Published in 2001, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life featured the story of thirteen seminal indie bands from 1981–1991. Since then, his accounts of the decade’s underground do-it-yourself punk ethos has inspired a generation of music geeks, connoisseurs, and professionals—many of whom have gone on to found or play in various contemporary indie bands of note. On Sunday, a ten-year anniversary show at the Bowery Ballroom will unite fourteen such bands—from the Dirty Projectors to Titus Andronicus—each covering songs by one of the groups he documented. I recently sat down with Azerrad, an old friend and former bandmate, to talk about his book’s ongoing role in the music being made today.
Just the other day, I was reading your book in a cafe, and a waiter who saw it immediately came up wanting to talk. You describe underground indie fans back in the eighties wearing the SST record-label T-shirt, or sporting a Black Flag tattoo. In a sense, to certain people, your book’s now as powerful an identifier, even ten years after being published. What’s going on with that?
To have read that book means that you’ve been exposed to a certain philosophy, and odds are you agree with some of it. It spells out an ethos inherited from those eighties underground indie bands—opting out of the corporate machinery, keeping money inside the community, thinking for yourself, doing it yourself. You can apply those ideas to lots of things besides music—that’s why the book is called Our Band Could Be Your Life.
This same waiter paused to ask if I was reading your book for class. What’s it like to know that Our Band Could Be Your Life is now thought of as required classroom reading?
I had a very classical education, so part of me is very dubious: You’re reading my book in a class? You should be reading about the Revolutionary War, or studying Plato! But I suppose the story is part of cultural history. The mandate to think for yourself, and to do it yourself, and to live responsibly—that’s a thread woven deep in our culture. I asked Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) if he’d ever read Walden. He didn’t know anything about it, but philosophically he’s a Thoreau descendant to the core.