20 Mar 2017

'A rock'n'roll performance doesn't end on the stage'

4:13 pm on 20 March 2017

An interview with Chain and the Gang's Ian Svenonius and Fiona Campbell.

Ian Svenonius in the video for Chain and the Gang's 'Devitalize'.

Ian Svenonius in the video for Chain and the Gang's 'Devitalize'. Photo: Unknown

Ian Svenonius has been referred to in the press as many things - Sassy Magazine once called him “the sassiest boy in America” and the Washington Post believe him to be “the most interesting man in rock’n’roll”.

The Washington DC-based punk rock theorist and author was in New Zealand last week playing shows with his current outfit Chain and the Gang, where he is joined onstage by ex-pat Kiwi Fiona Campbell on drums.

I spoke with Ian and Fiona about rock’n’roll, grrrl power and the DC hardcore scene.

Can you tell me what your current manifesto is for Chain and the Gang?

Ian: The manifesto of the group has always been “Down with liberty, Up with chains”, kind of a refutation of the idea of rock’n’roll as ultimate freedom.

“Down with liberty”, it could almost be down with libertarianism - down with libertarians. In the modern climate, you can just expand the concept.

Like we have a song ‘Devitalize’. Coming into New Zealand, we see New Zealand, like everywhere else, is being subject to this crazy speculative real estate market, that’s really traumatic.

Listening to you speak, it’s hard to tell where the line is between sarcasm, strict truth, your real beliefs. Is this a line that you meander along purposefully?

Ian: I think that’s rock’n’roll music. That’s what rock’n’roll music is supposed to be.

You’re just rock’n’roll personified.

Ian: I am just rock’n’roll personified.

A rock’n’roll performance doesn’t end on the stage. That’s why a group is different from any other art form. A rock’n’roll group typically disavows their art.

They say, “Well, that rock was OK, but it’s not as good as we are” and the audience accepts that as an idea. People would never hold the Grateful Dead accountable for their records or Black Flag. These groups, you never say that record is the manifestation of everything that group is supposed to be.

No - there’s something greater than that. A rock’n’roll group is sort of everything and the record is just this thing, it’s a totem. 

You’ve got quite a history within the scene in DC. You started playing in the second wave of the hardcore scene. I’m wondering how much Ian MacKaye, the leader of Minor Threat and later Fugazi, set the agenda for bands to come, including your own.    

Ian: Well, Ian MacKaye is a big deal, he’s a big deal where I come from. But I wouldn’t say that DC music is all about Ian MacKaye.  

Ian MacKaye has always been the North Star. The great thing about having such a strong personality in your music scene is that it gives everybody something to react against.

So you have to remember that DC music is also Pussy Galore, Bad Brains; there’s all this different music that’s come out of DC.

Ian is only the most famous and charismatic proponent of it - arguably.

But you know, he was a big deal to me. He ran Dischord [Records] and his groups were always great. And the set a real standard for the way you’re supposed to perform and purport yourself. This whole idea of responsibility and social responsibility.

But it’s not completely unique to DC, it was just a bigger thing.   

Fiona, you’re drumming for Chain and the Gang. Are you also organising logistics?

Fiona: Yeah, I can help myself sometimes. I dabble.

You’ve been on tour with so many bands. Bands you’ve been a part of, bands you’ve been called in as a touring drummer for. What is it about this band that you love and made you want to be involved?

Fiona:  There are so many different changing personnel a lot of the time. So there’s a lot different personalities but all revolving around one person.

It’s my favourite band to play in.

Is it?

Fiona: Yeah. I get to sit in the back and just try not to crack up laughing most nights.

It’s different every night. I’m kept on my toes. It’s interesting. The structures can be loose and everybody has to be ready.  

Ian: The songs are all classics so that can be predictable, essentially. They’re based on gospel. They’re anti-originality.

There are these intuitive changes. They’re the opposite of progressive rock.  

Fiona, the last time we spoke you mentioned some involvement that you’d had with Girls Rock Camp. Can you tell me what that’s about because it’s about to go ahead in New Zealand?

Fiona: It’s a week-long camp and girls between 8 and 16 come and form groups. At the beginning of the week it doesn’t matter what sort of level of instrumentation or any experience at all that they have, and then they’re shoved into these groups and at the end of the week they have to perform a song.

The music is the last most interesting thing. It’s about putting these groups of young girls together and watching them find out all these weird social interesting issues in the context of the instrument that they’re given.

They do a lot of body image workshops and stuff, and things that I had a little taste of going to high school here [in New Zealand], but people were shocked to hear I had any exposure to. Like self defence classes, people were like “no, we don’t have those”.

Just the general tools required to navigate the world as women.

Fiona: They’re great. It provides a safe space for young girls to make noise and take up space.

Are you the sole male frontman of the band?

Ian:  Yeah.

Is that a purposeful choice for you, in terms of gender representation?

Ian: I don’t know if it’s purposeful. It wasn’t something that we set out to do, specifically.  

It adds to the girls flocking to the cult leader kind of thing (laughing), not to diminish your role in your band!

Ian: Maybe it has something to do with the way people play and the way people play with each other. It’s definitely something I’m attracted to.  

I mean obviously the most compelling aspect of rock’n’roll now is women playing music.

I want to reject this idea. There’s this modern idea that Riot Grrrl permitted women to play music, which is kind of this typical triumphalist rock history thing of “we invented everything”.

If you look at rock’n’roll in the beginning it was almost gender balanced, if you think about how many girl groups there were. Groups like Ruby and the Romantics and the Orlons, which were mixed.

But once rock went suburban and corporate it became very, very male. For a couple decades I would say it was extremely male and [there was] almost enforced misogyny.

So, that’s why the most compelling expression for me, just what I’m drawn to, is not all-guy bands.

LISTEN > Interview with Ian Svenonius and Fiona Campbell of Chain and the Gang: