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Nation of Ulysses/The Make Up/Chain and the Gang
May 8, 2014 10:39 AM   Subscribe

How the “Sassiest Boy in America” became the most interesting man in rock-and-roll.
posted by josher71 (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
This man's a treasure. Svenonius' two books, The Psychic Soviet and Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock N Roll Group, are some of the smartest, strangest, most delightful pieces of writing out there. You also haven't lived until you've witnessed him perform a seance to channel the spirits of dead rock stars.
posted by naju at 10:51 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, Nation of Ulysses had a sort of pre-indie sensibility. It’s assaultive. It’s total. It’s unlistenable. Almost. It was an immersive cult and we saw ourselves as cult leaders because it was very elitist and we wanted to create a culture.

Man, I haven't thought about Nation of Ulysses in years. My friends were really into NoU freshman year of college. I didn't see the band as elitist as much as one big semitrollish political-art-pose. He's right, though. The music was mostly unlistenable.
posted by echocollate at 10:53 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


He's right, though. The music was mostly unlistenable.

This is not correct.
posted by josher71 at 10:55 AM on May 8 [8 favorites]


I sure listened to it a lot.
posted by dfan at 10:59 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


My T-shirt shows everything
My T-shirt shows everything
My T-shirt shows everything
I'm a superstar
Yeah, I'm a superstar
who you fucking now?


Loved that band.
posted by gwint at 10:59 AM on May 8


"Man, I haven't thought about Nation of Ulysses in years. My friends were really into NoU freshman year of college. I didn't see the band as elitist as much as one big semitrollish political-art-pose. He's right, though. The music was mostly unlistenable."

Heh.

I remember going into Wazoo in Ann Arbor and asking the clerk to help me decide which I should buy since I could only afford one, the 13-Point Program or Desperate Youth, Desperate Babes.

He said, "Desperate Youth is good, really good, but 13-Point Program to Destroy America is a weapon."

If this is unlistenable, you're not very good at listening.
posted by klangklangston at 11:06 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


This is not correct.

Hey, pal. You calling Ian Svenonius a liar? Step outside and say that.
posted by echocollate at 11:07 AM on May 8


Was never a NoU fan but man they left a tall shadow over a lot of bands I still listen to regularly.

"Pre-indie sensibility" is a weird phrase, though. "Indie rock", as genre, style, and industry, predates the band's formation (raise your hand if you recall the CMJ), although maybe it slips past lazy fact checking since it was usually referred to as "college rock" at the time.
posted by ardgedee at 11:08 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


I remember hearing NoU and The Melvins around the same time. The Melvins stuck and NoU didn't. 17-year-old-me had a weird ear.
posted by echocollate at 11:09 AM on May 8


"although maybe it slips past lazy fact checking since it was usually referred to as "college rock" at the time."

"Indie" was in the UK as of C86; but it was mostly twee. You're right that over here, the Trouser Press was still calling it College Rock (and trying to sell people on Flamin' Groovies LPs).
posted by klangklangston at 11:11 AM on May 8


From TFA (emphasis mine):

He began blazing his trail in 1988 as the singer of Nation of Ulysses, a stylishly radical punk band that donned suits while the grunge generation refused to wash its hair. (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love admiringly painted the band’s name on the walls of their Los Angeles apartment.)

Oh, well, in that case...
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:11 AM on May 8


"Pre-indie sensibility" is a weird phrase, though. "Indie rock", as genre, style, and industry, predates the band's formation (raise your hand if you recall the CMJ), although maybe it slips past lazy fact checking since it was usually referred to as "college rock" at the time.

I was active in music around the same time, and nobody called it "indie" in those days. The "indie" appellation didn't become common until sometime after Kurt Cobain's death and the end of the grunge scene. People sometimes called it "independent" music (to mean nothing more than it was music not released on one of the big three or four major labels), but "indie" as a distinct, recognizable genre wasn't something most audiences and musicians really knew or cared about. "Alternative" had just started losing its meaning (because it had become the mainstream), and yes, as I recall we all called it "college rock" (or in special cases, bands in this milieu just called themselves "REM bands").
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on May 8


Justin Timberlake?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:16 AM on May 8


(I should add, I'm speaking only on this side of the pond. I don't know what was going on in the UK or elsewhere. Also, just to throw it out there, fuck yeah Nation of Ulysses! Hell, fuck yeah everything Dischord ever.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:19 AM on May 8


Hey, pal. You calling Ian Svenonius a liar? Step outside and say that.

I'll call him a liar!

