"Lost" Album of the Week: The Scene Creamers' 'I Suck On That Emotion'

On March 9, 2016


It was Johnny Rotten himself who said: “Sometimes the most positive thing you can be in a boring society is absolutely negative." This is true not just for the influence of the Sex Pistols’ music and the punk rock scene that they helped to pioneer in the late-70’s, but for all music in general, and the power it has to take control of society’s ills and exchange it with hope. This connection between the music and the listener is where the “zero point” lies, that epiphanic realization where a song is so real that you feel as though you could’ve written it yourself. The best punk rock songs can capture that feeling in a difficult set of emotions: angst, anger, teenage boredom, and often attach it to ideologies for political liberation. This is where the one-time record by the Scene Creamers, I Suck On That Emotion, comes into play. It’s born of those same needs for movement and mutiny, but welcoming to a much wider audience than punk rock in a traditional sense may allow. Imagine the first Violent Femmes album but with less heartache and more anarchy, with more of a backbone, pure punk rock energy bled out onto soulful rhythms and acoustic instruments.

It all starts with Ian Svenonius, who formed his first band ‘Nation of Ulysses’ in the late '80s. Their first album, ‘13-Point Program To Destroy America,’ was produced by Ian MacKaye (of Fugazi and Minor Threat) and released on his Dischord label in 1991. The liner notes were written in an almost illegibly small print that included instructions on how to remove your fingerprints. Half of the songs ring in at under two minutes, with titles like ‘A Kid Who Tells On Another Kid Is A Dead Kid,’ ‘Target: USA,’ and ‘Atom Bomb.’ ‘Diptheria’ is a slowed-down examination of a drug addict in denial. And songs like ‘Aspirin Kid’ and ‘The Sound of Young America’ open up the record to a freeform jazz influence with horns and woodwinds. While nailing all the classic punk idioms you’d expect, Nation of Ulysses made waves for seeming to satirize the very scene that they were representing, issuing their first record with a propaganda-like front cover and never appearing without a healthy dose of humor. Although short-lived, they’ve been cited as an influence to anyone from LCD Soundsystem to Low. Svenonius attributed their demise to “the advent of digital music and the Nirvana explosion.”

The follow-up band Make Up consisted of most of the same members, but shed the punk rock frictions and focused on a more soul, gospel, and R&B influence, while retaining a holy sense of weird as heard in ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘I Am Pentagon,’ or their instrumental cuts like ‘White Belt’ and ‘Call Me Mommy.’ The same erratic energy from Nation of Ulysses is still there, but coupled with the wild, sometimes strikingly passionate vocal delivery from Svenonius. And behind it all is a much more loose, funky sound, groovier rhythms and warbling organs that allow for a broader scope of emotion and styling. They put out a handful of records in the late-90s, and their sound would more closely identify with what later became Weird War and The Scene Creamers, as their releases began jumping around on small but solid indie labels like Drag City and K Records. In 1997 they were the subject of James Schneider’s “road movie” ‘Blue Is Beautiful.’ It’s less of a tour documentary and more of a longform music video with irregular breaks for political discourse. In one scene at a mid-tour Canadian border crossing, they try to explain to the customs officer that they’re seeking asylum from America indefinitely. Svenonius says: “We have to leave to survive.” Schneider called their performances on this trip an “orgy of energy.”

In 2000, they dissolved the Make Up name and regrouped as Weird War, describing themselves as “the sole answer to the hype-based careerism, empty formalism and vacuity which has infected what was once a genuinely creative underground rock 'n' roll scene.” Svenonius describes the root of these name changes and stylistic differences in a 2003 interview with Free Williamsburg:

[Make Up] went on for five years. We had a five-year plan like Stalin. It was becoming redundant and people were copying us. That's fine. We don't have to do it anymore because they can. The important thing is this is not a career. We have been poor the whole time. People think that they are going to get theirs. People read these punk histories and they think they are the next chapter. That is not true. You can't live like that. You have to live in the time. You can't see it as a career and a commercial end. The Chinese have a saying: "After the mountain, more mountains." You have to set challenges for yourself. Only when you hit rock bottom, then you can create something new. The Make Up was about gospel music. That was our whole impetus. We were trying to appropriate black gospel music. We used that whole forum of sermonizing and music. We are continuing on in that vein with Scene Creamers.” When asked what the Scene Creamers idea was all about, his head-scratching response was: “We were on tour and we went to a hotel one night. In that hotel we had a dream. It was a collective dream. In that dream we knew how to read. We started to read a book which featured the artist Salvador Dali. In the book, he theorized that Adolf Hitler, the famous dictator, was just acting a Wagnerian obsession. Dali thought Hitler loved opera so much, that he wanted to die heroically, in a German way. And when we awoke we were filled with hope. Because we realized that if we could construct a narrative. If we rock and roll people could make a narrative that was similarly made, we could drive our own president to kill himself in his own bunker. He could take a little cyanide pill sewn into his suit jacket. That is what our music is all about.

After just one album, the Scene Creamers found themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit by a French graffiti art collective who went by the same name. Thus, back to the Weird War they went. All of these name changes might’ve made it difficult for their fans to keep up. But the bottom line is that whatever the lineup, and whatever the title, the music was solid and inventive all across the board, always keeping their listeners engaged and intrigued. There is something to be said for a band who can tie important political issues into their records yet not come off as backwards and commercialized as Green Day or U2 have. Keep in mind that a record isn’t bad because it’s political. A record is political because it is good. That is, an album as good as this forces its listeners to redefine what they see in themselves, how they interact with and within society. An album this good is, in itself, a movement.

Of the deep and varied discography Svenonius & Co have given us, I Suck On That Emotion is the most musically rounded by far. It’s the perfect culmination of rock and roll weirdness, and at a much more experienced degree of songwriting and musicianship that could only be cultivated by a deep period of growth in the 12 years since Nation of Ulysses’ debut. Things kick off with the fully danceable 60’s-styled guitar riffs of the album opener ‘Better All the Time’ where Svenonious sings: “When I first met you, I didn’t like you that much. You had the charm of a greyhound bus. But now you’re looking better all the time…” Then there’s the pulsing bass drive of ‘Elfin Orphan,’ or the politically forward ‘Bag Inc.’ with lines like: “I was working for the C.I.A. and I didn’t even know it. I was working for Lou Reed, a walking advertisement for his fantasy…” cementing Svenonius’ distaste for a music industry crowded with so-called money-grabbing careerists.

I Suck On That Emotion was givena 7.5/10 rating by Pitchfork at the time of its release, and the record hasn’t been repressed since its original issue in 2003, with only one copy currently available on Discogs for $60. While Nation of Ulysses and Make Up albums are relatively easy to find online, I Suck On That Emotion has not been made available for streaming, leaving only a few choice cuts and live performances to dig for on YouTube. Ask Drag City Records when they’ll finally give it a reissue. You'll have to actually go crate-dig to hear the full version of this. 

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