Svenonius: ‘I think rock’n’roll is another form of comedy’

Interview with Ian Svenonius from the summer of 2009.

Who’s in the band (Chain and the Gang) now?
Well, it’s assorted confederates. People who played on the record,
mostly. Brett Wineman, who is a onetime D.C. resident, who is in
another group called Bad Thoughts, who runs a record label called
Malady Records. There is a resurgence of the 7 inch and he’s
capitalizing on this resurgence. He’s putting out 7 inches or various
45s.
Brian Webber, who’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He’s a trouble-shooter, sort of. He was in the Dub Narcotic Sound System and he programmed all the music for this rap group called Saturday Nights. He was also in another rap band. He’s been in several groups.
And then a woman named Faustein Hussen.

How was the music on the record composed?
It was composed pretty much on the spot. I came in with something that I tried to make as derivative as possible, as simplistic as possible, as childlike as possible, and kind of primal. It was a refutation of rock production. Those songs are all pretty much first and second takes, played by people who are just making up the song according to the melody or the guide that I was giving them.
The idea was: Most forms of expression in the culture industry – the form is really mediated by this awareness of an audience. I feel like good things are made without a real awareness of an audience, except for an immediate audience. Like if you tell a joke, the joke is gonna be the funniest if it’s a joke between you and your friends, where there’s no condescension involved. Things are typically better if they’re made without feeling like you have to explain to some imagined populace that you have in mind.
So, the songs were made with that in mind: Let’s make it fun; let’s
make it funny. I like music that has an element of absurdity to it, or
humor.

I think rock ’n’ roll is another form of comedy, in a way. There’s a term – novelty music – but really, all pop music is novelty. It’s saying something that’s slightly weird or outrageous, but in a very familiar way. It’s a form of joke-telling.
So, basically, that’s the way that the record was composed. It was
composed with these things in mind and with a general eschewing of the rock ’n’ roll obsession with authenticity and with originality.

We didn’t care or want to be original in any way.
I think that good music – music we find resonant after 40 or 50 years – it was concerned with novelty and fun and with invoking the familiar. [People] love repetition. They love hearing the same thing over and over again.
Most people don’t even really like music. They just like familiarity.
A song is just a way of being immersed in the familiar.
It’s something that makes you feel comfortable.
I disc jockey a lot and I play records that a lot of people haven’t
heard. A lot of people don’t like it. It’s really interesting.
I don’t know why anybody hires me, because people want to hear Michael Jackson. They want to hear 50 Cent. They want to hear whatever surrounds them on a daily basis.

I remember reading when I was real young an interview with Kurt Cobain where he said that most people don’t really like music and that most people who do actually like music become musicians.
It’s an interesting thing, whether people like music or not. It sounds elitist, to say that most people don’t like music.

I think it if you actually do like music it’s self-evidently true.
Yeah. People turn on the radio. People might even have a hi-fi system or a personal music player.

Probably state-of-the-art.

Absolutely. But it doesn’t really mean – that’s like saying you love
theater because you watched a sit-com.

(laughs hard)
You know what I mean? That’s just what’s around.
I feel like music is becoming less and less important to people even
as it becomes more and more ubiquitous. It becomes more ubiquitous because it’s so much easier to acquire. Anybody can have a huge record library now on their computer, for free. And it’s almost effortless.
You can just plug your machine into somebody else’s machine.
But, simultaneously, all the accoutrements that made music so central to identity in the post-war period.

The record cover.
Yeah. And it makes you wonder – maybe people were really responding to the record covers.
This is what I mean: Think of the new generation of groups.

Like who are you talking about?
I don’t know – whoever’s big now. I don’t know all the bands in the
underground.

Edie Sedgwick.
Well, no. They’re a bad example. I mean the groups that are trendy.

Fleet Foxes.
Yeah.

MGMT
Yeah. Do you know who any of them are?

One of them [from MGMT] grew up near me.
OK, well (laughs hard) unless you know them personally, do you know anything about them?

