Q&A: Ian Svenonius On Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group, The Meaning Of Bands In Listeners’ Lives, And The Make-Up Reunion Shows
For his new book Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ‘N’ Roll Group D.C. punk legend Ian Svenonius spoke to a number of dead musicians — Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, and Brian Jones, to name a few — to help him craft a methodology for creating a band. When Svenonius and I spoke, he noted that he needed them as references because his experience as a musician is not enormous enough to write the blueprint. But Svenonius’s résumé is vast, having been in [*deep breath*] Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, the Make-Up, Felt Letters, Weird War Publicist, Chain & The Gang, all of which have their own sound and their own significance to the listener. While this certainly makes him a qualified person for the job, his previous book of essays on rock and roll and pop culture The Psychic Soviet and as an interviewer on his VICE webseries Soft Focus round out his ability to not only speak from experience but from a range of perspectives into one definitive piece. Supernatural Strategies is a tricky book to tackle. It’s been called a satire on rock and roll, but I read it as a polemic for how rock groups are supposed to work. In the book, Svenonius engages in the séance to speak with the dead, culminating in different prescriptive chapters for each tiny facet of the rock group’s existence (communication, performance, drugs, for example). Last week, Svenonius and I talked with the aim to discuss writing craft, but our conversation delved deep into listeners and their relationships with bands and the ephemera that comes along with nostalgia.
STEREOGUM: You’re cleaning out a storage space?
SVENONIUS: Yeah, I put all this stuff in here like four or five years ago and now the person’s moving. It’s one of those traumatic experiences where you put off these decisions by putting them in storage and that kind of makes the decision, but it’s cool … I had to get rid of all that stuff, this is all stuff that’s more … you know, magazines and like dry goods.
STEREOGUM: Dry goods?
SVENONIUS: It’s one of those things — do you just erase your history? You look at [these items] and you kind of reflect, and I think these kinds of markers can be useful. You’re trying to figure out where you’re at and what you’re trying to do. Maybe that’s what the records [that you own] are, too. Like this is an ideal or something. When people put all this stuff in digital form I think it’s weird because I think you should have to trip over some of the detritus of your childhood. It’s a real Old World way of thinking, and the New World is supposed to be this new, “Go West,” abandon everything, change your name…
STEREOGUM: Sometimes I worry about what happens if the cloud disappears and it’s all gone.
SVENONIUS: That’s the whole thing, the whole 2000s. When they look at human history a thousand years later they’ll go, “Oh 2000, no art was created in this period” because the cloud will be gone and there will be a no artists but there’ll be some pizza boxes. They’ll be like, “Yeah, they ate pizza, but they didn’t make art or music. For some reason in the mid-’90s they stopped making things.” It’s kind of like Athens. People look at ancient Athens and they’re like, “Oh they did all this stuff, but the Spartans didn’t make anything; the Spartans left no vestige of their culture …” Maybe they had all their shit on the cloud.
SVENONIUS: We don’t know! The Internet might have been prehistoric. Maybe the more primitive cultures left all their art, the less technologically advanced.
STEREOGUM: But speaking of physical things…
SVENONIUS: [Records and CDs are] the physical manifestation of the group! To give the group a sense of what it’s doing is a theme of the book. I think a lot of times a group doesn’t even know what it is until they make something. And then they look at it and reflect on it, and people pretzel a meaning under it, and maybe they rise to the occasion or they react against the idea.
STEREOGUM: I’ve talked to other bands who were in the process of making their second record and what factors go into that, and it’s exactly that. It’s always just reacting to the first record.
SVENONIUS: Expectations. Or people’s misinterpretation. “We’re not that! No way!” It’s like treating the audience like they’re the authority or the parents or something. It’s weird. The band. Bands. I guess that is one thing about the book that is important to talk about — the book is about [making] bands, and not about making music … Music is sort of eternal, timeless, but bands are a real modern — it’s a modern concept. I mean modern as post-War and since. But this idea of the band, what that means, the uses of the band …
STEREOGUM: So why make a book a how-to book for how to be a band?
