Weighing The Odds

Fugazi's Ian MacKaye explores his quiet side in the Evens

The Evens 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 3 Negative Space Gallery | 3820 Superior Ave. E, 2nd Floor 216-485-3195 | thinknegativespace.com Tickets: $7

Singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye met singer- drummer Amy Farina shortly after she moved to Washington D.C. to go to art school. Back then, she was in a band called Mr. Candy Eater. The group opened for MacKaye's band, Fugazi, in 1992 and the two struck up a friendship that eventually blossomed into both a marriage and a band.  

"I talked to her and thought she was a great singer," recalls MacKaye. "She started to play with [indie singer-songwriter] Lois Maffeo and I really liked them, and I offered to do some recording and recorded a few songs for them. They formed a band with my brother, Alex, in the mid-'90s. We were great friends. We talked about playing tunes together. I don't do that with other people because it gets weird. It's hard for me to be informal with people, musically speaking."

When Fugazi went on hiatus in the late '90s, the two started writing songs together as the duo the Evens. They played their first gig in 2004 and have slowly but steadily started to play outside of the D.C. area.

"It's been great," says MacKaye. "Amy and I are together and we have a kid. There's no question in my mind that we're a family, just like the guys in Fugazi were a family. We're all super tight. And Amy is now literally my family."

Revered as the leader of hardcore heroes Minor Threat and Fugazi, MacKaye has carved out a neat niche for himself with the Evens. The music on the band's latest album, last year's The Odds, features MacKaye's signature vocals (he almost sounds constipated as always as he sings lead on tracks such as "Wanted Criminals" and "I Do Myself") as well as some of the same kind of stop-and-go guitar work you hear in Minor Threat and Fugazi songs. But the music is much, much quieter and songs such as "Wonder Why" and "This Other Thing" have a real fragility to them. The music isn't likely to appeal to Fugazi fans, but that's fine with MacKaye.

"I talked to a guy the other day who said he didn't like the band," says MacKaye. "I don't give a fuck. I care, but I don't give a fuck. When Fugazi first started to tour, there were people who thought it was terrible. They wanted Minor Threat. It's not a bait and switch. I don't advertise the Evens as Fugazi. I was in both bands. I can't help that. Unless you are under the impression that all people like bands for the same reason, then the answer is clear. Maybe they like my songwriting. And maybe they don't like it because we're not that loud."

MacKaye likes the Evens' simpler approach and says it makes it easy to book last minute shows.

"I love the simplicity of it. I love the agility of our arrangement," he says. "We book shows two weeks out. We have our own PA and lights; we just need a space with some outlets and somebody with a vision who will help us sort it out. The shows are off the radar. People say, 'It's your new band.' Yeah, my new band that's ten fuckin' years old."

It's certainly a different approach than Fugazi, a band that played with incredible precision and honed its craft through exhausting hours of practice.

"There was an intensity to Fugazi and the way we worked," MacKaye says. "We would practice four or five times a week, sometimes for four or five hours. But we never practiced the songs. We just jammed and worked on music. We had 100-some songs at our fingertips. Before a tour, we would take one week of running through the songs at least once to dust them off. I have ringing in my ears. That's not from the shows. It's from practice. I miss the practices."

MacKaye, however, says Fugazi isn't done yet, even though it hasn't played a show in over a decade. And perhaps there's some truth to that. After all, he continues to run Dischord, the indie imprint that he started some 33 years ago, and he keeps in close contact with his Fugazi band mates on a regular basis.

"One thing about me is that I've never thought about the future," he says when asked if Fugazi will ever play another show together. "I don't care about the future really. I just care about the present. If that's the case, it's just one foot in front of the other. At one point, you stop and think, 'I've come a long way, I guess.' But it doesn't matter how far you've come because you're always where you are."

He's also not worried about the decline of the music industry. For a label like Dischord that continues to regularly put out releases from small, independent bands, it's not about selling product to cover expenses.

"When the label started, it was just to document a band we had been. We wanted to make a memento. It started from absolutely nothing. Can you imagine the interest and excitement for a band of teenagers from Washington, D.C. who had just broken up? There was zero interest in that. The fact that we sold any of those is kind of startling. We sold 1,000 and then 2,000 and then however many thousands. It's totally insane. It's totally surreal. Things got bigger and bigger and our small records were selling 8,000 to 10,000 and our biggest-selling records were selling 400,000."

Even though Fugazi actually started to sell a moderate number of records and could sell out mid-sized venues, that didn't change MacKaye's approach to making music. The guy's as much of a DIY purist as you'll ever find.

"I've never been interested in the record industry; I just put out records," he says. "I think that as long as there is an interest, it's worth doing. I've come around to this realization that I have a custodial responsibility. For the last three decades, these artists and bands have trusted us. We've been selling these records and paying royalties every six months. I wrote them just a week and a half ago. There's something so perversely pleasant about writing a check to someone who played on a record in 1981. It's amazing. We never used a single contract and I don't have a lawyer. Every record we ever put out, we still have. There's no disgruntled band."

MacKaye says a handful of people are on the Dischord payroll and that he's able to provide them with health benefits too.

"The problem with other labels is when they hit that fat period in the '90s they got buildings and cars," he says. "We never did."

He doesn't know what the future holds for the label or for Fugazi. And frankly, he just doesn't give a damn either.

"The only thing you know about the future is that it's going to show up," he says, reiterating a point he made earlier in this interview. "And when it does, it will be a present."

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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