“A Tight Rhythm Unit With This Extrovert in Front.”
Ian Svenonius Explains His Supernatural Strategies
With almost 25 years in the rock ’n’ roll trenches, Washington D.C.’s Ian Svenonius has fronted a number of important bands such as Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, The Scene Creamers, Weird War and his present act, Chain and the Gang. And each of these bands employed some kind of quasi-ideological rhetoric to define itself, oftentimes coming in the form of a manifesto. So Svenonius might just know a thing or two about what it takes to strategize a group.
The running thread of the aforementioned bands is, of course, Ian himself: his cocksure performance style that melds the moves of a beatnick James Brown with a Marxist Mick Jagger, his wryly witty lyrics which bring to mind a D.C. thrift shop version of Ray Davies, and his hair – a gravity defying tangle of ebony locks that only the most audacious sort would dare to be seen with. Clearly, Svenonius has affected this persona and style with aplomb. Svenonius’ art is as much about image manipulation as it is music, and he has the endearing audacity to make it all work.
Poseur, provocateur and pontificator, Svenonius’ most recent cultural product comes in the form of a book. Both as satire and as plain truth, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group (Akashic Books) is a scream – something that could only be produced by the punk rock aesthete who was once named Sassy magazine’s “Sassiest Boy in America.”
Written in the parlance of academia, Supernatural Strategies may require a bit of patience for the reader. But once you’ve gotten over the sometimes daunting vocabulary to fall into the cadence of his writing, you’ll find that Svenonius explains the ugly realities of the machinations of rock ’n’ roll’s (sub)culture industry with a rapier wit.
In conversation, Svenonius is oddly self-effacing – almost bashful. He seems reluctant to acknowledge that his writing is important and really, really smart.
“It’s funny because I’m not from academia,” says Svenonius. “But the language, you know… I’m probably like one of those policemen who uses a lot of big words. I just use a lot of big words to say simple things.”
Sure, Svenonius’ downplaying his linguistic dexterity is charming in conversation. But bear in mind that Supernatural Strategies is a different beast than the usual rock tome. Chock full of allusions to Marxism, Frankfurt School conceptualizations of popular culture, and postmodernist/poststructuralist theory, the book requires concentration – and yields insight and a lot of laughs. Just read it.
“I think that the whole thing can be taken at face value,” says Svenonius. “Everything can be read off the page as truth – or opinion, or a fantasy. Maybe it’s a fantasy that can be taken at face value.
“I thought the book was necessary to begin with because I keep seeing all of these kind of rock camps for kids. There are so many of these how-to classes springing up. It made me think about how the ideology of rock ’n’ roll was shunned by the parents of one generation and now it’s being actively encouraged [by another generation of parents]. So the tradition is being carried on I guess. That made me really ask what are the values of this tradition? What is it about the rock ’n’ roll form that makes the middle class perpetuate it? Which values are being carried over from the last generation and which ones are being left behind? And despite its detractors, rock ’n’ roll is still a living thing.”
So, how does Svenonius get at this living thing that is rock ’n’ roll in Supernatural Strategies? You guessed it (well, you probably didn’t), he holds séances to channel the spirits of expired rock stars such as Brian Jones to explain how rock ’n’ roll works, the steps that one must take to affect rock stardom, and the consequences that affected rock personas and ideologies hold for band members.
“Basically I just wanted to put together this book,” says Svenonius. “And at first I just thought I’d make a how-to guide for rock groups: talk to some people, do simple interviews, and it would just be a useable and pragmatic guide. And, uh, what happened – I guess I didn’t feel a lot of confidence. I guess I didn’t feel like my perspective on rock ’n’ roll is necessarily the perspective. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what to do and how to do it. So I did want to consult other people and get a more measured approach – a broader scope of ideas. And that’s where the séance comes in.”
Hilariously, Svenonius explains in the book that the values (or “platforms”) established by groups function in a double-edged way. First, they provide the group with the means to establish itself as a way of life, a gang, even as a brand. And of course the same platforms later become stultifying and will “torment you [the band member] for eternity.”
“It [the group persona] might snowball,” says Svenonius. “It will take its own form. It’s a Frankenstein monster or Gollum, you know?”
So, have the personas and platforms that Svenonius so deftly created for himself and his bands come to haunt him?
“Uh, I guess I might not even know,” says Svenonius, laughing. “I might not even be aware of it. But, you know, being in a group and what the group proposes – it dogs you because it’s not something that you can just shake off. It’s a role that you have. But it’s not a theatre performance per se. It’s not like you’re playing Iago in Othello.
“The group is so wrapped up in its identity it’s like living the life – living it day to day. So if you’re taking on an ideology and persona as a group, it’s not just about you. I think that the role that you take on in a group could be a limiting thing. Some people grow out of the group role or ideology. You hear it all the time: ‘they [the group] just wanted to party, but they run around all the time pretending they were revolutionaries.’ It doesn’t resonate as truth. What is truth is that people [in bands] change – and they become embarrassed about what they perceive as the naiveté of their former proposition.”
In Supernatural Strategies, the process of creating a group is broken down into sub-classifications such as (predictably) drugs, sex, van – and the photograph. Clearly there’s a corollary with Svenonius’ own career here. Few rockers have been more successful at creating an all surface/no substance persona that, paradoxically, offers so much depth and personality. And of course this persona is conveyed most capably as a photograph. “For me, the group is very much a visual presentation,” explains Svenonius.
The inherent contradiction here is that while Supernatural Strategies focuses on the group as a sum of more than its parts, Svenonius’ own career has been driven more by an individual presence: his own. All of Svenonius’ bands have been, more or less, his bands, where he has served as frontman, but also as chief conceptualist and architect – a benevolent oligarch, if you will. And his looks and over-the-top performances have made him by far the most memorable member of all his bands.
“That’s just because I’ve been lucky enough to be in groups of people who were… Basically the composition of those groups was a tight rhythm unit with this extrovert in front,” explains Svenonius. “So part of the power is the contrast between this very button-down group and an extrovert singer. But people definitely remember the members of the Make-Up. Definitely Michelle. The whole group had its thing.
“For me, the group is a very visual presentation that has its genealogy in the street gang. You know, it’s a certain thing. And Americans are very authenticity obsessed, for the most part. You know, Americans would prefer a band like Neutral Milk Hotel that they perceive to be unpretentious. I mean, look at Urban Outfitters! That’s kind of a metaphor for the indie group because they strip it all down, but it’s incredibly pretentious. It’s supposed to be bare and exposed, letting it all hang out naked and protruding. But in truth American indie rock is very pretentious. I guess I just prefer a different kind of pretension.”
As his upcoming reading at 529, expect something a little different. Never one to shirk his responsibilities as performer and master of ceremonies, Svenonius will do his best to take his audience to another realm.
“It’s going to be a reading with a little audience participation, maybe a couple of candles. You know, we might put a balloon up. It won’t be quite a normal reading, but there will be some words read. Hopefully if we’re lucky we can conjure some spirits. But the spirits, they can be real prima donnas.”