Steve Shelley, who drums for Sonic Youth, answers all of my questions, save one dumb one.
Archive for July, 2009
If you’re into dance music, you’re aware that the sounds of disco and electro are starting to get over-saturated with too many artists and remixers all treading over the same ground, and that rhythmic traditions like Dubstep and Kuduro are taking over a share of the dance floor real estate (big acts like Major Lazer and Buraka Som Sistema for example.)
A post by M. Thomas Stevens
In an attempt to describe the Sonic Youth concert under the arch last Friday, I flatly told a friend that Sonic Youth made international news by destroying the national monument with acoustic resonance. Now, I doubt that the massive metal catenary would show the slightest perturbation, even when pummeled by the most acute feedback burst, but it’s a fantasy straight from my 9th grade school bus ride. I thought then, as I ecstatically piped in “Daydream Nation” day after day, that this was music I would never hear performed. But what vaults Sonic Youth above other bands is their potential to draw from their catalogue of almost thirty years of music. Moreover, while different epochs of their work are fairly dissimilar, they don’t negate their evolution as a band by refusing to play earlier tunes, rather they dust them off with gusto that would probably rival that of their original performance.
It pains me to say that I missed the opening of the concert because I was scarfing my friend’s animal crackers that security, for whatever important reason, would not allow in the vicinity. Sauntering down the amphitheatre steps full of crusty giraffes, I was immediately struck by my first glimpse of the band. They all appeared as effortlessly hip as ever, typified by the towering Thurston with dark glasses and swishable mop, joined now by Mark Ibold (former bassist of late Pavement, Dustdevils). As I understand it, Ibold is a fixture in the group who had a role in developing much of the latest release, “The Eternal”. On stage, he mainly octaved or doubled Kim’s bass, which may have allowed her to focus on her vocals, which I thought were markedly improved from the last performance I saw in Chicago two years ago. On the whole, the musicians seemed like they had just come from a stint of rigorous rehearsals, playing almost all of the material on “The Eternal” with a distinguished precision for a band to which some critics append the word “jam”. Notably, there were several cuts on which Thurston, Lee, and Kim shared and harmonized vocal parts, an arrangement tactic I had never heard them employ before.
Punctuating all of the songs from “The Eternal” were a few well-placed surprises, namely “Stereo Sanctity” from 1987’s “Sister”, which has some of the group’s most cochlea-scraping riffing in the chorus, closed by powerful falling glissandos that pound the body. To me, it is one of their most thematically memorable songs, with echoes of cyberpunkish/post-apocalyptic assignment of divinity, soul, or life to the machine, or even to their own overdriven amps. Then, with an ethereal, arpeggiated intro began “Malibu Gas Station”, one of the picks from “The Eternal” that really shined live. The layers of instrumentation on the album translated perfectly to the stage, from the surf-y modal warp of Lee’s guitars coupled with Thurston’s dense chording in the verses, to Kim’s harrowing vocals at the apex, to the shimmering denouement. And all this set against the last rays of sunset crossing over into twilight. The closed the set out with the apt choice of their album closer, “Massage the History”, with Thurston on an acoustic guitar accompanied by Lee on a warbling slide. To me, it feels like a merger of the American folk tradition, Eastern traditional, and ambient electronics, like an expansion of the textures on “Trees Outside the Academy”.
It was at this point where I was unsure of the audience’s level of interest. In this quiet piece I was surrounded by vapid chatter and choice concert sound bytes like “Hey, man, roll that one fat, this is, like, Sonic Youth!” Much to my relief, the final cheers were enough to garner two more encores. The first consisted of two favorites from “Daydream Nation”: “The Sprawl” and “’Cross the Breeze”, which to me exemplify the versatility and uniqueness of their sound. From the driving haze of “The Sprawl”, with its chorus of cro-magnon percussion from Shelley, to hypertempo dissonant polka in “’Cross the Breeze”, to both of their expansive feedback-laden melodic codas, they bring to mind everything I enjoy about listening to Sonic Youth.
