Wanted/Needed/Loved: Ian Svenonius’s “Principles of Modernism”

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Is it okay if we talk about something that’s not quite an object? As I started thinking about what I need, especially when I go on tour, the most essential thing is actually a kind of worldview, a mindset—or maybe it’s an ideology. I know it could just be superstition, like there are some people who can’t play unless they’re angry or drunk. There’s a lot of neurosis in music, in any kind of performance. They think, “Oh, I have to shoot heroin before I go on stage,” or whatever, because they had that one “magical” experience. Then it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and they’re eaten away by their addiction or OCD. Whenever people get hooked on one thing, it can be an impediment to their growth.

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But for me, I tour a lot in various configurations, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. Some of my bands are more successful or known than others, some completely obscure, but in every case I’m proud of the work I do. I always want to do a show, and I want it to be the best possible, so the one thing I bring with me is an almost infantile or naïve sense of belief in the power of the thing I’m involved in, the idea of art’s ability to be transformative, and to understand the force it has.

The generation that I came out of saw music this way. I guess you could call it a belief in the “principles of modernism.” For me the indie rock of the ’90s was a very difficult development in a lot of ways because it was a departure from the raw belief that I thought was the basis of underground music. There’s a lot of good music under that rubric of indie, but as a movement I would describe it as more detached and blasé, a development that was almost a reaction to punk. That makes sense because punk was loathsome in a lot of ways, but at the same time you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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Things are now so careerist, and there are these supposed paths to glory that don’t seem very reflective or self-critical. I believe this is a symptom of the economic crisis we’re in. Musically, everyone is trying to get theirs, to make it work. But something is really lost. Things can become shallow. They’re not interesting a lot of the time. And they’re not dangerous anymore because they’re based on the idea of creating consensus. There’s no longer this sense that you might want to create something that’s outrageous, grotesque or idiotic. References have also become very historical. That’s unavoidable to some extent, but now people want to do everything just right. Unfortunately, if they care at all about what they’re doing, it leaves them with a nagging insecurity, like “Is this as good as Pet Sounds?”

This may sound pretentious I guess, but I’m trying to bring an antidote to the cynicism. I’m a total record enthusiast, and I also DJ 45s, so I have go through things at a voracious rate to create a set. The function that it serves for me is to keep me from being bitter or jealous when I see bands that I don’t think are very interesting “making it.”

Going back to my records, especially older records, reminds me how disarming and incandescent music was and still can be. There are so many flawless records, and many artists you’ve never heard of, who have incredible voices. Reflecting on these commercially unsuccessful records puts things in perspective in regards to the arbitrary nature of recognition, so-called success, who deserves what, and that the important thing is really making things that are exciting, provocative, and interesting.

I don’t want to listen to “Pitchfork’s Greatest Hits” because that’s going to negatively affect my output. Instead I like to listen to things that affirm my idea of what’s good, and the artists I think would be sympathetic to what I do, that we would get each other. When you do this you’re looking for aesthetic similarity, but not necessarily genre. And it is deeply personal. For example, you and I can both love James Brown, but what you get out of James Brown might be totally different than what I do.

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I don’t want to complain too much because there is still a lot of great music out there. In some ways, we’re in an incredible place where people have more resources and more know-how than ever before. But the Internet has also brought an erasure of meaning, and the music has lost its context. At one point you could become part of a scene, and the conversations happening inside of that scene. But now all of the music is part of the disconnected “world” of music. Algorithms connect the dots for you, but not in a way that’s satisfying.

I once wrote a song called “600,000 Bands.” The problem I was identifying wasn’t that there were suddenly 600,000 bands. There were always that many bands! You just wouldn’t know about them all. But now you have to know them all, even as they float around as cyber-space junk. Before, if there was a rap group from Wichita and you had a punk band in Washington with the same name you could both live your lives in blissful ignorance.

But you want to start a new band today? Before you figure out your sound, first you have to check to see who else has already claimed your name. If someone has, and they’ve made traction, maybe you’re disappointed. Or maybe you think that’s okay, even good for you. Either way it’s a drag to me because part of the excitement of creating is this conceit that you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, or is contextually new.

That’s why, maybe more than ever, what’s needed is a way not to get dragged down by the glut, a way to find a rationale for continuing to do your thing. Making music is one of those things that is hard to stop once you start doing it. But if you want it to be good, it has to be fun. As long as I can hold on to my beliefs, it often still is.

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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Ian Svenonius is the founder and lead vocalist of several influential, politically informed Washington, DC-based bands including Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain and the Gang—which uses fuzz, thumps, and call-and-response grunts and gasps to create a new genre of music called “crime rock.” Svenonius was the host of Soft Focus, an insightful web-TV series featuring interviews with musical icons including Mike Watt, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, and Suicide, and he is the author of several provocative and humorous books including the essay collection The Psychic Soviet and the how-to guide Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group. His band Chain and the Gang is currently on tour.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →