With all the hubbub around Celebration this week (see their exciting new future-vision here; check out the crystal-manifesting video for “Evergreen” here), we thought it’d be a good time to re-post frequent Arthur contributor Ian Svenonius’s cover feature profile/interview of the band published in Arthur No. 27 in late 2007. You know, we thought we’d posted it online already but boy were we wrong. Today, we make amends.
Sidenote: the ever brilliant Svenonius, pictured above and on track for a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2011, has a new rock n roll band—Chain and the Gang— and a new record, Down With Liberty … Up With Chains, out this spring. He’ll be co-headlining a two-month tour with the sainted Calvin Johnson and the Hive Dwellers band starting April 8. Details on all of this activity at the Chain and the Gang’s myface page.
Okay, here’s the story after the jump…
Not All Humans Are Bad
Field notes on the rock ‘n’ roll band Celebration by Ian Svenonius
Photography by Stacy Kranitz
originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 27 (December 2007)
Of all the places to visit, my favorite would have to be Earth. There is the strange gravitational pull, the oxygenated atmosphere, the diversity of life on the microscopic level. And of course, the rock ‘n’ roll group Celebration.
I know Earth has fallen out of fashion. it’s decried as being under the sway of a nefarious breed of mammals who are absolutely deranged; whose extraordinary, incomprehensible sadism and greed threatens their entire planet with extinction. In fact, when I’m playing Celebration’s delightful new record, The Modern Tribe, my comrades often condemn them out of hand for the simple fact of their being human.
I have to explain to them: Not all people are bad. It’s mostly just those who are in the odious ranks of the ruling class who organize violence and exploitation for their personal gain. By contrast, their hapless subjects are often capable of creating things that are beautiful—even by universal standards—and can be quite hospitable.
A funny fact about humanity is that they often overlook the features of their planet which we outsiders might find most fascinating or bewitching. The aforementioned micro-biodiversity goes almost unnoticed. Aquatic forms of literature are practically ignored. Likewise, Celebration is—quite criminally—not that well known on their home planet.
There is an innate conservatism with humans I suppose. They hold onto unfortunate habits out of superstition or fear of the unknown. They keep phenomena like class inequity, capitalism, war, and carnivorism hanging around, perhaps in totemistic reverence for their forebears. A kind of ancestor worship, perhaps? Anyway, this kind of mental harness has thus far kept Celebration from reaching a mass audience, which is unfortunate, since their music and performance is affecting and exciting. In fact, with their consciousness, which is simultaneously ancient and futuristic, I can envision Celebration as spiritual and political leaders, replacing the horrid figures the humans do have running the place. A cosmic intervention would set things on this course quite easily, but the space code (strategy dictum 1,08@675,£¢™J75,*6.4º5%33 Chapter IV) of course prohibits us from meddling.
It doesn’t stop us from communicating with foreign species however, as long as we’re just collecting information by asking questions instead of giving tips on technology and the like (see Amendment G, Byline ^¶§∞¢£™¥ 45). Of course even that is rarely done, raising as it does all sorts of complicated ethical questions about the natural development of a planet. But in the present case it is difficult to resist. The Modern Tribe is not just good, it’s intriguing. It features vocals that are lush, scary, beautiful and, at times, almost pre-verbal; drumming that is organic, martial and polyrhythmic; and a mess of keyboards, horn arrangements, and bass synth that is unique in the modern landscape of groups. There are also rumors of nomadic travel, previous groups, marriage ceremonies, and other arcana.
To see what makes the group tick, I decided to travel to the city where Celebration base themselves: Baltimore, Maryland. There, I stalked them from a distance, taking note of their interactions, speech patterns and habits for a sci-fi paperback novel that I might write. (Also I thought it would be nice if we could program some of their charming affectations into one of the new species we are developing back home.) I quickly discovered that Celebration consists of singer Katrina Ford, drummer David Bergander, multi-instrumentalist Sean Antanaitis, and guitarist/keyboardist Colin McCann. Colin has just recently joined the group so as to bring the splendid overdubs featured on the The Modern Tribe to life in a live setting, something that would have been beyond the capacity of Celebration’s original three-piece model.
After a few hours of skulking about, I worked up the nerve to engage Celebration in direct conversation. Sweaty from practice, the band had gathered around a table to eat some kind of bread made of “teff,” or buckwheat. Sean had returned from a long day repairing pipe organs in D.C. Although I knew all about it, having spied him at work, I feigned ignorance and asked him what he does, a conversational strategy humans call “faux naif.” This is the transcript of our chat. (I used intergalactic icon Che Guevara’s journal technique of exact scientific objectivity in transcribing the events.)
