do it, and that’s a punk ideology- you just have to do it.
I remember my first recording experience in a studio. We were kids. I was 17, and we weren’t a good band. We were the Teen Idles and I played bass. We had written all of our own songs and had no idea what was involved being in a studio. I remember there was a four track recorder, and the engineer thought that we were playing too fast and too distorted. He made us feel really terrible about our music.
What year was this?
This was the Spring of 1980. And you know it wasn’t that the engineer was a bad guy at all, he just had a different mindset and couldn’t understand what we were trying to do. There was a horrible moment during the session that I’ll never forget. Another band had stopped in to see his studio, and he brought them into the control room while we were tracking. He was pointing at us and they were all laughing. It was terrible! I thought it was so disgraceful. I think at that moment, I probably thought “I shouldn’t be here,” but that’s exactly why I was going to be there. You just have to not get knocked down. That engineer in that studio made us feel really unwelcome, so we ended up going to Don [Zientara] at Inner Ear, and he totally respected us. He said: “Ok! Let me see if I can capture what you want to get,” and that’s the roll of an engineer. Not to shape a band or to focus on what they’re doing wrong, but to help them do what they think is right. So if you go to work, and a band comes in that is skeptical because you’re a woman, than they don’t need to fucking record in your studio, and you don’t need to record them!
4. What do you imagine recordmaking will be like in 100 years?
Hmm. I have to say that when I record with Don Zientara — who I’ve worked with for the last 35 years — we record to tape. We mix down to digital, but we rarely record to digital. I like the limitations of tape. I have a portable digital two track recorder that I use for practices, but I’m very much a tactile recorder and digital doesn’t really work for me. I need to be able to feel a thing. I need to feel where everything is and be able to look at it all without having to move through different screens on a computer. So I may not be a good person to answer this question! I know lots of people who are so at one with their devices (it’s kind of mind blowing) and there are all sorts of things that can be done in the blink of an eye with a fucking computer, but I’m a guy who usually records to eight track cassette. So where will recording be in 100 years? I haven’t a clue, but I would imagine that somebody will still just be trying to touch something.
I’m not a ‘formatist,’ but I do have to say that the one aspect of digital recording that I think is a real drawback ironically, is the amount of options. When I first recorded with Don on a four track, it was bass, guitar, drums, and vocals. When it was time to track the backing vocals, we had to put them on the main vocal track. We had to make those types of decisions ahead of time. It was always a matter of when you were going to have to make those decisions. I think when you have an unlimited number of tracks, and unlimited ways of manipulating sound, you create this environment where people are much less decisive. They don’t need to be. When I record, I record live. Although I may be multi-tracking, the performances are such that I’m not comp-ing anything. I don’t think that comp-ing works on a very base or soul level unless you’re working in hip hop or dub, and the act in itself is musical. I want the song to be real- the way that it was played live. I want the flaws to be flaws. I’m not looking for perfection, and I think the listener can feel that.
I always keep in mind that some of the greatest songs ever recorded where in my opinion (in terms of fidelity) often sloppy and terrible sounding. The song “Louie Louie” for example is a disaster compared to what people would now consider a proper recording. It’s absolutely sloppy, but completely perfect. That song when you think about it, has had an immense effect on our lives. Something I often tell bands, is that a good song can survive a bad recording, but not matter how good a recording is, a bad song is still bad. In fact, it’s almost like the better the recording, the worse the song. It’s the same issue with HD film. When for example the local news brought in HD, the picture became much sharper, but they then ran into a problem because their sets were kind of beat up- kind of ‘toy’, so they had to pay a fortune to have the sets tightened up and the backdrops fixed. Every crack, every nail, all the little stains on the walls, etc. Then the anchors were upset because their skin was imperfect. So the solution was they had to develop a screen, or a filter, to put in front of the cameras for close ups. In the end it would completely reverse the whole point of HD. In the same way, the higher quality the recording, the more pornographic it becomes in that you see even more closely how imperfect something is. What I love about tape is that if someone plays a note late, you my be able to do a bit of trimming or editing, but that’s it. That’s what’s on the tape. It’s linear, and you can’t fuck around with that.
I think a lot about the earliest recordings. Recordings before they had created microphones, when all they were using was a giant speaker on a wall. The sound in the room would move the cone in the speaker, sending electric impulses down to a lathe, which would cut to a cylinder. It was mechanical. The way they mixed, was by positioning the musicians in the room. Drums would maybe be the loudest thing, so they’d go in the back, along with possibly the sousaphone or something with a lot of low end. A saxophone, or a higher pitched horn or a piano, would be more in the front. This is also why singers couldn’t ‘croon’ on those early recordings- they couldn’t sing quietly. You’d get this super loud, almost screaming “jeepers creepers” kind of vocals. There were a lot of decisions being made, and those people had to know how to play! Once you cut that cylinder, that was it- you couldn’t redo it. All of those musicians who went into those recordings, had their chops together. When I was at the the Library of Congress, I asked a guy who worked in the recorded sounds department if there were any hits in the days of the cylinders. He said, Oh yeah, there were some hits! There was a song called “The Laughing Song,” which was a guy singing, playing the piano and laughing. I asked him how many had sold, and he said maybe 100,000? I said wait, how did they reproduce the cylinders? They didn’t, he said. The artist had to record it over and over and over again. They may have had two or three phonographs set up, but basically almost every cylinder was a slightly different version of the song, totally unique! That was mind blowing! So I guess my answer is well, what were people doing 100 years ago?
Do you think that purist, perhaps ‘analog’ ideology, or that pursuit of simplicity will eventually die off with the emergence of technology in the future?
