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Goodbye 20th Century, Hello New Sonic Youth Biography

Interview by Moshe Levy for saucerlike.com

David Browne / Goodbye 20th Century

David Browne is a freelance writer based in New York City. For many years, he was the music critic at Entertainment Weekly, where he started in 1990 as part of the magazine's launch. In the course of that job, he reviewed nearly 1300 albums and profiled everyone from Leonard Cohen and James Taylor to action film stars and the cast of "Beverly Hills 90210" (first season post-Shannon). In 1995, he was awarded a Music Journalism Award for excellence in criticism for an essay on the cultural significance of John Tesh (and no, he's not kidding).

His articles and reviews have appeared in a wide range of publications (the New York Times, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Blender, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Mojo) and websites (Time, the New Republic, the Poetry Foundation). In his rare free time, he also blogs for the Huffington Post and reviews new music releases for National Public Radio's website. David received his B.A. in journalism from New York University, after which he was an editor and writer at two now-defunct music magazines of the '80s, Music & Sound Output and High Fidelity. He began writing a column on indie rock for the New York Daily News, which, to his surprise and delight, turned into a full-time job at the newspaper.

David is also the author of three books: "Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley" (2001), "Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars and a New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme" (2004) and the upcoming biography of Sonic Youth, to be published by Da Capo on May 26, 2008. David was kind enough to talk to us about his exciting new book.

Q: Why did you choose to write a book about Sonic Youth?

A: It was a combination of admiration and timing. Since it had been almost 15 years since the last book on them was published, the time felt right for a new one that would not just re-examine their early days but take readers right up to date. Since I’ve loved their music for over two decades, I also couldn’t pass up the chance to revisit all those records and write about them at greater length than in magazine or newspaper articles.

Q: Do you see any connection between the subject of this book and the subject of your two previous books?

A: I didn’t, but my wife did. After I told her about this idea, she said, “That’s your theme—people who do what they do out of love and suddenly find that what they do is becoming more accepted and mainstream, and how they seek to hold onto themselves and their identities.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the idea.) And she had a point. My first book, “Dream Brother,” was a dual biography of Jeff Buckley and his late father, Tim, both of whom absolutely embodied the idea of music as transcendence, of following one’s muse and bucking music industry pressure in order to satisfy one’s artistic vision. My second book, “Amped,” was about the extreme sports scenes—skateboarders, BMX riders, and so forth. I’ve always thought of those athletes as the sports equivalent of indie rockers. And given how increasingly mainstream those sports are getting (the Olympics, etc.), and how those athletes are all being hit upon by corporate sponsors, the same theme applies, but in a sports context. So a book on Sonic Youth, who have held onto their core values and identity over the course of over 25 years, is very much of a piece with cultural/artistic themes I’ve explored before.

Q: It is interesting to compare the Sonic Youth and the Jeff Buckley story. While Sonic Youth gained their mythological status through long years of hard work, Buckley became a myth with relatively small catalogue and in a short time. What does it imply about American culture?

A: It probably implies that America, along with lots of other places, loves a good “tragic young death” story—and certainly, we’ve seen enough of those in rock and roll. (I should add that I first interviewed Jeff in 1993, before he even made his first album, “Grace,” so I was a fan before his truly tragic passing.) And what’s also strikingly different about Sonic Youth is the almost complete absence of “Behind the Music”-style tabloid gossip: no drug overdoses, car crashes, busts with groupies, and so forth. They truly are all about the work ethic, which probably isn’t as sexy to the general public!

Q: Is it harder to write about living myths?

A: Absolutely. They give you feedback—as opposed to the deceased parties! But seriously: Yes, a little tricky, since I was trying to be both journalist and fan, which is always a bit tricky to navigate. Hopefully I was able to be both in the book.

Q: Were you a Sonic Youth fan before you wrote the book?

A: Absolutely. I first heard their music back in ’85 when I received a copy of “Bad Moon Rising” when I was working at a small, now defunct music magazine. I was both fascinated and terrified, but I kept listening—and I have a particularly vivid memory of playing an advance cassette (yes, cassette) of “Sister” and instantly falling in love with “Kotton Krown.” I’ve been following them ever since, and have interviewed them for articles for the late Musician magazine, the New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly, where I worked for many years. Thanks to me, “Dirty” was the album of the year in EW in 1992, for whatever that’s worth. To this day, I enjoy bike riding around Manhattan to their music more than any other band. The energy and the sound are perfect accompaniment. All of their albums are on my iPod.

Q: As a fan I always wondered if I really want to know my idols personally or intimately because I thought it might ruin the image I had in my head about them. Did you have any thoughts about it before you wrote the book?

A: I think a biographer always has such concerns. I certainly came across some less-than-flattering comments about the Buckleys during my research. In this case, though, I wasn’t too concerned, since I’d already spent a good chunk of time with them, especially for a big EW story I did back in 2002. During a trip to Northampton for that story, I almost couldn’t find a hotel room, and Kim and Thurston actually offered to put me up in their house. Needless to say, it’s very rare of anyone in the public eye to do that. I did indeed find a local hotel room at the last minute, but their offer said a lot about their hospitality and generosity.

