A sharp-dressing, fast-talking, Marxist soul brother, Ian Svenonius is one of the few outsized personas left in rock 'n' roll. Or so it seemed. The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated.
The frontman of the near-mythological Nation of Ulysses from the certifiably mythological Dischord Records/Washington, DC, hardcore scene, Svenonius has often appeared larger than life. Adding a haunted funk revival to radical politics he moved on to the Make-Up, a band that, with a few brilliant moments, often appeared better on the proverbial other side. Outside of performing with other (less notable) acts since 2001, Svenonius has earned a controversial and outspoken image. In 2006, he released a collection of essays, The Psychic Soviet, a pink-jacketed, pocket-sized wink toward Mao's The Little Red Book full of strange, nuanced looks at rock through politics. Svenonius also hosts Soft Focus on VBS.tv; there, in ornate locations like the Guggenheim, he interviews noted, often profound, reluctant, and/or canonical artists like Will Oldham, Cat Power, Penny Rimbaud, and Kevin Shields.
So when it came time for our interview I felt a stinging nervousness—be on your toes or he'll nail you to the wall. But it wasn't to be. Svenonius, the high-stepping radical, was a more subdued, affable person than I'd been led to believe. Over my short course in this business I've met a few far-out, eccentric musicians—those who fully exist inside the wildness of their art. Scorching soul brothers and sisters, the possible and probable kin of Sun Ra. Bad Brains' Darryl Jenifer, Sharon Jones, and our very own Arrington de Dionyso (who appears on Down with Liberty... Up with Chains!, Svenonius' new album under the moniker Chain and the Gang) come to mind. These types are beyond cultivating personas—they simply are.
On the topic of his own persona, Svenonius could not, or would not, speak to its creation or existence. We covered issues that seemed to be extensions of themes in his book, and while engaged, Svenonius was rarely forceful. He wavered, mulled ideas, and occasionally contradicted himself (enjoying struggle and feeling as an outsider, yet digging being part of the in-crowd, someone who Calvin Johnson calls up to make an album on a whim).
What it all suggests, to me at least, is that rather than just spouting off loud, radical-sounding ideas, Svenonius works diligently to get there. Strangely enough, deflating that socio-political-intellectual bubble somewhat made him easier to like. It is perhaps Svenonius' own off-hand self-description that best fits: "I'm like a tramp, you know. I just try to keep busy."
Which finally brings us to his newest album: Chain and the Gang's Down with Liberty... indeed spearheaded by a Calvin Johnson phone call and crafted with the loose, collaborative K Records stable. It's somewhat familiar territory for Svenonius—dark soul-garage vamps with paranoid, criminal, and political preach-speak leading the march—and it's his best work since the Make-Up. Raw, shambolic, and tuned up from a long tour, Chain and the Gang figure to pack a visceral stomp and crack. After all, one of the few pointed opinions Svenonius shared was that strong, engaging live performances have diminished over the years. Expect him to address the issue tonight.