- On the phone, Tampa, 1998.
Ian Svenonius, vocalist of Nation of Ulysses, The MakeUp, and Chain and the Gang, remains tied with David Yow of Jesus Lizard as the greatest rock n’ roll frontman of my lifetime— though Ian maybe wins, for doing his whole shtick without aid of booze. No one is more stylishly intense in concert, or as intelligent in interviews. I have read every interview Ian’s ever done, and every word he’s written. He’s not Chuck D, but I’ve loved and followed Ian Svenonius closely for almost 30 years. Whether he likes it or not…
Living in Florida — a state that most rock bands skip — my bandmates and I had really built Ian up from afar. We rarely got to meet our musical idols and so, when The MakeUp booked a Florida tour in 1998, I fucking had to interview him. I called the man twice at his house in DC from my desk at the St Petersburg Times, and tripped out when the British guy who introduced The MakeUp on the band’s live debut Destination: Love, answered my phonecall. Then my heart fluttered when MakeUp bassist (and Ian’s supposed girlfriend at the time?) Michelle May answered my second call and told me Ian was gone for the moment “at the health food store.”
I finally got him on the phone for an interview that was so long it seemed to annoy him. Otherwise, I found him as intelligent as expected. He indulged my every fanboy inquiry, while also seeming to subtly mock my overabundant interest in him — which even at the time seemed fair, and very in character.
2. Live in Orlando, 1998
My bandmates and I drove all over Florida to soak in every MakeUp show while we could. I brought a copy of the article I wrote about them to the band’s Orlando show. Before the show, outside the club, I nervously approached Ian: “Hi, I am the reporter you spoke to in Tampa. I wrote this art — “ at which point Ian interrupted me with a deep, surprisingly sincere hug.
The concert was as good as I’d hoped. The MakeUp’s call-and-response “gospel yeh yeh” sound, in peak form, turned the whole audience into a congregation of participants rather than spectators — or, as Ian had put it during our interview, “We’re trying to belie the trend in the industry, which is to downsize the productive element and increase the size of the consumer body. Including the entire audience in the performance expands the producer base.”
At that show, I think I maybe even cried a little. So fucking good.
3. Live in Tampa, 1998
My band’s bassist, Jack, had booked The MakeUp’s next FLA show that week in Tampa. My girlfriend and I spent days beforehand lovingly screen-printing artful flyers, while listening to the band’s new album, Sound Verite.
On the night of the Tampa show, with full club access via Jack, we over-excitedly followed the band members around everywhere, even rudely entering their dressing room as they changed into matching stage outfits. We were, admittedly, a little too excited to be around them. The band remained gracious though — until Ian eventually turned to us as he buttoned his shirt and said, “Maybe we could write a song for you, perhaps? A Svenonious/May/Canty/Gamboa original?”
He smiled when he said this but, acutely tuned in to Ian’s particular blend of sarcasm and sincerity, I felt deeply embarrassed, and left them alone the rest of the night.
That Tampa show was even better than Orlando’s — maybe the best concert of my life, to this day. I definitely teared up that time, and we all screamed along until we’d lost our voices.
4. Live in Tampa, 2000
At the time, my sister and I piloted an electronic pop duo called FunKruze, which opened for the MakeUp the next time they toured FLA.
Though honored and thrilled to open for America’s best live act, we immediately felt something odd brewing within The MakeUp camp. Lots of folks in attendance mumbled quietly about bassist Michelle May, sitting at the bar with her hand in the back pocket of a handsome indy rocker, who turned out to be The MakeUp’s new guitarist. We didn’t know which was weirder: that Ian and Michelle had broken up, that they were still in a band together, that the MakeUp had unceremoniously added a new member, or that this new member was also Michelle’s new boyfriend…
I made a point to mostly leave Ian alone that night, since I’d already met him last time, interviewed him, picked his brain clean, and felt no reason to bother him further. I may have said “hello,” but nothing more.
After FunKruze played our opening set, a friend went and asked Michelle May what she thought. “They were better than most of the bands that open for us,” she replied. Good enough for us!
The MakeUp rocked well, but their stage energy felt…off. Subdued, almost. When that tour wrapped weeks later, the best band I’d ever seen broke up.
