Ian Svenonius: Proto-Punk Intellectual Discourse

Chain and the Gang: Music's Not For EveryoneChain and the Gang: Music’s Not For Everyone (K Records, 2/22/11)

Chain and the Gang: “Why Not”

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Ian Svenonius is in California, preparing for a two-month tour with his band Chain and the Gang, and, as expected, his dialogue is peppered with the socio-political observations and pop-culture meanderings he’s become known for in one of his many “Little Projects” as the interviewer on VBS TV’s Soft Focus.

In between sophisticated discourses on gangs, cults, government conspiracies, free markets, technological innovations, and what he deems the “bullshit binary” in the Rolling Stones-versus-Beatles debate, he’s prone to abruptly disarming moments of charm, humility, and downright silliness. “Oh, this is horrible; I’m just not as prepared as I would like to be,” says Svenonius, who has interviewed music’s legendary thinkers without the accompaniment of notes. “I just feel like I’m not giving you anything good.”

The statement is made 45 minutes into the interview and after an essay-long response on why he, a legendary thinker in his own right (he’s also the author of the recently republished book of political and social essays, The Psychic Soviet), prefers band dynamics over more personality-identified art. It’s either a moral feat or foolish marketing that in his 20-some years of making music in such bands as Nation of Ulysses, Weird War, the Make-Up, and Cupid Car Club, there has never been a musical project that Svenonius’ name has solely graced.

Svenonius’ reasons run deeper than just humility. He’s not averse to solo promotion. He was voted the first “Sassiest Boy in America” by Sassy Magazine (October 1990), lied about his age to be nominated, and threatened to “indoctrinate youth gone astray” in the accompanying article. And he’s released an album under the pseudonymous and delectably dandy-ish name David Candy.

Yet, possibly in keeping with his punk origins, he’s never been out for the rewards of individual recognition. The end of said essay-long response, for example, comes across with the same seemingly effortless, genius-spawned air as an Aleksandar Hemon soliloquy and explains the reason why bands are just his thing.

“All the music I listen to is by people, people like Chuck Jackson,” Svenonius expounds. “But that being said, people regenerate their cellular structures every couple of years, so you can’t rely on them for any consistency. But a group, you can really chart a group, because a group is just an idealization. A group has nothing to do with reality. A person might be a person of faith, but then they’re also a person who is sitting on a toilet. A group doesn’t sit on a toilet. There’s something really horrible about that personalization or the modern-reality sensibility.”

“The US is always trying to bring a free market, a liberated market to places like the Soviet Union. So they’re liberating the Soviet Union. But how are they liberating it? They’re liberating it with the mafia, because honestly, the CIA is the mafia.”

What he prefers, he says, are “snapshots and still photos.” In other words, he prefers an aesthetic construct, which he frames as “people in some kind of heroics that allows some idealization.” His belief in this principle is what simultaneously wins him detractors and devotees. As Soft Focus’ host, for example, his interviewing mannerisms are alluringly impish yet can be misconstrued as affected.

He sinks in his chair, quizzically scratches his chin, looks at some distant point when answers arrive, and is prone to throw out esoteric questions unrelated to the subject at hand. This approach could and does turn off more pedantic viewers. But he’s also known, through that same aw-shucks and offhanded scholarly naïveté, to ask questions that ultimately pinpoint his guests’ frailties, artistic or otherwise.

“Are you a prophet?” he asked of Ian MacKaye in one interview segment, at which MacKaye laughed. Yet the combination of the pointed question and the innocent sincerity with which it was delivered stirred an undeniably uncomfortable air. Then there was the interview where The Fall’s Mark E. Smith called him a cunt for, in Svenonius’ words, “deserved” reasons. Svenonius seems genuinely remorseful of such awkward moments and surprisingly oblivious to his own pull as a bona-fide proto-punk intellectual legend in the making.

“The major change in the last 10 years has been this sense of access,” Svenonius explains. “When I was growing up, there was a sense that everybody was shut out and nobody was part of the discussion. There was all this anger. No one musically represented us, and there was a sense of striking out. There was no access politically. There still is no access politically. But the difference is that with the Internet, everybody feels like they have access. It’s a very significant shift. Soft Focus is another aspect of this ‘oh, there was this lack of access for these people who are actually really popular.’ People like Ian MacKaye or Mark E. Smith or Chan Marshall — you never see these people interviewed in this kind of way.”

Ultimately, and Svenonius truly believes this, he’s just there to moderate, to provide access. “People are not there to see me; people are not very fond of me,” he jokes.

It’s that self-deprecating, prevaricating, and provocative persona that distinguishes Svenonius’ music. In fact, he’s quick to say that what draws him most to music is a sense of provocative humor.

Ian Svenonius

“That’s what a record is; it’s a collection of jokes, essentially,” he says. “Any good music — like Little Richard, or Bob Dylan, or the Beatles — aren’t those jokes? Playing a song is a lot like telling a joke. When you play a song, you’re essentially delivering a very sophisticated kind. Jim Morrison was really amazing at doing that. He had a great sense of the absurd. People hate him and they love him. That’s a signifier of something interesting, instead of something that’s unassailably beloved.”

