In the ’90s, Washington’s champions of “Gospel Yeh-Yeh” were one of the city’s — the country’s, the world’s — most exciting live bands. Their concerts were frenetic soul-punk revues, with irrepressible frontman Ian Svenonius leading the audience through call-and-response shouts (“Let me hear you say yeah!” was a common refrain), as he spasmed, squealed, shrieked and occasionally walked on the outstretched hands of the audience. (I saw this happen at least once.)
One problem with this welcome news is that the only Make-Up show scheduled is in London in May, as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. In talking with Svenonious yesterday, though, he made it seem likely that there will at least be a D.C. show for those of us who can’t make the intercontinental journey. Svenonius — whose current band, Chain and the Gang, is about to release its third record, “In Cool Blood” — gave some details on the Make-Up reunion, if there was any trepidation about getting back together, what they might play, how bands are like machines and other philosophical thoughts.
So you guys are going to play a show — just one show?
I think we’re just going to do one show. It’s one of those special events. I was playing with James [Canty], he was playing in Chain & the Gang. And of course I played with Michelle [Mae] in Weird War. And ever since the Make-Up stopped playing we kind of hermetically sealed all of those songs. And every time I see some performer, like Al Green or something, I think, You know, it’d be fun to play those old songs. Al Green, he doesn’t abide by the same rules as our community. He doesn’t have those rules. So I was like, Yeah, it would be cool to to play some of those songs. I like those songs. It’s fun to play with those guys.
But we sealed them off. Mostly we sealed them off because we were afraid of the power of those songs. We stopped playing in early 2001. And the epoch changed, everything was different for a while. Suddenly all the values sort of changed. People wanted different things. But since it’s the end of the world and everything, we decided maybe we’ll open up this box that’s been sealed.
You’ve always done new things, formed new projects and new bands, always moving forward. Do you have any moral quandary about doing a reunion?
No, not really. I do have a strict rule with the groups — five-year plan. I think of myself as kind of a socialist. And I’m an unreconstructed socialist. I’m like a socialist from the ’30s who takes their orders from Stalin and the Comintern. So I’m really into the five-year-plan model for a rock-and-roll group. Five or six. The Beatles did it all in six years, pretty much. And I think that’s a pretty good amount of time — or less.
But one aspect of a group — and I’m writing a book right now, it’s out this winter. It’s a manual, and it’s called “Supernatural Strategies For Starting a Rock ‘N’ Roll Group.” And one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about with rock and roll groups is how they’re very much based on repetition. Everything’s about repetition with a rock and roll group. And in a sense the rock and roll group seems like a post-industrial kind of way to become machines.
I know Kraftwerk talks about this, they talk about this thing, “The Man-Machine.” To me the group is really like a bunch of people acting like a machine, trying to approximate machine parts. Where these kind of nothing parts form together and they make something. But one of the main aspects of the group is that there’s really no point. It’s just them repeating something over and over again is the point. Rock and roll is unlike a play or a novel or a film. Because it’s just repetition. When a group plays, it’s not like “Hamlet,” it doesn’t have a resolution. There’s no resolution to a group. And it’s really existential. And in fact, I coined a term for it. I call it “existential repetition.”
Actually, if you read about machine-age philosophers like Nietzche, he talks about the “eternal recurrence of the same.” And that’s essentially machine-age philosophers talking about giving up the linear, Western idea that everything has to have a resolution. They were looking at the Norse and the Hindus and stuff like that and thinking about this whole cycle thing.
So anyway, in writing this book, I realized that this is such a big part of rock and roll, and it was also a part I wanted to explore. Because if I’m going to be an expert and write a book about rock and roll, and all the different aspects of it, I want to experience all the different aspects of it. So in a sense it’s partially this exercise. This is now such a huge part of the rock and roll landscape. People are thinking different about the group. Rock and roll started as just pure exploitation trash. “Pink socks are cool, write a song about pink socks.” And exploit that. Or a dance move. Then in the art age — Emerson Lake and Palmer — everything became very precious, arty and in a sense punk ended a lot of that. A lot of the ideas of purity. The pure art expression, what’s pure. Minor Threat has a song about their response to people saying they’re selling out. Or the Who, “The Who Sell Out.” Sell-out obsession...
But, no, I don’t feel a particularly moral quandary about playing. [Laughs.]
It’s research, technically.
Exactly, that’s the thing. [Laughs.] But I want to make it a special event. It is research but I don’t want to make it hang around forever. You don’t want to become one of these PhD students who’s just working on their thesis.
I get that, but for a lot of people in D.C. that’s a long trip [to London].
Well hopefully we can play a show in D.C. You know what I mean by hanging around. It’s uncharted territory but I’m pretty excited about it. It’s fun to play with these guys again and it’s really fun to play these songs. I always felt like this group had a very particular sound and I always really enjoyed playing the songs.
You know, every sound seems to be getting recycled these days but I still don’t really hear too many bands that sound like the Make-Up.
The Make-Up was a band that was actually popular during it’s lifetime. You know, not popular popular but semi-popular. We enjoyed people’s affection to a certain degree. But when the epoch changed, I feel like the values changed and really the group kind of disappeared into obscurity. So that’s another thing. It still seems fresh when I hear it.
Here’s why — you disappeared right before the dominance of the Internet. So your every move/show/new song wasn’t documented and detailed a hundred times over.
It’s funny, it kind of came between the two periods. In the early ’90s everybody had gotten a camcorder for Christmas. And everyone was like, “What do I do with my camcorder? I guess I’ll take it to the show.” So there are all of these weird videotapes laying around, everybody’s got these videotapes of these bands and didn’t know what to do with them. A few industrious people traded them. But most people just had them and eventually threw themout. Some people kept them in the closet. And by the mid-late ’90s when the Make-Up was a group, people had stopped doing that because that was no longer novel technology. But it was before the Internet. It was very much this kind of middle period when there was very little personal documentation of situations.
You’ve got a very big catalogue, have you started to think what you’re going to play?
Well, yeah. We were playing the other day and I like the singles. “I Want Some,” “Pow! to the People,” “Walking on the Dune,” “U R My Intended” — songs like that. I really like that mid-period... It’s kind of funky but the music’s almost not there. It’s very minimal. And then “Save Yourself” is a great album. And there’s some good songs on the first record, too. There’s definitely a bunch of stuff to choose from. It all kind of sounds very similar.
I mean the songs are good and they’re distinct — the good stuff feels very cohesive … it’s just cool. It’s very easy to imitate yourself. Well, not imitate but invoke a former … I mean, I can’t really imagine ever playing a Nation of Ulysses song at this juncture. That seems absurd to me. This seems very natural. We can do this.