by Interviews

It's hard to overstate the influence of Ian MacKaye on the punk rock scene. To that end, to get a taste of Ian's reach, staffer Chris Kanner spoke to a few contemporary DC bands about what Ian MacKaye means to them. Check out the interviews below.

Photo By Amy Farina

Investigating Ian's Influence

Chris Kanner

In 1979, DC was a fairly small city with a population of just about 400,000, but was known as one of the most violent cities in America. The crack epidemic was beginning to dawn; crime, poverty, and urban desolation were rampant.

In the midst of all this, in the historically affluent Georgetown neighborhood, a group of punk rock youngsters spent their days dodging bullies while at their summer jobs, and their nights kickstarting the hardcore scene of the nation’ capital. A movie theater employee named Ian MacKaye was at the forefront, going on to front bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi; names that, among others, would cement DC’s status as a hardcore haven.

Fast forward to 2018. The population of the District has nearly doubled. Violent crime, while still an issue, has declined significantly. A studio apartment in an okay neighborhood can set you back $2,000 a month. And the musical impact made 30 years ago is being carried on. I spoke with three local musicians to talk about the influence Ian MacKaye has had on their music, and how the local scene treks onward in a vastly different city.

Ian and Alex of Walk The Plank:

First, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your most current musical project.

Ian: My name is Ian and I sing in Walk The Plank.

Alex: I’m Alex and I play guitar!

When did you first hear or see an Ian MacKaye band?

Ian: I first heard Minor Threat and Fugazi when I was a freshman in high school. The first time I saw him live was at an Evens show in 2008.

Alex: I think my first introduction to the world of Dischord and all that is Ian MacKaye was when I heard 13 Songs for the first time maybe 20 years ago I want to say. To be honest, at the time it didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t appreciate it like I do now. I was looking for fast and angry and it wasn’t until I heard Minor Threat’s “Betray” did I really start to get into his work. It of course led me back around to really appreciating the later work he did in the Evens and Fugazi.

Which IM band is your personal favorite?

Ian: I would say Fugazi because of the way they were constantly pushing musical boundaries. Each of their records were unique and different in their own right.

Alex: After all these years it’s still Minor Threat. It’s a little piece of nostalgia and comfort for me.

Can you share some of your thoughts on how any of the IM bands have influenced the present state of local DC music?

Alex: I wasn’t born yet when Ian MacKaye started playing and the scene developed, but it definitely has left a lasting impression and has influenced how things are nowadays. You can definitely feel it. I think when this was all new and fresh, the people and bands playing in the early days created this very eclectic and diverse DIY culture. It always felt a little there was a little more substance than just outright anger swirling around the scene. It just seemed a little more self-aware and earnest than most scenes of the time as well. There was a sense of activism that kind of gave an added purpose to the music and message. I don’t know if it is because we are at ground zero for politics with us being in the capitol, but it definitely shined through.

What is also interesting to me, was that while most scenes at [the] time seemed to be fueled by violence and complete fury, in D.C. there seemed to be a concerted effort to stamp out this type of behavior and make it more inclusive for all.

Ian: Ian set a standard for community based DIY culture.

The District’s hardcore scene was not quite the anarchy/drugs/hopelessness predominant on the West coast, and not exactly the ‘tough guy from tough streets’ traits from further up the East. How do you feel IM helped give DC hardcore a unique identity?

Ian: Yeah like Alex touched on, Ian helped pave the way for an inclusive community. This is something that’s been going strong in the DC punk and hardcore to this day.

Alex: It’s its own ethos and way of doing things that was and is still like none other. Of course it has had far reaching influence, not just here in the U.S. but worldwide. Definitely unique.

What active underground/DIY musician today (from anywhere) do you think best emulates IM’s original ethos from the early 80s?

Ian: I don’t think there is any one particular person that I could make that comparison to. It’s really the culmination of a bunch of people working together to keep our scene alive and closely associated with the community it takes part in.

Alex: Yeah it’s a community. It should and always has been a team effort. This is a world community. It is amazing to be able to go to other parts of the world and see people doing things there and making an impact not just in the music scene, but be a conduit for helping people and change for a better life. Be it helping one individual or many. Punk rock and hardcore has grown and allowed like minded individuals to find their place together. That to me is a big deal.

With how much the District has changed since IM began his career (booming population, widespread gentrification), what’s your honest opinion on the current state of anything underground/diy/punk/hardcore here?

Alex: It’s interesting definitely. The scene and people doing shows feels like it changes every few years as this is such a transient city. So there is a lot of constant change. Same goes for many of the bands. So many good bands have come and gone because of this lack of permanence here. With that said, its always refreshing at the same time. Things need to be new and need to change to avoid stagnation and regression. And to be honest, without change there is flat out boredom which can cause any music or culture to die. The constant regeneration keeps it vibrant, while those involved from the early days remain involved. Which is great!

