Ian Svenonius has been a key figure in DC punk, and its various offshoots and subgenres, for 25 years. He has been the front-man for Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, the Make-Up, Scene Creamers and Weird War, and has authored the book of essays The Psychic Soviet and the recently published Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock & Roll Group. His current band, Chain and the Gang, has released three albums on K Records, and is currently on tour; they play the Tea Bazaar tonight.
I saw Chain and the Gang play in DC last Saturday, and interviewed Svenonius the next day in anticipation of tonight’s Charlottesville show. We spoke for half an hour on the phone; the interview has been somewhat shortened, consolidated, abbreviated, etc. I wrote a preview of tonight’s concert in the C-Ville this week; here’s the poster I made with the show details on it, and the interview is below:
Q: I wanted to start by asking you about the idea of Rock music constantly revisiting its own history; there’s this idea that Rock music is at a point where we’re just revisiting styles from the past, but I’m not sure things have ever really been different. The 70’s had all this nostalgia for the 1950’s, both with bands like the Ramones looking back to the 1950’s, to the idea of a simpler time in Rock and Roll, but you also had stuff like “Grease,” and “American Graffiti,” and “Happy Days” … I feel like it was happening on both ends of the cultural spectrum.
IS: Yeah, that’s interesting. The paradox of it is endlessly fascinating: the incredible crassness, and the idealism. The idea of it as the Ur-expression, that is this pure thing that has been corrupted by commercialism – a lot of that comes out of the Folk revival, in the late 50’s. And when Folk was assimilated into Rock & Roll, it took on the struggles of Folk revivalism. The Folk revival had a lot of Marxist tenets; at the root of it was nostalgia for a lost, 1930’s labor movement, for a populist culture, which seemed to be destroyed by First World War industrial-commercial culture. The Folk movement has a little bit of “ye olde” nostalgia, mixed in with the ideas of social justice.
So that got assimilated into Rock & Roll, and that’s one of the poles in Rock & Roll. Are we talking about a pure, people’s expression like Alan Lomax was attempting to represent? Or are we talking about a vulgar, teenage and pre-teen expression resembling Mad magazine, with adolescent jokes and horniness? Is it beautiful, or is it trash? Or is it both?
Q: Yeah; on the one hand there’s this common assessment of Rock and Pop music, that it’s inherently lowbrow: that it appeals to our basest instincts, that it’s all about dancing, sex, and primal rhythms, etc. But I feel like it’s always been overanalyzed too, there’s been so many thousands of words written about the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan, attaching all this importance to them, making them into these sort of generational signifiers, attaching political viewpoints to them that aren’t necessarily present in their music or their behavior…
IS: Well, why does Astrology resonate with us? Because each sign is composed to be a paradox: Taurus is a beast-man; that contradiction enables us to hold that up to any person and see how they might resemble it. I think that for something to really resonate, pop-culturally, internationally, in the way that Rock & Roll has, there has to be this internal contradiction. Things that have legs always have that contradiction.
Chain and the Gang kind of embody that. We’re the stupidest band, and the most sophisticated band. We have the potential! Each of us has to fight for our shred of attention, because as soon as you’re not doing something, somebody else is taking up the attention. The 70’s big rock shows had it easy. They had the media on their side. David Bowie could have a tiny little, ‘oh, now I’m into Philadelphia disco music,’ and suddenly everyone would become interested in that. Now, if you mutate your band, drastically change your syle, nobody even notices.
Q: That sort of leads into something else I also wanted to ask you, about this trend of thinking about rock music right now. I feel like the dominant paradigm, the common assumption right now, is that we’re no longer generating any new ideas, that young people now have all eras of music available at their fingertips through the internet, that everyone’s just sort of cherry-picking different aspects of different styles from the past. I feel like that’s the assumption with a lot of Rock writing, but also an attitude that a lot of younger musicians have. I’m not sure it’s true, but it seems really useful to us to have that narrative right now. I guess it’s a concept that was really crystallized with that Simon Reynolds book, “Retromania”…
IS: Oh right, yeah. Well, right now we’re still going through this reaction to indie rock in the 90’s, where nobody could write a song, and anything that was coherent was bad; there was so much of that kind of Chicago, Slint music. It was very perverse. Nobody wanted to sound like a beer commercial, so there was a 10-year period of obscurantism, which spilled over into the 21st century. Now there’s this incredible formalism going on — ‘We figured it out, and now we’re going to do it right!’ – that era has been the last 10 years. It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t going to be more noise, more fooling around with instrumentation, and less concern with formalism. But these things, these ideas, does it really matter?
