SEE CHANGE: If one can see fashion as an expression of control, it’s possible to see much of Svenonius’s music over the years as concerned with fashion.
It's coming up on 20 years since Calvin Johnson — who even in 1989 had been running K Records for an estimable seven years — met Ian Svenonius. It was at a Hazmat show in DC, and Svenonius was fronting his Nation of Ulysses. Johnson was blown away. He recalls it as a jarring hybrid of hardcore and noise (a real oddity in those days), melody and chaos — they even had a trumpet. Most poignantly to Johnson, though, the Nation offered "a moment to say goodbye to the '80s."
"But it wasn't even the music, at first," he tells me from K headquarters in Olympia, Washington. "They just had a sense of style. No bands had a sense of style at the time — not good, not bad, not anything. Everyone was in cut-off shorts and baggy T-shirts, having long hair and ugly clothes. It was just, like, gimme a break. With Nation of Ulysses, they had an æsthetic, but they also had a perspective. It was like, how can you not look?"
Uh-oh: style-over-substance story alert! No, no, settle down, imaginary cynical reader. Thing is, if we're talking about Svenonius, Nation of Ulysses, or his bands since then (Cupid Car Club, the Make-Up, Weird War — and now, Chain and the Gang), or his collection of "factional" essays The Psychic Soviet (bound like one of those little pocket books of Mao quotations, only in pinkish purple instead of reminder red), or his longwinded on-line talk show Soft Focus, or the pages and pages of typewritten manifestos that have accompanied disc after disc of his subculturally polyglot music — that is, if we're talking about the same Ian, style is substance.
Or maybe that should read, "substance is style." If one can see fashion, at its simplest level, as an expression of control, it's possible to see much of Svenonius's musical doings over the years as concerned with fashion. It's just that it sounds kind of cheap put that way.
Jump back a bit: after that show, Johnson teamed K Records with DC mainstay Dischord for a split release of a Nation of Ulysses seven-inch. In the liner notes (where Svenonius refers to him as "Calvin Young Sound for Now People K Johnson" in the thank yous), mission #2 on the "Syllabus Ulysses" section of the band's Statement of Intent (right between "vanquishing nostalgics" who have "etched 'retro' indelibly into our collective gravestone" and "violent destruction of the new urban bourgeoisie") is simply: "To dress well, as clothing and fashion are the only things which we, the kids, being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over."
This drive for control has fueled most Svenonius's work. Nation of Ulysses kept their "secret" plans to destroy America thinly cloaked in acronym (observe: "N.O.U.S.P.T.D.A."). The Cupid Car Club's only existing seven-inch promoted a different sort of control by offering step-by-step suicide instructions on the sleeve. The Make-Up used their "gospel yeh-yeh" sounds to inspire slackened hipsters to control their spiritual destinies. (Weird War, on the other hand, seemed more about controlled substances.) And Svenonius's newest band, Chain and the Gang, seem all about . . . well, handing that control over. Witness their newest disc, Down with Liberty . . . Up with Chains, just released by Johnson on K.
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.
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"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.