Calvin Johnson and Ian Svenonius go way back. Johnson's been fighting the corporate ogre with K Records for 25 years, recording with Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and as a solo artist, and releasing records by Svenonius's bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up. Johnson and Svenonius occasionally operate as a DJ duo, under the respective aliases of Selector Dub Narcotic and Name Names. Svenonius, in addition to his varied musical endeavors, has written numerous essays and manifestos, which have now been gathered into a handy, hot-pink pocket reader entitled The Psychic Soviet. Johnson and Svenonius appear in Seattle Thursday, March 22, to lecture at Fremont's Sonic Boom General Store and to DJ at Chop Suey's Club Pop. We got the pair talking on the phone a week ago; here we catch up with a few minutes into their conversation.
IAN: So I was thinking, we should use this conversation as a sort of Socratic dialogue where I'll ask perfect questions and you can respond in paragraphs.
CALVIN: Me or Eric?
IAN: So is The Stranger named after the Camus book? Is it about alienation? Do people in Seattle feel alienated?
THE STRANGER: Some people.
IAN: Well, that book is about killing an Arab, right? And I know George Bush likes that book; he talks about it. He reads existential French literature.
CALVIN: He takes great inspiration from it. Say, this segues well into talking about books. Ian's got a book out.
IAN: I do have a book; it's called The Psychic Soviet, and I was thinking of appearing at bookstores on the West Coast, which also seemed like a good opportunity to throw some parties.
CALVIN: Yeah. Let's have a party, man. 'Cause all this heavy, existential talk has really got me down.
IAN: [Laughing] You're right, you have to have a balance, you know. They say everything in moderation. Existential depression balanced with boogie-woogie.
CALVIN: I like to watch people dance, and I like to dance myself. Fortunately, Ian is along, so I only have to play two or three records, and then Ian can take over and I can go out and dance. Ian's very good at getting people moving. The problem I have is a lot of times you get these DJs that just want to show off what great record collections they have.
IAN: Exactly, and that's not us.
THE STRANGER: That's not you?
CALVIN: Well, Ian actually does have a great record collection, but the thing is, it's a tool. He does not have a display model. He has this tool that he uses to achieve his ends, which is to throw a party.
IAN: A good dance party is the opposite of showing off your record collection. You could have a great dance party with one record. In fact, we might only bring one record each.
CALVIN: And three iPods.
IAN: No, no. No iPods, 'cause we don't like that shrill sound. [Pause] Part of the impetus behind the DJ tour is controlling history, revisionism one room at a time. You know, going into different rooms and questioning what is "dance music" and how do we use certain music? Like, what happened in history? You determine what happened in history though the records you're focusing on? What do you think of that?
CALVIN: I'm not sure...
IAN: [Laughs] I think that's the main impetus behind a DJ tour: rectifying the wrongs of history. It's kind of like a Howard Zinn reader but in a dance club.
CALVIN: Well, I think it's just fun to dance. I feel fortunate that we happen to be in Seattle on the night of Club Pop, 'cause I've never been to it, but I'm told that it's where people dance. So it's like, "Rock 'n' roll. My kind of people."
IAN: I think that there's a problem right now where there seems like a lack of direction, a broadness we might say, right? And I don't blame the groups; I blame the epoch. We have to harness the music and give it a sense of mission, because what's rock 'n' roll without a sense of mission?
CALVIN: It's a party!
IAN: But it's a better party if it has a sense of mission. But right now, we're in a period—they've called it the "end of history"—like everything feels like it's happening simultaneously. People are pretty overwhelmed.
IAN: And what's happened is a general muteness. What do you think of that?
CALVIN: Well... that's possible. Maybe I was wrong when I said it was just a party; [maybe] it's a chance to connect with people and know that you're not alone in your feelings that life can be celebrated even in its darkest hours. People feel so hopeless, and to give them some hope through some artwork is really important.
IAN: Well said. So it's a combination of historical revisionism on the dance floor and giving hope to the people, dispensing hope, like Johnny Appleseed.
CALVIN: Yeah, we are Johnny Appleseeds in a way, that's true. I think The Psychic Soviet is a useful tool in that way.
IAN: Well thank you, Calvin.
CALVIN: But I don't think it's revisionist, personally. I think it's just telling you the way it is, and if you made the mistake of reading some other version of the story beforehand, that's your problem.
CALVIN: Fortunately, most people have no idea what he's talking about, because they're just watching TV all the time. So, to them it's not revisionist, because they never knew any of these things ever occurred.
THE STRANGER: Speaking of TV, Ian, you have a TV show now, right?
IAN: I'm not permitted to talk about that right now. [Laughs] I'm contractually—
CALVIN: I can tell you about it, though. There's a magazine in New York, it used to be from Canada, it's Canadian born, and it's called Vice. And they asked Ian to do a talk show for their new cable—
CALVIN: —network, or whatever it is. Their vision is slightly limited in its scope, and so we haven't really seen Ian unleashed on that show. It's coming though. The handlers need to just take a few steps back. The first episode of the show has an interview with Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye, though not at the same time, which is unfortunate...
IAN: It would've been really cool to have them together.
CALVIN: The problem is Ian [MacKaye] and Henry are such old friends that, subconsciously, they're always trying to upstage each other. So they, on their own volition, decided it was better for everyone concerned if they were interviewed separately.
CALVIN: Ian Svenonius wouldn't have had a chance with those two hambones on the couch at the same time.
Ian Svenonius reads Thurs March 22 at Fremont's Sonic Boom General Store, 7 pm, free.