Ian Svenonius talks about his life
by Alexander Laurence
Make-Up emerged in 1995 from the ashes of the seminal band
Nation of Ulysses. Ian Svenonius fronted this new subversive
gospel band. Completing the lineup was bassist and style guru
Michelle Mae. The Make-Up released with their debut single
"Blue Is Beautiful," the first shout from their
self-styled liberation theology. In four years they released
five influential albums. Swedish bands have taken notes. They
were the subject of James Schneider's 1997 tour film "Blue
Is Beautiful." The great final album Save Yourself
followed in the fall of 1999. I saw them on this last tour
in New York City at Bowery Ballroom. They were joined on that
tour by guitarist, Alex Minoff. Little did I know that they
would break up six months later in the summer of 2000.
Ian Svenonius continued on with his writing. He made two
collaborative albums: David Candy and Weird War.
A few years passed and I started hearing about a new psychedelic
group called Scene Creamers. I met the band on their recent
tour of the USA. Ian is still one of the best live performers
I followed Ian around for two days waiting for him to feel
inspired to talk. I felt like we were recreating some scenes
from the movie Almost Famous. Every time I would turn on
the tape recorder Ian would get distracted. Most of this
interview was done while Ian paced the room back and forth.
Ian doesn't like to sit while he's thinking. As we took
a break, I went to have dinner at a Thai Restaurant with
the other members of Scene Creamers. We listened to traditional
Thai music. Later, I lost Ian in a crowd and never saw him
again. But here's a record of what we did talk about one
weekend in March of 2003.
Alex Minoff: guitar and voice
Michelle Mae: bass, guitar and voice
Blake Brunner: drums
AL: How do you feel
about the Iraq War?
Ian: It's interesting how that affects music. There is
this invisible conservative majority that you never meet
but somehow exists. Do they exist? That is what the recent
election fraud calls into question. What is the status quo?
Do people really feel this way? Is it only CNN and Fox News
who promote the war, or is there a constituency behind it?
You have got to wonder. If you have never met these people
and I have never met these people, do they really exist?
Certainly I have gone to antiwar protests where there were
a million people. I have not seen that many people who think
the war is a good idea. The whole thing exists on the idea
that the absence of dissent equals consent.
AL: Part of the reason we are over there is because there
are supposed to be all these chemical weapons. If they don't
find any weapons, then it's a pretext for an elaborate political
Ian: People know that Iraq has no real army and defense.
Their whole army and weapons have been catalogued during
the UN weapon inspections. They have done that to eliminate
risk. It's interesting that the antiwar movement has all
these strict perimeters of dissent in this country. It's
cool that all these actors have come forth and talking about
it. But they are only talking about their concern about
the marines and bringing our boys back. I don't care about
the marines myself. I care about the idea that America shouldn't
bomb 500,000 civilians or whatever. Or even encroach on
the sovereignty of a country. It's bullshit.
AL: Well, the Dixie Chicks are a high profile group that
came out and said something anti-Bush. There was a backlash
and they had to back peddle. They had to take back their
Ian: Exactly. It's fascism. It bizarre how everyone has
to conform to one point of view. It's interesting to see
how that affects music. So many groups now are formalists.
They are practicing their vacant music to a defined plan
or esthetic. There is all these 1980s bands now. They are
copying very specific models and templates. You begin to
wonder: is that a weird offshoot of the fascist times that
we live in? There is a desire to conform to something that
is considered totally kosher.
AL: People just want to deal with the known and the familiar.
They don't want to struggle with the unknown.
Ian: Exactly. There is a lot of fear about being disliked.
It's really weird. It's like there is this cowardice that
is really apparent. When you think about punk music, we
consider ourselves as an elite. We consider ourselves as
being elite, snobbish, super-aware. We see ourselves as
being better and above the mainstream. When you see groups
aping things very specifically from twenty or thirty years
ago, you feel ripped off. What happened to the idea of us
as the vanguard? It's a conceit that we have to follow.
AL: What do you think of some of the ideas of Fugazi?
Ian: It's contingent on the situation. We try to keep the
door down. We try to play all ages shows. But at the same
time inflation is a fact. You can't expect shows to be five
dollars forever. A cup of coffee is now five dollars. The
economy of indie rock has starved the people. If you think
about what we do: there are hundreds of groups now who put
out records and tour the country. All bands have to buy
a van, buy equipment, and feed themselves. They have to
pay the phone bill, book a tour, and pay their rent, and
so on. If you play for a few people as we often do, you
often really need the money. You can't live in the five
dollar world. That's an arbitrary value. Shows cost five
dollars when I was fourteen years old.
Magazines like Maximum Rock and Roll had all these ideas
about what was and what wasn't punk.
Ian: What you have to remember is that what we call "punk"
was just a fashion statement of the late 1970s. It was based
on the gay esthetic. It was like rock and roll, but instead
of stealing from black culture, they took the gay esthetic.
They pasted that on what they were doing. The 1977 revival
is just a gay revival. Hardcore is really different. Hardcore
is really electric folk. When Dylan went electric in the
1960s it killed folk music. What happened in the early 1980s
with hardcore was an unaware revival. What you have are
a lot of unspoken new rules. It was politically motivated.
It was an international folk movement that has just recently
been destroyed by major labels. It hasn't totally disappeared
because there are small clubs all over who still work in
that spirit. You have to remember that things don't really
die. Just because someone invented the car, people didn't
stop walking. The stone age, the middle ages, all ages are
existing simultaneously. That goes for music too. There
is ska, goth, punk.
AL: All time is circular. The now is a revolution of the
same moment, the same elements on the same day.
Ian: And it goes back. In the 1960s there was a revival
of blues culture. The Rolling Stones and others were doing
music that was a thirty year revival. The 1960s were in
AL: What music did you draw on when you did The Make Up
and Weird War?
