This is one of the best interviews with Ian MacKaye that I’ve read. So much food for thought. The full interview is linked below.
You got me thinking. When I mentioned this issue was about survival, you said that wasn’t something you could relate to. It’s the word survival – the idea you would ‘survive’ something. I understand that people, melodramatically, may consider life something one has to survive. But you’re alive, that’s what life is, you are surviving. It plays into this idea that people’s lives are narratives – that it’s a film or book and you have to survive all this craziness. I think it’s a disservice, ultimately, because it makes others feel like their lives aren’t crazy enough. In my mind, life is not a war – although human beings create conditions that make it feel that way – and I think that navigation is a fairer term. I see life essentially as an empty field. The construct of that empty space has to do with society, but it also has to do with us. The only real question is how are we going to navigate that space, from beginning to end. If people thought of themselves as navigators, maybe they would have more purchase. Navigation is about having a say in the matter, whereas surviving is about dealing with things being thrown at you. With navigation you get to decide whether you want to be in that situation in the first place.
What about when that perpetual state is propelled by an imperative of growth. Capitalism seems to be founded on this idea that you have to grow in order to keep moving forward. Have you ever felt those pressures?
I reject that concept wholeheartedly. Dischord was just some kids who put out records that nobody cared about, except for those kids and their friends. But it was such a valid time for me. When you are the one actually glueing the records, that’s the record industry for real. All the money generated stayed in the label, but it never occurred to me that it wasn’t working. I had something I wanted to do every day – what more could you ask for in life? Ten years later we were selling hundreds of thousands of records and that presented other challenges, but I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, now we’re successful!’ I thought, ‘Now, it’s today.’ The label is smaller now, but it doesn’t feel any less significant. The hardest part is the observer’s perception of the situation. Relevancy, or irrelevancy, isn’t a concern for the participants. The people who are actually the doers don’t do it for relevancy, but they are judged by a society that focuses on abstract and ridiculous concepts of what is or isn’t relevant. This is fucking art, people! If it speaks to you, it speaks to you, even if it doesn’t speak to other people. The idea that you have to grow all the time… I mean, visualise a person, you or me, perpetually growing. It’s not a pretty picture. At some point we’re going to burst. And that is true of all things. The real issue here is a different word that starts with G R. Greed. That’s what we talk about when we talk about growth. More for me – that’s the concept.
Do you think technology is a good thing for the culture you have been a part of?
There will always be people who identify themselves as punk who recognise that technology is a tool not a lifestyle. So, I think punk will survive, or navigate that just fine. But when you say, ‘This culture that you are a part of,’ I don’t think that you can define what that culture is. I mean… could you?
It depends on how you define the idea of punk, or DIY. To me, it’s about whether you value self-reliance above anything else. I think all kinds of people would be inspired by that, beyond music. Is it a good time for young people to make something happen for themselves?
I think it’s always a good time for that. My definition of punk is the free space. It’s an area in which new ideas can be presented without having to go through the filtration or perversion of profiteering. So, if we’re not worried about selling things, then we can actually think. The problem with new ideas is that they don’t have audiences. And in terms of the marketplace, an audience equals clientele. If you have no audience, it’s not profitable. Punk was an area, for me at least, where it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t know any punk rocker who thought, ‘I’m gonna make a living out of this.’ The ones that did quickly left. What I received from the counterculture was a gift; the permission to create freely. And my reaction was to take care of this gift and keep it alive because it continues to give. Of course, there were some people who thought, ‘Wow. If I polish it, I can sell it.’ And then it ceases to be a gift.
Self-reliance is an amazing navigation tool, but what advice would you have for somehow who was crippled with self-doubt?
I have this concept about changing the source of light. The way things appear has a lot to do with where the light is. Sometimes things seem impenetrable, but maybe we just need to change the source of light. For instance, if you felt paralysed by your work – you’re miserable but you’re scared to leave your situation, because you think you’d become irrelevant – then I would say: stand back. Change the source of light. Look at the situation and realise that, though it is important to you – and I will say this to myself – though it is important to you, your work is ridiculous. And your fears are unfounded. You said, ‘People are inspired by you,’ but however one rates my ‘celebritydom’ or fame or whatever the fuck I have, it’s worth pointing out that 99.9 per cent of the population of the world never has, doesn’t and never will know of me. I don’t exist. There are entire giant cities in Indonesia where not a single person has ever heard of me. The music I make does not matter. And if it’s causing me duress, I should realise it’s ridiculous and that my fears are unfounded. Because what’s the worse thing that could happen. Like, what would be the worst thing that could happen to you?
That I miss my deadline. I have anxiety every week before we go to print – which is now. One voice in my head says, ‘You’re gonna miss it! You’re a failure!’ The other voice is like, ‘It’s a magazine, get a grip.’
Exactly, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Life is just a straight line. There are two definitive points, one at the beginning and one at the end. It could be argued that should you decide to procreate that may merit another point. Everything else is affection – accoutrements, add-ons, additives. The way we speak, the things we own, the way we identify ourselves, they’re all artifices on some level… While we’ve been talking maybe 100 people have been killed, maybe 1,000, who knows, and yet this development hasn’t affected our conversation whatsoever. If you put things in perspective one realises how it just doesn’t matter. So the value is up to us, and if we’re gonna assign the value, then why would we assign negative values?
What is the most important navigation tool that people should rely on?
I would never pretend to have an answer for you. But at some point in my life I decided that the basis of all my reasoning is this: pain hurts. That’s true for you and it’s true for me; I don’t wanna hurt other people because I don’t wanna be hurt. Keep things simple and they suddenly seem doable. I read this book in my early twenties – by C.S. Lewis, I think. There was this image of life as a tree and each decision we made was a branch. And then every decision we made, once we were on that branch, were smaller branches and smaller branches until you got down to the twigs. The author explained that if you are on the wrong branch, if you made a bad decision, you have to go back to the trunk – because once you’re on that branch, every decision will be wrong. That was such a great thing for me. I was just navigating, I made a mistake, so I have to go back to the trunk. Because back at the trunk, life – simple life – is always right.