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August 2006
Myth: All Vegans are Fanatics

The Satya Interview with Ian MacKaye
Part 2: Shining a Light on Straight Edge and Veganism

 

Even in the “fuck your heroes, believe in yourself” world of punk rock, there are still a few icons whose words and actions are dissected as if they were Hollywood stars in a sleazy supermarket gossip rag. Throughout his 27 years as a punk and as a musician, there has probably been no more revered or scrutinized punk rocker than Ian MacKaye.

After coining the term straight edge (the individual rejection of alcohol and drugs) in a 1981 Minor Threat song, expressing his frustrations with the drug and alcohol fueled DC punk scene, Ian has become the unwitting symbol of an international straight edge scene. Rejecting the idea that straight edge is a lifestyle, Ian claims the movement that has formed around personal choices has grown to an extent he never anticipated, as is evidenced by the term “straight edge” being included in the dictionary. Yet, to Ian, straight edge is simply what he calls living cleanly and deliberately, nothing more, nothing less.

At the age of 44, Ian continues to create vibrant, relevant music, and still cares deeply about the world beyond the tip of his nose, a rarity in the punk scene, with its notoriously high burnout rate, and where 30 is considered old. After all these years, he’s still straight edge, still vegan, and still operates the 20-plus year-old record label, Dischord. To his credit, Ian has withstood the constant scrutiny of both fans and critics alike. And, in a punk rock world where your ethics mean as much as your music, Ian has stood as a true testament as someone who continues to walk their talk.

In the June/July issue, Satya explored the ins and outs of Ian’s politics. In “The Satya Interview with Ian MacKaye, Part 2,” Catherine Clyne explores Ian MacKaye’s thoughts on straight edge, veganism, fanaticism and more.

We talked about politics earlier, but in your opinion, where do animals and veganism fit into the bigger picture?
For me, what I eat or don’t eat, sure it’s political, but everything is political. Generally, I don’t engage in discussions about my diet in interviews because then it starts becoming lifestyle. It’s a real conundrum: the idea of doing an interview about why I’m a vegan supports the notion that it’s a lifestyle thing that I would promote. In some ways I do, but by example. Someone recently asked me, ‘Are you still living this straight edge lifestyle?’ It is a reflection of the perversity of this culture that it would be conventional to think that not putting toxins into your body would somehow be a lifestyle, when in fact, that’s life.

I became a vegetarian in 1984, a punk rocker in 1979. But I absolutely believe that my interest in counterculture, in the underground, led me to eventually apply the same kind of critical thinking to what I was participating in. When people ask me about my diet, ‘Why don’t you eat meat?’ the response is always, ‘Why not? Why should I?’ I can think of a hundred reasons why I don’t [laughs]. I’d eat a piece of meat just as soon as I’d eat a piece of shit.

But generally I don’t engage in these conversations. It’s just ridiculous. It’s not my job. I’m not going to defend my diet—they can fuck off. If they don’t like it, that’s fine. I don’t ask people questions about their diets.

[Laughs.] I know. My partner has been vegan since 1988 and is not one for proselytizing. But he was in conversation with a vegetarian who knew all the connections to being vegan but said, ‘I’m not making the step to veganism because then I have to become an asshole.’ It’s the impression that people who are devoted to a cause, people who use the word compassion for being an ethical vegan or vegetarian—yet it gets flipped around and they seem like angry evangelizers. And he thought, ‘Whoa! How did it come to this?’
It came to that because there are practitioners of it. I’ve experienced it. This raises what is called the straight edge movement, where people associate straight edge with these really strict, disciplinarian kind of fundamentalists, completely antithetical to what I ever thought about when I wrote the song and coined the phrase. There are people, usually new to vegetarianism or veganism or whatever, who, like any discipline, when they’re new to it their enthusiasm gets ahead of them.

It’s this frustration we have with fanaticism.
The reason people equate fanaticism with veganism or vegetarianism is because there have been a handful of fanatics who’ve practiced it. But those people’s issues usually are not connected to diet but to their own violence or unhappiness. And by and large, people who are the most emphatic about that stuff drop their diet. They were passers by, just visiting. They can’t burn that bright forever.

What appear to be these limited lifestyles provide a perfect nest for people who are struggling with issues other than actually thinking about animals. They’re thinking about power. Because American culture is so rocked by violence on all levels (rocked in all different senses of the word)—they love it, they’re upset by it, but it resonates. Violence is a form of communication that is just so sensational and so shocking.

Something I saw profoundly in straight edge was people who were increasingly more and more violent—they were attacking people. Something like straight edge, if approached as a code of conduct with clear rules, if broken, acts as a trigger for violence. The point is that some or many of those individuals’ problems had to do with their own violence, something in their belly trying to find a way out.

You’re in a kind of strange predicament in that you are considered the progenitor of the straight edge ‘movement.’ But you seem to reject that idea, that it’s a movement.
It’s not like I thought, ‘Oh no, this is out of control—I don’t want to have anything to do with this.’ I wrote a song, called “Straight Edge,” and it was about an individual’s right to live his or her life the way they wanted to—it is they that have to die when it is time for them to die. Ironically, if you want to cite influences, look at the song “If Six Was Nine” by Jimi Hendrix. He says, “I’m the one that’s gonna die when it’s time for me to die. So let me live my life the way I want to.” He was singing about being a freak! And I realized I am also a freak!