He also played basketball.
Oh, really? Is he a nice guy?

He’s extremely bright. He went to another school and we competed against them in this thing called “College Bowl,” where all the dorks from all the schools competed against each other, and he was totally dominant – answer after answer. And he grew up to be in MGMT.
And they’re huge, so that is smart. He was smart. But do you know what he thinks?

I just remember him from College Bowl.
What I mean is, this new generation of groups – Fleet Foxes, MGMT, whatever – do you have any idea what any of them think about anything?
Have any of them made any kind of statement of the sort that Crass
made or the Dead Kennedys made or Rollins – or that Chuck D made?

The singer of Magrudergrind is saying something. He talks about a lot of stuff.
Hardcore’s a different thing. I don’t mean hardcore music. I mean
trendy music – Pitchfork. Which to me, that’s what we call the
“underground rock ’n ’roll scene.” Nobody has anything to say.
I guess maybe you’ve just refuted my statement, because now that I think about it – the people I’m citing are all hardcore, the people
with all these ideas.
But the difference is, now hardcore’s 30 years old and it’s basically
saying the same things it was saying 30 years ago, whereas when
straight-edge came out, it was a fairly radical idea. Or Crass, saying
“anarchy,” but not in a camp sense, like the Sex Pistols were.
I guess what I’m saying is – now you don’t know what anybody thinks.
And maybe it’s just ignorance on my part. But as far as I can tell,
rock ’n’ roll is no longer ideological. And I think that’s because
that’s because the accoutrementshave been stripped from it and the accoutrements were what was actually giving music all this context. It was giving it a visual context, but mostly a sense of importance or profundity. I feel like with digital downloading, music is just music.
It’s probably a lot like music was in the ’40, before all this
ballyhoo – when it was something you heard on the radio, but you
didn’t really invest a lot in. You didn’t define yourself through
music.

It seems like some of the songs on the record are parodies. It seems like “Room 19” is a parody of a Stones-style party anthem or “Deathbed Confession” is a parody of a song like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Do you think that’s true?
Well, that’s interesting. They’re not parodies, but that’s
interesting. I probably listen to so much old music that there is an
unintentional parodic aspect, because if you’re mimicking something that’s so old and timeworn, then there’s a good chance it’s going to come out almost as parody.

“Down with Liberty” is so funny. It seems like there’s always been some debate about how serious you were being with your bands – whether it was all a joke. The new record – it seems so clear that it’s a joke and you’ve said as much – I wonder if there was any concern that it would make people look back on your previous work and be like, “OK, well, he was joking all along.”
Oh, well I’ve never been joking. And I’m still not joking. And the new record is not a joke. Bob Dylan’s funny.
(editor’s note: more to come)

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3 Responses to “Svenonius: ‘I think rock’n’roll is another form of comedy’”

  1. >>Have any of them made any kind of statement of the sort that Crass
    made or the Dead Kennedys made or Rollins – or that Chuck D made?

    I think more than “saying something” those bands were doing something new and as-yet-unseen artistically. While a communicable verbal message is important, it’s pretty useless without fresh artistic ground. Hardcore bands or metal, indie, punk or rap bands — they’re all rehashing the same thing musically rather than verbalizing the same thing. The new message often appears naturally within new musical ideas.

    I think most musicians today, more than ever before are music enthusiasts, rather than musicians or artists. Enthusiasts will never have the integrity of character that a true artist has, but they often will have more enthusiasm and self-absorption. So you have tons of bands that play a specific style of music saying, “oh we’re a power-violence band; we’re a thrash band; we’re a 90s Cali-gangsta rap group”.

    The large numbers of fractured local scenes seem to reflect this. With the underground sort of familiarity, any band that sticks it out can play and tour consistently without ever “selling out” and being successful, nor ever have to endure much criticism due to their safe musical position.

  2. “I think more than “saying something” those bands were doing something new and as-yet-unseen artistically.”

    Now THAT is comedy.

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