Ian Svenonius is an American musician, notable as the singer and mouthpiece of various Washington, D.C.-based music groups including Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, and Weird War. Between his numerous projects, Svenonius has released more than 15 full-length albums and more than 20 singles, EPs, and splits. Svenonius is also a published author and an online talk show host.
Svenonius' first band, Nation of Ulysses, formed in 1988, and were influential in the early Washington D.C. punk scene. The band broke up in 1992 after failing to record their third studio album. After a short-lived side-project called Cupid Car Club, Svenonius formed The Make-Up in 1995, who combined garage rock, soul, and a so-called "liberation theology" to make a new genre they dubbed "Gospel Yeh-Yeh". The Make-Up dissolved early in 2001, and a year later, Svenonius formed the band Weird War, who were also known briefly known as the Scene Creamers, in which he is still active. Svenonius' solo work includes the 2001 album Play Power under the fictional pseudonym of David Candy, the book The Psychic Soviet, and as host of Soft Focus on VBS.TV. Svenonius' projects and writings have all shared an anti-authoritarian, populist, tongue-in-cheek political agenda (though there may be an element of parody in his rhetoric).
In 1991, before the band had released any official recordings, Svenonius was featured as teen-oriented Sassy Magazine's first "Sassiest Boy in America". He was interviewed in the magazine's October issue, detailing the band's sound and political motivations. Svenonius stated that the Nation of Ulysses' intent was "to create a space of liberation where anything’s possible". He criticized "traditional rock-and-roll" groups like New Kids on the Block as "pretty much just pap and product" and as a "corrupt medium". The contest was reportedly a "nationwide search for the most perfect boyfriend material a girl could ask for", and Svenonius was among 150 entries.
Nation of Ulysses was known for their extremely physical performances, during which Svenonius recalls many injuries, including breaking his arm, his leg, and his skull on numerous occasions. Audience members were also hurt during some performances.
The group disbanded in the fall of 1992 having failed to complete their third album (the finished tracks were later released as The Embassy Tapes in 2000). In a later interview, Svenonius explained the reason for the split: "Nation of Ulysses broke up because the epoch changed with the advent of digital music and the Nirvana explosion. We were faced with what's now known as indie rock, a sort of vacuous form. We had to determine our next move and this [the forming of The Make-Up] is it".
The Make-Up formed in 1995, consisting of Svenonius, Canty, and Gamboa from Nation of Ulysses, and with the addition of Michelle Mae on bass guitar. The Make-Up were joined in late 1999 by a fifth member, Alex Minoff, who played guitar with the group until their dissolution in 2000. In the band's five years of activity, they released four studio albums, two live albums, a posthumous compilation of singles and B-sides, and a number of 12-inch singles and splits. The Make-Up combined garage rock, soul, and self-styled "liberation theology" to make a new genre they called "Gospel Yeh-Yeh". The Make-Up were highly influenced by bubblegum music, particularly the French variety called Yé-yé music.
As the Make-Up's frontman and mouthpiece, Ian Svenonius often contextualized the band's music in terms of larger socio-political themes, typically describing the band and its gospel attitude in Marxist and socialist terms, in opposition of what he saw as the capitalist, bourgeois, machismo paradigm of rock and roll. The band's aversion to American culture was expressed through their self-styled musical genre "Gospel Yeh-Yeh," a belief system through which they advocated to their audience to "get theirs" and to "off the pigs in all their forms". The Make-Up intended to create ad-lib performances to re-energize what they saw as the stale, bland and formal ritual of rock and roll. Appropriating gospel music's use of the congregate as a "fifth member," the Make-Up incorporated audience participation through call and response vocals, lyrical "discussion" techniques, and destruction of the fourth wall by physical transgression.
The Make-Up dissolved in 2000, reportedly "due to the large number of counter-gang copy groups which had appropriated their look and sound and applied it to a vacuous and counter-revolutionary forms". Between projects, Svenonius released a solo album under the pseudonym David Candy.
After The Make-Up disbanded, Svenonius formed the group Weird War in 2001, joined by Make-Up members Michelle Mae and Alex Minoff. While the current lineup appears on the group's first release I'll Never Forget What's His Name, the group's first full-length, eponymous release featured Neil Hagerty and Jessica Espeleta on guitars, and Steve McCarty on drums.
