Ian Svenonius is one of D.C.’s most magnetic frontmen. He’s also an admitted rock ‘n’ roll despot.
The former vocalist for Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War and Scene Creamers has been on an anti-freedom kick for years. The 2009 debut from his now-main band, Chain & the Gang, was called Down With Liberty… Up With Chains! A song on its third LP, In Cool Blood, chanted, “I don’t believe in free will!” And this fall, Akashic Books publishes Svenonius’ latest book, titled Censorship Now!
But Svenonius doesn’t practice much self-censorship, at least not when it comes to art. He’s got several active creative outlets — a solo act called Escape-ism, various speaking engagements and writing ventures, regular gigs with Chain & the Gang and now, a (somewhat) new record: XYZ, his one-off synth project with France-based rocker Memphis Electronic.
The self-titled album first came out last year on Memphis Electronic’s label, Mono-Tone, and today Svenonius drops a limited edition on his own imprint, Radical Elite.
XYZ contains 10 tracks, most of them skeletal and sermonlike, with Svenonius fully in character. “Everybody wants to be poor,” he intones on the record’s eighth track. “But some people are rich. They can’t help it. That’s just the way they were born. Don’t judge them.”
It’s not always easy to square Svenonius’ philosophies when he vacillates between sincere and provocative, as I was reminded when I spoke to him on the phone Monday. He moves easily from decrying gentrification as “undemocratic” to calling himself “anti-democracy.” But Svenonius seems ever-strict on the idea of artistic value, and the importance of preserving what he thinks is left of it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.Bandwidth: Tell me about XYZ and when you started getting that together.
Ian Svenonius: When I play in France, I sometimes get to play with my friend’s band, my friend Didier [Balducci], aka Memphis Electronic. I’ve played with his band over the years, and one of them is this group Non! I’ve toured with them and I toured with another one of his groups called Dum Dum Boys, which are an historic French band. He lives in Nice, the French Riviera… the Cote d’Azur. It’s kind of like the Florida of France. It’s right-wing and beautiful. And weird, ’cause I think it’s a tax haven for English rock stars and stuff. And Monaco’s right there.
So he lives down there and it’s kind of anomalous because there’s not a lot of cool culture happening. The French don’t think of it as very cool. So it just seemed interesting to go down there and work with him on some songs. We have similar tastes, but maybe he’s more sophisticated than I am. He played with Kim Fowley, his bands played with Johnny Thunders back in the day.
You know, the French, they just love pointy shoes. Everything’s gotta have a little bit of sexy. They’re kind of like naturally camp, the French. They have a very particular perspective on rock ‘n’ roll and I think it’s interesting.
On this record, you have 10 interludes. What is the utility of the interlude?
Its supposed to create the ambience of being in an arcade. Didier is like a pinball champion in France, and there’s a little town that we visited right across the border right near Monaco in Italy. There’s just a lot of pinball and arcades down there because it’s a beach town. So the idea was just to create this ambience of a pinball arcade.
Wait, Didier is a pinball champion?
He’s a champion. I mean he’s not the champion. But he’s a pinball champion.
You always have so much going on. How do you keep track of all your ideas?
Did you ever see that Woody Allen movie [Crimes and Misdemeanors] where Alan Alda walks around with a dictaphone?
“Idea for sitcom!” [Laughs] No, I don’t know… I think you have to write things down or record them, and then you can always go back to them when you’re feeling stuck.
Do you really do that — record your ideas into your phone?
Oh yeah, sure, of course. Or you just write ’em down. It’s so sad what they do to these people, though, these people they excavate your journal, like Kurt Cobain. Think of how horrible that is. Can you imagine that? Someone publishing your notes? That’s so disrespectful. Whatever scumbag vampire did that should really be haunted eternally. But it’s normal — it’s the treatment the artists get.
Are you worried that someone is going to find your thoughts one day? Ones that you didn’t want publicized?
No. I’m not too worried. First you have to have success.
