I recently had a chance to talk to Ian Svenonius of the Make-Up, who have just released a CD collection of 7-inch singles and compilation-only tracks. The new album is amazing, and so is Ian. Anyone who is into music can appreciate this band. Go get their records and go see them on tour. You won’t (or at least shouldn’t) regret it.
Just to get this out of the way, why do think people seem to reference the Make Up to Prince and James Brown?
Ian Svenonius : I think it’s more about the way we perform than how we sound that they’re referring to. We don’t sound like Prince.
Do you like Prince?
Well, everybody loves Prince. He’s great, what can you do?
If I were forced to compare you to anyone else, I would have to say that I hear a little Smokey Robinson in your vocals, and maybe the way things sound and are recorded are like old Motown or Phil Spector type production. Like maybe 4 or 8-track recorded and a tighter overall sound.
It’s funny that you said that, because it was a big thing for the band to try to bring that into our music. We record all that stuff on 8-track in the basement, but not to be referential to the past. We just like that tight sound, like the old Smokey records that sound so compressed, and we try to keep strong song structure because that’s always been a concern for our group.
You also did a completely improvised album, though?
Yeah, we did. We like to keep it way more open-ended live than on record, but for that one, we just wanted to try it out. I think it turned out well. We like spontaneity. Just seeing where things go.
Most bands can’t handle that kind of spontaneity. They do they same set every night and say the same things between songs. It’s like it’s choreographed.
It’s weird. It’s like there’s so much pretension on stage that they don’t let down their armor. It’s almost like all this sound and all this volume is armor for the performer. Like there’s a fear of being exposed by inviting the audience in.
That’s what I really liked about the whole hardcore scene, that sense of community. How good a show was depended on how everybody there interacted, as much as it was about how the band played. You could be up there going off, but if the crowd was weak, then it wasn’t as good.
The community thing has always existed in this underground music. It’s really for a specific audience that typically are alienated by the entertainment industry, which includes records, films…You have to address that particular community. I grew up down the street from this big church, and one thing that always impressed me was the kind of freeform and really topical in the sense that they always speak about things that are really current. You’ve also got this current underneath it all.
The rhythm and momentum building up, the call and response…
EXACTLY! That’s addressing a particular audience. All these shows and rituals that we go to must be serving a purpose right? And it’s good to address that purpose that they serve, which is to make people feel like they’re not totally insane in the world we live in, which is really geared toward conspicuous consumption, and where there’s kind of a media lockdown on real information. So I think it’s really important for communities to exist.
Everything has to fit into a demographic that will appeal to a huge amount of people before it is supported by corporations, such as record companies.
Exactly! How many times have you seen a group that’s signed to a major label and they sort of loose anything that’s unique about them? They become assimilated into this mass of garbage, and that’s because they’re gearing themselves to some imaginary audience, when in reality people respond to that kind of individual vision. You know what I mean? The so-called mainstream doesn’t even exist. So it’s a really patronizing idea that Hollywood propagates. like “there’s mainstream, and you have to appeal to these people, and Meg Ryan will appeal to your typical 25 year old…”
It’s all contrived and packaged for the different demographics.
Exactly. All these demographics are so patronizing and condescending that it’s just bullshit. They assume people are retarded. People aren’t as stupid as they think.
Originally, you didn’t even want to use guitars in this band, did you?
Yeah, exactly. Our original idea, after we (Steve, James, and myself) ended Nation of Ulysses was going to be percussion, organ, and bass, of course. What we didn’t want were things to be saturated in so much noise that there couldn’t be any real communication. There’s kind of this forced volume in rock & roll, and it’s forced through PA systems. Like you go to a club and you’re just being blown away, and it’s become industry standard. All the guitar players wanted the same kind of amp that their hero used. We play tiny rooms sometimes where there is this giant PA system blowing everyone’s ears off. So our response was to try and bring it down some. Songs like “Free Arthur Lee” are really skeletal. You can use volume, but it’s only powerful contextually. It’s all about dynamics.
Take away the volume and some bands have nothing there.
If you’re trying not to make a concert room feel like a fishbowl or a really alienated, surreal atmosphere, you just can’t have it that loud. I mean, we’re loud sometimes, but I like to think of it as a dynamic.
You mentioned Arthur Lee, are you a big Love fan?
Yeah. Yeah we’re big fans of Love, but also Arthur Lee is like a symbol of somebody who’s stuck in a really gross penal system. The American penal system is a huge growth industry, and it’s privatized, of course, so it’s to the benefit of the prison system to have harsher laws and more prisoners. If you look at the crime, it’s really a travesty.
More prisoners equal more prisons, which equals more contracts to build more prisons. They sure don’t mind the money they get to keep building these places.
