photo: Angel Ceballos
Weird War Interview
Ian Svenonius Speaks
By alexander laurence
AL: All these interviews I read with you lately, you are talking about politics and philosophy, and nothing about the music.
Ian: I know. People want to talk about politics. Let’s talk about the music.
AL: You have been doing music for a long time. You must have a love for music?
Ian: It’s funny. People ask me a lot “Do you consider yourself a musician?” That is a question I get a lot. I think it’s interesting. Would anyone ask Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombley if they were an artist just because they don’t paint like Rubens or Salvador Dali? In music there is still a strange equation of technocracy. There is a special mantle of musicianhood. You can be like Christo and be called an artist now. You can be making art. You don’t have to have the technical expertise of an artist of bygone days. If a person can be called an artist despite their lack of artistic skills, why can’t a person be called a musician despite their lack of music proficiency? People ask me if I am a musician. Well, I make music. It is kind of an insult.
AL: That reminds me of Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s. He discovered the found object. All the artist has to do is pick an object and he is making art. If the idea of creation is being made and conveyed then that person is an artist.
Ian: Exactly. But it is interesting that music is still hung up on the idea of musicianship. The 1960s had its share of Blues Traditionalists who were into the idea.
AL: I guess that the Duchampian idea was present among some of the techno people. They were often people who couldn’t play an instrument. They just made music with computers.
Ian: There are some noise artists too.
AL: Weird War used to be called Scene Creamers. You have all these names?
Ian: We have two distinct identities that dovetail into one. We are a dualistic band. Our world is binary. If you look at astrology every star sign is based on a dualistic relationship. They have these arbitrary dualism in the party politics in every country. There is always a point and a counterpoint. So we decided to have a group with two names.
AL: It seems like a lot of artists and musicians have been working towards either apocalypse or utopia. What do you think about that?
Ian: We are like that since we have taken two names. It’s like Baudrillard said about the Twin Towers. Before the Twin Towers got knocked down, Baudrillard said that skyscrapers used to be a phallic competition. It was a manifestation of this imperialistic and competitive sensibility. And then the Twin Towers stopped the competition by creating two towers that sat along side of each other that were both impossibly tall but exactly the same height. So by having two names we have also ended this arbitrary dialectic that exist in our world. We are outside the normal discussion. We try to bring some history into our music.
AL: What does the new album mean? Is it about the freemasons?
Ian: No. Illuminated By The Light just means lit by the light. It’s like being fed by the food.
AL: You have a new album. It doesn’t seem like you are trying to do your Sergeant Peppers or your Tommy. It’s just like here is where we are, 2005, here are some songs.
Ian: Exactly. There are not just a collection of songs. Every album is responding to the stimuli of the context essentially. We are blessed. There is no longer an orthodoxy about a way a band has to sound. There are sectarian belief systems in the so-called underground music scene. But everything is open to us and it’s all acceptable. You can take that as a curse or a blessing.
AL: Do you see yourselves as a touring band? You play as many shows as possible?
Ian: No. We play selectively and sparely. We just played in Europe a few times. We haven’t been to California in a year or more. We don’t tour as much as professional groups.
AL: You do these DJ nights entitled “Spilt Milk.” What is that about?
Ian: I started the whole DJ thing too. I do a club night called “Split Milk.” I also did a DJ tour with Calvin Johnson from K Records. I took the club “Split Milk” on the road. I did a club called RICE a long time ago. It’s always been the same format. It’s the casual amateur DJ night. It’s become such a feature of the landscape, that it has almost replaced bands.
AL: Are you getting your due?
Ian: People who invent things never get their due. Kodak stole the idea for film at some guy at the bar. It’s fine.
AL: What about some of these bands who copy the style of your bands The Makeup and Nation of Ulysses? These people are imitators of Svenonius. They even play some of your old songs. They play stuff like “White Belt” and these young kids think it’s an original song.
Ian: Well, you know how it is. You can look at punk. Some old hippie may look at me and get angry. He might say, “I invented that.”
AL: A few years ago you and your bands were in some films. One was called “Everything Is Blue.” There was another one about Calvin Johnson and K Records. People might have got an insight into the band back then. Then now there is this film about The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Ian: There is the Metallica movie, “Some Kind of Monster.”
AL: But Metallica were already very popular.
Ian: A movie always makes a band ten times more popular. People are extraordinarily passive. They love to be given some entertainment. People are a little bit threatened by a rock and roll club or the environment. They love to be spoon-fed on the Independent Film Channel. It’s supposed to be culture. Movies are very adept at rewriting history. Movies are the number one tool for revisionism. People who are looking back at this time in music are going to think a certain type of music was popular or important. And that is not going to line up with what we think is popular or important right now.
AL: Did those films about you make people want to buy your records or see you play live?
Ian: It’s completely different. Those films were underground films that no one really saw. We are not a major corporate artifact. They weren’t part of any film festivals. They didn’t play at the multiplex. Look at the 1960s. Look at Monterey Pop that was a small gathering. A year later the film came out by D. A. Pennbaker. Everybody wanted a piece of that. Woodstock was a hundred times bigger and better.
AL: Do you believe that the baby boomer generation were in control the clubs and the music in the 1970s and 1980s?
Ian: Yeah. We come from that generation where nothing was marketed to us. We were left in a cultural void. We had a choice where we could consume the culture of the older generation, or we could create our own thing. It would never be validated or recognized by major media. Now things are different. It’s more like how it was in the 1960s. Kids have the buying power. Everything is marketed towards them. All things are transformed because of that. You have a bunch of groups now who are vacuous. They are afraid to say anything political or controversial because maybe they won’t get invited to the party.
AL: A few years ago I tried to get a handful bands to say something against the Iraq War on their websites. Some of these bands are supposed to be political. There was very little response. Everyone was very happy to toe the line.
Ian: You go back to 1989. The band Public Enemy was a huge influence on Nation of Ulysses. Public Enemy was a mainstream band that was on MTV all the time. They were totally political. You look at hiphop now. Nobody would do that. The only politics that would be acceptable are identity politics.
AL: Recently you met with the FBI. Was that for real or was that another of your pranks?
Ian: No, that was all true. I try to explain this to people. People in art and music think that they have no power. The only people who understand the power of art, in affecting cultural transformation, are the people who are in power. They can understand the power of art. They determine the stupid films that come out in Hollywood. They don’t have to do that in music anymore. All the musicians censor themselves. They are afraid of not being popular.
AL: They came to you because you said things about George Bush?
Ian: I sent out some flyer with a joke on it about the President. They thought that was threatening. As I explained in my article, it was never about being threatening. It was more about finding people to be patsies for theater later. Politics has become theater now. It is all fake narratives that keep people complacent. That’s why I went public with this. I never write things that are autobiographical.
AL: What are some of your favorite bands now?
Ian: Beehive and the Barracudas are still my favorite band.
AL: What about The Walkmen?
Ian: They are great.
AL: What do you think of all these Gang of Four type band?
Ian: It’s funny. For me, every DC band in the past 15 years has had a little bit of Gang of Four. It’s really redundant. We don’t want to do those fractured funk riffs. That whole anti-rock is such an established sound.
AL: Gang of Four is just getting back together now because so many new bands have been compared to them.
Ian: You will never see Nation of Ulysses getting back together any time soon. We will never cash in. We don’t need to prove anything.