IP: When we talked, you were about to show an archivist around the Dischord house. Is that a common occurrence? Do you regularly get people who visit the house and want to see what’s in it?
IM: Yes, pretty regularly. I try to be pretty judicial about it… One of the aspects of what’s happened, especially with the internet, is that it’s so easy to find this house. Historically, Dischord Records’ address on the back of the records was actually the address of the house I grew up in. We started the label in 1980, and I still lived at home, so we used that address. We moved out to the Dischord house, which is actually in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River, but we kept my parents’ address because we didn’t actually think we’d stay in the Dischord house longer than six months. So my parents had a regular stream of people coming to visit, and they usually just found my mom and her dog… Which is pretty interesting, because my mom was actually a very interested and interesting woman. When she died 11 years ago, there was a number of letters to her that turned out to be pen pals of hers -- people who had come to the door. She had friendships with these people who were essentially my fans, our fans. It was unusual for me to get there and she would be sitting, having a glass of iced tea with somebody from Minneapolis or something, who had just happened to come by. So the pilgrimage, as it were, used to end up at my mom’s house, but then getting out to Arlington was not so easy. Now, people can find the house easily, and people know what it looks like. Now, I also think people have this sort of “sightseeing” approach to travel -- now, they just have to go “see the thing” and mark it off. So I get a lot of people who just want to take a picture on the porch. There’s hundreds of those photos out there, and it started as early as 1984, back when 7 Seconds from Reno Nevada recreated that same pose. Just the other day, someone showed me Thrasher magazine where a Santa Cruz skateboard team recreated the pose.
IP: And Sloan just did it for a seven-inch not too long ago.
IM: Right. It’s an ongoing thing. I’m happy to say hello to people; obviously it can be a little taxing, especially since Summer...it’s become a bit of a nightmare to me because so many people come through Washington already -- they’re so happy to get out of the monuments and come see this place. A steady stream of people can be a little disruptive for me, in terms of my focus, because I’m a sociable person and I like to talk. I also think that’s why I’m fuckin’ doing this in the first place -- to be with human beings. So when they show up at my door, I’m just happy about that -- there are some people that I’m happy to show them around. If it’s someone just taking a picture of the porch, I tend not to give them too much of a tour because people have a tendency to brag online about the things they’ve seen. I feel like I keep a really low profile, and this house is nondescript...I want all the darkness to keep just driving right on by. Our thing was always just keep the cops bored -- we never had parties here, we never had shows here, we just did our work.
IP: During your presentation with the Library of Congress, you mentioned you’re not a packrat collector, but you are interested in documenting parts of D.C. music history… Maybe you could tell us what’s inside the house, beyond the personal archive of the label?
IM: I really don't have an enormous collection. The primary thing I have in my archive breaks down into a personal archive, which is largely music-related, and then I have the Dischord archive, which would be our master tapes, artwork, different pressings, ephemera, parts -- I have a lot of sleeves that never got folded -- and the original paperwork and all the receipts. But that stuff has not been processed -- it’s just in boxes. Then there’s a Fugazi archive, which is all the tour notes I kept -- I have so much paper surrounding Fugazi -- thousands of live tapes, hundreds of practice tapes, hundreds of video tapes -- people would videotape us and we’d say “Hey, just send us a copy of the tape” and I just put them on my wall -- never even looked at them. For Minor Threat, there’s also tour notes and some recordings -- nothing on the order of Fugazi. It’s funny… In the very early days, even a cassette was too expensive for us. I have a couple hundred cassettes on this wall, largely D.C.-related band demo tapes that bands had just given us. But I know that it was not unusual for me to just grab a tape and flip it to the b-side and use that to record a practice, because we couldn’t afford brand new tapes. So I have this whole wall of tapes and I’m like, “Ugh, am I really going to go through and listen to all these tapes to see what I’ve done?” It was just for the moment. I’ve thought about how I wished I had thought to write [the contents of each tape] down… But I have the tapes, which is more than what most people can say.
