Rock & roll grad school
Ian Svenonius brandishes punk-rock intellectualism in The Psychic Soviet.
Depending on whom you talk to, Ian Svenonius is a groundbreaking musician (his bands, past and present, include Weird War, Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up), a pretentious academic or a wily provocateur. He’s all three in his new book, The Psychic Soviet (Drag City, $13.99), a collection of 19 essays on post–Cold War politics, the eugenics of Dracula, and why, without rock & roll, England would be just another Portugal.
Punk is pretty mainstream now. How does that reflect the climate?
The corporations have kind of demolished underground music, and they did it in a really systematic way through the ’90s. They made a couple people millionaires and they dangled that promise that anyone can. So everybody thinks they have a stake in the system. That’s the big difference because, when I was growing up and making music, nobody had an illusion that you could actually be a celebrity or make a million dollars. And now that is an actual possibility. It’s weird.
But you have a level of celebrity.
That’s like saying all my friends are vegetarians, but really it’s less than 1 percent of the population of the United States. We are all famous in a few rooms, and that’s awesome. I love being famous in those few rooms and I love the people who inhabit those rooms, but if you look at the culture as a whole, people like us because we live in the utopian ghetto.
In “The Mixmaster Race” you talk about the DJ as star.
That’s a new development in the culture. It mirrors the way the culture is postindustrial, and that manufacturing is no longer as heroic as it was in the industrial age. Before, the manufacturer was like the captain of industry. Now…they play with other people’s labor, they speculate, and that’s really what a DJ is. So basically the DJ is the heroic exponent of the modern way of making money, now that industry has all been exported to China.
Do people argue with you about the place of a DJ?
I am a DJ, so people can’t get too offended. That’s how I actually make money most of the time. That’s the thing—people can’t be too offended, because I am a rock & roll worker.
How seriously do you think people should take the book?
This is something that I deal with a lot. People in America are so binary. They think that if something’s funny that it’s not serious. If you can manage to be funny, that doesn’t mean that things don’t mean anything. I’m sure Thomas Jefferson told some jokes.
Why did you decide to go with hot pink for the book cover?
There could really only be one color for the book, and it had to be hot pink. It was modeled on The Little Red Book stylistically. It couldn’t be red, so it had to be pink. Pink was rock & roll, but it was also commie—because commies are called “pinkos.”
Punk’s pretty different from when you started making music. The kids who are into mall emo don’t have a DIY ethic.
I meet kids like that all the time—and some of them are just so incredible and smart—but I just can’t believe what passes. When I was a kid, these bands would have been laughingstocks. It’s all about business—they’re really proud about being self-made marketing geniuses. It’s like they go to business school and the band is just one thing you can do: career option D. ?I don’t know if a band is a viable vehicle for expressing ideas anymore.
I think it just depends on how you go about it.
The Internet changed everything. Now I sound like the old fogy that I didn’t want to sound like…. So have I been pretentious enough for you?
The Psychic Soviet is out now.