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An Ultimatum for Planet Rock

We talk with the musician and writer Ian Svenonius about rock, censorship and his sci-fi r'n'r documentary “What Is a Group?”
Elías MV
The leader of a suburban guerilla masquerading as a punk band, the Marxist bastard son of James Brown, an advocate for censorship, a class philosopher, and a rock and roll theorist, Ian Svenonious’s career has been based on playing with the ambiguous and the unexpected. He recently came to Barcelona to present his new musical performance, Escape-Ism, and his debut film as a director What Is a Group?, a dissection of the reality of rock and roll that falls somewhere between ’50s rocker movies, Plan 9 from Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1969) and La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967).
IN-EDIT BEAT: One of the things that brings you here today is premiering What Is A Group?, which you define it as a "sci-fi rock and roll documentary film"…
IAN SVENONIUS: Yeah, well it’s the first of its kind. It’s a science fiction documentary about rock and roll. As well as being a science fiction film and a documentary about making a record, it’s also a classic rock and roll story of exploitation, like Expresso Bongo or one of these, you know, kind of cautionary tales… there’s a lot of them, it’s a genre, so I wanted to work within those three genres. And the film kinda features script, but we decided to make it thirty-three minutes long. Thirty-three and one third minutes, that’s how long it is because it’s about making a record, so to be conceptually pure that’s how we edited it. It was filmed in 16mm, and it’s only shown very rarely in special screenings. It’s like A Clockwork Orange in a way.
You’ve done some music journalism in the Noisey's Soft Focus show, now you’re making a rock and roll documentary, and specially in light of the making of the Salad Days documentary about the DC Punk scene you came up in, I wanted to ask you about the big resurgence in music documentaries during the past decade or so, which occasionally generates some controversy due to a certain ‘historical revisionism’ being implicit in the medium.
Yeah, I haven’t seen Salad Days. I discuss this in my new book Censorship Now!!, there’s a chapter just about documentaries and punk documentaries and how they seem… strange. I mean, a lot of them are good, a lot of them are my favorite films, but there’s this kind of mass rush to explain history, like all the participants of any event are rushing to explain themselves or to get these kind of celebrity endorsements. And yeah, it’s a little weird, specially because you have these underground movements relying on kind of the same format…that seems kind of fishy.
Ian Svenonius in Barcelona, getting into the Spanish election campaign.
Your first band was the Nation Of Ulysses which as odd and confusing as it was, was essentially a punk rock band. Your latest musical endeavor, Escape-Ism is a wildly different beast, but do you feel all your previous projects and specifically the often commented middle class, arty undercurrents in DC punk have been in a way leading up to where you are now?
You know, I don’t know. As far as DC being arty, DC has always been very diverse, you’ve got your Half Japanese, you’ve got your Teen Beat Records, 9353, Dischord, you’ve got the Slickee Boys… so it’s really got all kinds of different stuff. Then of course there’s Wino’s bands…you know, so for me there’s a certain amount of conceptual thinking about music there, so maybe that’s true. But how does Escape-Ism fit in all of this? I don’t know, it’s just me, that’s all. I can’t really say. My groups have all been different to each other in my mind, their intentions, their approach… In performance we always tried to do something different, so I’m just trying to do something else. But also, when you do something something new, you know how it is, you do it because you feel like ’oh well, I have to do this thing…’, because there’s a certain necessity, like this is what I want to see, this is the way i need to work…because of my situation. So obviously doing a solo act has its pros and cons, but Escape-Ism is very new, I don’t have a record or anything, it’s just a performance I’m doing.
Rock & roll versus cinema: how do you feel it compares, both as a consumer/spectator and as a creator? Have you found many kindred spirits working within this new medium as opposed to music?
I think that film and rock & roll in particular are very, very similar because they both kind of absorb everything. A film can use whatever it wants, and the celebrated filmmakers now, essentially they do pastiches of… Wes Anderson or Martin Scorsese. It’s a mixtape with a bunch of images and then people stealing moments from their favorite films, like Quentin Tarantino. So everything is a bit sampled and film, like rock & roll, uses theater, avant-garde…It can successfully incorporate anything that it wants, and that’s kind of the appeal of rock & roll too, that on a much less expensive level, it merges theatre, poetry, still image, interviews…So there’s all these different things that can be absorbed by the rock band. So yeah, I think that they’re very similar. As far as filmmakers, I don’t really know very many filmmakers, because film making seems like a very different kind of ‘scene’, and a different kind of person. It’s less of a ‘scene’, but maybe that’s just cause I’m not part of it. Maybe it is a scene, but I’m not part of the scene. Who knows.
About your books. How would you explain the main running theme behind Censorship Now!!, it being quite a heavy title? Do you feel the three books are somewhat part of a larger, cohesive work, instead of merely a collection of writings?
Yeah, it’s a trilogy like Lord of the Rings [laughs]. Yeah, I’m sure they’re linked. As far as Censorship Now!!, it’s an emotional argument, it’s not an intellectual argument, but it’s something that almost anyone can agree with. We’re being bombarded by media, by newspapers, politicians, radio, television, film, all these things are non-stop. In the USA if you go to a bar you’re typically surrounded by thirty-three flat screen televisions that are bombarding you with sports and politics. It’s incredibly oppressive, and not only that but the people who are making it aren’t culpable for the messages that they’re putting out there.
The internet. The internet should be censored. The radio should be censored. The newspapers, they start wars, they should be held accountable, and the politicians should be censored. The problem with censorship is that people hate it, they think it’s a dirty word because in the past the people who where in charge of censorship were the state, the church, authorities…but we need a people’s censorship. And my book hasn’t really explained exactly how we’re going to institute that, but first I want to redefine the idea of censorship. Redefine the idea that we should just be happy that we’re being…that we have all this pollution that’s constantly being sprayed at us from all quarters, you know what I mean? There’s got to be limits. And this ‘free speech’ paradigm is really false, is just kind of really false. Having lived through the internet age, we’re not getting a more democratic or balanced view of things, we’re just getting more and more propaganda. And people are very afraid to critique the idea of ‘total freedom’, nobody wants to be seen as old fashioned, because they associate these ideas with religious orthodoxy, or fascism, but it’s not fascism. You wouldn’t allow anybody the grocery stores to start selling poison to children, and that’s essentially what the radio and the newspapers do. We need some standards, essentially.
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock'n'Roll Group takes the form of a series of seances with dead rock stars, and also the notion censorship and a sort of autocratic notion of people taking the power, so I was wondering how you feel about this somewhat ‘occult revival’ taking place in pop culture lately, and if you think this could really be bringing about a paradigm shift in the statu quo, or if it’s merely postmodern gunk (and if there’s any difference between both).
I think people flee to magic when they feel confused and traumatized by the changes in society. You can see the same thing during the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century. People were very freaked out by the transformative aspect of industry and they way everything was changing. The people weren’t consulted. There’s this idea that progress is progress, and that it’s necessarily good, so everything that can be done is allowed, and you have a complete destruction of the family unit, the social unit. So people on every level of society were fleeing, doing seances and stuff like that. And it makes sense right now because we’re living in an era that’s at least as traumatizing. The things that are happening now are at least as profound as what happened a hundred years ago. And there’s a similar refusal to critique it.
Do you really think Paul is dead?
Me? No! [laughs] I don’t think Paul is dead, I saw him play live!