Ian: I moved here in 2003 so I can’t speak for any time before that but the same musicians that laid the groundwork including Ian Mackaye, definitely still frequent local shows and still make new music as well. They continue to promote the forward thinking culture they propped up in the beginning. All the while, new and interesting bands continue to pop up as well.

Jen Tonon of Rocket City Riot:

First, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your most current musical project.

My name is Jen Tonon, and I've been active in the DC music community for nearly 20 years. I've played drums, bass and guitar in various projects, including the punk band Like No Tomorrow. My current project is a rock-n-roll/punk/alternative band called Rocket City Riot. RCR themselves have been around since the early 2000s in the DC area, but I joined a couple years ago on rhythm guitar.

When did you first hear or see an Ian MacKaye band?

I was in high school when I first started getting into punk rock and hardcore, as I grew up heavily into metal as a kid. Stuff like the Big Four (Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer). So when I was introduced to Ian and company's music, it was mind-altering as a youth. I played drums in a punk band with a couple of my classmates, who introduced me to Minor Threat. We covered "Filler," and I just took off from there.

Which IM band is your personal favorite?

Always gotta go with my first love, which is Minor Threat. That "Complete Discography" record started it all for me, and while I get down with Fugazi fairly often, MT holds my heart.

The District’s hardcore scene was not quite the anarchy/drugs/hopelessness predominant on the West coast, and not exactly the ‘tough guy from tough streets’ traits from further up the East. How do you feel IM helped give DC hardcore a unique identity?

The straight edge thing was a huge influence. Not only to me, but countless others. Hell, I even went out and got my "sXe" tattoo at 19. I, like most people in the straight-edge scene, didn't "stay the course," but I'm not ashamed to still sport the ink of that time in my life. Also being the political capital of the nation (and some would argue the world), DC punk and hardcore is intensely charged in politics, usually unfavorably towards whatever establishment at the time.

What active underground/DIY musician today (from anywhere) do you think best emulates IM’s original ethos from the early 80s?

Hard to say. There are so many good DC punk bands making the rounds right now. Most recently I've really been into Killer of Sheep, which I'm sure some will draw comparisons to Bad Brains as well. Of course we always have staples like The Screws and The Goons keeping it real. I think regardless of influence, we all bring our own sense of selves to the table, so there isn't a true successor to Ian's music. We all do what we do, and it's exciting to see.

With how much the District has changed since IM began his career (booming population, widespread gentrification), what’s your honest opinion on the current state of anything underground/diy/punk/hardcore here?

What's really gone downhill is the amount of venues that we can have shows. Baltimore has a ton of choice, whereas DC seems like it's just been shrinking over the years in terms of "dive" places that allow punk rock, so we end up playing the same 2-3 places over and over. Granted, these venues are awesome, and we're very grateful that they have us, but I know it can get exhausting for everyone involved to have repeats so often. I've also noticed a decline in basement/house/VFW shows that were booming 10-20 years ago. Would love to see more of that, or at least an outlet to let people know these things are happening. Social media has become too good at covering things up and hiding events and promotions.

Scott “DC Scotty B” Bowers of Never Submit:

First, can you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your current band?

I’m DC Scotty B from Never Submit. We’ve been around for the past 8 years in DC and currently working on our fifth recording right now, as we speak. I’m getting ready to go to the studio here in about an hour. We switched things up, used to be a three-piece, now we’re a four-piece. I’m just on vocals, no more guitar. Got a new guy Jay on guitar [who’s] really awesome, have a new drummer, Steve [Greene]’s still playing bass. We’re just trying to keep it heavy, keep it real.

You’ve said when you were a kid you really liked Minor Threat. Can you talk about the first time you heard them?

(Laughs) It’s kinda funny, I only heard…my growing up teenage years wasn’t the normal…so, I didn’t hear a lot of music as it came out, I was always hearing music afterwards. Some kid came up to me and said “hey, these guys don’t do drugs, these guys don’t drink” and turned me on to Minor Threat, and I identified with that back then, and that was more towards the late 80’s, not the early 80’s when they were thriving. But that changed my whole mentality about music in general because I thought they had it stripped down, the way it should be. There was none of the high-pitched screaming vocals, there was none of the ridiculous, you know, soprano singing, the Judas Priest-type thing. Not that I have anything against them, but it was just something more…it just sounded more real. Ian Mackaye’s vocals just blew my mind on that, it was so aggressive. And all my metalhead friends hated it!

Right. Cause for him it was more natural, the vocal style?

To me it just all sounded more real, something more…the rhythms were straight driving, you didn’t start moving to it and then all of a sudden it stops and does this little, you know, this little fill that doesn’t go with the beat, and then go back into it for some reason. That was my big annoyance about half the metal. It’s like, you go to get into the pit, and you can’t move to the rhythm.

So is Threat still your favorite band of his, or do you prefer Fugazi or is there another?

