Cous-cous and the playful radicalism of rock’n’roll: talking to Ian Svenonius and Alexandra Cabral

The Lost Record is a “radical psy-fi exploitation movie” that deals with well, “records, love, control, dystopia, sex, and another bunch of things”, in the words of its sole creators: Ian Svenonius and Alexandra Cabral. In ours, it’s escapism at its best. Escape-ism – that is in fact the name of the primitive, electronic tinged rock and roll musical outfit the “dream drama duo” consists in – has its collaborative try at cinema, and the results are quite enchanting. That is, after all, no wonder: Alexandra is an incredible artist, photographer and director based in LA, while Svenonius is a writer, critic and constant performer, other than one of the best frontmen the American indie scene has ever seen. Together, they started Radical Elite Press, an organ through which they publish The Cellophane Flag, a monthly zine that also features some of their works of art. Substantially, they soar through the liminal space of underground culture, and explore restlessly every corner of it as a way of life. It is indeed completely on their own that they wrote, produced, and shot the apparently improbable love story between “a girl and… a record” that stands at the centre of The Lost Record. Through this powerful relationship, they shine a light on the social mechanisms that stand behind the fetishization of items, and the consequential corporatisation of human beings and feelings, while engaging a reflection on the role of music in relation to masses. On a typical late summer Friday night in September, they presented their new movie in Milan, and we were lucky enough to get to talk to them, and share some delicious cous cous together. Here is one of the first ever interviews of Ian and Alexandra talking about The Lost Record.

Ian, I was watching this interview lately where you said something really interesting to me: the problem with rock’n’roll music is when it started to take itself too seriously. You were also praising Serge Gainsbourg’s ability to make fun of music by writing pop songs exclusively as a form of entertainment. I was wondering how, in your persona, this conception of music merges with radical politics.

Well, I’ve been typified as a political person, but I don’t really see myself as a political person. People are always like “oh he’s a political punk singer”, but I think that the idea that somebody’s political is absurd. I think Serge Gainsbourg is very political. I don’t sing anything explicitly political, it’s just emotional, or an attempt to have fun. I guess what I mean is that self-seriousness is typified by a lot of post-hardcore, kinda grunge music which is really just like… I mean, you really see why rock’n’roll died when you see that! Things have to be playful, and as far as radical politics I do think you have to be playful, too. I mean, the reason the so-called Left is so horrible now is because it is anti-fun. They’ve taken on this insanity about the way people are supposed to live their life and there’s not even a program at the base of it, it’s just about feeling bad – they’re like “oh we are creating a better world” ok, what is that world? These modern liberal politics – there’s nothing to them. It’s just a kind of form of religiosity. And I mean, I love religion, I think it’s really fun – when it’s fun it’s great! If you go to the cathedral and you’re enraptured by the beautiful art and you’re flagellating yourself and you join a convent – I mean, that’s totally fun, but this kind of modern fake politics is bullshit – that’s not fun. Let’s say you are a 14 yr. old punk rocker and you are like “uh fuck authority and fuck the Church” and you’re into radical feminism or whatever, you’re into all this stuff – that’s great! But it has its strength because it’s a reaction to the hegemony. With modern politics, what you have is that people who are controlling the narratives are trillionaires who are using the politics of a 14 yr. old punk rocker to control society… so it’s no longer the 14 yr. old, powerless in their parents’ house and they’re like “oh I’ve got this crazy opinion”… no, those ideas are now coming down from the top and are being used just to create a prison camp. So we have to recognise that the things we love are sometimes used against us – and you can look at religion in the same way.

What do you think of the idea of living life as a continuous theatrical performance?

