Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley Selects 10 Gems From The Band’s Archive

Sonic Youth played its last shows just over a decade ago. But the band’s legacy lives on thanks to an ever-expanding archive available on Bandcamp. This fall, fans were blessed with two full shows recorded in Texas in 1995 and 2006 (with proceeds going towards fundraise for Fund Texas Choice and the Abortion Support Network), but those are just the tip of the SY iceberg. Curated by drummer Steve Shelley and longtime sound engineer Aaron Mullan, the archive swells with live tapes stretching back to the mid-1980s, crucial rarities collections, and stray tracks rescued from out-of-print singles, internet mixes, and random comps. It’s an ongoing feast, giving fans a chance to experience Sonic Youth’s various phases and stages anew. Aquarium Drunkard spoke with Steve Shelley to get his thoughts on a few gems that await listeners. | t wilcox

Ghost Bitch – Mission Furniture Company, LA, CA, December 21, 1985

This show was put on by the Desolation Center people — Stuart Swezey. It was in a warehouse in downtown LA and, you know, downtown had not had a resurgence yet at this point. It was a place where no one would care, where you could make incredibly loud music at night. The Swans played so loud that this fine, snow, was coming down from the rafters of this huge warehouse. It was decades old dust that had been sitting up there. The place hadn’t felt a vibration like the Swans in a number of years [laughs]. It’s also a sad night because it was the night D. Boon had his crash and died. We didn’t know it had happened yet, but oddly we were using one of his guitar amps that night. So, it’s a sad and weird night. But the event itself was amazing. We’re actually looking for a tape of the whole performance, so if anyone out there has it … 

The Desolation Center documentary was such a blast for me because it was like the soundtrack of my life right before I joined Sonic Youth — Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Savage Republic, all of it. I joined right after those desert shows. In the van, I’d hear stories about how amazing it all was. So, to finally see the movie was just fantastic. We’ve been talking with Stuart Swezey about compiling a soundtrack record for it. This would obviously be years after the movie has come out, but we’re still hoping it will happen. 

Cotton Crown – Town and Country, London, UK, June 4, 1987

This is the infamous gig where Iggy Pop showed up and joined us on “I Want To Be Your Dog.” So that was always memorable, and it just so happened that we had a multi-camera crew there that night we were multitracking. This whole gig hasn’t come out yet, but it should — it needs to come out. On this version of “Cotton Crown,” Thurston, during the middle section, had somehow cut his hand or his fingers — as you can hear him exclaim at the end of the song. He cut himself and he shorted out his guitar. We actually mixed it with John Loder from Southern Studios and it’s one of those recordings where we did the sort of 70s thing where we added overdubs later. No kidding. Thurston replaced some of his guitar, and I think he doubled some vocals. 

It originally came out as a single for this fan club we had in the pre-internet days — Sonic Death. We loved doing things like that because we were all collectors. In those days, while you’re on tour, you get to the next city, and your day would start at the used record store or used bookstore, right? That’s how we traveled through the country. We were looking for Neil Young boots and stuff like that, things you couldn’t find anywhere else. That’s when we found Lee Hazlewood records, you know, in the cut-out bin. That’s what all our time was based on. 

Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee – CBGB, NYC, June 23, 1988

Before we went to the studio and recorded Daydream Nation, we did a couple weekends where we would go to these different places and try to play the album. We played in Boston and we played CB’s and Maxwell’s, and probably a few other places. During those shows, people are still getting lyrics together and we’re still, you know, winking and jumping for arrangements. Like, “Here’s the big change!” So, this was an early version of “Eliminator, Jr.” which was later issued on a Forced Exposure seven-inch under the name “Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee.”

I think this was in the era of 120 Minutes on MTV and someone in the band had seen Concrete Blonde in a live performance. I guess one of the members had on a very metal tee and was not a metal dude. Someone in Sonic Youth was perplexed by that, and so that’s where that strange title came from. 

She’s Like Poison – Wylde Ratttz (Ron Asheton, Thurston Moore, Don Fleming, Mike Watt + Steve Shelley) 

We’re actually making an LP of this one as we speak, so that will come out on Bandcamp soon. I thought I would throw this in there because maybe not a lot of people had heard it — it was the group we got together to record some music for Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ movie. It was such a great collection of characters. Ron Asheton had come to a Sonic Youth show before this and sat in with us, but this was the most in-depth time we spent with him. The Stooges hadn’t reformed yet, so it was kind of a precursor to them getting back together. Iggy got wind of Ron and Scott Asheton playing with J Mascis and Mike Watt, too, and I think it all led to that reunion a few years later, if it’s OK to take a little credit [laughs]! 

It was such a fun group, and this tune is one that Thurston sang. It’s one of the more melodic songs from the batch, it’s one of my favorites from the bunch. But they only used one song in the movie and we [actually] did a lot of Stooges covers that we haven’t released. We didn’t want to get in the way of the real Stooges. But there’s some really killer Stooges cuts with this band playing. We’ve gotta get those out sometime. We’d want to check with Iggy first, of course. 

Free City Rhymes – All Tomorrow’s Parties, East Sussex, UK, April 8, 2000

Mogwai invited us to take part in this All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and we were writing New York City Ghosts and Flowers at the time. I wouldn’t say that the songs were half finished, but you know, they hadn’t really been tested live. We thought, you know, this will be a special, unique set — and we got really creamed in the music press. The cover of one of the music weeklies was like, “Goodbye 20th Century, Goodbye Talent!” [Laughs] We thought that shit was hilarious. We just thought, “This is part of the process and we’re trying to get somewhere. We’re doing something different.” It didn’t bother us. 

