Interview: Chain and the Gang

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 08.09.12 in Interviews

I first met Ian Svenonius in 1989 after The Go Team (my band with Calvin Johnson and Billy Karren) played the venue DC Space. It was my first extensive U.S. tour and I was searching for comrades and co-conspirators. Ian hung out with Fugazi. I was friends with Beat Happening. We were both kids growing up in the shadow of the ’80s independent music scene of our respective home towns, and we were both ready to branch out on our own as the next decade was dawning. We hit it off immediately, which started a mutually inspiring and everlasting conversation about music and culture.

The next time I saw Ian was a year later. He was on tour with his group, The Nation of Ulysses, who I considered to be the most powerful band in the universe at that time. I had just started Bikini Kill, and we were preparing for world domination. Within a year, our groups would join forces and bring the sound of revolution (girl style now) to the deadbeats of young America. We shared a group house called The Embassy in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Having access to Ian’s extensive record collection and getting to hear his take on politics, music and aesthetics at that time was like being given an opportunity to earn an honorary Master’s Degree in the history of righteous youth culture.

Fast forward 20 years. We are both still active in a DIY underground that supposedly died around the time we met. It is my pleasure to share a snippet of our ongoing – and usually secret – deliberation with a wider audience.

Additional commentary comes from Chain and the Gang’s latest chanteuse, the lovely and loquacious Ms. Katie Alice Greer.

Who is in Chain and the Gang? Is it a revolving membership?

Ian Svenonius: Everyone is permanent in Chain & the Gang, though Katie and I are the only constants. We made this record [In Cool Blood with Brett [Lyman], Fiona [Campbell], and Chris [Sutton] for the most part, but some other Gang members chipped in.

What is the aestheto-political imperative behind Chain and the Gang?

Katie Alice Greer: We’re anti-debt, pro-corruption, interested in hairstyles, supportive of homelessness and vagrancy.

What is your favorite part of being in Chain and the Gang: practice, recording or playing shows?

Svenonios: Recording and playing live. Chain & the Gang don’t really practice.

Do you have any daily tour rituals?

Greer: We like to tie the newest member of the band to the hood of the car and drive for at least 80 miles as a test of their endurance, and to give them an opportunity to consider the journey from a different perspective.

Ian, what is your role in the creative process making songs with Katie?

Svenonius: Chain & the Gang is an assortment of slogans, sung with the slightest hint of melody. The emphasis isn’t on passion or tunefulness but on banging on things hypnotically, like shoes in the dryer.

How did you write the album? Did you have the songs before you went into the studio?

Svenonius: The songs start with an idea we want to get across. Everything else just falls into place instantaneously once you know what you need to say.

Was there any specific musical inspiration for the sound of the new album?

Svenonius: We wanted to make something more dancey and upbeat, less introspective than the previous two Chain records.

The song “Certain Kinds of Trash” makes me wonder if there’s a difference between trash and garbage? I’ve noticed that thrift stores today are kind of a drag compared to the thrift stores of years past. Thanks to the eBay economy, thrift stores are now actually more expensive than chain stores…

Svenonius: That’s a good question. You rarely hear a defense of “garbage,” but [the notion of] “trash culture” is used as a rallying cry for enthusiasts of bubblegum, B-Movies and the like. In a sense, punk rock is the child of trash connoisseurs like John Waters and Andy Warhol, who were archivists, curators and appreciators of lowbrow, or “camp,” forms that were dismissed by the bourgeoisie. This culminated with the Ramones. Now, [we have] the rampant triumph of trash everywhere – gross-out films, the internet, reality TV, George Bush, Killing as a national sport, i.e. Qaddafi. There is really no “highbrow” in America anymore.

Americans’ defense of trash could be read as nationalist posturing, since “good taste” was, and still is, typically determined by a European standard (as evidenced by the yuppie’s affection for artisanal espresso, Italian cooking, and hand-crafted housewares as well as the critic’s veneration of Euro sensibilities in film, art, etc.).

Either way, “trash” has been utterly assimilated by the culture at large. There are no longer art films, and the art shown in galleries is as grotesque, lowbrow, and kitsch as can be. TV news is interchangeable with pornography and the populace – of every class – flaunts its illiteracy, ignorance and idiocy at every possible opportunity.

The bourgeoisie has taken up the trash trend quite literally, with the “eco,” “recycling” and “green” trend, where people hoard trash on their porch and in special bins which are set outside for conspicuity, in classic “Keeping Up With the Joneses” style. All this trash-loving and trash hoarding, while the garbage is just shoved in landfills, stuck in lakes and rivers and compacted mercilessly. Garbage goes unloved, unappreciated, despised. Garbage still stinks and includes old diapers, rotten eggs, medical waste and coffee grinds.

Since punk themes are tired, toothless and tedious, garbage power might be the next revolutionary front – switching trash for garbage. Lauding garbage, collecting it and putting it in galleries while rejecting trash would be a real kick in the pants to all these self-satisfied trash collectors.

The song “Surprise Party” begs the question: What is Chain and the Gang’s idea of a good party?

Greer: Well, I really like board games, and I’m very fond of structured or themed activities, I am really bad at “hanging out,” I think.

Svenonius: I think lighting is the most important thing for a party. It should be dark, but not too dark. Think Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights.” Also, the party should take place in one room ideally, or on one floor of a building at least.

What’s the story behind “I’m Not Interested In (Being Interested)”?

Greer: We live in Washington, D.C., which is full of advertisements. I think one of the many billboards that advertise shit that is totally irrelevant to our lives inspired this sentiment. Like, “OK, well, I’m really not interested in being interested in that.”

“Where Does All the Time Go” makes me wonder if being in a band impacts your concept of time passing.

Greer: It doesn’t, because someday I will still be dead.

Svenonius: Pre-industrial, agrarian humanity had the seasons to mark their time. Each one required very different modes of work – planting, weeding, watering, harvesting. The modern group is in the post-seasonal era and is oblivious to the traditional months, but has replaced them with their own seasons; writing, recording, releasing and touring. This endless, repetitive cycle can eventually become mind-numbing, and sometimes the band member wants to jump off the Ferris wheel. But the sudden, “seasonless” existence of post-group life can make for confusion and depression.

“If I only had a brain” references The Wizard of Oz! What’s going on there?

Svenonius: In The Wizard of Oz, they’re saying the agrarian proletariat has no brain, while industrialism has no heart. These are old fashioned aristocratic sentiments, leaving us to wonder about Frank Baum’s possibly revanchist political tendencies. Chain & the Gang, though, is saying post-industrial electro-magnetic life is both brainless and heartless!

“In Cool Blood” sounds a bit vampire-esque. Would you say that is inspired by hanging out in the Pacific Northwest?

Greer: I think I am very sensitive to environments – just sensitive in general, really. Are there vampires in the Northwest?

Svenonius: Possibly! It is quite blood-sucking out there. Lots of goths in Portland.