Ian: The Make Up was about gospel music. That was our whole
impetus. We were trying to appropriate black gospel music.
We used that whole forum of sermonizing and music. We are
continuing on in that vein with Scene Creamers. Our songs
now are stories with music. For me music is about communication.
I see a lot of bands today. We are at a point where you
can see a band and they are really good and they have their
shit together. They are very sophisticated. They all have
very good record collections. So you go see these bands,
they are talented, but do they communicate anything? I ask
myself "What is the point?" With the Scene Creamers
we are trying to communicate. Most bands are like watching
a slideshow. You are essentially being given an esthetic.
The band is not communicating anything. They are saying:
"This is our esthetic. This ideal is what we are trying
to impress upon you."
AL: Aren't all bands making esthetic choices?
Ian: Yeah, choices are being made in all art. Choices are
what art is. My point is you want to go beyond that. You
want to go beyond just presenting an esthetic, or a snapshot
of what a cool record collection you have. You want to go
beyond fashion. Fashion can be appropriated and can get
old very fast. You want to communicate something. That is
why something like Johnny Cash is really resonant. He is
telling stories and really communicating through songs.
Bob Dylan is good. Music can communicate humor or a range
of emotions. I am not saying that we are in this company.
I am saying that is what we are trying to achieve.
AL: Some of the neo-punk bands have a certain look but
I am not sure what they are rebelling against. They call
it "mall punk" now.
Ian: Totally. Especially this new MTV punk which is really
neo-conservative. There is a book by Dick Hebdige called
Subcultures. He says when there is a revival in style it's
conservative. It's now orthodoxy. You see that in garage
music. Most of my favorite bands from the 1990s were garage
bands. The Gories are one of the great bands of all time.
I don't think they are conservative, but I think that those
fans and labels are just republican. For a lot of garage
rock the subtext is tits and beer. It could be the soundtrack
for a Hooters. I am not against breasts. And I am not even
really against beer. How can you feel self-important when
your values are indistinguishable from the mainstream. That
is probably the reason that Malcolm McLaren abandoned rockabilly.
When he had his boutique, it was first called "Let
It Rock." Then he realized that all these teddy boys
were just Nazis. That is why he brought punk to England
because it was more about thinking, as rockabilly once was.
That is why now we have to get rid of this punk finally
because everyone is a slave to it. We have been in punk
for thirty years now. Punk used to be more about black humor.
There were the films of John Waters and Paul Morrissey and
Andy Warhol. Punk used to be amoral. The Sex Pistols doing
"God Save The Queen" is like gay humor. All that
has nothing to do with bands like Black Flag or Minor Threat.
Punk has become too much of a credo. It's like Christianity.
AL: What happened to The Make Up?
Ian: It went on for five years. We had a five year plan
like Stalin. It was becoming redundant and people were copying
us. That's fine. We don't have to do it anymore because
they can. The important thing is this is not a career. We
have been poor the whole time. People think that they are
going to get theirs. People read these punk histories and
they think they are the next chapter. That is not true.
You can't live like that. You have to live in the time.
You can't see it as a career and a commercial end. The Chinese
have a saying: "After the mountain, more mountains."
You have to set challenges for yourself. Only when you hit
rock bottom, then you can create something new. You don't
want to be Richard Dieberkorn and paint the same picture
for fifty years because you know there will be a market.
AL: Only people like Matisse and Picasso can change the
rules every twenty years. Only people like David Bowie can
do five different albums in five years.
Ian: Exactly. But still nobody listens to Lodger. What
you have to remember: as long as you keep the trademark
name you are all right. What we have done over and over
again is change the trademark name. As long as David Bowie
keeps the name he's still David Bowie. Tin Machine was a
bold move. I have a lot of respect for David Bowie. He's
very brave in a lot of his career choices. What we have
done is: we didn't keep the name The Make Up and change
it into a synth band. We broke up the band and now we are
doing different things. Hopefully that is the right choice.
AL: What about some of the documentaries you were in. Was
that just a forum to talk about the band?
Ian: We didn't create the films. James Schneider directed
the film "Blue Is Beautiful." We were in a few
documentary films about indie rock. We agreed to do it because
they felt like a creative environment. People were allowed
to make several things. But none of those were our films.
They don't necessarily represent the group as much as the
viewpoint of the director.
AL: Can you talk about the Weird War and the David Candy
Ian: The David Candy record was made by a producer in London
named Mike Alway. He makes these character based records.
He invited me to be one of the personalities. It was his
record and conceived by him. Weird War is a record that
me and Michelle did. There were some other people like Neil
Hagerty. It was an actual band for a minute.
AL: How do you prepare for a gig?
Ian: I just like to stretch a little bit. I like to drink
coffee. Coffee and Coke together is a lethal combination.
AL: What are hives?
Michelle: It's an allergic reaction to acidic foods, like
AL: What is it like living in Washington, DC?
Ian: It is the locus for all the evil in the world.
AL: How would you describe the record?
Ian: Music for masturbation, volume one. Scene Creamers
is the sexually transmitted band.
AL: What is the music of Scene Creamers about?
Ian: We were on tour and we went to a hotel one night.
In that hotel we had a dream. It was a collective dream.
In that dream we knew how to read. We started to read a
book which featured the artist Salvador Dali. In the book,
he theorized that Adolf Hitler, the famous dictator, was
just acting a Wagnerian obsession. Dali thought Hitler loved
opera so much, that he wanted to die heroically, in a German
way. And when we awoke we were filled with hope. Because
we realized that if we could construct a narrative. If we
rock and roll people could make a narrative that was similarly
made, we could drive our own president to kill himself in
his own bunker. He could take a little cyanide pill sewn
into his suit jacket. That is what our music is all about.