I don’t think people who weren’t alive or weren’t teenagers in the late 1970s really understand how radical it was to not get high! But I’m talking about general people, kids who didn’t drink in a culture that is just so alcoholic. It’s not weird—it’s actually completely organic and natural to not put shit into your body.

I didn’t form a movement. I believe in evolution: you change and you grow. And then every time you get somewhere, you stop, take inventory, and either fix it or grow on top of it. When I wrote “Straight Edge,” it was really just a song to the people around me. I definitely didn’t think it was going to be something I’d be talking about in 25 years! It never occurred to me there would be this slice of the world where it would actually be relevant. I just wrote lyrics—mostly because I was angry with some friends of mine. [Laughter.] I was 18 years old, just out of high school, and had been involved with punk for about a year. I started making jokes like, ‘Yeah, we’re punk rockers and we don’t drink beer, we drink milk’—that kind of thing. But at the time, against the backdrop of Led Zeppelin, Lynard Skynard, Kansas and all those bands, where partying and drugs were so celebrated and such a holy practice, it just drove our high school friends nuts—and we loved it.

But I’ll tell you something, when I got into punk rock, people started attacking me. There was aggression towards Minor Threat—I couldn’t believe the kind of hatred it manifested. I think it was defensive. But in 1983, immediately I recognized that people were reading those lyrics as a code of behavior. In other words, that I was proselytizing—but I was not, I was singing, “I’m a person just like you. But I’ve got better things to do than sit around and say I, I, I. I’ve got the straight edge.” I’m not saying, ‘You do this—stop it or I’ll kick your ass!’ I’m saying, ‘I do these things.’

It’s really interesting that one of the inspirations for the song “Straight Edge” was a Jimi Hendrix song saying, ‘Hey, I’m also a freak.’ Is this about embracing your inner freak?
I’ve always thought of myself as an aberrationist. When I first got involved with punk rock, what attracted me was people didn’t accept everything—they didn’t accept life being laid out for them by the dominant culture.

It’s funny to me that people believe a kid’s choice for rebelling is to self-destruct. That seems ridiculous. I believe that if you are a true revolutionary, somebody who really wants to rebel—you don’t sully yourself. Clearly human bodies become addicted to poison. I don’t know anybody who could debate that. So why would it be revolutionary to put poison into your body? I don’t understand it on any level. Economically, it’s not revolutionary. I mean, who are we supporting when we’re drinking or using drugs? Who’s making the dough?

One of the striking things you’ve said to me with regard to being vegan was basically, fuck choices and rules, just live your life. And that’s what you do. That’s a pretty powerful message for the more hardcore animal rights activists and vegans to hear because some of them isolate themselves by being so militant.
I think it’s a natural part of the process, especially with younger people who first get into these things, they tend to be a bit more like zealots—because it’s something that’s really kicked their ass. So they get behind it intensely. But you know, they haven’t really considered the unsustainability of the practice. It’s really no different than somebody who’s like, ‘I’m going to party every day for the rest of my life.’ You know?

[Laughs.] We’ll see how long they last.
Right. At some point you’re like, ‘Uh, well. I’ve got to stop.’ So to some degree, I think of it as a natural, organic process people have to go through. And maybe it would be good for the really hardcore people to hear that. But they might just reject it out of hand.

Right. Radicals might not care what this guy says.
I think a lot of people identify themselves through things like their diet, and I don’t. I feel that to put our behaviors or practices or these sort of things to the fore somehow suggests that that’s what we are before we are human beings. It suggests these things are novelties and they can be dismissed as such. I’m already dismissed enough as it is! For being sort of an iconoclast or somebody who has really stuck to his principles, it isolates me. So using my diet or something like that to identify myself, or even straight edge as a form of identity, suggests that I’m not just a normal human being—but I am. That’s sort of always been the point of punk rock for me, that anybody can do it, anyone can make anything.

So I avoid getting into long discussions or polemics about my diet on the record. I don’t want to be the vegan. I don’t think my work is to spread veganism. My work, I hope, is to spread thoughtfulness. That’s what I think of music and art and all these sorts of creations, what they require, hopefully, is thinking.

What are you working on right now?
An Evens record. We’re recording in this eight-track studio here in the Dischord house. It’s been hard because we’ve been having a lot of technical problems. It’s an old machine and it has a certain habit of either forgetting it’s recording one track or it’s forgotten it’s recorded a track. But I found out that if you just tap the machine with a mag light, it’ll remember, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be recording!’ [Laughter.] That’s how you get shit done.

You’re tapping it with a little flashlight? [Laughter.] That sounds like a really great metaphor for life: just tap it with a little light.
I’ll go right with you on that one! It’s a metaphor I think about a lot: light. A lot of times when I’m faced with dilemmas, before I try to change the situation, I try to change the light on the situation to get a further understanding. Instead of wading in immediately, fixing what I perceive to be the problem, change the light.

What’s up with the name, The Evens?
Straight-up balance. There’s two of us and we see each other as even and equal. We both sit down on stage, we both sing, we both play our instruments. Even though obviously I have a bigger mouth than Amy [Farina] does. I think we really recognize each other as equals in the terms of our music and our work.

To learn more about The Evens and Dischord records, visit www.dischord.com.


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