An Interview with Ian Mackay
According to Ian MacKay, we need to realign our relationship with music.
We are too observant when it comes to performance. Instead, we need to interact with the musicians and create an energizing atmosphere, where musicians and performers mutually influence each other.
MacKay is one of the most influential figures in the post-hardcore/punk/early emo/DC underground/whatever-description-fits-the-bill scene of the last two and a half decades, and is currently touring the world with these beliefs.
He was born, raised, and is still based in Washington DC, and since the late 1970s has fronted many bands, run his co-owner record label, Discord Records, spawned the “straight edge movement,” and is often credited with creating the first wave of emo music.
His first band, in 1979, the Teen Idles, saw the beginning of his career as a musician, political activist and record label owner. While the Teen Idles didn’t last long, MacKay moved onto front punk/hardcore band Minor Threat.
It was in this band, the MacKay coined the term “straight edge”: a lifestyle that unintentionally spawned a movement based on clean living – to varying degrees, based on being drug and alcohol free, with hardcore music playing the soundtrack.
The X’s on the hands, the physical symbol of this lifestyle, were coined by MacKay and his friends as a compromise to get into licensed shows when they were underage, as a way to tell the bar people they could not be served. When Minor Threat broke up in 1983, in 1987, MacKay started his best-known band to date, Fugazi. But this has been on hiatus since 2001, so, unable to stop the music, MacKay teamed up with partner Amy Feria – from The Warmers – to begin his current project, The Evens.
I caught up with MacKay to discuss this latest project, then went to see The Evens play later that night at OS9.
Their live show is reflective of their recordings, yet the intensity exceeded any expectations I had. They created a surreal atmosphere, where the audience were hanging off MacKay’s every word.
MacKay was a surprisingly charismatic, entertaining front man. He mixed light-hearted jokes with stories and passionate political speeches and discussions about his homeland.
With MacKay on baritone guitar and Feria on drums and both singing, The Evens played a mix from their two albums, 2005’s The Evens, and 2006’s Get Even. The music was stripped down, minimalist folk-rock, alluding to their punk pasts. It was infused with politics, had sing-along pop tendencies, was emotionally wrought, and the two displayed a range of passionate intensity.
Musically, MacKay was reluctant to name any names when it comes to influences. “Amy and I have both always listened to a enormous amount of different music. We are not genre-specific, we don’t sign onto one genre, and I don’t think either of us ever have. Historically through our lives, we have both been interested in music which strikes us as something honest. It doesn’t matter which genre or who’s making.”
Comparison to Fugazi is inevitable. When it comes to touring, MacKay notes that while Fugazi played to thousands and The Evens to maybe 25 at a show in Palmerston North, his emphasis is on the journey and the significance of being at the destination: “If you think of the fact that we are in Palmerston North in New Zealand – which is actually on the other side of the world from where we live – and we are playing music, and there are people there with us, then its pretty fucking phenomenal. We are just really happy to be here.”
This is the first time they have played in Australia and New Zealand, for which MacKay feels have been a success to date. “The Australian gigs were excellent. We have done three in New Zealand so far. The people are super kind and the shows are going well. It’s sort of an introduction for both of us: not only are we a band I don’t think many people have heard of, but I also think the way we actually present our music is somewhat unusual.”
As I found out later that night, this was true.
The Evens prefer to play on level with – and surrounded by – their audience. MacKay was perched on a stool with his baritone guitar, and Feria side-on to him from her drum kit. The audience were encouraged to sit down on the floor in front of them, or off to the side of the “stage,” with the rest standing in front and perched up on chairs.
MacKay was constantly checking if people were comfortable and could see properly, far removed from your typical rock show.
His performance philosophy is heavily influenced in his first experiences with punk rock.
“My first discovery of punk rock was so totally intense to me, just so veridical. It was because the audience were so connected to the event that it did make a difference who was in the audience.”
Furthermore, MacKay rails against the typical layout and atmosphere created at live shows. Noting “the performers are lit up, and the audience are in the black, and there is a created barrier – like a physical security wall – all of which has pushed music to being a straight performance. I mean, we are actually making music on stage in real time. We are receptive and responsive to the actual situation which we are playing in. If things are changing, it will affect the music. It’s not just a straight performance.”
MacKay imparted this information to me over the phone; he basically reiterated it between songs to the audience, explaining The Evens’ beliefs to give people a better understanding of the show and the unusual layout of it.
While the OS9 show was comfortably full, it is not the size of the crowd that matters to The Evens. Unlike most performing groups out there, they are more concerned with making a show. He explained that “we definitely believe that while we have songs and instruments and that we have our own sort of energy, that if the audience is responding with some sort of energy, then it’s investing in the evening. That’s what can make for a really incredible experience.”
He somewhat contests their shows being thought of as performance, stating: “the idea of music is not a performance. I mean, we are performing I guess, but we are making a show. The idea of music is something we bounce back and forth. That we send to the crowd and they send back to us, which then energizes us to send back to them.”
However, he has noted a marked difference in our reception of his new music compared to shows back in the USA. “One thing I have noticed so far is that the people in the audiences in New Zealand are retreating: they are there just checking it out, they are a little bit quiet – not that they need to be loud and yelling. I think they are just trying to get their minds around the way we work.”
While this may be so for MacKay, for me, it was one of the most lively, involved shows I have ever experienced. Everyone was totally captivated in the atmosphere they helped to create. Audience participation was basically compulsory, since, according to MacKay, getting the audience involved with the performance is “the idea of music.”
For the OS9 show, clucking and whistling were encouraged, as was singing the fade out for ‘You Won’t Feel a Thing,’ which was introduced with a great analogy: MacKay likened peoples numbness to violence to numbness inflicted by Novocain and dental work, noting that “when you go numb, the violence begins.” Later in the set, the audience was encouraged to let loose on ‘Mt Pleasant Isn’t,’ aggressively yelling: “the police will not excused, the police will not be behave.”
So fitting for New Zealand.
As an introduction to the song ‘All these Governors,’ MacKay gave a great analogy of the ever-changing US government to weather cycles. He likened the current administration to a full blown cyclone, but reassured the audience that in time, they will peter out, which was meet with optimistic applause from the audience. It bought a tear to the eye of an American in the audience.
At the end of the set, the audience were encouraged to come up and talk to MacKay and Feria, and often unheard of gesture on the world of rock and roll.
But that’s the beauty of The Evens. They are not rock and roll. In fact, they almost surpass all of the generic classifications one could attempt to put them in.
Even after all these years of playing music, he is still genuinely humbled by people coming up to him after shows saying they have enjoyed themselves. “Every night we play a show and every night people come up and say they have enjoyed it. That’s pretty amazing.”