There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Black Cat, Sunday, May 12: The scene backstage before the Make-Up goes on is reminiscent of a theater troupe making sure all the costumes are right and the props are in place before a performance. Bassist Michelle Mae affixes her frosty-white lipstick, primps her false eyelashes, and adjusts her improbably real hairdo, a beautiful bouffant that would make the girls in the B-52s swoon. Drummer Steve Gamboa and guitarist James Canty throw on their band’s uniforms (lemon-yellow polyester coats with satin collars and matching slacks, complemented by white leather shoes), while Ian Svenonius, singer, showman, shaman, and raconteur chats with Kid Congo Powers of Nick Cave/Gun Club/Cramps fame.
“All bands worth their salt are based on one movie,” Svenonius declares. “Devo were based on The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
“So what’s yours?” Kid asks.
“Um…we don’t have one,” Svenonius laughs.
The band hits the stage, sans Svenonius, rolling out a funky red-carpet groove for his entrance. He bolts from the wings and runs to the lip of the stage, reaching out to his flock.
“Can I hear you say ‘Yeah!’?” he screams, receiving a smattering of responses.
“Do I have to beg you? Do I have to pay you?” he continues, leaping to the floor and collapsing into a pile of bones, skin, and polyester.
Over the thumping, bass-driven tunes, Svenonius invokes a series of seizured mannerisms, tossing himself around the stage, leaping into the air, falling to the floor, shrieking like a man possessed by the Spirit. The knees of his bright suit are soiled black with stage grime. Svenonius’ persona is a powder-keg mixture of Iggy Pop and James Brown. But Svenonius makes it clear the band isn’t mere theater. Over a watery organ dirge, Svenonius declares the performance and the Make-Up are “more than just chords and riffs on a guitar. I’m not joking. I wouldn’t go so far as to make a mockery of those I play with.”
Svenonius later transcends the punk ritual of the stage dive by going for a stage walk—over the top of the audience. Scores of hands stretch to hold the feet of their preacher as he moves out about 10 feet into the crowd. Lifted high above his pulpit, Svenonius delivers his gospel, all the while egging his band on with shrieks and shouts. The band’s genuine joy in performing is electric; the current passes into an audience of indie rockers brought up on po-faced notions that classic entertainment and message music are two separate entities.
The Make-Up’s debut album, Destination: Love—Live! at Cold Rice, is a rousing collection of beat-heavy punky soul (self-described as the “gospel yeh-yeh sound”), with Svenonius’ manic voice recalling equally the convulsive energy of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and the scrappy falsetto of Prince. Songs like “You and I vs. the World” and “We Can’t Be Contained” are rousing calls for the Gen X rabble to create their own worlds. “Basically, Make-Up is all about redefining ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the problem and the solution,” posits Svenonius.
Despite the Make-Up’s ideological similarities to his former band, the Nation of Ulysses, Svenonius says, “We’re distancing ourselves from the past. The prescriptions are for now. It’s a whole different epoch that we live in. Everything we used to be involved in has been commodified. The conditions we live in are [those of] a post-Nirvana world.” The ideology of the burgeoning D.I.Y. scene in the ’80s was left behind for careers and corporate contracts. But the Make-Up wants to reclaim the ideology and vigor of an independent existence—and that begins by identifying the enemy: “As long as there is alienation,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in The Ecstasy of Communication, “there is spectacle, action, scene.”
“That’s what’s so weird about this post-Nirvana world—that people are so willing to give all that [autonomy] up. I’m talking about controlling the economy and fostering something which allows them to exist in the first place,” Svenonius says. “We couldn’t have ever played music if it weren’t for an underground music scene. What hardcore and punk did all through the ’80s was really valuable because it created an infrastructure for people like us to create things.”
As mouthpiece for the Make-Up, and previously, with Gamboa and Canty, for the Nation of Ulysses and Cupid Car Club, Svenonius is big on spiel. His Ulysses tracts were a caffeinated rush of enthusiasm, intelligence, and knowing comedy. The Corcoran School of Art graduate is indeed an intelligent man. His world is filled with intense theories, some crackpot, others almost undeniable. When Svenonius says that abstract expressionism was a plot funded by an intelligence organization to deprive art of meaning, warning flags fly. But when he describes both Picasso and the Beatles as paradigms of capitalism—their constantly evolving art as metaphors for buy-and-sell throwaway culture—the flags stay folded, and you marvel that such a bizarre idea makes such good theoretical sense. Svenonius is completely aware of his statements’ inflammatory nature, knowing that a reaction can’t be far behind. And the need to evoke a reaction—of any kind—carries over into the Make-Up’s live shows. “We want [our shows] to be more and more dangerous. We want it to be really transcendent or just fail abysmally,” Svenonius declares. “That’s the nature of improvisation…that it’s of the moment, and it’s not total theater.”
