Ian Svenonius’ Many Musical Irons

D.C. stalwart Levitates twice this weekend

Recently reaching the half-century mark, Chicago native and longtime D.C. resident Ian Svenonius remains a garage-punk polymath, who performs twice during Levitation this weekend: Saturday, 8:45pm, at Cheer Up Charlies with two-decades-plus post-punks the Make-Up, and midnight Sunday at Beerland in his solo synth act Escape-ism.

Austin Chronicle: You seem to be burning the candle at many ends, right now. You have three bands going concurrently.

Ian Svenonius: I have this other band, too, which is a secret, secret super-project. I will soon be unveiling that to the world. But yeah, right now I have three working aggregates: The Make-Up, which occasionally appears; Chain & the Gang, which also occasionally appears; and Escape-ism, which is ubiquitous.

AC: I was surprised to see the Make-Up booked into Levitation. How long has it been since y’all performed together?

IS: We played a show a couple of weeks ago. We sorta revived the band a couple of years ago, and now we just make very, very, very special appearances. When all the stars are aligned and everything is just right, the Make-Up will appear in a puff of smoke [laughs].

AC: What did you feel was the need for bringing back the Make-Up?

IS: We enjoy playing the music, and we enjoy the kind of performance we do. And maybe it’s more of an anomaly when we keep such short lives. Maybe it’s more relevant than most, the kind of performance the Make-Up does. Because the times we live in are very black, and music nowadays is very publicity-based, very hype-based, with very staid images. The Make-Up are an immersive psychedelic experience. It’s about communication.

AC: That’s what all great art should be about, communication.

IS: Yes, but I guess what I mean is the kind of communication we offer. I dunno. I enjoy it, ultimately.

AC: Well, you invented a certain mode of communication. Going back to Nation of Ulysses, you created a paradigm where you take raw rock & roll, usually garage-based, and wed it to this situationist-style rhetoric and very codified fashion sense. You always look good! There’s also a high degree of showmanship. You created an entire style that others have tapped into.

IS: Well, thank you. Thank you for noticing.

AC: One can draw a line from Nation of Ulysses to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, White Stripes, Hives, and (International) Noise Conspiracy. All those acts must own 13 Point Plan to Destroy America.

IS: Thank you. I’ve always liked the paradox. Rock & roll is this undeniable thing. That’s our expression. And I use “rock & roll” in the broadest sense of the term. The most interesting examples of it are typically people who bring something odd or interesting to it ultimately.

Like Devo. They love science fiction, The Island of Dr. Moreau. They’re not just retreading rock & roll. They’re referencing genetic engineering, splicing it into the equation. That’s why they resonate, because they bring something else into it.

I think a bit of the problem is people are referencing other bands too much, and they’re not bringing in other kind of art elements. People go to rock school now. That’s the difference. Ineptitude forces people to bring in something else.

Let me ask you something: Have you lived in Austin for a long time?

AC: Since 1991, for the most part.

IS: Do you find it ironic that Austin has become this sort of industry town, almost like Nashville?

AC: Well, it’s reflexive of what’s happened everywhere urban. I lived in New York City for from 1999 to 2004. That was where I first encountered gentrification. Everywhere I moved since then, gentrification has followed me.

“What’s rock & roll? It’s personality. Any rock & roll group that makes it is because it has a kind of personality, whether you like it or not.”

IS: It’s worldwide.

AC: We’re all getting pushed to the margins.

IS: It’s urbanization, suburbanization, and gentrification. The corporatization of all space has lead to the erasure of all mystery. Yeah, it’s endemic of our time, and we’re seeing it in rock & roll, too. The rock & roll experience now is just so corporate. It’s trickling down to the clubs. All the clubs are becoming corporate chains. They’re very comfortable, very clean, and they all have free wi-fi.

They’re so seductive, but there’s something really terrifying about the idea that clubs are all gonna be corporate. When you see things like the Great White club fire, these events are used as a way to shut down venues that are independent. What you’re seeing is a corporatization and consolidation of the rock market. It’s happening really quickly, without anybody acknowledging it, really.

And like you said, it’s chasing people into the margins. The other problem is that anything that’s seen as any sort of complaint is seen as crank-ism. You’re seen as a crank if you have any sort of critique of the culture. A few critiques are allowed to thrive, but if you come to question technology and the way it’s reshaping our lives, it’s seen as kinda fuddy-duddy-ism.

AC: Critical thinking is so crucial, but people don’t want to engage in it anymore.

IS: I think you're right. It should be a sign of sophistication, but it’s now a sign of some kind of stubborn party pooping [laughs].

AC: You mentioned the encroachment of technology. You’ve essentially made a techno album with Escape-ism.

IS: [laughs]

AC: But this is a more lo-fi techno album, like a proper follow-up to the first Suicide album.

IS: Well, if you turn on one of those old drum machines, you’re gonna sound like Suicide. They’re so big, in a way. It’s like they’re bigger than Elvis, because they are so particular. It’s a sound where you’re immediately in [Martin] Rev-and-[Alan]-Vega-world. Hopefully it’s different from Suicide, even though we’re using similar drum machine technology.

AC: It is in that it very clearly has your stamp on it, which everything you do has.

IS: Yeah. I mean, what’s rock & roll? It’s personality. Any rock & roll group that makes it is because it has a kind of personality, whether you like it or not. That’s why it’s an endless need. Meeting people is endlessly entertaining. As opposed to polka music, which is about a certain beat, as opposed to the technology [laughs].

AC: Well, the beat and the accordions [laughs]!

IS: That’s what I’m talking about. Accordions are the technology. That’s why we have less patience with polka music [laughs].

AC: It’s like when I hear bagpipes on a record, I instantly tune out.

IS: Except when AC/DC uses them.

AC: I can’t even take that! I’ve always said that if Lou Reed had wanted to make an acoustic version of Metal Machine Music, all he would have needed to do is overdub about six tracks of bagpipes caterwauling at once.

IS: Now I wish he had! I wish that had really been a thing! That would be hilarious.

AC: I would’ve bought that.

IS: Metal Machine Music – Unplugged!

AC: Maybe that’s your next album.

IS: I like that. Let’s do it. I’ll give you 30 percent.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Ian Svenonius, Levitation 2018, Nation of Ulysses, The Make Up, Escape-ism, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, White Stripes, Hives, (International) Noise Conspiracy, Devo, Suicide, AC/DC, Lou Reed

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