5. Live in New Orleans, 2002
Years later, I moved to New Orleans, and saw that Ian’s newest band, Scene Creamers (still featuring Michelle May and her guitarist boyfriend) had scheduled a show on Mardi Gras night at the Shim Sham club. This new band sounded good, but lacked vital energy. Aside from my two friends, my girlfriend and me, the club was almost empty — a striking difference from those 100% packed MakeUp shows.
The leader of Nation of fucking Ulysses did not deserve this apathy! Not even on Mardi Gras day.
The empty room seemed to give Ian a negative attitude about Mardi Gras in general. From the stage, he made a few disheartening quips about “krewes.” In an attempt to make the show more fun for the poor band, my girlfriend danced up to the stage mid-song and tried to hand Ian a strand of Mardi Gras beads.
He wanted no part. With a dismissive wave of his expressive hand, Ian silently shoo’d her away. My friends and I laughed, but were also mortified, and slightly embarrassed for our hero.
For someone who fed off the power of the congregation, to not “get” Mardi Gras seemed like a serious lapse in judgement/coolness.
6. Live in New Orleans, 2009
In the meantime, Ian Svenonius began releasing books of his famous faux political propaganda, the first being the brilliant tome, The Psychic Soviet. In that book (as in all of his books) he gives a lot of advice about being in a band. In Psychic Soviet, he wrote something ironic and funny to the effect of, ‘You spend your whole life trying to create fans, and then when you succeed, your fans find a way to make you miserable at every turn.’
I imagined him picturing me when he wrote that.
Still, I showed out next time Ian came through New Orleans again with his new group, Chain and the Gang. That time, he’d smartly called on the help of his old friend, genius one-man-band Quintron, who booked the band to play at his home, Spellcaster Lodge. But despite Ian’s band sharing the bill with famous former Beat Happening singer and Dub Narcotic Records founder Calvin Johnston, that show, on a weekday night, still only attracted a few dozen fans.
Always ready to support Ian’s efforts though, I’d brought money to buy the new Chain and the Gang vinyl record, Down with Liberty…Up with Chains. However, I’d learned from befriending Chuck D a few years earlier, that there comes a point when you’ve asked your favorite artist every possible question, and your relationship to them no longer has any purpose. And so I made a point to wait until Ian had left the merch table, and bought the record from Calvin Johnston instead.
And that’s the story of the time I met Calvin Johnston.
7. Live in New Orleans, 2012
When Chain and the Gang swung through New Orleans again not long after, I wanted to help his situation. Having watched Ian (the greatest frontman ever) play poorly attended local show, I feared he may never come back to New Orleans, and so decided to interview him a second time, for the cover of AntiGravity.
By then, I’d practiced my craft for years, and so did a great interview — though my over-enthusiasm still shone through and seemed to embarrass him a bit. Regardless, I remain proud to have gotten Ian Svenonius a local cover story.
At the following show, since he and I had recently spoken, I again felt comfortable saying hello in person. I brought a copy of AntiGravity magazine to the show, along with a few of the books I’d published.
My friend Rob Cambre and I approached Ian outside of Siberia on St. Claude before the show. I said “hello” and began a conversation. Ian quickly interrupted me to point at Rob’s shirt, which featured eternal New Orleans showgirl, Chris Owens. “Who is that?” he asked Rob.
Rob took over, and explained as best he could the majesty of Chris Owens. Upon Rob’s last word, Ian dashed into the club, ending our conversation. I had no chance to give him the magazine or books.
Almost no one attended that weeknight show either, despite my cover story (proving to me, once and for all, that even the best music journalism does not really drive show attendance). This time though, Chain and the Gang totally killed it in that near-empty room. Ian’s smart stage rants and energy had seemingly returned to form.
I remember being sick with a bad cold that night though, and so I left before they finished, and instructed the sound man to pass the magazine and books on to Ian. I heard later than he’d thanked me from the stage.
The next day, Ian texted my phone to tell me “thank you” for the books, and for my support.
I texted him back and thanked him for thanking me. After that, we never spoke to each other again.
Epilogue: A reader just reminded me that, last time I visited Washington D.C., I made a point to go catch Ian spinning records as DJ Name Names, and we took a photo together — the lowliest of fanboy acts. He was very nice though. Then last year, I caught his one man act, Escape-ism, at the Spellcaster Lodge, but we didn’t interact.
Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.