Sharp Darts: The Why of Svenonius 

Talking to the D.C. punk provocateur about his talk show for Vice TV

Recently Ian Svenonius, front man for the Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and Weird War, among other legendary D.C. bands, and author of the essay collection The Psychic Soviet (Drag City Press), added "talk show host" to his resumé. His show, called Soft Focus, is a project of Vice magazine's online TV network, VBS, and it has a simple formula: Svenonius, another musician, a couple of chairs, and conversation that gives the usual cookie-cutter promotional-tour chitchat a wide berth, sounding instead like something you'd read in a slightly cosmic version of Maximum Rock'n' Roll. Last Tuesday he brought the show to Chicago to film an episode with Steve Albini and Dirtbombs mastermind Mick Collins at the Logan Square Auditorium. Afterward I had the opportunity to ask the asker a few questions.

When you talked to Steve Albini you asked him something like, "Is playing music like telling a joke?" I was wondering if, turning that around, hosting a talk show is like singing a song or playing a show?

I guess there's an ad-lib aspect to it, with a structure and parameters. I've always ad-libbed a lot onstage. And in a sense when you play music with people there's a conversational aspect to it. When it goes well it's like a good conversation and if it goes badly it's like a bad conversation.

Do you get the same sort of feeling being onstage in this respect? How is it similar and how is it different from performing music?

I like lyrics to be very simple and to have a lot of reiteration. I'm not really into the bards of rock 'n' roll—Elvis Costello, more literary songwriters, they're not really my bag. The thing about being a group is, the group phenomenon has subsumed all of the other artistic endeavors that used to exist simultaneously, like theater, poetry, mime—all the different things people used to do. So a conversation, it's just another aspect of performance, and it has been ever since Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Performers are expected to be absolutely consistent in every aspect of their lives and presentation. It's not just your persona onstage. You're expected to drive the right kind of car... if you saw Lux Interior in a Toyota Camry, it would be disappointing for people. It's the same kind of impulse that killed Chris Farley, this idea that there is no separation between the stage and one's personal life. It's something we expect and enforce from our performers: absolute consistency.

What do you get out of the interview process? You have a pretty unique approach to it. You tend to ask questions that are a little more abstract, a little more philosophical than people are used to.

The people that we're interviewing are people that we like, and they're also people who are interviewed a lot—and it's easy for people who do interviews to fall into a pattern, to reiterate their ideology or their persona. It's a desire to talk about things in a sociopolitical framework and to not just talk about rock 'n' roll.

Your conversations have a pretty heavy focus on "why"on getting people to examine some of the fundamental motivations behind what they're doing. You talked with Albini and Mick Collins a lot about the digital paradigm shift. That seems to be a favorite topic of yours.

Yeah, y'know, I didn't really mean to talk about that stuff, because it's something that people are talking about so much, but it's kind of inevitable. Albini's a real champion of analog and everything about that's being challenged by economic factors. Paradigm shifts are usually financially motivated or economically motivated. The industry invents a gizmo and they enforce its proliferation through making it cheap and accessible. A reel of tape is $400 and a gigabyte in a computer, whatever. When I was a kid a contact lens was $100 and now they're 100 for $100. These prices are pretty much arbitrary, so when suddenly audio tape is $400 a reel you can't help but think these things are related.

The motivation to make that change is out of the artist's hands.

Yeah. That's something that I wrote about in an essay for the Make-Up a while ago—the downsizing in music and the economic factors and the way that groups change. Why does everyone play electric guitar? Because Buddy Holly, he was the one to say that it makes three people sound like an orchestra. So much stuff can depend on economic factors and we, the labor force, tend to think that we're innovating, that it's our impulse toward one sound or another that's motivating the changes, but in actuality they're sort of foisted on us.

You have a history of engaging in a lot of political and revolutionary rhetoric and action. How does this talk show fit in with that? Is there something revolutionary with what you're doing with Soft Focus?

Not really. It's just a traditional chat show. The difference is that I'm trying to not talk too much. I don't want it to be a personality parade talking about a new product. We want to talk to people who are making things that we like. These people are in magazines all the time, but their conversations are really truncated. It's typically a paragraph or a few sentences. We're trying to do something a little more in-depth. And also I don't want to be a modern chat-show host who just yells at people. They're like joke predators and everyone's just there for a bit. Really the purpose is to get people to talk and to steer things in ways that might not be normal. It's not especially revolutionary, but I hope that it serves a function to inspire people. It's never about the particular record; it's about the person and a broader view of what they're thinking.

It's not just a promo stop.

It's not just a promo stop, but also it's not just part of this cycle of putting out records and touring, which is the hamster wheel that everyone's on. Write some songs, make the record, mix the record, master the record, release the record, tour, go back home, and lie down for a month and start it up again. So many people are on this thing and that's all it is. They become kind of bar bands. I'm interested in ideas and motivations. Perversity, essentially. All the people we're talking to are perverse, and it's sad that the only way they can express their perversity is through their records.

And you give them an opportunity to express their perversity in a slightly different way.

Yeah, and we don't really have an opportunity to see most of these people talking, and obviously talking... think of the Beatles in 1964, coming to the USA, and their interviews. Those interviews would've played very differently if they'd been printed—their Liverpudlian humor, who knows if it would've played?v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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