For my personal collection, I’m working with an archivist right now… I have 35 years of correspondence: all the letter that people wrote to me, or Dischord, or Fugazi, or Minor Threat -- I have almost all of that, and I’ve been working with this person for three months now, and we’re maybe just past the halfway mark. That collection is incredible… Very interesting for me, because I answered all the mail -- when people wrote to me, I always answered and I kept their letters. But I had not remembered just how intense some of them were -- many of them were. So we’re going through every letter, giving them a quick scan, and deciding where to put it. Within that, I have Fugazi, Minor Threat, Dischord, and me, and then within each of those, are fan letters, general correspondence, scene reports, which are great because so many people would just write about what is going on with their scene... “In Waukesha, we got a couple good bands, these guys are pretty fast…” I have a whole folder of scene reports. I have one whole folder for the Fugazi song “Suggestion”, which I guess got people writing… I have so many letters about that. I have a folder dedicated to the Minor Threat song “Straight Edge”... Again, people had a lot to say about that, pro and con. I also have a Minor Threat “breakup” folder, because people were so upset with us for breaking up!
I love archive work -- I’m a detective, I love the challenge of trying to figure things out, and I like the idea of trying to put things into an order. I also realize it’s really interfering with my creative work -- like, I’m spending all of my time polishing the past. I think it is important, there’s no question about that -- I’ve put my time and money forward to that effect -- but I also realize that for it to have any real value, I have to continue to create. It can’t just be an echo, I have to continue working. So, having these people work with me now, I’ve just started to get a sense of the shape of the project, and that’s been helpful. Before, it would be as if you had set out to sea at night, and you have no idea where the ocean begins or ends. At least now I have a sense that the sun is coming up over there and I have an idea where I’m going. I feel pretty encouraged at the moment, but it’s still a challenge.
IM: Jeff Nelson, who’s my co-owner at Dischord, both of us have always been savers. His collection is, maybe, bigger than mine, my god… He moved to Toledo because in Toledo, you can buy a 20-room Victorian mansion for half of what you would pay for a regular house here. And he did it because he had so much stuff -- that guy is a collector! But I felt that it was important because I knew it was important to me, so that’s why I kept it around. As I’ve gotten older, I also realized the real value of that work happened when I did it, and I think it’s important to have evidence of that, or give some sense of what was going on, for people who are looking for that kind of inspiration. I feel very grateful recorded sound was invented, but it’s not as if there was no music before there was the phonograph or the wax cylinder -- I think it’s even arguable that music was even more important before there was a way to record it. The fact that it wasn’t documented in that format doesn't make it valuable. I try to keep that in mind, that when I was singing the songs, that’s when it happened, and I am thankful for recorded sound, but I don’t want to put too much of a pricetag on it. Having said that, we’ve done this work, I haven’t thrown it away, and if that’s the case, I kind of feel obligated to leave some breadcrumbs for people to see so that completely untrained, outsider teenagers can start a record company and make it go. The early ‘80s American punk scene was a really important moment in American culture inasmuch that it was one of the first times I think where you had this entire network made up of unpaid volunteer teenagers who had no hope or desire to be careerist by any means, and they also realized that no one else was going to do the work for them… The music industry's radar screens didn’t pick up such tiny beeps. It wasn’t until the money started being made that it started to “ping” with people. So I feel like that chapter of time is really important, and it’s interesting now, because I realize that my correspondence may be one of the last eras where there was paper correspondence. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of new labels with a vast archive of written correspondence -- it’s all digital.
Maybe eight or nine years ago, a good friend of mine died -- he OD’ed, and it was a drag. He had a will, however, which we were all happy to hear, and his friend was named executor. And when his friend went to the will [reading], he was stunned because our friend had enumerated everything he owned and gave directions for everything. And I really thought about that, because people are starting to die around me, and all the stuff was left behind, and we didn’t know what to do with it all. And then I thought about my stuff, and if I dropped dead, who would figure this stuff out? The thing is, my brain still works, and I’m here… I’d like to think one of the good byproducts of not ever drinking or doing drugs is that I actually still remember things. So, I decided really, in many ways, for my wife’s benefit, because she’s the one who’s going to get it fall in her lap, so I thought, I’m going to start getting this shit organized.
IP: We recently spoke to Michele Casto and Lauren Algee from the D.C. Punk Archive. Can you talk about your relationship with the Archive, and why you decided to donate some of your materials?