Down with Liberty…Up With Chains!, Chain and the Gang’s first release, is an exercise in music laced with Svenonius’ sophisticated humor. The title comes from an absurd historical moment, specifically Napoleon’s offers of liberation to a Spanish citizenry reliant upon its Bourbon conservative rulers. Spanish resistors to the invasion reportedly went into the streets, shouting their preference in a manner that could be roughly translated in today’s parlance as “better an old demon than a new god.” For all intents and purposes, Svenonius agrees with the logic behind this.

“I don’t like freedom,” he says. “The whole idea of Down with Liberty is that there’s too much choice, too much intelligence. I like austerity. I’m a communist. I want to stand in line. And I want that toilet paper to be very special.” Given Svenonius’ nature, such blurts can be reasonably assumed to be tongue-in-cheek.

Music is like poker. Not everybody plays poker, and that’s totally fine. There’s no social admonishment toward people that don’t play poker. Similarly, most people probably shouldn’t listen to music, and that’s totally cool. Music is overused, it’s misused, it’s abused, and it’s disrespected.

Yet, as with all jokes, there’s a kernel of truth behind them, and Svenonius does, at length, clarify the rationale behind the joke on both a political and a social level. “On a political level, it makes absolute sense; it’s a perfect analogy,” he explains. “The US is always trying to bring a free market, a liberated market to places like the Soviet Union. So they’re liberating the Soviet Union. But how are they liberating it? They’re liberating it with the mafia, because honestly, the CIA is the mafia.

“They’re identical, and they’re the same people. And the only thing that people in power understand is modeling the mafia. So when they liberate the Soviet Union, they replace the bureaucracy with the mafia. That’s what they did in Haiti, and that’s what they do everywhere. On a political level, down with liberty makes absolute sense, because I don’t like American imperialism. I prefer the bureaucrats of Iran to the American imperialists.

“On a social level, it’s like having 5,000 songs on your iPod. Is that freedom and choice? Is that enriching? Does that enrich us? Think about the Rolling Stones: when they started their group, they had three records. The world was a simple place because they were copying three records. They had an Elmore James record and a Muddy Waters record and a Chuck Berry record, and everything was based on those things. But for the group nowadays, it’s so difficult because they’re like, ‘What are we gonna copy? Because we can be like Night Ranger or…’”

His extended explanation feels as though he’s annotating his next book, but it turns out it’s his next record that he has in mind. “It’s going to be a thematic album,” Svenonius says. “It’s going to be based on this idea that music’s not for everybody. Music is like poker. Not everybody plays poker, and that’s totally fine. There’s no social admonishment toward people that don’t play poker. Similarly, most people probably shouldn’t listen to music, and that’s totally cool. Music is overused, it’s misused, it’s abused, and it’s disrespected.

“I mean, the thing about music is that it shouldn’t be commonplace. And I’m not saying that it’s some holy sacred thing or that it should be like chamber music. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that there is this ubiquity that cheapens the experience. When music is being played at every convenience store or gas station, you cease to have any respect for it. If something is that common, it’s worthless. And now music has this worthless aspect to it. It’s like food on a cruise ship where they’re feeding you five times a day.  How good is that food gonna be?”

Though he’ll avoid the personal in his music, these issues of access and control are two subjects that Svenonius enjoys addressing. The topics are written about in his book, woven into his TV interviews, and show up more recently in several tracks on Down with Liberty. It’s difficult to listen to his music without drawing more from them than the rhythmic and repetitive qualities he says he’s aiming for.

Even the singles-like quality of Down with Liberty has a larger story behind it, one having to do with Svenonius’ love of what he calls “garbage.” “I love the fact that there’s so much amazing music out there that’s never been heralded, particularly with 45s,” he says. “You find these things, and nobody cares about them, and it’s perfect. It’s all so much better than anything that I’ve ever done. But it’s also garbage. There’s so much old soul music with this really offhand quality; it feels like somebody made a little joke. It lasts for two minutes. But it sounds wonderful.”

Not so surprisingly, the way Svenonius describes what he looks for in music is exactly the way his music and he, himself, are often described. Some dismiss him as an affable, albeit highly intelligent, jokester, and others dismiss his music as too quaint, affected, or stylized.

The thing with Svenonius, however, and what makes him such an alluring interviewer, performer, and artist, is that he understands this, but he also understands, even if he’s too modest to say so, why people enjoy his work and, by extension, Svenonius as an artist.

“Records should be engaging,” he says. “There should be some mystery. And they should be a little grotesque and funny — for me. Some people like music in a really different way and they want to hear something that’s a bummer. That’s not my trip; that’s not my bag, as they say. But also, music is dangerous. It’s like a drug; these short songs are something that you can’t get enough of. It’s like crack. You’re smoking crack with these records, because you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so good.’ You want to put on another one.”

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