Sitting in the Dischord records house in Arlington, Ian MacKaye is having a hard time figuring out why it was so difficult these past few months to book a show in Richmond for his rock duo, the Evens.
"I think of Richmond as a big arts place and surely the city must be filled with old rooms nobody uses, old factories, churches," he says. "It drove me crazy."
It isn't like he's a stranger. A revered singer and guitarist, an icon among do-it-yourself types, MacKaye's probably the most well-known Washington music figure throughout the world. His hardcore band Minor Threat and post-punk band Fugazi have been hugely influential since the '80s and '90s, selling hundreds of thousands of records made for virtually nothing.
The 50-year-old is married to drummer and singer Amy Farina, with whom he has a 4-year-old son, Carmine, who travels with them to their shows, usually booked within two hours of Washington. But they no longer play traditional venues.
"I was sick of it. Especially now, clubs are so dominated by agencies. People have holds six months out, and bands that don't have a booking agent can't even get their foot in the door," he says. "I don't want to be a part of that. What pushes bands into that situation, or what could we change? Volume."
So with MacKaye playing baritone guitar and trading vocals or harmonizing with his wife, they began playing churches, bookstores, art galleries, bike shops, including the Children's Museum of Richmond and Gallery5 in Richmond within the last seven years. One song on their new album, "Competing With the Till," explains their view on breaking the rock circuit habit.
"The lyric, 'Our audience is your clientele' — for me, it had a broader spectrum of meaning. Music is a sacred art. It's a form of communication that predates language almost certainly and is part of every civilization," MacKaye says. "We wanted to get music out of the same old places. The Metro, the Flood Zone — after awhile you kind of knew the scene there, right? We wanted interesting rooms. It's not a bellyache about bars, it's an idea that music should be presented anywhere."
MacKaye recalls seeing musician Jonathan Richman, another former rocker who's long since gone quiet, when he brought his own PA system to the 9:30 Club. "In Holland we played and he followed us," MacKaye says. "When he said he 'didn't want to make music that would hurt a baby's ears,' I thought that was really radical. I don't know him, but his creative navigation inspired me to think of ways Amy and I could do things."
Once a screaming skinhead in a sea of writhing bodies, MacKaye has grown older but not exactly mellowed. The Evens (with their new album "The Odds") continue to rock out with aggressive rhythms and political lyrics, though the volume is more controlled and the dynamics more nuanced. But get MacKaye started on new changes in promotion, such as Facebook ads, and you can sense the old punk rising.
"The computer and Internet have given people the sense that they're always missing something. They're always posting, 'Look what you're missing,' but they're missing it too! It's like some kind of weird, experiential materialism," he says. "The fact that it's so ubiquitous seems like our society is under a serious attack of delusion. It's all just distractions ultimately, while our employees are murdering people in other parts of the world. You can be stoned on religion, pot, technology — or whatever — but you're not thinking about people killing other people, not for nation's sake but for business, and we're paying them to do it."
Take that, you with the new high score on Angry Birds. One reason MacKaye rebelled at an early age is that he grew up around feckless hippies in the Georgetown area, the son of a theologian, author and former editor for the Washington Post who in the early '70s ran its then-new religion section.
"Before the Post, my dad was in the White House press corps, his first trip was to Dallas with Kennedy, he was in the motorcade when he was assassinated," MacKaye says. "Later he was at odds with the Post brass, he was a rebel. There was a terrible strike in 1975 and he led the guild out on strike for six months. After that, he was blackballed, given a job as an associate editor for the weekly magazine until he quit and started his own seminarian journal called In Trust."
Early on, MacKaye says, he wanted to be a newspaperman, but after seeing how the punk movement was covered, he grew disillusioned. "Sometimes you find yourself in turbulent water and you pull yourself up on a rock and you look out and see dangerous waters out there but everyone's still swimming. That's how I feel about the media. Those motherfuckers are drowning," he says, laughing.
Luckily, his music panned out. He's done well for himself, virtually writing the book on how to grow old while maintaining credibility in the music business — though he seems acutely aware of how others portray him, which has included accusations of being too judgmental or didactic.
"When a band is important to you, the power of that music is not something they created, it's something you created," he says. "I've been reading about my life for so long and been acquainted with people's perception of me for so long. I used to say, 'There's Ian MacKaye [rhymes with day] and Ian MacKaye [rhymes with Thai] and I know which one I am,'" he says, laughing. "The whole point was we were kids and anyone could do it. Ironically, the kind of documentation and histories people do about it make us into heroes. Like we had some special fucking magic or juju: It's exactly the opposite."
While MacKaye has earned a reputation as an honest if polarizing figure, he recognizes the difference between the performer and the art. "I love Nina Simone, I worship her, but I bet she wasn't easy to deal with. Same with Janis Joplin. Ted Nugent, that guy is clearly troubled. Ted Nugent today would shoot Ted Nugent of the '70s."
MacKaye clearly knows his Richmond bands of yesteryear, saying he loved Burma Jam, and that guitarist Pen Rollings of Honor Role "was a genius." Though the trouble finding a venue made him curious to hear what's new in RVA.
"I think Richmond has always had a weird loose-cannon appeal to it. There's an art thing down there that is damaged, weird people making weird art, I love that. It's a little unhinged, which I appreciate," he says. "I don't always love the bands. I always respect them though. They're pursuing an idea or vision and I can tell they're serious. ... I don't think Richmond is thought of as a cultural treasure. But when you exist in that situation when you're not on the cultural map, if you're of there, from there, you think: 'Let's make our own thing. We don't care.' Then there's always the possibility something is abrew."
These days, he just wants people to sing along to his songs and experience the moment of the show. "That's what I dream of, to have the whole room singing along. My position is we're making a show together. It's liberating. Break out. Get away from the computer." S
The Evens play an all-ages show at Plant Zero Events and Art Center on Saturday, March 30. 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 and available at the door.