But I always loved this pre-vocals performance of “Free City Rhymes,” one of my favorite songs off that record. We had mixed it for an ATP compilation that never saw the light of day, but Aaron and I loved it. It had such a great mix, so I was glad to get it out on one of the Rarities collections. 

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise – The Olympia, Paris, France, June 7, 2001 

At this point in France, they let us do anything. They were so welcoming to Sonic Youth and whatever weirdness we brought along with us. So, it was a great place to do these Goodbye 20th Century concerts. William Winant the percussionist joined us for this tour. He was the reason that we got into this phase. When we started making those SYR recordings, Willie was in town and he said, “I’ve got this idea. You guys are into this zone. I’d like to put together five or six new classical pieces composition pieces that you guys can play.” He knew our limitations as far as score reading, so he brought together the more abstract scores. The Cardew piece is so abstract. It’s like all these like geometric shapes and squiggles and stuff you know, and it’s up to you to sort of interpret what he’s trying to get at. 

Not knowing much about this world, I just thought of how punk rock a lot of this was. It’s really playing against the grain. The James Tenney piece, “Having Never Written A Note For Percussion,” was another fun one. It’s just a long crescendo for the whole group and then you back up and you take it down again. It was kind of like a jet taking off and then going away. 

Skip Tracer – The Orange Peel, Asheville, NC, August 11, 2004

We loved the Orange Peel — we discovered that place later in our career, but we kept going back. Such a great, great little room there, on top of a hill in Asheville. Really a nice and comfortable place to stretch out and do your thing.

This is a tune from Washing Machine. There’s a really incredible outline for a Washing Machine box that I hope we can get going at some point. That touring cycle [in 1995] was really long and there were so many odd things that happened. We went to Memphis and recorded this thing — there are early demos of everything. And before the album’s even released, we opened for R.E.M. Then, we did Lollapalooza and the record’s still not out. So, then the record comes out and we do our own US and European tours and then we go to Australia and Asia with the Beastie Boys and the Foo Fighters. There’s just a lot of great stuff. There’s that Rockpalast concert in Germany that has one of the craziest, best versions of “Diamond Sea.” Lee wanted to do something with “The Diamond Sea” where he would do a mix of multiple performances that could be great. So, there’s a lot of options. Fingers crossed that we get to do it. 

Total Trash – ABC1, Glasgow, Scotland, August 22, 2007

The ATP folks started this thing called Don’t Look Back, where bands would play classic albums live in their entirety. They asked us for a while, “Hey you want to do Daydream Nation?” And the answer was always like, “No thanks” [laughs]. But they kept offering a better and better payday and finally it was like “OK, we’ll do it.” But that meant we had to go back and learn it. The mix of that record is such a mesh of things that we had to remix it and put Thurston in the left side and Lee on the right side so they could learn their distinctive guitar parts. We really had to go back and figure out what exactly we did. It’s weird, but I enjoyed that that process a great deal. I don’t think the rest of the band enjoyed it as much as I did. But it’s something we did, and luckily Lance Bangs filmed this night in Glasgow, so we have such a great document of it. 

Before the pandemic, Lance and I were traveling around showing his film of the Glasgow performance, and I just got so used to hearing that mix of Daydream Nation. Then, I actually had to go back to the old school, original of Daydream because we’re putting together a cassette of it, of all things. When I heard that, I was like “Oh my god, the drums are just so limited on some of these tracks!” For me, Aaron’s recording of Lance’s film is so much more enjoyable. 

Starpower (Acoustic ’09) – Gossip Girl TV appearance

I like the recording of this so much more than the TV appearance [laughs]. We recorded it out in Portland while we were on tour at Jackpot!, Larry Crane’s studio. It was such a blast to return to that song because when we recorded that song in ’85 or ‘86, we weren’t really prepared to take it on the road. We only played it a couple times. So, it was nice to be a little bit older and mature and to give something else to that tune. I love it. 

Aquarium Drunkard: There’s not too much “unplugged” Sonic Youth out there, but I did revisit your semi-infamous set at Neil Young’s Bridge Concert in 1991 a little while ago.

[Laughs] The audience was respectful to a degree, but it’s funny — people have pointed out that to get booed at a charity concert, you really have to suck! Recently, Neil’s management asked if we would be OK to have it streaming on his Archives site. But they said, “Well, maybe you’ll want to edit it a little?” But we thought about it and said, no, it should be warts and all. That’s what happened.

Aquarium Drunkard: You guys did go back and play another Bridge Benefit again, though, right? 

We did and I’m happy to tell you that it was the most amazing gig ever. The Bridge had expanded to two nights at this point and the artists were invited to Neil’s ranch this time. So, we went to the barbeque at the ranch the night before and you get to hang out with everyone and meet all the artists who are playing. We had just played in Mexico City, so our gear was not able to make it, but at this time, strangely, one of our crew members was also working for Crazy Horse. So, he initiated it where we were able to use pieces of the Crazy Horse back line. I used the old Ludwig kit that Ralph [Molina] played on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — It’s like the “Cinnamon Girl” drum kit! Lee played the pump organ that Neil had been using and Jim O’Rourke, who was with us at the time, played upright piano on one track — and that was the “After the Gold Rush” piano. It was a lot of fun. 

Inhuman – Williamsburg Waterfront, Brooklyn, NY, August 12, 2011

This show was my setlist. I didn’t expect all those tunes to get the OK from everyone else, but for some reason they made it through rehearsals, and it was a really special show. We did a bunch of things we hadn’t played in a while. A lot of my favorites. Also, because of the internet and people seeing you’re setlists every night, you were sort of up against a wall. How do I make this different? I don’t think we knew this was going to be our last U.S. show. But it was! And it didn’t suck. 

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