SEAN, TELL ME: WHAT DO YOU DO FOR WORK?
Sean: For money, when we’re in town, I work for a pipe organ firm. We go around, we build ’em, we tune ’em. It’s crafty; cutting leather, little tools, some electronic work. Churches, funeral homes, and we do the Masonic Temple on 16th Street, “The Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite.” It’s a pretty cool building. They went really low-security the last couple years.
Katrina: It’s P.R.; they’re trying to save their asses, ‘cos of The Da Vinci Code.
Sean: On tours I hear the tour guides boasting about their organ, saying it’s “the third largest on the Eastern seaboard.” [pause] It’s really quite average.
David: The Masonic Temple in Baltimore is going to be knocked down. They can’t afford it anymore.
Katrina: I think the entire organization is going underground
YOUR GROUP IS KNOWN FOR ITS CATHARTIC PERFORMANCES. SORT OF UNUSUAL NOWADAYS…
Katrina: People seem to be trying to home in on something different. What I’m really excited about in some of the music I’m seeing these days are some really great vocalists.
Sean: We’re all really happy to see the vocals coming back into the music. Where we were growing up, in the Midwest with underground groups in the ’90s, the vocals were getting buried or becoming an afterthought. Now there’s all these bands that are celebrating the vocals. It feels right.
WHAT’S AN EXAMPLE OF A VOCAL GROUP YOU’RE EXCITED ABOUT?
Katrina: That band Grizzly Bear; four guys, they all sing together, and it’s the most beautiful thing. Music’s always the balancing energy of what’s going on the world—or what’s perceived as going on—and because there’s a lot of pain and suffering in the psyche of everyone right now, because of everything that’s going on, there seems to be a throwback to honesty and beauty in the voice. I feel a calling to do that myself. It’s a balancing factor I guess.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL GROUPS ARE, FOR THE MOST PART, MORE VACUOUS THAN EVER. THEY HAVE BEEN REDUCED TO BEING ACCOUTERMENTS IN VANITY FAIR’S “FASHION ROCKS” SUPPLEMENT
Katrina: I think for every counterculture, they find a way to take away the integrity through marketing . . . taking it down to the lowest common denominator. Making it that shallow takes away the power, so the people who are involved, and who believe in it, can’t stand behind it. They make it embarrassing; dumb. Once someone does something like that, it just takes the power away. You have bands like Pearl Jam; I mean I think they’re like CIA operatives in a way, cos they were put in that place to take away the thunder of what was happening at the time . . . “Jeremy”? That had nothing in it. You have a whole idea, an entire movement, and the industry made it dumb by putting bullshit out, supporting bullshit.
David: Assimilationists. It’s been going on for thousand of years.
Katrina: Dark energy. Taking an idea and watering it down. Destroying it from within. They did it in the ’60s. With the Black Panthers.
Sean: The ’60’s was when they figured out how to do it, with Manson.
LIKE WITH BIKERS AT PROTEST RALLIES. ALTAMONT
Katrina: Yeah. Subcontractors. Like in Iraq. But yeah, they’re destroying it. Just going in and creating these bands that, again, take away the power.
David: And the channels . . .
Sean: Seems like there was a time when these superstar bands used to have talent; we just haven’t seen that in many years. There’s no message or relevancy. It’s all under control. There used to be mainstream bands that were talented and were able to explore the outskirts of music. Businesses saw it as a threat and marginalized it. Now, because of that, we have to find new ways to get music out there. Which seems to be happening with the demise of the record industry.
HAS MUSIC BECOME SPORTS WITH THE INTERNET? WITH THE NUMBERS ON “MYSPACE”?
David: Stats: the Billboard Hot 100 and SoundScan.
Katrina: There’s that site “Elbows” that tells you who are the top 50 most blogged artists of the week.
Sean: Everything’s easily measurable.
Katrina: It’s a good way for Rupert Murdoch or any of those billionaire conservative asshole media moguls to understand where the channels are . . .
Sean: It’s a useful tool.
Katrina: . . . and also where’s the energy going? They can get a real number on the youth. Which is what they want. Cos that’s what they’re scared of. Always. But they’ve never been able to have that number . . .
Sean: Now they have a precise number.
