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Ian Svenonius Talks Music + Politics Ahead Of Chain And The Gang Tour

Ian Svenonius Talks Music + Politics Ahead Of Chain And The Gang Tour

Interviewed by
By Michael McClelland
Tuesday 14th March, 2017 10:03AM

In the Washington DC National Archives Museum, amidst a stockpile of trivialities from America’s widely-fucked civil history, you can find a framed letter from Fidel Castro, who, at age 10, politely asked President Roosevelt for a ten dollar note. The fact that Castro also loved Jaws and baseball might come as no surprise to any critical historian: it’s further proof that successful imperialism relies on the conquest of minds, as well as land. And it’s the urgency of this fact that sparks the music and activism of another Washington DC, uh, institution: Ian Svenonius.

Through his late-hardcore band Nation Of Ulysses (who pronounced themselves a political party seceding from the US) and his many flamboyant later bands, Ian Svenonius’ music serves as praxis -- that is, actual tangible work -- to his theory which can be found comically detailed within a series of handbooks devoted to the geopolitics of ‘rock’. If you’re still not sure, this month will be a chance to make up your own mind: his latest project Chain And The Gang will tour New Zealand featuring members of Olivia Neutron-John, Vivian Girls, and even NZ bands like the Coolies and Guardian Singles. Does Ian Svenonius see a bit of himself in Castro? “Yes,” he answered, “For sure.” Well that counts for better taste than Stalin, who loved John Wayne (when he wasn’t trying to have him killed)...

UTR: Ian, here’s a personal question. A friend on Facebook recently asked a question I thought was pretty good: When did you become radicalised?

Ian Svenonius: I was radicalised at an early age. I lived with hippies for a year who crashed at my family house until they moved on to live in a tipi. My father was put in the stockade for deserting the Swedish army. My mother loved Claes Oldenberg. DC was Chocolate City with a strong black nationalist culture which I've been exposed to since I was very young. So I came from that environment.

Your books talk about rock ‘n’ roll as propaganda; how it helped the US government dangle its own expansionist ‘free world’ dogma over its subjects and its enemies. It’s no conspiracy theory: "Under God" was literally added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a fuck you to the secular USSR, and the CIA's sponsorship of Abstract Expressionism wasn’t a much more subtle Cold War tactic. But where are we now? Do government programs of mind control -- as you might call them -- still exist?

More than ever for sure. I think we are dehumanised and automiszed, corralled and controlled in manners that we can't even conceive and the cognisance of much of it would be almost impossible to accept let alone unlearn.

When we hear that the Paris Review was a CIA front, or that Abstract Expressionism was pushed by the agency to propagandise American culture, we have to remember: the intelligence agencies and the elites never make anything; they just can push it in one direction or another. We are the creators. Ultimately rock ‘n’ roll is us and what we decide to do with it.

We owe our awareness of this to a time when artist and revolutionary stopped being distinct categories. Many ‘punk historians’ (ugh) point to the Situationist International as one example of when these lines blurred. I see how writing such as yours helps un-peel our blindness to the self-propagating myths of capitalism, and I wonder if it comes from a bit of SI knowhow?

Yes, the Situationist International is quite interesting, although as Frenchmen they are so concerned with refuting Sovietism... which is a bit redundant for us Americans. Punk rock obviously was infused with a lot of SI philosophy, care of the managerial class that used to always manipulate British rock -- people like Malcolm McLaren for the Pistols or Bernie Rhodes for the Clash, on through the KLF -- but now the politics in punk are more from the liberal college system in America. Entirely based on identity politics. You can trace this switch -- from old leftism and SI agitation to identitarian concerns -- to "riot grrl" possibly.

Now this is a confusing thought I've had for a while. If rock 'n' roll is an expression of imperialism, wouldn't using it as an appeal to revolution be a contradiction?

Yes of course. Such is what makes rock ‘n’ roll a continually fascinating paradoxical riddle. But as I said before, rock ‘n’ roll wasn't invented by the ruling class as a tool of mind control; the elites never do the work after all, they just exploit the worker and put their name on their work. Whether it’s a bridge or a building or a Doors album, they take the credit and the money.

On a personal note, when I first read Supernatural Strategies for Making A Rock 'N' Roll Group, it killed my enthusiasm for rock music. It was the first time I ever noticed my own naive assumption that music could exist in a political vacuum... as if slavery, Hiroshima, and the Cold War had no bearing on its history. Which felt careless. And what's worse is that the more you contextualise rock music, the harder it is to enjoy it -- especially given what we're living through right now! But despite it all, your books are enjoyably tongue-in-cheek. How seriously do you take all this?

My books attempt to put rock ‘n’ roll in a particular socio-geo-political context and are therefore not triumphalist like other rock ‘n’ roll books which can be quite pat-oneself-on-the-back-ish: "We liberated everyone and wow it was so bad and now it’s great." Well, it’s important to remember that we are sort of stuck in this self-perpetuating virus which is destroying the world called Capitalism. But this [kind of expression that rock ‘n’ roll is part of] is really ancient and doesn't owe itself to capitalism... it’s just utilised by capitalism.

This won’t be your first time to NZ (you played at an intermediate school last time!), so I hope it won’t be a shock to you when I say US presidential elections are taken seriously even this far away. That's how imperialism works, after all. So how do you feel about this as a musician who tours American music abroad?

With a mix of shame and chagrin.

One way to judge a system is by its psychic byproducts, according to this really good treatment I read of the anxiety epidemic in our culture. And, heh, there’s the whole "Personal is Political" paradigm... so do you feel anxious about where politics on the left is going?

The personal is political seems like a wonderful statement when one first hears it, but I think [since being] followed to its logical conclusion, it’s created a solipsistic political climate where so much energy in activism goes to name-calling and is a bit too personal.

So this question doesn't come off wrong, I just need to disclose a few things. I, too, am a Leo. And I, too, have been interviewed on VICE. I've also made money off advertisements on YouTube by way of a Rupert Murdoch company, which I don't exactly love. So with no disrespect towards the adage that everyone's "gotta pay the bills", why is it that your Soft Focus series is presented by a company with interests so heavily tied to corporate America? Do you feel it transgresses your values as a "card-carrying ideologist"?

It was a collaboration with a friend who worked for VICE at the time. I typically collaborate with friends whose instincts I trust. The thing about parsing corporations right now is that it seems a bit arbitrary. All the outrage about Coachella's parent company by people who use odious corporations in every facet of their everyday lives: gas, cell phones, computers, twitter, Paypal, banks, debit cards, food chains, the federal reserve, etc... It’s a good question: How to deal with these forces that are more and more intertwined into every aspect of our lives.

The world is so fucked right now and so many people are angry, does making music ever feel like it's not enough for you?

I sometimes think bands -- and particularly punk bands -- are a sort of bogus cop-out replacement for real activism. But, then again, I've marched in a lot of things for a lot of years and my music has affected a lot more people than all my marches for Palestinian rights or against American intervention in whatever country we were fucking with at the time ever did.

Enjoy the "first Sci Fi Documentary Rock 'N' Roll Exploitation Film"...  

And here's a little CATG playlist we put together for your listening pleasure...

UnderTheRadar Proudly Presents...

Chain & The Gang

Thursday 16th March, Whammy Bar, Auckland
Friday 17th March, Moon, Wellington

Tickets available HERE at UTR, and in store at Flying Out (Auckland) and Slow Boat/RPM (Auckland)


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