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Ian MacKaye

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Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye
MacKaye in 2008
Background information
Birth name Ian Thomas Garner MacKaye
Born (1962-04-16) April 16, 1962
Washington, D.C., US
Genres Hardcore punk, punk rock, alternative rock, post-hardcore
Occupation(s) Singer, songwriter, musician, producer, record label owner
Instruments Vocals, guitar, bass, baritone guitar, piano, keyboards
Years active 1979–present
Labels Dischord
Associated acts Fugazi, Minor Threat, Teen Idles, The Evens, Embrace, Egg Hunt, Skewbald/Grand Union, Pailhead
Notable instruments
Gibson SG
Danelectro baritone guitar

Ian Thomas Garner MacKaye (;[1] born April 16, 1962) is an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, musician, label owner, and producer. Active since 1979, MacKaye is best known for being the frontman of the influential hardcore punk bands Minor Threat, the post-hardcore bands Embrace and Fugazi, as well as The Evens, and member of The Teen Idles.[2]

He is a co-founder and owner of Dischord Records, a Washington, D.C.-based independent record label.

A key figure in the development of hardcore punk, straightedge, and an independent-minded, do it yourself punk ethic, MacKaye also works as a producer, and has produced releases by Q and Not U, John Frusciante, 7 Seconds, Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, and Rollins Band among others. Along with his seminal band Minor Threat, he is credited with coining the term "straight edge"[2] to describe a personal ideology that promotes independence by countering the popular appeal of drug and alcohol abuse, though MacKaye has stated many times that he did not intend to turn it into a movement.



Ian MacKaye was born in Washington D.C. on April 16, 1962, and grew up in the Glover Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. His father was a writer for the Washington Post, first as a White House reporter, then as a religion specialist; the senior MacKaye remains active with the socially progressive St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.[3] According to MacKaye's longtime friend, singer Henry Rollins, MacKaye's parents "raised their kids in a tolerant, super-intellectual, open-minded atmosphere."[4]

MacKaye first learned to play piano as a child. He eventually took lessons, but quit when his mother placed him in a more academic environment to continue his instrument. He first attempted guitar at around ten due to inspirations such as Jimi Hendrix, but again he quit when he was unable to understand the correlation between piano and guitar.[5]

MacKaye listened to many types of music, but was especially fond of mainstream Bad Brains and Black Flag and was childhood friends with Henry Garfield (who later changed his name to Henry Rollins).

Early bands

Ian MacKaye's first band consisted of one performance as The Slinkees in the summer of 1979, performing a song titled "I Drink Milk."[7] The band also recorded two demo tapes of covers as well as songs that would later be recorded by the Teen Idles.

Ian MacKaye's next project, The Teen Idles, he played bass guitar and sang back up vocals in from 1979–1980, and the short-lived Skewbald/Grand Union (1981–1982).

His brother Alec MacKaye has also been active in several notable bands, such as Untouchables, The Faith and Ignition.[8]

Minor Threat

After feeling creatively limited in the Teen Idles, MacKaye was determined to be the frontman and primary lyricist for Minor Threat (1980–1983). MacKaye cited the dynamic performance of singer Joe Cocker in Woodstock as a major influence on his own animated stage persona.[4] The Teen Idles and Minor Threat were modestly successful in and around Washington D.C., but would later be cited as two of the earliest and most influential hardcore punk groups, and as pioneers of the straight edge philosophy that rejects use of drugs (including alcohol). In his early teens, MacKaye saw the negative effects of drug abuse on several close friends and one immediate family member, and he vowed to never use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs.

After Minor Threat broke up, MacKaye was active with several relatively short-lived groups, including Embrace (1985–1986) and Egg Hunt (1986). Pailhead (1987–1988), a collaboration between MacKaye and the industrial metal band Ministry, then consisting of Al Jourgensen, Paul Barker, and William Rieflin, featured MacKaye on lead vocals.


In 1987, MacKaye founded [9] MacKaye estimates that for every concert Fugazi played, they turned down another 50 venue options. Fugazi were active until 2003 and have since been on an indefinite hiatus.

The Evens

The Evens, featuring MacKaye and Amy Farina

MacKaye currently sings and plays baritone guitar in The Evens with drummer and vocalist Amy Farina of the Warmers. The band pride themselves on playing in non-standard locations, such as community centres, bookshops, or other atypical spaces.[10] The Evens released their self-titled album in early 2005, breaking a three-year silence by MacKaye. Their second album, "Get Evens", was released in November 2006. On September 22 they announced on Dischord Records' website: "The Evens are currently mixing a new record, due out at the end of this year (or early 2013 at the latest)."[11] The new album is called The Odds and was released November 20, 2012.[12]

Other projects

In 1982, MacKaye sang lead vocals on one version of a Government Issue song titled "Asshole". The previously unreleased track was featured on the 20 Years of Dischord collection released in 2002. Backing vocals and collaborations—as, for example, with brother Alec MacKaye's former band Ignition—are numerous.

