Ian MacKaye, punk rock God, is fixing his rose trellis. It stood in his backyard in Washington, DC, for years, but now the weight of the vines has snapped the wood. MacKaye still wants to try and salvage it, so he's outside when I call, trying to decide if it's a lost cause. He apologizes for the distraction and walks inside the house, the original headquarters for Dischord Records, the label MacKaye started with friend and bandmate Jeff Nelson 25 years ago.
While he washes the dirt off his hands from the yard work, he makes small talk. MacKaye speaks quickly, with precision and the strongest sense of conviction I've ever encountered. He tells me that roses are a metaphor for life—the flowers are beautiful but the vines will prick you.
Ian MacKaye is a punk rock legend to the point where it's become a cliche to say it. He fronted hardcore heroes Minor Threat, helped create the emo genre with Embrace and led the post-hardcore revolution in Fugazi. When Fugazi went on hiatus in 2002, many critics and fans thought this could be the musical end for the then-40-year-old. And when MacKaye resurfaced three years later with new band The Evens, the same people saw the guitar-and-drums combo as MacKaye going gently into that good night. But for MacKaye, volume doesn't necessarily equal power.
"People associate a drop in volume as a mellowing," he says. Shows where people are forced to listen to the band, rather than shout over them, offer a far more powerful performance for both parties, he says. "It's way more punk. It's so confrontational."
The Evens began the way most things in MacKaye's life do—organically. He and Amy Farina, formerly of the Warmers, began jamming together in 2001 in between Fugazi tours. Normally MacKaye tries not to get involved playing with other bands, because he doesn't have the time. But the collaboration proved fruitful.
"It was so effortless working together," he says. "A musical conversation developed."
The jamming continued for the next three years until 2004 when they decided to play a few shows together, eventually recording their self-titled debut in 2005. The Evens released their second record, Get Evens, last year.
Never one concerned with image, MacKaye makes no apologies for the very "un-punk" horticulture in is backyard, or that someone is coming to fix his furnace in the afternoon. It would be easy to latch on to the suburban middle-ageness of all this and call him over-the-hill. MacKaye has certainly accomplished enough in his musical career to pack it in and concentrate on running Dischord. But that's not an option.
"Music played an intimate and intense role in my life," he says. "It's something that's really important to me."
The music MacKaye cut his teeth on in his early teenage days is what shaped him into who he is today. And he doesn't look back on the music of his youth as a joke—Ted Nugent's Double Live Gonzo! was a particular favourite. "It'd be hard," he notes, "to find somebody that I have less in common with now."
It's not comforting nostalgia, but he contends that to this day he'll defend them from any detractors.
"Music provides the opportunity for incredible moments, transformative moments. Things are revealed to you as a young listener," he says. "And because you don't know any better you accept them."
Though MacKaye's music has been pervasive in underground circles since the early '80s, recently it has made some peculiar inroads to the mainstream. Nike infamously used the cover photo from Minor Threat's self titled 7-inch for a skateboard demo flyer, digitally changing the image and logo. But even more surprising was when Fugazi's song "Waiting Room" was added to the Washington Redskins playlist, blaring across FedEx Field during games. Despite outcries from some fans, MacKaye doesn't let himself get bothered by these things—in fact, he kind of likes it.
"If our music, or our ideas pop up, it means that there are still open channels to the surface," he says. "That's encouraging to me."
The Evens, June 20 at the North Street Church, 5657 North, 8:30pm sharp, $8 adv (Random Play, 1577 Barrington and CKDU, 5th Floor, Dalhousie SUB), $10 door