At a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon, punk rocker Ian MacKaye said he likes to challenge norms, both politically and musically.
The founder and owner of Dischord Records, a punk rock label based in Washington, D.C., MacKaye spoke to an audience that filled Saybrook College Master Mary Miller’s living room and overflowed into the adjoining hallway. Wearing a black ski cap and zip-front hoodie, the musician discussed the purpose and meaning of underground punk music and how art can be used to question authority.
MacKaye is best known as the lead singer for Minor Threat, a band that emerged in 1980, and Embrace, from 1985. MacKaye also played bass guitar in the Teen Idles during the late 1970s and has worked on side projects with many smaller bands, including Egg Hunt and Pailhead. Along with guitarist Sonic Boom, MacKaye co-wrote the music for the 2003 documentary “The Weather Underground.” He currently plays guitar and sings for the punk band Fugazi, which he started in 1987.
Beyond playing with various punk rock bands, MacKaye became a figurehead for the “straight-edge philosophy” — a lifestyle among young people that advocates forgoing drugs, alcohol and promiscuity — and one of the founders of the DIY punk ethic, which encourages artists and consumers to stay independent of large companies.
But MacKaye said he does not necessarily consider himself a leader.
“I’m just me,” MacKaye said. “What does it feel like? It feels like this. If people have a respect for me, it’s a respect for my music.”
MacKaye grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family he described as leftist and anti-war.
“I was raised to question authority,” MacKaye said.
As a child, MacKaye said, he loved skateboarding, which eventually lured him to the underground scene of punk rock. But while his rocker peers took to the self-destruction of drugs and violence, MacKaye said he found an outlet for his rebellious feelings by questioning the political leaders of his home city in the lyrics of his music.
Inspired by rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, Ted Nugent and the Cramps, MacKaye learned to play bass guitar during high school and formed his first punk band.
“I wanted to be in a room with people that are different than everyone else and are just scratching at convention,” MacKaye said.
Later during his talk, MacKaye criticized big-label bands that claim the punk classification and explained true punk rock focuses on challenging convention, not earning profits.
Mina Kimes ’07 said she appreciated MacKaye’s discussion of politics and current issues.
“I thought it was great that he talked more about issues than just his band, Fugazi,” she said.
But some students said they had hoped for more of a focus on MacKaye’s current music projects.
“I wish he’d spoken more about the experience of being on a minor label and how his bandmates felt about it, too,” Joe Charlet ’09 said.
MacKaye ended his talk with a discussion of the concept of “underground,” and its identity as a place for social rebellion and progressive politics.
“As long as there’s a mainstream, there are going to be people that don’t accept that,” MacKaye said. “Underground can never die. I’m sure of that.”