While Superbowl Sunday is ragin’ full-on for the rest of America, Ian MacKaye is busy meetin’ an’ greetin’ fans and old friends while simultaneously loading out gear after the Evens’ all-ages sold-out-at-five-bucks throw-down in the backroom at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. “Who cares about a ball game if Ian’s in town playing his music?” says Flea, while fellow Chili Pepper John Frusciante nods in vigorous assent. The two worshipful Peppers are hovering among MacKaye’s “Music Is Sacred” circle of true believers, which also includes childhood bud Henry Rollins, who’s hanging out with former Black Flag bandmate Chuck “The Duke” Dukowski.
The guys show their devotion by forming a movingly impromptu human chain to lug drummer-co-writer-co-lead-singer Amy Farina’s drums and hardware out to some minivan rental in the back parking lot piece by piece (no trap cases, you see). The Evens is MacKaye’s current two-piece, himself and Farina, in SoCal to play a week of dates from San Diego to Ventura. That MacKaye — the no-nonsense high priest of East Coast skate-core and a senior musician-entrepreneur of the international grassroots indie rock boom of the ’80s and early ’90s — would get loaded out by such a high-profile roadie crew before heading over to Rick Rubin’s digs, where he and Farina are house guests, is no surprise to those in the know. The late Joe Strummer once said of him, “Ian’s the only one who ever did the punk thing right from Day One and followed through on it all the way.”
MacKaye, now in his early 40s, has been a bushy-tailed professional musician since his teens, with a legacy already well secured by his triune monument to fundamentalist punk-rock DIY: the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and his co-owned D.C.-based record label Dischord, any one of which probably puts him up for the Rock & Roll Hall of Immortal Punk Horror, as well as the Big Old R&R Cathedral of Shame in Cleveland itself (25 years since Minor Threat’s first record qualifies).
Details of his astonishing accomplishments, the numerous big names in “neo-prog” who have cited Fugazi as influential or inspirational — from Radiohead to John Frusciante to Mars Volta — and, of course, his aesthetics and intramural punk controversies are plastered all over the Web. So who goes to an Evens show, which, like a Fugazi show, is always all-ages, no matter what, with tix no more than five or seven bucks? Morrissey T-shirts freely flounce with Discharge, Minor Threat and Iron Maiden. Then there’s the mid-30s emoid who hollers out during a mid-set verbal exchange with our man, “Dude, I wrote to you when I was 12 years old — and you wrote me back with answers to all my questions.”
Somebody else blabs it out loud: “So what’s the word with Fugazi? Is it final?” MacKaye just laughs, so does everyone else, though he never actually answers the guy. Later, when I press him about it, MacKaye says, “Fugazi may come back and it may not. We had parents who were getting sick and parents who were dying. We had been going for 15 years. [Drummer Brendan Canty, now with three kids] said he can’t tour because he has to be home with his family. It’s just life, real life.”
The ethereal set at McCabe’s alternates MacKaye and Farina’s tight lead vocals and harmonies around no-frills “pop song” arrangements for electric guitar and trap drums with a near-dry sound that excludes virtually all electronic chicanery, save for some reverb on the guitar amp. And when Farina occasionally throws on a dope dubwise slap (an effects unit) to her snare, she clearly shows that meticulous time and tunings trump bashin’ ’n’ thrashin’ to create those special nuances, hesitations, accents and other such only-in-the-room things that take insane amounts of time to replicate digitally — if you can even do it at all — even with the newest smart-ass software in the world. No silly trip-hop excursions (thank God), no dead-end two-note laptop loops, no jack-off faux-trance beats, and no cheesy “remixes” by internationally anonymous doof-headed “DJ collectives” within 100 miles of these marvelous songs from the just-released Dischord (natch) CD.
Lyrically there are comparisons to Fugazi, with themes speaking out against authoritarian big government — “the police will not be excused” — and for transcendence of “world atrocities.” But instead of being downbeat, depressing protest songs, the music is beautiful and uplifting in subtle ways, like taking the volume way down, for instance. While some have compared the male-female vocal interplay to John Doe and Exene Cervenka, fellow indie-rock pioneer Mike Watt described it as “more like Young Marble Giants,” in that Farina’s voice equals MacKaye’s, rather than providing subversive harmonic texture like Exene.
Amy Farina formerly played and recorded with the Warmers, a short-lived three-piece that started in D.C. around ’93, with her, Juan Carrera and Alec MacKaye (Ian’s brother) sharing vocals: “My first proper band, but I played drums with other people,” she says, including proto–riot grrrl band Mr. Candyeater. “Ian has his riffs and ideas and I have mine and we just sort of throw them out there and they fit together or they don’t. It’s really pretty collaborative.”
During between-song patter, MacKaye clearly relishes working the room in various roles: the jocular, permanently amused baldie entertainer with big pointy chimerical ears who insists on old-as-the hills audience interaction with his yarn-spinning, chorus sing-alongs and making everyone ring their cell-phones at the same time; the big-hearted, deeply Scottish educator with an infectiously boundless enthusiasm for music and being alive; the itinerant politicized punk troubadour/raconteur/elder statesman; the grassroots lefty polemicist born into a tight, soulful Lib-Dem D.C. family, whose parents were civil rights activists and whose stated politics are informed, among other things, by the uppity Wobblies of the early 1900s, ’60s counterculture and the self-sufficiency of late-’70s/early-’80s British anarcho-hippie-punk collective Crass, one of whose offshoots became a key European distributor for Dischord.
MacKaye’s also a bit of an anomaly: a codified pop-cultural mug of the Eastern provinces who gives onstage love (gasp!) and original props (gasp again!) to the West Coast punk scene of the late ’70s, Los Angeles in particular. At times the Evens seem borderline psychedelia, “psychedelic prog folk” (ouch!) without even trying, which inevitably begs the question: Do we need be cautious, skeptical, even, of a man — as certain cynical detractors are — who has never sunk a brewski in his life, never toked a single drag o’ the ganj, never even dropped a half tab of acid for consciousness-expanding reasons, not even during teenage years? Hell yes, but that’s a whole other discussion, and certainly not relevant to the diggability of the Evens’ music or MacKaye and Farina as genuinely impassioned musician-performers and warm humans.
“Straight edge [100 percent teetotalism] wasn’t conceived as a preachy hard-line dogma. I just wrote a song a long time ago about how I personally felt at the time, and my lyrics got heisted by extremists,” MacKaye shrugs. Though sales don’t really appear to matter that much to MacKaye and Farina — “it’s all about playing live to us” — the guy and his wife and their extended families still deserve an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
“The thing about the $5 [admission] is that it’s an invitation,” he says as he and Farina walk to the van to hit the road up north. “It’s like, help us turn the key on the room and we’ll make music. We did fly out here. We are renting a van. We have overhead. Obviously, it’s nice to make some dough. It’s working out perfectly. People have always told me, ‘God, you could make so much money.’ Who cares? I do, if the music becomes secondary.”