Sonic Youth: Interview
In Smaller Steps, In Smaller Pieces
If I've learned anything about Sonic Youth in my
years of listening to and enjoying their work, it's that every single note they
lay to tape asks its hearers to make a significant investment. This much seems
blatantly clear when it comes to feedback deluges like "Anagrama" or the end of
"Karen Revisited," but I've also found that even the band's most immediate
material is less simple than it first seems. Even the grunge pop ditties on
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star challenge me each time I hear them,
forcing me to recognize new nuances like subtle wavers in the vocal melody or a
barely perceptible guitar stab. So although I may have spent more time over the
past month with the group's latest effort, Rather Ripped, than I have
with any other new release, it still hasn't revealed itself to me – hell, I just
got around to feeling comfortable with Sonic Nurse a week before I
conducted this interview. Thinking it better to let Rather Ripped
marinate than pursue banal lines of questioning in regards to it, I saw this
opportunity to chat with drummer Steve Shelley as a chance to glean some broader
insights into his character and the group's dynamic. Just as skimming a Sonic
Youth album too lightly can lead to reductive summaries (Daydream Nation
as the masterpiece, Dirty as the pop record, Murray Street as the
comeback, and so on), reading the band members as simply Arbiters of Cool or
Rock's Ambassadors to High Art misses the meat of the story. Here's one more
conversation to give us more frames and angles for thinking about one of rock's
most uncharacteristic legends.
Sonic Nurse debuted higher on the charts than any of
your albums from the last decade.
Steve Shelley: Really?
Yeah. I was just wondering whether there was any pressure this time around to
continue that success?
Because of the album charting? No, we don't really pay too much attention to
that kind of stuff.
Yeah, that's what I'd imagine. But for awhile there – probably after Dirty,
before Murray Street
– there was a period where a lot of critics and fans were turning away, and now
it seems that no one's saying the types of negative things about you guys that
they were then. Is there the fear that that could happen again?
When you put something out like this, there's always the possibility that people
won't like what you're doing. So I don't know if it's really fear, but always
when you finish a record you wonder how it's gonna be received. And what the
public and the press think about your work once it's been released – that
becomes more real than what you think of it while you're making it.
How do you feel looking back on some of those albums that weren't as well
received, especially NYC Ghosts & Flowers?
I like that album a lot, so I think it's kind of funny, the criticisms that it
gets. I realize some of the limitations of the record or some of the things it
didn't do successfully, but some of the songs I like a great deal. If you like
what you're doing, those criticisms really don't hurt you as much. I really love
some of the spoken word stuff that Thurston does on that record, and that "Small
Flowers Crack Concrete" song is one of my favorites.
And I feel like songs like "Free City Rhymes" were a natural transition into
Does it feel strange to you that – I've read this in a few reviews – that some
people like Murray Street but still discount NYC Ghosts & Flowers
or A Thousand Leaves? Does that seem a bit contradictory?
Well, I don't know if it's contradictory, but yeah, I guess there's this weird
thing where we've kind of done enough of these albums that they don't even have
to stand alone. They can stand as a piece of a body of work. That's kind of
interesting to me. I'm kind of a fan of bodies of work, starting when I was a
kid and liking The Beatles' body of work, or getting older and enjoying Neil
Young's body of work. So to me each record is a piece of the puzzle or one year
on a timeline. They just represent something that happened. It's not like each
record has to mean everything to me. You can kind of say this is their "so and
What do you think of Neil Young's new album?
I've only gotten to hear it a few times, but I'm really enjoying it, and more
than just enjoying it, I'm really glad he did it. I'm really glad that he talked
about the subjects he's talking about, and I'm just a complete Neil fan. I
really love his music. I haven't gotten to sit down with the album as much as I
want to, but so far I'm enjoying it. You know, the ideas on it are very simple,
and they're ones that a lot of us have shared, so I don't feel like he's
teaching me anything new on this record, but I'm just glad that someone like him
put this out there.
