INTERVIEW: Ian Svenonius

Dale Shaw shoots the shit with sharp dressing rock & roll iconoclast and author, Ian Svenonius, who's just released his new book Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group

In his latest book Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group, author Ian F Svenonius explains exactly how to start, survive and succeed in the wild world of musical entertainment. He is in a perfect position to know. As well as this work and his previous book, The Psychic Soviet, he interviewed some of the most renowned and iconic musicians for his VICE show Soft Focus as well as performing in Nation Of Ulysses, Make Up, Weird War, David Candy, Felt Letters and most recently Chain And The Gang. (Full disclosure: Ian and myself were housemates in Washington DC during the mid-1990s and I performed MC duties on the first Make Up album, Live At Cold Rice. Neither fact matters.)

I feel a bit intimidated interviewing you because I know you and also I think you’re smarter than me.

Ian Svenonious: I’ve always felt intimidated by you too, ever since I read your great fanzine Dipper. Though we are both ferocious animals, we’ve somehow been able to coexist.

Thank you. You once gave me some sage performing advice, telling me you often focus your performance on one person in the crowd and aim everything at them. Does that still hold true?

IS: Yes – you find one person who you imagine "gets" you and your group’s aesthetic proposal. If the performance can take the form of a kind of pantomimed conversation between you and them, it will be pure and focused. If you are caught up with the crowd, it’s the same as a film studio doing a test screening of a product: it will be as insipid and compromised as Hollywood product is now.

What are your abiding memories of the UK Nation of Ulysses tour?

IS: The Nation Of Ulysses tour in the UK was fantastic. England was in the throes of its house music explosion and we went out dancing after most shows. Mike Fellows, aka Mighty Flashlight, was our MC. He did these beat monologues before our performances and as he spoke, we would light our shoes on fire.

We traveled with John Loder from Southern Records too, who was a great friend and a good dice player. We made a Ulysses Speaks fanzine specifically for the trip and proliferated it at the shows. I got a very nice suit jacket for stage at a street market. We made friends with John Robb in Manchester, met the bass player from Crass, hung out with the Pastels in Glasgow, and in London with Primal Scream who we had met at our show in Memphis the year before.

Tim’s amp blew in Liverpool and he bought his replacement head – a Hiwatt – from the ex-guitar player of the Hollies. Huggy Bear slipped us their demo anonymously at our show in London. Everett True interviewed us for Melody Maker and Karren Ablaze wrote a piece on us which was recently reprised in her bound Ablaze! retrospective. We played at TJs in Newport, Wales and were told by a merchant mariner that, in regards to rowdiness, Swedes were the toughest sailors.

That first Nation Of Ulysses tour probably feels worlds away from a reformed Make Up playing Ally Pally last year – but does it feel different? Do you approach it any differently?

IS: Make Up as a reunion band is really different of course, but it’s important for me to remember, as I perform, what the Make Up idea was: communication. Through sermonising, call and response, dancing exhortations. That’s what made Make Up really unique and exciting. That was our mission; to inspire the moribund underground rock & roll scene. To create a mythic narrative to a night instead of allowing it to degenerate into passive spectatorship.

Is there a band in history that epitomises the approach outlined in Supernatural Strategies To Make A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group?

IS: The advice given is so generalised and straightforward, I think it’s safe to say that the approaches are shared by most bands which are aesthetically concise and conceptually realised. Possibly Unrest? They broke up at a good time. Or 1910 Fruitgum Co.

You use ‘group’ in the book title, but I always want to write it as ‘band’ – do you think there’s any difference between a referring to a number of musicians as a ‘group’ or ‘band’?

IS: Well the 60s convention was to call it a group and the punk convention was to name it a band. Band is like a "band of outsiders", a bunch of ruffians, whereas "group" sounds more respectable. This is fitting since by the time of punk, rock was as institutionalised as Betty Crocker, whereas the 60s groups were convincing society to grant them their place at the table. The punks’ insistence on disrepute is part of the campiness of the form.

Do you view Supernatural Strategies as a companion piece to Psychic Soviet? Will these books add up to an overarching life manual?

IS: Yes I think they fit together a lot. Perhaps there is a lot of redundancy in the two. The idea is to explore the context and origins of rock & roll and its use and meaning in a way that the self congratulatory rock books neglect.

