IAN SVENONIUS: BETWEEN ‘EWW’ AND ‘WHOA’
If you’re going to learn how to be in a rock band, then you couldn’t have a better teacher than Ian Svenonius, frontman of Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, Chain & the Gang, etc. Svenonius’ new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, is a handy instructional manual delivered with all his stylish, erudite swagger, and a little help from the beyond. The Make-Up plays tonight at the Glass House. This interview by Eyad Karkoutly.
What inspired you to write the book, aka ‘a serious volume of sensible advice’?
Well, one thing that inspired me was just the modern climate. There’s all these rock camps, rock schools, schools of rock, and I think that’s an interesting development that the older generation is concerned with—the continuation of this form: the rock ‘n’ roll band. So they’re sending their progeny to these schools to perpetuate the rock condition, and the kids are being encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the older generation and create these rock groups. There’s obviously a fear that the format or the form is going to be lost, you know? But there’s also genuine enthusiasm I think. There are new groups every day. But the rock camps made me think, you know, ‘Well, what are the values of these new rock groups, and what values are being instilled in the children who attend these camps and these schools?’ So the book is an attempt to sort of maybe give some other kinds of angles cuz these kids are learning practical information. So I thought well maybe somebody has to counter all this practical information with some really impractical advice or some sort of ideological advice, you know. Because people are learning how to play, you know, Gary Glitter songs, which is great, but what about the other side? What we have seen recently is almost like a vacuum in regards to bands being ideological, except in a vague way. Like maybe they’ll say, you know, ‘We love John Hughes films.’ But there’s not a lot of like … self-awareness about a lot of the groups. ‘Self-awareness’ is the wrong word, but you know what I’m saying.
What do you mean by ‘ideological’?
I mean that groups nowadays are typically more musically sophisticated and sensually pleasing than they were in the recent past but are often rather formalistic. They are less prone to challenge the traditions or expectations of ‘punk’ or ‘rock.’ That approach seems passé, even pretentious, to the modern sensibility. Instead they are trying to ‘do it right.’ The book addresses this phenomenon.
Now, a lot of the idea of being in a rock ‘n’ roll group is intertwined with the pursuit of fame or being an icon. Your book had some interesting counters to that whole idea.
Well, I just think there are much better ways to obtain that goal, especially now. I was watching a Dirk Bogarde interview where he’s talking about when the film stars were phased out in the 60s for the rock ‘n’ roll stars, for the pop stars—the film stars, the matinee idols, were phased out—and obviously now if one is interested in notoriety, there are much better ways to obtain notoriety or fame or wealth. Or fame and wealth, and sexual success, than a rock ’n’ roll group. You could be a chef for example, or whatever the latest version of the celebrity chef is, or something like that. There’s obviously different things. Part of the book, yeah, is trying to chase people with the wrong ideas out of the milieu. The book really, a lot of it is a warning book. It’s kind of a warning, like, ‘Don’t undertake this.’ This is a grand undertaking which is kind of akin to a magical incantation. So for the weak of heart or the people who are—it’s just chasing away the misguided.
In the book you have an interesting conversation via séance with the ghost of Brian Jones about his ‘behavior, which was once derided as selling out.’ Do you think the idea of selling out is even relevant to people making music today?
People’s ideas of that keep changing, flip-flopping. It’s like a lot of ideas, you know, in rock’ ‘n’ roll, or in art, where, you know, ‘What is pure? What’s a pure way for an artist to express themselves?’ Breton wouldn’t allow the surrealists to sell art, they could only trade their art. They’d expel you from the ‘Bureau of Surrealists’ if you were caught selling your art. But now, you know, is it because the world is more expensive? Or because we’ve been taught that the only validity that something has is by being monetized. It’s probably a mix of the two things. It’s hard to even understand the idea of selling out for younger people now. It’s a hard thing. And it does beg the question, it’s something that the book talks about, it’s typically more aesthetic—it’s not really rational. There’s no hard and fast rules about what constitutes a sellout, it’s a vague idea. Obviously a beer commercial might seem beyond the pale, but something else, ‘Oh, that’s acceptable.’ So the rules are really arbitrary and really emotional. And I think a lot of that comes back to this idea of the group as kind of a crypto-religious entity or an extension of the gang in American life, where there’s a sacred aspect of it. The group isn’t just art, it’s about identity in a way that art might never have been. So when people have this personal relationship to the group, and the group represents something to them personally, then when they see it used in this way it’s like, ‘Oh, well, that’s perverting this thing.’ But, you know, somebody like Bob Dylan challenges our ideas, or Sonic Youth—they would always take it one step further, like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe they’re doing that,’ but then that would become standard behavior for everyone.