Katrina: Music is trackable now, like sports. But you know how people root for the underdog in sports? I don’t think people root for the underdog in music.
Colin: People kind of do in music, too.
David: Red Sox fans.
PEOPLE CAN’T MAKE MONEY BY MAKING MUSIC ANYMORE, IT SEEMS.
Katrina: I’m all down for music being free . . . as long as people take care of the artists.
IT’S HARD FOR PEOPLE TO MAKE MONEY FROM ROCK ‘N’ ROLL AND YET FOR ARTISTS THERE ARE ALL THESE ART GRANTS. AND FINE ART, LET’S FACE IT, IS TOTALLY UN-AMERICAN. IT’S EUROPEAN. AND FURTHERMORE, NOBODY ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT IT
Katrina: Well, education is the problem there.
GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES FOR CANADIAN BANDS HAVE MADE THEM DOMINANT IN THE USA. IS THIS AN AN ARGUMENT FOR SOCIALISM?
Katrina: I’m all for it for a number of reasons. The Scandinavian countries all have that as well.
Colin: A lot of people aren’t doing what they and could and should be doing because they have to go to work and pay their rent, while their Canadian counterparts are discussing lyrics and ideas over coffee or a beer! [laughter]
David: It’s like Paris in the 1920s.
YOU LIVED IN NEW ORLEANS A FEW YEARS AGO. YOU’VE BEEN DOWN THERE SINCE THE HURRICANE. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?
David: It’s devastating.
Katrina: It breaks my heart.
Sean: It’s amazing how little has been done.
Katrina: It’s the embodiment of what’s going on here in this country
David: They destroyed it; the French Quarter is being [inaudible] but the ghettoes and the Ninth Ward are fucked.
Sean: We saw like 50 acres of mud where houses used to be, surrounded by more and more destroyed houses. And then there were like three FEMA houses; three out of hundreds . . .
David: . . . and they looked like they were made out of cardboard—brightly colored cardboard. They painted them these crazy bright colors to make you not think that they’re prison cells.
Sean: It’s been, what, two years? They looked like those toolsheds from Home Depot.
Katrina: The French Quarter is suffering too. There’s none of the street musicians that gave it its personality
YOU’RE FROM ANN ARBOR, RIGHT?
Katrina: I met Sean in high school in Ann Arbor.
Sean: Then we lived in Chicago.
Katrina: We met David here.
David: Those became the Love Life days. [Love Life is a previous group the members of Celebration were in.]
SO ANN ARBOR TO CHICAGO TO NEW ORLEANS TO BALTIMORE. IT’S LIKE THAT LEE HAZLEWOOD/NANCY SINATRA SONG “MY ELUSIVE DREAMS.”
Katrina: That song is really in my heart.
THERE’S ALSO THE TAMMY WYNETTE VERSION.
Katrina: That’s the first one I heard. Who does she sing that with?
I THINK IT’S WITH KIT N. KABOODLE
Katrina: That song is my life. I moved 25 times before I was 18.
YOU WERE AN ARMY BRAT?
Katrina: No. My mother was schizophrenic. It’s complicated. Basically she thought this karate instructor was out to get her.
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN TRUE.
Katrina: There were a couple of dead bodies. My dad moved a lot because he was a nuclear engineer; he designed nuclear power plants. So after he’d design a power plant he’d move to the next town. So going back and forth between my mom and my dad, I was always the new kid. So, when I first heard that song I was like, “Wow! That is my life.” It’s really sad. [singing] “They are only fleeting things.” It’s so sad.
WHY WERE YOU AND SEAN ALWAYS MOVING SO MUCH?
Katrina: I feel like we were escaping.
Sean: When we left Chicago, we didn’t know where we were going; we just got in the van. We decided to go to New Orleans when we got to St. Louis.
ST LOUIS IS THE HOME OF ICE TEA. NOW YOU LIVE IN BALTIMORE.
Colin: I love the language of this town.
Katrina: Sean and I are homeowners. Something we couldn’t do in DC, for example. Sean and I are talking with Dave Sitek about getting some land, building a studio, completely solar powered. In the mountains. Remote enough that it can be its own thing. Southern North Carolina. There’s really good energy down there.
TELL ME ABOUT THE CONCEPT BEHIND THE NAME “THE MODERN TRIBE.”