SVENONIUS: Well I think the main impetus was — well actually, I found a book from the early ’80s called How To Start A Group. It was for teens, pre-teens, and had some very functional advice for starting a group. Like how to make your banner and whatever, and it was cool, it was a cool book. Then I thought, there are all these rock camps and you wouldn’t have a book like that anymore because people are sent to these rock camps. But these rock camps have never been — I mean I’ve never been to one of the rock camps — but these people are very concerned with teaching people how to make rock and roll as it’s been made and kind of continuing this form. I was worried that maybe a lot of the important things were being left out, just like ideological aspects, and it’s interesting that the parents are so concerned with perpetuating this art form of rock and roll that they’re sending their children to these camps. Essentially the parents are afraid this form is going to disintegrate or be deceased, so they’re really concerned with passing on this tradition of the rock group to the kids and that’s an interesting idea, because in the ’50s the parents were all apparently upset about rock and roll. So now that the parents are forcing their children to perpetuate this form, it really makes you think about the ideological aspects of a group and what a group is and what a group is supposed to be. Because the parents are always trying to perpetuate their ideology through some form. For you as a music writer and me as a music writer, we also want to perpetuate this for we have a vested interest in keeping the whole thing going, but why is that? It’s sort of like sending your kids to church, and you have to think, what are the ideological implications of this thing? It’s the new liberal thing — this is what culture is supposed to look like. It’s supposed to be secular, it should be capitalistic, it should be these particular ideas of work and fun. One really interesting idea of the group is people say that rock is racist or it’s a kind of stealing of culture, but it’s actually a pretty diverse. It encourages diversity to a certain extent, and diversity is a really interesting idea because we as liberal, middle-class Americans see diversity as being a signifier of a good place. If you go somewhere and see that it’s diverse, you’re like, “Oh that’s good,” and if you go somewhere and it feels culturally homogenous, it feels bad. But what is diversity? Diversity is really a symbol of a certain kind of economy with a lot of immigration. So why is this sort of cultural diversity a necessary feature of a progressive or enlightened place?
STEREOGUM: If you go somewhere like Oslo, that’s the most homogenous place I’ve ever been in my entire life, but I’ve never had bad feelings about it, I guess.
SVENONIUS: It doesn’t seem particularly regressive or …
STEREOGUM: They do have a government that gives them a lot of money.
SVENONIUS: They found oil! [laughs] There’s gold in them there hills! Another American ideal is this social alientation. It’s alienation from politics, from political ideology and the culture at large. Every American feels like an outsider; we’re kind of programmed to feel like outsiders. We’re like Charlie Brown — this existential person. That’s like a real American thing and it’s encouraged, and rock and roll is also part of that; it’s part of selfish individuals, and we never erase in this culture. You have to have your own stereo, your own computer. It’s all about you and yourself. And the alienation makes that seem okay, it doesn’t seem selfish because it seems noble, because you’re going against the grain, against conformity, or authority or whatever it is. So rock and roll is also perpetuating the ideology, that’s why the parents send their kids to the rock camp, because we need our child to be self-centered so they can succeed in a culture that rewards selfishness.
STEREOGUM: That’s really interesting, I wanted to go back to what you said before about sending kids to rock camp and sending them to church. I almost found part two of the book kind of biblical in a way. It’s very prescriptive and broken down in a way that’s more specifically and more straightforwardly just stories that would be used for morality.
SVENONIUS: It’s pretty Protestant, really. There’s a whole section on sexual repression and how you have to be repressed.
STEREOGUM: “Sex,” “Drugs,” and “Communication” are my three favorite parts of the book.
SVENONIUS: Oh thank you! I would say they have a fairly — they’re kind of Protestant. Rock and roll is really a very Protestant kind of thing. It’s all about work but it’s also sex-obsessed. But’s actually, like the book says, [rock and roll is] a replacement for sex. It’s actually repressed sex, it’s channeling sex energy into this other thing, which is creating. So the rock and roll group is supposed to manufacture excitement essentially, so it’s still got the work ethic. It’s a very product- and production-obsessed culture. You know rock and roll is all about creating. So I would agree, there’s some kind of religious overtones because even though it’s deconstructing what a rock group is, it’s also trying to help people make their rock groups. And repressing sex is an important part of being a successful rock and roll group.
