Sid Vicious might have been renowned for his delightfully dreadful version of "My Way," but Ian MacKaye has always preferred to live the song's message. He is one of the recognized architects of the Washington, D.C., Hardcore sound and attitude with his tenure in the Teen Idles and Minor Threat and his co-founding of the still-thriving Dischord label. MacKaye's personal philosophy of no smoking/no drinking/no casual sex was spotlighted in the Minor Threat song "Straight Edge," which ultimately (and, from MacKaye's perspective, unintentionally) became the anthem and the name of a clear-headed youth movement.
MacKaye's profile was raised even further with the formation of the influential and powerful Fugazi in the late '80s. Fugazi shows became famous for the band's wild stage gyrations and MacKaye's insistence that the frenzy not lead to audience violence; he has refunded money and booted patrons who did not adhere to Fugazi's no-moshing policy. MacKaye is a strict vegetarian, a staunch anti-war and civil rights advocate and a vocal critic of the Bush administration.
And true to his go-your-own-way lifestyle, just as Fugazi was poised to jump to the next level of success, MacKaye and the band chose to step away from the album/tour/repeat grind to focus on growing family concerns. As a result, one of Punk's most acclaimed bands has been on hiatus since touring behind The Argument in 2002.
"Around 2000 or 2001, people started having kids, and also parents were getting sick and we had some deaths and so forth," MacKaye says from his office at the Dischord house in Washington, D.C. "Whenever there was a kid or an emergency, we would just take time off from the band and let people deal with their lives. We had come off one long break and as soon as we got back to work another birth was announced, so we went into another long break.
When Fugazi takes a break, we really take a break."
Given all this, it should come as no surprise that MacKaye takes a singular path in his first post-Fugazi-hiatus project. In The Evens, MacKaye plays a baritone acoustic guitar while ex-Warmers drummer Amy Farina keeps time on a relatively stripped-down kit, and both take their turns at the microphone. The Evens is a far cry from the blistering volume and barely restrained chaos of Fugazi, yet MacKaye sees it as simply another facet of his creative persona.
"It is what it is, it wasn't like I thought about it," MacKaye says. "I mean, I always think about everything I do, I think that's just my nature, but it wasn't a sound that I'd always heard in my head. It just so happened that's what was there. I did want to play music that was not loud, or as loud, or, more specifically, not reliant on the trappings of the Rock venue. Ultimately, volume is what has driven bands into Rock clubs. Volume is relative. I thought, 'There has to be another way.' "
The Evens officially became an entity three years ago when MacKaye and Farina began playing dates around D.C., but the duo had been playing together since 2001, well before Fugazi announced their intention to lay off the road, stop recording and take a break. MacKaye and Farina had a fairly long history when they decided to hook up for some impromptu jamming five years ago.
"Amy and I have known each other since '90 or '91," says MacKaye. "She was first in a band called Mr. Candy Eater that opened for Fugazi. After that she ended up playing with Lois Maffeo from Olympia (Wash.), who we were all very good friends with, so when Amy was drumming with her we all got to know each other quite well. Then Amy was in a band with my brother Alec called The Warmers, and she also lived in a Punk house called the Pirate House where Guy (Picciotto) and Brendan (Canty) from Fugazi lived, so she was very much a part of my scene. She and I always talked about music and often talked about playing music together, although we didn't for quite awhile."
With the anticipated Fugazi hiatus in 2001, MacKaye finally approached Farina about making good on their desire to connect musically. Although MacKaye has typically shied away from these kinds of situations, he felt right about playing with Farina informally in the basement of the Dischord house.
"Historically, I've been loathe to play with people because quite often they just want to be in a band with me and you can't keep it lighthearted," says MacKaye. "But Amy was somebody who I trusted and we started to play and it was really interesting. It was effortless to make music together and we really grew as friends."
With the launch of Fugazi's open-ended cessation, MacKaye and Farina continued to play informally without any particular direction in mind. Although the pair had dubbed themselves The Evens from the very beginning, neither had any real expectation of moving beyond the Dischord basement space as they continued to work out songs that MacKaye brought to their collaboration.
"I'm kind of a fount of riffs," says MacKaye. "I had some things, they weren't Fugazi songs, but they were things that I might have been fooling around with in a Fugazi practice. You've got to remember that with Fugazi, you'd bring in music and for every one thing that makes the grade, there were 20 pieces that we were like, 'Nah.' We always used to talk about how we had the bag of riffs, just reach in the bag and pull out another part."
MacKaye utilized his time with Farina to explore bits and bobs that he knew would never fly in a Fugazi context, which eventually became full-fledged Evens songs. By early 2004, MacKaye and Farina decided it was time to bring The Evens out of the basement and take it to the live arena. At that point, the jamming ceased and the band began.
"I don't really think about the future, so it wasn't like a plan or a goal," says MacKaye. "At the same time, I'm always open to the possibility of anything. She was who I was making music with, and I do like to perform. I like doing gigs, so it made sense. And she hadn't played any gigs in years, so she was psyched."
For a guy who's used to creating a sonic tumult with one of the most respected and furiously influential Punk bands in the world, MacKaye seamlessly settled into the quietly subtle impact he and Farina made with The Evens.
"I had no intention of playing loud music with anyone other than the Fugazi people," says MacKaye. "The experience of being in that band with the three of them is profound and central in my life, but the actual work is punishment. And, frankly, it was always agonized over, the fact that, by and large, my art and form of expression had to be executed in venues where the economy is based on self-destruction. The irony of that is not lost on me."
With their earliest early gigs, The Evens established the pattern they would adhere to for the subsequent three years (which have included the release of two albums, 2005's self-titled debut and 2006's Get Evens), which is to keep things low-key and to play in venues as far removed from the standard Rock ethic as possible (their show Friday at the Museum Center is a case in point).
"It wasn't like we threw our hat into the ring of Rock, where we're out touring with everybody else and vying for the same stages," says MacKaye. "We created a situation that takes us out of that. We have our own PA, our own lights and we play venues that people don't usually play. It's much more relaxed. We play by ourselves, we play at 8:30, and it's a really different kind of energy."
THE EVENS play Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Museum Center's Reakirt Auditorium. Get show details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.