Sonic Youth - Interview - Barcelona, Spring 2009

06 Jul 2009

"we've kept playing because we haven't found any reason to stop playing. in a way i'm thankful for it, because by going away and coming back you make all this money and it becomes so lucrative: it's a weird thing. but we've got this incredible body of work behind us because we've just been doing it, and we're going to continue doing it because we're still having a good time doing it..."

Continuing to tick our 'must meet so and so before they or I die' boxes, Rockfeedback caught up with Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth after their performance at Barcelona's cannot-be-lauded-highly-enough Primavera Festival, to discuss new LP The Eternal, how Mark Ibold of Pavement and Jim O'Rourke compare as bass players, Neil Young and the challenges presented by performing their masterwork Daydream Nation in its entirety. Footage of the interview and of the incendiary show that preceded it was recorded by Rockfeedback TV and will be available for free, high quality streaming come the launch of our brand new website, mere days away.

Sonic Youth

Rockfeedback: Thanks so much for coming straight off stage and chatting to us. How did you find the set?

Lee Ranaldo:"It was pretty good. It's funny to play in front of so many people and play half a set of new songs. The record isn't out for a couple of weeks so nobody's heard them yet, but that's kind of what our mind is on right now, doing these new songs, so it was a pretty fun set. We always have a good set in Primavera for some reason."

RFB: And how was going on straight after Neil Young, who I know you were quite excited about seeing?

Steve Shelley: "It was great! You know we love Neil and we've kind of become friends over the years. We did a three month tour with him back in '91 where we were playing back to back so it was fun to play with him again for the first time in a long while."

RFB: Was it strange to have him going on before you this time? The tables have turned a little bit...

LR: "Yeah it was a little strange, but in the end it was pretty appropriate. It was a perfect time for him to play and then get out of town, so it worked out OK. First, we were trying to switch it so that we didn't have to follow him because he's a hard act to follow, but at a place like this there's a long enough gap between acts to make it alright. The audience changes over completely so it was OK."

RFB: The rest of the line-up is full of bands who have taken some time off and have come back, and are now reaping the rewards from taking a bit of a break. What I find interesting about you guys is there hasn't ever really been a gap of more than a few months.

LR: "We've kept working, we've kept playing because we haven't found any reason to stop playing. In a way I'm thankful for it, because by going away and coming back you make all this money and it becomes so lucrative: It's a weird thing. But we've got this incredible body of work behind us because we've just been doing it, and we're going to continue doing it because we're still having a good time doing it."

RFB: Can you imagine what life would be like for you without Sonic Youth now?

SS: "It's hard to imagine but it'll happen at some point and it'll be fine when that happens. We don't think ahead too far. We have our year plan for this year, then we just see what happens, year after year."

RFB: It's quite a big time of change for you with this new record and moving label...

LR: "...Well it is and it isn't. It's great that we have a new group of people to work with but the way we put the record together was the same as we always do. We decided when to get together and when that happened, the album happened. After the first bunch of records, the label is just there to put the record out, so it doesn't really affect how we work. Of course we're very excited to be on Matador, it's totally cool to be back with a group of people who are serious music-lovers rather than just businessmen, but we're in our own zone and we just do what we do."

RFB: So it hasn't really affected any creative process for you at all?

LR: "Not consciously. It's fun to have the people at Matador, but Geffen [our former label] never really got in the way of us making a record in the first place. After the first couple for Geffen when we were like 'oh, we've got a big budget, we can do something different', we went back to doing it the way we always did it and it just feels so natural. We don't turn in demos or anything, we just do it. The cool thing about Matador is that they're some of the first people we ever worked with or ever supported us. It's a new relationship now, it's really great right now, so let's see how it goes!"

RFB: A lot has been made of the 'song-based' nature of the new record, perhaps in contrast to some of its predecessors. So has the SYR stuff, the stuff you put out previously on your own label, become your only channel for the more experimental noisy material?

SS: "It's sort of an outlet for us to put out things that we just want to put out ourselves. So we've put out a lot of live concerts through SYR, a lot of those are improvised concerts. We've put out musical events where we've had guests, so it's just for whatever we want to do at that time. I mean, you know those 'song' records if you will: we work on them for a long period of time and they're really finely honed as much as we can. SYR is more of a casual thing, where we put out stuff we really like but it's more abstract and a little bit more experimental. It's more in the style of indie records being slipped into the record stores for the people that really want them. We don't spend a lot of money promoting them. We just put them out there and let them have their own life."

LR: "It started because we had finally established this really good studio and we were going in there to jam and finding all this really good stuff we were recording that was finally captured in a really high quality, so we were like "what are we going to do with all this stuff?". Geffen wasn't going to release it. But Steve [Shelley] was really experienced at releasing records with Smells Like, so was Thurston [Moore] so they knew the channels. In the end, we just put them out through Steve's label, pretty much."

