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Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

  by Mark Rowland

published: 14 / 4 / 2004

Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley


Remaining constantly inventive, Sonic Youth are soon to release their nineteenth album, 'Sonic Nurse'. Mark Rowland talks to drummer Steve Shelley about its creation,and their recent turn as curators at the All Tomorrow's Parties alternative rock festiva

When you think of a band that is just about to release their nineteenth album, the first image to come into your head is a bunch of washed up Status Quo look-a-likes trying desperately hard to still be cool after all these years. When your thoughts go to the album itself, you can't help imagining a dull, tired sounding and down right embarrassing record, the sound of a band parodying themselves twenty-odd years ago. Sonic Youth are about to release their nineteenth album, but it's absolutely impossible to think of Sonic Youth as an old or washed up band. Their name is still as synonymous with cool as it was when they first started out twenty-three years ago. The band still look cool, they still have a big indie-rock following, and their influence can be heard in a lot of bands. They are also regular curators of All Tomorrow's Parties, one of the coolest festivals you can be involved with. They have been curators at two of the British ATP festivals, and curated the first ever American ATP in 2002. As for the new record, 'Sonic Nurse', Sonic Youth's music still sounds as good as it did in their early 90's commercial heyday. 'Sonic Nurse' is noisier than Sonic Youth's last album, the excellent 'Murray Street', sounding slightly more reminiscent of 1995's 'Washing Machine', and is mature yet abrasive and free flowing, with lyrics that appear torant against the Bush government at certain points. The band have also used a painting by well-respected artist Richard Prince, from his infamous nurse paintings collection. Sonic Youth slowly built up a reputation as being the prime purveyors of cerebral punk rock over the course of the 80's, culminating in the excellent 'Daydream Nation'. By the beginning of the 90's, Sonic Youth had signed to a major label, Geffen records, to cries of ˜sell-outs™. The band then went on to persuade Kurt Cobain to sign his band to the label, which kick started one of the biggest musical movements of the decade. For a while Sonic Youth were in the spotlight too, 1992's 'Dirty' becoming their most commercially successful album. After their brief spell in the limelight, the band then moved themselves back towards the underground, while still holding on to their legendary status. The band has regularly been releasing records since then, and continuously manages to keep a certain quality to their music. Sonic Youth has expanded to a five piece in recent years, with long-time collaborator Jim O'Rourke becoming a full member, joining guitarists/vocalists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley. Speaking on the phone a few days before Sonic Youth's appearance at All Tomorrow's Parties, Shelley spoke about ATP, the creation of the new album, the band's connection with the art world and the creative freedom his label has allowed them through the Sonic Youth Recordings series. PB : You're about to release your 19th album, 'Sonic Nurse'. Has it become harder or easier over the years to write and record albums? SS : Whether it's harder or easier? I'm not really sure. I guess the fact that we've been together for so long makes it easier for us to find the time to get together and make music.We know how each one of us works and how to feed off of each other, how to make things come together for us, so I suppose it must be easier to make a record now than it was ten or fifteen years ago. PB : Sonic Youth has always been a band that has spoken out about different issues. Are the lyrics to the songs on 'Sonic Nurse' at all inspired by recent events such as the Iraq war? SS : Yeah, I mean if you feel strongly about certain issues, certain things that are going on in the world, they will have an influence on what you write and can make it easier for songs to flow out of you in terms of lyrics and stuff like that. For example the situation over here at the moment with the more conservative government, whose policies a lot of people don't agree with, gives people a reason to speak out and some people do that through music. PB :There's track on the new album, 'Peace Attack',that seems to target the Bush government. Is it about any aspect of Bush's time in office in particular? SS : Well that one was written by Lee (Ranaldo) I think. It's kind of about the way the Bush government suppresses some forms of art, and express negative views on homosexuality. You'd be better off asking him about it though! PB : In the bio for the new album, it mentions that another song, which I can't remember the name of, is an attack on Justin Timberlake. Is that true? SS : I'm not sure that's true, I can't think of any songs on the album that were written about him. Justin Timberlake isn't really a person that we worry about (Laughs). Those things are just written to sell us to you guys; I'm not really sure how much of it is true, they never show them to us! We are very interested in pop culture, but there's not really much popular culture at the moment that's interesting to us (Laughs). PB : The artwork for the new album is a painting by Richard Prince. How did that come about? SS : Kim's been into his work for a long time. She brought a book full of his work to practice while we were writing the new album and we all thought his work was really good, so we got in touch with and asked if he could give us a picture