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Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson talk about getting older, getting criticized, and finally getting their shit together to put out a box set.
“People have been really psyched about it,” says Ian MacKaye. “I’m happy because it was hard fuckin’ work.” Decked out in a burgundy T-shirt and baggy black shorts, the co-owner of Dischord Records and vocalist-guitarist for Fugazi is sitting in the dining room of his Arlington, Va., home, discussing his label’s soon-to-be-released 20th-anniversary box set. Jeff Nelson, MacKaye’s button-down-and-khaki-wearing partner-in-Dischord, nods in agreement: “It was just very exhausting.”
Comprising three CDs and 134 pages of liner notes, 20 Years of Dischord, which the soft-spoken Nelson, 40, describes as “the most complicated thing we’ve ever done,” is actually a couple of years late. “In 1999, Jeff and I were talking and we said, ‘Let’s do a box set,’” MacKaye explains, nursing a cup of herbal tea. “‘Let’s do something to sort of mark this particular point.’ It still took us two years, but that’s because we will sell no wine before its time.”
“For two years,” Nelson says, holding tight to a bottle of pink lemonade, “we were just trying to amass everything, just not knowing for sure what the packaging was going to be—whether a book or a slip case—so that was really hard.”
Though MacKaye acknowledges that their label is now seen as “an establishment,” it was still difficult for the guys to wrap their brains around Dischord’s first move into a decidedly adult realm. “Someone said to me—and I thought it was brilliant—that [box sets are] the province of the 30-year-old,” says MacKaye, also 40. “Because you can buy it and you’re done. You have it all and you don’t have to think about it anymore. And you don’t ever listen to it.”
“They’re harder to listen to compared with regular records,” suggests Nelson. “They’re so incredibly self-indulgent.”
Created in 1980 to release a posthumous 7-inch by MacKaye and Nelson’s first band, Teen Idles, Dischord quickly evolved into a model for indie-style self-determination by keeping prices low, marketing without hype, and actually paying its bands royalties. In the early days, however, the label faced plenty of criticism from older scenesters: “[Teen Idles] were really sort of targeted as being capitalists,” MacKaye recalls. “The kind of more political punk-rock people were like, ‘Oh, you’re just little capitalist kids trying to make money off this.’ By the time we put the first record out, I think that we really acutely did not want people to think we were doing this for profit.
“I always think of [punk] as, like, an area in which profit is not the motive,” he explains. “There’s an idea of challenging conventional thinking or challenging conventional music or just coming up with new ideas. And having the attitude—whether it’s political or artistic or whatever—that’s sort of confrontational a little bit.”
So MacKaye and Nelson decided that all the cash they earned from the Teen Idles disc would be used to put out another Dischord title. “And then [future Black Flag frontman Henry] Rollins…he just put his own money up [for State of Alert’s No Policy 7-inch],” MacKaye says, “because he wanted a record out and he said, ‘Any money that comes back from that, you can put into the kitty.’
“For the first few releases, we really did just keep investing,” he adds, “and putting out other bands—’This is what the community is doing.’” The next several years saw Dischord put out the scrappy, vitriolic punk of MacKaye’s brother Alec’s Faith; the arty, metallic chaos of Columbia, Md.’s, Void; and the brawny, anthemic hardcore of MacKaye and Nelson’s Minor Threat.
More than 130 records later, Dischord’s mission is essentially unchanged: documenting a local scene that was kicked into motion by a close-knit group of friends. “For me personally,” MacKaye says, “engagement is always about the musical conversation. Someone says something, and then other people hear it and they say something back. It’s like having a conversation with a group of people and then eventually all the original conversants have basically left—and yet the theme is still kind of continuing.
“We just didn’t think about the fact that people would be excited about or be drawn to it,” he adds. “And now you have a [Dischord] band like Q and Not U, who are in their early 20s, who basically grew up listening to Dischord stuff. None of us were even thinking about the fact that we were even going to have a label. We were just putting out records. That’s it. Then we woke up and it was 22 years later.”
