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The Ian MacKaye Interview


Steady Diet of Nothing at Thirty

In 1991, Fugazi released Steady Diet of Nothing, their sophomore full-length. Coming on the heels of the brilliant Repeater LP, Steady Diet, to some, felt anticlimactic.

Ian MacKaye with The Evens. Washington DC, 2006.

“[The LP] is the blip between 1990’s Repeater and 1993’s In on the Kill Taker, championed by few,” Cosmo Lee wrote in Stylus Magazine in 2007.

Far from a lesser entry in Fugazi’s discography, thirty years’ passage has shown Steady Diet of Nothing to have aged far better than many of its peers. 

The year of its release was, after all, an explosive year for underground music generally. 1991 was even “the most important year in pop-music history,” to quote The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who cites a 2015 study conducted by England’s Royal Society that determined 1991 saw pop’s largest upheaval since the 1960s. 

It was easy for Fugazi’s offering to get lost in an avalanche of breakout albums in 1991, and it did: “Nirvana’s Nevermind blew us out of the water,” MacKaye notes, citing one of that year’s best-known bombshells, released shortly after Steady Diet.

Despite some revisionist history, Steady Diet of Nothing was really a huge success. Sales of the album were strong – incredibly so, given the LP was self-released. 

Despite a few middling appraisals by a few high-profile critics, most reviews of the album were good, if not outright glowing. It’s nothing short of spectacular that an album as extraordinary as Steady Diet was all written, recorded, and produced by four guys still in their twenties.

By any metric, the LP did well. After its release, Fugazi performances began drawing massive crowds. 

The band also scored their biggest media exposure to date, appearing on National Public Radio’s nationally-syndicated Fresh Air program on 19 April 1992, in a 23-minute segment dedicated wholly to the band and Steady Diet.  

The show is essential listening. Host Terry Gross plays tracks off Steady Diet of Nothing and interestingly introduces Fugazi as “a postpunk band”. These aren’t things one would expect if Fugazi had dropped a turkey.

I spoke with singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye on 28 January about the album’s dark horse career.

****

Oliver Sheppard: Over the years, a perception has developed around Steady Diet of Nothing, about Fugazi’s discography, where Steady Diet is often situated as a misfire after the success of Repeater the year before. Like an LP you had to bounce back from.

Ian MacKaye: Right. I think a lot of people have sort of fallen into that way of thinking about it.

OS: How do you feel about that view of it yourself?

IM: The history of Steady Diet of Nothing is interesting. When we did our first record, the red EP (1988’s 7 Songs), we worked with Ted [Nicely]. Ted came in and helped us mix it. 

We all knew Ted and worked with him at the record store, and he was a bit of an elder, but a really funny guy. He’d done some production work before, but he wasn’t a big-time producer. He worked at a record store with us! We asked if he wanted to. What we needed was a referee.

You have to keep in mind, with Dischord bands, I produced almost all those earlier records. So, like with Guy [Picciotto] and with Brendan [Canty] and especially Brendan’s band Deadline, or with Rites of Spring and One Last Wish – I produced all those bands. 

When we went in to do the Fugazi record I just sort of sat down in the producer’s chair because that’s what I’ve always done. But suddenly it was like there was a conflict of interest, right? Because I’m also in the band.

OS: This is Steady Diet or the first EP?

IM: No, this is still the first EP. But in other words, I’m in the band – and that’s just a conflict of interest. So it was decided that we better get somebody else in here. 

We asked Ted Nicely. And Ted came in and mixed it, and it was fine. The second record [the Margin Walker EP], we did with John Loder in England, so he was in that role. That was good. And then we came back to the US and we did the single (3 Songs) and we did Repeater, both of those back with Ted again.

Then, Ted’s schedule started getting really… He’d taken a job as a pastry chef and was working at a French restaurant. He didn’t have a lot of time. Ted was limited as to when he was available. In fact, some of the work we did on Repeater, we had to do before he went to work. We were working on it before noon a lot of times because that’s when he had to leave.

So when it came to Steady Diet of Nothing, we were like, “We should just try to do this record by ourselves.” Ted’s schedule was so busy, so we just decided to produce it on our own.

OS: About the self-produced aspect of Steady Diet, and its dry sound, this is mentioned a lot of times with a subtext or implication that you were novices at producing.

