Ian Svenonius asks: How should a rock band be?

Underground icon's second book answers rock's existential questions

Tuesday May 7, 2013 09:45 am EDT

About one-third the way into Ian Svenonius' second book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group, he implies a serious question: Why even bother starting a rock 'n' roll group anymore?

Svenonius argues that the goals most commonly associated with rock 'n' roll success — fame, money, sex — actually come quite easier in other professions. Rock notoriety is fickle and paltry in comparison to the lasting historical impact of a political figure. Ask someone living in Northern Iraq or Pakistan about Keith Richards and the chances that they give a shit are slim, but ask them about Donald Rumsfeld and you'll find out what true fame is. Politics don't require talent or good looks, Svenonius reminds us. If you're looking for money, the traditional, stable practices like medicine and law offer far more reliable odds. Speaking of money, if you're looking for carnal knowledge, the stability (and luxury cotton sheets and fine automobiles) that accompanies wealth can do wonders to attract a fair mate or two.

For the few who believe they're starting a rock band to make a sound they've heard and loved before, Svenonius reminds them that we have recorded music for a reason.

This logic leads Svenonius to determine that "the rock 'n' roll group is the ideal medium" only if your ambitions tend toward "some kind of social, aesthetic, or political goal." That's it. Nothing else. Not for money, fame, or sex, and least of all for music should a rock 'n' roll group be formed. It is fair to assume that many (perhaps most) people may disagree. The difference is that few people understand rock 'n' roll in the way that Svenonius does. He has an odd rock pedigree. His two best-known bands, Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up, were never successful in terms of record sales or selling out large venues. They were, on the other hand, deeply influential for a number of musicians and fans.

The impact of his style has probably never been more apparent than when Refused and At the Drive-In, two bands who unabashedly stole from the Svenonius vision, reunited in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at Coachella last year. The affected nods to Marxist politics, the thin, spastic, charismatic frontman, and the heavy black mod bangs were recreated to such an exacting degree that, in a just world, Svenonius would have gotten a sizable cut of those reunion checks.

Since the dissolution of the Make-Up, he's taken a variety of hosting gigs — a talk show for an early incarnation of Vice's television brand and a cruise-ship garage band festival — that bank on his understood relevance without being gauche about it. His previous book, The Psychic Soviet, collected occasional magazine writing typified (and often derailed) by a prose style that assumes you think academia is as hip as the history of DIY punk and care about the tangent that Svenonius would like to lead you down. Svenonius' ambitions have never been evenly matched to his talents. He is not what you would call a "born writer." But if there was a rock 'n' roll high school, Svenonius should be teaching the senior seminar.

Though his style hasn't changed much, Supernatural Strategies is something different. It is a labored, philosophical investigation of rock 'n' roll that is unabashed about rewriting history or speaking frankly about topics that usually get the wishy-washy treatment of rock mysticism. His conclusions range from deeply cynical tips ("Predicting drugs trends could be an enormous asset for a group, akin to a stock broker knowing how to play market effectively.") to theatrical imitations of academic insight ("The rock 'n' roll group would be the coup de grace in seducing the globe to a US-made capitalist hegemony.").

How seriously should you take any of this? Hard to say. Svenonius couches his book into a cheeky frame that claims these insights come from séances with the ghosts of rock 'n' roll history — Brian Jones, Richard Berry, Jimi Hendrix, etc. This keeps him from having to commit to anything he says; the reader could take it all as stylish posturing and in-jokes. If you can get past that, you'll find that Svenonius actually has plenty to say. He rewrites the birth of rock 'n' roll in terms of conspiracy-minded 20th century geo-politics. His tips on performance, recording, nostalgia, and abstention from sex ("Eros must be saved for the audience") are as funny as they are fundamentally correct. True to the aforementioned question, Svenonius' advice always tends toward creating a lasting aesthetic vision. Music is rarely mentioned. Enterprising young groups might do well to pay attention to Svenonius' book. Steal enough from it and you might find your group reuniting at Coachella in a decade or so.

Supernatural Strategies for making a Rock 'n' Roll Group by Ian Svenonius. Akashic Books. $14.95. 200 pp.

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