I think Neil's an interesting guy to think about in relation to Sonic Youth,
because he's really one of the only people I can think of right now – Johnny
Cash would be another example – who's sustained a really high level of
creativity over a number of decades. He never really fell off like a number of
musicians from his time period. When you started playing music, did you ever
think of it as this thing that would be with you for a number of decades, or is
it something you just wanted to go with until it ran its course?
I don't think it was something we really thought about too much. I don't think
we knew where we would be in 2006. But you dream that you'll have a career, but
you spend more time working on the day-to-day stuff.
Did you guys ever come close to going on hiatus?
No. I think the biggest thing was when
Kim was pregnant with Coco. I don't think we've taken really long breaks.
Does it feel a bit strange to you to be
putting out such consistent albums this far into your career? Do you feel like
you have no grand rock narrative to look to for what your band theoretically
should be doing right now?
I guess I don't think about it too much. I guess we question why bands can't do
that, and why aren't they doing better albums in their twentieth year. Why is it
such a given that people's quality of work goes down? Those are the questions
that come to my mind.
I think one correlation I see is the level of positivity I pick up from you guys
and everything I read about you. I know that when artists tend to start falling
off is when they give the "all contemporary music sucks" interview, and I've
never seen that from you guys.
We're always inspired by things that are going on, so I see what you mean.
What do you think keeps you positive?
I can't really speak for other people,
but I just really enjoy what we do. There's so much music out there that we
do like, whether it's from current times or previous times. You just learn
about something this week and become so excited about it. That type of stuff is
How has your listening changed as you've gotten older?
Of course, your ear becomes more sophisticated, and once you've heard a lot of
things, you can go off and say, "I've heard it before." As much as I'm
interested in this Neil Young record, it's never going to affect me the way
Rust Never Sleeps affected me when I was 16 years old. The things that
happen now are just going to be smaller, you know, adjustments. When I heard
Rust Never Sleeps, it was a major change for me, that I could listen to this
guy's music and learn what I learned from it at that time. Now stuff comes to
you in smaller steps, in smaller pieces.
Is it ever kind of a drag for you, though, that you can't get the ecstatic
feeling that you did when you were 16?
There's different things to be ecstatic about when you're 16 and when
To revisit the topic of your longevity,
does the idea of aging gracefully ever feel a bit funny, as if it's not a very
"rock 'n' roll" thing to do?
No, I certainly don't think we'd like
to age ungracefully or make a quick exit with an overdose or something like
that. The age thing is very odd. I certainly don't feel the age I'm supposed to
feel, but you're also aware that you're not 23 or you're not
33. It's a part of your life, and you know society as a whole is
learning more about aging and how we're all gonna go through this together, but
it's something that everyone has to deal with in some way or another.
The Whitey Album just got reissued, and that album
reminds me of just how much Sonic Youth seems to be obsessed, preoccupied, and
so on with pop culture, and not necessarily in this way where you guys are out
to subvert it or outright embrace it either. It's always this really interesting
line that your music has toed. To what extent do you feel like you and your
bandmates embrace the myth and fantasy of being a rock band, and to what extent
have you rejected it?
That's a tough one. We're very much into the classic – we're big fans of all the
great groups that happened before or after us, and I think there's something
really magical when a band is good or when they play together well or have
worked together well. But also we came from indie rock and we also realize that
rock 'n' roll is a pretty silly thing. And it's a pretty silly job for grown
men, maybe not for women so much, but for grown men to be jumping around on
stage and acting like they're 16 years old in their bedroom with the air
guitar. So I guess we've just been sort of aware of both sides of that, that
rock is a force to be reckoned with, and not to take it too seriously.
Do you find yourself some days leaning more toward one side than the other?
When we are onstage, we're taking it pretty seriously, but then sometimes
something can happen that can feel like a total Spinal Tap moment, and
that knocks you back to the earth if you're getting too high.
It's interesting that you especially, being of a younger generation than the
other folks in the band, have such a reverence for rock. I know that in the
'80s, when you were coming of age as a musician, the big idea behind post-punk
was that rock had run its course and that the electric guitar had a lot less
possibility than, say, dub. What made rock viable to you, and what made you keep
your interest in it when it seemed fashionable not to remain interested in it?