The second encore was absolutely thrilling, but was capped by the ultimate anti-orgasm. It began with the somber “Shadow of a Doubt” from “EVOL”, which sees a whispery, distracted Kim mutate into a banshee in a sinister guitar forest. Though I am not as well-acquainted with this record, as I understand this song is an epic fave out of their whole discog. My doubts about the crowd were quashed when there were rampant lyric shouts during “Death Valley ‘69” from “Bad Moon Rising”, which is heralded as one of their first “hits”, and whose Richard Kern-directed video is a masterful gore-filled recounting of the Manson murders. It was a chilling, macabre timbre to bring the evening to the close, but the sensation was almost trounced by the blatant display of disrespect that followed. At the end of the final song, when Thurston and Lee proceeded to launch into the ritual guitar abuse and feedback finale, the stage speakers were mysteriously faded out and replaced by Top 40 while a spray of fireworks went off behind the band. I was confused beyond belief, and the most mortifying part was that their earpiece monitors still gave them the illusion of being heard. It was a bizarre spectacle of performance art, perhaps like watching Jackson Pollack fling invisible paint on a canvas from all four sides whilst blasting Beyonce or comparable fare on a nearby boombox. After it was clear to them that they had been cut off, the band went around to the back of the stage to watch the pyrotechnic display. I could only hope that this didn’t mar their perception of the city for all time.
But honestly, what was the sound brigade thinking? If the crowd begged for dual encores, it’s clear they wouldn’t be averse to ending the show with waves of obliviating noise pricked by the occasional firework burst. In fact, I think it would have been unanimously awesome. I walked away with a bad taste, but it was soon refreshed by the more savory moments the rest of the evening brought. Besides, Sonic Youth’s quality output and commitment to touring seems to show no signs of coming to a head anytime soon.
(Video thanks to Sensored Media)
So folks, yesterday, as promised, I tweeted my entire Sirenfest experience, complete with inanities of all sorts, and if you caught that, you know that I found out that I bit my tongue the night before and only figured it out that morning. Today, I deliver a narrative assessment of the shows and the experience, and I hope it’ll have a little bit more substance, and will edify you, the ignorant reader. Or I might tell you about the time that I threw up at Coney Island (only amusement park related vomit incident I’ve ever had, proud to say).
First, a short description of the setting. Coney Island is a really, really odd place. It is the southernmost part of Brooklyn, home to some of NYC’s beaches. The beach itself is hopelessly filthy; I stopped swimming in Coney Island when I once found a used tampon in the water. Next to the beach is a boardwalk and a bunch of barely safe, incredibly dirty and sleazy carnival games and rides. Coney Island is also home to several freak shows, the original Nathan’s Hot Dogs (where the 4th of July hot dog eating contest is held every year) and the oldest wooden roller coaster still in operation, The Cyclone, which is also barely safe. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the area has become increasingly dominated by Russian immigrants, and as a result, increasingly controlled by the Russian mob. It is also home to some of the roughest projects in the city. Nearby Abraham Lincoln High School (Stephon Marbury’s alma mater) is virtually a war zone, with students submitting to random weapons searches by the police. As is, it makes for an interesting place to have an indie rock festival. Main stage is located right next to the Cyclone, and every five minutes or so, the band is drowned out by the rumblings of the coaster and the screams of the passengers. I also love to see locals and beachgoers stumble into the festival and wonder what the fuck they’ve come across.
Sirenfest itself is an odd festival in an odd place. Started in 2001 on one stage, you rarely hear good things about the festival, although some past shows (particularly the Liars’ set in 2002) have gained a legendary reputation. First, Siren suffers because it tends to be the weekend of or the weekend after Pitchfork, and inevitably loses out when it comes to both booking and buzz. Second of all, I’m quite convinced that the festival is a death trap. The asphalt magnifies the summer heat (which is usually at its worst around Siren time) to an unbearable, dangerous degree. People are shoved into two fairly narrow streets, and there aren’t many exits out; if a fire or a riot or something broke out, there would be a significant risk of trampling. Finally, sound is consistently shitty, most likely because the festival takes place in a public, municipal setting and they can’t pump the volume up to the point where you wouldn’t lose it in the neighboring amusement parks. But I kind of like Sirenfest, or at least, I have a long tradition of going. My first year there (I’m pretty sure) was 2004, and I have good memories of shows there. Despite its limitations, Sirenfest brings in some fun acts, usually the ones who are just on the cusp of hitting it big. Also, it’s the only true summer festival that NYC has, and I like the fact that I can take the train out and get a day’s worth of a festival (which is about as much as I want anyway) without having to deal with a drive and grass and mud and hippies and smell. Also, I like the fact that I can get a ride on the log flume in between sets.
