Dischord Records: Out of Step with the World
After 20-plus years of producing perhaps the finest underground rock catalogue in America, Ian MacKaye and his Washington D.C.-based Dischord Records are, well, still saying no--no to rootless commercialism, no to cheap nostalgia, no to doing music business as usual. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Green Bay Packers of punk
By: Andrew Beaujon After 20-plus years of producing perhaps the finest undergroundrock catalogue in America, Ian MacKaye and his WashingtonD.C.-based Dischord Records are, well, still saying no–no torootless commercialism, no to cheap nostalgia, no to doing musicbusiness as usual. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Green Bay Packersof punk
“Dischord House” is on a leafy side street in Arlington, Virginia, a blowsy suburb of Washington, D.C. Ian MacKaye, who cofounded the legendary punk label Dischord in 1980, has lived here since 1981, but the building’s days as a punk-rock group home are long past–MacKaye is now its only resident. Though the exterior sports a thatch of vines and overgrown shrubbery, the inside is tidy and well-kept, filled with homey secondhand furniture. Various framed mementos–old flyers, friends’ paintings–lean against a piano, and a rifled copy of today’s Washington Post is stacked neatly on the dining-room table. It’s a bit dark: All the lamps are on energy-efficient timers.
Touring this place is like visiting an alternate-universe Graceland, where you could crash in the Jungle Room if you asked nicely. Almost every square foot of the house is iconic to anyone who grew up loving punk music. Here are the front steps where Minor Threat, MacKaye’s levitical hardcore band, sat for the cover of their last record, a 1983 kiss-off to the music’s innocence called Salad Days. Just off the dining room is the cluttered former Dischord office. There’s the label’s tape closet, where the masters of classics like Minor Threat’s version of the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” and the Void’s first LP are stored. Downstairs is the rehearsal space where Fugazi, MacKaye’s current band, held their first practice in 1987 (the ceiling is so low that they had to sit down to play). MacKaye leads you through these hallowed halls with pride–he is both the patriarch and curator of a living culture. He points out a bass amp that dates back to his late-’70s high school band, the Teen Idles. There’s his old skateboard, also pictured on Salad Days, still very much in use.
Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, drummer for the Teen Idles and Minor Threat and MacKaye’s business partner in Dischord, both turned 40 last year. Three years ago, they uncharacteristically began working on a box set (20 Years of Dischord, released last fall) that would chronicle the first two decades of their label. It was unusual because Dischord has always existed in the here and now–the “here” being the local D.C. music scene (no one outside the Capital Beltway need apply) and the “now” being, well, now. Could it be that MacKaye–a man whose name in print never seems to appear far from the phrase “fiercely independent”–is beginning to worry about his legacy?
“Don’t give me that crap,” he says wearily. MacKaye looks pretty much like he did when he was tearing up stages with Minor Threat 20 years ago: The stubble on his head is graying and starts a bit farther back on his scalp than it did in the early ’80s, but he’s trimmer than most guys his age, decked out in an old T-shirt and baggy shorts. Nelson is likewise still rail thin, but he’s assumed a professorial air, wearing a neat plaid shirt and glasses, free of the shock of brown hair that he sports on the back of the box set (in a photo that shows him getting pummeled by a fellow mosher). Today, he’s eating a leftover slice of Domino’s pizza, which he seems to have brought over for the sole purpose of irritating his vegan business partner. “Would you like to keep the dipping sauce?” Nelson asks MacKaye with a shit-eating grin. MacKaye tosses the offending condiment before sitting down to pour himself a cup of tea, which he drinks from a Christmas mug with a broken handle.
This domestic tableau is far from the combat-boot cliché of D.C. punk, perhaps the most stridently ideological music scene in rock history: no drugs, no sexism, no “rock’n’roll bullshit,” as Government Issue put it in a 1981 single. But myths are more convenient than reality, and the true story of this loud music has often been drowned out by the even louder conversation about its creators’ lifestyles. “We always get asked about Ian,” says John Davis of Q and Not U, a young band that joined Dischord in 2000. “‘Does he smoke pot?’ ‘Does he drink? I hear he drinks.'”
