In the introduction to semi-farcical how-to book Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock ’N’ Roll Group, author Ian F. Svenonius vows to help readers form a band—one that will “create a myth which might define a generation, inspire a movement, or earn the various other earmarks of rock ’n’ roll success.” As satirical as this statement is, Svenonius has walked the walk. Although he’s nowhere near a household name, he catalyzed the post-hardcore movement of the ’90s with his pioneering group Nation Of Ulysses; from there, he helped spark the indie scene’s renewed interest in soul, funk, and garage rock with The Make-Up. Even today—as the frontman of Chain & The Gang and the host of the online talk show Soft Focus—he remains cool, cryptic, and impeccably dressed, a mod magician with a trick always lurking up his tailored sleeve.
With Supernatural Strategies, he’s David Copperfield revealing the secrets to all his illusions—mocking his own methods even as he demystifies them. In the lead-up to the book’s self-help section, Svenonius transcribes the results of fictional séances with a variety of dead musicians, including Brian Jones, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix. They all speak in Svenonius’ voice, though, a mix of Situationist sloganeering and Theodor Adorno-esque aesthetic antagonism. In that sense, Supernatural Strategies resembles a 250-page version of the liner notes of a Nation Of Ulysses album. But given that much room to roam, Svenonius saunters across some scathingly hilarious and uncomfortable truths. In a chapter about leading a fledgling rock group, he asserts, “[The Velvet Underground], like Apple Computer, Inc., is a brand which, to the minds of its millions of buyers, confers anti-establishment connoisseurship.” While outlining a new band’s priorities, he advises, “If one makes a rock ’n’ roll group, one must eventually make some music. But before that, one must make a photograph of the group.” And in one of many take-downs of the progressively sanitized music scene, he says of today’s indie-rockers, “Their type of music isn’t necessarily ‘bad.’ In fact, it might even be ‘good’ in some sort of way.”
Underlying the snarky polemics, though, is a penetrating—albeit occasionally repetitive—account of the evolution of popular music, from post-industrialism to postmodernism. Svenonius is both a critic of and a cog within that social mechanism, which isn’t lost on him; he builds the book on that ironic bedrock. Even when he gets meta, he does so slyly. A full third of Supernatural Strategies is, in effect, an account of its own creation—and in that sense, it comes across like an essay-worthy prank taken way, way too far. But he commits to his absurd notions and codes with such zeal that they begin to seem sensible. At the heart of his cartoonishly intellectual riffing, Svenonius’ modest proposal rings true: Pop culture as a whole might be better if its fundamental paradoxes—populism vs. elitism, heresy vs. orthodoxy—were embraced and exploited rather than passively consumed. To its credit, Supernatural Strategies makes its takedown of the entertainment-industrial complex as entertaining as its catchiest targets.