Ian Svenonius [Chain & the Gang, Nation of Ulysses]: Interview
“Musical innovation, or this idea of music, is really industry-driven.”
Ian Svenonius spent almost an hour talking with Tiny Mix Tapes about identity, and we’re still not sure who he really is. Incorrigibly contemplative, Svenonius has distinguished himself as a provocative cognoscente, able, so casually, to pour out perspectives upon music that seem more attuned to those of sociologist. As he did with his 2006 rock ‘n’ roll manifesto, The Psychic Soviet, the quintessential gospel punk cut-up (who, as a veritable filing cabinet of facts is able to spout nostalgic tidbits about the Titanic’s disco-ball, to soberer facts from Napoleon’s battle with Spain), is able to chart illuminating implications about the experience, tradition, and power of music, and the blurry lines between culture and imperialism.
Cut from the cloth of late-1980s D.C. punk (The Nation of Ulysses), the dynamic front man has leapfrogged to/from a half dozen projects through the years, most notably in the late 1990s with the funked-up soul punk collective The Make-Up, through the early 2000s as the more-rock-oriented Weird War, and, now, most recently, fronting the sardonic, gangly garage funk of Chain & the Gang, bolstered by a caravan of K Records players, including, at one time, Calvin Johnson.
Svenonius spoke about Chain’s 2nd album, Music’s Not For Everyone, (out this February on K Records), as well as causing us to wonder who we really are based upon our musical tastes.
Can you talk about your experience hosting the Soft Focus talk show? Has learning about the stories and motivations of other artists caused you to reflect upon yourself, yet, upon your own work?
When I started [Soft Focus], I had no experience interviewing. I’d done a lot of interviews, and this made me appreciate the role of the interviewer, which I never had before; I thought a good interview was because of the subject. You have a role as a person. When you’re in a band, no matter what your band, you imagine that you’re very important and that people really care deeply about you and your role. You imagine that they care as much as you do about what you do and your role. At least, it was with my generation, because we were obsessed with the purity of ideal.
To me, the group is an ideal and you’re representing an ideal. That can be a real box, because you establish that identity and you’re stuck in this role, then every movement from there you ask, well, “Does this jibe with the role?” In real life: you’re shitting on the toilet, you’re picking your nose, but “in the group” you are an ideal. When I started writing essays for Index, well, “Can I do that as a person from The Make-Up”? [With Soft Focus], I had to be very vulnerable. When you’re the interviewer, you have to show interest in other people; you’re not being very cool… you know what I mean?
“But, really, some people aren’t into music. I feel like people have been bullied into thinking that they have to identify with music. You have to like music. It’s like hating animals if you don’t like music.”
I can definitely relate. So, Chain & the Gang, how did this band get started? Did the songs come first? Or, the ideas behind the songs? Or did your collaborators align first?
Really, the songs, I’d say the songs were first. People like to talk about rock ‘n’ roll as being so indebted to the blues, the blues aesthetic and how [rock ‘n’ roll] emanates from the blues tradition. That’s an interesting idea, but I really think that it’s wrong. The rock ‘n’ roll band has very little to do with music. It has to do with identity, with people identifying themselves in groups and group-dynamics and getting attention and a big part of getting attention is making music.
And… the real basis for the (rock) “group” is really “the gang.” The gangs that were existing all through the industrial period we call Modernism in America — and they were very ritualized social groups. Now, out of gangs came doo-wop; it was a street-corner thing based in harmonization, a group of people. So, you think about rock ‘n’ roll, or even girl groups, it’s more like a gang activity.
And The Beatles, as a paradigm group, learning about all the different styles of American music, learning about the blues and country groups, doo-wop and girl groups, learning it as this exotic American-music that they emulated. This music, meanwhile, in America, was considered vulgar, trash, garbage, or as black people’s music. So it took the British people to kind of sell [rock ‘n’ roll] back to white Middle Americans, because, America worships British people. I think Americans see [the American Revolution] as more of a lover’s quarrel. So, middle-class people were then learning about it from the British, learning about it all as the same thing, so country, blues, doo-wop and girl-group music got all cluttered up.
“…the huge disadvantage that everybody has now, in computer-world, it’s very difficult to understand context for anything.”
So, in relation to the Gang of Chain, you’re talking, here, about 50s America’s perception of rock ‘n’ roll music, specifically? As a cluttered stew of British reinterpretations?
I’m not talking about rock ‘n’ roll, but girl groups, this kind of music that’s essentially like playground taunts. It’s simple, primitive, and always with an eye toward humor and absurdity. That’s where I’m going. Chain & the Gang, our impetus was to emulate that kind of music, like chain-gang music, work-gang music, music that can be made with almost, essentially, nothing.
Can you talk about a Chain song like “Detroit Music”? A musical hub and genre onto itself; another very distinct kind of music?
