AN INTERVIEW WITH
AN INTERVIEW WITH
“Rock’n’roll has become a substitute
for political ideals”
by Nando Cruz
Even without having slept your due hours, a conversation with Ian Svenonius will always be much more juicy than a conversation with 90% of musicians in their brightest day. The founder of Nation Of Ulysses and The Make-Up, among other bands, and author of books such as The Psychic Soviet, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock’n’Roll Group and Censorship Now! doesn’t need much to go on about rock’n’roll, geopolitics, Pussy Riot and Calvin Johnson.
Ian Svenonius is staying at the Residencia Erasmus in Barcelona’s Gràcia neighbourhood. The rooms cost 55 euros per night and have no phone, so the receptionist advices me to go up to room 212 and knock on the door should I want to meet him. I do and Svenonius himself opens the door. He’s wearing a white pair of trousers, no shirt and is drying his face with a towel after shaving. He’s so close to me that I’m almost tempted to pull his iconic black curly hair and find out once and for all whether it’s a wig or not. But, obviously, that would sort of jeopardize the interview, so I stop myself and we decide to meet again down at the reception in a few minutes.
It’s 3:30 PM and we end up sitting at the bar in one of those hipster cafes that keep on popping up around the city like a plague, one of those that advertise their products directly in English. We have enough with a coffee for each, but soon after Ian orders some water. “Still?” asks the waiter. “Yes, still,” Svenonius replies. “It can be from the tap,” he adds. And I translate this to the waiter. “Is it normal in Barcelona to order water from the tap in a bar?” he asks, somewhat surprised by the look the waiter has given him. I answer that it isn’t, that if you order water from the tap in depending on what bars they look at you as though you were a pauper and that we’ve reached such a point of stupidity that even in mountain restaurants, where water is fresh and amazing, they insist upon serving you bottled water. And charging you for it, of course.
But we aren’t here to discuss bottled water industry. Although with Ian Svenonius you never know…
Before anything else, I need to ask you why you make music.
It’s like playing with magic. The stage is a space that doesn’t exist in the real world: it’s a container of ideas and jokes; a place in which serious ideas, jokes and dreams can co-exist. A lot of people don’t get this and want things to be defined in a very specific sort of way.
They prefer serious or funny, but not both at the same time.
Exactly. They don’t get that all those things co-exist in a mysterious combination. A music performance doesn’t need to be logical, doesn’t need to have a beginning or an end. It can have a plot, but it can also lack a plot. It doesn’t need to respond to a concrete form. But at the same time it’s pop and has a real audience. Unlike literature or theatre, music implies an idea of community. And music doesn’t need to be good to be good.
Now, that’s a good one! But what about intention, purpose?
At the beginning, for lots of people is about fostering an aesthetic or a scene. When you start a band it’s all about your group of friends, about expressing your view of the world and protesting against the official narrative. But as time goes by it’s something less linked to your own community.
Apart from making records, you have reflected a lot on rock’n’roll and have written articles about it. The idea of rock’n’roll being a weapon to rebel against the system, didn’t it even appeal to you when you were young?
No. I never thought of rock’n’roll as a weapon against the system. There was a generation that said rock’n’roll was a rebellion against the status quo, against a certain moral perception, certain social ideas and aesthetics related to Frank Sinatra and the likes. But I grew up when rock’n’roll was already the official cultural form of expression. To me, rock’n’roll was never rebellious. Punk was. At least the one I discovered. Straight edge, hardcore, the introduction of politics in music, the aesthetics…
Were you a punk before you became a Marxist? Did you sense there was a potential for politics in music at some point?
I’ve got to make clear that I’ve always liked rock’n’roll. I never rejected rock’n’roll because I liked punk. On the other hand, my political vision is a lot more intuitive and emotional. I’m not an intellectual. I’m not a Marx expert. I simply hate the rich. They offend me and I protest against their policies, their control of the media, and basically anything to do with the ruling class. I mean, my political line is quite rough and it’s based on hatred. When I say I love Cuba is because Americans can’t invest there. There are obviously more aspects that make Cuba a great country, but my admiration springs from there. People should reject exploitation. And when capitalists have it all and can reconstruct the world as they wish, on the other hand you see there’s a place they can’t mess around with, that makes me happy. I insist, my politics are totally primitive, emotional and intuitive.
And that intuition took you to understanding that rock’n’roll wasn’t going in the same direction as your political ideas. For instance, in hating the rich.
Rock’n’roll has always been a paradox. And I was always attracted by that. I always talk about it and I’m critical towards it. It’s what communists call self-criticism: when you don’t accept triumphalist narrative. In the US, everybody says rock’n’roll belongs to rebels, that it invented sex and freedom. I look at that discourse and say that it might be a bit simplistic and stupid.
