Articles/Interviews

Sonic Youth interview (March 1985)

Interview

Dave recalls as much as he can about this interview;

This interview took place in Leeds around the time the LP Bad Moon Rising was out. I can remember the soundcheck, then sitting in Pizza Hut doing the interview and then going to the gig. The gig and the interview took place on 25th March 1985.

Sonic Youth between 1985 to 1987 were brilliant, undoubtedly the best rock band I’ve ever seen. As usual I couldn’t stop at just being a fan. With Nathan McGough, I promoted their gig at the Boardwalk in Manchester in May 1986 and then, with Tim Chambers, in June 1987 at the Ardri Ballroom in Hulme.

Two of the best nights of my life. After the Ardri gig the band slept on the floor of my flat in Hulme. How freakin’ brilliant is that? Anyway, this is 1985 and Leeds, and I don’t recall our pizza toppings….

Interview (and the introduction to it) originally published in Dave’s fanzine ‘Debris’.

Live in Leeds Sonic Youth were brilliant. Playing to a pitifully small crowd in some basement club, they snarled and roared their way through their ragged, rolling forty minute set. With their looks of half-harnessed intensity and their subdued anger as they stalked the stage, it was like encountering some caged beasts. Four from New York with no need for histrionics, they generated remarkable power.

Live, and on record the music is loud, complicated and full of energy. The sound they torture out of the guitars makes them sound like the Stooges under persistent sniper fire; more desperate and closer to breakdown than anything the Stooges recorded. On the recent LP ‘Bad Moon Rising’ the track ‘Society Is A Hole’ ends with a mangled, distorted version of the Stooges’s ‘Not Right’.

I sat in a Leeds ‘Pizza Hut’ sharing a salad with Sonic Youth trying to find out what kind of people they were. All you can hear on the tape is the rattle of cutlery and the song ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ being played on the muzak machine. And our casual conversation.

I wasn’t that much wiser at the end of the interview; they were wary and world-weary and we ended-up only just less than complete strangers. Lee Renaldo (bass) seemed older than the others, more aloof and less tolerant of this inarticulate young Englishman; Kim Gordon (singer / guitarist) was eager to exchange ideas; Bob Bert the drummer) said nothing, as drummers often do; Thurston Moore seemed to be the wayward genius of the band, fair-haired and a gawky goofball six-footer, like some far gone version of Richard Cunningham (Fonz’s friend on ‘Happy Days’).

One of the tracks off ‘Bad Moon Rising’, ‘Death Valley ’69′ in a remixed version is on the current single. The 12″ includes four other tracks; ‘I Dreamed I Dream’, ‘In-Human’, ‘Brother James’ and ‘Satan Is Boring’. An excellent introduction to their music. 1969 wasn’t a ‘special year’, rather it was a year when social and political problems and processes which had been accelerating through the ’60s suddenly crashed and splintered. Like a subject of a Diane Arbus photograph, the nightmarish and freakish element that existed in domestic America was exposed; the Killing at Altamont, the anguished staring at the slaughter an South-East Asia, for example. And 1969 was the year that Charles Manson wrought a terrifyingly violent vengeance on the American Dream. The Manson killings turned happy days into nightmare nights. Thus ‘Death Valley ’69′. But despite all the cataclysmic events of 1969, it was also a year, I guess, when millions of ‘ordinary’ Americans went about on their usual unhurried way. This intrigued me.

UNDERNEATH A BLAND, OUTGOING S, SUCCESS-SEEKING AMERICAN EXISTENCE, THERE SEEMS TO EXIST AN UNDERCURRENT OF VIOLENCE.

THURSTON: Yes definitely.
KIM: Yes, it goes right back. You can see it in early American novels and. Later, in movies and comics and things.
LEE: And somehow it’s all caught up with the idea of freedom. It’s as if freedom and violence are part of the same thing.
KIM: The whole of our country was born out of violence. Those settlers who came over from Europe were escaping, escaping from the past, from conformity and all that. And when they got here it’s as if they had to become savage in order to take the Indians over. They’d left civilisation. Since then there’s been a guilt thing about conquering. And every generation goes through this violence.
THURSTON: There’s so much that can be traced back to 1969 and the events of that period. It can be related quite closely to a lot of the things going on right now except it’s all being ignored. It’s like people in Reagan’s America are trying to forget that time.

AND THE PROBLEMS RAISED BY THE SO-CALLED ‘COUNTER-CULTURE’, THE QUESTIONS IT ASKED ABOUT THE SYSTEM HAVE NEVER BEEN RESOLVED.

KIM: Right. Exactly. The whole thing about doing something like ‘Death Valley ’69′ is that it’s all still there. Nothing was resolved; everything, supposedly, returned to normal.
THURSTON: The counter-culture ideology has not really ever been defeated. It certainly won’t disappear.

YET IN SO FAR AS IT ATTEMPTED TO BRING ABOUT POLITICAL CHANGE IT FAILED.

KIM: In a way it’s because people now are so comfortable. In America the majority will always be.
LEE: That’s why we’re so attached to that period; it holds the germ of everything since. All this potential current of new birth happening, yet failing and being totally eaten up from the inside. It holds so much symbolic significance for America as a country. We’re dealing with a lot of the same ideas that bands in the ’60′s were trying to get at, without being nostalgic about it.

WHAT IDEAS SPECIFICALLY?

KIM: A do-it-yourself ideal, for one thing.
THURSTON: The ’60′s counter-culture attempted to expand consciousness.
KIM: But we’re not into escapism of any kind.
LEE: We can avoid some the pitfalls. The generation after that tended to be very cynical about it because they saw the escapism aspect of it and tended to deny that anything that had been said could have any value. We must try and pick out some of the good things but present them in a different way.

