Before giving a talk at UW's Red Gym on Tuesday night, Ian MacKaye, one of punk music's most notable public figures, chatted with Robin Davies, bassist of Tar Babies, a Madison hardcore band that was active until the late 1980s. The group crossed paths with MacKaye's band Minor Threat in the early '80s.
During two hours of Q&A with the audience, MacKaye's most entertaining remarks drew on other relationships he's formed during his years touring with Minor Threat and Fugazi and running the estimable Dischord Records.
MacKaye, 51, reminisced about meeting folks such as K Records founder Calvin Johnson and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. The latter showed up in Fugazi's dressing room after a show, hoping to do business with the band. MacKaye turned him down, but the two did exchange letters.
He also talked about his lifelong friendship with fellow D.C. native Henry Rollins. But unlike Rollins -- who, at his spoken-word performances, tends to fix himself in a tense stance and wrap the mic cable around his hand as if he's playing crazy basement shows once again -- MacKaye had no prepared remarks and came off as pretty easygoing.
MacKaye fielded some earnest questions from students clearly seeking guidance or big revelations. (One fellow even prefaced his question by noting that it came from "a freshman uncertain of his purpose.") While firm, MacKaye was anything but confrontational or dogmatic. He certainly wasn't terse, but he didn't play into some audience members' naiveté or neediness. There's dignity in that. While unapologetic about brushing off the many offers Fugazi received, he said it made sense that bands like Sonic Youth ditched independent labels like SST to sign major deals.
"If you're on a label that treats you like shit and doesn't pay you, and another label treats you like shit but gives you a tour bus, you might as well take the tour bus," he said.
He also had to field some fairly dull questions about, say, the origins of the term "emo."
MacKaye is still feisty, but not so much that he lacks self-awareness. He touched on a lot of little human details, as if he doesn't mind undermining his own myth. As for people making too much of Minor Threat lyrics, he reminded the audience that when he wrote those songs, he "was singing to 10 people, 10 teenagers." He even described a time when he'd gather his friends at the fabled Dischord House to watch The Little Rascals. When pressed about what he's listening to, MacKaye ended up proclaiming his admiration for both Nina Simone and Australian garage punks Eddy Current Suppression Ring.
MacKaye closed the talk by playing a recording of himself and Fugazi bandmate Guy Picciotto having a comical argument with some skinheads at a show. And affable as the evening was, MacKaye still managed to brew up a new slogan about his approach to life and art: "I say, keep puzzling the fuckers."