STEREOGUM: There’s one line: “The relative ease of sexual conquest in modernity is the culprit for contemporary music being so revoltingly mediocre.” I read a lot of reviews calling the book a satire, but I took that pretty seriously.
SVENONIUS: It is meant to be serious and that’s always a problem I’ve had, that if you make a joke then suddenly you’ve relegated your work to be something that’s inconsequential or just funny. But we all know that these things don’t exist exclusively. I do think that sex-repression is a really interesting thing because if you see what rock and roll coincides with these dance forms — people aren’t dancing close anymore. With rock and roll, first they were doing the Twist, which is separate, then they’re sitting down in stadiums. So suddenly, people aren’t dancing with each other because they’re engaged in this weird transference of sex. In the Jazz Age when you danced, you danced with several different people close. It was really sexual. So while rock and roll purports to be hyper-sexual, people are not actually touching anymore. They’re just screaming or doing the Frug or taking drugs. Maybe birth control, which coincided with rock and roll, maybe the Sexual Revolution has a lot to do with this new alienated sex thing where people needed to — heavy petting wasn’t enough anymore because no one was touching. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, “Well sex is gonna be this thing that people just have.” Instead of, there was a lot of play before where everybody would go dance — “Save The Last Dance For Me” is a kind of throwback idea to this age where people are close dancing and everyone’s snuggling. Maybe you go home to your monogamous relationship. Suddenly it turns into the Twist and birth control pills or groupies or whatever.
STEREOGUM: I thought how you addressed groupies in the book was interesting, too.
SVENONIUS: That’s a really interesting thing — the groupie and what does that mean. The groupie kind of coincides with this thing of women being shut out from rock for this period of thirty years really, twenty maybe. Punk had a very feminist aspect. So that’s the beginning of this kind of starting to tear down this total male domination. Now is really interesting, now I feel like people are mostly interested in women bands, or bands with women. There’s plenty of dude rock bands happening, but the groups that people are really excited about are typically feminine.
STEREOGUM: There is still a novelty aspect to it, though. They still are declared All-Girl Bands, not just a band.
SVENONIUS: Yeah, but that’s why. If it’s good, it’s because it feels like a novelty. Rock and roll is novelty. Little Richard was novel. People talk about novelty records, but anything good in rock and roll and pop music is novelty. So if there’s a person like Screaming Lord Sutch dressed like a vampire, or Little Richard wearing makeup, there’s always this novel aspect. So the fact that women are being looked at — I mean, really people are just interested in it and if it feels fresh and novel, they’re kind of the same. It feels fresh — once it stops feeling fresh, maybe that’s the bad thing.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about the beginning of the book. I want to know what was the genesis of the idea of doing séances to speak to dead rock musicians. The interviews in that section are an interesting way of kicking off a How-To book.
SVENONIUS: I think that [my writing] would be easy to dismiss. Why am I writing [this] book? I’ve never broached Billboard’s Top 100 and the experience [of being a successful musician] is so particular. I played a lot of punk shows in the middle of the country, but why is that experience applicable to people now, or [to those] who have different total trajectory? I would never talk about my experiences in a book because I don’t know if they’re applicable. But these rock and roll stars, what use is their experience? The most useful experience seemed to be [from] people who are dead and who have some sort of perspective. After spending some time in the afterlife, you can see things in a big picture way. We’re all too hung up with our petty rivalries or silly concerns. The groups are too motivated by pettiness. They don’t want to give credit to the people they feel slated by. There are too many scores to settle, or just political concerns, you know? “I can’t offend that person.” But not the dead stars. The dead stars can tell it like it is. They’re resting in peace and they can have a kind of geopolitical, historical perspective as well.
STEREOGUM: That vision makes a lot of sense to me. In the “Performance” chapter, you talk about Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence [Note: Eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is the Nietzschean idea that every life is potentially lived over and over again and it's one’s duty to reflect upon his or her experiences so as to continuously improve this ever-recurring life]. I don’t want to get into a philosophical debate with you right now but wouldn’t belief in eternal recurrence mean the artists you were speaking to are back now anyway?