My personal setting this year was that I had just done an epic pub crawl the night before. I wasn’t hungover exactly, but I definitely had this head-not-where-it-should-be feeling. I also was getting over a bad cold I had (eh, still have) this week, so I was talking like a frog and phlegmmy as all hell. YEAH ROCK.
So, with that in mind, the acts! I got to Siren on time for the first time ever – usually I make plans to catch an early set but then get up late and have a lengthy breakfast and get there late. This time, I actually managed to get there on time, and I was glad I did, since this first show was probably one of the best I saw all day, a band called Micachu and The Shapes. Micachu makes one of my favorite kinds of music: no-wave, experimental tinged reimaginations of what pop means. This kind of stuff presents a fun cognitive challenge. You’re teased and engaged with what you’ve always identified with pop, clear, identifiable rhythms, the inklings of melody, singalong vocals. But while the outlines look like pop, the music is filled in with elements that push the brain; in Micachu’s case, you’ve got melodies played on an out of tune toy guitar and sung by a child and rhythms produced by the blats of a programmed keyboard and what looked like some sort of drum device fashioned out of plastic bottle. It was damn original, damn fun, and hell, a little bit dance-y. I find these kind of shows inherently watchable. It’s fun just to play the “how are they making this weird sound” game. In any case, keep an ear out for these guys, I bet they’re going somewhere. Also, what is with the new trend in child-like voices (see: Ponytail)? Is it some sort of artistic regression? Or is it just that we find the voice of a child unsettling on some deep level?
After Micachu, I caught about fifteen minutes of Japandroids, who’ve been getting a lot of buzz lately. While they performed a hell of a show, pounding drums and roaring guitar, and they had a charming stage presence (thrown off both by the crowd and the occasional pass of the roller coaster next door), I was relatively unimpressed. In general, I’m not a big fan of twosomes, since there’s just such a limit on the complexity that can be added to the music. There are some exceptions, of course – Matt and Kim and Mates Of State come to mind – but there are very few twosomes that I think wouldn’t be better off with a bassist. Also, c’mon, guys, what’s wrong? Do you have no other friends? This was definitely the case with Japandroids. They can rock out and deliver some pretty fun pop songs, but when it’s just drums and guitar, it all kind of sounds the same.
I left about fifteen minutes into their set and went to catch Thee Oh Sees. In general, I’m a fan of Thee Oh Sees’s hustle. Their music sounds like an old reel-to-reel recording of a long lost 60s garage act that has been purposely tampered with, a retro sound that has been stretched and warped until it becomes something new. Plus it has honest-to-goodness tambourine. And they’re a fun show to watch. John Dwyer, the frontman/lead guitarist, holds his beat-up guitar (which has his initials pasted on in big silver letters) in the crook of his elbow and plays it right under his chin, which is something I’ve never seen before. During solos (and most other times, actually), he has an endearing habit of treating his guitar with a casual disrespect, sometimes leaning on it during a keyboard part. Thee Oh Sees have a very strange stage energy. On Saturday. they looked like they had been beaten in prison, with a nicotine filled, vaguely felonious air about them. Dwyer, in particular, has a stage manner that suggests “I am now doing, or have done in the past, a large quantity of drugs”. One thing that disappointed me was the set length – Thee Oh Sees were terrific until they ended, about twenty minutes in. I really can’t abide by that kind of thing. If Ted Leo can do an hour and a half performing his songs at full speed with only the shortest pauses, you’ve got no excuse doing less than a half hour. Do some covers or some shit, just make it to a half hour.
I waited forty minutes at that stage for a fairly disappointing set from Future of The Left. I ought to balance that by saying that it was mostly disappointing just because I saw them last weekend at a small bar, and it was probably the best show I’ve seen all summer. Future of The Left delivers some brutal yet melodic political punk, at high speed and high volume, and sometimes with keyboard. It feels like the perfect political music for this time, appropriately cynical, recalcitrant, smart, not heavy-handed, mostly just tired of the old bullshit. It definitely helps that these guys do not fuck around. Insane drumming, wailing guitars and surprisingly, a rarity: a terrific bassist. Plus, they do the best stage banter. At the show I saw last weekend, they repeatedly excoriated the venue for smelling like fish and the crowd for “fruity dancing” and dedicated a song to Michael Jackson, “because he’s fucking dead”. At one point during the Sirenfest set, the bassist threw out a handful of candy to the crowd, and said, “I hope you enjoy that, especially once you realize it’s sweaty from sitting in my ass pocket for forty-five minutes”. But something about Sirenfest didn’t really work for them. Part of it might have been that they were flagging under the oppressive heat, which was at its worst during their set, but mostly, I think it was the bad sound system that did them in. When their roar was blowing out eardrums in the club, it just clicked a lot better then when their sound was loosely dispersing over the crowd. Eh, oh well.