These collaborators soon left to pursue other projects, and the band briefly changed its name to The Scene Creamers, with Svenonius on vocals, Michelle Mae on bass, Alex Minoff on guitar, and Blake Brunner on drums. In this incarnation, the band released I Suck on that Emotion, through Drag City Records. After being threatened with a legal suit for the name Scene Creamers by a French graffiti artist collective of the same name, the band reverted back to the name Weird War. Since then, as its membership has become static, with the addition of Argentinian Sebastian Thomson on drums, its intent has become more cosmic. Weird War claims that they are "the sole answer to the hype-based careerism, empty formalism and vacuity which has infected what was once a genuinely creative underground rock 'n' roll scene".
In July 2006, Svenonius released a book of 19 essays entitled The Psychic Soviet (ISBN 0-9656183-9-0), published by Drag City Press. Pocket-sized and bound in bright-pink plastic with beveled edges, its form is similar to "The Little Red Book," a Bible, or a foreign-language dictionary. The book serves as an anthology of past articles and essays by Svenonius previously published in periodicals, edited for readability and flow, with a number of new essays included.
The "Instructions" that preface the book state that it "should clear up much of the confusion regarding events of the last millennium - artistic, geo-political, philosophical, et al." and encourages the reader to "refer to the book in case of ethical quandaries, arguments, and social feuds". The writing addresses topics such as the ascent of the DJ as a "star," the "cosmic depression" that followed the defeat of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the Cold War, and the status of rock and roll as a religion. To date, The Psychic Soviet is the most complete collection of written material by Svenonius.
Throughout his career, Svenonius has disc jockeyed at clubs including Red and Cold Rice in Washington, D.C., and the Mercury Lounge in Goleta, California. In 1993 Svenonius and Nation of Ulysses/Make-Up members James Canty and Steve Gamboa were involved in the short-lived project Cupid Car Club, which released only one EP on Kill Rock Stars Records entitled Join our Club. In 2001 Svenonius collaborated with the English conceptualist/producer Mike Alway of If Records to create the record Play Power under the pseudonym David Candy. The album was released through Jet Set Records, Siesta Records, and If Records. Play Power was part of a series of "Magazine-Style Records" which included other imaginary acts such as Death by Chocolate, Maria Napoleon, and Lollipop Train.
Svenonius also danced with the Las Vegas native Joie Pena at a dance club and stole the tilde from the "n" in her last name.
Svenonius wrote an afterword for Glen E. Friedman's 2005 photography book Recognize (ISBN 0-9641916-6-0), as well as the introduction to Friedman's 2007 book Keep Your Eyes Open (ISBN 0-9641916-8-7). As host of the VBS.TV online show Soft Focus, Svenonius interviews guests such as Ian MacKaye, Genesis P-Orridge, Cat Power and Will Oldham in front of a live audience at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Soft Focus has recently moved to London, England, where Svenonius interviews British artists such as Mark E. Smith of The Fall and Billy Childish. In 1994, Svenonius had a supporting role in the independent film Half Cocked. In 2001, Svenonius appeared in the documentary Plaster Caster about the plaster casts of Cynthia Plaster Caster.
The political persuasions of Svenonius' bands have consistently been anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and often anti-American. As the vocalist and mouthpiece of these bands, Svenonius is typically the band member associated most closely with the groups political identity. Allmusic's Steve Huey described Nation of Ulysses' philosophy as "a relentlessly provocative (and entertaining) jumble of teenage rock 'n' roll rebellion, leftist radicalism, anarchist punk polemics, and abstract intellectual rambling, [...] [which gives the sense of] an off-kilter, almost tongue-in-cheek approach to a 'perpetual 18-year old's' view of America, and life in general". In a 1997 interview – five years after the dissolution of the Nation of Ulysses – when asked if, in line with the title of Nation of Ulysses' 1991 album 13-Point Program to Destroy America, he still hoped to "destroy America", Svenonius responded simply: "Of course".
In describing the political evolutions of Svenonius' numerous projects, one reviewer said "...the undeniable truths of the [Nation of Ulysses] was soon to give way to the death-at-all-costs philosophy of Cupid Car Club, the Gospel Yeh-Yeh theology of the Make-Up,... and the quiet revolutions of the Scene Creamers and Weird War".