Ian MacKaye in 2007.

MacKaye contributed an extra guitar track to "Youth Against Fascism", the second single from Sonic Youth's 1992 album Dirty.[13]

In 1988, he recorded vocals with Ministry's Al Jourgensen, Paul Barker, and Bill Rieflin for the band Pailhead's EP titled "Trait." He also co-wrote the song "I Will Refuse" which was also released by the Wax Trax! record label.

In February 2004, MacKaye produced the recording sessions for John Frusciante's solo album titled DC EP. After working with MacKaye, Frusciante states "Ian is one of the only living people who I really respect and look up to, so it was an honor and a pleasure as well as a great learning experience to hear his perspective."[14]

MacKaye has also contributed guitar and backing vocals to Joe Lally's solo albums There to Here, released in October 2006, and Nothing Is Underrated, released in November 2007.[15]

Throughout his music career MacKaye has engineered and produced releases by a number of bands primarily on his Dischord label including 7 Seconds, Antelope, Bikini Kill, Black Eyes, Lungfish, Nation of Ulysses, One Last Wish, Q and Not U, Rites of Spring, Rollins Band, and others.

Dischord records

MacKaye co-founded Dischord Records with Jeff Nelson in 1980 and it continued as a DIY project, whereby those involved learned how to produce records—MacKaye claims that they crafted 10,000 singles by hand for a Teen Idles release.[16] The label was originally formed as a means to distribute a Teen Idles 7-inch EP, but over time it transformed into a well-established independent record label that worked with different Washington, D.C.-area artists. MacKaye notes that the focus on Washington, D.C. musicians was inspired by folk labels such as Folkways Records and Arhoolie Records.

As of 2013, over 150 titles have been released by Dischord. The label has garnered attention for its ability to achieve success despite a tendency to avoid tactics typically used by major labels to attract monetary gain.

Campaigning, business and activism

Throughout his career, MacKaye has opted to advertise in independent and underground media and perform in unconventional venues. Such practices keep admission prices low (in the $5–$15 range) and allow fans of all ages to attend performances. Maintaining a low overhead and protecting monetary assets are also important ideals for MacKaye, who in the summer of 1990 formed the corporation Lunar Atrocities Ltd[17] in order to shield his own and his band mates' personal assets from the threat of lawsuits. As Seth Martin, MacKaye's financial adviser explained to the Washington Post in a 1993 interview: "protection from liability is the main reason to form a corporation, and for these guys it makes sense. If someone got hurt stage-diving and decided to sue, it would be a little harder to go after their personal assets."[18]

MacKaye has also been known to rebuke concert violence and to confront crowd surfers and other unruly concert attendees who start fights. This is especially true of his days with Fugazi. When audience members became belligerent or violent at a Fugazi show, the band would cease to play (sometimes right in the middle of a song) and MacKaye would tell them to stop. If those people continued their deviant behavior, he would have their admission price refunded and have them ejected from the concert venue.[19][20]

In 2007 MacKaye provided technical audio assistance to Alan Canfora, a former Kent State University student who, in 1970, was injured by a gunshot while protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. MacKaye cleaned up a field recording of the incident made by another student named Terry Strubbe. According to Canfora, a voice can be heard on the tape yelling, "Right here! Get set! Point! Fire!" before a 13-second volley of gunfire commences.[21]

Straight edge philosophy

The song "Straight Edge" was written by MacKaye for his band, Minor Threat and was released in 1981 on Minor Threat's self-titled EP. It was a song that described his personal life free of the "drugs" and the self-destructive idea of "sex as a conquest" which served as a part of the "sex, drugs and rock'n roll" banner originating as a rebellion in the 1960s—smoking, drinking, and drug use. The song came about through MacKaye witnessing his friends abusing alcohol/drugs and acting recklessly. He decided early on that it was not the lifestyle for him, having never fit in with it. MacKaye's main goal was to fight against the people around him that abused substances.[22] His decision to abstain from substances began to influence youth culture as Minor Threat gained popularity through numerous live shows and through sales of the song on their EP. Although to MacKaye the song did not represent a philosophy or a movement, over time people adopted the philosophy of the song and many bands began to label themselves straight edge, founding the straight edge movement. Although straight edge is not explicitly supportive of vegetarianism, MacKaye has stated that he is a vegetarian because he regards it as a logical progression of his straight edge views.[23] He follows a strict vegan diet.[24][25]

Although "Straight Edge" gets the most attention, MacKaye wrote other songs with Minor Threat describing his clean lifestyle as well, most notably "Out of Step (With the World)," in which he said "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't fuck. At least I can fucking think." "In My Eyes" is also at least partially about his philosophies, with lines such as "You tell me it calms your nerves; you just think it looks cool."

