Interview: Ian Svenonius is here to stay

Super natural
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  January 22, 2013


In his new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making A Rock ‘n' Roll Group (Akashic), Ian Svenonius lays out a plan for a neophyte intending to enter the world of competitive rock. "If one makes a rock 'n' roll group," he dutifully explains, "one must eventually make some music. But before that, one must make a photograph of the group." Svenonius is no stranger to using humor to subvert rock ideologies toward his own post-modern polemics, having fronted seminal DC post-punk units Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up. With this current tome, as with 2006's The Psychic Soviet, Svenonius slyly investigates how this "rock and roll" came to have such power over our minds and souls.

In both of your books, you talk a bit about nostalgia and planned obsolescence. It seems like with classic artists, there's this cognitive dissonance people have: they hate them because they're so old, but on the other hand they love them because they're so successful. You know, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Paul McCartney, etc.

That's interesting. The first generation of rock and roll, there's still people living from it - there's always going to be this genuflecting towards the elder statesmen. And it gives people this real sense of security, that the early prophets are still among us. People feel this continuity, and old people feel relevant because rock and roll is the prescribed rebellion for this culture. It's very institutionalized as a rebellion, rock and roll, it's a really singular phenomenon, with very specific codes for rebellious behavior.

I mean, if you are a rock and roll performer, there's this constant pressure to create excitement, to create spontaneity all the time.  It's very weird! And it makes people feel comfortable to see old stars still alive. But at the same time, when the Who played the Super Bowl, there's something so horrible about it. And especially to all these young people who probably don't know who the Who are.

Well, people always say "No one knows who the Who are," but when I was a kid, 10, 20, 30 years ago, I didn't know about music from 50 years ago. But now, kids do know quite a bit - maybe more than they should!

Oh yeah, I agree, they know a lot! And I keep waiting for the moment when rock and roll's going to turn a corner and go the way of, you know, traditional jazz, where there's nothing to grasp onto anymore for people. That still hasn't happened, somehow the marketing still works. Like the Beatles are successfully re-marketed every couple of years, with some new anthology or scrapbook, and it keeps revitalizing their memory. Or maybe it's more about the way that every generation is beholden to the older form.

I mean, when you watch film, old film, even silent film, it's still recognizable, because Hollywood is so in love with itself and in thrall to itself and it keeps repeating, and rock and roll is kind of like that. Whereas if you play a blues 78, or some big band tune, that seems so amazingly remote to most people. People can't find the connection. Whereas yeah, the Who continue to seem modern to people, and I'm not sure why.

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  Topics: Music Features , Ian Svenonius, Nation of Ulysses, The Psychic Soviet
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