Chain and the Gang operate with a mellower MO than past projects: "I see progress/In paint peeling/I see progress/In leaky ceilings." Like his music, Svenonius's delivery — a coin-flipping, comb-carrying, cop-baiting cool — manages to get tougher the sparer it becomes. You can practically see him leaning against the precinct pay phone as he uses his one call to tell his lady to rob something already and meet him in the can.
BIZ BOSS: Hive Dweller and K Records honcho Calvin Johnson says, “There’s no formula. Every artist we work with, we work with differently. Every day is new.”
"This is definitely the wisest of the bands I've been in," says Svenonius. "I mean, it necessarily has to be, right? It's based on accrued wisdom." He too is calling from the K office, using a land line that keeps him from his customary pacing ("I'm chained to the wall here, but it sounds so good"). On the Chain and the Gang tour that's coming to the virgin Outside the Lines Gallery in Medford this Saturday, he and Johnson's latest band, the Hive Dwellers, share the same "house band" of regulars from Johnson's Dub Narcotic studio. (Imagine an indie-pop Stax.) This is the first time Svenonius has worked out material with a "pick-up" band, and though the result still has the "illicit, cool, and out of tune" charisma that a more jelled outfit like the Nation had, it's also starker, scrappier, more open, less certain.
"I think bands do have a 'gang' thing to them — like the old street gangs who each had their own tactics and strategies. A band is like a gang with a business component, and now, it's weird because more and more bands are pick-up bands like ours, in the same way that no one has any job security anymore. Will Oldham, Royal Trux . . . they're all part-timers."
There's nothing part-time about this Saturday's show. If anything, it's more about lifers: along with the Hive Dwellers (themselves a deeper, catchier extension of Johnson's songwriting in Beat Happening, the Go Team, the Halo Benders, and Dub Narcotic Sound System) and Chain and the Gang, there'll be a performance from Cotton Candy, the newest outing from TeenBeat Records head Mark Robinson. It's an accidental reunion of a 1991 show Johnson recalls that found Nation of Ulysses, Beat Happening, and Robinson's then-rising Unrest sharing the stage at Maxwell's in Hoboken.
The thought of the actual number of years that has passed since that show produces a slight puffing noise from Johnson into the phone — he's impressed, but not fazed. "Doing this for this long, sure, it's a challenge," he says, the bustle of interns calming in the background as the workday there ends and rehearsals begin, "but there's no formula. Every artist we work with, we work with differently. Every day is new." He even says something I don't think anyone with a label has said in at least a couple of years: "I'm really just having too much fun existing in the moment."