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“The AK-47 for guerrilla groups represented power, a symbol of primitive technology prevailing over a superpower,” Ian Svenonius says. “It was sort of like a slingshot against the Goliath.”
He’s specifically referring to America’s defeat in Vietnam, and though he knows that slingshots don’t always work so well anymore, what with today’s military technologies, he still believes that given the right tool, the little guy can unnerve and undermine Big Brother.
For Svenonius and his latest band, Weird War, rock music is that tool—and they’re at least half-serious. The group’s just-released album, If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Bite ’Em, is filled with metaphorical nods to its revolutionary mission, perhaps none more emphatic than “AK-47”—a “fight-the-superpower” battle cry, Svenonius allows, that “could be construed as vulgar, especially in a war climate.”
Apparently Big Brother thinks Svenonius could be construed as potentially dangerous: The rocker says the Secret Service paid him a visit recently. He won’t belabor the specifics of the incident, nor will he say much about the lawsuit threat that forced Weird War to revert to its original name after a year or so as Scene Creamers. The latter name “was taken away from us by the people [Lettrists, or graffiti artists] who originated the phrase in France in the late ’50s,” he says. So the little guy got beaten by the littler guys this time around.
Turns out D.C. native Svenonius, who got his rock start with the fabled leftist group Nation of Ulysses,
doesn’t like to go into the specifics of anything that could be construed as personal. (“I’d rather not talk about that stuff,” he says.) Sometimes, that includes his music: Though he’s a long-winded, cerebral talker, he speaks mostly in abstractions, and in an hourlong conversation, the “dance anthem” “AK-47” is the only one of Beat ’Em’s 11 tracks he’ll say much about. The album is informed by funk, black rock, and psychedelic rock, he says, but he won’t venture any more.
Svenonius and his bandmates Michelle Mae (who like Svenonius was a member of the Make*Up) and Alex Minoff recorded Beat ’Em at the celebrated Key Club in Benton Harbour, Mich., using Sly and the Family Stone’s old Flickinger 24-track. The board produces “a distinctive flat sound like many records made back in the mid-’70s during Sly’s reign,” Svenonius says. Musically, there are similarities between Weird War and other bluesy guitar-rock groups, particularly those also recording in Michigan.
Weird War’s melodic, angular rock may respect the genre’s past, but it’s hardly reverent about it—the band is “out to subvert the form…the meaning [of it], what it is, its complacency,” Svenonius says. “Rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be making all these rebellious gestures,” but from Elvis Presley to Kid Rock, “there’s nothing rebellious about it. It’s just more of this, ‘I’m an individual against the mythical Establishment.’” The ugly truth, Svenonius argues, is that rock ’n’ roll has always been aided and abetted by the Man.
“Rock ’n’ roll was a Cold War weapon,” he says. “The reason it attained prominence in the postwar period is because it was the triumphalist cultural export that the United States used to colonize the world. So in a sense, what we’re trying to do is infiltrate this form and to subvert it with a different message.” And that message is? “The medium’s the message,” Svenonius says. It’s rock ’n’ roll, recast as a slingshot and aimed at Big Brother. —Doug Rule