Sonic Youth can always be relied upon to produce music that provokes reaction. Since forming in New York in the early 1980’s they have become one of the most influential bands on the planet. Tony Woolgar takes you back to the summer of 1994 and Sonic Youth…
Drummer Steve Shelley, who is over here, in the UK, doing some dates with the reformed Raincoats (just prior to them supporting Nirvana) is sitting in Fiona’s flat fielding questions over the phone as Sonic Youth have another album, ‘Experimental Jet Star, Trash And No Star’ to compound and confuse us with the single ‘Bull In The Heather ‘and a few other tracks were previewed at last year’s Phoenix Festival Steve agrees that it’s a change from the more direct indie-pop of ‘Dirty’ but don’t think the Youth are going back to basics.
“I don’t think we have got that far away from what we were” he explains “there’s so many different things to do, and ‘Dirty’ was one of the things we were interested in. Now I~ think we have, sort of got it out of our system, we’re interested in something else right now. It’s a new mutation of what we do. All of our albums are reactions to the last album in some way.”
So what frame of mind were they in when the set out to make this album?
“I think that we wanted to make an immediate record, we wanted to be spontaneous, and we wanted to write very quickly. We wanted ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’ to come out quickly, we’ve been semi-successful at that.” Steve admits. “We wanted to record some of the album on a 16 track because it has a really nice sound. Wounded up in the same studio where ‘Sister’ was recorded. We recorded the album with Butch Vig again, who recorded ‘Dirty’, so there’s an element each of those albums in there.”
The album opens with an acoustic song ‘Winner’s Blues’…
“”That was done on the last night” Steve reveals, “we were mixing the record and we decided that on the last night we were gonna write a bunch of songs and record ‘em and mix ‘em in just a couple of hours. ‘Winner’s Blues’ was the best one out of that session; we decided to make that the first track on the record.”
So there’s no danger of a Sonic Youth ‘Unplugged’ at some point?
“No, we were thinking of doing an unplugged, but there wasn’t enough time. Steve laughs. “We were going to film in England for European MTV or something, because we won’t be doing a big Rock n’ Roll tour this year, so we thought we could record on video that would look rather nice. I do like, at least, the presentation part of those ‘Unplugged’ shows. You’ve actually got Nirvana playing for 40 minutes, instead of a three minute blip of them. I enjoyed that; and they were able to do things like bring on Chris and Kurt from The Meat Puppets. That sort of thing is very good for this ‘Unplugged’ series. Of course some of it is very tiresome, like the Clapton end of things, or even the Stone Temple Pilots. These guys have put out one record; I am not interested in them doing an acoustic version of their one album.”
”…so signed to DGC/GEFFEN records and recorded a concept album concerning such matters titled GOO. The rest is f**king history dude” – Thurston
Talk turns to the Sonic Youth’s longevity, did they really think they would last this long?
“I joined in 1985 the band had already been together for three or four years at that point, so I don’t think we ever thought about how long we would be a group; we’ve always been very serious about what we are doing, we are all very dedicated to the band, but there is no time frame plan.”
It just kinda happens, doesn’t it?
“Yeah, that’s the way we want to keep it, so it just happens,”
You seem comfortable making music with each other, so time just disappears?
“I’ve been in the band eight going on nine years, until just a few years ago, I was always referred to as the new member, and it’s pretty funny as O had been a member of the band for that long.”
Although they will not be doing a big rock ‘n’ roll style tour, Sonic Youth will be playing the Blast First 10th celebration in December at London’s Sheppards Bush Empire. It will be similar to last year’s 4AD bash at the ICA the Sonic Youth drummer reveals.
“I think a lot of crazy shit will be happening.” Steve explains, “We will bring side projects, and different bands who have influenced us or that we have influenced on different labels. There won’t be a showcase tour. I think I think Paul (Blast First label manager) is planning things to go for a month or two, like something involving Dinosaur one week, then Butthole Surfers the next.”
