Spectatorship, Part 1 | Ian MacKaye

Text: Vicente Gutierrez
Issue: #2, Summer-Fall 2015. Editorial on Spectatorship.

“THAT’S THE POINT FOR THE RECORD COMPANY, BUT IT SHOULDN’T BE THE POINT FOR THE BAND”

Fugazi-Live-Series-053-berkley

Your current band, The Evens, doesn’t play in rock clubs, why?
We try to play in alternative spaces primarily because it became very clear to me in the many years I was touring in Fugazi, and as the band became more popular, that the economy of the majority of the venues that we played in, specifically bars, was based on                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                           

I wanted to bring up Fugazi’s three-night performance at Irving Plaza in 1995, you said on the opening night, “The Irving Plaza has been kind enough to let us do the show without a barricade…” How did that work out?

We always had to ask every venue, “What do you have? How high is the stage?” Or, “We prefer no barricades.” But sometimes people are adamant and say their insurance won’t allow it. Sometimes it costs more to have barricades removed than to leave them in place. Sometimes you have to really reassure them that you’ll take responsibility for the situation and Irving Plaza was justified in being concerned because hundreds of people were crowd surfing. We didn’t have people to repel that. If you have a barricade, there’s a hurdle between you and the audience, a spiritual hurdle, and the audience feels more disconnected. If you don’t have a barricade, then the crowd has to deal with you— and that’s completely different than dealing with a guy in a security T-shirt. I felt like we were in a position to say to the crowd, “OK, we asked for no barricade and the venue agreed to it. Don’t come up here.”

Was playing three nights in a row a way to reduce the crowd or were the shows added on after the first night sold out?

Fugazi was running into a bit of an issue as we got bigger and bigger. If we wanted to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 

So, the reason we did the three nights at Irving Plaza in 1995 was because we were avoiding                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       so we knew we could do a few nights. We had a guitar stolen at that show; that was a bummer.

Does it sound unthinkable today for a band to demand certain performance conditions to an established club or venue?

People often thought Fugazi had a lot of power but the only power we had, and have, is to say, “No.” That’s the thing that people don’t understand, people say, “But you were able to make them do all these shows.” Actually, we said “No” to far more shows than we played. You can’t fuck around about it.

 

Early on I remember I booked a show and we agreed on “$5,” and because there’s no guarantee, there’s no risk to the promoter. If we were to demand a $1,000 guarantee, then they could dictate the ticket prices, but we’re working with percentages so if no one showed up they wouldn’t have to pay us anything.

 

The show was in Connecticut and while we loaded in, I wandered out to the front and the sign said, “Fugazi $8.” I said to the guy, “That was supposed to be $5.” He replied, “Oh, I think it’s $8,” and I said, “Well, I talked to the manager and we agreed on $5.” He said, “Well, just wait for him to come in.” When the manager came in I said, “Didn’t we agree on $5?” and he said, “Yeah, but I decided to go with $8.” I said, “Oh…OK” and I walked back and said, “Let’s pack up.” Brendan said, “Just pack up? OK.” He started taking down the drums and the manager said, “What are you doing?” I said, “We’re playing a $5 show. This is an $8 show. So we’re fucking leaving. You made a decision it’s going to be $8 and we’re making a decision to leave.” It’s no problem for me to pack up and still no problem whatsoever. You need to be ready to stand behind that. I don’t think of it as an arrogant thing. It’s a punk thing— for me, everything should be questioned. If you don’t agree with it, then you should step to it. That seems very clear, but that’s just me.

 

I’ve talked to younger people who got into music coming to see Fugazi and formed bands and then played shows that aren’t all-ages. I actually don’t boycott many things but one thing I will boycott is punk shows that aren’t all-ages. It’s wrong and I’m shocked when bands do that and say to me, “Well, what else can we do?” Well— not play, that’s what else you can do.

About performing and touring, you’ve said, “the record supports the tour, not the band,” right?

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Fugazi performing at UC Berkeley Sproul Plaza, CA. April, 1993. Photographer Unknown.

The conventional thinking is that a band tours to support a record but we looked at it and I still look at it completely the other way around: the record supports the tour. That’s the concept. If you actually look, the convention really underscores the inversion that the music industry has created in terms of music. Why would a band play to support a record? As if the record was the end and that was                                                                        . That’s the point for the record company, but it shouldn’t be the point for the band. Playing is the apex— that’s the point of a band— to play.

