The Nation of Ulysses - Biography
“TAKE THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN BY STORM; Ulysses articulates what you feel, yet fear to speak. . .” Though singer Ian Svenonius’s fevered revolutionary rhetoric often seemed to be a way of speaking that appealed to him rather than a means to an end, Washington, DC punks Nation of Ulysses always presented their band as a militant left-wing sect committed to the transformation of the social world. Dischord Records’ site does not describe N.O.U. as a band at all, but as “a violent separatist political party and terrorist group operating out of Washington, DC in the early 1990s,” just as N.O.U. referred to their zine Ulysses Speaks as “The Party Organ For The Nation of Ulysses.” Some points of the revolutionary program were parodic: for instance, against contemporaries Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy, issue #002 of Ulysses Speaks advocates the Nation’s own “supremacist doctrine, P-POWER. P-Power aligns the disciple with the New People’s Army of the Philippines and lauds that proud people above all others.” Fueled by its own contradictions, N.O.U. was a powerful live band that freaked people out, and their records and texts have moved many others who never saw them play.
Drummer James Canty, bassist Steve Gamboa and guitarist Steve Kroner formed Nation of Ulysses (initially just called Ulysses) with Svenonius in 1988. Second guitarist Tim Green, formerly of Vile Cherubs, joined the following year. The band’s first release was The Nation of Ulysses 7-inch (a/k/a 3 Songs, 1990 Dischord), discordant DC punk with trumpet solos by Svenonius, and after an exhaustive search Sassy Magazine named Svenonius “Sassiest Boy in America” in its October 1990 issue. Ian MacKaye produced Nation of Ulysses’ rave-up first LP, 13 Point Program to Destroy America (1991 Dischord). The N.O.U. contributed a jazzy number to the Kill Rock Stars compilation (1991 Kill Rock Stars) and, in August 1991, appeared at K Records’ International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, Washington; N.O.U.’s performance of “Shakedown” appears on the live album of the event (1992 K). MacKaye returned to produce the great“Plays Pretty for Baby” (1992 Dischord), perhaps the band’s definitive record.
Kroner left the band in 1992. That September, the remaining four members made Nation of Ulysses’s final recordings at the N.O.U.’s Washington, DC Embassy, eventually released as The Embassy Tapes (2000 Dischord). Svenonius, Gamboa, Canty and Kim Thompson then formed The Cupid Car Club, M.P. The cover of that band’s only release, a 7-inch identified on the label as Werewolves! (1993 Kill Rock Stars), shows all four members committing suicide. Happily, it was just a clever trick of photographic fakery: singer and bassist Michelle Mae, Svenonius, Gamboa and Canty then formed a soul band, the Make-Up, who pursued their own interesting path from 1995 to 2001—now with Gamboa on drums and Canty on guitar and organ. After the Make-Up, Canty formed French Toast, and Svenonius and Mae formed their current band, Weird War, which initially included ace guitarists Jessica Espeleta and Neil Hagerty. Green moved to the West Coast in the early 90s and formed the Young Ginns with two members of Unwound; he is currently a member of the Fucking Champs, and records bands (Comets on Fire, for instance) at his Louder Studios in San Francisco. Svenonius is the author of The Psychic Soviet (2006 Drag City), which resembles a pink version of Mao’s “little red book,” and he hosts the internet talk show Soft Focus at www.vbs.tv.