SVENONIUS: Oh that’s right! Well that [chapter] just talks about how people are starting to become interested in the soul — these cyclical philosophies — because suddenly resolution no longer seems like a plausible idea. In the age of the brainless machine, suddenly it was like, “Oh, maybe everything’s just this [robot noises].” It’s sort of like that Adam Curtis documentary [The Century Of The Self] where he talks about the modern concept of the person as a machine– and he’s talking about pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering — this idea that everything is just something that can be fixed. It’s a new idea of humans. Once when someone was upset you would wonder what’s the root of this. Why are they discontent? Maybe they need to get a divorce or have a revolution and overthrow the structure. But now you just give them Prozac.
STEREOGUM: Or you don’t acknowledge your feelings at all.
SVENONIUS: Yeah, exactly. You need to self-medicate, smoke some reefer. Maybe these philosophies were being re-explored and resolution was being abandoned — the idea of resolution is being abandoned. That’s one thing about a rock group: There is not resolution. You would never see a film that ended like a rock performance — here’s some songs, here’s me jumping around. What a weird idea of a performance because it has no resolution, but that’s why the rock group still feels modern. There’s no resolution, there’s no point. It’s like, “Oh here’s some noise” and people are like, “Okay.” The whole point is just that it is what it is. That’s a very machine-age kind of thing. Whereas a play, plays feel very ancient because they have resolution, that’s really what that’s about. It’s not about whether the ghosts or whether eternal recurrences of the same is a plausible idea —
STEREOGUM: Are you saying that eternal recurrence is not plausible?
SVENONIUS: No, I’m just saying it’s not whether the ghosts should be trudging around on earth as earthworms or potato bugs or celebrities, you know? It’s not about reincarnation. It’s more about this idea of why is the rock group allowed to do this kind of weird thing. It wouldn’t be acceptable in the 19th Century or the 18th Century. It wouldn’t be acceptable to do a performance like them.
STEREOGUM: But there was live music.
SVENONIUS: There was music, but you know, “The Old Gray Goose Is Dead” is an ancient folksong but that has a resolution, the songs had a resolution. Or “Lay Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” you’re gonna die. But now rock groups have some weird prose if they say anything at all, or they scream. It’s very avant-garde, really. And what’s avant-garde? It’s modern. By avant-garde I mean modernist-ish-esque. Modernist-esque-ish.
STEREOGUM: But in terms of resolution, I want to talk about the concept of obsolescence and virtual death in the book because it’s so interesting that two of the bands that you mentioned [as being dead] were the Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine, who just put out an album. The Stone Roses are headlining Coachella, which you’re playing. So I was wondering if you have any thoughts about that.
SVENONIUS: I guess it’s like, messianic, you know? I do think that [they're] now in their second life. Groups have a second life now, which almost seems like this strategy of making a group. In the second life of the group … they’re kind of above the fray. They explode themselves and then they get back together. My Bloody Valentine, they can make a bunch of records but people will always see them as sort of untouchable. The Stone Roses? Same thing. They’re just sort of basking in the glory of their former appearance on Earth; their temporal appearance. When people go see the reformed group, they’re just seeing something that isn’t quite real, maybe.
STEREOGUM: In what sense?
SVENONIUS: Well, I mean, they’re seeing the thing but really the thing is just a reference to the past, you know? Like, James Brown. I think he had a whole career that was — it was never interrupted by death. There was never a comeback for James Brown. It works for some solo stars, too, where a lot of them just disappear for 20 years and then they’re kind of resurrected.
STEREOGUM: I just found it so interesting that those were two of the bands. I don’t know if the Stone Roses are gonna put out new music, but it’s interesting that My Bloody Valentine did. But what does that do to the obsolescence if you come back after 21 years of having no music? 21 years is longer than a lot of bands’ careers. Is there a second obsolescence? What’s the plan after that?
SVENONIUS: Rock and roll, it’s constantly shifting, and in the beginning the idea was that it was youth music. It was made for, it was all about promulgating youth, as youth was supposed to be intrinsic to rock and roll, even though a lot of the original rock and rollers like Bill Haley were pretty old. There was this whole idea of youth and I think that was a new thing. I think before that everybody wanted to be old. People wanted to be old and knowing and [drinking] whiskey. And then suddenly with rock and roll it was like part of this consumerism-planned obsolescence. It was all about youth, and all you ever hear about is how old people are. It’s like an obsession in rock and roll.
STEREOGUM: Age in general? Or youth?
SVENONIUS: Age, because everybody’s old. There are so many old rock and rollers and you’re always hearing about how old they are. But I don’t think people talk about how old Frank Sinatra was as he got old. I guess he did discuss it in September Of My Years but still it was just like, he’s an artist, and artists are supposed to talk about how old they get.
STEREOGUM: So when a band like the Who performs a song like “My Generation,” where does that add to that concept because of, “I hope I die before I get old”? Roger Daltrey looks better than people I know who are in their twenties — or at least more fit. But it’s such a weird thing to actually them perform that song.
SVENONIUS: Yeah, the Who “My Generation” — they’re talking about their generation and their generation is still kind of calling the shots. The Boomers, they still have this enormous sway over the discussion. Everything is still Boomer-centric. So maybe “My Generation” has a new, kind of … Once upon a time it was like, “My Generation.” They were thumbing their nose at the older generation and now “My Generation” is in power, “We get to play the Super Bowl halftime show.”
STEREOGUM: Hey, Beyoncé gets to play the Super Bowl halftime show, too. I wanted to ask, though, going back to the obsolescence thing, where does the Make-Up fit into that?
SVENONIUS: Well, we’re obsolete. Part of the obsolescence. You mean, in terms of the nostalgia? The book is Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock And Roll Group. So, it’s just outlining strategies for the new group or the current group who needs to step up their game. So one tactic or strategy is you have to appeal to the youth because then they’ll carry your memory with you. People are constantly being stimulated by new things now at a heretofore unprecedented rate. So all the reunions, to me, what they seem to be now — people see them as a money grab or cynical or something, but really, it’s struggling for history. Groups are saying, “We existed, we’re important.” Or, “This thing that we did is worthwhile and people cared about it at the time and it still feels relevant.” And a big part of pulling someone’s legacy into the present is just showing that the statement that they made is still relevant, can resonate, or something. Or somehow it fits into a different context or something. The Velvet Underground is a great example because they’re kind of the first of the groups that was revived and that had this huge second life in a different context. So they did their reunion in the ‘80s, and they informed all the groups in the ‘80s, or so we’re told. It was a big thing, to do this thing that could have felt really dated and archaic and then putting it in this different context and seeing how modern it felt. The Velvet Underground are a great example because in the ‘60s, if nobody ever talked about them and you found their record, you would think it totally was of its time. The shades, the turtlenecks, the silver balloons, even the subject matter. But by them reissuing all of their records in the ‘80s and reappearing live, the legacy carried over. And part of it was that they manifested themselves into, “Look, we’re still alive.” The reunions are just another version of reissuing a record. But the problem with reissuing the record is that records are less important to people than they used to be. And the live shows, or you know, these festivals are like, the same thing as what a record reissue used to be. I mean, records are constantly being reissued but there’re so many of them that are just kind of like — starting with CDs, everything got reissued all at once and ever since then it’s just been this wealth of information.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes it feels like a joke at this point, especially when records just continuously get re-released like every five years.
SVENONIUS: It’s ridiculous. The Beatles are the No. 1 thing because they’ve never gotten back together and their way of insisting on their continued relevance is to repackage themselves. So there’s like, some new tidbit that nobody had ever seen before that had only been bootlegged. So it’s just like, “Oh now we’re going to re-master.” “Oh, now we’re going to put out the monos.” “Oh now we’re going to put out the way they appeared in Britain.” “Oh but now the American [versions] are actually pretty cool.” There’s always a new definitive way it should be experienced and that’s a really interesting way of continuing. When you’re younger and you see people wearing different band T-shirts or talking about different bands, a lot of times that band isn’t going to resonate with you at the time. But you always see it and it’s like, “Oh, well maybe I’ll appreciate that in the future.” People rediscovering bands, I mean, everyone discovers T-Rex at some point and discovers the magic of T-Rex, but for each person who discovers it ten years after someone else discovered it, it still feels fresh. So I think this idea of reviving the idea or reminding people of the group, I think it’s not totally lame.
