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Mo-Fo, February 1999. Article by Didier Stiers. Translated and trascripted by Vincent Kirsch.
In 1999, the four members of SY could look like dinosaurs of indie rock. However, their influence stays enormous and some people even think they are at the base of a typical lo-fi movement these last months.
Something was sure after their 7th February sold-out gig in Brussels at the Ancienne Belgique: the New-York band is inevitable. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist, had no problem to convince us...
After 18 years of career, did yr passion transform?
It's sure that we are still passionned to play and create. When we started as a band, we were 4 kids trying to explore. Today, we have a long history behind us, and other avenues to walk in. The basic idea didn't really change : what we want to do w/ our life, being artists, work out our creativity through this medium...
What really changed?
When you're young, you're hungry. You want to be in a band and realize a dream.
Today, the new element is the career! We have a musicians career, in the best sense of the term:
we just can continue working in the direction we choosed. We're lucky, and we're aware of it.. You just have to throw an eye in our agendas or in the band's one to see how much we're busy...
Which are your discs you listened the most to?
None! When the album is released, we never listen to it again, except when we repeat old songs just before a gig. And even there, we prefer to listen to our bootlegs cause they sound more to what Sonic Youth does live. The more you play a song, the more it gets other qualities than those he had on an album. And we finally keep those most recent qualities. The sound is different, the energy too. With time, the same title on an LP sounds uncorrect to us! Our albums are...documents to us.
How can you conciliate this will of exploration and the fact you almost have to play live, which can be seen as a rehearsal?
Playing live is, in a sense a part of our professionnal obligations. But on the other hand, it's the funniest side of our job. In addition, we're never in the same state of mind from one gig to another. But you know, when you're immersed in music, you quickly remember why you're on stage. We would only be frustrated if we were trying to make songs sound like on the album every evening. Just ilke a pop band would, you know. Things are differnet at every gig : the songs are different depending on where we play, our mood, the audience...
During your last tour, you had to play the same songs for 6 months anyway...
Yes. One or two instrumentals, two or three older songs, and especially A Thousand Leaves, the last LP. The idea was that the audience could listen to Sonic Youth as it is today. I know some people have some favourite songs and that they come hoping they will hear those. But we're not the kind of band to play " I Can't Get No Satisfaction" for 30 years...And even if we played the same titles every night, not always in the same order, we always found something else in this music. So we have a new interest in playing live. Starting from there, it's easier to separate our activites : when we go to tour, we play and when we're in studio, we develop.
You also have a lot of individual activities...
Yes, and very various. The fact we have our own studio in Downtown makes things easier to us.First of all at the musical level, because wa are all involved in side projects. Kim was playing with Free Kitten, but she's not doing it anymore at the moment I think. I worked on two LP's this year, one is from a band in which Jim O'Rourke plays. I just released my third book, and in March, there will be a LP of spoken words. Thurston also has a lot of musical side projects, and Steve works notably with Two Dollars Guitar. Kim and I also involve a lot into visual arts, painting in particular. And I continue walking everywhere with my camera...
You also play 20th century "classical" music...
Yes, but it's only an example of what our "career" offers us to do today. We also were invited to play aon a Stockhausen work, in New York next year. Last year, we played at Avery Fisher Hall, a prestigious concert room in Manhattan. It's usually a place where you come to listen to philarmonic concerts. We stayed there a whole evening playing instrumental music. It's the kind of stuff that allows us to launch ourselves in other directions. And it's great, because we love the idea we can evolve in that way.
Does the word "rock'n'roll' still have a meaning for you today?
Rock, it's... an energy. It can manifest under several ways. An LP such as Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" it's rock on one side, and something else on the oter side. Anyway, you cannot define it with a style of playing, in my opinon. We are, and I'm sure the 3 others will agree, a rock band. Even if we don't use most of the conventions, what we do always finally sounds as rock'n'roll. Two guitars, a bass and drums, it's still very classical after all. I don't know if we really wonder about this idea of rock. There are so many things that can be considered as rock, from "Johnny Be Good" to Tortoise...
On your last LP, some people said that "Female Mechanic Now On Duty" was a kind of answer to Merdith Brooks singing "Bitch". So what's up finally?
That's what was said on the press release indeed, and now everybody asks us the question. Actually Kim wrote the text. And when she writes, she needs concrete things as inspiration. She's always been intersted on how women were treated in this business, how they are described, how they describe themselves. "Bitch" has something to do with "Female Mechanic... " : woman is declined on several modes, and every mode is ideal. In love, lover, mother and stuff like that... I think Kim's idea was to describe woman on a little bit cruder way. The woman with flaked off nailvarnish, you know? But the start idea was certainly not to attack Meredith Brooks.
Why this french title, "Contre le Sexisme"?
[Contre le sexisme = "against sexism"]
Well, technically, our album is called "Mille feuille" (note of translator : Mille feuilles means A Thousand Leaves)... "Contre le sexisme" was inspired by an e-mail someone sent us, as if you sticked a sticker on a wall. It just said "contre le sexisme et le machisme", in French. At the beginning, it was only instrumental, and I gave this title to it because it's always more simple to identify instrumental tracks. Then Kim wrote a text and we found it was OK with this music. At a moment, we really wanted to call the LP "Millefeuille". And then it seemed ridiculous to us to have a French title for an American band. So "Millefeuille" became the subtitle, "A Thousand Leaves" the main title, and "Contre le Sexisme" didn't change. But we're used to use foreign languages. The EP's we release on SYR have titles in French, Dutch and Esperanto (note of translator : Esperanto is a language a guy created to be spoken everywhere in the EC, but it never came out...fortunately ;-) ). This doesn't look especially weird to us. But it's not conceptual, it's just for fun.
While we're talking about French titles, why did you make a cover of "Ca Plane Pour Moi" on this "new wave" compilation some years ago?
Well, it seemed too easy to us to cover Blondie or Talking Heads. We liked listening to "Ca Plane Pour Moi", which was different from the rest at this moment. Generally, new wave was sung by American or English people, and we were more motivated with a French song, it was a kind of challenge. We don't like to do what people expect from us. Hey, we met Plastic "Betwand"( laughs) (note of translator : Plastic Bertrand is the author of Ca Plane Pour Moi. He's a Belgian...). He loved our cover!
And did you like him?
Yeah, he's ok!
Sonic Youth Records.
Sonic Youth Records started 2 years ago. The band launches some things which are unusual to what they're used to do on their albums. These aren't really "songs", but long instrumental tracks, more experimental and abstract. 3 productions were released in 97, and 3 others are to be released this year.
"We started with this label project at a moment when we were interested in instrumental music again. In addition to A Thousand Leaves, we were playing little gigs which allowed us to evolve this music. Two new productions will be recorded in March by the band and some guests like Jim O'Rourke and Willie Wynet, the drumer who works with Thurston. These will be titles of 20th Century composers, people like John Cage for instance. We will play the partitions with an extended line-up and some of those composers will work with us in studio by the way", Lee said. If you like weird stuff, this is for you: each SYR EP is presentd in a differnt language : the first was in French (Anagrama), the second in Dutch (Slaapkamers Met Slaagroom [which means something like Bedrooms with whipped cream]) and the third in Esperanto (Invito Al Cielo)!
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