Ultimately, the important thing is the expression. You can change the format, you can change all these other things, but for me the compelling thing about the bands is the personality. A little too much is made of the experimentation in a band like Sonic Youth; at the end of the day, does it really matter? A band like Sonic Youth, what’s cool about their music is their personalities. That’s the thing that resonated with me about Sonic Youth, is their attitude. At least for me, as a kind of non-musician music listener, which I think most people are.
Rock and Roll music is about personality. We’re narcissistic, we’re endlessly fascinated with people. That’s why Techno music is so boring. Paul Oakenfold doesn’t resonate like Elvis Presley does, even if objectively he might be better. Ultimately, there just isn’t as much pathos.
Q: I really enjoyed the show on Saturday; the Chain and the Gang set reminded me of a lot of things, but one of them was The Cramps, which I thought was really fun, this sort of Halloween-costume aspect of Rock and Roll…
IS: For 20 years, that was anathema. You weren’t allowed to do it. When we first started, back with Nation of Ulysses, everyone thought we were assholes. We dressed up in suits, and you weren’t allowed to do that. Underground music was supposed to be ‘real.’ People ask us “Is it a joke, or not?” – if you have to ask that, maybe you don’t understand what’s good about Rock and Roll music.
Q: That’s also something I was thinking of while I was watching Hunx and His Punx [who shared the bill with Chain and the Gang during Saturday’s show]. One thought I had, during that set, was that he was sort of performing homosexuality for us. It wasn’t necessarily a stock-character, but more like a mixing-and-matching of different clichés from throughout the history of queer culture. But it also felt really genuine. I mean, I have no idea what that guy’s like when he’s not onstage, but when he’s performing, and on the records, it feels like this persona that’s really comfortable and fun, that doesn’t feel like ‘being the character of Hunx’ is an artificial personality that he puts on when he goes onstage.
IS: Yeah, It’s camp. But it is really genuine. If you can do something like Hunx, that is at once totally artificial and also feels really compelling and sincere, that’s a really powerful performance. And it allows you — it allows the audience to live through it. Or not “live through it” — it gives you permission to behave in a more fabulous way. A big part of performance is being a clown, trying to allow other people to clown it up. Or not “allowing,” but inviting. A successful performance is often designed around someone acting like an insane person. A lot of Rock and Roll is about mimicking insanity, acting like you’re a schizophrenic. The emotions are so much bigger.
Q: Yeah, they kind of had this melodramatic 1950’s aspect to them, at the same time as they were dressed up in this sort of 1970’s New York, Punk style that had all these elements borrowed from gay, cruising culture. Which reminded me of this other dominant narrative we have about Rock, that it came along in the 1950’s and liberated everyone from their repression. It’s like the narrative of Punk music being this sudden thing that happened in the 1970’s, that changed everything; it feels like it’s culturally and economically useful for us to have this narrative, but I’m not sure how true it is. It’s another instance of where I’m not sure that things have ever been that different…
IS: The idea that Rock is this liberating force, that the sexuality of Rock and Roll liberated everybody, that Little Richard saved us all from being repressed – I’m just really dubious about all of that stuff. The development of the Twist, and those kind of dances where people dance next to each other without touching, is an interesting thing. If you went out to a dance, before Rock and Roll, over the course of an evening you would be dancing with several partners, in a close, intimate context.
People are now allowed to congratulate themselves on how much better we are than in the repressed 1950’s, but I’m sure things are just as bad now. There’s so much conceit about our progress, our liberation – I’m sure there have obviously been great strides in terms of social justice, but I’m sure there’s other things that we’ve lost. There’s other things that we’re not even aware of, that will seem completely barbaric when our times are over.