And you propose going deeper into it, reading about it…
…Or simply talking about it. For example, I’m very interested in knowing the USSR’s answer to rock’n’roll and Western culture. What was their line of defence against this missile. Because culture is always used under multiple forms. At the beginning it is born as a way for poor people, black or white, to rebel. But after that it has to do with being cool. And at a certain time rock’n’roll becomes totally corporate, and even in the history of punk self-criticism ceases to be. But both jazz and rock’n’roll were used around the world as cultural infiltration missiles. Tere were films made with the message, “we rockers are so great because we’re freeing the world!” And that’s bullshit! Well, it might not be total bullshit, but it seems so. It’s simplistic and stupid when you see that history is written from one side only, it might be much more interesting analysing it from another point of view.
You say that from homo sapiens humanity has worried about what was coming next, but in recent years hope has been changed by the image of an abyss. I’d like to ask you how much does rock’n’roll have to do with that.
A lot. Rock’n’roll has become a substitute for political ideals. Since it’s something international and still conceived as rebellious, many people think that being in a rock’n’roll band they’re already helping create a better world. And this is particularly so with punk. Punk, in the end, is substitute for political activism. Punk often harbours that arrogant idea of “we’re better because we really know what this is all about.” And that’s even more absurd with anarchist punk bands, because they do nothing at all.
You don’t even trust anarchist punk bands?
I like some anarchist punk bands: Crass and groups like that. But you know what I mean: the crustie phenomenon and all those people who think they’re not part of the system.
A lot of music wants people to dream. Coldplay’s last album was called A Head Full of Dreams, although I’m afraid those kinds of messages are more like a pill to forget the present than encouragement to try and make a better world to live in.
Rock’n’roll is a drug. It’s always been. Music is a drug.
But there was a time in which music was considered dangerous. John Lennon was investigated by the FBI! Do you know of any other musician who has been researched by the CIA or the FBI since then?
Only people who don’t believe in art think artists ¡can be very dangerous people. That’s why the governments of countries ruled by dictatorships have laws that apply different types of censorship. Everybody can recognize the power of art except artist and consumers. None of them understand the power of what they have in their hands. They think it’s all an interpretation. Do you follow me?
I do, but I’m not sure I agree. In countries with official censorship, art can be dangerous, but in the capitalist world I don’t know whether a band or a musician could be.
What you’re saying is that it’s censorship what makes a band become dangerous.
Well, that’s the thesis of my book Censorship Now! The idea I develop is that it can be tricky in the capitalist world. Any concept can be printed on a T-shirt. Everything is cool and so any form of art become innocuous. That’s the great trick of the government, of culture, or of power. From the moment everything is authorised, everything loses its meaning. That’s why we need censorship, to prove that what we’re saying makes sense. There should be censorship. Politicians should be censored. Radio should be censored. Fucking television should be censored. And newspapers? They started a war in Iraq and are responsible for the one in Syria, but they will never apologize. They should respond before justice for war crimes. The New York Times should be shut down. They started the war. They say what was needed to say for it to sound reasonable.
Obviously, in the case of Pussy Riot it was such a scandal because there was a censorship to challenge.
Obviously, Pussy Riot is an organization financed by the US. My country has embarked in a new Cold War against Russia and the first step is convincing the world that Putin is a horrible dictator. The US invests millions of dollars to foster changes of regimes in countries that do not abide by the market laws suiting their interests. We could see that in Ukraine, where they have invested 4,000 million dollars to create the whole situation. The United States is the most evil country in the world when it comes to geopolitics. It’s the most active one when trying to unleash chaos and provoke transformations that go against the people’s interests. But, anyway, going back to Pussy Riot… They’re probably nice people, but they’re just an instrument. What a well-made artistic artefact! And how much media attention! Do you know how many political dissidents there are in the world? Do you know how many people are in prison in the US? There are 30 million people locked up. But Pussy Riot had world media exposure. And what did they do? They were detained for entering an orthodox church! It’s absurd locking someone up for that reason.
Even in the US it would be ridiculous.
Especially in the US, because when the US devoted all its economy to fighting the USSR, the reason we were told the USSR was so terrible was that they didn’t respect the Church. After destroying the USSR through economic restrictions, now the Church has a capital role in Russian society. And now, when someone tries to offend the Orthodox Church, we shout: “Oh, my god! Why are they being locked up?” We talk a lot about how intolerant Vladimir Putin is towards homosexuals, but it was us who fought for the Church to be a key element in Russia. And the Church is the central promoter of homophobia in that country. It’s all hypocrisy. The US altered the rules of the game when it suited them. They changed the script the way they wanted.
I insist, in countries such as the US, where there’s no official censorship, I don’t get the feeling art or music can ever be a danger. Did you have any problems with the album you published with Nation Of Ulysses and all the texts you printed inside?