Q: Some of the band members are authors themselves. Isn’t it terrifying to write about people who know a thing or two about writing? I know they were quite critical about previous writings about them.

A: They’re all smart, well-read people, for sure, and I suppose that is somewhat intimidating. But I couldn’t dwell on that too much or I’d go nuts. I just charged ahead and tried to be as fair, comprehensive, and thorough as possible. That’s all I could do. I was more terrified the first time I interviewed, back in 1988 when “Daydream Nation” was coming out. I was young and very green, and facing all four of them in the Blast First office in downtown New York was incredibly intimidating. Somehow I got an article out of it, but God knows how!

Q: Sonic Youth are so experienced and well trained to handle the media. Did you feel at any point that you couldn’t break through and get the information you are looking for instead of the information they are willing to give?

A: For the most part, no. I spent numerous hours with each of them, and they were all, at one point or another, pretty candid about their feelings on the band, particular albums, and people they’ve worked with. That said, they were a number of “off the record” comments, and I honored those requests.

Q: When the band is asked what is the secret to their success the usually say that it is thanks to the democratic decision-making process they use. I can imagine that as in any other democratic institution, there are also conflicts and power relations in the band. Did you manage to find such conflicts? How does the band resolve them?

A: You’ll have to read the book to find out! But yes, they have wrestled with those issues. Each one of them has firm, definite opinions about how records should sound, what tours or concerts should or shouldn’t be embarked on, etc.—and, in general, how the band should proceed in general. People assume Kim and Thurston form a power block, but they disagree as often as they agree, it seems. Jim O’Rourke told me one of his role was to be what he called “the quirk officer,” the buffer zone. He felt that part of his job was to hear each of them complain about the other, and then help them figure out a compromise. But they absolutely debate and vote. In fact, “Murray Street” would have been called “Street Sauce” if Steve hadn’t objected. Since he put his foot down, “Murray Street” it was. That’s just one example.

Q: Thurston enjoys the “star” position in the band. He is also more dominant as a songwriter in the last few records. Does this cause any tension within the band?

A: It’s not so much his dominant songwriting so much as the media’s perception that Kim and Thurston are basically the band. That’s caused as much tension as anything, it seems. They really do see themselves as a democracy, which doesn’t always jibe with the media’s interest in the “cool couple” that fronts the band. I think that’s been a source of tension, on and off. But I think they all also realize that it’s Thurston’s songs and ideas that start the Sonic Youth engine.

Q: I think that Sonic Youth is the only band in history that was accused for “selling out” twice in their career (first to Geffen, now to Starbucks’ Hear Music)? Do you think that these accusations influenced the band’s artistic choices and music?

A: By their own admission, they do have a tendency to go in a different direction if they feel too pinned down. A good example, of course, is “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” After making too somewhat commercial (for them) albums, “Goo and “Dirty”—and hearing some of those “sellout” remarks--they decided enough was enough and bashed out a far less produced record with far less commercial appeal than those two. The Impact of the Starbucks release won’t be heard until we know how their new songs sound, so we’ll see.

Q: Did you have any surprising moments doing your research?

A: Oh, tons. Lee making his singing debut, in high school, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “4 +20.” Kim dancing to “Wooden Ships” (by same band) during a high school dance recital. Who knew CSNY played such a role in their upbringings? I didn’t. I also didn’t know until I started the book that Kim’s high school boyfriend was composer Danny Elfman (whom I interviewed as well) or that the decision to drop Lee’s “Genetic” from “Dirty” resulted in a tense inter-band showdown, the biggest internal crisis of their career (according to Thurston). Just a few of many examples.

Q: What should Sonic Youth fans expect from your book?

A: I’d like to think they will learn a lot more about their childhoods and upbringings than ever before, more about what was going on behind the scenes we can call their “pop” years (1990-1995) and glean a few peeks into their personal lives over the years. They’ll hear from more people in their lives than ever before, from Thurston’s mom to some of their childhood friends to famous-friend types like Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, and Chloe Sevigny. They’ll get a better sense of why Jim joined—and left—the band. They’ll go behind the scenes at business meetings and in the studio. I aimed for a well-rounded book that discusses music, career, music-industry matters, personal lives, and overall social/cultural context.

Q: I love the title of your book. What do you think was the role of Sonic Youth’s music in the transition to the 21st century?

A: Thanks—I like the title too (and happily admit that I cribbed it from their own album). I thought it was perfect in that Sonic Youth, along with a few of their peers, really did seek to remake and remodel the idea of pop music—songwriting, collaboration, guitar tunings and such—and remove it from any long-held connections to vernacular music (blues, country, and such). They weren’t the only ones to experiment with those notions and structures, but they were really were among the first of a new breed of rock band.

Q: What do you think the 21st century holds for Sonic Youth?

A: As always, the unexpected. I can imagine their music getting even more avant and experimental as they grow older. But then, they could surprise us all. One of their friends told me she thought Thurston could write a traditional, monster-riff rock song whenever he wanted—but that he just didn’t want to. So who knows—maybe that type of song will come out one day and surprise us all.

Click here to preorder.
 

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