The Evens: The Power Of Turning Down The Volume

Dec 2, 2012
Originally published on December 2, 2012 4:06 pm

Over three decades, Ian MacKaye has tested a few possibilities of what punk can mean. His first band to make a national impact, Minor Threat, was a clear outgrowth of the hardcore scene in his native Washington, D.C. His second act, Fugazi, was subtler: four musicians, all songwriters, infusing punk's energy with rhythms pulled from funk, reggae and even classic rock.

Today, MacKaye's main project is his family — which is to say he's in a band with his wife, Amy Farina. The Evens consists of MacKaye on baritone guitar and Farina on drums, singing in harmony and finding intensity in spareness. The duo has just released its third album, The Odds. Here, the musicians discuss their lives at home and on the road with NPR's Guy Raz.

Interview Highlights

On alcohol sales in the live music world

MacKaye: "Over the years playing in Fugazi, it had become increasingly clear to me the irony [that] this was my form of expression, and yet the only venues in which I was allowed to perform it were these venues where the economy is based largely on self-destruction. And I don't think it's evil; I don't think it should be shut down. I just thought was strange, when you think about all the arts, that music — rock music, especially — always gets shunted into the bar scene. Which is incredibly ironic considering just how important a role music plays in 16- and 17- and 18-year-old kids' lives. The idea that these people can't see these bands who are making this music, only because of the fact that they're not old enough to drink alcohol, shows you there's a very deep sickness in that system."

On their 4-year-old son

Farina: "It's hard to have a conversation when you have a loquacious 4-year-old. Especially when both of the parents are the band. It's not like one of us can stay with the kid while the other one goes to rehearsal or something like that. It's logistically very complicated, and we're really fortunate to have family nearby and a kid who's actually really easy to do things with. ... He does like our music; he's also not too shy to critique things."

On quiet shows in alternative spaces

MacKaye: "It's crazy the amount of money it costs to put a show on, so if you're trying to put a show on for a low ticket price, you're up against it. So we discussed finding a way to split off from that system, and one way to do it was just to turn down the volume. Turning down allowed us to play basically anywhere. ... It's so great to play in a barn, or a museum, or an art gallery, or a theater lobby. Quite often, when you put music into an unusual or untraditional space, in many cases, the music really steps up. It's not being filtered through the venue experience as much."

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And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music and today, the evolution of a man known as the godfather of hardcore punk.


RAZ: Listen to Ian MacKaye's career through three phases of different bands. First, just after he finished high school, the unambiguous fury of Minor Threat.


RAZ: And then, in the mid-1980s, he started the more subtle and experimental band Fugazi.


RAZ: Both those bands are considered seminal in the history of American punk music. Now, with his latest project, Ian MacKaye has shifted once again. The do-it-yourself ethic is still there, but the sound, something entirely different. These are The Evens.


RAZ: But The Evens are just Ian MacKaye on a baritone guitar and his wife, Amy Farina, on drums. And don't be fooled by those harmonies. They often mask fierce lyrics. Their first album together in six years is called "The Odds." Amy says she and Ian started The Evens years into their business relationship at Ian's label called Dischord Records.

AMY FARINA: I was living in an apartment at the time, and I had my drum set. Fortunately, I was living next to a trumpet player...

RAZ: Oh, that's good. Yes. All right.

FARINA: ...which really made me feel a little more free to practice. But I did actually have my drum set, set up in my apartment. I think what had happened was he had offered for me to bring my set out and put it in the basement at Dischord House so I could actually, you know, have a proper practice. And then one day, we started to play together - and we actually rewrote a song the first, you know, within moments of sitting down there in the basement. And it was - I think both of us were pretty taken aback at how easily it came.

RAZ: I read that part of it came about in reaction to the way the alcohol industry seems to have taken over the music industry.

: The band didn't come as a reaction to that. However, the way we navigate where we play, I certainly - I think that we took that into account. When we started playing - I mean, one thing that had kind of come up is that over the years playing in Fugazi, I had found, you know, it's - it had become increasingly clear to me, like, this sort of irony. This is our form of expression - I mean, my form of expression - and yet the only venues in which I could - I was allowed to perform it was in these venues where the economy is based largely on self-destruction. You know, I mean, people may, you know, there might be some typical...