Detroit has this incredible music history, as most people know. There’s so much variety and somehow the people there still keep making music. They keep making music, even though, to an outsider, Detroit almost looks post-apocalyptic. It’s crazy how much came out of there. These [Chain] songs are tossed out as ideas, like, “What’s gonna happen when all the factories close down?” It’s still happening. When people talk about “the National State,” they’re missing the point, because the rich people don’t really give a shit. When I see somebody with an American flag on their car, it’s confusing to me. The ruling class don’t have any national feeling. I bet the ruling class of, say, Portugal, actually want Portugal to prosper on some level. The American ruling class would drop a bomb on Detroit if they thought it would make them money. But there, they still keep making music.
How should we read Chain’s debut album, with the idea of embracing bondage? “Down with Liberty? Up with Chains?” What about “liberation theology?” Is “liberty” misconceived?
I just think it’s a conceit that Americans have, that you have freedom. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be this “freedom”; well, what were people free to do? The amount of police on the street, it’s crazy compared to 30 years ago. With police oppression and intense surveillance upon everybody, it’s funny that there’s this conceit about freedom. [The album title] comes from Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty, this scene showing Spanish partisans fighting Napoleon’s troops. The pretense for Napoleon’s invasion was they were spreading the ideals of the French Revolution, “liberty,” so the Spanish are shouting, “Down with liberty!” The idea of the record is, down with liberty, down with this export of American values… if “this” is “liberty.”
But, music, this idea of progress in music, innovation, doesn’t interest me that much. I’m into personality and the character of music. What makes this music important? To me, the important thing about music is the personality, the singer, it should be communication. Musical innovation, or this idea of music, is really industry-driven.
“The rock ‘n’ roll band has very little to do with music. It has to do with identity, with people identifying themselves in groups and group-dynamics and getting attention… the real basis for the (rock) “group” is really “the gang.” “
”Music’s Not For Everyone,” is the title of the album and a song on it. That song, and a few other aspects, or lyrics have tinges of cynicism, a bit more overt at least than your past songs. Maybe it’s more back to the playground-taunts, as you said, of girl-group style?
“Music’s Not For Everyone,” I don’t think that’s cynical. Now that there’s no community, there’s no underground community; our groups are supposed to just appeal to anybody. There’s this new idea of success. We no longer have an audience per se, so people sell their songs to advertisements. It just becomes more apparent that most people don’t care about music; they just care about something familiar, the white noise. But, really, some people aren’t into music. I feel like people have been bullied into thinking that they have to identify with music. As an identifier; a thing to make them deep, like spiritualism in America. You have to like music. It’s like hating animals if you don’t like music.
Right. It’s a signifier of being “with it.” And one must always be up on the innovative band or on the pulse of the cultural cool. People might feel less about themselves if, on a date, or in a group, they’re the one who doesn’t know who Arcade Fire is…
Right. You have to have a musical identity, and I think it’s unfair. Music is like flying kites; some people are into it, some aren’t. A lot of people actually involved in music [or in making music] aren’t even people who like music. They’re people who want to express themselves, and music is the only thing [with which] you can have an audience still…
Right. Now it’s definitely chaotic, in terms of knowing what’s important. It seems the powers, be they labels or A&R or media, spent the last three decades looking to crown the next trend, crown the next Bob Dylan or next John Lennon and stir up fervor…
That’s an interesting thing. That period [1960s], the middle class of white people, the people in charge of historicizing things, were presented with American culture from the British bands. This stuff was considered like comic books and pornography. They were presented with [rock ‘n’ roll], but the [British bands] had a huge history to draw from. Like, if you went to China, now, and said “I invented punk rock,” and you had 40 years of punk rock songs to draw from. You could put songs by the Buzzcocks songs or Clash songs or Voidoids songs on your record. That’s kind of what the British Invasion was; they had 30 years of folk music, blues music and this kind of gang-tribal stuff, to present as theirs.
So, the issue of identity, and the underground being yanked upward and outward, multiple genres blur and homogenize and the internet changes things every day; what kind of identity can our next crop of 20-something-music-fans conceive?
When I was a kid, you were “a punk rocker.” Things used to be, just, simple. There were a couple labels. In the roots of rock ‘n’ roll era, there were hundreds of independent labels spitting out all this crap, and I think it was confusing for people. Then in the late 60s, it was all consolidated; companies like Atlantic destroyed all the little labels, through distribution, really, making it unaffordable for anybody except the few. That’s what punk was, trying to create this independent music situation again, but it was still limited enough that you could understand what was happening; there were signifiers or trends that everybody used to track. The only reason anybody cared about Nation of Ulysses was we were on Dischord Records, because we were from D.C. That’s the huge disadvantage that everybody has now — in the computer-world, it’s very difficult to understand context for anything.
So it’s good that the internet’s amorphousness makes it harder to manipulate, though, maybe? But still… no identity. Guess we’ll have to see where this computer-world takes us.
Maybe the WikiLeaks thing is going to lead to internet consolidation, and maybe it’ll be like Atlantic destroying all the little labels, and then maybe we’ll have a centralized thing that tells us: Arcade Fire is the greatest group ever.
What’s next for the Gang?
Do some touring of Europe in April and May and hopefully tour the USA. Chain & the Gang will tour the USA.
[Photo: Sarah Cass]