RFB: Is that going to continue, that divide between 'song-based' stuff and experimental music, or do you think there's more potential for them to meld in the future?

LR: "At one point we talked about whether or not this record, The Eternal, would have been on our label and we finally realised that for a record like that we prefer having people in our court to go out and sell it, so that we don't have to take care of the business side. But SYR will continue, because we've got ideas for putting out some of the soundtrack music we've made for films."

Sonic Youth

RFB: In terms of this evening, with playing a festival slot to a full crowd. Is that a desired situation for you or do you prefer something where you can tailor it more to your requirements as a band?

SS: "We prefer to play inside in a theatre but we make exceptions. We play a number of festivals but Primavera and All Tomorrow's Parties are two of our favourites and we're lucky that they keep asking us to play and we keep coming."

LR: "And you know they're different things. We really enjoy doing our own shows where we control the evening, we present the acts that we want to present in a nice room where it's going to sound great but over the years we've learnt to play these big stages and deal with these festivals and they're fun too. They're a totally different thing. You don't usually get a sound check but sometimes it adds to the chaotic energy. It's definitely fun to play this kind of thing, especially in Europe where we've done a lot of it over the years."

RFB: It's nice to have that kind of respect from a festival, where you could turn up and do whatever you wanted. I remember when you played ATP performances that were based more around SYR material for example.

LR: "That was one of the first ATPs that we played, the one where we did instrumental versions of songs from New York City Ghosts and Flowers and some people in the crowd did not like it very much! But we came back for ATP a few years ago and did Daydream Nation and that worked."

RFB: How did you find the experience of performing a record in its entirety live, as you did at the Roundhouse in London?

SS: "It was good for us. It made us go back and learn something we normally wouldn't have dedicated time to and it was just fun revisiting 1988. I think it was really good to tap into the kind of energy level we were capable of at that point in time and I think if anything, that influenced some aspects of the new record. I think it showed us what kind of high energy music we've made at certain points in our career and I think those sounds, textures and structures are woven into the tapestry of the new record."

RFB: Is it ever strange looking back at the breadth of your work?

SS: "There were a couple of books that came out recently and we've got this big art show that involved gathering these photos from various periods from our whole history and so there's a bit of summing up sometimes, but our general attitude is to look to the next thing. We're definitely looking forward."

RFB: What keeps things exciting for you at the moment?

LR: "It's all just addictive. We're lucky to be able to do this and we enjoy it. We've enjoyed it with various band members since we were teenagers, so there's not too much else that we need to keep us doing it. I mean what you just saw is why we keep doing it: the last two hours on stage is just such a blast. It's more than a blast actually, it's such a thrill and people are digging it and it's such a privilege that people are coming to see us. We're not the easiest band to listen to and we're not playing pop music so it's great that there's an audience for it."

RFB: And yet it connects with so many people on such a massive level at outdoor festival shows. Can you explain that?

SS: "We do well in Spain these days. We've spent a lot of time here because we really like it here and the crowds are really receptive so this is a really good country for us."

RFB: We were talking about you revisiting the quartet line-up for the Daydream Nation shows, now Mark Ibold (formally of Pavement) is playing for you... how did that relationship come about?

LR: "Well, we were working with Jim O'Rourke for a number for years and we weren't really sure what Jim was going to do when he started playing with us. He put bass on some tracks from NYC Ghosts and Flowers when we mixed it and then we brought him along live, so he ended up being integrated into the band. For one thing it freed up Kim [Gordon] to do different things and it gave us a second version of a rhythm section with Jim and Steve rather than Kim and Steve, so it was nice to have both of those. So when Jim left there were certain things about having that extra person that we really liked, such as Kim could sing some songs without playing an instrument or we could do stuff with three guitars without losing the bottom end.

SS: "Mark is a very different type of person to Jim. Jim is a renaissance man: he can mix the records, he can play the bass, he can play anything. Mark is a bass player who has been a good friend of ours even before he was in Pavement and he's really fun to have around. That was the main reason for having him. It's not as if we auditioned bass players or anything. And Mark was really integral in making this new record (which we weren't even sure if it was going to happen or not) but it all worked out really well."

RFB: Is it strange opening up the creative process to a new member of the band after so many years of having a tightly knit group?

LR: "A little bit but, when you get together everyone contributes what they can, so it all happens quite naturally. That sort of stuff is pretty casual with us, as the way we do things is still pretty undefined, and so it just sort of happens until there's a song. A lot of it is done very intuitively. We don't sit down and say 'What kind of a song shall we write today?' or 'what should this album sound like?' We just start playing and let the music define what we're up to and it's been good for us to work in that way."

Article assembled by Charlie Shawcross.

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