A lot of these minor offenders that are being thrown through the system tend to be really poor.
Which means they don’t have they money to defend themselves.
Yeah. It’s disgusting.
If you were to take a middle class kid and a poor black kid and they commit the same crime, chances are that the white kid gets an easier punishment, or even gets off, because he can afford representation. That’s really what determines the punishment. Depending on if you can afford a lawyer helps, but if you don’t have the money for it, you get appointed whatever that state gives you, and that’s it.
Perspective that is afforded through money. Poor people don’t have that.
So, you’ve been in DC for a while. DC has always been very creative scene, yet different than the NY scene or LA scene. Why do you think the DC scene has been so different from whatever else was going on outside of DC, in terms of musical styles?
It’s weird. In the ’80s, there was this idea of localized music as opposed to just centralized. Such as referring to NY or whatever. Back then, a lot of people weren’t big on touring, and because of that, they had to stay interesting to a small group of people. Like a lot of the famous bands from here never toured. The influence is more from a lot of the records, as opposed to their live shows.
Embrace and Rites of Spring only played a handful of shows. Embrace never even toured.
All these bands that DC built its reputation [on], they really only lasted for around a season, or like 20 shows.
There is also the misconception that DC’s sound is only Minor Threat and Fugazi, when DC actually has a long history of eclectic styles. Like psycho, garage, weird surf music, go-go…
Go-go’s still really strong, it just basically… they tried to break into a new audience in the ’80s, and it didn’t work, so it went back underground. Most black kids here that start groups start go-go bands, not hip hop. Although go-go does incorporate a lot of the hip-hop style of rapping and Jamaican stuff.
Is Trouble Funk still around?
I think they’ve kind of split into a bunch of groups. These groups now are really young, and there [are] a lot of them. They’re no longer like the soul review thing like Trouble Funk was. When Trouble Funk was around, the groups were kind of an outgrowth of the big funk orchestras. They have a timbale, a drummer, bass, guitar, horn section, organist, and a synth player with the kind of call and response songs. Now they’re stripped down. It’s a total reaction response to hip hop, where it will just be a drummer/percussionist and a guy playing samples with a few singers. It’s way more hardcore, really, less soul arrangements, less complex. It’s really mean sounding and way tougher, more street. And again, it’s like a response to all the violent macho pose in hip hop.
Royal Trux produced “In Mass Mind” for you. How did you like working with them?
It was cool.
Are you a fan of Pussy Galore?
I’m not a big Pussy Galore fan. I think they’re over-rated. I prefer Neil’s stuff in Royal Trux.
Yeah. I think what they were trying to do was cool, but if you take it out of that context and base it solely on what they did musically, it’s over-rated.
It’s almost as if they were given this legendary status because they looked cool, and now it’s a cool reference to drop.
So, why all the singles instead of full length releases?
It’s just easier to focus on the songs on a single, as opposed to all the songs that go into a full length. People offer to put out singles, and we try to fulfill those obligations. Actually, we’re making a full length right now that I’m really excited about. I think the problem with the CD format is that they’re too long. They’re kind of unlistenable. Sammy Davis said “the first rule of show biz is to leave them wanting more.” That’s why the 40-minute format of an LP was so nice.
Now, with 74 minutes on a CD to fill up, you know that there’s going to be some filler.
Especially for an independent group. You typically get three to five days to make a record. So you get really focused on all these songs you have to come up with. I think the answer is to make an eight song record. Like the Stooges records. They’re great records, all under eight songs. No filler and you’re left wanting more.
People try to fill up CDs, so they have to come up with more songs, which is the wrong motivation for writing songs.
Yeah. It just doesn’t force them to screen themselves, basically. That’s a real “artist” idea, you know, like everything you touch is gold. This idea that what you do is inherently gold, well it’s such bullshit. It doesn’t apply to anybody. All these CD reissues with like every take and demo that the Velvet Underground cut is just indulgent. It’s sad. When you used to make a record, it was tight, but not anymore.
Now the main concern is how many singles and videos. How many “units” can they sell.
Like videos. MTV allows 6 to 7 a month to breakt hrough and each one cost an incredible amount of money. This is a big part of how they exclude people. They make production costs so high that unless you play with the big boys, you’ll never have a chance. To make a film, the cost is insane. The big studios destroyed all competition just by having production costs so high. You have to spend a lot of money to get it out there. So it really is kind of monopolized by a tiny cadre.
Now, when a film is being made, they want to know what “hot” artist they can put on the soundtrack, and what music video they can use with movie footage in.
And that’s the worst reason to make films and music.
So, are you guys going to tour?
We’re actually on tour now.
I hope you come to Florida.
We’re going to try.