Interview: Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth


First a brief history:

The origin of Sonic Youth dates back to 1981 when Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and then drummer-now-actor Richard Edson first got together. 1982 saw the debut of the band’s self-produced album, Sonic Youth, followed by Confusion Is Sex a year later with a new drummer, Bob Bert. Bad Moon Rising hit the streets in 1985 closely followed by 1986’s E.V.O.L. – at this point drummer Steve Shelley joined the band. Then came a non-album single called “Into the Groove(y),” in 1987, and Daydream Nation during 1988—the latter a breakthrough double album for the band with the single “Teenage Riot” hitting 111 on the alternative charts. In addition, SY was voted Top 10 Best Overseas Artist in Japan, named Best Rock Band by NME, and unofficially released The White Album in ’88 under the pseudonym Ciccone Youth. In 1989, British TV produced the documentary Put Blood In The Music and the band became one of the first underground bands to tour the U.S.S.R. Finally, the big boys came calling and SY decided it was time to push ahead. Looking back, said Moore, “Either we became more professional or sidestep what was happening. For us the seemed too static,” he said. Once SY was promised creative control, the band signed to DGC Records, David Geffen‘s new label, in the fall of 1989. The result – &. The band claims that the step up to the big leagues has had little or no effect on them. Said Moore, “There’s more money in the mix, but we still don’t sound like Foreigner.”

And now: Despite a response from mainstream concert goers (and reviewers—The Salt Lake Tribune called them “…a dreary inclusion,” and the Deseret News felt Sonic Youth and Social Distortion would do better to combine their acts and “…call itself Sonic Distortion, a name much more fitting to the sound”) during their recent Salt Lake stop as part of Neil Young‘s tour, Sonic Youth put on a short but sweet set. 

Sonic Youth then went on to Albuquerque for their next date with Neil Young. Unfortunately, Neil was forced to cancel the show, due to throat problems, and the band found itself with some extra time on its hands before heading to Phoenix. SLUG managed to catch up with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley during this unexpected vacation and here is what he had to say:


SLUG: Will Sonic Youth be headlining its own U.S. tour after the Neil Young dates?

SHELLEY: Well, we’ve already done our own tour – this [the Neil Young

tour] goes into Canada April 1st. Then we go on to Hawaii and Japan on our own. We play Phoenix tomorrow night and then there’s 15 dates or so left ’till the end in mid-April.

SLUG: How did SY hook up with Neil Young in the first place? Was it through your involvement with The Bridge album [ an album of Neil Young songs as done by various artists]?

SHELLEY: He is aware of the song on The Bridge [SY chose to cover Neil’s “Computer Age”], but maybe he was just interested in seeing us.

SLUG: How has response been to SY so far on the tour?

SHELLEY: Overall its been pretty good. We expected a good number of people who wouldn’t be there to see us, and that in mind, its been pretty good.

SLUG: Before the Neil Young tour did you know of Social Distortion?

SHELLEY: I’ve known about them from the punk rock days and that movie they did, .

SLUG: You dedicated “Dirty Boots” to them in concert here, do you like them?

SHELLEY: No, not really, if you must know (he chuckled under his breath).

SLUG: During the show you played Karen Carpenter songs between each of your songs. What was all that about?

SHELLEY: We’ve always played music in between songs and she’s just one of them.

SLUG: What kind of music is inspiring you these days?

SHELLEY: AU different kinds of

music inspires me. From Neil Young to the Laughing Hyenas. Right now, I’m listening to Julie London and Frank Sinatra, but that’s for this week.

SLUG: The band’s been together now for about 10 years, has it started to become old in any way?

SHELLEY: It hasn’t become old, it’s just changed in such ways that you don’t notice them as they go by. We’ve become more experienced and we know what we want.

SLUG: Does the band still get along?

SHELLEY: We get along fine (he

said matter-of-factly).

SLUG: Is it hard to recreate the sound live? (SY uses 13 different guitars on stage).

SHELLEY: Well we don’t go out live to recreate those sounds. It’s been recorded now let’s play live is how we think.

SLUG: So what kind of studio did

you use to record Goo?

SHELLEY: 48-track.

SLUG: Do any of you ever produce

other bands?

SHELLEY: It’s usually just a case of having some friends who ask us to help out, but there’s nothing right now that I know of.

SLUG: Among all of your songs, is there a band favorite when you play live?

SHELLEY: Everyone has their own Sonic Youth favorite. But mine is “Teenage Riot.”

SLUG. What was behind the “Dirty Boots,” a love story video?

SHELLEY: Thurston wrote the screenplay on that one …

SLUG: Do you work with the same video director each time?

SHELLEY: We’ve worked with a bunch of different directors. In fact, a video comp of all the songs on Goo is coming out in a month or so using a bunch of different directors.

SLUG: What’s next for SY?

SHELLEY: Well, in May we start writing for a new album.

SLUG: What’s the ultimate goal for SY?

SHELLEY: We don’t really plan ahead. Just kinda take it it comes.

And so Sonic Youth fades into the land of the rising sun. One note here – when SLUG contacted Sonic Youth’s management about setting up an interview, label rep., Zach Phillips, said that the band dropped off of the Neil Young tour for couple of dates when ticket sales were sluggish and Neil had asked if they would perform for half the pay. Supposedly, said Phillips, after two missed shows, Neil asked the band to rejoin the tour at the agreed-upon price and all was right again in Rockdom. Perhaps that was why local radio stations didn’t originally announce that the band was on the Huntsman Center lineup.


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