In January 2013 Svenonius visited Candela Books + Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, and held a seance to illustrate the points outlined in the book. Before he can get going, however, he is interrupted by a “protest” organized by the UFLRSA, that is, the United Federation of Living Rock Stars of America, whose attorneys reads a statement focusing on the unfair treatment toward the working rock and roll stars of today who happen to suffer the unfortunate fate of being alive.
In what proved to be a highly scripted turn of events, Svenonius proposes a seance to bridge the differences between the living and the dead. But he has no candles, which everyone knows are required for a seance. Candles are duly produced.
In short order four volunteers are seated around a table asking questions of, in order, Paul McCartney (the hoax was true!), Little Richard (alive then, alive now), Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison, who offer useful advice to would-be rock superstars such as “it helps to be British” and “manufacture nostalgia.”
A group is a music factory who comprise a kind of heroic clown role in the culture… oftentimes consisting of indigent or underclass individuals. The group members’ highly specific job functions and task compartmentalization indirectly reflect its post-industrial imperialist origins.
Via the blog of Glen E. Friedman—the superb photographer who amply documented the fertile Washington, D.C. hardcore and indie scenes—comes the marvelously odd film What is a Group? by Ian Svenonius. Svenonius first became notorious in the early ’90s; to civilians as Sassy magazine’s “Sassiest Boy in America,” and to underground cognoscenti as the singer/figurehead of the Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, the Make-Up, Scene Creamers, Weird War, Chain and the Gang…I’m probably forgetting one or two.
The film is a dryly odd collage of band photos and music performances tied together with the narrative device of two aliens, played by Katie Alice Greer and Daniele Yandel of the excellent D.C. punk band Priests, observing planet Earth and discussing rock band anthropology and the music-making process. The themes touched upon echo some of Svenonius’ writing in his books The Psychic Soviet, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘N’ Roll Group, and Censorship Now!!, specifically the ideas about music culture as a pseudoreligious control mechanism and the ways in which the rock writing process mirrors industrial production—much of Svenonius’ thinking on these matters is directly inspired both by old-school Marxist class critique and Situationism, and those same extra-musical obsessions heavily informed the ethos of The Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up. And really, for all his bands’ relentless schtickiness, Svenonius is one of indie rock’s sharpest and most compelling thinkers about music’s role in culture. If you’re unfamiliar with his Soft Focus interview series, you should find those on YouTube, it’s quite good stuff.
The dialogue replacement and sound sync in What is a Group are done with about zero regard for actual synchronization (Greer and Yandel are entirely re-voiced throughout), which gives the whole affair a stilted and uneasy feel that goes beyond mere cheapness. Greer seems to function as Svenonius’ author avatar, expounding on the role of the recording engineer, the construction of songs, the social status of musicians, the glamorization of social alienation… you know, rock ’n’ roll shit. Astute trainspotters will recognize Cramps/Bad Seeds guitarist Kid Congo Powers, the Make-Up’s Michelle Mae, and Helium/Ex Hex’s Mary Timony.
IAN SVENONIUS’S EXPERIENCE AS AN ICONIC underground rock musician—playing in such highly influential and revolutionary outfits as The Make-Up and The Nation of Ulysses—gives him special insight on techniques for not only starting but also surviving a rock ‘n’ roll group. Therefore, he’s written an instructional guide, which doubles as a warning device, a philosophical text, an exercise in terror, an aerobics manual, and a coloring book.
THIS VOLUME FEATURES ESSAYS ON EVERYTHING the would-be star should know to get started, such as Sex, Drugs, Sound, Group Photo, The Van, and Manufacturing Nostalgia. The book will also have black-and-white illustrations. Supernatural Strategies will serve as an indispensable guide for a new generation just aching to boogie.
You can order Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group: a how-to guide at Akashic Books.
There was a time when Nation of Ulysses was the most influential underground rock band in the world. It may not have been for a very long time, and it may have been 20 years ago, before Nirvana took punk aesthetics into the heart of the mainstream, but for a while it seemed like everyone who heard or saw this band just couldn’t shut up about them. It’s not hard to see why Nation of Ulysses drew such cultish adulation - they were always about much more than being a simple band. They had a defined visual aesthetic that drew more from jazz and Soviet art than hardcore. They spoke politics. They worse suits. They described themselves in statements that by today’s standards would spell career suicide for a rock band:
We’re not only a political party, but also a terrorist group. The imperative started with the recognition of the colonialization of youth culture by youth imperialists and the establishment. It was initially formed as a response to that, but now we’ve broadened our breadth to encompass a complete destruction of the American legacy. We understand the workings of oppressions big and small.
At the time [they formed] was Ulysses Speaks your primary medium?