STEREOGUM: No, I don’t think it’s lame at all.
SVENONIUS: My Bloody Valentine is a good example because they could have been lost.
STEREOGUM: Loveless is still an important record and it’s always going to be, but the reminder is a really good entryway for reunion.
SVENONIUS: It’s arguable. Documentaries serve the same function, it’s really just a struggle for history. A big part of these documentaries is people explaining their context because everybody feels that the context now doesn’t allow for their statement. Everybody’s trying to explain themselves. Everybody has to explain these things all the time and, in a way, the rock groups are explaining themselves all the time. It’s like, “Well, you don’t understand! Black Flag had to deal with this.” This is one of the main points about the book, is that rock and roll isn’t just music, it’s a whole thing. Music is a component of it, but really people have an affection for a rock group and not just the music, it’s the name and the image and the personalities and the context. Part of the reunion is to say, “This is what we were, not just a sound that has to compete with all the other sounds.” It’s a way of explaining what it was and why it’s supposed to be important. And it’s arguable whether it is and whether it’s all worthwhile, but it is. It’s just more of this explanation of context. It’s explaining, “You youngsters take for granted that this, but what about this?”
STEREOGUM: What’s the context for The Make-up coming back?
SVENONIUS: For me, doing a show is kind of a dare. I’m a performer. I perform in a group all the time called Chain And The Gang. We played 150 shows last year, It’s more of a thing like, “If I’m a performer, can I perform in this other context?” So in a sense, it’s like a dare. And it’s a grab at history. It’s saying, like, this other thing that I did is important. If people feel that it’s wrong, I understand that. But I also think that they can come see [Chain And The Gang] play at a pizza place any time they want. I can totally understand any kind of critique of this kind of endeavor because it’s not necessarily — I don’t know if it’s dignified or whatever. We’re talking about a group as opposed to music, you know? A group is different than music. And what my old group was [is] this conjunction of personalities and I liked playing with those people. But I would never play any of that music with anybody else, so it’s also a chance to play that music. We played a couple of shows, the ATP thing, and it was really fun. It was a good time. So I think that for me, personally, there’s a bunch of impetuses. But I’m not gonna keep doing it. We’re not gonna put out another record or tour the world.
STEREOGUM: People kind of get up in arms about reunions and point to it as a cash-grab, but like you just said, “It was really fun and we had a good time.” Why can’t that be the reason?
SVENONIUS: I understand the idea that it’s cynical because for people bands have a place in history. And honestly, I never would have imagined doing a reunion thing until, like, last year. I never even thought about it or considered it or anything. So I completely understand any kind of critique of it. It’s totally fair, but it’s also like, how much do people really care? You know, the people who are up in arms about it: do they really care? I guess my thing is, you know, when I do see an old performer they’re often really good. I’m glad that Al Green went back to doing secular music so I could go see him. And if that seems like a betrayal to his gospel fans, I can understand that. But seeing him perform? He’s just really good. And it’s very particular, what he does. So for me, it’s like we’re gonna do these songs and if people want to see that good. But I also understand if people feel upset by it.
STEREOGUM: I guess there’s always everyone’s own personal historical context for it as well. Either something like going back to My Bloody Valentine, depending on how that record sounded to certain people, I’m sure people are like, “Oh, they besmirched their legacy by putting out this record.” And I know other people who are really happy about it. And another band like that is Weezer. They put out the Green Album and then it wasn’t the same. It was like, there was this archive, and the new material upset a lot of people. But where do listeners matter in the context of what the group wants?
SVENONIUS: There’s something about saying, “Well, we were perfect, I’m afraid to besmirch the legacy.” When the reality is that a group like the Make-Up wasn’t perfect. We played a lot of shows that maybe weren’t as good as they could have been and a lot of our recordings are okay. I love that group, I really believe in it. But I also think that over the years, there’s mystification through history … But it is such a thing now — everyone gets back together. At this point, it’s ridiculous but I think that rock and roll as it was, where it was a teenage tantrum and then people just went on with their lives, things aren’t like that anymore. So the idea that old people are going to revisit the thing that people value that they did is just not surprising.