Interview: Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on the enduring legacy of Daydream Nation

One of the defining music documentaries of the 90s was 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, which captured noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth on tour in Europe in 1991 with a rising young band called Nirvana.

The shaky super 8 footage and rudimentary shots papered over the fact that Sonic Youth had signed to a major label and were playing to the biggest crowds of their 10-year career, and Nirvana were about to release Nevermind. Other underground acts like Babes In Toyland, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr were also touring in Europe at the time and drift in and out of the doc, with no idea they’d be splashed on magazine covers over the next 12 months, as Generation X scenesters and MTV Alternative Nation pin-ups.

1991 may have been the year that DIY guitar noise actually broke, kickstarting an arms race to find the next Nirvana as soon as Kurt tore up the school gym hall in his green jumper.

But Sonic Youth had been digging in the New York underground since 1981, working on the outskirts of punk, no wave, hardcore and noise-rock. They finally broke the seal in 1988 with Daydream Nation, an album that reined in all of the above and helped shape the next five years of alternative music and indie-rock for generations. Daydream Nation is a double album that pitched avant-garde noise, discord and No Wave tuning against guitar pop, with references to high art, Andy Warhol, James Ellroy, dystopian fiction and Hollywood trash gossip. It’s a true hall of fame record that always gets a straight A or 10/10 in any retrospective appraisal, and has been added to the US National Recording Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” album.

The always restless Sonic Youth were never nostalgic, but that doesn’t mean their fans can’t be – especially after the band split in 2011 after the separation of founding members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.

The album’s 30th anniversary was marked last year with the release of a concert film by Lance Bangs, shot in 2007 when Sonic Youth went on a limited 20-date tour playing the album in its entirety. Drummer Steve Shelley has gone on tour with Bangs to discuss the film and the legacy of the album.

The tour hits Cork and Dublin this weekend, and we catch Shelley on the phone in a car with Bangs en route to Leeds, after showing the film in Glasgow, where the footage was shot. He tells me the film project happened in a “really fortuitous” fashion, saying: “We had been invited to play by ATP’s Don’t Look Back, who got bands to tour key records from their career.

“We were in Glasgow the night before our concert and Slint were playing Spiderland, booked by the same people. I went to the concert and a friend of ours, Lance was there filming and we just started chatting.

“I told him we were playing Daydream Nation at the same venue the next day, and Lance put together a film crew and was able to get it all together to film the next two nights. That’s sort of how it got jump started, it’s really funny how that works, I literally did just bump into him.”

Shelley says the 30th anniversary was “not that important” to the band at the time, but he’s a serious archivist, saying they’ve “hundreds and hundreds of hours from the 80s recording things onto cassette and years laters on CD and DAT…  Lee [Ranaldo] and I both follow Neil Young really closely with what he does with his archives. we’re always putting out archival stuff, so it was less about the 30th anniversary. We thought we should get this film out because its time has finally come.”

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Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, 1988

Luckily Bangs  – who was famously on the Jackass film crew and has created videos for R.E.M., Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and dozens more – had an idea above uploading the footage to Sonic Youth’s chosen streaming archive site

“Lance asked if he could show the film in theatres around the world and I said absolutely, and from a few months ago that’s what we’ve been doing, showing it all over the place.”

Even though Sonic Youth spent the 80s in hardcore, no wave, noise and art-rock circles, there was no backlash against the double album, which even finished with a ‘trilogy’ suite at the climax.

Many ardent fans – including Henry Rollins – felt their early albums lost the intensity of their live shows, which often spun out into drone jams they’d have to edit down on record, and Shelley says that “definite looseness inspired the recording of Daydream Nation”.

He adds: “You just try and be in the moment, it’s a weird contrast of really studying what you’re doing and trying to forget what you’re doing. The studio is a strange environment but it can be really rewarding.”

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The band even thought a double album was a subversive move at the time, even assigning each other symbols for each vinyl side, a riff on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Zoso’ artwork on Led Zeppelin IV.

“We were surprised by the length of it, and that’s when we started making fun of ourselves, with The Trilogy,” Shelley says. “We were thinking about bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Double albums weren’t really part of our culture, with the exception of Zen Arcade by Husker Du and Double Nickels on the Dime by The Minutemen, which were really important records to us. But of course we are fans of Exile On Main Street and the White Album so we convinced ourselves that a double record would be OK.”

During the recording of Daydream Nation, Lee Ranaldo reportedly demanded that his guitar was always in the red – and hammering noise into shape was their engineer Nick Sansano’s speciality, after working on Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad sonic assault collages. Shelley recalls a “super interesting time for music, even if we didn’t seem to fit in anywhere”, apart from sharing a noise-rock ethos with Pixies, who released Surfer Rosa a few months earlier.

“We were curious of the rock energy of Guns N’ Roses but we knew that wasn’t our place to be,” he recalls. “At the same time hip-hop was really happening in the States and it was super exciting, but y’know, we knew we weren’t gonna become a hip-hop band like the beastie boys [laughs], but we kind of found our place among it all. I was asked earlier today did I know we were combining all these musics together but it was just all filtered through the four of us.”

Sonic Youth signed to major label Geffen after Daydream Nation, around the time when “labels promised everything”. He admits they were “concerned… we spent a lot of time talking to them”. He credits Geffen with giving them a recording budget and not asking questions.

“They never asked for demos, they let us go and do our thing,” he says. “We were lucky that there was always someone at the label who just said, ‘Hey that’s what you do with Sonic Youth”, they weren’t going to be able to shape us. We were pretty stubborn and also we were a little bit older than a lot of the other bands being signed at the time. No one wants to have a couple of terrible years on a major and we were lucky, we came through it OK.”

Shelley says the Daydream Nation film tour goes beyond a simple screening with a Q&A, with him instead describing it as “a bit of a mixtape”, explaining: “We show a film from earlier in the band’s career in 88-89 [Put Blood in the Music] when the album came out so we kinda jump all over the place”.

And even though Shelley and Bangs kickstarted this retrospective tour, it’s got the full Sonic Youth support. “Absolutely,” he says. “We had Thurston with us in Manchester the other night, and Lee was with us in Brooklyn , and Kim in LA. We’re adding a lot of fellow travellers along the way… David Donoghue who actually worked on Put Blood in the Music will be with us in Dublin.”

And even if he stops short of a full-blown nostalgia trip, Shelley says he’s enjoying sharing the album with fans – many in Glasgow who were at the 2007 filming.

“We knew it was good because we were working so hard… but you never know how your records are gonna resonate,” he says.

“They go off and have a life of their own and you don’t know what’s going to happen to them once they get out there. But it’s nice that people like this one, and we’re having fun talking about it.”

  • Steve Shelley and Lance Bangs are presenting Sonic Youth: 30 Years of Daydream Nation at Triskel Arts Centre in Cork tonight at 8pm (16), and Dublin’s IFI tomorrow at 5pm and 8pm (both sold out).

(Extended from Irish Daily Star piece)