Interview: Ian Svenonius on Sam Cooke, Kanye West, and His New Band, Chain and the Gang


“Kanye West hasn’t really done anything worthwhile–except maybe musically, I haven’t heard him. But he hasn’t overthrown the government.”

Ian Svenonius has come a long way since Sassy Magazine first dubbed him the “Sassiest Boy in America” in 1991. The D.C. singer has never been anything less than political to the extreme: Nation of Ulysses had its own ministry of information, the Make-Up employed a new “liberation theology” for its gospel yeh-yeh style, and Weird War took aim at the fascist underpinnings of corporate rock. In 2006, Svenonius published The Psychic Soviet, a little pink book of 19 essays designed to “clear up much of the confusion regarding events of the last millennium–artistic, geo-political, philosophical, et al.” His latest project, Chain and the Gang, approximates the down-n-out prison blues of the chain gang, infused with the jazz hooks typical of his previous bands. Their first record, Down With Liberty…Up With Chains, is out now on K Records. Svenonius and company are currently touring; they stop at the Market Hotel on April 26. We caught up with the band just before they broke out of Olympia, WA, where Svenonious was in town–he otherwise remains based in DC–tuning up for tour.

Down with Liberty…Up With Chains! seems to have been created from the viewpoint of an iconoclastic inmate reminiscent of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys. What exactly is Chain up to?

I am a fugitive from the chain gang, and we live by night. There’s a lot of good chain gang films. “Work will set you free,” you know–it’s the American ideal. But I say ‘do less, make less.’ Don’t do anything at all. The chain gang is very musical. It’s a good parallel for the group. Working in tandem for no reward. Working for other people. A spectacle in their own way. Pariahs. You know, the Sam Cooke song about the chain gang, he’s enjoying the men working on the chain gang. They’re laboring, and for the passer-by, they serve as a cautionary warning. But they also make beautiful music. Ooh. Aah.

Chain and the Gang definitely adopts that sound for its own purposes, now that you put it that way.

Appropriation is fine: that’s what music is. Everyone’s just appropriating things. What’s more interesting to me is that groups are an appropriation of the gang identity. They appropriate the images of the street gang. First with doo wop, which is very much like street gang singing. Then with the garage bands, they all just moved into the garage. That’s interesting to me. I’m not interested in appropriation of styles–that’s just music.

So what do you think about Obits’ Rick Froberg, who recently commented that he’s “not into innovation as a band?”

I totally agree with that, except I’m not into quality. I’m into trash. I think trash is appealing. I think the exciting thing about American pop music from the sixties or whatever is the garbage quality of it. Like soul music, gospel music. Not that it sounds like garbage, it’s really well done, but it has a tossed off quality to it. The problem with music is the “importance” of it. Who wants to hear Radiohead, or Pink Floyd, or Kanye West, or someone who’s so important? “Oh, the record is seventy minutes long, and it’s so important, it’s such an event.” And it’s like, “No, good music is not an event.” It feels organic. And when it’s important, it’s because of the narcissism of the star.

You’re trying to keep it simple.

The whole problem with music is that people are thinking of it in this historical, sophisticated way. They’re thinking about their place in history. And that’s the problem with all this rock history crap. Where all we hear about is the “innovators.” In actuality, those people are great, but there’s thousands of people all making music all the time. That narrative of rock and the importance of these certain people and their place in history, that’s bullshit. That’s like, “Oh, this was a really important spaghetti dinner that this person made.” As soon as people stop thinking that way, then maybe they can make some good music.

Chain and the Gang are releasing records in a much different climate than Nation of Ulysses did. It’s not so much about big label thinking as finding the most direct route to the listener.

You know, that’s interesting, because if we are to believe that the industry is over and all that stuff, then you’re right, it’ll just be a free for all. And you’ll have to make your own kind of narrative about what’s important. Essentially what we’re seeing is the end of that rockism. All that stuff was based on the record cover. The record cover was big. Really big. 12 inches by 12 inches, if I recall correctly. So that meant there was a big picture on the cover. So the cover was already mythic and artistic. And they had to put something on the back that was black and white so they put a bunch of type. So that became the whole mythology. Propaganda. Therefore, the groups, with the advent of the LP, became more like cults. They stopped being entertainers who just wanted to entertain in the moment. It wasn’t enough that someone enjoyed their show. They had to belong to the cult and they had to believe. Membership in the cult was signified by special clothes or special shirt or button. And the groups were very, what’s the term…

Image-driven. More focused on the importance aspect.

Yeah. But also the performance had to be very intense. Like this is the most important thing that’s ever happened. And then the records each became more important. And the fact that there were these record launches with every LP created this weird narrative about the importance of this group. Anyways, the point is, with the end of the record album, bands can’t really have the same pretenses anymore. It’s being stripped away, which is really tragic, but it’s also maybe great. Who knows? Rock ‘n roll bands had their day, but they didn’t really succeed in blowing up–they weren’t as revolutionary as they purported. Kanye West hasn’t really done anything worthwhile–except maybe musically, I haven’t heard him. But he hasn’t overthrown the government.

Chain and the Gang play the Market Hotel with Calvin Johnson, April 26, 8pm.