“We Don’t Need Freedom?” an Interview with Ian Svenonius
Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘n’ Roll Group
Ian F. Svenonius
What’s left to say about Ian Svenonius? He keeps writing music and is now on his second book so it looks like there’ll be plenty more to talk about for the foreseeable future. Ian’s been a fixture of the punk and underground music scene for two decades, most famously in Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, and Chain and the Gang, among other shorter-lived projects. His brand new Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘N’ Roll Group, out now from Brooklyn’s Akashic Books, aims to demystify the process of starting a rock ‘n’ roll band via a series of detours into mysticism and geopolitical history. Totally makes sense, right? Well, while his first book, The Psychic Soviet, was a collection of unrelated though fantastic essays, the new one is a sustained meditation that aims to decode the cultural contradictions of life in late capitalism through the prism of rock ‘n’ roll––something he’s uniquely suited for. At this point, our best hope may indeed lie in holding séances with beatified bluesmen. Personally, I did not know I had so much to learn from Chuck Berry on questions of Manifest Destiny and the Cold War, but the mysteries of the hereafter are inscrutable. One might even say sassy. Regardless of whether you think you’re in the choir he’s preaching to, or if you just want some pointers on starting a band but can’t be bothered to summon the spirit of Buddy Holly for religious reasons, read this guide for the perplexed and you will not be disappointed. We talked a few weeks ago about everything from Margaret Thatcher’s death to his thoughts on Saccharine Trust to the gender politics of male falsettos to unpaid content creators as the groupies of the modern world.
FANZINE: You just got back from Coachella, what was that like?
IAN SVENONIUS: Yeah, I did some readings and we got some concert offers down in L.A. We played well. It was a lot of fun.
FZN: You played with your old band, The Make-Up, not your new one, Chain and the Gang. What’s going on there, are Chain and the Gang through? More Make-Up shows?
IS: Nah, we just got back together for a couple of concerts but we don’t actually exist.
FZN: In every band you’ve ever been in you play with seriousness. The Nation Of Ulysses had revolutionary manifestoes next to (great) songs about hickeys next to conspiracy theories…
IS: Oh, I think all the points are made directly and are pretty up front. Maybe the style is playful.
FZN: Fair enough. You’ve written a new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group. You say the purpose behind it is to “demystify” how to go about forming a group, but you use “mystical” strategies like séances with the dead…
IS: The people in the best position to demystify the process are those who have no stake in the system anymore, people who have already profited from demystification. Now they have an otherworldly perspective, they can look at rock ‘n’ roll in geopolitical terms which is really unlike the view of their living peers who are all worried about either their job security or their royalties… Their place in history… dead stars can think about what rock ‘n’ roll is, what its uses have been politically and socially. They can discuss all of the more cynical and nefarious uses of the form in a really open way.
FZN: In the book you talk about the idea of rock ‘n’ roll as a “Death Cult…”
IS: Yeah, the spirits discuss this. It’s all part of Capitalism, planned obsolescence, and so on. One aspect of rock ‘n’ roll not commonly understood is the relationship between sex and planned obsolescence.
FZN: You actually mention a sexual/gender dynamic to this rock ‘n’ roll “death cult” as it relates to record collecting. You say, “Male rock ‘n’ roll fans have long been overlooked when adoring their male idols, who prefer to talk to girls. Resentment at second tier status among living stars catapulted the dead star into primacy…”
IS: Yes. If rock ‘n’ roll is repressed sex then it becomes a safe outlet for heterosexual culture to worship carnal beings in a way that doesn’t undermine heterosexual culture. The dead star is central and has been since the 50’s… There are all of those songs about Buddy Holly and Eddy Cochrane, written immediately after they died. It’s not really a later addition, it’s been central to rock ‘n’ roll’s mythmaking from the start.
FZN: Let’s talk about some “dead” rock groups. I was watching an interview on your Vice show Soft-Focus, and you brought up an interesting point. You were talking about an old SoCal punk band, Saccharine Trust, and their song “We Don’t Need Freedom.” Rock ‘n’ roll is about breaking rules, but you seem to think there might be some benefit to having them…
IS: I was always fascinated by that song and think it’s great… “we don’t need freedom”… [sighs longingly]… I’m in a group now called Chain and the Gang, and we have a record called Down With Liberty, Up With Chains! which is inspired by this slogan of the Spanish partisans who fought against Napoleon. They said “down with liberty” because Napoleon was trying to forcibly export it to the rest of Europe, reminiscent of the American obsession with exporting freedom. So for Saccharine Trust to say “We Don’t Need Freedom” is a really radical statement for America which has turned the idea of personal freedom into a kind of religion or ideology to export by force. What is that freedom? In many ways “freedom” has a lot of rules in itself and ends up being a repressive model.
