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Friday, June 12, 2009

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Wasted on the young: Sonic Youth are producing some of their best music after 29 years in the business.

Sonic after three decades of Youth

Special to The Japan Times

There's an old punk maxim that you should never trust anyone over 30. And yet as Sonic Youth rapidly approach the big three-oh, their music is on an upward curve.

It's ludicrous to think that a 29-year-old band can still be making vibrant, spirited, aggressive, exciting, experimental music — especially when all of the members are in their 40s and 50s. In those three decades, the band — initially founded as The Arcadians in 1980 by New York art-scenesters Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who married in 1984 — have turned out 16 albums plus innumerable releases with side projects. And yet new album "The Eternal" is right up there with their very best.

"Right now we just seem to be in a certain place," says the band's drummer Steve Shelley on the band's recent run of critically lauded albums, which since 2004 have been setting the band straight after a self-indulgent late-teen period.

Shelley joined the band in 1985, by which time their guitar-bashing antics had already begun turning heads. Speaking in a New York drawl over a distorted phone line, Shelley appears to sound exactly like a Speak & Spell toy, not helped by a stilted tone that suggests he'd rather be spending his morning doing anything other than speaking to a journalist.

"The record came together quickly," says Shelley, who turns 47 on June 23. "Kim and Thurston live a few hours away from New York these days. Lee (Ronaldo, guitar), Mark (Arm, bass and former Pavement member) and I would drive up to Kim and Thurston's house in the middle of the week and play with them for a couple days in their basement; and then on the weekend they would come back to New York, and we would spend a couple days trying to record what we'd just worked on. So songs would come together on Wednesday, and then we'd be recording them on Saturday.

"It was exciting. Maybe it makes this album a little fresh or spontaneous. It's not overworked; it's very buoyant."

Aside from the accelerated writing and recording process, I ask, did Sonic Youth try out any other new tricks while recording "The Eternal"?

"No, we're not really ones for tricks," says the drummer of the band who play their guitars with drumsticks and who once released a performance video of the members nailing down the keys of a piano one by one. "We just try to get together and play really well. We're just trying to make a good record every time we go in there.

"There's not many things that we do musically that are conscious. We don't discuss the music or changes to the music very much at all."

The arc of Shelley's drum technique over the years follows closely that of his drumming on any given Sonic Youth song: That is, it rarely changes. Shelley is a master at keeping down tight, simple rhythms that underpin Moore, Gordon, Ronaldo and Arm's often lengthy tonal excursions, without breaking off into showy fills after every eight bars or changing a beat without reason. It's a patient style that draws attention only through how little attention it draws.

"Repetition can be your friend," quips Shelley. "I like a lot of funk and soul drumming. There's tons of repetition in that, but it's called 'the groove,' you know?"

After several indie releases, Sonic Youth signed with Geffen, an imprint of major label Universal, in 1990. The deal ended in 2006, and although the band had concurrently released many EPs and singles on their own indie label SYR, "The Eternal" represents their first postmajor offering, released in the U.S. by indie powerhouse Matador and licensed in Japan to Hostess.

"We were on Geffen for a long time," reflects Shelley. "The business plan at the major labels is not the way to go (in the current climate). Independent labels are much better suited to deal with issues such as downloading and pricing. The independent labels are geared to survive."

Shelley not only deals with the running of SYR, he also runs his own label, Smells Like Records. As both an artist and a label owner, he is confounded on the future of the record industry.

"Well, so many people can do it on their own right now; I don't know if you really need a label," he considers. "Things are in quite a flux. A band like Sonic Youth, we could've (released 'The Eternal') ourselves, but we wanted to have a group of people to work with, besides just the band. We thought it was important to get other people's energy and ideas and work on the selling of the record. The band would like to concentrate on making music.

"I don't know where things will wind up," he adds. "If I did, it would be amazing."

He's certainly not sold on the download revolution, feeling that some of the passion of finding and enjoying music has been decimated by the overwhelming choice and convenience afforded by the digital age.

"I don't have an iPod," he says, pouring scorn on people who boast about the 50,000 songs they carry around in their pocket. "It becomes about how much music you have and not what that music means to you. Do you really spend time with every one of those songs? I'm still old-school: I buy CDs and albums and listen to them in order. The collecting part of record collecting is part of the fun!"

And indeed, Shelley says you're likely to spot him and his bandmates lurking in record stores around Tokyo and Osaka when they come to play at the Summer Sonic music festival in August.

The band have strong ties with Japan: The members have collaborated with such artists as Yoko Ono, Shonen Knife, and Eye Yamantaka and Yoshimi P-We of Boredoms; and one-time member Jim O'Rourke now lives in Tokyo and rejoined the band on stage when they played at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2006.

When asked whether O'Rourke will appear at Sonic Youth's shows at Summer Sonic, he shrugs. "I don't know; that sort of thing just happens. It's not planned out. If Jim's around and he's got a guitar, we might say, 'Hey, come and play with us.' "

And on the subject of next year's 30th anniversary, Shelley shrugs again, saying, "There's nothing planned." He does go as far as to pick out his favorite Sonic Youth records over the decades: "I like 'Evol' (1986) quite a bit; it was the first record that I played on with the group, so that was a big record for me. Obviously (1988 breakthrough) 'Daydream Nation' is a favorite. I like (1992 gem) 'Dirty' a lot, actually. When we made the deluxe edition (a remastered rerelease in 2003 with additional tracks), it was a lot of fun to re-examine 'Dirty.' "

Can Shelley imagine a post-Sonic Youth world, where the band one day stop playing?

"Jeez, I don't know!" he laughs. "It's hard to imagine either way. I guess it could happen, and everything would be fine. I don't know which way it's gonna go. We have a full schedule for this year, haha, and I think it'll flow into next year. That's sort of how we've always lived our band life. As long as people wanna do things, we keep doing them."

Maybe another 30 years?

"Oh, I couldn't imagine that," he laughs. "But who knows!"

"The Eternal" is out now. Sonic Youth play at the Osaka leg of the Summer Sonic festival on Aug. 7 and the Tokyo Chiba leg on Aug. 9.

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