By Sarah Bennett
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Illuminated By the Lightis the fourth-ish release by singer Ian Svenonius and his backup combo Weird War (Michelle Mae, Alex Minoff, ex-Trans Am drummer Sebastian Thomson), the latest in a long career that a new generation of college-graduated rock & roll arbiters allows to persist now mostly out of a generational fealty they only half-understand. As Weird War write so presciently about themselves: "[We] are very famous in an extraordinarily discreet way. No-one recognizes [our] heroic role in attempting to introduce relevant artifacts into the life of the people." And as people write back about Weird War: "Didn't this guy used to be good?"
Ah, didn't everything, when we look back on it? Weird War are the last great Cassandra band (except probably Fleshies) in real rock & roll, a destiny as '70s as their sound, which is TheSlideron Illuminated'sfirst track and TheCompleteFunHouseSessionson the last, funny and even cheesy but still absolutely deliberate. It's objectively better than most of the popular indie/alt wrecks getting high decimal ratings on the Internet, but people seem to work hard to find reasons to knock it: inexperienced reviewers confused and maybe threatened, who wanna play out a BDSM Lester-vs.-Lou fantasy with one of the last, loudest voices from the old American underground. Because Ian did used to be "good," as the singer of the Nation of Ulysses—"despised in their time," he says, which was the establishment of the loved-later-but-hated-now pattern that's distorted his whole life. Again, as he writes: "The narrative of your life is of course based on the art which you love."
And if you know your history, you know where that goes: get out while you still can, kid, because some bands doom themselves never to be taken seriously, step into characters so appealing that no one wants to let them out. Like someone said to Mark E. Smith: there are more ideas on the back of a Fall album cover than in most songs in the pop charts, and then they discreetly slipped him a fiver so he could get something hot to eat. So all you can do is put what you got down on record the best you can so the future can come limping back and see who was right and who was something else. We decided to do a pretty vicious interview. As Ian is so fond of quoting: "History will absolve me."
IanSvenonius:That's some kind of weird death trip—the same thing as kids cutting their arms. Kind of apocalyptic in a sense. You're really explicitly saying you want the economy to crumble, you want car bombs to go off in American cities. It reminds me of the proletarian masses marching to their death in World War I. The death urge is really central to the human psyche. The Bush people are like death rockers in a way. Goth/death weirdoes, but with really bad dress sense.
You mean through art? I don't know. I think it's the responsibility of so-called artists to intimate these ideas, but people don't understand so much. I think people in rock & roll, for example, have a very fatalistic, defeatist attitude. We've been taught the artist is just a beret-wearing idiot. But the ruling class understands their power. If you look on the other side, war has always been waged on an aesthetic front. That's what everybody's understood, except today's American artists—liberals making their relationship movies. They're unaware of their power. But do you think anyone would have been a communist in the communist era if they hadn't used red? People didn't read Marx—they liked the star. You seduce people, and then they learn about the ideology. That's what goes on now, with Hollywood and TV. People are encouraged to be incredibly stupid now. In the old days, when something crazy happened, everyone would rush to the streets, to confer, to find out what happened. Now they run inside and look at the TV, where they are told what to do and what to think about what happened, if they even know what happened, because they haven't been told. Totally disgusting. That's another role of art, just to tell people.
That's what it is! If people understood that they've traded incredible possibilities for living in a parking lot with a TV . . .
You become what you hate, and the U.S. has become the worst aspects of the Soviet system: state news, paranoia, exalting civil servants, the corniness, the whole thing. It's a veneer of power. When the U.S. collapses, it's gonna be like the USSR: "Despite all the hype, they had a GNP smaller than Denmark. They didn't produce anything!" The people who control this country could care less if we all die. That's why when I see somebody with the American flag, I laugh. Do they feel some innate sense of brotherhood with their fellow Americans? Then why are they in an SUV, cutting everybody off? At least a real nationalist has a sense of—even if it's tribal and primitive—communitarian ethic. If you put an American flag on your truck, it just means, "Fuck you!" "We kick ass!" "We could bomb anybody!" What else does it say? "I like Charlie Sheen"?
It makes me wonder. This stuff is very emotional. Almost a religion thing—very basic, a desire to please your parents. It's just stupid—well, it's not stupid. It's a primitive sense of need.
Make the opposition glamorous? I don't know.
I think it's very close—closer than anybody understands. Everybody is taught cradle-to-grave to look out for themselves. There's no community structure. And what are you going to do with that? What do you do with an ideology of selfish individualism and acquiring things? All anybody cares about is their own security and control.
It's so bankrupt. Like you say, it offends me as an American. Everything good about this country is being wrecked. At one point, Americans were envied: we were free of the class stratification that haunted the old world. We were glamorous. We ate well. We were handsome and dashing! [Laughs] That's all been squandered because of the greed of multinational corporations who decided to feed people Twinkies. That sounds like I'm relinquishing blame, but if the Twinkie company owns the TV company, what are you gonna do?
I'm torn. On one hand, Bush is not an aberration—he's the way things are going. And the collapse could happen and we could not even know it. Nobody knew that America went into decline in 1970—these things happen without people necessarily understanding. The British Empire didn't disappear. It slipped away.
Americans won't go into the streets because they watch too much TV. Some of them might roll into the streets—no, I'm joking. I don't want to get into America bashing. I am American and I love America. I'm not an arrogant European. But who knows what form? When these things happen, they're unimaginable. People still think the things they have are imbued with a luxury status, that they have power or control over their lives that doesn't really exist. That's why they call themselves middle class: "I have a TV, I'm middle class." Steven Spielberg would probably tell you he was middle class, and so would a crackhead on the street, because they were told they were middle class. Nobody can imagine being the lowest of the low or the highest of the high. To Americans, there are only two people who aren't middle class. You understand. More and more, the U.S. is coming to resemble Brazil or Mexico: an incredibly rich hyper-class, with no middle class.
Oh yeah—like it's "pretentious." It's very weird. If you have an idea, it's considered pretentious.
That's another way they've destroyed political dissent.
Thanks, I think it's pretty listenable.
WEIRD WAR WITH THE ROLLING BLACKOUTS AND HELLO FEVER AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA; WWW.THEGLASSHOUSE.US. THURS., JULY 14, 7:30 PM. $10. ALL AGES.