YOU SEEM TO OWE A LOT TO THE MUSIC OF THAT PERIOD AS WELL; YOU SEEM TO BE DIRECT DESCENDANTS OF THE STOOGES, FOR INSTANCE.

THURSTON: Well, the Stooges are just one of a million things. When the Stooges were happening nobody was listening. They were termed a joke when the first album came out. Iggy Pop was considered a kind of mentally retarded person. The album must have sold only about 13 copies when it first came out. With this Stooges thing, we’re not so much into covering the past as..
LEE: Recognising it.
THURSTON: Recognising it for the importance it has. But for one thing our guitars are tuned in a non-standard way so it’s almost impossible for us to sound like a band from the past.

WHEN YOU’RE IN THE STUDIO DO YOU AIM FOR A REALLY ROUGH SOUND?

KIM: On ‘Confusion Is Sex’ (the LP before ‘Bad Moon Rising’), I guess we did a little.
THURSTON: We don’t really aim for it though.
LEE: We aim to get the coolest sound.
THURSTON: For ‘Confusion Is Sex’ we were in a situation when we had just enough money to go into an 8-track studio and buy some tape and record some tracks. At the time we were writing a lot of manic songs so it worked for us.

DO YOU IMPROVISE THE SOUND MUCH?

THURSTON: No, not so much. And when we play we might do only for one song a set.
LEE: We embelish things, but it’s all there before we go in.
THURSTON: We didn’t want to repeat that 8-track thing we had for ‘Confusion’. With ‘Bad Moon Rising’ we wanted a 24-track studio and an engineer. So we begged and borrowed enough money to do it. Which of course, we still owe!

IN BRITAIN, YOU’VE BEEN LABELLED ‘HARDCORE’

LEE: People mean different things by the label hardcore. We don’t make music that fits into any stylistic thing.
THURSTON: Hardcore in the states is something that started a few years ago with kids who were sixteen years old. It was like a retort against the West Coast who were into the punk thing, getting drunk all the time, throwing bottles and just causing trouble all the time. But with hardcore you didn’t fill your body full of shit. It was all very direct. The music reflected this.
KIM: Most hardcore bands are definitely anti-Regan, anti-nuclear war, and it’s more like the spirit of folk music in that way. It’s not so much to affect things, more to educate other kids, or just making a statement that needs to be made.

SO HARDCORE, YOU’RE SAYING, ISN’T A DESTRUCTIVE RESPONSE?

KIM: No, it’s positive. That’s talking about ‘straight-edge’ or really hardcore. That’s not us exactly. We’re more into breaking down peoples’ expectations.
LEE: We’d just label it rock ‘n’ roll.

THAT’S VERY MUCH AN AMERICAN TRADITION.

LEE: Of course it is. It’s an American art-form, you might say.

IS THIS A SPIRIT RATHER THAN A STYLE?

KIM: Yeah. It’s a spirit and an attitude. It’s always been to do with breaking free, breaking through sexual and emotional repression.

YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY LOVERS OF THE GUITAR, IN A PATTI-SMITH KIND OF A WAY.

KIM: There’s a direct connection between the physicality of the way you play a guitar and the sound that’s produced. A synthesizer sound automatically creates distance in the way it’s played and the way it sounds.

DOES THE USE OF A TRADITIONAL ROCK ‘N’ ROLL LINE-UP CHALLENGE YOU TO PRODUCE SOMETHING NEW?

THURSTON: We definitely challenge ourselves, but not to do anything ‘new’ and ‘different’ like going into the studio and exploding things. It’s to do with what satisfies us spiritually.
KIM: It mainly comes from emotion.
LEE: The guitar is not a limited instrument at all. It’s just the way it happens; everyone plays in the same tuning with the same fingering positions and we don’t. And we’re not the only ones who don’t.
THURSTON: As far as rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon goes, the electric guitar is like ‘the magic sword’ almost.
LEE: It’s almost something mystical. The guitar is like the immediate source of the inspiration.
THURSTON: It seems much more of a human thing.

HOW IMPORTANT TO YOU ARE THE LYRICS?.

THURSTON: Very important; but they’re not any more important than the music though. But you learn something for yourself more from writing it down, from putting it into works.
KIM; It comes from what you’re interested in at the time.

IS THE STIMULUS TO WRITE OFTEN A REACTION AGAINST SOMETHING THAT’S HAPPENING IN YOUR LIFE?

KIM: More a reaction with; just being affected by it, just having an experience you want to deal with.

DO YOU THINK THEY TEND TO BE PSYCHOLOGICAL RESPONSES RATHER THAN POLITICAL RESPONSES?
THURSTON; Yes.
KIM: America is a much more a psychological country rather than a political one. Rock & roll for us is an instinctive thing. It’s not a political thing like it can be in England. Instead there is this emotional outpouring which is something to do with the repressive way sex is dealt with in America. It was in this emotional outpouring, this blatant sexuality than rock & roll was a controversial thing.
THURSTON: We’re also offering a type of celebration that we feel free even within this mad and sick system. Being in a band means we can feel a type of freedom.

HOW DO YOU SPEND YOUR IDEAL DAY IN NEW YORK?
THURSTON: Wake up…
LEE: Buy some new records, play a gig…
THURSTON: Yeah, just working on music and having enough money to feed ourselves. It’s basically about feeding yourself, and keeping a roof over your head.