IM: Yeah, no, no. I think the thing with Steady Diet being the sort of “dry” sounding LP, or whatever some writers say, is that these are writers and they *do* like to have a certain narrative and it works for them as writers. The narrative arcs they build to place Steady Diet of Nothing the way they do is because it makes a more compelling story. They’re writers, after all.  

But that’s not how real life is and that’s not how it was for us. I had been producing stuff in studios for over a decade by the time we got to work on Steady Diet. We’re talking at least 50, maybe 100 tapes I’d produced by then. A lot. 

In fact, at the exact moment we were recording Steady Diet I was also recording Holy Rollers, and maybe even Nation of Ulysses. I mean in that month, in 1991. I was producing all the time.

OS: Weren’t you doing Bikini Kill then, too?

IM: Well, that was, I believe, in August of 1991. But the idea of Steady Diet being the first time any of us had ever tried to self-produce – that’s not true at all. 

Brendan and Guy were recording massive amounts. They had an 8 track recording set up and had done tons of tapes on their own, 4 track cassettes and 8 track cassettes, a reel. We were always recording, all the time.

With Steady Diet there was something we were interested in, though, which was trying to move away from this kind of rock ‘n roll-ish stuff, and trying to make something a little more singular or unique. And, there’s actually this record. 

Do you know the band 999?

OS: The old British punk band? Yeah! I like them quite a bit.

IM: They have this record they did, much later, called Face to Face (1985). It’s really stripped down. And I kind of love that record. It’s such an interesting record, and it has a bit of a story behind it. It might be apocryphal, but my understanding is the drummer in the band had been in a pretty terrible car accident and had lost some of his ability to play. 

So they recorded with him, and it was really tentative. Because of his injuries, they had to change the way they were recording. And again, I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s the story we heard. But it’s a really stripped-down record. I found it really appealing.

When we started Steady Diet, we thought, “Let’s just make this album really stripped down.” Let’s just get away from these kinds of typical production things. This forced us to deal with each other on a sort of even playing field. Because it was just the four of us. 

When the record came out, came out around the same time as Nirvana’s Nevermind, so of course, it was blown out of the water by that. But also, I think a lot of people, after Repeater, people heard Steady Diet and were just kind of like, “Oh… oh…. Well, uhm, I guess this is okay.” 

We didn’t get an all-around great response like before. And that bummed us out, and it made us think, “Well, maybe those just weren’t good recording sessions.”

But also, contemporaneously, in my journals, I should mention we were so happy about the record. We were like, “This album sounds great!” We’d had such a great time making it. Frankly, with the exception of one or two (songs), they’re some of the most played Fugazi ever did. 

From the moment we wrote them, they were in the mix in our live shows and they stayed there a long time. I think maybe the only song that didn’t get a lot of play was “Polish”.

OS: “Polish” is a good one, though.

IM: Oh, yeah, I just mean in terms of playing them live. Songs like, obviously, “Reclamation” and “Nice New Outfit” and the instrumental on there – we love playing those songs. I do think there is a little bit of a story starting to build up around the record, though, about it being some sort of low point for us or something.

But obviously, after that album, we were going to do In on the Killtaker, so we went to Chicago. We were going to go there just to do two songs. But we ended up recording a whole album’s worth there [with Steve Albini], and it just wasn’t up to snuff, so we were like, “Let’s just go back to DC and record at Inner Ear and maybe Ted [Nicely] is available.” 

At that point, Ted wasn’t working at the French restaurant anymore. We started to think, “Maybe we just didn’t do Steady Diet right. Maybe we do need a fifth person in there, a referee in there.” Somebody else in the mix. And Ted is really good and exacting about a lot of things that we wouldn’t have been. And maybe that’s good. I don’t know.

It is funny. In on the Killtaker, because it came out when it did and was in the milieu and era that it was in, I often think that record has a different energy to it.

OS: It’s huge. It’s a huge record. It has a huge sound. When it came out, it surprised me in a good way. It did feel a bit like a “comeback” record at that time but only because it was the longest you guys had gone without releasing something back then and the culture had shifted. It was two years without any new material?

IM:  Yeah, 1993. I guess so. Hmm.

OS: When I saw you guys in April of 1993 in Dallas, In on the Killtaker hadn’t come out yet, so I guess that was still a tour after Steady Diet of Nothing. At that show, I heard a lot of songs I didn’t recognise, which was exciting. It was only later that I realised those songs were tracks from In on the Killtaker. They had a good energy to them. But live, with Fugazi, everything has an energy to it. 

But going back to Steady Diet, I read in Mark Andersen’s Dance of Days that Steady Diet of Nothing had pre-sales of 160,000? That’s insane.

IM: Well, it probably did. I’m not sure where Mark got that number from. I’ve not read Mark’s book yet. So I don’t really know about that. I’m surprised to hear that, actually. But, that is entirely possible, because Repeater had sold 250,000 copies. 

That’s the thing. You have to keep in mind, Nirvana’s Bleach sold 40,000 copies. Fugazi was selling a lot of records up to that point, so that figure is not unlikely.

OS: On the liner notes of Steady Diet of Nothing, it says the album was recorded in January 1991. And Operation Desert Storm began 16 January – that same month. 

I first bought the album in late 1991 when I was 16, I think. And I’m thinking maybe I had projected my own meaning onto some of the lyrics back then because I thought some of those songs were about the first Gulf War at the time. I’m not sure if they really were. Like “Nice New Outfit.”

IM: Oh, those songs were absolutely on there, for sure! But we knew that war was coming. There was the whole build-up to it. The Fall of 1990, Bush was just cranking it up. And the Washington Post and The New York Times were beating the drums of war. So, we were writing about that, for sure. 

The song “KYEO” is on Steady Diet, and I wrote it before that, but “KYEO” was about the same idea. It was about not getting complacent when things are quiet because some things are probably going to get really scary. And, yeah, the song “Nice New Outfit” on there has its references, too.

We were not all that topical, in one sense. But we were there in DC at that time. And we were writing that record the whole year (1990) – or the songs, I should say. We (would) just write songs, and eventually, if we have enough songs, we’d make a record. 

The recording of the LP was not specific to the start of Desert Storm in January, however. Like, we weren’t suddenly, “We gotta write a song about this!” The songs were written already.

The way we worked on Steady Diet – I’d have to go into my journals – we spent probably one week. Not all the days straight in a row – maybe three days, then a couple of days off, then a couple of more days recording. 

The way we would usually work is we would track everything live. We’d just play together and just get the basic tracks down. And then we’d do vocals, and then we’d do guitar overdubs, and then we’d mix. 

On Steady Diet of Nothing we didn’t do a lot of overdubs, at all. With that record, we were just trying to keep it really simple, trying to make it as bare-bones as possible. Which is kind of too bad, in one sense, because I think that one thing about the studio is that you can use things to create a sonic illusion. For example, I always liked the song “Reclamation” on the album.

OS: That’s one of my favourite songs on that album, or any other of y’all’s records.

IM: If you saw us play that song live, I always thought it was so massive! But to me, on the record, it doesn’t sound very massive. It didn’t come out the way I imagined. For me, I mean. That’s just the way I feel about that song.

OS: On record, though, that’s still one of my favourite songs you all have ever done. Definitely in the top five for me, regardless of LP.

IM: Oh, I think it’s a great song. I’m just saying, compared to the way that song sounds live – with just how huge it felt. I always felt that for some reason, we just couldn’t capture that. I don’t know why.

OS: Fugazi was really a live band, I thought. I saw you several times in the 1990s and “Reclamation” was always a staple at those shows.

IM: Yeah, it was.

OS: I’ve always thought you’re one of those bands where, when you listen on record, it’s good, but live, new dimensions were brought out of the songs.

IM: Well we had this premise, and maybe you’ve seen it before. It was like a mantra of ours, which was, “The record is the menu, and the show is the meal.” 

The idea was that the record gives people some indication about the songs, a rough sketch of the songs. And then, when you make a show with each other – that is, the audience and the band – that’s when the song “activates” and takes on its full form. 

So the audience and the band both have a basic relationship with the “sketch” of the song that’s on the record.

But I would say later on, starting with Red Medicine in 1995, that’s when we really started to engage with the studio as more than a means of documentation. We started to work harder on studio stuff as part of the creative process, to create something that was separate from the live performance. 

Not just documentation, but engaging with the tools available in the studio to make something that would have a more lasting or texturally satisfying effect. Like, I think our last album, The Argument (2001).  I’m really happy with that record.

OS: That was a great one.

IM: But with that album it would be hard. With End Hits (1998) too, some of those songs – the way we did them in the studio, we couldn’t replicate live.

