ROCKER, PHILOSOPHER, ENTERTAINER, SASSIEST BOY Ian Svenonius

The Chain and the Gang
frontman (and erstwhile Nation of Ulysses/Make-Up vocalist) comes clean on
music, media and misunderstandings.

 

BY JAAN UHELSZKI

 

Erudite, well-dressed and accomplished, Ian Svenonius is
bigger than life. His career as an art provocateur has spanned more than two
decades, beginning when his band Nation

of Ulysses ignited the flames of the second punk revolution
with their fiery polemics and unruly, physical performances that often landed Svenonius
in the emergency room, right through a number of other philosophically ironic
outfits like the Scene Creamers, Weird War, and the beloved Make-Up.

 

This spring, he released his second Chain and the Gang
album, Music’s Not For Everyone (K
Records), and if you close your eyes, you’d swear it was 1965-era Mick Jagger
singing on the first cut. From the droll, cool-as-an-oyster delivery of his
internet interview show (vice.com), Soft
Focus
, to his series of smart, entertaining essays in 2006’s The Psychic Soviet, to his musical
prowess, it’s clear Svenonius has only tapped the surface of what he’s capable
of. Here, he ruminates for BLURT on what’s wrong with rock and roll, street
gangs, and tailor-made suits.

 

***

 

On the Soft Focus web show:

My thing about Soft
Focus
was I just didn’t want anybody to feel like I was going to “get
them.” I was just like I want you to reinforce your myth. How I would prepare
for my interviews was I would call the friends of theirs – even if it was
somebody I knew – and asked them what really turned them on. Because all these
people have a lot of like interests that aren’t commonly known. I think letting
them show that other side was what made the show for me.

        I don’t write
proper questions; I just write some keywords. Things to think about. But also I
wanted them to be less of a career roundup kind of thing, but since it was in
real time, I wanted to catch them in the act of being themselves. I think half
of them went really well and half of them didn’t go as well, but I think that
they’re all definitely singular.

        My model for
my technique were these great interviews that that theater critic Kevin Tynan –
who wrote Oh, Calcutta – did. They were just really
conservative and his whole manner was just kind of droll. It just had this kind
of Cold War highbrow kind of feel. The interview subjects are very comfortable
speaking pretentiously, which really aren’t anymore. That’s what I used as the
template. I’m not as cool as Kenneth Tynan. I couldn’t keep my cool. And he
gets to smoke, but he held an unlit cigarette, you know? But I don’t smoke so
that’s another difference, But I’m more high strung than Kenneth Tynan so I
couldn’t really pull it off.

 

On wearing a suit to
perform in:

I began wearing suits in my first group, Nation of Ulysses.
We wore suits for the mature period. We started as just a terrible group that
was ideologically sound but we just were like a mess. But once we became a
coherent entity we did wear suits, and they weren’t nice suits. They smelled
really bad if you got close to us, but from far away the illusion was intact.

        What do I look
for in a suit? I get my suits made for me, so I just want them to fit, really.
And I want them to be reinforced in the crotch and the shoulders. So I can wear
’em onstage. So I can dance. And I like a nice lining because I think that
thing of like, that even if only God can see it, it still should feel good.

 

On the rock band as
street gang:

I think that the rock group, people say that it comes from
the blues but really I think that it comes from the street gang. I think that
it’s a post-Industrial Revolution commercial variant of the street gang because
there were thousands and thousands of these street gangs and they didn’t have a
commercial component except for maybe stealing hubcaps, but they performed. It
was about getting attention. And a music group really isn’t really about
performing music. A music group rarely performs music. Maybe on tour you
perform music for maybe an hour a day, but they’re not musicians. Like if you
were to ask any group member to entertain their relatives at a party, they
couldn’t do it. But a real musician could. A real musician could grab a violin
and just entertain people but people in bands can’t because a band is, and the
street gang is an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution.

        Henry Ford
really destroyed the world. The assembly line and then what cars wreaked or
wrought, what they hath wrought on the world with the roads and the exhaust and
then the oil wars. I mean he created the suburbs.

        I think that
the thing that’s missing for music now music is personality. Maybe because of
this Protestant shame thing or this kind of white guilt, but there’s not a lot
of personality in rock and roll. People get really into microphones and they
get really into the craft of songwriting.

 

Zen and the art of
rock and roll maintenance:

I would never be on a major label for the simple fact that I
find the kind of promotion that you’re asked to do really embarrassing. I still
have a little bit of teenage sensibility where I just think that’s uncool. It’s
more aesthetic than ideological. Who wants to play the Wal-Mart buyers
convention? I would rather be destitute.

        But that being
said, I mean I look at these records being put out by the underground groups
and some of them are cool. But most of them, you can’t even tell what the
group’s called. It just seems like obfuscation for the sake of being
obfuscatory. Or is that obscurantism? Why bury the vocal so nobody can
understand what you say. I like to hear what people say. Even if it’s stupid.
It should be stupid, it’s rock and roll. And how do you expect to make a hit? I
still think when I make music I want to make a song that’s a hit. Even though I
know that’s never going to be a hit and nobody’ll ever buy it.

 

The Big Rip-Off:

What I do? I mean honestly it is just mimicry and I think a
big part of it is when you’re young you’re so concerned about not copying. You
get hung up on this bourgeois, individualistic, original origination. But
really everything is a copy. Like when people tell you when you’re young that
like, oh, you’re ripping off Black music. It’s true that like rock and roll
comes from Black people, but it’s like they were all ripping each other off. So
once the cat’s out of the bag, once it was introduced into consumer society you
can’t draw a magic line around a certain kind of art and say only these people
can do it. You can do it but then you’re going to have a paucity of expression.
You know like hip-hop, which is concerned with all this bullshit about who’s
allowed to do it and who isn’t. It’s just horrible music because of that.

        You know why I
like old music? Because it’s so, it’s anarchic. It’s just so funny. These bands
that try to be like the ‘60s, they’re missing the point because all that music
was novelty music. It was all trying to get somebody’s attention on the radio.
It’s essentially like you had to drown out the car ad or the ad that was right
next to it so it had to be even more outrageous and weird, and outrage was
really the signature feature of all the songs. I mean besides beautiful
singing.

 

All you need is Love:

I think the reason the Beatles are so resonant is because
people see it as like this great love affair. It’s actually like John and Paul
have this love, they’re lovers essentially, and Paul is obviously the feminine.
So people saw it as this great love affair, and then essentially John just
dumped Paul for Yoko. And it was really traumatic for everybody because when a
couple breaks up it doesn’t just concern them. It concerns everybody around
them. Paul is definitely like the mom of the Beatles because he’s like the one
who would never betray their legacy.

        I really feel
like the Make-Up had a lot to do with the revival of Love. I mean it sounds
really conceited for me to say that but we wrote that song for Arthur Lee,
[“Free Arthur Lee”] and we put out 7-inch single. All I know is I saw Arthur
Lee before we wrote that song, before he went to prison, and he was playing
with the Das Damen guys and it was cool but there was like 20 people in the
room and it was like seeing [Zombies singer] Colin Blunstone now, you know,
just a couple ‘60s enthusiasts. And it’s like “oh, wow, he’s really amazing and
nobody’s here.” I feel like that song had something to do with his artistic resurrections.
I’m not claiming credit for his genius but I really always felt like that song
like had something to do with this kind of revival of the appreciation of
Arthur Lee, or the re-appreciation of.

 

Can you see the real
me?

I just don’t want anybody to really feel like they have me
pinned. I typed my phone number into the Internet and my name came up. I was
saying what the fuck is that? It’s totally sicko and it’s weird because it
makes you think like man, if I was a stalker. You could get anybody, man.

        I’m writing
this book right now about how to be in the rock and roll, or start a rock and
roll band or something, and I don’t know exactly, but – and that’s one of my
theses – is that communication is the killer. It’s what destroys a band. I mean,
why did the Beatles break up? Because they started communicating. I mean that’s
what the Let It Be movie is about.
Because they were so trendy and they just got into this whole hippie thing of
like speaking to one another. But before that they were a street gang with a
hierarchy. They just did what they had to do. And the Rolling Stones obviously
never speak to one another. That’s why they’re still together. I mean they
speak to each other through an interpreter, like the newspaper. Keith Richards
insults Mick Jagger in the newspaper and that’s how they speak to each other.

 

Make up or break up:

So why did the Make-Up break up? I don’t know. By our
standards we were pretty successful.  But
it’s like we’d just done what we set out to do. It’s like a five-year plan like
Joseph Stalin. We had done what we had set out to do, so we didn’t have to do
it anymore. All my groups have been around for five years, pretty much. I was
in a band called Weird War, we were in five years, and then was in a band
called Nation of Ulysses, we were probably around for less than that. I think
bands shouldn’t be together that long. I like things to have a beginning and an
end.

        A band is an
ideal for living. That’s why I find it weird that people try to expose the
groups, because it’s like, I mean you can try to debunk the group because it’s
an opposing cult, but the idea that you would be – like, when people are
disappointed by meeting idols it’s like, well, why would you ever confuse what
the group is with the people involved? The people are obviously boring,
tedious, smelly, they’re just humans. But a group is an ideal. So that’s all a
group is supposed to be.

 

Please don’t let me
be misunderstood, Pt. 1:

I entered the contest to be the Sassiest Boy [1991 contest sponsored by Sassy magazine] on a whim. I haven’t won
anything before or since. I think back to it and I’m like wow, that’s weird
because it’s very out of character for me. I would never do something like that
normally. It was definitely one of those things that at the time in my
community it was considered like really vulgar. Like a kind of really uncool.
There was a lot of like sexual resentment back then if you were in a magazine,
well, number one it was essentially unheard of. I don’t think you can even
imagine how stratifying things were if you weren’t around back then. How
totally stratified the world of the industry was versus the world that we were
in, which was completely underground.

        I think beings
Sassy‘s “Sassiest Boy in America”
signaled this kind of that paradigm shift. Signaled a great divide. Like a year
later it really happened in earnest, with Nirvana. But I think that was part of
that whole thing. It was just kind of a discovery that there was this
burgeoning underground music culture. It’s been going on for ten years
unbeknownst to the mainstream.

        I was not the
face of it at all, I don’t think. But I was definitely a part of it happening.

 

Going green:

Why do people destroy their hotel room? Why is that such a
rock cliché?  I hate that. I’m real
conservative. Yeah, I’m just really conservative. All I can think of is like
somebody has to clean this up. That’s such a waste of resources.

 

Please don’t let me
be misunderstood, Pt. 2:

The thing that people always get wrong about me is that they
think I’m taller than I am.

 

An edited version of
this interview (“Famous Last Words”) appeared in Blurt #10, still on
newsstands.

 

[Photo Credit: Angel Ceballos]

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