Mark Twain famously encouraged young scribes to “write what you know.” Apparently, author Ian Svenonius took note. In his latest book, the D.C. singer for iconic punk-rock groups like Make-Up, Nation of Ulysses, and Weird War outlines his Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group — a subject he knows well after more than 25 years of professional music making. The collection of essays touches on everything from starting a band to surviving life on the road, and its guidelines are delivered with the sharp, tight, and well-versed writing that we’ve come to expect from Svenonius in all modes.
This Wednesday, January 8, Svenonius returns to the Biko Co-op Garage as the frontman for Chain & The Gang, a punk-indebted band that combines prison blues, free jazz, and ’50s girl-group vocals with the singer’s famously clever, politically charged, and in-your-face lyrics. For the uninitiated, trust us when we say it’s one of the best live shows you’ll ever see. Below, we catch up with Svenonius via email to discuss music etymology, filmmaking, and writing for the future generation of rock ’n’ rollers.
You’ve talked a bit about how Chain & The Gang is rooted in, or spun off of, the ’50s girl-group model. In your mind, is there a definitive difference between a “group” and a “band”? The term “group” was in favor through the ’60s and ’70s until punk rockers began insisting on the “band” moniker. Punk appeared at a time when rock had become institutionalized, corporate, and respectable, hence the punkers’ fixation on the word “band,” a term which sounds more outlaw and amateur.
So, where does Chain & The Gang fall into that worldview? It’s more of an organization.
Can you tell me a bit about the experience recording Chain & The Gangs’ latest album, In Cool Blood? Did you have certain goals going in? How did Calvin Johnson’s presence factor into the finished product? All the first three Chain & The Gang records were recorded at Calvin’s Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia. Calvin is a very hands-off producer; he’s more of a recordist. He’s interested in creating an environment that allows for spontaneity in the studio. That was good because we were trying to work fast, off the cuff, partially ad lib. That is the mode of production for Chain & The Gang. We are trying to record songs when they’re in a gestural form, like the first telling of a joke or story. In Cool Blood is mostly Brett [Lyman] on guitar, Fiona [Campbell] on drums, Chris Sutton on bass guitar, and Katie Alice [Greer] on vox, but it also features Fred Thomas, Brian Weber, and some other people on a few songs.
How did the experience compare to making Music’s Not for Everyone and Down with Liberty? The first two LPs were made over a longer period with a larger cast of people.
What does the touring lineup for Chain & The Gang look like nowadays? Formidable; Madie M. on drums, Francy [Graham] on guitar, Laurie [Spector] playing bass, Betsy [Wright] on organ. Laurie and Francy also play in D.C. band Dudes, and Betsy plays in Ex Hex.
You have a very distinctly intense stage presence. How do you approach the performance side of music making? Chain & The Gang wants to entertain, connect, and communicate while onstage, instead of merely reciting songs. Every show is another chance at making that happen.
I want to know a little bit about the book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group. How and when did the idea for this thing start to coalesce? With all these rock camps starting that were teaching kids useful information about starting a group, I wanted to make a how-to manual full of the things the camps might leave out; the less practical things. The useless information. Bands aren’t just practical exercises after all.
If you were 15 in December 2013, do you think music would still be your life pursuit? Yes. It’s the most exciting thing and there are so many interesting groups now.
What are your goals/hopes/dreams/plans for the New Year? I want to make a new film. I directed a sci-fi documentary film this year called What Is a Group? starring Katie Alice Greer from Chain & The Gang and Priests, Mary Timony from Ex Hex, and Kid Congo Powers from Pink Monkey Birds, among others. I want to continue with that form of storytelling.
Chain & The Gang plays an all-ages show at the Biko Co-op Garage (6612 Sueno Rd., Isla Vista) on Wednesday, January 8, at 7:30 p.m. The Shivas and The Trashberries open. Visit sbdiy.org for info.