By: Eric Greenwood
Despite his intimidating pedigree in counter-culture music, Ian Mackaye is very easy to talk to. There was no awkwardness in my recent telephone conversation with the punk rock icon. Mackaye's eagerness and passion to discuss music is palpable. He returned every question I asked him with thoughtful, in-depth responses- never sounding bored or even bothered that he probably has to repeat the same answers more than he'd like to. In that sense, he'd have every right to want to get off the phone as quickly as possible with another anonymous interview. But like his entire 20-year-plus career, Ian Mackaye's outlook is contrary to what you might expect from an underground legend.
With Fugazi once again on indefinite hiatus, Mackaye has slowly ventured into new territory with former Warmers' drummer Amy Farina. At first, Mackaye said he and Farina had no intention of starting a band; the goal was simply to get together and play some music to kill the down time. He and Farina had been friends for years, so naturally the idea to experiment with some new ideas eventually resulted in a full-fledged band or duo, rather, called The Evens- a minimalist ensemble with skeletal song structures (similar to Mackaye's guitar demos on Fugazi's Instrument soundtrack) mixed with upbeat male/female vocal harmonies and unsurprisingly activist lyrics.
I asked Mackaye if the stripped down approach were a conscious decision from the beginning, and he pointed out the obvious fact that "with only two people things are inherently minimal." Touché. But then he admitted that, yes, he and Farina wanted to avoid the trappings of any sort of "rock music context", so the desire to keep the amplification down was indeed calculated. Mackaye was quick to rebuff any idea that he had an agenda, however, saying "I wanted to make songs that sounded good to me. I'm 43 years old- this is where I am now."
I was only half-surprised to learn that Mackaye hasn't listened to commercial radio in over two decades, so he's willfully oblivious to anything even remotely trendy. He reads the newspaper, so he knows the names like Coldplay or Oasis, but he wouldn't know an Oasis song if it "bit him in the ass." To discover new music, Mackaye prefers word of mouth and chatting up independent record store clerks for recommendations rather than obvious commercial outlets like MTV2. He keeps his ear to the ground and surrounds himself with people who are as passionate about educating themselves musically as he is.
Even after a relative lifetime in the music business experiencing both sides (running the perennially successful D.C. staple, Dischord Records, and playing in influential bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi) Mackaye is nowhere near retirement. He might be cynical about the corporate muscles that churn out shellacked versions of ideas he probably initiated (see Nike's new "Major Threat" campaign), but he hasn't given up on the art form itself. "New ideas don't have an audience", he intones in an unintentionally pedantic manner, which is a mantra that seems to serve as his inspiration to push forward. He's not at all bitter about his ideas being ripped off in contexts he himself would never venture: "Music is a gift that can be cared for and given or polished and sold." Fair enough.
The Evens aren't setting out to reinvent the wheel. Mackaye just wants to write good songs that reveal a dimension of his songwriting ability that he's unable to showcase within the confines of Fugazi. On this record Mackaye utilizes his latent singing voice in lieu of the gruff yell that has become his patented means of expression for decades. He tunefully harmonizes with Farina, who has an affecting voice of her own that pierces the space between the baritone guitar notes. With lower amplification and quieter parts, Mackaye has learned that the tension can be just as high without ear-splitting noise. Volume doesn't always dictate intensity. The politics are predictable and benign with messages as ape-simple as "war is bad" and "D.C. cops aren't always polite." But despite the preaching to the choir aspect (how many right-wingers are going to curl up with an album featuring Ian Mackaye?), The Evens debut is refreshing and powerful and shows that Ian Mackaye is far from running out of steam.