The FBI paid me a visit.
When you published 13-Point Program To Destroy America?
No, a bit after that. But, of course, those were different times. Times in which the idea of terrorism seemed very remote. But yes, you’re right, the US is a freer country and, in that sense, music is no longer seen as a challenge. What I mean to say is that these art forms have a certain capacity for challenge and when you find out that the FBI was investigating John Lennon you understand that preoccupation exists.
Exists or existed?
Existed? That was 1980. This is almost now. And the US government is way more paranoid now.
Maybe, but not with music.
I think they’re paranoid with everything. With any social movement.
Well, OK, but tell me about your story with the FBI.
I’ll tell you another time. It isn’t even that exciting.
You’ll have to tell me! But let’s go on about censorship. I think what can make a song dangerous is not its content, but the context in which it takes place, and what the audience does with it. A love song was a great challenge in eighties Algeria, when raï singers were persecuted, but outside that context it was only a love song. Maybe what capitalism has managed is altering the context, authorising everything and deactivating any song’s capacity for challenge. And in a time we live constantly bombarded by new songs each day it is still more complicated for a single song to be challenging enough against power.
Music today is so ubiquitous that listening to it at all times makes it bit more meaningless. But anything can be powerful. As you say, it all depends on the context. Even music could become powerful again. My only objection to what you say is that it could happen again. People used to throw tomatoes to the Futurists. Art has provoked this and it could all happen again. Not right now, but it can take place again.
Some time ago you used to say that The Make-Up was a very ambitious band. Do you think ambition is something positive for a band? How?
I was using the word ambitious to highlight that we were a band trying to do something that hadn’t been done before.
And what was that?
Creating that primitive version of gospel music, a secular version in which the audience was part of the ceremony.
The Make-Up wanted to “inspire the deadly rock’n’roll scene”.
Rock’n’roll had become something very boring. It wasn’t danceable, fun, celebratory. It was becoming very brainy music, like Chicago’s post-rock. And we wanted to do something visceral.
Have you noticed whether audiences have become more passive in time?
Audiences are always passive, but that changes depending on the place. Spain used to have a very excited audience, but people are saturated now. There are too many bands on tour. On the other hand, those huge festivals directed by big corporations steal the soul of things. And then all those web sites… Nothing looks like underground culture anymore.
Don’t you think it has also to do with the fact that gigs have more and more become shows in which the audience looks at what the band does on stage, but that’s it, they just look? I get the feeling that in recent years a concert has become more and more like going to the movies. And that is internalised so much that you no longer do anything else when you go to see a concert.
I know. Yes, but now all rock’n’roll bands want to be fun. It’s a sign of the times. And it’s a very conservative turn. And a very pathetic one. Probably Miley Cyrus is much more genuine in that sense than…
… than all those garage rock’n’roll bands trying to sound like the Ramones. There’s hundreds! And their attitude onstage is pure cliché.
Months ago I interviewed Calvin Johnson. He says he hates playing concert venues. I also think they have become a very regulated and predictable space: with their time limits, volume limits… I don’t know if you also think they have lost that capacity of being a place to exchange ideas and to dialogue and that little by little they have become a place where live songs are sold: you listen to them and then go home.
I agree that rock venues are spaces with a horrible and ridiculous aspect, but if you play electric rock’n’roll they’re the best place to do so. A church has better acoustics for what Calvin does and maybe he should only play in churches. But that’s like saying you can’t have a religious experience in a church because it’s too predictable a place to have a religious experience in. Or that you can’t have an artistic experience in an art gallery. I don’t think a predictable space can’t transcend that situation. I’ve seen amazing rock concerts in gig venues. And Calvin could say the same, even if they don’t work for him.. Calvin is a true revolutionary.
In what sense?
Calvin is really perverse. He did a tour around camping sites. He does this kind of things. He’s like Jonathan Richman; very twisted. I would never do a tour around camping sites, but I’m OK with him doing them. And even if I agree with his vision, saying that all rock clubs are boring is generalising a bit too much. I’ve played Madrid’s Nasti club several times. It responded to all the rock club clichés, but playing there was an experience.
You were saying that audiences are different depending on the country, and that Spain audiences are very passionate. But you didn’t answer the question about audiences in general having become more passive.
Yes, audiences used to be more dynamic before, but maybe my band used to be more dynamic as well. Who knows? Maybe it’s just cycles…
The conversation moves on to other topics: about how in the Western world we’ve stopped dancing in twos, about the transformation of hip-hop in a middle step to become a businessman (“the goal of any rapper is to own a basketball team”), about Royal Trux aesthetic influence… But Mr Svenonius is running out of batteries. He stops mid-sentence, can’t concentrate on the question, rubs his eyes…
Yes. I got up at 3 AM to take my flight in Lisbon.