 

In Fugazi, our motto was:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                               

 

It is strange to me that, for instance most record labels, and the record industry to a large extent, put a band out to get something started, but in my mind, the band should start something and the record labels should                                                                                                  . It’s the bands who have to make a scene and get                                                                                                                                                                              .

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

You have also played several shows in public areas, from parks to in front of the White House. To what extent was it a concern of the band to play in more public, open areas?

Fugazi had played on the North side of the Capitol, near the Supreme Court, Freedom Plaza, Malcom X Park and of course Fort Reno many times. One of the two basic things was                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

In 1989, Fugazi made a decision to not be paid for shows in our town, and there were many reasons for this, but the number one reason was we felt it was a way to use what we had, our craft, to contribute to the community and do benefits for organizations that are working on real issues. We would try to give them real cash to buy real things— food for soup kitchens or Band-Aids for clinics.

 

Also, by removing ourselves from being paid and setting these real limitations such as only playing benefit concerts locally, it kind of removed any issue about us, how much we get paid versus anybody else, because everybody’s getting nothing. The general rule of thumb is if you play with three bands, we split it three ways and that seems fair enough, but it gets weird when you have a band like Fugazi drawing thousands of people and a band who has played two shows. Do you split the money two ways with that band? It just seems complicated and one way to deal with that complication would be to just remove the money from the equation altogether. Fugazi never received a penny for any of the shows we did in D.C. and in fact, quite a few of them we put money in to make them happen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

There’s an interview with you in the INSTRUMENT DVD in which you say, “It’s not worthwhile to me to be playing to just play heads and bodies because heads and bodies just represent consumers, and I don’t want anything to do with that. I want to go play to people…but if it’s just a thing where they come and pay their money and there we are up there, and it’s ‘…that was a good show, let’s go home, it doesn’t make any difference, let’s go home’— that’s bullshit.”

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Over the years, I’ve played to many different kinds of crowds. I was not kidding around when I said that and I still stand behind those words— I’m not interested in playing to just a bunch of consumers. For me music is sacred, and I mean that in a pre-Christian sense. Music is a form of communication that predates language and it’s no fucking joke. I think music is                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

There are plenty of times when a band might think, “the crowd represents my success, or the crowd represents my payday, or the crowd represents the success of our PR campaign,” but I’ve always thought the crowd can also represent the people who are willing to roll the dice with me— and that’s what I’m interested in— people who want to roll the dice and make something happen.

 

If you’ve ever seen the Evens, you may have heard me say, “The band and the audience make the show,” and the proof of that is, if the audience wasn’t there then the band would just be practicing. It’s very clear to me that the audience makes the show. It’s funny, at house gigs for instance, where you would think that they would be the most liberated, often times people don’t move and just stand there watching the band. If the audience can get free, the band can get even more free. And if the band gives the audience permission to get free, it can start to upward spiral, I think. That’s really what I’ve always aimed for. Fugazi has played for thousands of people, and that’s very nice, but also for a couple of hundred of people at times and it doesn’t feel any less successful to me. It just feels like that’s where it’s at and I feel totally comfortable with that.

 

I can’t really speak for other bands, other performers, but I like to see people when I’m talking to them. If, for instance, at this moment while you’re asking me these questions, if there was a light in my eyes and you were in the dark, I would find it a little more unnerving. I feel the same way about stages— the stage lighting at a concert doesn’t have to do with the band’s desire to be seen, I think it has more to do the audience’s desire to not be seen. When you’re on stage, you have a bunch of lights in your eyes and you don’t see the audience. Some bands prefer that. I think if you have lights on the band, people often think, “Wow, the band wants to be seen.” But I’m saying that the audience doesn’t want to be seen. Now, some people have stage fright. I’m not one of them, but there are people who are uncomfortable with seeing all of the people in the audience. I still think the audience is more uncomfortable being seen by the band. Quite often Fugazi would have the lights on and people would say, “Turn the lights off!”

 

Once we played this hall in Kansas City in 1993, it was a small hockey arena with bleachers around it with a low wall. There was this random ticketing system so some people had to be in the bleachers, and others on the floor so if you had a blue ticket, you had to go to the bleachers and if you had a red ticket, you had to go on the floor. You couldn’t opt out and people were mad, they kept trying to jump down and the security was kind of fighting the crowd. We decided to leave the lights on to keep an eye on the situation because it was the only way to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

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