As a reaction to all the expressions of ennui that tumble from the mouths of most rockers, Svenonius’ willingness to state a position, however idiosyncratic, is immediately appealing; he carries his urges to the extreme. The Make-Up relights the torch song—not a number that holds out for a lost love, but one that sparks a fire. “A lot of people are reacting to the idea that making music should be unpretentious and passively approached. That’s like the white man’s burden—indie rock or indie pop. Everyone shirks meaning,” says Svenonius. He’s distrustful of how psychology attempts to place meaning in art, and he is attracted to manifestoes because they spell out what something is about. “It circumvents projection of what things are supposed to mean. Everyone immediately assumes that things have an undercurrent or there’s a subtext,” Svenonius says. “Psychology destroyed ideology. Psychology is basically a capitalist tool. The manifesto form is pre-psychological—we’re saying ideology exists.” And despite such stake-in-the-ground claims, Svenonius reiterates that “manifestoes don’t really play that much into Make-Up. We’re more about the evening. The presentation.”
Presentation has always been a part of Canty, Gamboa, and Svenonius’ world, but the band’s fancy stage threads aren’t intended as a lowbrow joke or kitschy effect. “When we wear uniforms, we’re submerging the bourgeois idea of the individual,” says Svenonius. “We are saying that we are a thing. If you look at the Beatles, when they stopped wearing matching outfits, then you started having all these distinctions. The George song, the John song, the Paul song. We’re all wearing uniforms, because we’re all about a similar vision. It has nothing to do with a campy reference to the ’60s.”
But what about people laughing as Svenonius stood atop the crowd? Do they understand that it’s not mere theater? Mae says people laughed because they found Svenonius’ antics endearing. And Canty says he takes the laughter as a compliment. “When you see something you haven’t seen before and you find it to be outstanding, something notable, sometimes you just laugh because you can’t believe you haven’t heard about it before. I’m just glad that people are reacting,” he says. “Respect is something you have to really earn. We’re not assuming that everybody is right away going to respect us no matter what. Eventually, they’re going to realize it’s not a fucking joke.”
“And just because something is entertaining it’s meaningless?” Svenonius asks incredulously. “Having a good time is a positive thing. [A show] shouldn’t be dour. That’s part of the rock ’n’ roll thing. You’re bludgeoned by incredibly loud music. It’s very anti-communication. [Communication is] something that the Make-Up is trying to encourage,” he says.
And the gospel-oriented setup is there to encourage that. “The whole ‘Can I hear you say yeah’ thing, we want to create more of those dynamics so people get more involved,” declares Svenonius. The Make-Up is a focal point for people to gather around. “Gospel is community music where people are talking about what affects them directly. The other thing about gospel music is that it’s congregational-based. It’s not about an artist. It’s about the congregate,” he states. “It’s like James Brown says on Live at the Apollo Pt. 2: ‘Without you, there would be no James Brown show.’ Our club, Cold Rice, is all about giving it back to the people. Or just a place people can hang out.”
Cold Rice, the Make-Up’s weekly club night at Kaffa House on U Street NW, is an extension of the group’s more elaborate, cabaret-style Famous Monsters parties. “It’s low-key, it’s intimate, it’s free,” Gamboa says. “Not to mention some place that plays music that nobody else in the city decides to play,” including soul, dub-reggae, and jungle. “Any place you can see somebody midweek, and dance with them, it’s totally healthy,” Canty says. And “It’s anti-Internet. We want people to leave their houses,” Svenonius smiles.
The Make-Up’s well-developed sense of self-exhibition is akin to that of the MC5 and Devo, both of whom incorporated elements of art-school rhetoric and playful theater in their respective manners, while maintaining a cogent message. The revolution may only ever be in Svenonius’ head, but the poetry in his presentation is undeniable. Joseph Campbell said that the difference between a celebrity and a hero is that a celebrity stops performing after the crowd goes home. After seeing the Make-Up play, you just know Svenonius is always in character. CP