I’m glad you brought up the idea of the gang. Something I’ve noticed with your own music—from Chain & the Gang, Cupid Car Club, Nation of Ulysses—you seem to play with gang-related semiotics.
I’ve always been really interested in that. Obviously, we all love rock ‘n’ roll but there’s also something about the group that seems beyond rock ‘n’ roll, so that gang idea, or the sub-culture idea, it’s obvious, it’s something that attracts everyone to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the same reason that people that used to be involved in the Shriners or the Elks or the Masons, this community—because the culture at large is so alienating and idiotic. The political discussion at large, or the art that’s force-fed to us as Americans, or the food that’s force-fed to us as Americans—all those things are so alienating. People do feel really powerless, I think. I think there is a lot of powerlessness and that’s why rock ‘n’ roll still has this allure to people. It’s one of the last tolerated refuges from the insanity.
In what way?
The rock ‘n’ roll ‘band’ or ‘group’ is community-based. … The process is different than making art in a studio, writing a novel in a cabin in Maine, or the expensive and technocratic process of making a film for example. As opposed to other art forms, the group’s commodities, (records) don’t definitively define it. The band exists as a kinetic, living entity. Its records are often just traces of its existence. The band transcends its own output. One example of this would be the Grateful Dead, whose records are almost irrelevant to its legacy. Or the Screamers, who never made a record but live on as a legend and inspiration.
You talk about people feeling alienated and lack of community. It reminds me of DeBord and the Situationists—they were against separation of audience and performer.
Rock ‘n’ roll in a sense, it is sexual repression. The rock group is kind of this replacement for sex. It’s like this channeling of sexual energy. Maybe the rock group is also like a government-instituted valve against political action, that could be a plausible conspiracy theory, because this kind of mass energy and this kind of—it’s like—you think about the Sex Pistols turning anarchism or political idealism into a gesture and a cartoon—
And a product.
Yeah, exactly, and a product. Maybe punk like derailed political activism for the next thirty years. But in other terms it also gives us a place to hide from the horror of modern radio, the horror of modern television, whatever. [Laughs]
How do you feel the internet has changed the game of being a rock ‘n’ roll band?
It’s like a drug. It’s mind control on a mass scale, the greatest pacifier in human history probably, and it’s something that’s left an apocalypse in terms of like, community space. And it’s really rehabilitating this kind of mass wealth gap in the country because everybody feels like they have this space, the internet space, but in the meantime, it’s hard to go to a theater, a record store, you can’t go check things out around other people. I think it’s really having a dire effect on culture. And as far as the bands go, since the internet, the bands are much better because they’re more sophisticated but typically they have a lot less to say. Part of rock ‘n’ roll is it’s supposed to be a little bit embarrassing. People like to make fun of the Doors because the Doors are embarrassing. But the Doors are so daring. That’s part of the theater, is it’s daring. Rock ‘n’ roll should be this infantile—it should be almost goofy. It should straddle that line between ‘eww’ and ‘whoa.’ But with the internet, bands are just encouraged to be really safe because the historical models are just looming everywhere. It’s more about making something that will feel timeless, which means, really, a conservatism takes over. But at the same time, the bands are much better at making a song that sounds like a song. … There is something beautiful about formalism, like the way Japanese people approach karaoke, where it’s like a perfect facsimile. But at the same time, it’s not what really makes the most interesting rock ‘n’ roll music.
THE MAKE-UP WITH GAP DREAM AT THE GLASS HOUSE ON TUE., APR. 16, AT 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA. 7 PM / $21 / ALL AGES. VISIT FUCKYEAHIANSVENONIUS.TUMBLR.COM.