Regarding, the Sonic Youth part of things, who would you like to bring over?
“I would like to bring this band called Blonde Redhead who are on the label, on that, I will work on. I’d like to bring over Sentridron who’s Lou Barlow, I would like to bring over Otto Linsey, have him play what he wants to play, with whatever sort of lineup, a couple of things like that.”
Sounds like an interesting package…
“And that’s just myself I am sure that Thurston has six other bands up his sleeve, Lee and Kim probably the same.”
The members of Sonic Youth are also involved with numerous side projects, a fact which Steve thinks that they’re more open to new ideas, though he finds some aspect of the record industry extremely frustrating.
“It’s a little bit of a drag,” he admits, “but one of the things with side projects is that we can record them and put them out right away, just slip them out there, so we can get that fix taken care of by that method. Though there are a lot of middlemen involved.” Steve feels that you need them if you want your record distributed worldwide. Pointing out that most English indie bands are on majors in the US. He also points out that the post-Nirvana rush to buy up indie record labels wasn’t planned.
“It wasn’t the bands idea,” he protests, “It sure it’s not the result of selling millions of Sonic Youth records. Nirvana were really overwhelmed with selling millions of records. We have not sold as many. They’ve had fun with us, they have got to sell a few copies, but they have not made a million dollars of us by any means.”
What about future plans, will Sonic Youth be going more experimental?
“It’s hard to say. I think things will get a bit more fragmented for a while, before we become focused again. The next record could possibly be more fragmented. We’re not freaked out by our popularity or anything like that; we are just sort of doing things at that time. It’s not really a thought out thing. We are just sorta going alone and making music that’s important to us at whatever time it is.”
All I can say is keep going.
What follows now is Thurston Moore’s letter to us, after missing the original interview with Tony and Steve. Here the letter, word for word, this is what Thurston kindly sent us in the summer of 1994. A first-hand account of the bands begging’s…
Thurston is 6’6″ tall and plays wild, sun-vol guitar. He sings too! LIKE A DOG WHO ATE A FROG.
He helped start SONIC YOUTH with his luv’r Kim Gordon. Kim you know About: SKE IS HOTT!
They decided not to take music lessons cuz… well, they couldn’t f**king afford it for one thing! But they listened to lots of BLACK UHURU rekkords and Kim mastered her own Kim-style bassisms.
Thurston was interested in building toolboxes which could never be opened!
This activity led him to the notion of sticking slide-rules beneath the rusty strings of his borrowed Teleblister.
The sound was magnanimous and enlightening.
They liked what they did better than B. Uhuru! Not to mention the then reigning AL THEA & DONNA!
Ya, Dub was their call… but they also needed to apply the teachings of theorist WALTER BENJAMIN into their scheme as he (along with M. FOUCAULT and next door neighbour DAN GRAHAM) was instrumental to their primary views concerning “things.”
GLENN BRANCA was thrashing the Soho district with mind=numbing aplomb when he saw a flier that literally jumped off the wall (corner of Greene Street and Prince).
He called Thurston and said “let’s baggie” and Thurston replied “I think the word is ‘boogie’ dude,” at which time Kim grabbed the phone and explained how it was, important that Glen should start a record label, call it NEUTRAL and before anything else, release a record by this new band called SONIC YOUTH which she and Thurston had “formed”. Glen was indeed inspired not only did as she said but went on to compose no less than NINE SYMPHONIES.
Time passed through time’s encomium and Sonic Youth raged a-global and shed their sound/light mystications upon whoever would show up at their “events.”
They decided that the future was to have babies so signed to DGC/GEFFEN records and recorded a concept album concerning such matters titled GOO.
The rest is f**king history dude: THEY FOUND ANSWERS WITHIN BOTTLES OF EROS and within those sightings begin explorations: The new CD/LP/MC is the first chapter post the apprenticeship.
Check it out.