Sonic Youth has built its lengthy career squarely on the backs of its fans. So if you’re into the band at this moment, chances are that you’ve been jonesing on them longer than you can remember.
Sonic Youth, begun innocently enough in downtown New York City in 1981, has kept the same four members for its last 18 years: Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals), Kim Gordon (bass, guitar, vocals), Lee Ranaldo (guitar, vocals) and Steve Shelley (drums).
With seminal releases Bad Moon Rising (Blast First/Homestead, 1985), EVOL (SST, 1986), Daydream Nation (Blast First, 1988), Goo (Geffen, 1990) and Dirty (Geffen, 1993; just re-released in expanded form, and containing one of the most, er, provocative band photos out there), this noisy guitar-driven group’s influence on rock would be hard to overestimate.
Sonic Youth continue snowballing into their second decade, having released their 16th album, Murray Street (Geffen), just last year.
I caught up with drummer Steve Shelley following his recent trip to Spain. When I called him, he had totally forgotten about our interview.
“I’m kind of on a Euro schedule right now,” he explained. “I’m six hours ahead of my usual morning, and … I totally spaced on it!”
Which makes more sense when you take into account that Sonic Youth isn’t much of a road band anymore.
“We really don’t tour that extensively these days,” Shelley notes. “A good portion of the group are parents now. But I don’t really have tour burnout or anything like that. Actually, when I tour with Sonic Youth, it’s sort of like vacation, because I have more free time then I do when I’m at home.
“I really enjoy touring with the band,” he adds. “I’m really glad we still do it.”
Mountain Xpress: “After 22 years in the same band, how do you do it? What keeps you guys motivated?”
Steve Shelley: “Well, the band started in 1981, but I didn’t join until 1985. There were quite a few drummers before me — just a handful of guys. But yeah, since 1985, it’s been the same four people, and then [guitarist and studio whiz] Jim O’Rourke joined us about a year or two ago.”
MX: That’s still pretty rare, for a rock band to stay together this long. How do you do it?
Steve Shelley: “We’re all really big music fans, and probably we’re fans first and musicians second. We’re just really interested in what we’re doing, and also what other people are doing.”
MX: “So what does one of the most influential bands in the world listen to?”
SS: “Actually, I’m in the middle of a giant Led Zeppelin jag. [He laughs.] I just bought the DVD yesterday; I’m amazed — it’s so good. I’ve always liked the band, ever since I was a teenager, but from a distance. I never saw them — I was too young to catch them. Then New Wave and punk came along, [and] that was much more interesting to me at the time. But I always come back to [Zeppelin]. I just think they are one of the greatest ever. Other than that, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff out of New Orleans from like the ’60s and ’70s: Lee Dorsey, The Meters. [I’ve also always been] a giant Neil Young fan. I can’t wait to hear his new record. [From there, it] goes off into the thousands and thousands of things I’m into.”
MX: “I once heard Thurston Moore say, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’ Do you guys still have the same sort of mindset?”
SS: “Actually, that’s an old saying from the ’60s. I don’t really know what context he was talking about; with Thurston, it could have been real tongue-in-cheek.”
MX: “But it’s feasible that you guys could have fans from way back when who are now bringing their teenage kids to your shows. Does that trip you out?”
SS: “Well, the years have kind of flown by. I’ve been in the group 18 years, [and] it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like we’re just getting started — there are always so many things you want to try and that you’d like to do. It still feels fresh; but yeah, there’s a whole generation of fans who are probably parents now, who essentially grew up with this band. So that’s pretty cool.”
MX: “In 1991, you guys did a documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, about the music scene at the time. Basically a lot of bands like The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, The Lemonheads and Nirvana were getting a lot of exposure. How strange was that period in music?”
SS: “Oh, yeah, that’s why it was called The Year Punk Broke, because it was incredibly strange. It was sort of like we were a part of a secret society in the ’80s, and not by choice; that’s just the way the media and the people who decide those sort of things … that this music that we all felt a part of was a marginal scene.
“Then around ’90-’91, there was a certain aspect of it that just blew up. Around the time that it happened, we were all pretty bemused by it all, [though] not in a negative way at all, and not in a way that someone got what they deserved — it was just a strange time. To see Motley Crue performing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at a stadium in Russia in front of half a million people was a little bizarre. So it felt like this music that was really close to your heart was getting co-opted. Then, on another level, it felt like with Nirvana: This is amazing that this band that is so good just knocked Michael Jackson out of No. 1 [on the Billboard charts]. It was an incredibly strange time.”
MX: “It seems like now, though, that the word ‘punk’ gets thrown around a lot. After ’91, was that when everything became ultra-classified?”
SS: “No, even in the ’80s, the people I congregated with never considered [themselves] punks. I mean, punk died in ’79 with the formation of the post-punk groups in London: Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, The Slits and all those wonderful [groups] that happened. Punk sort of blew itself up; it was a really fast thing.
“I wasn’t there to catch it; I caught it after the fact. So I never considered myself a punk — we were just kids trying to make music, [and] I think that’s how a lot of people felt. If anything, we considered ourselves indie-rockers, because we were on independent labels. Then [indie-rock] got co-opted into this thing called ‘alternative,’ which, to us, was a radio format. We never considered ourselves alternative rockers — after a certain time, we just became a rock band that played music — like Neil Young, Led Zeppelin or Gang of Four.”
MX: “Do you feel like the camaraderie that was so apparent back then is gone now?”
SS: “Well, a lot of it is gone. You can blame MTV, or [the fact] that people grew up, or changed. I think people still support each other and do the same thing, but there’s not as many of our peers around these days.”