Ian Svenonius’ resume reads like an indie rock highlight reel.
Whether it be his punk rock beginnings with Nation of Ulysses, the “gospel yeh-yeh” sound of The Make-Up, the psychedelic leanings of the Scene Creamers and Weird War or the roots revivalist racket of Chain & The Gang, it’s Svenonius’s provocative lyrics and spastic onstage antics that, in time, become the focal point of each project. An icon of the underground, Svenonius is also one of the greatest frontmen of our time. Whether walking across the crowds, hoisted in the air like Iggy, or deep-throating a mic to belt out a Prince-like scream, Ian has earned a reputation for his signature showmanship.
If that weren’t enough to prove one person’s pop culture cred, Svenonius is also the author of three books. Referred to as “Chairperson of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Comintern” in his book jacket, Ian discusses art like he handles his interviews—with a social-political rhetoric that is historically astute and continually critical of the status quo. His philosophical offerings are at once inquisitive, subversive, ironic and confounding.
With the Make-Up recently reunited and Chain & The Gang still very much in tact, the already prolific Svenonius has somehow found the time to take on a new solo project under the moniker “Escape-ism.” His first release is out now on Merge and this sparse, lo-fi, beat-driven offering may be his most tense album to date.
How many days have you been on the road this year?
Oh jeez, I have no idea. You have to hustle to survive in the modern world. It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth. In the past (with bands) there was always a committee, petition, scheduling—normally I would just say no to everything because groups require so much coordination.
You’ve said that you prefer group settings. What made you go at it on your own? And why now?
I wanted to do something that I could play in any situation that could be completely versatile, and Escape-ism can be just that. It’s open-ended. Groups become ossified, especially as you get older. A group is really a young person’s pursuit. That’s when people are really willing to lead a communal life and sacrifice everything. As you get older, a group becomes less believable. A group has to be a cult to be believable. As you get older it’s harder to be able to maintain that madness.
You’re the leader of three musical projects now. Is there anyone out there taking on that many?
I actually have more. I’m doing this thing called Goon Squad with Rich Morel. It’s sort of like a rock ‘n’ roll disco aggregate. It’s like the Pet Shop Boys if they were gay (laughs). I’m also doing this thing called XYZ with my friend Didier Balducci. That’s a pure bubblegum, pop stuff, glammy, fuzz rock. At this point there is no expectation. We’re not trying to take over the world; we’re just trying to make things we like.
What was the impetus to revive the Make-Up? Was it time to give the people what they wanted?
The reason for doing it was to seize control of history. Some bands are misremembered, partly remembered or completely forgotten. When you see revisionism happening—how things are framed and the way things are going now—it’s important to assert not only your ideology now, but also assert what happened before and what was important. The thing about the reunion craze is that it’s been going on forever. All the punk bands that I loved that I never saw, I saw them revive themselves a little later. It’s not something that’s necessarily a great idea, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea.
These latest Make-Up festival shows are the biggest you’ve ever played, but you’re still playing DIY shows in record store basements on other days. Do you approach each gig in the same way?
I try to, but being in a band has its own special energy and expectation and excitement. A big event can be extremely different and the people make it different too. When it’s just me I have to conjure up all that energy myself. We can still make something great happen in a little room. I’ve always been allergic of this idea of coming late to a show. I want to be at the show and see what the context is. I want to see who the bands I’m playing with are, what they’re like and get a sense of the vibe and perform according to that. I think it’s a cool thing to do. That helps me and it can be the difference between a good show and a bad show.
But as far as the dichotomy between playing a festival where you’re a big star and then playing for nobody—that’s just always the way. That’s rock ‘n’ roll music. It’s a very niche pursuit at this point. People don’t really like it. And there’s not much of an audience for it. You go to Europe and you’re important to some people, which is really nice. Then you come home and you’re just a schmuck. People in America don’t respect you if you’re a musician. You’re a clown; you’re laughable. You’re an erasable character. It’s always been that way and if you can’t handle that, then you shouldn’t get involved.
Introduction to Escape-ism—what are we getting at here?
It’s Escape-ism. It’s like, when the world is make believe, escape with me into reality. That’s Escape-ism. It’s a group that can play anywhere and do anything and because of that, it’s very identifiable. It’s the original idea of rock n roll music, which is just gestural anti-music. It’s a provocation and an emotion. At this point rock ‘n’ roll is a highly refined art form and everyone knows how to do it. I am the only person who doesn’t know how to do it, (laughs). People say I can’t play guitar… well I can barely hold a guitar. So that’s Escape-ism.
Are you the only one playing on the record?
I had a few guests because it was so unmusical. My producer F. Bermudez played a couple of notes on the piano. Zumi from Black Lips played a couple of notes on the saxophone. Cole Alexander from the Black Lips played a few notes on the guitar. Their contributions are pretty minimal, but the record is so minimal as well.
I noticed you’re bringing back the fadeout on your new record.