IM: I like them a lot. I think Michele and Lauren are nice people, and their idea is great. I think it’s important, specifically, because prior to them coming along with this, the Washingtoniana section of the Martin Luther King Library -- which is the head library in Washington -- has crime reports, real estate reports, sports stuff, politics, politics, politics, politics, civil rights stuff, schools, newspapers… When we first met with them about this thing, I asked them about their go-go collection, and it was miniscule, which is really disheartening, because this was, like, the most vibrant music scene in Washington. Then I asked them about their bluegrass collection -- zero. In the 1960s, D.C. was one of the capitals of bluegrass. I’m not trying to say anything sideways about Michele or Lauren, it’s just they were not aware of it. The bigger issue was that the library just did not think that local culture merited their attention…. Which is a shame, but it’s also totally endemic of the city. That’s the way it is. The machinery of this city is operated by the federal government, and so they don’t ever see what’s going on. There’s actually a real city, and there’s real people who live here, and there’s a real culture. In some ways, the fact that the canopy is made up of this federal view has created a shade in which new can really grow, like mushrooms. And that’s why I think very occasionally there are these very deep movements, these scenes that develop here that actually have some cultural significance, even to the degree that the people who run the city are unaware of it. And they almost always are! One of the reasons I’ve always stayed here is because nobody knows who I am -- I get more recognized in other cities than I am here. That’s changing a little bit now, partially because I’ve been doing it for too long, but also now people see documentaries and go, “You’re that dude!”... But prior to this, I was invisible. You know, I live in a city where if you say you’re a musician, they say, “Yeah, but what’s your job? What do you do for a living?” Out in Los Angeles, or anywhere, you go, “I’m a musician,” and they go, “Oh, cool.” So, the fact that Michele and them kind of stepped up, I was like, wow… The one thing about the punk scene in Washington, compared to the bluegrass scene, the jazz scene, or the go-go scene, is that we were not just provincial, but we were proponents of being provincial. It wasn’t an afterthought that for every Fugazi show, I would introduce it by saying, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we are Fugazi from Washington D.C.” Even though it was a joke, we meant business. On one of the earliest Dischord records, under the Dischord logo on the label, we put a tagline saying “Putting D.C. On the Map.” It was a joke, obviously -- D.C. is on every map in the world, but not the cultural map. Growing up here, everyone just left -- if you wanted to be in a band, you went to New York or L.A. -- somewhere else if you wanted to do that work, because we don’t do that here. So our deep sense of location, and our commit to sort like, “We’re from Washington,” and even repurposing the D.C. flag -- we made being from D.C. front and center, and talked about it over and over and over. In a way, it kind of forced the issue. So I don’t think the bluegrass scene -- even though a lot of stuff was happening here -- I don’t think a lot of people went around saying, “Yeah, we’re from the D.C. bluegrass scene!” And the go-go guys, even though they were super provincial, they didn’t travel, they didn’t tour, and they had a very inward view of things. That scene has been vibrant for 40 years, but the only thing in terms of outwardness was in terms of, maybe, commercial success… Whereas we never interested in commercial success. What we were interested in was traveling around the country and meeting like-minded punks, and saying, “This is our flavor, this is what we bring to the table.” So I like this idea that the punk scene would be the thing that might kinda kick open the wall, so that the library system here will actually start taking seriously the cultural occurrences in contribution to the city. So I really applaud Michele and the other people involved for taking the lead on this. So I’ve been consulting, as you can tell, and I’ve started giving them some stuff -- we gave them a ton of records. I think it’s going to be a really cool collection. But I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with all my stuff… Right now I’m just getting it into order.
You also asked me about other labels and the importance of them archiving stuff… I wanna say that I think it is important, but I also want to remind people to not get ahead of themselves. Too often when people are trying to start a label, the first thing they think is, “Well, I guess we better get contracts and lawyers,” and they don’t even have a band -- it’s like they’re starting a restaurant and they want the decor to be perfect, but there’s no food. I don’t want people’s concern about their archiving to ever interfere with their creative production. I don’t want them to get so hung up being precious about the things they've done, or the things that they’re doing, that they actually don’t do anything. I know people who work on creative projects, and they’re immediately thinking about their legacy -- you can’t have a legacy if you don't do anything.
Special thanks to Ian for his time and wonderful stories. You can follow Dischord Records on Twitter at @dischordrecords and on Facebook. For those of you waiting for Ian to join Twitter, it's probably never going to happen.