Radical Rock and Roll
The Make Up Are Ministers In The Marxist Church Of Punk.
By Brendan Doherty
JULY 12, 1999: POLITICAL THEORIES IN rock and roll have fallen out of fashion. But in the power center of Washington, D.C., there's a band that still takes the power of the microphone's bully pulpit seriously. They want to rock you. They want you to stand up and feel the power of togetherness. They want to challenge the status quo of rock, and they want you to think. Welcome to The Make Up, ministers in the Marxist church of punk. Their shows are based on sermons from Baptists, and their pop songs are intended to elevate the uninitiated.
"Our last band, Nation of Ulysses, was a political party," says Make Up lead singer Ian Svenonius. "And this one, it's based on gospel. Political people as well as performers have had a habit of retreating into the church. We go there because the church is not subject to the whims of the pop marketplace."
Svenonius blurts out long strings of heavy-sounding semiotic theories. His long philosophical diatribes may just as easily be at home in the countercultural militia, a Ph.D-level American studies pot-smoking session, or the teen diaries of anti-CIA paranoiac Oliver Stone. He is a visionary icon -- somewhat out of place in the 1990s, in a rock band, singing in clubs, and writing tracts and treatises on culture.
Before you think he's secured his corner preaching on the University of Arizona mall, Svenonius and his bandmates have released some of the best-packaged and staunchly independent releases this decade. Svenonius, drummer Steve Gamboa and guitarist/keyboard player James Canty were three-fifths of the Nation of Ulysses (who dressed up like teen delinquents from the 1950s), and Cupid Car Club (whose only release included suicide instructions). Like the Velvet Underground, The Make Up's makeup includes a strong dose of artful representation. They look and sound like a pre-psychedelic Marxist revolutionary band. Bouffant hair-dos, big collars: it's all a part of the presentation.
Reflecting on the Nation of Ulysses, Svenonius says, "We didn't feel like it was useful to continue with rock and roll. The amplifiers had taken control of musicians and made them their masters, just like automobiles. The music in general became loud and the lyrics were more introverted. We listened to gospel music and French yeh-yeh pop of the 1960s. We wanted to utilize the congregant as a member of the group, and reject the star system that is so pervasive."
Rock, says Svenonius during the "rock and roller interview," didn't address any real social problem, but touched a root of teenagerdom. The Make Up, he says, was an effort to use rock as a medium for the uplifting power of gospel, a kind of gospel he calls "Gospel Yeh-Yeh." The band's peculiar and alluring Gospel-rock roux pays deep homage to late '60s punk-funksters Arthur Lee and Love. The mix is composed of faithful '60s pop, performance art and unapologetic D-I-Y attitude.
"We were revolting when we started this band, against the status quo of rock," says Svenonius of the band's genesis. "We were thinking, historically speaking, about the myth of the individual and the myth of rock and roll, and art in America. We didn't want to exert the American paradigm, one that would propagate consumerism and machismo -- you know, all of the typical Old World values. The CIA-funded abstract expressionism, beat poetry, rock -- all of this was based on a vague idea of teenagerdom. This was done to smash any real socialist revolution in the young."
But The Make Up is not all droll cerebral workouts. Svenonius' high-energy performances are nothing short of riveting. He is Prince in a political party and Jon Spencer (of the Blues Explosion) high on Washington wrapped up in one body. There's no question Svenonius believes in what he's doing. Whether it's art or not doesn't matter, as it's so infectious.
Their third and most recent release, I Want Some (K), is a collection of very-hard-to-find singles, including the fiery "Free Arthur Lee," and "Pow! To the People," an uplifting new take on race music. Booty-shaking singles from a dozen labels trace the band's dogmatic career. Stolen images from Jean-Luc Godard films litter the insides of the CD case. On the cover, Svenonius' face is grafted on a scene from a Love film. Inside, the liner notes depict psychedelic colored mock-revolutionary pictures overlaid with entries from Svenonius' diary entries: "Dear Diary, The music ritual will awaken the dewy feeling of self-congratulation and snap at its commodifiers. We will invert the relationship between producer and consumer, and inject spirituality and communism into the depressed pantomime."
The record lifts liberally from 1960s pre-psychedelic music, images, ideas and expression, as if Svenonius and band were obsessed with where American culture dropped one of its most valuable pearls.
"We're not concerned with originality," says Svenonius. "People think that because we play gospel that we're ripping off someone else's culture. Like I'm supposed to only play Irish folk music. Rock exploits the blues, and gospel is the music of exaltation. It's not about innovation, which is the capitalist obsession."
And that star system, says Svenonius, leaves him out, but set up for new criticisms of music, money and the American culture.
"We don't have the money to be a part of the official forms of expression -- film, or TV or radio," says Svenonius. "Being in an underground band, we're all able to do it. It's the last expression available to us. Art is formally obsessed, and it's a money circus. Musicians are cannon fodder. At the end of the day, they are just worms. I do know it's exciting. And we love pop music."
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