Ian Svenonius was the last musical character of the pre-internet, Washington D.C-Dischord Records era to sneak a seat at the table of legendary front-men, beside Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and H.R. of Bad Brains. Svenonius’ first band, the Nation of Ulysses, combined the noise and politics of MC5 and Public Enemy in a screaming attack that threatened, outright, to “destroy America.” The vague but powerful manifestos of their album inserts, penned by a young, scrappy Svenonius, certainly make one sentimental for the days before digital music.
Svenonius’ nation was dissolved because they believed– as Ian still claims to believe– that a band’s soil must be radically tilled every five years. Nation members switched instruments and became the MakeUp, the best garage funk the world has ever known. At first, NOU acolytes wondered sadly where all their beloved noise had gone. But it had been cleared away for Svenonius’ expansive and boldly inclusive preacher-man sermons and incessant calls to “Let me hear you say yeah!” Like a cross between Prince and Iggy Pop, Ian crawled out over the crowd, all the while spinning funky, funny, intelligent diatribes or else screaming like a woman being murdered.
When the MakeUp’s five years was up, Ian published a small but great book, The Psychic Soviet (Drag City), with his name engraved in its thick, pink plastic cover. Tracing selected musical and cultural phenomena to various world-wide socio-economic deceptions, Psychic Soviet is second only to David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat in terms of rock-n-roll literature. During this same time, Svenonius fronted a sometimes-band with Royal Trux’s Neil Hagarty and MakeUp bassist Michelle May called Weird War and/or Scene Creamers. The hipper among us also know Svenonius as the host of the Vice web TV talk show Soft Focus, which scores live interviews with straight up legends (Adam Horovitz, Chan Marshall, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore), many of whom rarely give interviews (Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P. Orridge and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields).
Now Ian is in a five-year mating ritual with Chain and the Gang. Longtime fans may once again be miffed that Svenonius has turned the volume yet another notch down, quit screaming entirely and begun dabbling in the dark art of “camp.” But whether you find Svenonius’ sarcastic new perversion of retro trash pop hard to wrap your love around, Chain and the Gang’s anti-liberty concept– as expounded upon the albums Down With Liberty… Up With Chains! and Music’s Not For Everyone– is immediately compelling. We’ll let Ian decode it in his own words.
ANTIGRAVITY also spoke to Svenonius about the channeling of his new book, the upcoming MakeUp reunion, the importance of trash and his decades-long friendship with fellow musical legend, Mr. Quintron.
So, Chain and the Gang. It’s not so much an anti-liberty stance, as an anti putrid liberty stance?
Ian Svenonius: Yeah, if a word is used too much, like “liberty,” it ceases to have its meaning. It’s a linguistic thing; words change their meaning. So yeah, if liberty means drone assassin planes and internet tracking, then yeah…
A lot of the concepts in this new group rely on inversion of ideas. Is the song “It’s a Hard Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High),” sung from the point of view of the government?
It’s about when you’re walking down the street and someone asks for a dollar and you give them a dollar, and then you walk along and another person asks you for a dollar and then by the third person, you can’t give them a dollar– it’s a hard job keeping everybody high. You could say the same of the pharmaceutical companies trying to keep everybody sedated, and the government trying to control the heroin and cocaine supply and the CIA selling drugs to everyone– it’s a hard job keeping everybody high, placating the population, staving off resentment. Some people think that’s a mean thing to say or fucked up, but if I didn’t have any money it would be a hard job keeping me high, too– I drink a lot of coffee. And at the club, we’re all kind of employed by the alcohol industry.
So from what I’ve read, you stopped Nation of Ulysses in order to turn off the noise and clarify the message by starting the MakeUp. Why has Chain and the Gang taken the volume even lower?
It’s definitely about communicating. In a way it’s more of a realization of the idea of call and response, and talking. It’s a further effort to consolidate. My first group was manifesto-driven and had a lot to do with inertia. MakeUp was about direct communication, and so is Chain and the Gang, really. But we want it to be fun: actually fun, not just pouring beer on your head, but a different idea of performance.
I don’t really agree with your ideas on “important” music versus “trash,” but I like hearing your theories on it. Why would people enjoy trash?
It’s more about music as a disposable thing. When rock-n-roll started it was novelty music, it was trash; it was sold to kids. It was garbage, meaning it wouldn’t have a long life and because of that it was immediate. It had humor; it was fun. When you have this critical establishment now that is young and into this really pretentious music that the critical establishment is lauding all the time, all this “important” stuff, Pink Floyd or Kanye West… I just don’t like anything that’s important.
Wasn’t the Nation of Ulysses supposed to be “important”? When I was a younger and more serious, we took the Nation of Ulysses very seriously. Wasn’t there a time in your musical life when you felt the exact opposite?
Uh, no. Sadly enough, I kind of haven’t changed very much. I have all the same reference points. [laughs]
But you let humor into your work more now.
I just don’t see that they should be separated, humor and seriousness. I think in most good things there’s some self-awareness or humor. I don’t think that any good music’s been made that is serious. Prince is funny; the Beatles are funny; Dylan is funny. “Funny” is the wrong word, because no good music is outright funny either, like Frank Zappa or Weird “Al” Yankovich.
I once spoke with Weird Al and he was the least funny person I’ve ever interviewed.
Yeah, and his music’s just as funny. When you say something’s going to be exciting it’s rarely exciting. Music that announces itself as funny isn’t funny. Some wit and humor, definitely. There’s no great New Orleans music that doesn’t have some humor in it.
So the MakeUp is playing All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.
Yeah, we were invited by the festival to reunite. Michelle Mae is my neighbor and I was playing with her in Weird War, and I’ve been playing with James Canty again recently in Chain and the Gang. The MakeUp doesn’t feel that different from the things we like now; it’s not like we’ll be adults playing hardcore music or adult men skateboarding. There will be a re-release of I Want Some, our singles compilation, which in some ways is our definitive record. But [the reunion’s] not really about that. It only has to do with us feeling it’s a relevant thing to do. The band feels like there’s a place for us, still. It doesn’t feel like something that’s been rendered obsolete.
In a recent Washington Post interview you said that a Nation of Ulysses reunion, on the other hand, would be absurd. Why?
I just don’t perform in that way anymore.
You mean like trying to hurt yourself?
As a true fan, I can’t help but notice that you don’t scream anymore. For the reunion, are you going to re-inhabit that screaming preacher-man role, or is it going to be more mellow and natural to who you are now?
Not screaming is just about dynamics. You can’t just be yelling at people all the time or else the yelling doesn’t have any power. It’s like how everything is now the cataclysm of the Apocalypse; the reason people can’t react to global warming is because we’ve been inured to the idea of the Apocalypse; we grew up with nuclear threat as a daily thing, then acid rain, then killer bees, then Y2K. There’s been so many things at some point that you can no longer react to an actual threat. We can’t overthrow the government and institute a benevolent system because they very intelligently created this nihilistic hyper-capitalist environment, inundating us with this fear of death at every minute, at every turn, fear of extinction. So it’s kind of the same thing with performance; you don’t want to scream all the time or you’re just undermining the scream. James Brown didn’t really fall to his knees every twelve seconds, he fell to his knees right at the break of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Or like H.R., he did the backflip at the end of “At the Movies.” If he did backflips the whole time it would be boring.
Let’s just say, when you see a performer who is doing classic material, if they’re any good and they’re still in the game then they can make it work according to their current physical circumstances. In New Orleans you have all these living legends strutting down the street and they’re probably still performing. Like, Ernie K-Doe probably played differently in the year 2000 than he did in 1955, but it was kind of always still good.
Tell me about the new book you’re about to publish?
It’s called The Supernatural Strategies for Making A Rock-n-Roll Group, published by Akashic Books, a D.C. friend of mine’s book label in New York. It’s a how-to guide to starting a group, inspired by cooking shows that are trying to demystify cooking. I’m demystifying the creation of a rock-n-roll band.
How close in style will it be to the borderline satiric socio-political essays from Psychic Soviet?
It’s actually the product of a seance, so it’s actually guided by spirits. They were the ones who imparted information, so the content is all theirs. A lot of writers like to talk about how they’re just a conduit for otherworldly forces, but this is exactly that. It’s pretty similar though, it’s weird; the spirits, the way they speak is very similar to the way I write.
Did you design the Psychic Soviet? It’s a beautiful little object. Reminds me of some of the McSweeney’s stuff.
That accounts for a lot of its success as a book; the way it felt, smelled and looked. Drag City put it out, my record label at the time. They are very much an artists’ organization. They go the extra mile to make things feel more special.
Since you’ve been interviewing people for a while on your Vice show Soft Focus, what have you learned about the interview process?
Interviewing in front of an audience is very different than a phone interview in print. In a print interview, the subject can be very verbose and expound on ideas in paragraph form. But if it’s live, in person, in front of people, it’s all about brevity, humor and we communicate with our bodies and our expressions and our eyebrows. In front of an audience, I just had to learn not to talk.
You also have the luxury of the audience tuning in specifically to hear you talk.
Yeah, but I’ve done a few phone interviews and listening to the tapes, I was always horrified by how much I had to say.
There should be a word for the self-loathing one feels when transcribing an interview they’ve conducted.
But it’s okay if you can edit it out; we’re having a conversation. I do not watch most of the episodes of the show, though. I don’t like to do that. That’s a whole other kind of thing to wrap your head around in terms of self-image. I’ve heard that for Scientologists, to be clear means you’re in a state of seeing yourself all the time. But to actually see yourself all the time would make you really self-conscious and cynical.
I thought maybe the title, Soft Focus, is a joke about how you’re just interviewing your friends.
It is like a glamour shot. In Hollywood, “soft focus” meant getting really close and making people look good. Soft Focus is the opposite of gotcha journalism. It’s helping construct a myth, helping to perpetuate the myth. I believe the interview form to be part of the artifice of rock-n-roll.
You once called Washington D.C. “the place where all the evil in the world happens.” What is D.C. like nowadays? Politically? Musically?
It’s gone through terrifying change, but what can you do? It’s very difficult for people to do anything right now because it’s so expensive, while at the same time there’s so much money running around. The really terrible thing is that what made D.C. cool is that it was a little like New Orleans in that it lived in its own little world, really out of it; people here didn’t know what was happening. There was no college radio. It was kind of a cultural backwater and because of that it had its own identity. And with the internet and all these transplants coming here now– since 9/11 there’s been all of these people with money coming to D.C. and it’s really made everybody more slavishly attentive to national trends. There’s a lot less confidence about making something unique.
Do you vote?
No, not really. No.
Lastly, you mentioned Ernie K-Doe and I saw you play last year at the Spellcaster. You and Quintron have been peers, doing the same things, playing the same clubs for a long time, no?
When he was a Michigan, Chicago-type person, we would end up playing together all the time. Quintron and I also have similar ideas about performance and events. I’ve been seeing him play back since his music was pretty different. I’ve seen him evolve to where he’s now pretty much my favorite living American artist. He and Miss Pussycat are just incredibly inspiring. He’s always made really cool music, but at a certain point it was just whoa… so unique and undeniably great.
Chain and the Gang plays Siberia on April 8th with Coasting and Noir Fonce. For more information go to krecs.com/artists/chain-and-the-gang.