for the album, and he gave us one of his pictures from his nurse series which he did recently. PB : The track on 'Sonic Nurse', 'Dude Ranch Nurse', is also the title of one of Prince's nurse paintings. Is there any real connection between the track and the painting? SS : No not really. With that track, it just kind of ended up being called that. It didn't really have any meaning to the choice of track name. PB : You've worked with other painters in the past, such as Ray Pettibon, who did the artwork for 'Goo'. Is a connection to the art world important to the band? SS : Yeah, Lee and Kim both did Art degrees when they were at school, so they know a lot about art and artists; they always bring in stuff for us to look at,to get the rest of us interested. It's not really my thing. I don't know a lot about art. I just leave it to those guys to sort out the record covers! PB : Is there any other artists that they keep going on about that might do the artwork for a future Sonic Youth album? SS : Usually they just bring stuff in when they're doing a new album, so I won't know until we come to do the next one! We don't really get to see any art at any other time. They always save it for the albums. PB : You run Smells Like records. How did you get it set up, and why? SS- It's been going for about ten years now. It was kind of started as a hobby, a way that I could release stuff by bands that I really liked and stuff by friends of mine, and basically just to keep myself preoccupied with it. It got to a stage a few years ago when it became like a full time job and I was putting a lot of time into it. I didn't really want it to turn into a job. I wanted to keep it as a hobby, something that I can occupy my time with when I'm not touring with Sonic Youth. It's become more like a hobby again now,so I'm still enjoying running it. PB : Has your label given Sonic Youth a greater feeling of creative freedom? SS : Yeah, it has given us more creative freedom with the SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings) series. It feels like those SYR records are totally ours. It allows us to do stuff that isn't really commercial enough for our label, more abstract stuff. It allows us to get all that out of our systems, without feeling any pressure from Geffen. PB : 'Sonic Nurse' seems to be more noisy and discordant than your previous album 'Murray Street', more reminiscent of the songs on 'Washing Machine'. Does this reflect the subject matter of the songs on the album? Is it more of a consciously angry album? SS : Yeah I guess it is noisier than the last record. It's not a conscious decision though. When we write songs, we just see how it comes out. While we're playing them, they kind of develop either way, whether they're quieter, gentler songs or more discordant and noisy. We don't sit down before we make a record and decide ˜This is going to be this kind of record™ Or˜this is going to be a noisy record" We just see what comes out of us playing together. It's funny that you've pointed out the new songs are more like the songs on 'Washing Machine'. People have asked me why the new record is different to 'Murray Street' and I've been thinking that it's not really that different,just denser, heavier maybe, but it never occurred to me to compare it to 'Washing Machine'. Now I think about it, I think you have a point. There are some songs on the new album that would fit in on 'Washing Machine'. PB : You're curating a day for All Tomorrows Parties this year, which will be the third ATP festival that you've been involved in. Do you enjoy getting involved with the festival? SS : ATP is really great. It's the best of the European festivals. You get to see tons of bands that you actually like play, which means you really want to stay for the whole thing. When we curated the LA ATP in 2002 we had a really great line up, with members of the Stooges, two members of the Minutemen, Television, Aphex Twin, some really great artists. PB : It's the fifth anniversary of ATP this year, isn't it? SS : Yeah it's the fifth anniversary of All Tomorrows Parties. All the people that chose the line ups previously get to choose the different days, It's spread out across two weekends this year, We're doing the Saturday. Steve Malkmus (ex-Pavement singer) is curating on the Friday, and the guys that run ATP are doing the Sunday. I think Mogwai, Shellac and Tortoise did the weekend before. PB : Is it refreshing to be involved with a festival in which you have control over the line-up? SS :Yeah it is refreshing to be able to choose the line-up for the festival. One of the things I love doing is to let people know about great music that they may not have heard before, and choosing the bands to play a festival is one of the best ways to do that. PB : Is there anyone this year that you're really looking forward to seeing ? SS : I'm really looking forward to seeing Fuck play, I'm a big fan of their stuff. Erase Errata are great, I'm looking forward to seeing them. Lightning Bolt as well, they're really good. I'm looking forward to seeing most bands,actually! PB : In the holiday camp environment of the ATP festivals, do fans tend to approach you more than at an ordinary festival? SS : The band chalets are in a different place to where the crowd stays, so there's still some element of security there (laughs). I'm pretty approachable anyway, I like talking to different people about the band and things like that. Fans always want to talk to Thurston and Kim usually though,so I'm usually left alone! PB : Thank you

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Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

Sonic Youth - Interview with Steve Shelley

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