Yeah, we were mostly just proliferating literature and bombing buildings, and then we realized the medium of noise not only creates a perfect cover for our organization but it also creates a camouflage for maniacal riotous behavior and provides a context for acting like an idiot and going beyond the structures of everyday behavioral codes. When you see a show, everybody is jumping up and down screaming—if it’s good—and that’s because they’ve been allowed to step outside the boundaries of regular behavior. We want to go one step further. It’s absurd behavior—dancing is incredibly absurd—and we want to take that one step beyond, and that’s why we have so much violence on stage; we’re trying to bring it to the next level. We’re fighting a war there in the room…the room that we took over.
Since you began this mission, have you become more optimistic that you can effectively utilize the facade of populist entertainment to convey the party message?
Yeah…our message is visual, it’s aural, and it’s olfactory. Our message couldn’t be progenitated properly just with sound. We see the whole idea of music as a sound phenomena as really bogus and an idea which has only taken root since the proliferation version of recorded medium, like records. Before then, nobody would have ever thought, “this is only attacking my ears”, because there’s always a visual side to that whole phenomenon. We’re into the true experience, and that’s why the whole idea of music has really aligned us. What we’re wearing on stage and the way we move on stage has just as much to do with the idea that we’re getting across as the sound that we’re putting forth.
Have you been able to stir up as much antagonism as you might have hoped for?
Yeah, you know - the old order; people who sense the dissolution and the proliferatrion of new ideas. There’s a Kill Ulysses conspiracy - It’s called the Kill Ulysses National Workers Socialist Party; they’re just trying to destroy us. Rock and Roll is trying to destroy us.
From The New Puritan ReView, 1991 - read the whole interview here.
Still, for all the word-of-mouth hype that surrounded Nation of Ulysses in their brief but dazzling career, for kids like me who lived in the sticks their music was harder to come across than hen’s teeth - another situation that seems impossible by today’s standards. Back in the days when you had to travel to a big city and visit a specialist record shop in the hope of picking up an import 7”, it was easier to find releases by Ulysses’ UK adherents like Huggy Bear than it was the band’s own originals. Thankfully, the hardcore NoU fan base still exists and has been doing a pretty good job of disseminating footage and material on the internet, ensuring the band’s legacy will live on and attract more fans. Sure, Nation of Ulysses weren’t the first punk act to adhere to hardcore left-wing politics, or to have a well defined look and outlook, but no-one did it with this much goddam style:
Nation of Ulysses “Introduction/Spectra Sonic Sound” live 1991
OK, so the audio quality in that clip was pretty poor, but it gives you an idea of what their shows were like. Plus, I do love that washed out, third-generation VHS-copy look. Here’s another clip of NoU live from 1991 (minus suits):
Nation of Ulysses “A Comment on Ritual” live 9:30 Club, 1991
You can now buy the Nation of Ulysses back catalog direct from Dischord.
After the jump, even better quality footage of NoU live in DC circa 1991, including a further 30 minutes of that 9:30 Club show above (in color)…
Regardless of what you think of his music, it can’t be denied that Andrew WK gives great interviews. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is the most articulate, erudite Wayne Campbell look-a-like in modern music. Any guest spot he’s on is worth a watch, there’s generally at least one nugget of pure wisdom in there.
I remember growing up reading interviews with bands I though were seriously cool, and how the proclamations and sound bites they would deliver regarding culture and (sometimes) politics would make them seem even cooler. Only later did I learn how much editing and re-writing goes into the process of music journalism. Oh. So they probably made it up? Not Andrew WK. No, this is how he actually talks.
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding this guy (is he who he says he is? is he just a corporate puppet?) and I have to admit that at first I was suckered into thinking he was another airhead with nothing to offer but nosebleeds and puke buckets. But alas, I was wrong. This episode of Rehersal Space is a good introduction to the Andrew WK dichotomy (onstage animal/offstage intellectual). It really gets going around 4:30, when Andrew starts talking about the physical, emotional and mental (even psychic?!) response to pop music:
This interview is how I discovered the magic of Andrew WK’s mouth and mind. I’m a big fan of Ian Svenonius (frontman of Weird War/The Make Up/Nation of Ulysses, equally as articulate as W.K. if a bit more oblique) and his Soft Focus interview series. I had already watched the episodes with Genesis P Orridge, Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye, and thought I would give this one a whirl. Needless to say I was entranced by the wit and wisdom of WK (as was Svenonius who, not quite speechless, was genuinely impressed). WK’s seemingly off the cuff answer to “what is a party to you?” at around 19 minutes will have you picking your jaw up off the floor.
After the jump: Andrew WK gets a make-over at Bloomingdales! Andrew WK talks to Lee Scratch Perry! Andrew WK interviewed by a four year old! AND Andrew WK gives the best one word response in an interview EVER…
Richard, if you ever get the chance to interview this guy, then please do!