With the Evens, MacKaye Keeps It Simple

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

Listen to an audio clip of the Evens

MacKayes and Fort Reno go together like . . . Ian MacKaye's baritone guitar and Amy Farina's drums in the Evens.

MacKaye, much to his annoyance, is a punk icon, a legend, and not just local. His shorthand CV: Teen Idles, Dischord Records, seminal bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and, since 2001, the Evens.

Fugazi, one of the most influential American post-punk/indie-rock bands, played its last U.S. concert in August 2002 -- at Fort Reno, in fact -- and is neither officially broken or bent, but on hiatus. That has left plenty of room for the Evens, in which MacKaye teams with Farina, formerly of the Warmers, a mid-'90s punk trio that recorded on Dischord and featured guitarist-singer Alec MacKaye, Ian's younger brother.

Did we mention that sister Amanda MacKaye, who organizes the free Fort Reno summer concert series, is in a band (the Routineers) on Dischord, the label started 27 years ago to release a posthumous single by Teen Idles, a punk band featuring Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, classmates at Wilson Senior High School, which is adjacent to Fort Reno Park in Northwest Washington?

Yes, MacKayes and Fort Reno belong together, even as musical energy levels shift from Fugazi's brash, compulsive post-punk to the Evens' minimalist indie rock. A Washington Post review suggested the Evens' sound was "what happens when post-hardcore becomes post-post-hardcore." (Award here for most "posts" in a single sentence.)

Something sounds familiar to MacKaye: "I remember at the beginning of Fugazi, people were saying, 'You're a reggae band?' Because to their ears, the sound of Fugazi was so radically different than Minor Threat. When you're in the thick of it, the smallest incremental moves seem so insane to people."

Which may explain why the Evens have maintained a steady presence on the road, mostly favoring all-ages shows at nontraditional venues such as coffeehouses, galleries and churches. According to MacKaye, the Evens "have played four times as many shows as Minor Threat ever played. We tour pretty steadily, but we don't tour as much as Fugazi did in its heyday in the early '90s, when everybody was in their 20s and didn't have families or ailing parents. Toward the end of our touring time, we were not going away for very long."

As for the Evens, this year alone they've toured Australia and New Zealand as well as Argentina, Chile and Brazil. They've just returned from a month-long tour in eastern Canada, with western Canadian dates next month and a West Coast tour in October -- all organized, MacKaye says, in manageable increments.

"It's not a matter of sanity, but of running a record label," he says of Dischord. "We also have our lives to look after here in Washington." Farina, for instance, is a painter who does portraits and commissions. She used to be a decorative painter specializing in murals, but that was hard to sustain with so much road work.

"Both of us love to tour; we're quite comfortable on the road," MacKaye says. "And I can't tell you how much easier it is to tour with your partner and nobody else. Fugazi, it was the six of us, with a pretty big back line, and it was much more of a production. Amy and I are traveling in a minivan with our own P.A. [system] and our own lights. We don't play rock clubs, we don't even play with other bands, so everything is much more simple."

But simple things in MacKaye's life often get complex. Take Dischord, where that Teen Idles memento, an eight-song EP titled "Minor Disturbance," seeded one of the most respected American indie catalogues, almost all of its bands with strong D.C. roots. Also in 1980, MacKaye formed Minor Threat with Nelson, bassist Brian Baker (now in Bad Religion) and guitarist Lyle Preslar; in the early '80s, it would inspire the American hardcore and "straight edge" movements. Fugazi, with bassist Joe Lally, drummer Brendan Canty and guitarist Guy Picciotto, followed in 1987, becoming as influential for its politically conscious, melodic hardcore and anti-corporate esthetic.

All this is a roundabout way of noting that even as the Evens have been MacKaye's musical focus for the past five years, legacy issues abound, particularly with some hardcore fans reluctant to let go of the past.

MacKaye says: "When Fugazi started, I was asked, 'Will you ever be able to escape the specter of Minor Threat?' There are still people who want to talk to me about Minor Threat, and there will be people who will want to talk to me about Fugazi, but I can tell you already we play shows that are heavily populated with people who have come to see the Evens.

