Sonic Youth drummer looks back at seminal record, now reissued

By  Peter Lindblad

Aside from the AIDS scare and the nagging fear that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was just one push of a button away, America had a one hell of a good time in the ’80s.

Cocaine was plentiful, and the downside wouldn’t be apparent for a while. Almost everyone had their MTV, and the economy was humming along, making a lot of people very rich, very fast.

SonicYouth-01-01.jpgThen along came Sonic Youth to spoil the party with the apocalyptic double LP Daydream Nation, still regarded by many as one of the greatest albums ever made.

“We were always sort of balancing — because it was a pretty cushy time, you know — dealing with Ronald Reagan and the birth of MTV,” recalls Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. “Think of the ’80s. You don’t think of Sonic Youth. You think of MTV and this sort of really homogenized stuff.”

Under the gleaming surface, dissatisfaction with the emptiness of the suburban dream and an increasingly vacuous pop culture was growing. Released in 1988, Daydream Nation reflected that discontent. It was a revolution in sound, fomenting dissent with a harrowing alternate reality of frenzied, post-punk dynamics, dream-like melodies, alien soundscapes, gales of noise, burned-out instrumentals and experiments in alternate guitar tunings seemingly born of madness.

“I don’t know if we would use the word ‘menacing,’ but definitely, there was a subversive element (to Sonic Youth), a contrast to the bright spots,” says Shelley, who joined the band in 1985.

No longer operating in the shadows, Sonic Youth is still producing dark, deconstructed art-rock that destroys pop-music conventions. But Daydream Nation remains an epochal work, and this summer, Geffen Records reissued a deluxe edition of the album. Included with it are extensive liner notes, rare photos, a smattering of cover songs (including the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” off Sgt. Pepper) and demo tracks, and a live CD featuring performaces of songs off the original album.

“That was a lot of work,” says Shelley, talking about putting together the concert CD. “We’ve done a couple of these deluxe editions (1990’s Goo and 1992’s Dirty) … we kind of had practice on what to do and how to do it. So, basically, we just started going through everything we recorded around that time, around the Daydream era. We looked for any kind of studio recording, we went through any possible outtakes, we went through cassette recordings of rehearsals, and then we started going through live recordings, and at a certain point, it became obvious to us that the second disc was going to be mostly live.

“And that was kind of exciting to us, because Dirty and Goo both had included mostly studio outtakes, so we thought this would be a cool way to present it.”

The band spent a whole year poring through concert recordings “… trying to find the one concert or a song from each concert, and finally, we wound up choosing different songs from different evenings and sort of strung it together as a continuous piece,” explains Shelley. “But the songs on Disc 2 are from four or five different concerts — some of it is from CBGBs in 1988, some of it is from (legendary New York City punk venue) Maxwell’s, some of it is from the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and some of it is from a festival in Germany.”

Along with the CD version, the band is putting out a 4xLP vinyl edition through its own imprint, Goofin’ Records, and Sonic Youth will play Daydream Nation in its entirety — something the band has never done — in a series of summer shows through Europe and North America.

The original album has been remastered with heavy involvement from the band members, but don’t expect beefed-up, synthetic enhancements.

“We don’t try and modernize any of this that we’re doing,” says Shelley, “but the digital connections of today are better than when they first made these CDs … so, basically, what we hope to get is something that is closer to the original master tape.”

An innovative spirit and a desire to challenge commonly held beliefs of what pop music is supposed to be — that’s what’s driven Sonic Youth from the start. Influenced by the avant-garde composer Glenn Branca and immersed in New York City’s post-punk, no-wave scene, the original trio of guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and bassist Kim Gordon came together in 1981.

Dissonance and noise collided with melodic sensibilities in early albums, like the band’s ominous debut, Confusion Is Sex. Shelley has been with Sonic Youth ever since the mid ’80s. He remembers the period that birthed EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation.

“We were just on a roll, a good part of a creative roll — just in a good space.”

And the band’s fertile imagination was working overtime. So much so, in fact, that Daydream Nation was extended into a double LP.

“[The songs] all had these long intros and these long outros, and we were really stretching out on this record,” says Shelley. From the hardcore thrash of “Silver Rocket,” to the melodic drift and cyclonic turbulence of “Candle,” to the bruised, pyschedelic explosion of “Eric’s Trip” and the gathering storm of “Teen Age Riot,” Daydream Nation, one of the first 200 records selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, coalesed as one long, constantly evolving sonic landscape.

And then, there was the oddity “Providence,” in essence, a happy accident. Shelley explains,

“There was a PV amp in the studio that someone had been playing out of, and someone, maybe Thurston, had put a jacket or a sweatshirt on top of the vent of this amp. And it was plugged in and turned on, and it was overheating, and we were in the control room, and it started to make this ungodly sound. And, of course, whenever we hear an ungodly sound, we say, ‘Roll tape. We’ve got to record this.’ The amp was just giving out its dying breath, and then later, Thurston put on layers of these cassettes of him playing the piano at his mother’s house — that’s where the music comes from on the track — and then he chopped up these phone messages of (former Minuteman bassist) Mike Watt from his phone machine.”

And the rest is history. 

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