“He’s almost a cultlike figure,” says Kim Coletta, co-owner of the record label DeSoto and bassist for the now-defunct Dischord band Jawbox. Even cultlike figures consider him a cultlike figure. “I don’t really want to meet him–I’d be scared out of my mind,” says Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, who, like thousands of kids, pinpoints a Fugazi show as the site of his greatest live-music epiphany. “I respect them for sticking to their ideals so ardently,” he says. “But it’s gotta be hard. I bet in the ’90s Fugazi got a different major-label offer every day. They’ve been at this 20 years–touring around in a van is really hard, and it must take strength to say, ‘This is where we started; this is where we’re gonna stay.'”
The great irony of Ian MacKaye’s career is that despite his band’s aversion to the mass-culture shell game–famously singing “You are not what you own,” refusing to make videos or sell T-shirts, and avoiding the mainstream press–he has engendered more mythological speculation than willing media darlings like Sum 41 ever will.
“There’s a lot of conversations,” says MacKaye. “Take the straight-edge thing. I understand there’s, like, a phenomenon that has occurred–now the word straight edge is in the dictionary. That’s insane. It’s cool!”
“Is there anyone here who doesn’t know what straight edge is?” Not a single hand goes up. It’s a rainy evening this past September, and MacKaye is at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to address a theater full of students. Most of the attendees are clean-cut suburban youngsters who reverently identify each D.C.-area band on the mix tape the organizer plays before tonight’s program. With the patient tone of someone who’s been lecturing crowds for years, MacKaye starts at the beginning, explaining that he’d been distraught by the way his friends had embraced drug use in the late ’70s and how he had articulated that message through his first three bands, especially Minor Threat. “We had a song called ‘Out of Step,'” he says. “The lyrics went: ‘Don’t smoke / Don’t drink / Don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think.'” He called the advantage abstinence gave him the “straight edge.” “I never imagined I’d still be discussing that song 21 years later,” he says. “I’ve often wondered how Lou Reed feels about writing ‘Heroin.'”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the lecture circuit: Minor Threat’s think-for-yourself message–along with their songwriting chops, which made them a benchmark for all hardcore punk since–sounded a chord with thousands of kids, many of whom felt kinship with songs like “Filler” and “Screaming at a Wall.” They were “out of step with the world,” and they’d just found an articulate spokesman, even if he was something of a loudmouth. Indeed, MacKaye, whose formal education ended with high school, enjoys an institutional status in alternative rock commensurate with the elite public university he is addressing.
Throughout the ’80s, MacKaye was one of punk’s most unique voices. His short-lived pre-Fugazi band, Embrace, is credited with expanding hardcore’s expressive palette, unwittingly inventing emo. (“We don’t use that word,” MacKaye says quickly.) And by tapping the brakes on Minor Threat’s high-speed squall, the post-hardcore Fugazi became one of the most popular alternative-rock groups of the ’90s, though their business principles–generally saying “no” to anything they couldn’t control–usually got more attention than their music, an innovative fusion of hardcore punk, dub reggae, and confessional rock. Though tonight we’ve gathered under the auspices of a UVA film club to hear MacKaye discuss Instrument, Jem Cohen’s two-hour Fugazi documentary, the Newcomb Hall audience’s questions are almost exclusively about his bandmates’ personal lives. How many kids does drummer Brendan Canty have? (Two.) Does singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto ever hurt himself with his onstage antics–like singing while hanging upside down from a basketball hoop? (Yes, though “he is a limber fellow.”)
The lyrics of “Straight Edge” claimed that he was just like everybody else, except that he didn’t like to get high. But the first part of that message never really caught on. MacKaye has been viewed as a humorless punk-rock Savonarola ever since. “I hate how everyone forgets how much of [punk] was about joy and funniness,” says Jenny Toomey, whose former record label, Simple Machines, was modeled after Dischord; she now directs a foundation that lobbies Congress on behalf of musicians and music consumers. “Ian and Mark Sullivan and Tomas Squip had this band called the Marvelous Sit-Coms, and for one of their shows, the act was that Tomas was going to pee on himself. And Ian’s mom came to the show.”
Yet Dischord’s reputation as a grim monastery endures, though that often has more to do with MacKaye’s combative public persona than with the music on the label. “In D.C., there was a feeling that you could do it yourself,” says Dave Grohl, whose pre-Nirvana band Scream recorded for Dischord. “It seemed like everyone inspired everyone else to make a difference. In places like New York or Los Angeles, the music scene was overwhelming or intimidating. D.C. was encouraging. Everyone felt confident that any effort he or she made was worthy.”
The Dischord story starts with Nelson and MacKaye’s late-’70s fascination with local African-American thrashers Bad Brains and moves through the testosterone-drenched heyday of early hardcore groups such as Henry “Rollins” Garfield’s first band, S.O.A. It suffers in the mid-’80s as violence pervades punk shows but sees rebirth and unwelcome national significance in the ’90s with D.C. bands Fidelity Jones, Lungfish, and Fugazi. Dischord suddenly “broke” in the wake of the Nirvana-inspired alternative revolution; the label’s sound and ideals found an unlikely home in the new mainstream.
Dischord bands were a hot commodity to major-label A&R reps during the alt-rock years, a sexiness unintentionally fueled by the refusal of the label’s flagship band to even consider playing along. MacKaye won’t discuss any proposals in detail, though he will allow that Fugazi “has turned down million-dollar offers from labels.” (This has spawned any number of urban legends, like MacKaye refusing a suitcase full of cash from Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.) Fugazi’s standoffishness has been interpreted as snobbery, but to MacKaye, it’s simple business sense. All bands on Dischord have the same basic agreement with the label: They’re advanced a certain amount of money to record an album and produce a record cover; once those costs and the costs of manufacturing the record are recouped, Dischord and the group split any profits. It’s hardly a formula for getting your band on Cribs, but it makes it possible to have a long, low-key career, even if amenities like tour buses are probably out of the question. Still, MacKaye points out, “the four of us [in Fugazi] all own our own houses. Two of us have families. So I think the proof is in the pudding.”
Major labels view indie bands “like a lottery ticket,” says MacKaye, and, as in many small scenes, there was no shortage of schadenfreude when none of the D.C. bands that leaped to the majors in the mid-’90s–Shudder to Think, Jawbox, Tuscadero–had their numbers hit. “I don’t think Ian was happy to see us go,” says Coletta, who continued to work at the label. “But he wasn’t trying to hold us back. If we wanted to try something different, he didn’t want anything to do with it, but he gave us some nice advice.” Despite touring endlessly for two years, Jawbox failed to find a larger audience. Today, Coletta, 36, is a mother, with a master’s in library science, and is winding down operations on DeSoto. “The biggest thing I took out of Dischord is that we don’t use contracts,” she says. “Ian always told me that they’re unnecessary, because if bands are happy, they’ll stay on your label.”
Nelson looks back on the ’90s as a “total perversion of the process.” MacKaye concurs: “Everyone was just like, ‘Well, what do we need to do to sell?'” Selling was never a problem for Fugazi. Their barn-burning live shows and first two EPs–1988’s Fugazi and 1989’s Margin Walker–created such a demand for the band’s first full album, 1990’s Repeater, that Dischord made the cost-effective choice to ship its albums from its manufacturer in Britain by boat rather than by plane. All told, the band has sold about two-and-a-half million records, at $10 each, postage included. Their third LP, 1993’s In on the Kill Taker, actually scraped the low end of the Billboard pop chart, prompting some of punk’s more stringent gatekeepers to take Dischord to task for putting a UPC sticker on the album (in point of fact, distributor Southern Studios sticks those on the shrink wrap; the label still prints all its covers without the codes).
If that was the reaction of smarties who supposedly “got it” (think: punky Lisa Simpsons), there was an equally troubling response among the oft-demonized frat boys who gravitated to Fugazi’s slam-ready intensity (think: thuggish Bart Simpsons). The band is legendary for stopping shows to dress down aggressive young men in the mosh pit. (Instrument includes some hilarious audio of Picciotto upbraiding a bruiser whom he’d seen eating ice cream “like a little boy” before the show.) This hasn’t done much to rid Dischord of its puritan rep.
