A: There was a bit of an inferiority complex when punk started happening here in the late '70s and early '80s, because we were all told to go to New York City to get noticed. But our attitude was: We're from here; we're staying here. When it started, punk rock was not covered by MTV or the mainstream media. And you had very distinctive scenes. Like in Chicago, you had Strike Under, the Effigies, Naked Raygun, Big Black. There were very distinctive communities in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, and I've always loved context. I wanted for people to say, 'If you want to know about D.C. underground music, listen to Dischord.' It's folk music made by people who are not thinking about commercial success but are thinking about songs they want to get out of their systems. I was inspired by folk labels like Folkways and Arhoolie as much as I was by punk labels like Dangerhouse.
Q: But back then, the idea of doing everything yourself was relatively novel in the music business. How did you start?
A: We started Dischord because I was in a band [the Teen Idles], and we wanted to put out a single. We had no idea how to do it. We sent the tape to the pressing plant and got back the vinyl singles.
We took a sleeve of another single, carefully peeled it open, pulled the glue apart, and unfolded the flaps to see how the sleeve had been constructed. We did a sketch, and then laid out our art in that. We asked a print shop to print copies of this 11- by 17-inch piece of paper. We got a stack of these things, took scissors and glue, cut out the shapes, folded and glued them individually: 10,000 singles by hand. We threw parties and had lots of friends come over to make record sleeves. We were kids figuring out how to literally make records.
Q: Now every rebellion is almost instantly co-opted by the corporations.
A: Don't forget, at the tail end of the '70s; the whole '60s counterculture had been co-opted and repackaged and resold. Every television show had rock 'n' roll.
That's why punk was such an incredible phenomenon, because we figured out how to rebel against the dominant culture of rebellion.
The powers that be will always take rebellion and co-opt it. It's a way to sell stuff. They try to put their trademark on the edgy stuff. But there is always room to rebel against the business culture. People ask, "How did you do it?" A lot of rock people are standing on the rooftop, and they don't want to show people the ladder. They want people to think they were delivered there by God's helicopter. I'm totally willing to show people the ladder. All you have to do is climb. They think it must be a formula, when it's really just a willingness to work.
Q: When you were a young punk rocker in the Teen Idles and Minor Threat, you used to get in fistfights over music. Now that you're 40, how do you maintain that passion?
A: The anger is still there. I'm just better at it. Better at expressing it.
Greg Kot is rock music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.