Ian Svenonius: 'A band is about an ideology, a way of life, an aesthetic'

The former Nation Of Ulysses and Make-Up man is back with Chain And The Gang, and a new manifesto for survival in the internet age

If you think it's "all about the music", you haven't been listening properly. No one understands this better than Ian Svenonius. Since his Washington DC noise-punk outfit Nation Of Ulysses declared themselves a political party in 1988, this eminent rock theorist has led a succession of inspired and inspiring groups, including rabble-rousing gospel-rockers the Make-Up and psychedelic firebrands Weird War, each of them armed with a manifesto. The latest are garage-pop primitivists Chain And The Gang, and they're here to lead us out of the current "crisis of rock'n'roll".

Chain And The Gang have their roots in the modernist art movement of the early 20th century, explains Svenonius, his oratory permanently set to arch. "Rock'n'roll is an outgrowth of that, and the idea that art should be an antidote to the cataclysmic upheaval caused by the industrial revolution or whatever," he says. "It's like another version of revolutionary activity: art as a political movement."

The Nation Of Ulysses took their cues from the 1909 futurist manifesto of Italian artist Filippo Marinetti and a disparate set of bands united by a similar sense of purpose: Dexys Midnight Runners, Public Enemy and Laibach. "They had that idea of total dissonance and absolute sacrifice. That was what Nation of Ulysses was – an absolute experience."

All of which is more important than the music? "Well, we all love music," he sighs, "but for the sake of making a group, it might not be very important. The Grateful Dead or Black Flag, those groups' importance has very little to do with their recorded output. It's about an ideology, a way of life, an aesthetic. And that can be pretty much anything: with Black Flag, it means misanthropy, hard work, masochistic dedication, existential outlook, cynicism but also total release. If you look at the Beatles, the paradigm group, it's this kind of anarchic boyhood." His own bands have each had a different mission, too. The Make-Up was inspired by "sermons and that total abandon engendered by religious music, and the social role that that fulfils". With Chain And The Gang, it's all about the idea of the group as a descendant of the street gang. "We're trying to create something that's bigger than a group and because it has this more fluid form, the music is very primitive. It's like an instant party, or brush painting, or field recordings."

Any group that wants to mean anything has to be united and actively looking for recruits: "The gang wants loyalty, it wants attention, and it wants to be singularly important. And it's a challenge." Svenonius admits that it's a big ask in the internet age: "How can a group engender that kind of loyalty and support when there's so many stimuli. You're not going to be a teddy boy because you're going to be online in this community of foot fetishists or whatever. At one point, you bought records as signifiers of your devotion. Now you just click 'like' and proclaim your momentary admiration." His latest manifesto, then, is a vital call to action – or at least to caring. "Yes!" he thunders. "Rock'n'roll was never supposed to be like television!" •

Chain And The Gang are touring the UK; they play The Kazimier, Liverpool, 27 May; Broadcast Glasgow, 28 May; Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 29 May; Tufnell Park Dome, NW5, 30 May

Contributor

James Medd

The GuardianTramp

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