“Ian’s very down-to-earth and funny, as much as it seems like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders,” says Grohl. “The first time I saw Henry Rollins do spoken word was at DC Space in either 1985 or 1986, and the place only held 75 or 80 people. Henry was reading his journals and some poetry. After Henry was finished, he and Ian told stories about growing up in Georgetown and working at Häagen-Dazs together. It was fucking hilarious. The two of them together were like the Smothers Brothers.” Indeed, MacKaye and Nelson have a similar dynamic, arguing collegially one minute, enthusing about old Dangerhouse singles and Beatles albums the next.
In Charlottesville, MacKaye discusses the troubling evolution of straight edge from personal philosophy to humorless dogma. “People who beat people up for getting high are looking for a line to draw,” he says. Militant straight edge became a dizzying game of one-upmanship–some punks even went so far “straight” (no drugs, no sex, no meat) as to become Hare Krishnas. It might have been as a response to some of these trends that Fugazi became more insular during the ’90s, touring less after Canty became a father. 1995’s Red Medicine and 1998’s End Hits were long on musical evolution but short on the fiery sing-alongs. Unexpectedly, Fugazi’s most recent album, 2001’s The Argument, found a near-perfect balance between the two.
Nelson retired from playing in bands in 1992 to concentrate on his graphic design–he created the Dischord logo and most of the label’s early record covers, as well as its minimalist promotional material. “You can’t look at a record in underground America that hasn’t been affected by Jeff’s graphic sense,” says MacKaye. Nelson’s artwork even sparked a national controversy in 1988, when a bike messenger wearing one of his experts agree! meese is a pig
“I have no regrets about not going to college,” says MacKaye. “A lot of the people [who were on Dischord] are trying to come to grips with the fact that Dischord is the only historical thing that they were connected to. See, I’ve never left. What I find interesting as a 40-year-old is the idea of trying to be a part of a pronounced, continuing independent culture. The basic tenet of America is that you rebel and then you get real. Fuck that. But Jeff, if you regret not going to college, go now!”
“I’m 40, and I look 45,” says Nelson. “I don’t think I’d pull a lot of birds, as Paul McCartney might say.”
Amy Pickering has worked at Dischord in one way or another since 1982, when she contacted MacKaye after buying the Teen Idles seven-inch in Georgetown and seeing him at local shows. Twenty-one years later, she looks more like a rock-climbing instructor than a punk doyenne. Pickering still fills mail orders in the label’s cluttered basement offices below a dry cleaner in Arlington, across the street from Dischord House, but she also answers email, forwards interview requests, and terrorizes hapless media types who call Dischord looking for the usual record-industry gladhand. “We’re hardcore,” she says. “It takes effort to deal with us. We’re not a standard-routine kind of joint.”
Dischord is certainly not like the rest of the music industry. It has an informal requirement that any band joining the roster has to put out a record on its own first, “so they’re not like, ‘Yeah, I strum a guitar and a record comes out the other end,'” says MacKaye. The all-in-the-family approach extends beyond business practices: MacKaye’s sister Amanda and brother Alec, also musicians, have worked at Dischord, and the cover of the label’s first single is a picture of Alec with his hands across his chest. And MacKaye, a committed activist and protest fixture, is highly conscious about his role in the community–Fugazi play only benefits or free shows in D.C. “We get a kick out of sending a $27 [royalty] check to somebody for a record that came out in 1984,” says MacKaye.
“Have you ever been to Green Bay before?” he continues. “It’s not a major metropolitan area; it’s such a nothing little town. But everyone’s heard of Green Bay. Why? Because of the football team.”
And the town owns the football team.
“Exactly. For me, Dischord is–“
The Green Bay Packers of punk?
“It is! There are people around the world who associate [D.C.] with music. And that is the result of the punk scene in this town.”
We’ve been talking for more than two hours now, and it’s time for MacKaye to do some coaching. A young rocker drops by with his band’s new seven-inch. MacKaye chides him for changing a part on a song that he thought was particularly effective. Dude takes it in stride, though. MacKaye may be a punk legend, but he’s not, like, God or anything. He’s just a surprisingly approachable éminence grise whose last three bands have inspired pretty much every punk unit of the last 20 years.
“I respect the fact very much that Ian takes the time to write back every single person that ever writes to him,” says Nelson.
“Don’t put that in, because everyone will write me,” says MacKaye.
Nelson’s shit-eating grin returns. “The longer letter you write Ian, the longer letter he’ll write you back.”