That's how he won Sassiest Boy in America while being, at age 22, officially ineligible.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:29 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


Sassy City in Sassyland map for reference.
posted by wcfields at 11:30 AM on May 8 [6 favorites]


And, although he wore a suit onstage, I can vouch that he wasn't big on the hygiene thing sometimes. I'll never forget him diving offstage at a Make Up show only to be dropped immediately by a very tall friend of mine. Her reason: "He smelled like a dumpster."

Sassy/stinky.

Great show, though.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 11:39 AM on May 8


I think this is one of the most insightful and important points in the interview:
Punk comes out of post-modernism, but it’s real desire is to inhabit modernism in that it says, “Art has meaning and is revolutionary.”
(Also, I knew it: This evidence suggests "indie" wasn't really even a thing until the late 90s/early oughts. Sorry to belabor this point, but my last band used to get in heavy arguments over this because we had started out long before people used the term "indie" but then later got lumped into the genre by default (which I didn't mind, because to me, "indie" was just an abbreviation for the technically correct "independent"). One of my bandmates, though, passionately hated the term, taking it to describe some trendy new genre we were too authentic to be associated with. It was an annoying thing to have to debate.)
posted by saulgoodman at 12:07 PM on May 8


I remember him throwing fistfuls of pills into the crowd during an opening Make-Up song in Indy years ago. And for some reason reading this made me go listen to Iceburn for an hour.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:12 PM on May 8


*waves cane, mumbles something something my lawn*
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 12:17 PM on May 8


Nation of Ulysses/The Make Up/Chain and the Gang

Nobody remembers the Cupid Car Club these days, which is a goddamn shame.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:17 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]


I assume ardgedee is talking about a fully-fledged indie aesthetic/sensibility as already existing, just not with that exact name. I'm sure we can all agree with that. Minutemen, et al. The book "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991" was entirely about this.
posted by naju at 12:24 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Ian Svenonius does have magnificent hair as well as still being cool as shit.
posted by Kitteh at 1:01 PM on May 8


Never heard of this guy or his bands, but through this post and klangklangston's comment, I have discovered some music I like. A lot. Thanks for posting!
posted by sharpener at 3:50 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what sort of card one needs to vote on when indie rock became indie rock, but I was in college in 1988. We can quibble about whether or not College Rock is distinct from 'indie' but the Athens, GA Inside/Out soundtrack is pretty damn 'indie'. And by 89 at the latest, Cabbagetown was easily in it's ur-state (Ellen James Society, Opal Fox Quartet, Jody Grind).

I chalk it up to the nature of hagiography - it's not unreasonable to seek out threads, some tenuous, some less so, when looking retrospectively at cultural moments for which the conventional wisdom is pretty firmly cemented.

Does anyone remember Peter Buck wringing his hands because he thought Pylon were better than REM but they were basically just dying on the vine? History is written by the winners, or by those just younger enough to make it seem like your heroes really did have all the answers.
posted by 99_ at 6:48 PM on May 8


It's literally just the word that trips people up. The indie aesthetic (to the extent there is one that's distinct from the punk/new wave/hardcore scenes it bubbled up from and that actually encompasses the full range of the thing it describes) may have begun to develop, and definitely there was the germ of the idea in music scenes like Athens, but people didn't call it "indie" yet. Trust me. Fights were had over this word when it started to come into popular use. All my friends in high school who were into the stuff (late 80s/early 90s) were known as "mod" or "progressive" or just "gypsies" once "alternative" lost its cache. Our band Egyptian Joyride covered a lot of those Athens bands in 90 or so, and everyone knew it as "college rock." Some people are still very hung up on what indie does or doesn't mean.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 PM on May 8


I was active in music around the same time, and nobody called it "indie" in those days.

Pretty sure somebody did.
posted by furiousthought at 8:22 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


A wonderful post that coincides with many of my friends simultaneously discovering Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n Roll Group. It's the closest thing to a perfect book I've read in many years, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Cold War, U.S. street gangs, magic, conversation, and religious cults.
posted by kenlayne at 9:24 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


It's literally just the word that trips people up.

Agree 100%. And 'college rock' was a far more prevalent descriptor absolutely. But it's an interesting exercise to try and determine when the shift happened. And my admitted prejudice against Sevonious makes me resent the cultural land grab of being 'pre-indie' when there was so much going on that was separate.

Green was released 1988. You could argue "Athens" died as a alternative scene when this happened. But the Raleigh Durham scene was really distinct, and there was Austin. And Seattle. There was a lot going on that wasn't DC post-punk/punk, what ever you want to call it.

Surely by 1991, the idea of indie had coalesced, so Dinosaur Jr didn't really coin anything.