OS: I went back and started re-listening to stuff from the same year Steady Diet of Nothing came out, 1991, to try and sort of get myself in the mindset or headspace of that year in music. I guess I was mainly into hardcore punk at the time. If something was too slow, I just wasn’t interested in listening to it. It seemed like Fugazi was always playing with or against the conventions, expectations that had really set into hardcore by the early 1990s.

IM: Oh, of course, we did that. We were never a thrash band. That doesn’t mean thrash is bad. I like a lot of it. But it’s just a different kind of music than what Fugazi was doing or what we set out to do.

OS: There were these other albums from 1991 that I revisited. Not a lot of folks talk about these in critical retrospectives, either, like The Ex with Tom Cora’s Scrabbling At The Lock LP. Dog Faced Hermans had a really good album that same year as Steady Diet.

IM: Yeah, that’s a very good record.

OS: Mental Blocks For All Ages, I think it’s called.

IM: Yeah, and they have that one song, “Keep Your Laws Off My Body”. That’s a good song from them about then. I’m not sure it’s off that album. But those records are great, of course.

OS: I feel like those two bands are kindred souls to Fugazi and that their albums from 1991 are more “peas in a pod” with Steady Diet of Nothing than the other stuff  I often see Steady Diet put up against. Like Nevermind.

IM: Yes, those are bands that we are more kindred spirits with. We’re more connected to those bands, period. They are both bands we deeply love and admire, and we thought their music was super important. I actually just got an email from Terrie [Hessels] from The Ex yesterday.

Carni Klirs did a data visualisation project about Fugazi. He has this graph of the bands we’ve played the most shows with. The Ex is maybe the third or the fourth most played with. I’ve known them a long time. We stay with them and they stay with us. We’re friends. 

We played with The Ex as early as 1988. In 1992, we played The Ex’s fest. They did a little festival at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and we were headlining. But there was a smaller room, and Tom Cora was playing with them there. De Kift, another band from Holland, was there.

OS: I know quite a few people into postpunk, like Cure and Joy Division-type groups and more recent bands in that tradition. A lot of them know The Ex “as a postpunk band.” I’ll tell some of them “I saw The Ex in 1999 with Fugazi,” and they’ll respond “No you didn’t!” like that’s an impossible show.

IM: Huh. That’s really… huh. I recently came across a great recording of a show The Ex did in Baltimore, and they cover “Waiting Room”. And it’s sooo good. It’s the craziest Ex version. They don’t play it directly, but the sound and the way they do it, it gets the meaning of “Waiting Room”  across very well.

And about “Waiting Room,” we spoke about the Bill Hicks stuff on the Internet about Steady Diet of Nothing, which obviously isn’t true. There’s a similar thing going on the web about “Waiting Room,” that I wrote “Waiting Room” after an episode of Night Gallery. I guess that’s on a Wikipedia page, too, or somewhere. I know Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, but it’s just not true. 

I think what it is with that idea, and with the Bill Hicks stuff about Steady Diet, is that there are some Fugazi super fans out there, and they’re always trying to find, or they think they’re coming across these “clues” about Fugazi in various things. 

Apparently, there’s a scene in a Night Gallery episode where there are people in a waiting room, and someone I guess was like, “Huh, wow, this probably inspired Ian to write ‘Waiting Room!’” And it didn’t. 

There’s not an episode of that show that had anything to do with me writing “Waiting Room”. I mean, that and the Bill Hicks stuff on the Steady Diet of Nothing Wikipedia page – I didn’t even know there was a Steady Diet Wikipedia page until I heard about that.


OS: Steady Diet of Nothing was remastered in 2004, right? It looks like a lot of Dischord things were remastered that year.

IM: Yeah, that was because we had to move. We had been pressing stuff through Southern which was in England. They were our partner, and we were starting to move stuff back over here,  and pressing stuff over here, because they were starting to shut some things down over there. We had to remaster everything. 

With the vinyl, especially, a lot of the old plates were lost, the original plates were gone, and also when CDs first came out, like let’s say with Steady Diet of Nothing, that CD was mastered in 1991. That technology had only been commercially around five or six years by then. 

But when you think about a computer in 1990 and compare it to a computer in 2002 or 2004, the difference is profound. We’d mastered Steady Diet on a computer from 1990 or 1991. The density, the way the CDs are made — by 2004 the technology was so improved.

