Nick Earhart on the ghostly discussions in Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group.
At the heart of Ian Svenonius’s witty, incisive new book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is a remarkably simple question, something teenagers have been asking each other for years: How are we gonna start a band? Svenonius, who is a lifer punk himself, playing in groups like Nation of Ulysses and Weird War and host of the Vice TV series Soft Focus, turns to some unusual sources for an answer: dead rock stars, contacted via séance from beyond the grave.
Brian Jones shows up early on. So do Buddy Holly and Mary Wells. Svenonius writes that “the voices of our ghosts are unrecordable, so we hurriedly transcribed their words directly onto the pages of the book.” But the spirits all sound alike, and they all sound like Svenonius. It’s hard to believe Brian Jones would ever say something like “the rules of comportment are always abstract, arbitrary, vague, and more aesthetic than purely logical.” But then, Svenonius makes no effort to characterize his subjects in any meaningful way. Instead they’re interlocutors, giving him some wiggle room to make high-flown arguments about—among other things—the Cold War, selling out, drug use, recording technology, cultural imperialism, and sex.
Svenonius points out again and again that rock ‘n’ roll is as much about ideology as it is music. His argument could be summed up in the conversation with Richard Berry, who wrote “Louie, Louie,” maybe the most essential rock song of all. Berry, his ghost, says, “Since the USA is a nation founded on the ideas of individualism, rebellion, evangelism, white supremacy, black slavery, expulsion of native peoples, expansionism, commerce, and industry, these values all play a part in the formation of the USA’s primary and arguably greatest cultural export.” He is talking about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, its world-shaking power, and its unique ties to the great and horrible threads of American history. It’s the identification with American culture, Svenonius seems to be saying, and the dread and confusion that comes with it, that gives rock music its propulsive force.
Bee Mask’s Chris Madak spent the better part of the last two years constructing his new album. Now he reflects on the conceptual threads running through it.
There is a lurking strangeness in the music of Philadelphia-based composer Chris Madak, who records under the half-silly, half-terrifying moniker Bee Mask. Like sometimes tourmate Oneohtrix Point Never, Madak uses synthesizers and scraps of nostalgia to conjure a sonic world that defies the usual parameters of noise and pop. In part undeniably catchy and in part incredibly abstract, these tracks are constantly eluding their center. They are hauntingly subdued, quasi-human, and dramatic; far-out but felt. Bee Mask’s is an artificially intelligent music reminiscent of that moment in sci-fi stories when technology turns in on itself and gains a glimmer of human consciousness—think HAL 5000 or Johnny Five.
My talk with Chris—an e-mail exchange, actually—was surprising on a number of levels. To hear him wax philosophical on everything from Platonic forms to the evils of streaming video to the nature of time itself can be a disorienting experience. You want to think the guy behind a project like Bee Mask possesses a laconic minimalism across the board, but, then, that’s just not the case. After reading his responses to my questions, I was at first a little stunned. He had successfully gone in with a little scalpel and dug out the bits of the questions that seemed to him to ring false, and then filled in the empty space with his own ruminations. But then this approach is similar to the one that he takes to composition. Instead of hearing the music as ultra-minimal and restrained, I started to think of it as a reduction of sorts—a block of sound, bit by bit reduced of its superfluous parts.
Chris’s approach to this interview was unconventional as well. He responded to my questions—which became more like prompts—with an unexpected richness and enthusiasm. He talks a bit about his excellent new album, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears, out now on Spectrum Spools, and instead of offering the usual “mixtape” of YouTube videos, gives his thoughts on the shifting meaning of artistic responsibility. Feel free to read the small print.
Nick Earhart on the unstable, hallucinatory afterworld in Miranda Mellis’s The Spokes.
In Miranda Mellis’s short novel The Spokes, the narrator, Lucia, embarks on a journey to the afterlife, to reconcile the apparent suicide of her mother, Silver Spokes. It is “a realm whose primary substance is not time,” a hazy echo of our own, living, world. The dead wander confused and purposeless, pondering questions of existence. Musicians play age-old tunes to fill the cold air. We meet gods who are clueless and spaced-out kids who talk to their hands.
At first, it’s unclear what Lucia has in mind for her trip. A customs agent warns her not to eat the food, which, of course, she does, almost upon arrival. She speaks of a unique sort of “jet lag,” and for the first page or so, it’d be fair to think she had boarded a cruise ship to the Bermuda Triangle or some other vertiginous land. But once she sees her mother, it becomes apparent what this story is really about: relationships in peril and the fallout of a catastrophe that could have been avoided.