"We weren't prepared for the reaction we got," explains Embrace lead singer Ian MacKaye. "I think it's my fault," he adds half seriously. "I think people are sick of me."
With his previous bands, the Teen Idles and particularly Minor Threat, MacKaye became used to being idolized and vilified, so what surprises him about the feedback to his new outfit is that it's muted. Despite some powerful performances and an impressive demo tape, thus far response to the band, which will play at the 9:30 club tomorrow with King Face and Reptile House, has been "friendly but not thrilled."
Embrace also includes guitarist Mike Hampton, bassist Chris Bald and drummer Ivor Hanson. All were formerly with Faith, another early 1980s D.C. hard-core punk band, so they're not unknown quantities. But none of them carries the baggage MacKaye does. As lead singer of Minor Threat, one of hard core's most popular bands, and co-owner of the Dischord record label, he has accumulated a reputation as a punk philosopher-king.
MacKaye, a vegetarian who avoids alcohol, tobacco and drugs, publicly exposed his abstentions in a controversial Minor Threat song, "Straight Edge." Amid hard core's anything-goes rebellion, this and other stands attracted both enmity and admiration. More than two years after Minor Threat split, MacKaye is still deluged by mail.
"I get tons and tons of it. It's kind of twisted," says MacKaye, who doesn't exactly cultivate a glamorous persona. (With his close-cropped hair, baggy old clothes and floppy hats, he resembles a Marine recruit on a fishing trip.) "My image has definitely gotten ahead of reality. I don't understand it myself." Fans send their artwork, want advice about disagreements with their girlfriends or ask what to tell friends who drink too much. One particularly intense female follower camped on his front porch for three days, an incident MacKaye calls "the most terrible thing that happened to me in my life."
In his lyrics, MacKaye counsels his listeners to take responsibility for themselves and their friends, and his attitude toward his mail suggests that he takes his own advice seriously. "If they write to me, I'll answer them," he says.
Embrace will hardly make MacKaye less controversial.The new band's lyrics attack drug and alcohol use, and both inner- and outer-directed hostility. With the hard-core scene becoming more factionalized -- and violence between factions not unknown -- MacKaye sings, "No more number one/ We've got to quit that game/ No more attitude/ Give it back to the TV set/ No more tough-guy stance/ I hear your mommy call."
Though MacKaye's distinctive delivery recalls Minor Threat, Embrace doesn't deliver the hyperdrive power chords that characterized both that band and the D.C. hard-core scene. Instrumentally, the sound somewhat resembles that of Rites of Spring, whose debut album was Dischord's premier 1985 release. Both bands retain hard-core's urgency while incorporating melodic harmonies and late-'60s acid-rock guitar strategies.
That partly reflects the tastes of Hampton, who says he listens to the Small Faces, the Who, the Zombies and the Beatles as well as jazz and late-'70s English punk. Like MacKaye, who lists blues, reggae and funk as favorites, none of the band members includes any current hard-core bands among his favorite music.
Minor Threat's reputation casts a shadow over not only Embrace but also Dischord; the band remains Dischord's biggest success with the quartet's "Out of Step" "close to 25,000 and still selling." Those sales figures wouldn't impress a major record label, but as MacKaye notes, Minor Threat has outsold some much better publicized D.C. artists who have benefited from big-label promotion efforts. MacKaye doesn't resent that. "We remain underground," he says, "which, for me, is perfect."
MacKaye, who runs the label with Dischord art director and former Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson, has no interest in emulating major-label marketing techniques. Dischord does little advertising, avoids press releases and doesn't send promotional copies to most rock critics. "I hate it," he says of such hype. "Even if the record's good, it makes it kind of smell bad." The label is run from a tiny, cluttered room at Dischord House, the dilapidated frame structure in North Arlington that MacKaye shares with Nelson and members of Beefeater, King Face and Rites of Spring, which is now realigning under a new name after its bassist's departure. As many as six Dischord groups have rehearsed at the house during some periods; most of the company's bands are descended from those founded in the early '80s at Wilson High School and Georgetown Day School, and the label is sometimes charged with cliquishness.
MacKaye sees Dischord's role, however, as documenting a particular scene, rather than becoming a national company. "I fully encourage people to start their own labels. That's why we don't put out records by bands from out of town," despite the large number of demo tapes Dischord receives from such bands.
The next two Dischord releases will be from the Snakes, a side project of Hampton and former S.O.A. member Simon Jacobsen, and Dag Nasty, a new band featuring ex-Minor Threater Brian Baker. Beyond that, the possibilities include already-recorded material from Rites of Spring and, of course, an Embrace disc.
Though Embrace is set against hard core's most destructive aspects, the band also remains determinedly out of step with the young achievers typical of the affluent neighborhood where its members grew up. All four are in their early twenties, but only Hampton is enrolled in college, at American University. As MacKaye sings in "Give Me Back": "I still don't want to go where the others went."
Nor do they see rock stardom as a potential career. "It's not just entertainment," MacKaye stresses. "We're deadly serious about making an impact. It's not like a job. But it is fun, or we wouldn't do it.