Relationship and involvement with Riot Grrrl

Ian MacKaye has been a strong proponent of the Riot Grrrl movement, going as far as to produce Bikini Kill's self-titled EP. Because of the male dominated tendencies of punk concerts during the 1980s, he feels women were pushed away from the movement. He has discussed gender inequalities in some of his songs such as Fugazi's "Suggestion". Despite being a supporter of Riot Grrrl, he came under criticism by those within the movement who claimed MacKaye was simply capitalizing on gender inequality for ulterior motives and that it was not his position to be a part of Riot Grrrl. MacKaye dismissed these claims as unfounded and ignorant.[26] Arguing the success of the movement, MacKaye mentions that he used to note the oddity of a woman playing in a band, but now it has become a normality.




  • Marshall JCM 800 100 watt 2203 [Horizontal Input]
  • Marshall JCM 800 4x12 cabinets fitted with 65 watt celestion speakers.
  • Note: Guitars were plugged directly into the high gain input in his JCM 800's, his presence and treble were set very low and the bass and mids cranked on the amp.
  • Fender Tweed Deluxe, used when performing with The Evens.


Contrary to popular belief, he had never used any effects.[27]

Personal life

On May 24, 2008, Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina had their first child together, a son named Carmine Francis Farina MacKaye.[29]

His younger brother is Alec MacKaye, also a musician. His musical collaborations with Ian are limited but he is known for appearing in the iconic photograph used for many Minor Threat releases including Complete Discography.

He has been close friends with Henry Rollins since childhood[30] and was the first person to take the stage at Rollins' 50th birthday performance at the National Geographic Explorers' Hall in Washington DC on February 13, 2011.[31]

Despite persistently voting Democratic, MacKaye does not explicitly consider himself a Democrat. He has explained that he votes solely for the politician least likely to engage in war. He also noted that he had voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election.[32] When further probed for a summation of his political views, he explained:
My rule of thumb in terms of voting for presidential elections always boils down to one thing. Whoever becomes the president of this country is what the people of this country deserve, because it was either they voted for that person or they allowed that election to be rigged, or they didn’t put enough of a fight about it. However, the rest of the world does not deserve whoever our president is. It shouldn’t be their problem at all. It’s our problem. Our country has an enormous impression on the rest of the world. In my opinion at least, the most visceral effect on the rest of the world is war, essentially murder. This country has excelled in murdering people in other places, certainly in the last 10 years. So my rule of thumb in terms for voting is voting for the person who is electable and is least likely to engage in war. And that is it. It’s a very simple equation.[33]

Works outside of music


MacKaye was interviewed in the documentary films Roll Up Your Sleeves, DIY America, American Hardcore, 930 F, Another State of Mind, Instrument, Dogtown and Z-Boys, D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist, Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, Punk's Not Dead, We Jam Econo, I Need That Record, EDGE: Perspectives on Drug Free Culture, and the K Records documentary The Shield Around the K.

MacKaye was also featured in professional skateboarder Mike Vallely's film Drive.[34]

In 2014, MacKaye featured in the documentary Foo Fighters Sonic Highways which follows and celebrates the Foo Fighters on their 20th anniversary, and the making of their 8th studio album Sonic Highways. The documentary revisits the band's sources of inspiration where MacKaye, among others, have played a defining role.


MacKaye has contributed to several books, including Sharon Cheslow and is interviewed in American Heretics: Rebel Voices In Music by Ben Myers (Codex Books, 2002). MacKaye is also featured in the Friedman book Keep Your Eyes Open (ISBN 0-9641916-8-7), a collection of Fugazi photos taken by Friedman over the course of the band's career.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c Perlah, Jeff. "The Independent". Guitar World. March 2002.
  3. ^ Azerrad, Michael (2002). Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991. Back Bay Books. ISBN 0-316-78753-1
  4. ^ a b Azerrad, 2002
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ian MacKaye speaking at Loyola University; Nov 14, 2006 Archived March 24, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
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  14. ^ [1] Archived April 2, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
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  17. ^ "Lunar Atrocities Limited." Retrieved on February 23, 2009. Archived March 24, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
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  27. ^ a b
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External links

  • Dischord Records
  • The Evens official website
  • 2011 BBC article on Fugazi
  • MacKaye's 1999 Fugazi Guitar Rig.
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