"In each case, the music has taken a turn not because it's a style or a genre but a particular reflection of what specific individuals develop," he explains. "That's the conversation I'm having with Amy, the conversation I had with Brendan and Joe and Guy, and the lack of conversation I had with Lyle, Brian and Jeff.

"I'm sure that people will always be interested in my legacy, and that's fine -- I don't deny it," MacKaye says. "They can take or leave the Evens; plenty of people don't take it, and that's okay. We have shows where 100 to 200 people come out; with Fugazi, it would be 1,000 to 2,000, so already it's clear it's not the same people who are coming out. Those who come, they're up for the voyage."

And, MacKaye suggests, it has been a voyage for him. "In every band I've been in, there's been a different thing going on. I played bass in Teen Idles; I sang for Minor Threat; I sang for Embrace, but we only played 12 shows; I played guitar in Fugazi." Though MacKaye plays sitting down now, wielding a baritone guitar instead of the old electric, "the energy of the music is as consistent as anything else I've ever done," he says. There are no regrets.

"What I do miss, in terms of Fugazi, those guys are my family," he says. "When I think about Fugazi tours and the work we did, I don't think about the gigs or the music -- that was the cathartic exercise I can still arrive at with Amy. I think about the before and after -- talking at the restaurants, driving, the experiences, the friendship. The way Fugazi toured, we sat at the same table for dinner from the beginning all the way through -- I remember other bands thought it was crazy. But it was that friendship that was the driving force of the band."

That camaraderie will be on display later this summer in Glen E. Friedman's book "Keep Your Eyes Open," a collection of his Fugazi photos. MacKaye has known Friedman since Friedman was SkateBoarder magazine's chief photographer and mail-ordered Minor Threat EPs from Los Angeles. The two met in 1981 at a Faith/Bad Brains show at CBGB in New York, "and we've been fast friends ever since," MacKaye says of Friedman, perhaps the most prolific documentarian of his generation's skateboard, punk and hip-hop subcultures.

"Keep Your Eyes Open" will be published Sept. 3, the 20th anniversary of the first Fugazi performance at the Wilson Center; the band's last American show, in 2002, was at Fort Reno, where, on Monday, MacKaye will share the bill with his longtime Fugazi mate, bassist Lally, who will play with members of DCIC (DC Improvisers Collective).

Lally, who is planning to move to Italy, has been in charge of the Fugazi Live CD series, drawn from the band's most legendary shows and available only on the Internet. Dischord will take over that responsibility and, MacKaye says, will sell the live recordings on CD and in digital formats. That first Wilson Center show is among the 30 available now, as is Fugazi's final show (or as the Dischord Web site puts it, "last show played to date") from London.

"Get Evens," the Evens' latest album, was released in November, on Dischord, of course, and its sound and substance suggest turbulence under a disarming calm. "Everybody Knows" is one of several Republican not-love songs ("You fabricated your way in here, and everybody knows," capped with a Trump-inspired "You're fired!"). The opening track, "Cut From the Cloth," asks, "How do people sleep amidst the slaughter / And why would they vote in favor of their own defeat?"

According to MacKaye, "Dinner With the President" is "about me realizing that by my decisions on how I live, that will never happen." Sample lyric: "I don't exist in their worldview / But if I went, I know what I'd like to do / Stand up and scream while the food is served." He's right -- that will never happen.

The context, even the specific focus may be different, but the passion, commitment and desire to challenge the status quo have hardly diminished from the days of Minor Threat.

"I'm a long-distance runner," MacKaye says. "It's not the means, it's the end. It's always the journey for me. That is the point, to have the engagement in life. I think I'm always going to be this way. I'm 45 and I've kept it up pretty steadily, and I'm pretty unflagging."

It's a spirit, he says, nurtured while he was growing up in late '60s and early '70s, witness to "a social revolution where people loved each other and worked hard to change things and questioned authority -- that just seems like such a good idea, today more than ever. Question authority!"

The Evens and Joe Lally

Appearing Monday at Fort Reno, across from Wilson Senior High School near Tenley Circle NW

Details: The free show begins at 7:15 and is over by 9:30. Occasionally, shows get rained out; call 703-318-2197 to check. For a complete schedule of Fort Reno performances, visit http://www.fortreno.com/schedule.html.

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