As much as 20 Years of Dischord is a summation of MacKaye and Nelson’s involvement with the label to date, it’s also meant to provide proof that Dischord is a viable business model. “In the beginning of the label and in the middle of the label, there had been this sort of kind of sense that it’s a novelty,” says MacKaye. “My sense is that, after 20 years, it’s no joke, clearly no joke….We have four or five employees, who don’t make huge amounts of money, but [they] have enough to live on plus benefits.”
The pair also believe that the box serves to debunk a commonly held misconception. “Dischord has been tagged with the ‘Dischord sound’ or whatever,” MacKaye says. “I think the box set clearly blows that idea out of the water.” Take, for example, funk-punk outfit Beefeater, which recorded for the label in the mid-’80s. “This was like three years after we put out our first record,” says MacKaye, “and you have a band like Beefeater, who were just so completely different-sounding than Minor Threat. Even Red C, which was really early on. There’s all sorts of variations on the style.”
According to Nelson, Dischord bands have always defied expectations: “I mean, Shudder to Think, High Back Chairs—which was the last band that I was in—was just an out-and-out pop band. Even Fugazi’s records have changed quite a bit over the years.”
“That’s what I was gonna say,” MacKaye interjects. “Every Fugazi record we put out, people are like, ‘It’s so weird—you guys are too experimental!’”
Nelson got more than an earful of Dischord’s various flavors when compiling songs for the set’s first two discs, which provide a historical overview of the label. “With some bands it was incredibly hard,” he notes. “I think Ian would agree: Scream was probably the worst band, because they have so many fucking great songs that it was just maddening trying to choose one.”
The differing lengths of bands’ careers also presented problems for MacKaye and Nelson. “It seemed a little bit unfair if a band put out one record, you have a song from that record,” MacKaye says, “and then you have another band with six records and you pull a track from their fifth album. It doesn’t really seem like a fair comparison. So at least I tried to move songs more towards the earlier part of their careers. It would also make sense chronologically.”
Though Nelson picked, he says, “44 or 45” of the 50 songs on the first two discs, MacKaye dealt more closely with the third disc’s unreleased material, which is weighted toward Dischord’s nascent years. “In the earlier part of the label, the tapes always just sort of ended up with us,” MacKaye says. “Later on, a lot of times the tapes would just go to the bands, or they wouldn’t have any outtakes.”
Both MacKaye and Nelson agreed that the two hours of unreleased material MacKaye surveyed should be edited down to album length. “We both felt strongly that that CD should not be 70 minutes long. CDs that are 70 minutes long a lot of times are unlistenable,” says MacKaye, before backpedaling a little to account for the long running times of Discs 1 and 2 of 20 Years of Dischord: “I think the one exception to the rule is when you have overviews.”
Of course, MacKaye and Nelson didn’t agree on everything. “I came up with all these ideas I thought were great,” Nelson says. “Ian thought a lot of them were too nostalgic or too sentimental. So we could just not agree at all.”
“I don’t agree,” MacKaye counters. “We weren’t spending all of our time arguing about it. We were just trying to come to grips with [the box], trying to conceive it.”
“There was one song we disagreed on that Ian and I and a friend recorded years ago,” Nelson says. “And I’ve always loved that thing. I’ve always wanted to put it out.”
“It’s just straddling the line of self-indulgence,” responds MacKaye, who asserts that creating the box’s liner notes caused the biggest production problems. “Writing the liner notes was insane,” he says, “because initially it was like, ‘Yeah, it’ll be great: I’ll write all the band liner notes and I’ll give it a constant point of view. It’ll give it a voice and a personality and give everybody some idea of how [each] band relates to the label.’”
But the task became increasingly difficult once MacKaye wrote past the storm and stress of D.C. hardcore’s beginnings. “I mean, the earlier stuff was very easy to write,” he says, “because I was really into a lot of those early bands. We were great friends and we all knew each other really well, and it was a really small crew of people.
“As it got later on in the bands, not only was it a situation where I wasn’t as close with the bands, but also there just weren’t that many anecdotes. Because things had changed. There wasn’t as much of a philosophical context. There was less action in this sort of radical underground and more of an established culture.”
“It’s easier to write about how this and that seems groundbreaking,” Nelson says, “or different or shocking.”
“When you’ve got the cops storming in every 20 minutes,” MacKaye adds, “it’s much easier to write about.” CP