|Photo by Matt Batista|
Modern man has always been ill-equipped to cope with the demands of his history, so he coined the helpful adage “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” to justify his shortcomings. That was of course before Weird War came up with the more elegant solution If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Bite ’Em.
Not by chance is this vampiric inversion of the old conformist pledge the current calling card of one of rock & roll’s most bitingly smart bands. Performing until recently as Scene Creamers, and having released a 2002 debut record in a previous entropic incarnation, Weird War is a collective composed of three Washington, D.C., underground luminaries — singer, conceptualist and agitator Ian Svenonius; bassist and style maven Michelle Mae; guitarist Alex Minoff — and featuring various sporadic contributors of equal notable repute such as Royal Trux, JJ Rox and Azita.
Svenonius’ credentials are particularly impressive. He joined his first band, the Fags, in second grade, though he arguably made a bigger splash in two cult groups of the ’90s that flipped the bird at the Man in great style: the folk-punk guerrilla unit Nation of Ulysses and the gospel-funk outfit the Make Up (also featuring Mae on bass). Under Svenonius’ leadership, both bands mixed and mashed musical modes, took a somewhat loose yet soulful approach to songwriting, and dwelled on ecstatic communion with the audience on wax and particularly onstage — whence they launched trenchant attacks against all sources of authority and squareness.
And today, Weird War still aims to inject the martial energy of a radical propaganda riot into rock, that “quintessential liberal-capitalist art form,” notes via phone the group’s charismatic front man, who is, incidentally, the last man in indie-rockdom to turn down a chance to properly sell out. When über-producer Rick Rubin (or, as Svenonius tenderly puts it, “a bearded representative of odious corporate malefactors”) asked him
to front leaderless political behemoths Rage Against the Machine from a lucrative perch, “Saying yes was not even a choice,” Svenonius says. “If what you’re being asked to do completely subverts the point . . .”
Then you do what any Sandinista would do: You stick to your guns.
Weird War’s latest, out this month on Chicago’s Drag City imprint, does just that, and it does it with the exquisite resolve of an exterminating angel. Thanks to Minoff’s fine guitar work and Mae’s ever-more-powerful bass technique (still drummerless as this goes to print, the group time their live performances to a pre-recorded drum track), not to mention the current climate of grumbling discontent, Svenonius acknowledges that he may well be now better positioned than ever to marshal the sympathies of the sheepishly neutral rock fan.
“Current audiences represent a wider demographic, in the sense that they’re no longer indoctrinated acolytes of a particular set of values,” he says. “You’re not necessarily talking to people who have studied your oeuvre.”
As for those who have, they will note the comeback on If You Can’t Beat ’Em of classic Svenonian themes of self-empowerment through the unapologetic embrace of youthfulness (as in “Kicks forever!”), dance, sexual passion, bon mots and bloodletting.
“If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Bite ’Em is an act of pure aggression against fascist conformity, mirrored even in rock & roll — this supposedly rebel form which is rife with the same empty formalism that you find in the culture at large,” Svenonius explains.
But wait, isn’t good rock supposed to be back now?
“Yeah, rock is back, but its meaning has completely changed. It’s kind of like when they reinvented Vietnam as a heroic struggle that the politicians lost.”
Swift counterattack is the only valid defense against revisionism, and accounts for the deeper, more vicious bite this time around. Whereas Weird War’s eponymous 2002 debut was mellow and jammy, and the 2003 follow-up I Suck on That Emotion dirty and heavy, If You Can’t Beat ’Em shivers with tension, grooviness and promise. Gone are the languid harmonies, replaced by musky mystical vibes channeled through Sly Stone’s old Flickinger recording/mixing board.
“We wanted the murk of those early-’70s dark psychedelic funk records,” Svenonius says. “My old group the Make Up was trying to appropriate gospel music. In this group it’s less about euphoric affirmation; rather, it’s about having the music link a kind of general narrative.”
The cheekily titled disc opener, “Intro (Music for Masturbation),” is a case in point that joyfully climaxes in the face of “sexual anxiety propagated by beer commercials,” but the beastly grooves of “Grand Fraud” are what ram home the “You are either with us or you are against us” message. For no neutral poses are acceptable, and no clichés are self-evident to a group eager to recast the symbol of Soviet aggression into an all-purpose aphrodisiac for these mojo-deficient, emasculated times: When Svenonius tenderly coos “AK-47” and a female voice purrs “Kalashnikov” right back at him on the brutally named “AK-47,” it’s as exciting as Jane Birkin making revolutionary coupling noises to Serge Gainsbourg back in the sexy soixantes.
The album’s coda boldly reworks a parable from Chapter 6 of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung into an inspirational haiku.
“Mao talks about how we take the eating of a banquet lightly — we know we can finish it, and we do it mouthful by mouthful, never in one gulp. It’s of course about killing the enemy one by one, another tenet of disgusting military theory taught at West Point.
“But you have to know this stuff,” Svenonius adds, “because in a sense rock & roll is the collusion of comedy and warfare.”
Likewise flailing between bellicose playfulness and bathos, the music (“with lyrics contained within,” as the record sleeve indicates) preciously holds on to its rough edges.
“It’s an enormously flawed record,” Svenonius notes proudly. “As Dean Martin used to say when he had a variety show in the ’60s, ‘We didn’t really practice it very much.’ Nowadays they practice everything. They make it perfect — except you know what they say: If something’s perfect, it’s really not very good.”
Ergo the imperative to make not a good record, but a weird-good one. And one more thing: If you don’t like it, remember that the musicians cannot be held accountable.
“A rock group is a heroic reflection of a corporate body, and thus it has the same non-culpability,” Svenonius notes. “The Rolling Stones equal Enron. Or, Weird War equals Ben & Jerry’s.”
If you can’t beat ’em, bite ’em.
Weird War open for the Walkmen at the Henry Fonda Theater on Saturday, February 21.