I can remember so little about the time we lived together. One thing I recall is talking about The Beatles a lot and the "RPM" campaign. Do you still think Paul McCartney needs to be reconsidered?

IS: Paul seems to have been rehabilitated pretty well. Though I wish he would give us a medal for our time in the trenches on his behalf.

Backstage at a Macca concert I was able to give his then-girlfriend a copy of The Psychic Soviet to pass on to him. I never heard back though. I also sent a copy to Fidel Castro via the Cuban Interests Section in DC. I didn’t get any response from him either.

I heard someone talking about Johnny Ramone recently, when he realised, post the Phil Spector experiment, that they were never going to make it as a "big band", they were never going to cross over. Yet in the mid/late-60s it was possible for the weirdest bands to have hits (like The Thirteenth Floor Elevators or Psychotic Reaction) – what changed, if anything?

IS: Well, corporations took over rock around ’68. Atlantic Records always pretended they were cool and indie but I think they are sort of the worst in terms of conservatising everything. They turned fun rock & roll into serious boring "soul" music and pretentious "rock”. They were number one in making rock "authentic" which made everything lame. Radio got very corporate consolidated around that time too… probably some deregulation act happened then which allowed radio corporations to merge.

But I always try to put things in perspective: The Ramones sold a lot of records. They were very popular in Argentina and Japan. They had a better career than the Count Five for sure. And a better career than the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. In fact, The Ramones were very lucky. When you hang out with your bitter rock friends who are sad they don’t sell more records, play them some sublime amazing 45 by some unknown soul singer who no one’s ever heard, who worked in a parking garage for their whole life, who may or may not know that collectors sell his or her record for £1000 on eBay.

There was a brief moment when Pete Townshend could sell a million records of whatever he did and yell about his artistic statement. But that was only a few years. And only a few people were beneficiaries of that system. We don’t live in that time anymore.

I sometimes think Suicide were possibly the "purest" band, would you agree?

IS: Yes absolutely. Or the Hair Bear Bunch.

I’d put Royal Trux in that camp too. Neil Hagerty was briefly in Weird War. Do you have any abiding Royal Trux memories?

IS: Make Up touring with Royal Trux was what they proposed as payment in return for them producing our record In Mass Mind. It was really fun and eventful and interesting to see how they approached playing… they were sort of anomalous at the time in having a revolving line-up; something which is really ordinary nowadays. It meant their arrangements were always changing, depending on what kind of band they had backing them up.

They were really perverse too, in the same way that Dylan is. Challenging and disappointing audience expectation. They didn’t have much audience for their live show despite their popularity amongst heads. I really think they were as influential as anyone; particularly in their presentation. Everybody was inspired by their image: White Stripes, Fiery Furnaces, The Kills, Mates Of State, etc. Not to mention their approach… the list goes on.

Can you imagine a time when rock & roll music stops?

IS: I’ve been waiting for that moment from the time I started listening. Everyone’s been afraid of that moment when rock & roll in all its permutations suddenly doesn’t make sense; like dixieland jazz or opera. That’s why the older generation is desperately sending their children to rock camp and attempting to indoctrinate their children with Feelies records.

I can remember Steve Gamboa finding a MC5 album at a thrift store in Maryland and it being this huge local, cultural event (I might be exaggerating it in my mind) whereas the current generation of people in bands have instant access to practically anything in music history – is this lack of mystery good or bad?

IS: I always think the sophistication which everyone has now is such a privilege but it also is oppressive. The Rolling Stones only had like three records when they started; they had rules, limits, ignorance. The internet simultaneously made all music accessible while taking away the necessity of listening to any of it.

Oddly, as I’ve grown older, I’m far fairer to music I don’t like or appreciate – I don’t openly criticise it, but simply keep walking – is this something you recognise?

IS: This pertains to the earlier question: we have to try to conjure up some of that old parochialism to create sometimes. It might not be a good thing for your band to decide that Radiohead, Morbid Angel, Hall & Oates and Mariah Carey are all actually pretty good and it’s fine, that they’re doing their best. To make a good band one might have to convince oneself that it all actually has some meaning and importance.

Do you still feel like the Sassiest Boy in America?

IS: Yes of course.

If you were 16 or 17 right now in 2013, would you start a band?

IS: Yes… it’s still all anyone’s got.

Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group is out now through Akashic Books

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