The post-punk thing was a really huge thing, and rock was becoming tired at the
end of the '70s and somewhat at the beginning of the '80s, but the guitar was
always an important thing to me in the music that I liked. I never went through
a period where I only liked synth music or something, even in the early '80s,
because there was the underground, and they used the guitar. Whether it was Arto
Lindsay and DNA, or later with D. Boone and the Minutemen, or Neil Young
throughout all that time, that stuff was really important to me. But through
that time when rock was changing, there were still the traditional people that
you were still interested in. Even the Stones – what were the Stones doing, from
Some Girls to Emotional Rescue... At a certain point, post-punk
became more important to me than rock 'n' roll itself, but we were always sort
of pulling for the [older rock] guys. Even Neil had a tough time in the mid-'80s
creative-wise, with some of the concepts of his records, when he was doing the
rockabilly, they weren't his strongest records ever. But you were still pulling
for these guys, your heroes, to keep up the good work, while all these new bands
were just doing incredible things, whether it was Gang of Four or the Birthday
Party or The Minutemen or Public Image or The Dream Syndicate or Gun Club. There
were just so many things happening that made the early '80s just seem like it
was such a great time for rock music. And I think a lot of us considered that
new music to be rock 'n' roll, too. It's just that our friends and schoolmates
and coworkers didn't consider it that – they considered it to be some atrocity.
What was your reaction when you found out that the Library of Congress was
adding Daydream Nation to its National Recordings Registry?
I don't know if I had much of a reaction. I think it's very nice, I'm happy to
hear that. We weren't able to go to the awards ceremony, because we were working
on this new album at the time, so maybe it would be a bit more real to me if I
had been, but it sounds nice. It's not something I think about from day to day.
It's nice when people tell you you did good.
One thing I've always wondered about – and the fact that you've been talking
about Neil Young has reminded me, along with the fact that you were recently in
Be Here to Love Me, the Townes Van Zandt documentary – I've noticed that
you seem to connect with a lot of singer/songwriter types. Your label even did
the Lee Hazlewood reissues. Has it ever been an ambition of yours to do an album
like that on your own?
No, I think the closest I've come to that is helping out with Two Dollar Guitar,
because I get to play with Tim and we make those records together. But no, I'm
not a singer, I'm not a guitar player. I just like a lot of those kinds of
singers. Townes is one of my favorite, favorite singers. So is Neil. I've been
enjoying Lucinda Williams lately... I've been listening to a lot of Essence.
That's stuff that just goes around. Your record collection changes from year to
year. But I like those kind of singers a lot. I like other stuff too, but you're
right, and yeah, with the label, I put out a lot of stuff like that. I've never
really examined why I like it.
I've gravitated more towards that kind of stuff as I've gotten older. It's good!
It's funny, because I liked that stuff as much when [I was younger]. I think
Neil Young is the culprit, because I liked the acoustic side of his albums when
I was first learning about him and still learning about punk rock. On Rust
Never Sleeps, the acoustic side is so beautiful, and the flipside with Crazy
Horse is just so ugly, ugly-beautiful in its own way, and I guess I'm attracted
You're probably the only member of Sonic Youth I've never heard in an interview
express much interest in abstract art, be it visual, literary, or just noise
music or free jazz or whatever. Do you listen to that kind of stuff?
I do. It's not my forte – the others are much more versed in it, but you're
right, I sort of learn about it through the others. I like taking part in
abstract music, like the SYR 6 we did. We did a live performance with films by
Stan Brakhage, and the drummer Tim Barnes played along with it. That was a
really fun performance, and I enjoy that stuff a lot, but it's not something I
feel like I'm an expert on and can tell you which Wolf Eyes records are
If you weren't doing this music stuff, what do you think you'd be doing with
yourself right now?
Geez, that's a tough one. I really don't know. I'm really fortunate that music
worked for me!