Alexandra’s grandparents were Shakespearean actors and when she talks to me about their life everything is theatre, I feel like she has more theatrical sensibilities than I have. But it’s interesting that you say that because now with surveillance society everybody’s kinda on stage all the time. We construct a persona and act particular ways, and you always have this idea you are going to betray your true self. But then you wonder “well, what is this true self and when did I construct it?” It’s interesting because if you’re in a band or an artist in any kind of way, you almost have this track record where people are holding you and you feel like having a kind of tattoo. Let’s say you get a tattoo of Mickey Mouse when you’re 12, then you feel you’ll always have to be loyal to Mickey Mouse. It’s weird with music because you put out a record and you feel like you have to maintain that persona, band and anything you’ve constructed well… Forever. I’ve been on a project for a couple of years now demolishing all of that persona – and The Lost Record is part of it.

Getting to The Lost Record perfectly in time for my next question… There was the depiction of a dystopian world in the movie, which was very clearly displayed through the erotic side of it. I was wondering if there are any dystopian works of fiction, or sci-fi literature that have influenced The Lost Record.

Absolutely… I mean, Elio Petri’s The Tenth Victim was the main inspiration. We are also really inspired by Santiago Álvarez, his collage work is something you should check out if you are not familiar with it. But as far as dystopian, we love Rollerball and all that kind of sci-fi stuff. But also, you don’t need sci-fi because we’re living in it. Basically, this is the deal: in America, there’s this thing called the Supreme Court that shapes our reality a lot. We live in this legal corporate state that makes the Supreme Court decisions very substantial. They made a decision about ten years ago: they said that corporations are humans, and they have the same rights as a human being. So, if the corporation is a human, then a human is a corporation. Nine months after this decision, Instagram is born. See, Instagram gives people the ability to corporatize themselves, so in a world where everyone’s a product, love is a commodity fetish. I mean, I’m certainly in love with items, and records, and things like that. We have relationships with these things, and the protagonist of the film is a product rather than a human.

For what regards the aesthetics of the film, I was amazed by the late 60s designer vibes of The Lost Record, which I guess reflect your taste in fashion and design. But are there any further reasons why you chose them as a setting for your story? How did you come up with them?

IAN: Alexandra’s really good at making things look like… you know, she’s great at framing things beautifully… ALEXANDRA: So, the whole film was shot on an Éclair – a French camera from the New Wave. And then the Rudi Gernreich’s Archive donated a lot of clothes for us to style the actors. IAN: He did all the clothes for Space 1999, and If you watch the movie Mondo Hollywood he has a little section in it, as well.

I’ll have to be honest here: I first came across your name as the lead singer of the post-hardcore pioneers Nation of Ulysses. And that’s thanks to a YouTube video where you played the Sacred Heart Church in Washington with Fugazi, whose ethos and sound we worship. Can you give us a little account on how it was to live and play in that legendary DC punk scene?

It’s actually funny that that’s a common video of us because we played so many shows, but the show that’s on the internet is one where our guitar player didn’t show up! Anyway, when I was like 13 or whatever I discovered all that stuff, I started listening to college radio and then I very quickly found out about Dischord and DC punk… and they were really heroes to me. As a teen I was going to art school and I was in class with Mike Fellows, who was such a huge hero to me because he was in Rites of Spring, but he quit them. And then basically, I moved in with these guys: Guy and Brendan and Mike Hampton and it was like 10 people… that entire generation, you know. I started my band with Brendan’s brother, and we were just a shitty band, we weren’t taken seriously. But then at a certain point Calvin Johnson came to town, because he’d been on tour with Fugazi and his mother lived in DC. He saw us and he was like “you guys are great, I wanna put out your record” and he gave us confidence. And then we went on tour with Fugazi, they were really our great friends and you know, they still are my great friends. Actually, Brendan helped mix the film and Guy helps edit my magazine. These guys are really important people to me. But anyway, at the time there was a real underground culture and I think that Italy reminds me of that in a way, because there is a bit of localism, and you can still do things here on a level that isn’t just based on some Internet Pitchfork bullshit, you know? In America, that’s kind of gone, because the Internet is destroying culture. That’s what I think.

Photo credits: Miriam Marlene, unknown where not cited.

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