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By Christoph Cox. The Wire, March 2002.
How did Sonic Youth get to curate All Tomorrow's Parties?
Lee Ranaldo: The guy who puts on these shindigs, Barry Hogan, invited us to participate in one of the ATPs in the UK at Camber Sands, and it was a very special event. The festival started out as an artist-curated event from the very beginning, and that idea appealed to us - that it was a chance for an artist or a group to reflect their sensibilities. And the scene at the Camber Sands was just amazing; kind of like the holiday camp in Tommy or something like that. Every one stayed on the site in these
Little bungalows, and it was just a really cool scene. One thing led to another, and the last day we were there, Barry popped the question: "How about you guys curating one?". Through his further brainstorming, he decided he wanted to try it in the US.
We were game to do it. It seemed like a good time for us to attempt to do something like this, where we put our sensibilities on the line. That's always a part of our situation. With our opening acts on tours, we try to pick really creative and interesting musicians and artists. And this was a chance to do that same this in larger scale.
Thurston Moore: Its Kind of funny that we were asked to curate this festival, because weren't exactly the most popular act at ATP when we played. In fact, I think we were probably the least popular of any acts that ever plated ATP [laughs.]
Our sense of the festival was that it was a forum for bands to experiment with what they do, to try different things that you wouldn't normally do at a rock festival.
So we took it upon ourselves to play this 30-40 minute drone guitar piece that we were really into. When we got there and played it, we thought it was going along very well [laughs]. But after we got offstage, we got a very cold reception from people, you know, like "why did you do that?"
Kim Gordon: [To Moore] It wasn't entirely like that. It was a 20-minute guitar piece.
And then there were some new songs that we played instrumentally that were equally foreign. It wasn't like we went on and jammed for...
TM: No, we didn't jam. We never had the intention of jamming. Bur we played all this instrumental music. We didn't play anything that was recognizable to anybody who was a Sonic Youth fan. But we thought that was the nature of this festival, to throw out some new ideas. And we were just lambasted. Critically, we were just completely killed by the British newspapers. Some said we were just wasting the audience's time. When they reviewed us in Melody Maker, there was a picture from the concert of me playing a guitar behind my head and the caption underneath said "Goodbye 20th century, goodbye talent" [laughter]. That was pretty much the response to what we did.
KG: [To TM] You're really exaggerating the whole thing.
TM: I don't think I'm exaggerating enough! The NME said it was "shite".
KG: [To TM] one of the papers said, "This is either brilliant, or total crap".
But still they said, "Yay to the Youth for not giving people what they expected".
The majority of the people there hated it, I'm sure. But the hardcore fans were into it.
TM: I don't remember that. Maybe I'm mythologizing the denigration.
Was there a guiding idea behind your curatorial selections for this year's ATP?
LR: The guiding idea was just, "Wow, who would we like to invite?" We initially made a communal want list of about 300 different artists that ranged completely far and wide. Some things we knew were long shots, like Dylan or Neil Young or Ornette Coleman. We almost got Neil hooked, because we are kinda friends with him.
And, if schedules had been a little different, he might have been able to do it.
It basically ended up just coming down to who could make it. Then, after everything that happened with 9/11 and the rescheduling of this event, there had to be some shifts. Actually, I think that allowed us to make the bill even stronger than it was originally.
KG: Its too bad there aren't more girls playing. We tried to get Le Tigre, but…
TM: There were a bunch of women musicians. We were trying to be sort of gender conscious, too, as far as getting more acts from goners that aren't just middle class white kids with indie rock bands. But a lot of our scene is just that. Those are our compatriots. So It's fairly heavy in that sort of thing.
But the program still represents a pretty big range, from Eddie Vedder and Wilco to Cannibal Ox, Merzbow and Cecil Taylor.
TM: When Pearl Jam asked us to tour with them [in autumn 2000], none of us were very big Pearl Jam enthusiasts. But we've known Eddie through the years through mutual friends. During the Pearl Jam tour, sometimes he would go our before us and play a solo acoustic set of two or three songs that he'd been working on. And they were startlingly good.
The festival was originally scheduled for mid-October of last year, but then was postponed in the aftermath of 9/11. Does the new program reflect anything of the experience of these events?
LR: I don't really think so, at this point. We really brainstormed a lot after the 11th.
If it was still going to go on in October, we were going to change it around a bit and maybe turn the entire thing into a big benefit concert of our own in New York, where we curate an evening at the Bowery Ballroom with all the money going to a few different charities. We had Cat Power and Tom Varlaine and some spoken word artists and other things. And we raised quite a good deal of money. So we felt pretty good about that. And then once the shows got pushed to March, we though it would be better to let things rest as far as all of the Sep. 11 stuff was concerned.
We didn't want to make this festival somehow tied to a tragic event.
The festival represents a lot of genres Sonic Youth have been associated with over the years: punk rock, free jazz, minimalism, art noise, experimental electronica, postmodern poetry, ect. But the one thing missing is the kind of modern composition Sonic Youth preformed on Goodbye 20th Century.
LR: Its true. We were pretty concerned about that kind of balance. We tried to invite a bunch of different people like that. We were talking to Alvin Lucier and James Tenney, at one point. Somehow it proved very difficult to arrange. And sadly, it is a bit lacking on that end. I guess partly because we were trying to put people in a context that would work. In the context if this kind of festival, given that we didn't know the venues or really what was going to happen, we thought that that some of those people might be a little sensitive about the kind of audience they got, and that maybe if the audience wasn't as sufficiently respectful of the music… I don't know.
