As far as legendary music venues go, The Klondyke Snooker and Bowls Club in Levenshulme, Manchester is hardly up there with The Marquee, CBGBs or the 100 Club, but that is precisely why it is playing home to Washington DC duo The Evens early on a Thursday evening. It is not that the band could not fill a venue larger than the floral-wallpapered 150-capacity social club backroom, nor is it some kind of low-key warm up date. This is how The Evens play every night, flitting from community centre to church hall to museum or library.
In fact the only place you won’t catch The Evens performing is a traditional rock venue. Their recent UK tour saw them playing a plethora of churches, whilst previous tours have taken them to junkyards, barns and even living rooms. The gigs are often organised by enthusiasts and fans, with the Levenshulme date being partly organised by a 14-year-old local. There is no formal publicity, advertising or promotion, with most of those attending the gig because of word-of-mouth or the odd handmade flyer.
Talking to guitarist and singer Ian Mackaye it is easy to see why the band has chosen this route. His previous bands, Minor Threat and Fugazi, were both hugely influential (musically and politically) on the underground punk scene in the US, with critical and cult acclaim seeing the latter spend most of the 1990s locked into the circuit of large rock venues, where each black box in each town looked the same and every gig played out almost identically. Mackaye felt that the music and its message was being lost in such venues, as well as the setting being unchallenging for the thousands who would attend. The band was always fiercely anti-corporate and strived to keep CD and gig prices down, but they were still largely confined to the same circuit as those who had less noble ideals.
“I saw the Cramps in 1979 in a room very much like this one,” says Mackaye after setting up at The Klondyke. “There was no stage, there was just a little parquet floor partitioned off with a low iron rail and they were right there. Lux Interior was as close to me as you are. The visceralnesss, the actual interaction of it. I was part of the music. I have never forgotten that gig, at the same time I have seen thousands of gigs in rock clubs and while there have been some great performances they still kind of run together.”
Travelling as a twosome, Mackaye and drummer-singer Amy Farina are band, sound engineers, road crew and CD sales staff. As each venue is completely unpredictable the self-sufficient duo often find themselves laying out the room or building a stage to get the ambience just how they want it for the performance. At the Klondyke this means finding a standard lamp to bring the dark corner where they set up to the same light level as the rest of the room.The band plays with the house lights up so they can see the audience as well as the audience can see them. This desire to see the whole audience also extends to inviting them to sit on the floor when the venue makes that easier for fan to see band and vice-versa. Mackaye sits when playing, which is unorthodox for what is still essentially a punk band, and especially surprising for a man who regularly threw both body and guitar around the stage with Fugazi.
“Amy sits down [to drum]; we are even,” he says. “It is clear that more people are aware of my work than there are of Amy’s. We are approaching this as equals. For me to stand would really create the impression that she was in some way the support player.”
What will be less surprising for followers of Mackaye’s career is that another stipulation for tour venues is that they should be open to all ages. Both he and Farina believe that it seems ludicrous to discriminate against those who are at the most enthusiastic age for music by making it only available to over-18s (or over-21s in many parts of the US) and they also share a disdain for the integral part that the alcohol industry plays in both the need for these restrictions and in the music world in general.
“Alcohol has been wedded to music for so long now that people think it is natural,” says Mackaye. “But it is so antithetical. If you replaced that product with another product it would give you an idea of the absurdity.”
In the US Mackaye is as famous for inadvertently inventing the straight-edge ‘movement’ with his song of that name for Minor Threat as he is for his music. He is still behind the song’s anti-drink and anti-drugs message, but he is a little puzzled by how the song he wrote at 19-years-old became adopted by fundamentalists who co-opted its message for their own ends and even a small number who advocated violence against smokers or drinkers. He is also amazed of the lasting power of the lyric that he wrote 24 years ago.
“I wrote a song, essentially to my fifteen friends,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking those lyrics would be heard, much less talked about or queried about in 2006. It was just a phenomenon. I chalk that up to life. There was a point when someone told me that straight edge is in the dictionary. That is incredible. I don’t think: ‘Oh, I’m a fucking genius’. I think that is just the current. Maybe you are on a street and there is trash on the ground. One bag just picks up and sails off fifty feet into the air, that is just the draught. I may have put the trash there, but it wasn’t me blowing on it.”
To see The Evens play is to witness their whole philosophy in action. The band controls the sound from their own PA on stage. The levels are set so that drums and guitar play an equal part with Farina and Mackaye’s voices melding into soft harmony or playing off each other – her deadpan to his passion, which can work to haunting effect. There are no men adorned with Motorhead T-shirts and large key chains standing by stage left to adjust a microphone or fit a new guitar string, though Mackaye’s baritone guitar’s heavy gauge strings seem sturdy enough to withstand whatever level of chair-bound rocking he can inflict on them.
The crowd seem rapt. No one says a word as the band play, even though the music is far louder than any other you would see gain a similar response, such as folk or classical. There is no room to dance, but standing and seated alike tap hands or feet to songs that seem to grow in stature because of the restricted elements rather than despite them. Not every song has it, but there are three or four that possess a genuine beauty – intimate low-fi punk love songs (be they about one person or everyone) that justify the investment the pair have made in their venue policy.
Witnessing the engaged synchronicity between Farina and Mackaye onstage it is no surprise to learn that they are also partners away from the music. Although it does not seem that there is too much time when they are away from the music or the music is away from their everyday lives. Driving to venues, setting up, playing and packing away means an eight-hour day, seven days a week, with writing, rehearsal, booking and answering mail meaning much the same back home in Washington.
“For me the real profound difference about The Evens is how much of an extension of just my daily life and being alive it is,” says Farina, who was previously in The Warmers, who, like Fugazi, were on the Dischord label founded by Mackaye. “Going on tour is not so much an event as a continuation of what we do at home and what we do anyway. I think we are fortunate that our music is really integrated into our life.”
As the pair starts to disassemble the PA and drum kit a small queue gathers to get CDs and LPs signed or a picture taken with the band. This was something that Mackaye largely shied away from with Fugazi, who tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to avoid hero worship and even issued a broadside against band merchandise.
You can’t buy a T-shirt with ‘The Evens’ on, but you are always guaranteed a chance to chat with the band, which must go some way towards making the evening as special for some as that early Cramps gig was for Mackaye. The Evens are not just about equal billing for Farina and Mackaye, but also for band and audience. It may not work for Robbie Williams or U2, but for the ability to make your neck hairs stand on end in a Manchester snooker and bowls club it is just about perfect.