I’ve always been a big proponent of the fadeout. I like the idea that the song went on forever and that the band is just rocking—especially when the most exciting part of the song comes up and it’s fading out. The whole idea of soul 45’s is the fade. It’s so good. It’s not always good. There are definitely some bad fades, but I’m definitely into fades.
“Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day” appears on both your recent Chain & The Gang record and your new Escape-ism record. Why is that? Cross-promotion? Is it part of the continuum?
It’s a theme for me. Rome wasn’t burnt in a day. You gotta keep banging on the gate and smash it down. Don’t get discouraged. I’m going to put it on my next record too. James Brown always did “Please, Please, Please” over and over again. He had so many repeat songs and always updated them. Tennessee Ernie Ford did “16 Tons.” It’s pointing out a signature song so that when you walk into a strip club in LA the band can strike up your song when you walk in.
You seem to be on a never-ending tour. Is that more about necessity or do you enjoy your time on the road?
People like to talk about how no one sells any records anymore, but it’s total bullshit. Nobody ever sold any records unless you’re Journey or Pat Benatar or something—those people can complain. But people in the underground should stop complaining about this mythic time when they sold 10,000 records. Yeah, you may have sold 10,000 records at some point and now you can only sell 2000, but ultimately it wasn’t ever going to let you survive. The difference really is that the world is much more expensive. That’s why people are selling out and becoming craven industry hacks. It’s more so that people are really poor and have to hustle constantly because you have so many bills. In the 90s you didn’t have to buy a $2,000 computer. You didn’t have to pay $100 a month for your phone bill. You didn’t have to buy your Wi-Fi. There weren’t nearly as many expenses and rent was a lot cheaper. All of these things are social necessities. You can say, “oh you don’t need that.” But they are not luxuries; they’re actual necessities to live. It’s like saying you can live without electricity. Well, no, you can’t. Unless you want to be Simon of the Desert—which would be really cool—but we no longer want to be Simon of the Desert. Anyway, you have all of these things and they’re really just making people very poor. Then you have people say you have to play live to make it, but really the money for that is horrible. If you were asked to open for a big band and go out on tour with them, the going rate is like $250. It’s the same as it was in 1988. The whole thing is really crazy.
Your headquarters is still in DC. How different is the social climate there nowadays?
People have always said, “oh it’s going to get really weird,” and I scoffed at them because I’ve lived here during a lot of political transitions and it doesn’t really make a difference. But this time it’s different. This time it is a little weird. You’re seeing a new element. You’re seeing a lot of trucks that say “Support Snipers”—things you’ve never seen before in DC. DC has basically lost its soul anyway because of big developers. There’s nobody in control and developers have carte blanche and are eating up the world and spreading their garbage and spreading their shit on our faces. We’re all arguing about some stupid bullshit while the developers are really never questioned. That’s what the President’s role has been—to have people freaking out about distractions.
It was interesting to see how people radicalized and rallied around a cause back in the DC punk days. Are those times gone?
Politics are just different. Back then politics were a vague idea of socialism and anarchism—and you wanted to help the poor. There was a vague coalition of Democrats, socialists, anarchists, Christians and people who wanted to do “good.” Now everything is just on its head. Now politics are identity politics. There’s no global perspective. In the 90s and the 80s people talked about El Salvador and the Iraq War. You have all these old left issues like “internationalism,’ but everything has been fucked up. Look at NATO, which is essentially just an anti-Russian coalition—it’s a really fucked up organization—it’s an anti-Russian alliance and it’s also a racket, a pretension racket run by the USA. It’s a way for the US to occupy Europe 70 years after World War II. It’s amazing that nobody ever wants to critique it. But now, suddenly if you say something against NATO, you’re a Trump supporter. So the President has done a great job. His function was to create division and chaos and at the same time delegitimize any idea of government. He’s turned the idea of government into the domain of a clown and the people who lectured him knew what they were doing. He’s not a guy on Twitter who won the election; Silicon Valley billionaires put him into power. He has a machine behind him and their whole program is to do exactly what he’s done, which is destroy leftist coalitions, entangle them with fascists and discredit the government. Back then we were a bunch of do-gooders who put on benefit concerts for homeless people. That’s the kind of thing you just don’t see anymore because it’s about identity—which is also important, obviously, but it doesn’t have as wide of a perspective—it’s more about how you have been mistreated.
What’s a musicians place in politics nowadays?
I don’t really think there’s a place for a musician to talk about politics because you might offend somebody who may be hiring you for a job. At one point you could make a statement because you didn’t owe your livelihood to a mega corporation, but now you have to be subservient to the powers that be. You’ve got to grovel. (laughs]). So I would say no politics for bands.
When you’re on the road as much as you are, how do you find time to write and record?
You can’t really do anything while touring. You’re just in survival mode and just trying not to leave your cellphone charger anywhere. That’s all you can think about.
With your history of rhetoric, there must be an FBI file on you. Have you ever thought to look it up?
No. I’m sure everybody has one but I’d be afraid to look at it. It would be embarrassing.