Last month marked the 30th anniversary of Daydream Nation, the album that catapulted Sonic Youth to critical acclaim. (At one point, Pitchfork considered it the #1 album of the ’80s, placing its discordant guitars, noise jams, and exhilarating marriage of indie rock and No Wave above Michael Jackson, Prince, and all the rest.)
To celebrate the occasion, director Lance Bangs is touring his footage of two 2007 performances in Glasgow during which Sonic Youth played the sprawling double album in its entirety. Last night at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, singer-guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley joined him to reminisce about what many still consider to be their masterpiece. (Hell, it even inspired a walking tour.) Here’s what we learned about the band from their q&a with Bangs.
1. They weren’t “total trash”; in fact, they were cat people.
Lee: “We’d go out on tour and people would think we were heroin addicts or that we had this radical lifestyle because we were from New York… We were always about the music being as radical as possible but people would meet us and they would be like, ‘Oh, you have cats and you go to the grocery store’… We weren’t shooting heroin or anything like that, hanging out on Avenue C.”
2. In 1983, neither Thurston Moore nor Lee Ranaldo had the guts to fire drummer Bob Bert.
So they made Kim Gordon do it.
3. Before Daydream Nation, Thurston was a food vendor.
Lee: “For years we were like, ‘Things are starting to happen.’ But they weren’t really starting to happen in any real way. We still went back and Thurston was selling Chipwich in Central Park, out of a street cart, and stuff like that.”
4. Right now, someone is probably in a bar saying, “I drummed for Sonic Youth.”
Before Steve Shelley became the band’s drummer, they “did a series of 10 or 12 gigs where we had a different drummer for each gig,” Lee said. None of them worked out.
5. Steve Shelley went from being Kim and Thurston’s house-sitter to their bandmate.
After Bob Bert was fired, he was rehired, only to quit after a tour of England in 1985. Steve Shelley, who had recently moved to New York, was crashing at Kim and Thurston’s at the time. When they came home from the England dates, “Steve was watching TV on their bed or whatever,” Lee recalled. (Steve clarified: “Not exactly.”) They offered him the gig sans audition and started working on songs that ended up on Sister.
6. The band toyed with the idea of recording a cover of The Beatles’ White Album.
Lee said they learned “Back in the USSR” and then “we tried the second song—maybe it’s ‘Dear Prudence’ or whatever— and we couldn’t do it, we gave up. But then Jon Spencer was like, ‘Those wimps, they said they were going to cover the White Album…” Spencer and former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert ended up covering the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. with their band Pussy Galore.
7. At the time of Daydream Nation, the double album was at once indie anathema and of its time.
Lee: “Some of our close peers had just done double albums: Minutemen did Double Nickels on the Dimeand Husker Du did Zen Arcade. A double album seemed like a throwback to a weird era that we weren’t supposed to really come into, in a way. But we thought the idea of it was cool.”
8. Thurston Moore is not making an alt-right symbol in this photo from the Daydream Nation album shoot.
Michael Lavine showed off photos he snapped of the band as they walked through Wall Street, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and the East Village, stopping at Two Boots along the way. According to Lee, Thurston was “asserting his astrological dominance in that period.” In the above photo, it’s possible he was flashing a Leo symbol in the above photo, or the symbol that represented him on the album, an omega.
9. They used flash cards to write songs.
During Sister rehearsals, they’d “have the parts labeled on flash cards, like part A, part B, part C, part D,” Lee said. “We’d deal them out, like, ‘Let’s try part C there, then part D, then another part D.’ We’d have multiples of each letter, so, A, A, B, D, C, C. And we’d try it that way and then we’d move the cards around and say, ‘Let’s try it that way.’”
10. There’s actually an answer to ‘Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?’
Lee: “Pretty much for our entire career, we always wrote our music without any lyrics. Nobody was ever singing at rehearsal… We were making these compositions with a lot of interesting parts and only later figuring out where the vocals would go on them.
11. If you saw Sonic Youth in the ’80s, you probably didn’t clap much.
Lee: “From Bad Moon on we were doing sets where there was no silence between any of the songs; we didn’t want silence, we wanted to play a concert where we’re using cassette tapes on stage and thing like that. There was really no place for people to applaud… it was an unbroken block of sound from the beginning to the end. I think that just led to longer songs with a lot more glorified intros and outros.”
12. The guy who recorded Daydream Nation, Nick Sansano, was a hip-hop producer.
Lee: “Public Enemy was across the hall at Greene St. [Recording]. He’d been working with all these people like that and had never really made an album with guitars let alone guitars that sounded like what we were doing. We learned together how to make that record.”
13. They were “reactionary against the ’80s, during the ’80s.”
At least, that’s what Steve said about the big-drum sound of the era. “Usually we’d walk into a studio to check it out and the engineer would come up to us and say, ‘This room has a great snare drum sound,’ and Thurston and Lee would say, ‘Ok, we’re not recording here.’”
14. They wanted to sound like Television.
Ranaldo said they wanted an “ensemble sound” where all the instruments blended into each other. Steve added: “To every engineer we’d mention, or play parts of, Marquee Moon. We’d carry that album around and say, ‘This is how things should sound.’”
15. Kim Gordon separated people into “the Guns N Roses camp or the Jane’s Addiction camp.”
Or so said photographer Michael Lavine. The preferred camp was GNR. “Sweet Child O’ Mine, it’s undeniable,” Lee said.
16. It isn’t easy to learn a Sonic Youth song, even for Sonic Youth.
When Sonic Youth performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2007, some songs “were pretty difficult for us to relearn,” Lee admitted. “We had to isolate tracks on the master tape to listen to bass parts or guitar parts or whatever.” A particularly tricky one was “Rain King,” which “had a crazy structure,” according to Steve. “I think we struggled with that song.”
17. The word “mota,” in “Providence” means exactly what you think it means.
In the answering machine message played over a damaged Peavey amp, Minutemen bassist Mike Watt asks Thurston if he found his stuff and tells him “you gotta watch the mota” because “your fuckin’ memory goes out the window.” Mota was Watt’s word for marijuana, Lee explained, and “Thurston was an inveterate loser of things. He would buy ten records and leave them in the next store.”
18. Daydream Nation was the first album where the band practiced the album live before recording it.
Lee: “We did a bunch of shows at Maxwell’s; the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street, the first one; and at CB[GB]s. For one of the few times in our career we were like, ‘Let’s play these things out before we record them,’ so when we got to the recording studio we were super primed.”