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D.C.’s resident renaissance man of punk Ian Svenonius is wrapping up a busy year with an even busier weekend ahead: His band Chain & the Gang plans to play some songs from its upcoming album at Comet Ping Pong Friday, and his new film What Is a Group? premieres Saturday night at Meeps in Adams Morgan.
What Is a Group?, starring Chain & the Gang bandmate and Priests singer Katie Alice Greer, marks Svenonius’ first foray into the world of filmmaking, an art form that strikes him as less nichey than rock music. (It’s more passive, he says. “You can just sit in a dark room on Quaaludes and enjoy.”)
Looking back on his year of high-concept dabbling, Svenonius talked to Washington City Paper about his new movie and his thoughts on film vs. music.
Washington City Paper: I haven’t heard much about your new film. Can you tell me more about it?
Ian Svenonius: It’s called What Is A Group? It’s sort of tied to the book I released early this year, which was Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock & Roll Group. It’s a documentary but it’s also a science fiction film. It’s an all-new genre of film, and that’s to maximize its potential for film festivals. But it’s also a rock ‘n’ roll movie, in the style of Blackboard Jungle or Espresso Bongo.
WCP: What was your roll in production? Did you direct it? Were you in it?
IS: I directed, produced, edited, and I do have a cameo role.
WCP: What was the production process like?
IS: Well, it’s shot in 16 mm. I edited it at home, put the sound on. Stuff like that. You know, it’s a film.
WCP: You said it’s a sci-fi documentary that’s also a rock film. Explain?
IS: It shares some of the traditional narrative of the early rock ‘n’ roll exploitation films. Kind of [an] exposé of the industry, a warning to ingenues about the pitfalls of the industry. It serves a lot of different roles. I think nowadays, those of us who don’t have 3D on our side, we have to really triangulate.
WCP: Do you think fans of your music will appreciate the film?
IS: The music of my group Chain & the Gang, it’s for a niche audience. It’s really not [for] most people. In fact it’s for very few people. It’s a private affair, a family of fiends. But this film is captive and it’s sensual. Music is confrontational and requires people to stand up a lot of times. But the film is passive, you can just sit in a dark room on Quaaludes and enjoy. You don’t have to leave your house, so I think that it potentially has a much wider audience.
WCP: Would you say, in that sense, film is an inferior art form to music?
IS: It’s more the cool medium, you can just have it playing in the background. It depends on the kind of music. There’s a lot of music you could have that’s like wallpaper and that’s great too. But Chain & the Gang, we play music in the tradition of like late ’50s, early ’60s, 45 records that are short, sharp shocks. They require a little bit of engagement.
WCP: Tell me about this recent music project of yours, Escape-ism.
IS: Yeah, Escape-ism is a sound-found dream drama. It uses a lot of sound-effects records to create a kind of fractured dream narrative, and it’s actually inspired by radio programming like sportscasting. Like listening to basketball games, play-by-play radio. It’s just inspired by AM radio.
WCP: How do you set up a stage for that?
IS: Chain & the Gang is pure showbiz. It’s like a group thing, the Nancy Sinatra show. There’s no point at looking at Escape-ism. Escape-ism is best if you just close your eyes.
WCP: What are your plans for Chain & the Gang right now?
IS: We have a record that Brendan Canty just finished producing. Hopefully that will come out in April.
WCP: Earlier in the year you played some reunion shows with The Make-Up. Do you have any more plans to do anything with that?
IS: Well that was really fun, and it felt like a triumph, but now we just don’t have time. We’d love to do it in the future at some point if anybody cares. I think we all had a really good time.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery