In a city clogged with people who think they’re really interesting, Ian Svenonius actually is.
He’s an underground rock star, an icon of the D.C. punk scene, an author and an auteur, a pontificator equally versed in astrology, Castro, forgotten soul 45s and the politics of the radical left. He’s frequently the coolest person at the party and his hair always looks terrific.
Sassy – the sharpest teen magazine of yesteryear – foresaw all of this when they singled out Svenonius as the “Sassiest Boy in America” in the autumn of 1990. “The reason I entered the contest is to indoctrinate youth gone astray,” Svenonius told The Washington Post shortly after receiving the honor nearly 24 years ago. “There are so many kids dressing like Grateful Dead people. It’s kind of tedious.”
Now 45, the Sassiest Boy in America has become the most interesting man in rock-and-roll. He began blazing his trail in 1988 as the singer of Nation of Ulysses, a stylishly radical punk band that donned suits while the grunge generation refused to wash its hair. (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love admiringly painted the band’s name on the walls of their Los Angeles apartment.)
In the mid-’90s, Svenonius formed the Make-Up, a band whose self-coined “gospel yeh-yeh” sound emulated the call-and-response heard in black church services. When the Make-Up disintegrated in 2000, Svenonius was invited by the survivors of Rage Against the Machine to audition for their new band, Audioslave. He declined and formed Weird War, instead, a quartet that modeled its sound after Funkadelic and obscure strands of “black biker music.”
Svenonius has also published two books, a 2006 collection of essays titled “The Psychic Soviet,” and his 2013 pseudo-occult self-help volume, “Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock N Roll Group.” And since 2006, he’s hosted the incredibly amusing “Soft Focus,” a web-TV series where he’s interviewed the likes of Sonic Youth, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.
True to form, “Minimum Rock N Roll,” the new album from Svenonius’s latest band, Chain and the Gang, delivers a dozen frayed rock tunes with an anti-careerist sneer that seems totally foreign in today’s highly-sanitized indie landscape. It’s as funny, greasy, intelligent and alive as anything he’s ever done.
Svenonius recently visited The Washington Post newsroom to talk about its place in his body of work. We listened to one song from each of his bands and discussed its origins. Our chat has been trimmed and smooshed for clarity.
The Nation of Ulysses, “N-Sub Ulysses” from the album “Plays Pretty for Baby,” 1992.
This song is so funny and so furious at the same time – you’re citing Mao Zedong and taking shots at the Beatles. Did humor help sell the band’s ideology?
Being in a band, you have all this fun, but there’s this idea that you have to be something really different to the rest of the world because the group is “real.” I didn’t want there to be a contradiction.
Ultimately, Nation of Ulysses had a sort of pre-indie sensibility. It’s assaultive. It’s total. It’s unlistenable. Almost. It was an immersive cult and we saw ourselves as cult leaders because it was very elitist and we wanted to create a culture.
You have Tumblr now, and people are putting up these images, hoping the images dovetail into an ideal. In a sense, Nation of Ulysses was a pastiche band in a similar way. We loved James Brown, and the Futurists, and Situationism. I’d say the band was innovative in that it was presenting an immersive package that wasn’t a revival. And punk is essentially a revival – a revival of modernism. Punk comes out of post-modernism, but it’s real desire is to inhabit modernism in that it says, “Art has meaning and is revolutionary.”
Post-modernism says, “Oh, Bauhaus looks cool, but we don’t have to subscribe to the ideas of Walter Gropius. We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers.” Know what I mean?
The Cupid Car Club, “Grape Juice Plus” from the EP “Join Our Club,” 1993.
You and two other members of Ulysses went on to form this short-lived group. “Grape Juice Plus” is a quote from “Planet of the Apes,” right?
[In the film], grape juice plus is how they extract the truth – they get the apes drunk. But I don’t know really know what [the song] “Grape Juice Plus” is about.
Cupid Car Club was a real car club and we were just really into garage music. Nation of Ulysses had this hard element we wanted to escape and we really loved Billy Childish and the Gories, so Cupid Car Club was just another attempt at creating a gang with a very specific aesthetic.
You refer to Nation of Ulysses as a cult and Cupid Car Club as a gang. That’s interesting. A cult recruits while a gang is difficult to get into.
But older gangs from L.A. had, like, 5,000 people. There’s this idea of induction, but you have to apply. And you have to live the life. That’s what a real political party is. Lots of Hollywood stars wanted to be a part of the Communist party but were rejected because they didn’t pass whatever ideological test. Now we have these fake political parties like Republicans and Democrats. Those aren’t real political parties. Those are just aesthetic choices.
The Make-Up, “Make Up Is Lies” from the album “Sound Verite,” 1997.
Was the Make-Up trying to reject the supposed sincerity of punk music at that time?
We were always castigated for being fashion hounds so we just wanted to embrace our own inauthenticity. We were very inauthentic, but we were influenced by black music and revolutionary politics and other things we were genuinely attracted to. It required total dedication on our part, so it wasn’t fake in that sense.
I think American hardcore starts as a rejection of punk camp and the homosexual affectations of early punk, and saying, “We’re not something to be laundered by the fashion industry. We’re authentic.” Minor Threat and Black Flag don’t dress up. They’re gritty and desperate. So by the time Make-Up comes around, we were into Prince and James Brown. And we wanted to dress up.
David Candy, “Diary of a Genius” from the album “Play Power,” 2001.
With David Candy, you were formally adopting a persona. But I think when people meet you in real life, they assume you’re always speaking in some kind of performative mode. Do you sense that?
Yeah, I don’t know! I always wonder if people are disappointed when they meet me because I’m not performative enough. I think all performers have a little bit of that thing. That’s why comics all die from cocaine overdoses. The pressure is always there to be on. But rock-and-roll is different. David Lee Roth. He can’t be doing splits all the time.
Weird War, “AK-47” from the album “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Bite ‘Em,” 2004.
You formed your next band, Weird War, just as America was preparing to launch some very real wars. With this song, were you trying to draw a parallel between rock music and the AK-47 as tools of revolutionary change?
Well, there are a lot of rock-and-roll songs about guns. There’s Junior Walker with “Shotgun.” And there’s “Do the 45” by the Sharpees. So with Weird War, we were just anti-imperialists. The imperialist has the drone. The imperialist has the air craft carrier. The imperialist has the media. The imperialist has all the satellites. So we wanted to write a song about the tool that the anti-imperialist has. And the anti-imperialist often triumphs.
I’m not into guns. I’m not into violence. But I think American exceptionalism is a grotesque ideology. Right now, America is sending troops to Eastern Europe and we’re already fighting five wars. That’s insane.
I wish I didn’t care about this stuff, but I find it fascinating. When you care about politics and foreign policy, you’re essentially a crank.
Publicist, “Momma,” single, 2009.
After Weird War, you contributed vocals to various projects, including Publicist, a project from former Weird War drummer Sebastian Thomson. Was your song “Momma” an anti-war song about cowardice?
I don’t know. I don’t remember it. At all! I’m so glad somebody listened to this! I basically ad-libbed these songs and we did a little tour of Italy and that was it. I was about to start Chain in the Gang and I don’t think a singer should sing in two bands. I thought doing the Make-Up reunion [at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 2013] was psychologically devastating. Maybe some people can do it. Some sociopath with three wives. Some trucker.
Felt Letters, “600,000 Bands,” single, 2009.
In another one of your interim groups, Felt Letters, you wrote this song about how we’ve been bombarded with music in the digital era. And it’s hilarious. But is it a song of hope or despair?
I grew up in this era where there were institutionalized rockers and all the other groups bubbling up underneath. The narrative presented an ecosystem that made a lot of sense. And one of the positive things that the internet did was demolish that idea.
Now, you can’t make a case for Neil Young being singularly great because it’s been revealed that there were one thousand competitors making plaintive folk-rock who were just as powerful and prolific. Neil Young just had the muscle of Reprise, or whoever, behind him. And Neil Young is great!
Otis Redding is another great example. Atlantic were the hype masters and they controlled the narrative for the white audience of soul music. It was “The Big O!” But now, it’s revealed that there were apparently 500,000 amazing soul singles produced by people that nobody ever heard of. So 600,000 bands on the Internet is what’s always been happening.
When you’re in rock-and-roll, everyone is embittered. “It didn’t turn out how it was supposed to.” Even Pete Townshend is angry because he’s misunderstood. He got to sell 50 million records, or whatever, but nobody gets “Pinball Wizard.” That’s why I collect old 45 singles. When you see all these talented people who had better ideas and were completely ignored, it’s a reality check.
And now, even if you only sell 500 records, that’s actually really great. You should be really glad that anybody cares. The only reward to making a record is making the record, not if some intern writes about it.
XYZ, ” Drum Machine” from the album “XYZ,” 2014.
You recently just released an album with the French musician Memphis Electronic under the name XYZ.
Is your song “Drum Machine” about technology compensating for our shortcomings?
Yeah, but it’s also about drummers. The psychology of a drummer is different than any other group member. It requires a certain physical coordination – it’s not just enthusiasm and a good record collection. A good drummer is rare, and because of that, they have a certain attitude.
Chain and the Gang, “Devitalize” from the album “Minimum Rock N Roll,” 2014.
So many musicians leave D.C. for other cities but you never left town. And now you’ve written this very provocative song about gentrification. Tell me about it.
Yeah, gentrification. There’s this Smiths documentary where Morrissey talks about the old Manchester being eradicated in a way that erased working class history. New construction was a way to crush the memory of a worker’s movement. And I think that’s what’s happening in America. It’s colonial. It’s erasure. And it’s giving people a very short return. In America, being poor is a crime. The only thing that has value in our culture is value.
The title of this new album is “Minimum Rock N Roll,” which is a great joke on the legendary punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll. I’ve heard you talk about rock as a proxy agent of capitalism, both of which some might argue are currently in decline. Are rock music and late-capitalism one and the same?
Well, I don’t think rock-and-roll is a proxy for capitalism, exactly. It’s just been assimilated. Ultimately, we are rock-and-roll. The workers are rock-and-roll.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Svenonius is 43 years old. Voter records show he is 45.