Katrina: We’ve been working with the same group of people, like Chris Coady and Dave Sitek. Dave produced our last record and worked on the records we did before this band. We’ve been friends with him for a long time and his band TV on the Radio, we’ve all been working together; whenever they do a record we’re a part of it in some capacity; I sing with them . . . All these studio projects Dave takes on—cos he’s a producer—some or all of us end up working on them. And it’s not only us and TV on the Radio but also all these other bands that are part of this community of people. We all have a similar kind of—not music actually, the music’s all very different—but we all have the same kind of feeling about . . .
David: Philosophy of life.
Katrina: How we see the world, what kind of energy we want to put into what we do. So it’s kind of like a family, or a tribe. I wanted to name the record in a way to give thanks to the opportunities and the experiences that we gained being together and working together on music; it’s been a journey and this is part of it and we feel like we kind of all grew together: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Dragons of Zinth, the horn section of Antibalas. We wanted to say “thanks.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DRUMS? IT SOUNDS A BIT GLAM ROCK, OR LIKE SIOUXSIE OR ADAM AND THE ANTS. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT?
David: I don’t think about it. It just comes. But yeah, I like hitting toms. I listen to a lot of African, Indonesian, Indian music.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT ALL THE ANIMAL NAMES WITH THE BANDS THESE DAYS?
Katrina: It’s fine. It’s just the way we are. It’s fine cos I’m glad there’s more attention to nature.
David: I’m glad they’re diversifying the animals now. Before it was just wolf, wolf, wolf.
WHAT ABOUT AMERICAN’S OBSESSION WITH DOGS? IS IT BECAUSE THEY’RE HIERARCHICAL?
David: They’re so obedient.
Katrina: Well, that is part of a Native American lore. Native Americans speak of animals as a single entity. Like “wolf” energy. Wolf and dog are different; dog is loyalty and obedience, but also being part of something greater than the single one, a unity which is really beautiful. There’s something really beautiful about that [so many bands with wolf names], even if it’s a little repetitive.
Colin: People are getting farther and farther away from the animal, so the artifice will be more of that and less in real life. In performance there is less of “the beast.”
THIS IS PROBABLY THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY PEOPLE HAVEN’T LIVED AROUND ANIMALS.
Sean: Are livestock “animals”? I read this book by John Fire Lame Deer. It talks about how livestock are hardly animals. They’re weak creatures. They’ve been inbred by humans for thousands of years. Being fed genetically engineered corn. It’s sad.
WHAT NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBE ARE YOU?
Katrina: I’m Cherokee. Really far removed. My family is from around Greenville, South Carolina. Hillbillies, Smoky Mountain people. So my great, great, grandfather was Spanish and he moved to America and took a Cherokee wife. And on my grandmother’s side they have Cherokee too.
WITH DOWNLOADING, THERE IS LESS OF THE FETISH OBJECT AND WITHOUT IT THERE IS NOT SO MUCH ALBUM ART. IS THAT ERASING CONTENT IN BANDS?
Katrina: I think it’s old-fashioned of us to be attached to those objects.
WITH LESS COVER ART BEING PRODUCED, ARE YOU EXCITED TO WASTE FEWER MATERIALS?
Katrina: I’m excited about it! [laughter] I love artwork and records. But I guess people are tweaking out their mySpace pages in the way they would have their record covers. The medium has just changed.
Colin: There are no lyric sheets . . .
Sean: People want to consume more and faster, have a shorter attention span. The two are inextricably linked to one another. The disappearance of the iconic artwork is the same as people wanting to see more . . . new stuff and the shorter attention span.
Katrina: People don’t idolize one thing as long anymore because of the over-saturation.
DAVID, YOU WERE JUST MARRIED?
David: Yes! It was fun.
Katrina: The cake was great.
David: You keep the top for a year. Have it on your first anniversary.
Katrina: Sean and I did that. You put it in the freezer and thaw it after a year. Or you can bury it in the ground. Wrap it in cabbage. Or a sheep’s stomach.
David: Have some fermented cake. Like those eggs.
At this point , as per dictum JºººGºººL§¶•∞¢££™¶¡54•ªº–≠“‘Pt. 3, I had to leave. Otherwise my membership in the SBRL would be revoked. Unfortunately, I still had so much to ask them. I could have talked all night as a matter of fact. But I felt good that at least I could take the recording of my conversation back to my home planet, transcribe it into a fanzine and proliferate it, so as to let my comrades throughout the galaxy know that humanity wasn’t all gruesome; these particular characters were charming, in fact. Once word gets out, The Modern Tribe will be an interstellar hit record and cosmic justice will be done!