A couple of people that we wanted to invite, we couldn't figure out a situation in which we thought they would be happy with the performance options. So, you know, we tried.
You toured Europe last summer performing the Goodbye 20th Century pieces. How did that go?
LR: We thought it was a great success. You know, there were occasionally crowds that were a little confused. In spite oh how heavy the ads pressed what was going to be happening, there were still people who sort of expected that if they showed up they'd hear "Teenage Riot" or whatever; and we weren't doing that stuff. So there were your handful of disgruntled fans. In London, that handful was very loud [laughter]
TM: It was like a war in the audience. During the silent parts, like in the Cage piece, you would hear some guy in the back yelling, "This is crap!" and then we'd hear another guy in the front row yelling back, "why don't you go home, mate!" It was nutty. But almost everywhere else, all through Europe, it was all very great. We played the Sonar electronic music festival in Barcelona, though, and that was terrible, because it was this raver audience. We were there playing these pieces by early pioneers of electronic music and it felt as if we were at an avant garde jazz festival playing…
KG: Honky tonk.
TM: Yeah, King Oliver or something [laughs].
LR: But, I think, overall, the audiences really liked it. And I think that, at this point, our audience is willing to follow us wherever we might choose to go. We had a lot of fun doing that tour because it really allowed us the possibilitiy of going out and playing this music that we find really interesting, putting it into a context that its usually seen in, and exposing a lot of different people to it. We thought the concerts were a great success. We mixed in a few songs in the end - like "She Is Not Alone" [from the first LP, Sonic Youth] and Side2Side [from 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers] - that we felt tied what we do to some of the pieces we were playing. We also incorporated a lot of local performers at every stop on the tour for some of the pieces that needed more than the five of us. So we got to play with a lot of interesting people: Pita in Barcelona, Frederic Rzewski… it was really a blast to do. Its just great to be able to go out and present all this strange music and see that, for the most part, the audience responded to it very well.
Was it a stretch to perform that kind of live set?
LR: It wasn't really. It took a few shows to shake out a format and a sequence that worked. But I think we all did an improvised piece there, and it was out of that experience that we put together the groundwork to make Goodbye 20th Century.
That record has definitely had a big influence on the way our music has gone since then, or its allowed to us a little bit more freedom in the terms of what kind of stuff we've been putting on record. So, yeah, the experience of doing it definitely influenced what were doing now.
KG: The record got surprisingly good reviews. I mean, we could have just been totally slaughtered.
TM: Its timing was really good, and we didn't really realize that. I think when we first issued the record we thought it was going to be one of the more obscure things we've ever done. And it sold out of its first pressings really quickly.
I hear that you have a new record in the works?
LR: Yeah, its pretty far along. We laid a lot of the groundwork last august, when we were writing pretty much full time every day in the studio. We were on this really great pace to finish the record when Sep. 11 happened, and that sort of shut down the whole neighborhood, including our studio, for six or eight weeks.
It took us a while to pick it back up. And, at that point, we had this other project on its heels, this film soundtrack we just did for this French director.
How did that come about?
LR: It's a film called Demonlover by this French director Oliver Assayas, who, in France, is considered a fort of a young inheritor of the Nouvelle Vague.
He did a film in 1996 that got some notice called Irma Vep, which used a song of ours. Out of that, he approached us to do the score for this new film.
We've done some film scores in the past and its always really fun. But its usually taken the form where they hand you the nearly finished film and say, "These are the places where we want the music: we want two minutes here, from 8:15 to 10:15", or whatever. That's fun to do, but you never fell like you're integral to what happened with the making of the film. Oliver's idea was that he wanted to start working with us before he had even shot a frame of film. So we were sending him rough things that we were doing. He was listening to them and playing them for the actors on the set as they were shooting. And then, each week, he'd send us a reel of that week's dailies.
The music we would send would influence his thinking about the soundtrack; and the visuals he would send would then give us more insight into how the movie was going.
It was really fun, because it went back and forth like that from the very beginning of his shooting schedule. Some of the music is really aggressive and adventurous for a film soundtrack. I think it's gonna be pretty amazing.
KG: We're also just starting to work on a long-term project documenting radical women in music. A local multimedia firm called Titanium phoned us after reading a comment I made in The Wire (invisible jukebox, issue 197) saying "somebody should make a documentary on women in avant garde music".
TM: We want it to be a visual and aural documentation that gives a sense of history and of the numbers involved. I mean, people know that the world of avant garde music is really relative to women's creative measures. So we're trying to put all that into some kind of timeline and make it interesting. We're trying to figure out the best way to present something like this, maybe create a DVD or something that could be presented on public television or could lend itself to an exposition at the Experience Music Project.
KG: We want it to be something that gives a real 3D sense of the complexity and overlapping of things. I think it'd be cool to have a room where people could actually perform scores by Paulina Oliveros or people like that, to make it accessible. I think it's really great for kids to be able to have those accessibilities, the idea of making your own music,that its not mythologized.
Can you tell me more about the new record?
TM: I think we're calling it "Murray Street", which is where our studio is in Manhattan. I like it because it sounds like "Morrison Hotel" or "Abbey Road".
Will it reflect the experiences of your Goodbye 20th Century material or your various Improv projects?
KG: Not as much on this record as on the last couple of them. This record's really back to song structures. Actually, Thurston wrote most of the songs on acoustic guitar. But they've become these classic rock epics [laughs].
TM: I don't know about that.
KG: Its quite different than the last couple of records.
TM: You know, this is out 21st year, so we're now "of age". This is out first adult record [laughter].
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