For Ian Svenonius, there's a strange religion in the cult of the DJ. Like all those who take to the pulpit, Svenonius sees the DJ as a modern preacher, a dispenser of taste and knowledge to those empty vessels flailing across the dance-floor. But as if ripping out a page from Marx, Svenonius also finds the DJ's role to be uniquely economic—to dull listeners and dancers to the exploits of the capitalist system. "Like the rulers on Wall Street," he writes in his recent book The Psychic Soviet, "[The DJ] has no actual talent except to play with other people's labor."
Religion and politics aside, it's a convincing argument. After all, DJing used to be about an experience, about the DJ crouching down behind a table, thumbing through rows of vinyl and finding something so undeniably perfect that your hips would stop mid-sway and you'd ask "Hey, what is that?" Now it's all about some celebrity running a finger across an iPod, clicking on a pre-composed playlist of Gang of Four and Public Enemy and throwing back a couple drinks in the downtime.
But if Svenonius comes off too academic in his writing, it's for a reason. Humor is one, but it's also part of his bookish aesthetic. For more than a decade, Svenonius has spouted the same kind of ideas in bands like the Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up. In Nation of Ulysses, for example, Svenonius and company wrote pamphlets called "Ulysses Speaks" in which topics like the shifting appearance of Menudo were twisted around and fed into the band's revolutionary ideals. And The Psychic Soviet is just a continuation of that—its theories on vampirism and Seinfeld's impact on urban yuppie culture are a mix of that same irreverence and academicism.
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Of course, Svenonius saves his most interesting and bitter prose for the DJ. In "Mix Master Race," an essay that also appeared in Sound Collector magazine, Svenonius takes aim at the DJ's place atop music's hierarchy. Having established how art and music have been co-opted by the upper classes, Svenonius ends the piece with this barb: "The exaltation of the DJ is the ruling class congratulating itself for its good judgment in being born wealthy and in control of the world economy."
Yet if Svenonius doesn't agree with the exploitation of the DJ, he at least understands it. And that's important because Svenonius himself is an accomplished DJ. Spinning as DJ Name Names, Svenonius has landed recurring gigs at clubs in D.C. and is now taking his act across the country with the support of friend, K Records founder and deep-voiced rock hero Calvin Johnson (DJ Selector Dub Narcotic). Svenonius and Johnson have already found a ton of success, their wide-ranging selection of dub and rock and soul playing well to the indie-rock 20-somethings that pack the bars and clubs. All of that makes it more surprising, then, that Svenonius flatly explained his coupling with Calvin Johnson as a mix of "circumstance, desire, need and pragmatism."
And when I asked him about his and Calvin's roles as DJs, he responded equally as calculated: "Calvin and I are very important DJs who play exactly what is necessary." But don't take that the wrong way. Despite his smart, sometimes over-the-top image, Svenonius is very self-aware—he always knows exactly what he means. "It's important not to take yourself too seriously when you DJ," he added. "As a selector, you're a priest, not God."
DJs Name Names (Svenonius) and Selector Dub Narcotic (Johnson) spin at Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Wed., Mar. 14. Free. 21+.