“Right now everybody loves pop music. It’s kind of the vogue to be accepting, and not only accepting, but enthusiastic. But I feel like if you get involved in the conversation about the Grammys, you really should go see your therapist. ‘Cause that s**t is just horrifying.”
Did you read those comments from the Google executive who said we’re headed toward a “forgotten century” as our technology becomes obsolete?
I’ve been saying that. You know, I think that guy read some interview with me, because I’ve been saying that for quite a while, that exact thing. At this point, think of how many computers you already have that are full of things — photographs, writing, music, whatever. And it’s inaccessible. Because even if you had the plug, you have to plug it in, none of the operating systems are up-to-date and they won’t reveal what you’ve stored on there. It’s kind of like every computer is a house burning down. … So I definitely think that people are gonna look back on this era and see it as a void in culture.
If you think about the way we look at the Greeks, we look at Athens and we think, “Oh, they were so creative and wonderful.” And then you look at the Spartans, and they have very little to show in terms of achievements. But who knows? Maybe they had some incredibly rich oral histories or perhaps they had computers. And they were storing everything on computers, and Athenians were primitive and just made sculptures and stuff, so now we think the Athenians are the geniuses.
It seems like you’re playing a consistent character in your music. Do you have a favorite?
Well, maybe that’s just a lack of imagination. Or consistency. Either one. [Laughs] I think that when you make music, you need to make some rules. You meet these old punk rockers and they still have the same biases — they still hate Fleetwood Mac or something. And it always seems, “Oh, that’s a little stunted.” But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s really important to have these kind of rules. Because once you decide that everything has worth… Maybe that’s not good for the art. It’s important to have some kind of sophomoric prejudices against certain art forms.
What are some of your sophomoric prejudices?
Oh, you know. [Long pause] I don’t know. I just like dynamics. And I like a little bit of personality in the music… there’s some sort of discernible personality or the idea that the thing that you’re seeing has a point of view. Those are the things that turn me on. And the things that don’t turn me on are kind of like just — obfuscationist music.
I guess I don’t like all this modern music that sounds like The Lion King, you know?
Did you say The Lion King?
Like all the modern pop music, pop music and hip-hop that all just sounds like Disney, you know? It’s pretty horrible.
Sounds like Disney? I’m trying to think of what you mean.
Sounds like a Denny Elfman soundtrack, you know?
“We can’t rely on the state to censor the bad things, we have to rely on ourselves. We have to create a people censorship.”
I’m struggling to think of examples.
So much of it sounds like that. It’s kind of an epic, goofy — it’s horrible! It’s f*****g horrible. So yeah, that’s a sophomoric prejudice. Right now everybody loves pop music. It’s kind of the vogue to be accepting, and not only accepting, but enthusiastic. But I feel like if you get involved in the conversation about the Grammys, you really should go see your therapist. ‘Cause that s**t is just horrifying.
There was that New York Times Magazine essay about “poptimism.” The author was raked over the coals for it because it was seen as an elitist perspective, but basically the argument was that as a reaction against rockism, the poptimist emerged.
Yeah. I can see that. So much of what people announce as their taste has to do with… “I’m not one of those people.” But the end result is that you’re encouraging this culture — it’s an idiotic culture. It’s — ugh! Really bad! It’s the voice of Wall Street. To me, that’s all that music — ugh! Really! It’s terrible! [Laughs]
You almost seem like you’re at a loss for words.
That’s what my book says — Censorship Now! That’s what it’s about. Censorship. Censor it! We can’t rely on the state to censor the bad things, we have to rely on ourselves. We have to create a people censorship.
[We talk more about the book, but later Svenonius says he doesn’t want to discuss it publicly yet because he suspects someone will steal his ideas.]
This seems in line with some of the anti-liberation ideas you’ve been putting out there, especially with Chain & the Gang.
Yeah… Like I said, I’m just a one-noter.
Your “Devitalize” song, which took an extreme stand against gentrification, seemed philosophically similar. I saw some stupid reactions to that song. There was somebody in some comment section who said something like, “What do people like Ian Svenonius really want? Do they want urban neighborhoods to go back to what they were?” I thought that was a thoughtless reaction, personally. Do you think people understood what you were saying with that?