In the 2000s, CDs, but not necessarily the vinyl, were massively improved by the new mastering tools. We were really happy to update those things. 

In the early days of CDs, no one really knew whether they would become the format of choice, so, John Loder, who mastered all our stuff, was mastering things from vinyl. To save money, he’d master the vinyl and use that same master for the CD.

But CDs have a much wider sound spectrum — higher highs and lower lows. You get a lot more volume because it’s digital. We were staying within the sonic limitations of vinyl. We weren’t taking advantage of the much wider abilities of the CD. So we remastered a bunch of stuff with Chad Clark in 2004, including Steady Diet.

OS: Do you think that remastering made Steady Diet sound more dynamic? I assume there was no remixing?

IM: No, no remixing at all. I don’t know if it’s more dynamic. I didn’t study it all that much. I remember thinking, “Oh, great, that sounds good!” I’m not really an audiophile. I mean, mostly, I didn’t want it to sound shitty, was the point. It sounded good to me, so that was why we did it.

OS: One last question about the impact of Steady Diet of Nothing and how it resonated with the quickly changing music culture of that time. Nirvana’s Nevermind came out the same year, blowing up, and feeling like it came out of nowhere. That had been building for a long time.

IM: Oh, that had been building anyway, for sure.

OS: It all sort of dropped into your lap and you had to spend the rest of the 1990s dealing with the cultural fallout from all of that, whether you wanted to or not.

IM: Yep. That’s the weather. That’s the way it goes.

OS: At the 1993 Fugazi show in Dallas, some surly guy threw a shoe at you. You jumped into the crowd, gave the guy his $5 back, and marched him right out the door. 

People were always showing up like that, it seemed. You had to continually keep confronting crowds about “aggro stuff because you saw it on a Pearl Jam video” type behaviour.

IM: Yep. That’s just how we were going to roll with that type of stuff anyway.

It’s funny, on the Fugazi Live Series, and on the web pages for those recordings, occasionally people have commented on those and they’ll remark, “God, Fugazi are just so combative with their audiences! These guys spend so much time yelling at the audience!” 

Again, the context is so interesting. For people going to concerts right now, it would be almost impossible for them to understand what those shows were like, because audiences now just don’t do that stuff. 

When I was in Minor Threat, quite often when we were touring, we’d play, and there was just straight-up confrontation with the audience, immediately. It was so much part of the deal then. You had to win the room.

By the time Fugazi came along, it was like there was still a significant or vocal portion of the audience that just showed up to fuck with you. Or they came to the show to fuck with everybody. 

With the advent of Nirvana and the video programming that exploded from Nevermind and went on to all these other bands, the crowd surfing thing started showing up at shows everywhere. The problem with crowd surfing was that clubs started responding because the crowds kept invading the stage that way. 

So clubs started using barricades, and that means there’s a moat between the band and the audience, and now people were being thrown up on top of the crowd from behind. They’d swim towards the stage, and they’d fall into the moat. Because of that then, you had to hire extra security to stand in the moat behind the barricades and make sure people didn’t fall and break their necks. 

That added expense. The barricade cost money, the security costs money. Everything that people were doing was essentially driving up the cost of the shows. It was ridiculous.

The worst part about all of this — and this is why I really don’t give A FUCK whether people think I was being too much of “a cop” from the stage, or that we were being too preachy about crowd surfing — is because at least one, and maybe more shows, the people who were getting injured were the people in the front row. 

You had guys getting thrown up or boosted up from behind and they would land on the backs of the heads of people standing up front, and it would bend their neck. One woman left on a backboard. I don’t know if she ever walked again. 

And what was she doing? Just standing near the front to see a Fugazi show.

When you think about people being permanently disfigured, just because they came to see our band, and some guy who didn’t even care about the music, who was just acting out something he thought looked cool on television, it’s disgusting.

OS: I remember stories about people becoming paraplegics throughout the 1990s because of that.

IM: Yeah, there were. Our philosophy was always that everyone who comes to us is our guest. We wanted the audience to be comfortable and we wanted to be comfortable. So I’m not going to have people injure my guests. 

It drove me crazy seeing shows where bands would play on while people were being so savage. I couldn’t understand that.

OS: Ian, we’ve been talking for almost an hour! Thank you so much for fitting this in your schedule! I really appreciate it.

IM: Of course! You’re welcome. Thank you.

Photograph courtesy of Erik Gamlem. Published under a Creative Commons license.