Nellie, Ian, Steve and I

I once barged into an interview that Steve Horowitz of Pop Matters was conducting in the lobby of the Driskill Hotel in Austin during SXSW2009 and put Nellie McKay on the phone with Ian MacKaye and just noticed, two years after, that the incident made it into Steve’s piece.

To wit:

At this point in the conversation a stranger intrudes and asks who we are and what we’re doing. This is one of the perils of doing an interview in a public place during SXSW. His name is Mark Weiss. And he’s a concert promoter. When Weiss learns who McKay is, he volunteers that he’s a friend of the musician Ian McKaye (Fugazi) and proceeds to get him on the telephone because the two share the same last name. The two musicians have never met before and chat briefly. I hear a mention of Washington D.C. and the names of shared friends. The two people share a history of combining their music and social activism. After the call is over, I ask McKay what they talked about and if it felt like an historic moment. She laughs.

“He’s in San Francisco at a party with Shirley McLaine. So it’s a “Mc” kind of day. The Scots must be out in force now that St. Paddy’s is over.”

I had met Ian a couple years earlier when I had presented The Evens (Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina) at Terman Middle School Auditorium in Palo Alto, and, although I had no business doing such, I had saved his cell phone number in my handheld.  But Ian took the call and I put him on with Nellie. Steve’s account differs slightly from what I heard, but I thought Nellie said, punning on their mutual prefix, “It’s a ‘muck’ kind of day.” or something (Steve has it spelled out “mc” more literally, but easily confused with the abbreviation for “master of ceremonies”).

Ian’s The Evens show was notable for having taken place in a room that years earlier was the scene of a school dance in which, or so he told the crowd, he was too shy to ask anyone to dance: Ian had lived in Palo Alto that one year, for him eighth grade, when his father was a fellow at Stanford. The Palo Alto Weekly reported this, about Ian’s Palo Alto connection. It is also true that Ian or someone in his camp had seen listings about my all ages series at Cubberley and had tried to rent the space for a show but was refused.

Besides seeing Fugazi at Ian Brennan famous co-bill at Dolores Park (with Sleater-Kinney, Greil Marcus described it in the New York Times

check p 202 for mention of Sleater-Kinney in this new book, as I saw it in Mountain View store

) I also happened to visit the second floor of the Whitney Museum in New York in 2000 at the precise time Jem Cohen’s “Instrument” was sceening, which I took as a sign and took in the film.

It was Ian Brennan (pronounced “EYE-an”, and not the guy from “Glee”) who put MacKaye  (“mick EYE”) in touch with me, and he also produced the show the following night at Cafe DuNord (that featured BARR as openers — at that show I recall Kim Chun of the Bay Guardian introducing me to Joanna Newsom as “an old ‘G’ concert promoter”!!!).

Ian MacKaye, as memory unwinds like an onion or salt-water taffy, also graciously did a “meet the artists/ career in music” lunchtime appearance at the middle school day of show. He later said he had lost his yearbook of that year but fellow Palo Altan Gina Arnold had had a mimeographed copy made, which he keeps. (There is supposedly an archive at Palo Alto Library, via Steve Staiger, called “Palo Alto Rock and Roll Archive / Jerry Garcia Day” and I add musicians to it as I find them — The Donnas, Third Eye Blind, the dude, Chris Appelgren  from the Pee Chees, who did one year in PAUSD — and I hope to get a copy of the copy of Gina’s gift to Ian — maybe now that Karen Holman is on City Council the Palo Alto Historical Association will actualize my concept here, but I really, really digress…)

Here is a brief excerpt from the Fugazi film:

Edit to add, the next day: not to digress too far from Ian and Nellie, but Greil’s long review of the Sleater-Kinney Fugazi show is actually for Food Not Bombs 20th anniversary, fitting in with Steve’s socially conscious theme.

Edit to add, forty five minutes after previous — 2:30 Friday, April 29, 2011: I am going to paste in Molly Tanenbaum’s 2000 preview of The Evens in Palo Alto because there is some vagary in the way it is archived on the Palo Alto Weekly site; there is also a less relevant (!) review of cd by Marc Burkhardt and I found a blogger review and photo of show itself — and kinda fits, in “plastic alto logic,” because Horowitz notes that Nellie McKay appeared on a panel about concerts in unusual venues:

Terman Middle School proves just the right venue for Fugazi founder Ian MacKaye

by Molly Tanenbaum

It’s hard to beat paying $5 for an evening of live music in Palo Alto. But punk rocker Ian MacKaye will tell you that’s exactly how it should be.

MacKaye will perform with his new band, The Evens, next Tuesday evening at Palo Alto’s Terman Middle School. All are welcome — and the price is right.

Performing in a school auditorium is nothing new to MacKaye. As singer-guitarist of indie-legends Minor Threat and Fugazi, Mackaye’s anti-corporate reputation set him apart from the crowd. Believing in music for music’s sake, Mackaye has released $10 CDs, favored community concert spaces over rock clubs and turned down numerous lucrative offers from large record labels over the course of his career.