FZN: It’s funny you say that because last week Margaret Thatcher died, who was famous, among other things, for popularizing “freedom” as laissez-faire capitalism, free markets. People on the left tend to think about freedom as something they own but there’s a lot more gray area…
IS: Right. What about the freedom to be healthy? It’s a weird concept. We’ve seen it recently with arguments about the Internet and the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) conflict. You have a group of people fighting against old copyright laws so people can have the freedom to download HBO shows. That’s really interesting to me because we’re not “free” to take the computer which costs $2k and enables us the “freedom” to take other things for “free.” There’s this idea that content providers––writers, photographers, musicians––they’re the ones who lose out in this new equation of freedom while hardware manufactures don’t. Freedom is one of those terms we use every day but whose meaning is actually totally nebulous. As for Margaret Thatcher, she was very cool…
FZN: It seemed like she was responsible for a lot of good music…
IS: Yeah, in that she was no different than Ronald Reagan or any other of those horrible people.
FZN: You talk about getting paid nothing to produce content in the chapter of your book on Sex, saying, “Groupie-ism was a preview of the dismantling of prostitution and other independent means of earning a wage under advanced capitalism. Just as the groupies gave it away for free, so would the punk bands of the next generation insist on playing for nothing. Punk groups and their enthusiasts created a model of free labor––based on enthusiasm for a cause––that has become much copied by corporations in the modern age. These businesses convince interns and web types to pitch in labor unpaid for the “community” (e.g., Huffington Post) while their venal bosses rake in millions.”
IS: Exactly, the groupie gives it away for free, and this leads to the punk model of giving it away for a cause which was eagerly adopted by the modern corporation. You work for some sort of brand-ideal, say, The Huffington Post, a vaguely liberal brand with which people affiliate themselves, and then you give it away for free… this is the kind of freedom the computer has given us. It’s sort of like Christianity.
FZN: You have a lot to say about gender and rock ‘n’ roll. I remember a striking line in your book, “There’s a celebrated tradition of men singing falsetto, but not of females singing baritone. This in itself is exemplary.”
IS: There’ve always been lots and lots of women involved in rock ‘n’ roll, but at a certain point when rock ‘n’ roll became very corporate with the Beatles invasion, there was a male putsch and for 10 or 15 years women were largely shut out from being in groups. Part of this was due to rock ‘n’ roll becoming an export whose goal was to explain western imperialism and so its profile had to be masculine and white. At the same time, there were a lot of men mimicking women precisely because they’d been shut out, like Shakespearean theatre.
FZN: Yeah, you had an article in BB Gun years ago that called out punk rock as “gaysploitation.”
IS: Ah, that was a great magazine.
FZN: The book is about creating “the group.” What makes that the most important part of rock ‘n’ roll?
IS: It’s not about music. A group is a different concern that’s not just about music. There’s nothing in the book about learning chords or arranging a song, it’s all about the mystique of the group identity. This is central to rock because rock’s roots are in the ideological orbit of gangland.
FZN: We talked about sex already, so let’s talk about drugs. In the past you say that drugs were about destroying your ego and expanding your consciousness, but that modern drugs are about regulating the personality. You say, “[Modern Drugs] are correctives, designed to help the user conform to normative social behavior and work modes by ironing out hard-to-take behavior. Accordingly, modern groups are loath to have personality, being formalistically obsessed with copying the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Ramones, the Stooges, or some other group.”
IS: That’s an outgrowth of the modern idea of the person as a machine, a machine that can be corrected with pharmaceutical drugs that fix specific flaws within it. In music, people that see themselves as machines begin to replicate the music of other machines. It’s a bit different than in the 1960’s when both music and drugs were seen as an avenue to a new consciousness.
FZN: Finally you seem to be really into the idea of rock and roll as a collection of fetish objects, t-shirts, records, pictures, and so on…
IS: We’re being encouraged to think that objects are bad and that everything you have should be on your iPad… That people should live in a 2001-style space apartment. I think that this is a conspiracy to rehabilitate everybody’s poverty. I think that objects are things that give us a link to things that actually happened. I don’t think that objects should be vilified. We have these shows like Hoarders that teach people that if you have “things,” you’re grotesque, but having things that exist in space and time… that’s a vestige of something that actually occurred. It’s only by going through your old things that you can have a direct link to the past. It also makes it harder to revise history. Like, looking at a love letter, reminding yourself “oh, I actually did feel this way.” That’s what a record is like.
FZN: It’s funny you say that because I saw you walking down the street in Brooklyn and was going to say hello but realized I was wearing a fake Nation of Ulysses shirt I’d bought off of eBay that had never “actually” existed.
IS: Haha, that’s foolish! I once walked through a museum with Mick Jagger but didn’t talk to him because we were wearing the same coat, so I can relate.
Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is available through Akashic Books.