Ian Svenonius

Left: Cover of Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group (2013). Right: The Nation of Ulysses performing in 1989. Ian Svenonius (center). (Photo: Don Lewis)

Ian Svenonius has been a lead vocalist and songwriter in bands for over twenty-four years, including the Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and Chain & the Gang. Based in Washington, DC, he published The Psychic Soviet (Drag City) in 2006, and hosted a talk show for titled Soft Focus from 2007 to 2010. His new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock’n’Roll Group, was published by Akashic this month, and serves as part warning, part manual, and part spiritual dérive for anyone looking to take up musical instruments in the interest of forming a rock ’n’ roll group.

THE APPROACH FOR THE BOOK was that I, along with my research team, had to have a long séance with multiple dead rock stars making appearances, because they’re the only people who don’t have vested interests in the material world. They could say anything they wanted about their former compatriots. Living rock musicians are very political; they’re too invested in appearances and they can’t tell the truth. Ultimately, a band isn’t the personal lives of the people in it. The group is what the group did—the live music, the pictures—otherwise it’s pretty dull. Or a lie.

I’m really interested in the nonephemeral manifestations of a band. Most of my possessions are worthless scraps of paper, but at least they’re physical materializations of moments and groups I’ve been in. There’s a chapter in the book about this, where the ghosts we interviewed discuss the importance of the record cover. It’s not just nostalgia—in the 45 era, bands had no public face, but when they’re given faces through the album cover, that’s when you see them becoming more ideological—in other words, that’s when the meaning develops beyond sonic excitement. Without the cover, despite their best efforts, bands can’t have meaning. That’s why, with the Internet, they don’t have meaning anymore. They are fighting for their lives for any shred of meaning. The material aspect of a band actually happened organically, because a record company could make more money with a big cover, and you have to fill it with something—words or pictures. Form follows function.

When you talk about the genealogy of rock ’n’ roll, everyone’s really striving to give credit to where credit is due—that is, to bluesmen. So there’s this whole idea of cultural thievery surrounding the origins of rock ’n’ roll. But that’s adjourned, because the bluesmen were all stealing from each other. So as soon as music is put out in the air, it belongs to everybody. It’s just like visual art, fashion, or illustration. As soon as some new style comes about, within fifteen minutes the advertising world is already running with it. And it’s the same with musical styles. So this cultural guilt that we have about rock ’n’ roll, it’s not misplaced, because it’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about—it’s legitimate to think about exploitation and culture and what music or art means for particular cultures. But I think it’s simplifying rock ’n’ roll to say that it’s just blues music. Rock ’n’ roll is an immediate art form, like performance art. There’s something about a particular kind of underground that closes its doors to the rest of the world that is actually very valuable. It gives you a sense of what you’re doing, otherwise, you’re lost in a void, and you’re just pissing in the ocean.

For Americans, alienation is the state of grace. Our alienation is what we cling to. And that’s how you know that you’re talking to a real American. It’s that whole outsider thing. Politics don’t speak to us. We are singular, and our art is mystical. Abstract Expressionism was supposed to be intrinsically American, right? But rock ’n’ roll is really the true American export. Abstract Expressionism was one version of that, and rock ’n’ roll really finishes the sentence. It’s not only alienated expression, it’s total social alienation. That’s our claim to fame. That’s what we’ve given the world.

In the USA, everything has to be monetized. Things get a lot of respect if they make a lot of money. So unless you’re fantastically successful, your contribution is considered shit. Cultural workers occupy a weird niche under capitalism—your work is considered play, but at the same time it has this kind of mystical value. You’re kind of envied and loathed by normal workers and the professional class.

You become what you hate. If you look at America, it’s obsessed with totalitarianism. It hates totalitarianism—all the Soviet stuff. But ultimately, the thing that destroyed the Soviet Union, or coincided with the destruction of the Soviet Union, was the beginning of the Internet. And what is the Internet? It’s more Big Brother than the Soviets could ever have dreamed: Wikipedia is the single source of all information, and then there’s Facebook. They are more nefarious than anything that could have existed under communism.