“What it does is it inhibits innovation and new ideas,” said Mackaye, the co-founder of Dischord Records, a 25-year-old independent label. “The thing with new ideas is they have no audience. They haven’t been thought of yet. I think it’s important to have access to spaces. The idea of free spaces is very important,”

MacKaye’s new group, The Evens, is comprised of himself and drummer Amy Farina of The Warmers. The two are longtime friends who met through MacKaye’s brother, Alec, the Warmers’ guitarist and singer.

Farina and MacKaye have performed over 50 shows since forming a year ago. The Evens will arrive in the Peninsula after a week of touring in Los Angeles.

When asked about The Evens’ style, MacKaye replied, “That’s the thing about music. If you could put it into words, you wouldn’t have to play the music.”

But he did provide some hints.

“I will say this: We’re not super loud. We sing. Lots of singing going on. And we’re definitely not interested in playing in rock clubs. We’d like to reclaim music and let it come back into spaces that are a little less commercially oriented.”

The Evens selected the Palo Alto concert venue because of MacKaye’s history in the area. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he attended seventh grade at Terman Middle School while his father was on fellowship at Stanford University.

“That was the only nine-month period that I didn’t live in the District so it’s significant in my mind,” he said.

MacKaye was dismayed at how difficult it was to find a concert space in Palo Alto, but he is pleased to be able to play in Terman’s auditorium, the locale of his very first school dance.

The concert will bring back memories, both fond and a bit painful, of the time he spent in Palo Alto. He remembered the difficulties of being the new kid in school.

“I had really long hair and was pretty tattered. I was a hippy kid. It was 1974. I walked into junior high and these kids were wearing corduroys and Adidas and Izod. I felt like I was dropped off in another land. It was intimidating. No one would talk to me and I thought they were all snobs but it turned out everyone was scared of me because I was from the East Coast,” he recalled.

Prior to the concert, MacKaye will give a lunchtime talk to interested Terman middle-schoolers. But, from experience, he doesn’t expect the students to have heard of him, The Evens, Fugazi or Dischord Records.

“I’ve only spoken to one younger school and they’re like, “Who is this guy?”

MacKaye won’t bring a prepared speech; he just hopes interested students will attend and ask him questions. But MacKaye has an inkling as to why producer Mark Weiss asked him to talk to the students.

“I just don’t practice the general American business ethic, which is to grow and sell, grow and sell, grown and sell. And I actually have a really different approach. So maybe he thinks that it’s a voice that has been overwhelmed by the din of avarice,” MacKaye said.

Palo Altan Weiss, producer of the upcoming show and fellow Terman graduate, set up the afternoon Q&A session because he views MacKaye as a potential role model for the young audience. He was impressed when he heard MacKaye speak in the past.

“He’s not a really famous musician on MTV but I think kids can tell who is an interesting person when they meet an artist or a musician. He’s an interesting guy and he’s done interesting things with his life and I think kids will find that rewarding and inspiring,” Weiss said.

MacKaye’s modesty and down-to-earth attitude about creating music may be just the right message for middle schoolers who have grown up on MTV, “American Idol” and the fleeting stardom of countless performers.

“If you think back to when you were 10, 11, 12 years old, kids are just coming to grips with music and they’re engaging with the music that’s being spoon-fed to them.”

MacKaye admitted to liking The Monkees as a youth, pointing out that simply the idea of music fascinated him at a young age, and that was what was available to him at the time.

What’s important for young aspiring musicians, MacKaye said, is sticking to their passion and not prioritizing money over art.

“What’s more discouraging to me is when people make decisions based on what’s expected of them and that’s crippling in the long run in terms of creativity. It’s more important that people actually believe in what they’re doing,” he said.

“If me and my friends could do it then anyone could do it. My advice is not to get caught up in the way things are supposed to be and focus on the way you want them to be,” he continued.

Recalling his middle-school days, MacKaye said he felt discouraged about the possibility of becoming a musician.

“I had given up at that point that I’d ever be able to play rock because at that time it seemed like rock and roll was out of reach and that people doing it were anointed by the queen. They were so high falutin’ and so far removed and unreachable by a kid like me,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1979 when high-schooler MacKaye taught himself to play the bass, and then the guitar. It was the freedom of punk rock that revived him.

“That was what was so deeply important about punk rock in the late ’70s…For me, punk rock was a free space where new ideas could be presented because profit was not the primary motivation.”

His late high-school band, the Teen Idles, launched his music career. From those roots, MacKaye formed Minor Threat in the early ’80s and Fugazi in 1987. The band, comprised of Mackaye, Brendan Canty, Joe Lally and Guy Picciotto, was known for its austere, mid-tempo punk sound. They toured for 15 years but have been on hiatus since 2002, allowing members to attend to their personal lives.

Although The Evens will release their self-titled album March 8, they decided to tour the Bay Area in February. When asked why he wasn’t waiting for the album’s release to tour, MacKaye said, “I’m of the mind that records support shows and not the other way around. The industry has skewed that idea.”

Editorial Intern Molly Tanenbaum can be reached at

Who: The Evens, featuring Ian Mackaye and Amy Farina. The concert is open to people of all ages.

Where: Terman Middle School Auditorium, 655 Arastradero Road in Palo Alto

When: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $5 and can be purchased in advance at

Or interact with this robot in support of Nellie’s return trip to the West Indies:

edita eight years later:
Nellie in Los Gatos: she says “cool cats” at 1:00

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
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