Honestly, I like the heavy stuff, and honestly I didn’t like anything after the first album. It wasn’t as heavy and I was disappointed. Wasn’t that I say it’s bad, it just wasn’t my thing and I was disappointed. Cause I thought they were gonna, you know, I thought they carried the crown, making DC the most balls out, heaviest music out there. And so, I was disappointed, it sounded like, why does it suddenly seem watered down, you know, what happened? I was disappointed back then, still am now.

Obviously you’re active in the scene today, do you think there’s still some of the influence, from Minor Threat or any of the bands of his, that you can still hear in what’s currently out there around the District?

I’d say yeah, but there’s a big division in the music scene. And, I guess the best way to say it without offending anybody would be, we’d love to have Ian Mackaye support our scene. We would love to have the support from him, we’d love to see him show up to one of our shows. I’ve never met the guy. I know people from all sorts of other bands that were around in the 80’s that are still doing it today, or at least they still show up at shows. And I’ve always been disappointed that I’ve never seen Ian at a show in the past 20 years. I’d love to meet him, love to see him come to support us.

Talking a little bit about back in the beginning, DC was different as far as the music goes. In the early days of hardcore you had, on the west coast there was kind of the, anarcho-crust-drugs stuff and then further up east, like from New York, there was the whole, you know, tough guy stance. Do you think Ian helped give it it’s more unique middle ground, kind of a blend of all that? It was a little less political, more about personal stuff.

I’ve always been under the impression that Minor Threat itself, as a band, WAS the big influence. It WAS the scene changer. That’s how I’ve always seen it. To put it short, they were the influence, everything they did.

Do you think there’s anyone out there, and it doesn’t have to be from DC, that is carrying on what at least the young Ian MacKaye was trying to do, as far as the ethos goes, the DIY?

There’s a lot of them just in DC really. We get back into the dividing line that goes on in DC that no one wants to talk about…There seems to be a dividing line [between] the positive force kids and a lot of the other bands. I retain, Never Submit, definitely we’re very DIY, we do our own thing. We’ve been doing this a while, and we’ve noticed there’s some bands that just completely ignore us, refuse to do a show with us, or have anything to do with us, for no reason. We’ve gone to support other shows, other bands and stuff that have given no love in response. There just seems to be this dividing line, and I talk to other bands and they experience the same thing.

But I would have to say that most bands that I know, if you talk to them, they will all say Minor Threat influenced them in one way or another, you know. And that could be Protester, Teamster, Never Submit, The Screws, Holdfast, any band that’s doing anything, you know, any band that’s done anything in the past 10 years around DC, past 20 years.

And you’ve been here your whole life, haven’t you?


Yeah, and that really leads me into the next question. With how much the District has changed, certainly since the early 80s and even just in the last 10 years, which is how long I’ve been here, we’ve had booming population, the gentrification is out of control, what’s your honest opinion about anything that’s underground, that’s punk, that’s hardcore here? Is there still a place for that, or do you think that we’re eventually just gonna be run out by Whole Foods? What’s the state of it all here, right now?

Well first off, going to a show back in the 80s, even early 90s was a complete different scene. Because part of going to the show was getting to the venue. And that could be a scary task because of the neighborhoods you might walk through. You could get robbed, you could get knifed, you could get an ice pick in your face, you could get a gun pointed at your face, and that’s just how it was. DC, New York, all the cities, they were a little bit crazier back in those days. Part of the excitement was just knowing you were going to the show, you were going together with your friends, and you’re wondering if anything’s gonna happen [laughs], that’s part of the excitement. Then you have to worry about, DC police were ready to bust heads quick, for shows like that, and did many times. You know, they’d be waiting for you outside to rough up the punk rock kids, rough up the kids with long hair, rough up anybody who looked different.

Now, with all the gentrification, I don’t think it’s gonna get pushed out, because, unfortunately, I’ve had bands that are on world tours and stuff and I talk to them about DC hardcore, I’ve had a few people look at me and say “I thought hardcore was dead in DC” which, that’s a rough thing to hear from somebody when that’s where your band’s from.

But I think it’s a matter of, bands keep pushing to put it out there. Coke Bust made it to This Is Hardcore up in Philadelphia which is, that’s a big step. Any band that ends up on that stage, you know, that’s a big statement for DC. It’s almost, people look at DC as, the rest of the worlds waiting to hear some heavy hardcore come out of it, that’s in that vein, in that tradition, cause that’s what they know.

Right. So you think we’re gonna be ok, is what you’re saying?

(Laughs) I know Never Submit’s not going anywhere. Like I said, we’re getting ready to record right now, and I think our sound just keeps improving, getting heavier. It’s like, I hope we motivate other people to, you know, to up the bar. My goal has been to put DC back on the map, and all I needed was for one of my music heroes to look at me and go (mimicky voice) “I thought DC hardcore was dead”, and I was like well, the heck with that.

So Ian Mackaye’s work wasn’t for nothing. Sometimes I wonder how he really feels about some of that early music but, there was something positive that came out of it.

For sure.

Saved my life.