Ian Svenonius is the ringleader of a new outfit called Chain and the Gang, whose debut, Down with Liberty...Up with Chains!, is out now on K Records. Previously, Ian Svenonius has fronted such acts as Nation of Ulysses, the Make Up, Scene Creamers, and Weird War, to name a few. He's also published an absolutely essential book of essays, The Psychic Soviet, and hosts a web TV talk show called Soft Focus. He spoke to The Stranger by phone from a tour stop in Iowa City.
How are the shows going so far?
Oh, they're fine. You know, fun to play, not necessarily fun for the audience—I don't know. I have little patience for watching groups.
How would you describe the relationship between yourself, the gang leader, and the rest of the group?
The relationship is strained...
Yes, exploitative. I'm the work-gang leader. I wear mirrored shades and a cowboy hat and a shotgun, and they do all the work.
Can you tell me a little bit about the title of the record? Why Down with Liberty?
"Down with liberty" is supposedly what the partisans, the Spanish nationals, said. That was their battle cry when they fought Napoleon in Spain, when Napoleon was trying to liberate the continent under the pretense of spreading the ideals of the French revolution. People who opposed him said, "Oh, liberty? Well, down with liberty, and up with the chains." I think we're in an analogous era now. American imperialism always exists under the pretense of exporting liberty. So, down with liberty, down with America. Anti-Americanism—it's out of vogue now, but I don't care. I've always been one to buck the trend.
On the first song on the record, "Chain Gang Theme (I See Progress)," you talk about seeing progress in signs of decay, which seems like a counterintuitive thing, much like the record title. Can you elaborate on that?
I'm just offended that capitalism is based on endless growth. If you're not expanding, you're contracting—you're dying. I feel like there's an American problem, a capitalist problem, and Americans have to—well, not Americans, Americans are very nice people. It's the capitalist model. It's really offensive. Everybody is talking about how to grow the economy, but the inclination should be to maintain... It seems really insane.
No matter where you're living, you're living in a world where everything beautiful has been destroyed in the name of progress. Any old building has been pillaged, replaced with cheap Tyvek and drywall. It's horrifying. There's no respect, and there's a stupefaction, aesthetically. I feel like the architects should be put in prison, these people who are responsible for these buildings. I mean, maybe it's not all down to them, but what's replacing everything is horrifying—bad use of materials, bad use of space, terrible.
So, I see progress in decay. I'd rather see paint peeling. I like seeing the disintegration. I don't mind the idea of industrial slowdown or factories closing in America if it means that... I don't know. People behave like army ants. If you go to a country where every industrial city is abandoned and left to rot... and then everybody talks about going west, this whole myth of the west, endless territories to plunder and exploit, it seems really wrongheaded.
But the existence of the rock-and-roll outfit seems like it's predicated on a certain amount of industrial progress. Do you worry that too much decay could threaten your livelihood?
No, not at all. It'll affect something like The Stranger before it affects Chain and the Gang, because Chain and the Gang is not a real business model. You know, we're not selling advertising. Almost any [musical] group is operating at a loss all the time. You know people in bands... the whole money thing is kind of a farce. That's a myth they propagate so people don't think that they're pathetic.
Tell me about "Deathbed Confession" and the sort of weird conspiracy-theory/secret-history stuff going on there.
Well, the song "Deathbed Confession" is just about the ego of people who are involved with covert assassinations. They're sworn to secrecy, but they also have to let everybody know that they were part of this thing. When they get old, they really want to take credit—all these tell-alls, these CIA guys, and they're decrying it but really the point of the book isn't just to decry it but to boast about it. Like a Tommy Lee autobiography that is like, " I was so bad, check it out" or like drug addicts, like NA, it's boasting about the thing but also condemning it. That's what "Deathbed Confession" is about.
Is that a different attitude than you've found with some of the aging punk-rock musicians that you've interviewed for your show? Do you find that they don't have the same sort of urge to talk about their exploits?
No, they don't at all, that's true. I never thought about that. No one talks about their sexploits and their hotel smashing, because it's marketed differently. Punk is really a work cult; it's really all about working. And rock and roll is all about... it was for a repressed society. It was really like, "Look at all the sex!" I mean, Led Zeppelin were working really hard, but they never talk about the work they were doing. They talk about the sex they were supposedly having, which you can barely believe they were having because they were working really hard. So the whole thing with them, it's all about sexual heroics—but punk, because it's supposed to be a movement of peers, it's like you don't actually want to incite that kind of... that would just incite resentment. People aren't really fans anymore, they're begrudging peers. It's an interesting dynamic, there's none of that fandom, unless it's someone of another race or very much older, then you can have an unabashed fan's appreciation of that person.
Do you think something is lost there?
I think it's sad that people can't be just fans, but at the same time it's a strange relationship. Like, why did people have this fan relationship with the people? Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the format of the 12-inch LP being so big. It had this big picture on it, and I think that to a certain extent that really influenced people's idea of the importance of the artist, because there was a big picture and you had liner notes on the back. And the liner notes and the picture made the whole thing into something that not only convinced the listener it was a big thing but also the performer was convinced of their own importance.
I think now in the age of MP3s, where there's often no physical evidence of the group existing, except for them as people or their performance, you really notice it, nobody is talking about themselves very self-importantly anymore. People don't feel like they are entitled. They might think of themselves as musical geniuses, but that's very different. There are a lot of people that might think they are Brian Wilson, but there's no longer the pronouncement about politics that you once had, like nobody is making pretentious statements anymore... unless they are from that old generation, the album era.
You have a song "Interview with the Chain Gang," which is kind of a hilarious send-up of a textbook-terrible band interview. Let me ask you this: Do you prefer being interviewed or, as you do on your web TV show Soft Focus, conducting the interview?
I have very little experience interviewing people. Really, the only interviews I've ever done have been the ones for Soft Focus. I appreciate the difficulty of doing that now that I've done it. I guess I enjoy being interviewed more, because it's something I have more experience doing. What do you think of that?
Interviewing people is pretty... I don't know, it's difficult. Especially the people I interview, they're all people who have, like, 20-year careers and have done a million things. So then you're faced with this thing where these people have been interviewed so many times, and you don't want to ask them all the same questions, and you also don't want to get into this Actor's Workshop thing of reciting their whole career to them, because people can find that information anywhere. Maybe I'd enjoy interviewing people more if I could edit it.
You don't have final cut on your interviews?
Well, I do... but I just let them do it.