Well, the thing about music is, it’s based on an emotion. It’s poetry. It’s allowed to be a little bit absurd, or totally absurd. And that’s why artists are powerful, because it can say these massive things without parsing words or putting footnotes down. And that’s why, when people respond in ways like that, essentially they don’t understand rock ‘n’ roll at all and they shouldn’t be part of the conversation. …
It’s just pure rock ‘n’ roll. Everybody feels like that. When you see your city being erased, and the culture being erased, by people who don’t even live here — by investors and architects who have no relationship to the city, and you see not only neighborhoods being erased but the whole cultural history… You wake up one day and you jog down the street and it looks completely different. Who, who has a real emotional attachment to the place they live, wouldn’t be offended by that — when you realize nobody was consulted? It’s so undemocratic, you know? It’s just this money thing.
So you react emotionally to that, and then these people who don’t understand rock ‘n’ roll are like, [in a dorky voice] “Oh, this is not a feasible city planning [policy] —” [Laughs] It’s just extraordinary. People like that should really be put in jail.
“Personally I was into The Make-Up and the mission of The Make-Up. I think it was an interesting group that was ambitious. It wasn’t always good, but it was an ambitious idea.”
When your old band The Make-Up reunited, that was the most I’d read about you in national publications in a long time. Did you want to get The Make-Up back together?
Oh yeah, I definitely did. I was totally into it. Because I loved that band, and I felt like we could do a really good job. …
For me, selfishly, but also politically, I wanted to reform The Make-Up because in a way I think a reunion of a group serves the same function that a reissue used to serve. Reissues used to be a way of [reassessing] this group and think[ing] about it, and us[ing] it. But now there are so many reissues that that’s not really a thing. It’s harder for it to have the same impact as the Velvet Underground reissues in the ’80s. Or the Nuggets reissues in the ’70s. Those things were pivotal. …
Personally I was into The Make-Up and the mission of The Make-Up. I think it was an interesting group that was ambitious. It wasn’t always good, but it was an ambitious idea. I was interested in that. But it was hard.
Because you can’t do the thing where you’re listening to the music and you’re trying to imitate it. You really have to get into the spirit of what it is. So we only played like six shows or something, or seven shows. I think the first one we did — after the first one, after we got over the hump, it was like, “OK, I understand how to do this.” But at first I felt like I was imitating myself.
Back to the XYZ record quickly: Tell me about the lyrics you wrote for “Drum Machine.”
It’s just that dream of autonomy that everybody in a group deals with. Like, we all wanna collaborate and collaboration is what usually makes the music interesting, but then you’re like, “Well, could I collaborate with this machine? Could there be a relationship?” So in a way, it’s a lot of the same issues that lonely people feel with their erotic devices.
So a drum machine is like your vibrator.
Yeah, or the Real Doll or whatever people use now.
OK, one last question. What I’ve always liked about Chain & the Gang is you’re playing with all these young people. What’s it like playing with young people who haven’t been in a big touring band before? Has there been a learning curve?
Not really. There’s been a bunch of different people involved. Right now we have sort of an ideal lineup, and it’s really great. There were a few people where was like, “Oh, OK… they have different ideas about how to do this.” But I’ve always just played with people who were friends and who it feels right [with]. And people who are enthusiastic.
And ultimately, the people who are playing music who aren’t as precious about being the administrator, or the king of the hill, they’re typically younger. … I’m just lucky that the people I play with are really awesome. They really flesh it out. Because Chain & the Gang is a skeleton. It’s essentially a soliloquy. And then I have these amazing people who help me create this drama and add all this personality.
So there’s no question that you’re the king of the hill in Chain & the Gang.
Well yeah, I’m Chain. But it’s actually pretty egalitarian, beyond the fact that I’m the mouthpiece. But besides that, the decisions are more democratic than I would like. ‘Cause I’m anti-democracy.