I think one interesting way to frame it is that the idea of 'independent' speaking to an aesthetic was perhaps more founded in film and appropriated by music critics (and even musicians).

Stranger Than Paradise:
1984
The Unbelievable Truth: 1989 (meaning the Purchase Mafia was a fully developed scene by 1986 or so)
Slacker: started filming in 1989

Blood Simple
even was a landmark in the idea of 'independent cinema' -- Sundance became Sundance in 1985.

Since 'College Rock' was fairly narrow (by and for, etc.) and the fact that independent cinema was almost by definition post collegiate, I think the loose formation of that aesthetic was the folded back into a lot of other arts as shorthand for 'non mainstream'
posted by 99_ at 9:55 PM on May 8


The best thing about this FPP is "600,000 Bands" while reading this:
In another one of your interim groups, Felt Letters, you wrote this song about how we’ve been bombarded with music in the digital era. And it’s hilarious. But is it a song of hope or despair?

I grew up in this era where there were institutionalized rockers and all the other groups bubbling up underneath. The narrative presented an ecosystem that made a lot of sense. And one of the positive things that the internet did was demolish that idea.

Now, you can’t make a case for Neil Young being singularly great because it’s been revealed that there were one thousand competitors making plaintive folk-rock who were just as powerful and prolific. Neil Young just had the muscle of Reprise, or whoever, behind him. And Neil Young is great!

Otis Redding is another great example. Atlantic were the hype masters and they controlled the narrative for the white audience of soul music. It was “The Big O!” But now, it’s revealed that there were apparently 500,000 amazing soul singles produced by people that nobody ever heard of. So 600,000 bands on the Internet is what’s always been happening.

When you’re in rock-and-roll, everyone is embittered. “It didn’t turn out how it was supposed to.” Even Pete Townshend is angry because he’s misunderstood. He got to sell 50 million records, or whatever, but nobody gets “Pinball Wizard.” That’s why I collect old 45 singles. When you see all these talented people who had better ideas and were completely ignored, it’s a reality check.

And now, even if you only sell 500 records, that’s actually really great. You should be really glad that anybody cares. The only reward to making a record is making the record, not if some intern writes about it.
posted by stbalbach at 11:27 PM on May 8 [4 favorites]


Pretty sure somebody did.

That's still early 90s. Someone said "indie" had been in use since 86 or so and that it predated NoU. NoU started out in the late 80s, so your example doesn't contradict anything I was saying. It was only at least the mid to late 90s through the early '00s that the word started gettting any traction outside of small communities of musicians, like I said, and then, it was most often just an abbreviation for the descriptive "independent."
posted by saulgoodman at 6:38 AM on May 9


And Sebadoh, Sentridoh, Guided By Voices, et al, were among the first wave of bands I can remember explicitly calling themselves "indie" and meaning something more than just "independent"--and that didn't start until early 90s with the public only really starting to catch on in the mid 90s, after Cobain's death and the decline of grunge.

But I don't know why I'm still harping on this, because, like I said, I hated these debates when they were going on the first time around. Not sure why I seem to want to wade back into those murky waters just now...

I always used to argue "indie" really began with Fugazi's first album, but then, my entry to the scene was Dischord and the old-school emo/hardcore scene, and people who didn't ride on that train probably see things differently.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:25 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]


"That's still early 90s. Someone said "indie" had been in use since 86 or so and that it predated NoU. NoU started out in the late 80s, so your example doesn't contradict anything I was saying. It was only at least the mid to late 90s through the early '00s that the word started gettting any traction outside of small communities of musicians, like I said, and then, it was most often just an abbreviation for the descriptive "independent.""

I said that, specifically referencing C86, which was a cassette put out in '86 by NME that was basically the blueprint for the UK indie scene. It's also remarkably twee. I know "indie" was in use by '94 stateside, because that's when I got big into Yo La Tengo as my gateway to indie rock, and I remember having an awkward moment in my bio class where the teacher has us introduce ourselves and then talk about the music we listened to and I was the nerd saying "Indie." But that is post-Nirvana.
posted by klangklangston at 9:15 AM on May 9 [2 favorites]


Yep, klang, that's pretty much how I remember it, too (except I didn't know about the UK indie scene so much). Point being, it doesn't seem weird or innacurate for a late-80s band to describe their aesthetic as a "pre-indie sensibility" to me. Maybe "proto-indie" would have been a less confusing way to put it, though. The first self-described "indie pop" bands I remember stateside were pretty twee, too--stuff like Boyracer.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:23 AM on May 9


(Although I guess Boyracer was actually British. Weird. I didn't know that...)
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 AM on May 9


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