Ian Svenonius, the singer for Washington, D.C.'s Weird War, is a sort of Baudrillard of rock, blending Marxist theory, CIA conspiracy and his own keen intellect to get at the heart of the matter: Just what is this rock 'n' roll?
"... (P)eople just kind of are beholden to ideas like 'rock and roll is rebellion' or the origins of punk that are false histories. I love rock and roll, and that's why I'm involved with it; it's been my life. But at the same time, I think that people should really understand its political use, and then they can realize its real power," he says, while sipping coffee during a recent phone call. He's been working on a book, The Psychic Soviet, that addresses some of rock's problems. "I feel like people who are in bands, it's almost like they are people who work in a bomb factory who think they're making pencils. They're totally oblivious to their role in the culture. It's because of all the misinformation, the fake history; they're living out a fake narrative."
Svenonius, whose underground bona fides include fronting the spastic agitprop sextet The Nation of Ulysses and singing tortured, revolutionary falsetto as the leader of The Make-Up, has always been a gifted mythmaker. He created artfully incendiary manifestoes for NOU that referenced radicals like the Weather Underground, and invented a style he dubbed "Gospel Yeh-Yeh" for the Make-Up as a sexy way to stick it to the pigs. Weird War, his current band, is an extension and refinement of his sly inclination to play around with the rock mythos. There is a certain Svenonian irony, then, to the fact that the group had to change its name from Scene Creamers after they lost a legal dispute with a group of French graffiti artists also called "Scene Creamers." Reality, in this instance, outpaced Svenonius' ability to mess with it.
Made up of guitarist Alex Minoff (formerly of Golden), bassist Michelle Mae (The Make-Up), Svenonius, and now drummer Sebastian Thomson (who concurrently plays with Trans Am), Weird War is somewhat hard to pin down--contextually political without always being explicitly so; mostly danceable without being a party band; a garage band sans garage. "I think that Alan Greenspan is the father of electroclash," Svenonius says wryly, and with a chuckle. "He's the guy controlling interest rates and the real estate boom ... . It's no longer affordable to rent a house or a basement or a garage. So if you think about the terminology of groups, basement group, garage band, basement show, even a group just practicing somewhere--these are predicated on property. So the whole thing of these psych-folk bands, the so-called folk movement that's going on now, it's very singular, and so is electroclash, which is just somebody in their bedroom."
This particular mélange of ideas is typical of Svenonius, using humor to tie culture to political circumstance in unexpected ways, never letting on how serious he is or isn't. In another instance, he alludes to the CIA's funding of art magazines and the abstract expressionist movement. "They were promulgating apolitical modern art that was basically co-opting political, European avant-garde tradition and making it specifically apolitical," he says, which seems like the hoariest of conspiracy theories, except that there's a large body of evidence to support it. You couldn't make up some of the absurd shit the CIA tried during the Cold War (exploding cigars, anyone?), and it's in this bizarre netherworld of power, culture, conspiracy and revolution that Svenonius feels most at home.
Echoing the intentional co-optation by the CIA to exert control over political expression by excluding it, Nike (and many, many corporations before it) recently co-opted a Minor Threat album cover for a skateboard tour poster. "It's so weird, since everything's been co-opted, and since Nike's such an exploitative corporation, that they feel the need to apologize about ripping off Minor Threat. How weird. What the fuck is that?" Svenonius snorts. "Maybe the whole thing was kind of like theater, in the sense of, 'Maybe we should make this ad, and then we'll apologize for the whole thing!' to show how sensitive they are. It's funny, though, how at this point, like, what hasn't been exploited? Like Che Guevara is appropriated everywhere in an obscene way, but Minor Threat is more holy than Che." Seemingly, the Nike appropriation was an attempt to cultivate Dischord/Minor Threat's anti-consumerist cool by overt association with it, but in the bigger picture, this type of co-optation is no different than the aforementioned efforts by the CIA, because the ultimate goal of corporations like Nike is to make everything a consumer commodity; ultimately, therefore, apolitical as well.
Preferring to work as spontaneously as possible, Svenonius and Weird War don't like to enter the studio with more than outlines of a song. "Making a good record is just a matter of luck, really. It has little to do with pre-planning. It ends up the way that it does, I think. At least for us, because when we make a record, we want it to be a process of invention. We never know what we're doing, and that's so we can maintain a kind of freshness or a sense of play. So like, reciting your work in a studio, it's almost like a joke that's been told too many times. The life can be sucked out of a song."
The buzzy soul-funk of Weird War's latest, Illuminated by the Light (the title doesn't allude to the Illuminati, but is instead meant to be a little joke of redundancy, according to Svenonius), is lighthearted as a reaction to their last album. "Well, we're trying to be more positive," Svenonius says, "because last year, we put out If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em, which is, you know, a pretty negative record. It was pretty angry about the war, so we thought we'd make a more positive record, share our lighter side. I don't know why, but I think it was personally a conscious effort to be a little less mired in the helplessness." This is why a song entitled "Destination: Dogfood" is actually somewhat hopeful--it all depends on outlook.
Touring through the South and West in July is never a great idea, but Weird War are doing just that, in a van that doesn't have air-conditioning, bringing them to Tucson next week, something that Svenonius purports to be excited about. (The Weekly suspects he's just playing to his audience.) We end on the obligatory dis' of our northern neighbor. "Tucson's pretty cool, I gotta say. I'm always into it when I go there. It's a pretty special place. Especially compared to Phoenix."