RAZ: Too much alcohol sales.

: Right. Of course. Right. Into the bar scene.

RAZ: And, in a sense, it shuts out anybody who's under 21.

: Of course. Right. Which is incredibly ironic, considering just how what an important role music plays in 16- and 17- and 18-year-old kids' lives. The idea that these people can't see these bands who are actually making this music, that shows you there's a deep sickness in that system.

And Amy and I talked a lot about it, and we were thinking we should try to find a way to elude that, because along with that, with those venues, the rock and roll economy, which is crazy. Crazy the amount of money it costs to put a show on. And so if you're trying to do a show for a low ticket price you're up against it. So what we discussed was this idea of, sort of finding a way to split off from that system. And one way to do was just to turn down the volume.


: By turning it down, it allowed us to just play basically anywhere. We've played so many weird places, and it's so great to play in a barn or to play in a museum. Or to play, you know, in an art gallery or a theater lobby or any - because music can be anywhere. And quite often, when you put music into an unusual, untraditional space, in many ways, the music really steps up.

RAZ: It seems like the song on this record "Competing with the Till" speaks to that. There's a line in there: Our audience is your clientele.

: Right.


: Amy, and I played a show at the Canterbury Arts College in England. It was a beautiful building, like, filled with these giant galleries, white wooden floors, perfect room for us. You know, our little PA was perfect.

But when we got there, the guy said, well, you're just going to play in the pub. And the pub was this little room, sort of, in a corner of the building.


: And there was, you know, a bar with the cash register, you know, ringing the till - ding, ding, ding, ding - and a pool table and tables and chairs and students having, you know, afternoon drinks whenever. You know, we said to the guy: Well, these other rooms are empty. Can't we use one of - there was empty rooms.

Like - I mean, we're talking about five feet away, there was giant, beautiful empty rooms. Like, can we just set up in here? He said: Oh, no, no. You have to play in the pub.



RAZ: Yeah.

: ...and should be treated as such and shouldn't be just dismissed as just a way to sell things. And now, it's not just limited to alcohol at this point, when you think about it, because now, what you're starting to see is music being suffused by advertising. And you're seeing giant corporations, car companies actually starting, like, labels and things like that.

So suddenly, it's become - once again, music has this very weird role as being just, you know, an introduction to a product. It's too bad.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. Together, they are The Evens, and their new album is called "The Odds." Amy, the two of you are, of course, married. And I'm wondering to what extent the themes on this record kind of reflect or amplify the things that you talk about at home as a family.

FARINA: I think that there's not actually a whole lot of talking that's going on at home. It's hard to have a conversation when you have a...

RAZ: A small child...

FARINA: Yes. A loquacious 4-year-old.

RAZ: ...demanding all your attention. Does he like your music?

FARINA: He does like our music. He's also not shy to critique things.

RAZ: Tell you when he doesn't like it.

FARINA: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: What would rebellion mean for the son of Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina? I mean, what would he have to do? Like, listen to bad music or...

FARINA: Well, he wanted to be a police officer for Halloween.

RAZ: Oh, that'd be rebellion, think. OK.



: I don't think - we're - you know, people have asked that question, but I just don't think, you know, unless you self-destruct, that would be a form of rebellion. Unfortunately, it's one of the few forms of rebellion that our culture seems to permit. I remember being in high school and being struck by, like, the rebels. Like, the rebellious people were largely the people who were self-destructing. And I thought that...

RAZ: Doing drugs and...

: Yeah. And it seemed, like, what a shame. That's their only option in this culture, that you have to destroy yourself? And I thought, well, that's just ridiculous. But, honestly, I haven't really thought about - I mean, right now, like, what does our son have to do to rebel? He has to take 25 minutes to put his shoes on. That's a form of rebellion that will drive you crazy, you know?

RAZ: Fair enough. Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina are The Evens. Their new album is called "The Odds." You can hear a few tracks at our website, Ian, Amy, thank you very much for coming in.

: Thanks for having us.

FARINA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.