I don’t know. I doubt in 100 years there will be tape machines. They may exist, but if so they’ll exist in the same way that the cylinder exists today. I mean mp3’s just don’t sound good. They work as a means of representation, just like the radio, but he radio doesn’t sound good either. And earbuds! They don’t sound good, and they’re also not at all good for your ears. But these things are for reference. I grew up listening to AM radio and that sounded terrible, but it served it’s purpose. I think mp3’s serve their purpose. I do think that [digital audio] will eventually sound better and better. But, you’re also talking to somebody who doesn’t think about the future. I’ve never thought about the future, and I really just don’t care about the future. That’s the truth! If you asked me where I thought I’d be in ten years, I’d tell you I have no idea. Who gives a fuck. The question that really matters, is what are people doing now?
5. If you could change one thing about the field of record making, what would you change?
The field of recordmaking? Can you define that?
It could be any facet. The processes, trends, current technology, or the business end of things — relationships, distribution, management, etc. or anything that you’d like to see change about the industry as a whole.
What is the industry? It’s hard for me to say because I guess I don’t really have a horse in the race. I don’t really care what happens in the industry. I’m not a conservative, I mean I don’t think that people should only use tape for example. I use tape, because that’s how I relate to sound. Actually now I’m starting to relate to sound as sound waves which is totally different. When I first recorded, I can remember just sitting and staring at the board. I would stare and listen so hard that the mixing desk would turn into like a circuit board or something. I would go into a trance with all the lines and knobs and lights. It would become weirdly three dimensional, like I was flying over a city or something. I would stick my head so hard into the sound. Now if I’m recording, quite often there’s a computer screen, and I end up looking at the sound waves. That certainly has it’s benefits in terms of editing of course, but I try not to look at it while I’m mixing because at that moment it’s a different relationship. I don’t want my vision to be active. I want it to go soft. I want my ears and all the things that receive vibrations to take control, which I think is the whole body.
So “the industry” is irrelevant?
I don’t know. The thing is that no one can really define the industry. Honestly I think if there’s one thing I would change in any industry, is that people would be well and do well.
6. What was the last record you heard that truly blew your mind or touched your heart? How so?
We were driving recently and listening to a Bill Withers record. Some of the songs were just perfect. Perfect songs. Perfectly recorded. Short. I love economy. I also love ‘Machine Gun’ by Hendrix, which can go on and on. I have a 19 minute version of that song from some bootleg, and it blew my mind. I think that for me, it’s any music made by people who don’t have a choice in the matter. Nina Simone is another example. She has a song called ‘Compensation’ which I think is one of the most amazing recorded moments ever. Period.
7. What are some of your fears when making a record?
It’s worth noting that I’m not sure know how many records I’ve produced, but I’ve never been paid. Ever. The only exception to this, was a tape that I did with a band called Follow Fashion Monkeys from Lehigh Valley, PA, who after spending 3 days in the studio with them, insisted they pay me fifty bucks. That’s all the cash I’ve ever received for the all the records I’ve done. I go into the studio for the experience, to have that intimacy, to be in the studio with a band and go through the process, to be a translator. I think that’s my role as a producer, to translate between the engineer, the process, and the band, and to try and help the two sides (if they are indeed two sides) communicate and make something that they’re happy with. If I have a fear, it’s that I’m going to go down the rabbit hole, and that it’s just going to end up being a pointless exercise and a waste of time and money. Those are the kinds of things that drive me crazy. It’s peoples insecurities. They’ll call it the search for perfection, but what they’re really reaching for is the impossible. It’s in their insecurities where things get bad. It gets to the point where they would have been smarter just to play something flawed the first time and left it at that, rather than taking it over and over again. The more they redo it, the farther and farther they get from the point. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be diligent or work hard, and there are times where someone will say “I like it, but I can do better,” and that’s fine. But it’s when they say “Oh man that’s bad, that’s just terrible, I have to do that again,” when it’s just probably going to get worse. There have been moments when I’ve got into the studio with a band and thought: “Oh no, why have I signed on to this?” It’s like getting onto a ferry and realizing that you’re going to get stuck in a storm. It’s a terrible feeling, but you’re on it, and that’s it.
I think another thing at this point in my career that makes me really nervous about recording, are my ears. I certainly have tinnitus. I mean I’ve played loud music, but I don’t think people realize just how long and how hard core [recording] really is. When you spend 10 or 12 hours in front of speakers working, it’s serious punishment for the ears. I consider this now when people ask me to record. I have to. I suppose I don’t mind the whistling, but I would like to hear my son’s voice for as long as I possibly can.
Do you share these same fears as a musician? Or are they different?
They’re different. As a musician, even when you’re recording, a song is still a living thing. So when you take that photo, you’re committing it to a definitive version. For instance a song like “Waiting Room,” which Fugazi recorded in June of 1988 and released in November of that year had been played up to that point, including practices, maybe 300 or 400 times. However, since then we’ve played it, fuck… maybe 2000 times? So when you think about it, what are the odds that the definitive version of that song would’ve been played on that day in that studio in 1988? Highly unlikely. So I often think when I make a record as a musician: “Is this it? Is this the right time??” Once it gets onto that record, that’s it. It’s in the freeze. I also think about my voice now. I hear what I want to do, but I’m not sure that I can actually do it. Which drives me crazy. I know what I’d like to hear, but then when I hear my voice, it’s not necessarily what I’d like to hear! But that’s an artist’s problem really. I mean that’s why we keep crawling up.
8. What are your greatest joys when making a record?
When the room disappears.
Published: November 2014
First Publication: Pink Noise
Interviewer: Catherine Vericoli