We can leave it here of you want. I’ve been lecturing for a while and all you do is simply saying “Yes, yes, you’re right” to everything…
I know… I’m sorry. The day I have to play, if I haven’t been able to sleep, I try to be quiet and save the strength for the stage. If I’m exhausted I get to the concert very unsettled. Being in a band takes a lot of effort and concentration. Above all when you travel on your own. You need to take care of everything.
But you like travelling on your own?
It’s OK, but I also like travelling with more people. By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look a bit like Morrissey?
No, no one.
Well, maybe you don’t. Who knows…
I think this is the ideal moment to stop the interview. You know what? I was interviewing Lou Reed once and he said…
You interviewed Lou Reed?
Yes, before he…
…Before he died, right? You were going to say that, right?
Yes, I almost said that!
And how was it?
Before one of my questions he said: “You look a lot like my nephew John. It’s almost scary answering your questions because you look so much like him.”
Did he tell you any interesting things?
Yes, but that was fifteen years ago. I can’t even remember.
You’ve interviewed everybody! Lou Reed, Calvin Johnson… Give me other names of people you’ve interviewed.
Well… I once interviewed Bono from U2!
How was he?
It was like talking to Marlon Brando in The Godfather. When he went down to the hotel reception he put his arm around my shoulder and said: “Nando, this morning I’m very happy because the IRA and the English government have signed a peace treaty.” He asked me about the situation with ETA in Spain while we were going to a bar to do the interview.
He’s like a big ball of cheese. He’s supercheesy.
Back to his hotel, there was a couple waiting for him with their baby in their arms…
… And Bono kissed the baby!
No, even better. The couple said they’d called their baby Bono. They were waiting for him to bless the baby or something like that. And he, with his false modesty, said something like: “You don’t know what you’ve just done giving him that name. He will be a very naughty and wild child.”
Well, the truth is you almost feel sympathy for him in that situation. What could he do? He should have said: “That’s a horrible name! Poor kid!” C’mon, tell me more names. Who else have you interviewed?
Mmm… Let me think…
By the way, today at the plane I met a hypnotiser. Do you know him? He’s from here. He came up to me and said: “Hi, Mr Svenonius.” Look at his face: he looks like a spy. (He shows me the card the guy has given him)
But he recognised you?
Yes, yes. C’mon, who else have you interviewed? Morrissey?
Little Richard? Chuck Berry?
No, no. Is Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones good enough?
Yes, yes. He’s very cool. How is he?
He no longer looks like a rock star. He’d come from England by car. He was with a friend and they had this planned route to stop at the best restaurants and hotels. At this stage, instead of touring he prefers going on holiday. And if he wants to go to Majorca, he calls someone to set up a gig in a resort to spend the rest of the week and that’s it. When I interviewed him he had just played with Solomon Burke and…
Did you also interview Solomon Burke?
Yes. Before he died, like Lou Reed. But let me tell you the story about Bill Wyman. He was playing at a festival near Madrid, is a sports venue. I asked him about Solomon Burke and he couldn’t stop laughing. It seems that due to his weight he had to be taken onstage on a platform. And while he told me, Bill Wyman pissed himself laughing.
Solomon Burke asked to be taken to the stage on a platform?
He didn’t ask for it, he needed it. At the end of his career Solomon Burke was so obese that he couldn’t walk and least of all climb up the stairs.
That’s sad. Food is a weapon. They kill thousands of poor people with that insane processed food. That shit should be censored too. In the US a lot of people fight for statues of Civil War generals to be demolished, but meanwhile, all that McDonald’s crap still exists! Censor that! That shit is really relevant to our lives. Destroying an old prick’s statue won’t change a thing.
In Barcelona we’re witnessing a similar process. There are many statues of noblemen who became rich, partly, thanks to the slave trade.
Europe is infested with statues of all those terrible people: slave traders, bourgeois people… What are you going to so? Erase that part of history? No one would put those statues there today. They’re like ancient art. I don’t get why they wanted to demolish the statues of Lenin in the Soviet Union. They were nice!
They’re aesthetic battles with the past.
Yes, but after that I’m off to eat a Big Mac!
If now there are buildings built with big corporations money, what about McDonald’s sponsoring the demolition of statues? With a sign saying: “The statue of this fascist or slave trader was demolished thanks to McDonald’s.” It would be a kind of destructive sponsorship with a clear benefit for the company’s image.
Of course! And the same for Eastern countries: “This statue of Lenin in Riga has been destroyed by The Gap. We free you.” Well, it has been a pleasure, but I need to go. I have some peace talks with the IRA scheduled after this and I have to go see my son, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
I understand and I thank you for your time. Oh, by the way, that couple out there are waiting for you to tell you something. Their baby’s name is Svenonius.
Oh, OK! I’m off to bless him right now.