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Ian Svenonius, of legendary groups Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up, couldn’t be contained by the 350 word count that was placed on the article about him in the latest issue, so we’ve decided to let lose the entire interview on the internet. We promise it’s the most interesting Q&A you’ve read since the Beanie Sigel one we just posted up. Dude is wildin.
Can you explain what The Psychic Soviet is?
The book is a collection of essays, the overarching theme was an attempt to figure out what rock & roll is: what its use is and what its future can be. Rock & roll is a paradox, and a lot of the accepted narratives are a little bit suspect. The essays are kind of pell-mell and they kind of collide against one another, but I guess it was really an attempt to explain and understand rock & roll. To do so the book has to go back into the Cold War, because rock & roll is kind of a Cold War construct. Then if you are going to talk about the Cold War, you have to talk about ideological conflicts, communism, capitalism, all that stuff. So you have to talk about World War II (which created the Cold War), the Enlightenment and what informed the Enlightenment and the bourgeoisies and the Renaissance. I kind of talk about a lot of different things, but ultimately it’s a book about rock & roll.
What do you mean when you say that rock & roll is a paradox?
Well you know, the pretense of freedom. All the accepted narratives that we grew up with about rock & roll, a lot of them don’t really hold up to any dissection or they just raise a lot of questions. There is a kind of left pretense in rock & roll, if you look for a left pretense in rock & roll you find songs like “Money” by the Isleys. You go into Borders and there might be 500 books about the Sex Pistols, but not one book about go-go music from DC, so The Psychic Soviet is an attempt to try and create another narrative. You grow up learning the tropes of history, like punk saved rock or all kinds of stuff like that, and it’s like, “what is punk rock?” Then you have to read the book to find out.
Do you think there is a disconnect between the people making music and the people listening to it?
I think that we inherit that, like we’ve inherited rock & roll and we’ve inherited a lot of the myths, so the myths become central to our identity. You grow up and you have these emotional attachments to these groups, and that’s great. Ultimately we’re all interested in rock & roll for the same reason, because the rest of the world is obviously corrupt. There is no ideological movement in the United States of America because politicians are crooks, they’re idiots and liars and murderers, so obviously we invest our energy into these groups that embody our hopes and our dreams and they create beauty. That seems like a much more noble endeavor than conspiring in a backroom to bomb a country. But at the same time, while rock & roll also has this very ideological concept, it was born out of the Cold War as a component of global capitalism. If you talk to cultural historians they’ll tell you that the Beatles did more for capitalism than the Pope. So at the same time it’s like, what is it? Are we the unwitting shills of this covert ideology? Its all been exposed now that Jackson Pollack was funded by the CIA and that American art in the ’50s was a Cold War tool, but no one has explored, Where does rock & roll fit into that? Certainly rock & roll and jazz music were more influential in rehabilitating the United States’s image overseas than Jackson Pollack. Certainly Elvis Presley did more for US image than Jackson Pollack. Jackson Pollack, maybe he influenced a few painters, or painters’ benefactors.
So I’ve always been interested in that in all my groups, including Weird War that I play with now, but because you’re only able to express your narrative in a kind of heroic inferred sense in a group, I decided to write a book.
What compelled you to get this book out now?
It was supposed to come out a while ago, but we were very particular about the way we wanted it to look. We had to wait until we could find the people that could make it, because the look and the feel, the size and everything are really central to it.
What was your personal history as a music listener?
As a child I listened to the Beatles, I felt like there weren’t any groups, it was just a trail to this group. I bought that kind of dogma, that kind of idealistic fanaticism. When I was in junior high I started listening to punk because it was on the college radio station and DC had a really great scene with a lot of vitality, so I became an acolyte of that movement and that influenced the groups that I was in, of course. I was into hip-hop, Nation of Ulysses was greatly influenced by militant rock & roll but also by hip-hop.
How did the influence of hip-hop come about?
That was just happening, everybody is influenced by the things that are happening around them. Our friend Glen Friedman got us into Public Enemy right when the demos came out. It was super exciting because it was what all the punks had been waiting for, and then we were into all the other hip-hop of course. Public Enemy seems really dated now, but that whole collage of noise, it was just a noise aspect of Public Enemy, along with the theater of everything.
What do you listen to now?
I’m into everything. There’s no longer any orthodox in rock & roll, that’s another thing my book talks about: why at one time did rock & roll people seem so fanatic about it, why there used to be this orthodoxy that completely melted away. I mean once upon a time, Judas Priest and Queen had a rivalry in the British music press when Queen made that video for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and Freddy Mercury wore this leather jacket. Rob Halford and people that wore leather jackets were so affronted by that gesture, like the idea was that Freddy Mercury is not allowed to wear a leather jacket, and then Rob Halford like challenged him to a motorcycle race. But the point is that that was a whole feeling in the ’80s that only certain people were allowed to do certain things. It was very sectarian and people basically respected those kinds of boundaries, but those boundaries are gone now, and that’s nice in a way. All that orthodoxy was bad for music, but at the same time it’s like, well what’s been lost? Now that everything is everything, certain things may have been lost because the fanaticism of the true believer might make better music than the sort of dilettantes who are just showing off their record collection.
In your bands have you always tried to bring in a wide range of influences?
If a band is based on Bob Dylan’s 1960s period, that’s extremely limited, and not only is it limiting, but you’ll never do anything better, you’ll always be a stunted version of the thing. But if your group is influenced by the Black Panther Party of something like that, that’s a much more interesting thing. To base your group so directly on a historical antecedent is stunting. Maybe it’s better to base your group on futurism or something like that, because the music is going to come no matter what. The people that make music, they make music and it’s almost unconscious, you know? I think when you pick up an old record and you’re imitating it, you’re destroying that unconscious, and that’s the big difference between the music then and now. I think that people now are much better at making music and arranging music and singing and playing and recording, and everything sounds better. But at the same time we’ve kind of lost that unconscious thing where, like if you listened to early Meat Puppets or those weird records from the ’80s, they seem like they are just coming out of the unconscious.
What’s Weird War up to now?
We’re making a record, we’re recording. We’re pretty excited about it. It’s roller skate jams. I shouldn’t reveal anything,
Have you lived your entire life in DC?
Not really, but for all intents and purposes, yes.
What do you think about the music coming out of there now?
There are things going on all the time and there are parties and people always play records and dance around, but it's definitely different in the city. It’s completely transformed. One of the articles in the book some friends of mine turned it into a piece for NPR about real estate and its relationship to rock & roll, and the ramifications of the real estate explosion for rock bands and for rock scenes, the way it changed music. I think here more than anywhere else I’ve seen, it’s just kind of devastating. There used to be a lot of racist propaganda that kept squares out of DC for the most part, so it was a city that had a lot of possibilities in terms of space and spaces. The racist propaganda is still there, but it has been overpowered by Sex in the City, Friends and all these sort of horrible, horrible squares.