Having seen them before, I did not give a shit about A Place To Bury Strangers, but wanted to stay on Stillwell Stage to get into position for Monotonix. A Place To Bury Strangers actually isn’t a terrible live show, but they’re just not particularly interesting: My Bloody Valentine redux, and not much else to it. So I went off stage to buy an Italian Sausage from a street side vendor and a Blue Rasberry Slushie. That sausage was a revelation; it reintroduced to me not only what a street sausage is but also what it could be. It was like listening to the Beatles for the first time. Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the future of food and it is that sausage, or was until I ate it. Solid A plus.
And then, the best show of the night, Monotonix. I’ve seen (and written up for the blog) Monotonix’s garage rock insanity a few times before: the band in the crowd, the drums in the air, the lead singer in his underwear. But I thought that they’d tamp it down just a little bit for Sirenfest, because that kind of show would be, um, stupidly dangerous with a crowd the size of Sirenfest. Fat chance, they set up the drums in the crowd and blew the place up. It’s hard to say where the pit ends and the crowd begins in a Monotonix show. You’re kind of just one solid mass, pushed around and getting covered with water and beer and throwing your body around to the most insane (in multiple senses of the word) drummer on the planet. The crowd went absolutely nuts. I can’t count how many people I carried over my head, or how many times my feet got stepped on by the bouncing crowd. During a Monotonix show, the whole crowd becomes a sweaty, throbbing mess of sex and rock and the best part is seeing the corporate stiffs on stage watch in horror. Some particularly memorable moments of this show: there was a parking meter up front near where they were set up that presented a danger to the crowd surfers, which of course included the band themselves. The frontman acknowledged it in a break between songs, saying, “I think you should know, don’t park here on Saturday”. And at one point, the band accomplished the insane feat of getting a huge chunk of the crowd to sit down while he explained how they should respond to the next song. When that show ended, once again, I had no clear idea what hit me. I was sweaty, dirty, tired and pretty much satisfied. After the show, I got my program signed by them, and I was really charmed, they’re very nice, down-to-earth guys. Which goes to show that what they do ultimately is about democracy. They perform as one of the people, and that’s one of the most rock and roll things you can do.
I caught just a couple of songs from the Stillwell headliner, Spank Rock. Sorry, DB, my experience has been that it’s pointless to switch stages at Siren after the second act, so I didn’t even try to catch Built To Spill. Spank Rock’s brand of vulgar booty bass is pretty fun, but it’s not particularly unique or intelligent. I also can’t bear to see hip-hop with a non-hip-hop crowd. Hip-hop lives or dies on the response of the crowd, and when the crowd doesn’t get into it, the show tends to just fall apart. Plus, I was tired. So I took off at that point, after a full day of music.
Overall, good experience, maybe one of my best at Siren. Even though it was hot and I got sunburned pretty bad, it wasn’t as unbearably hot as it usually is. The bill was solid, and there wasn’t a band I saw that I absolutely hated. Here are my rankings on the day, from best to worst:
2. Micachu and The Shapes
3. Thee Oh Sees
4. Future Of The Left
6. Spank Rock
7. A Place To Bury Strangers
Oh, and the time I threw up at Coney Island: I was about 10 or 12, there with my summer camp for a day trip, and I was riding in one of those metal things that spin around. But it got so hot that immediately upon exiting, I puked all the fried food I ate into a trash can. I still say it was the heat that did it, I’m not a ride puker. And that’s the way it is.
Ben and Seb stopped by to play a few tunes and chat for a bit – check the interview for tidbits on their new album, what they’ve been up to in the mean time, and them stealing my ideas (you’ll be hearing from my lawyers, guys). Anyway, it was a great, if short, session as well – they acousticized the single from their self-titled debut, “Gold And Warm,” as well as what will probably be the next single, “Falling Tide.” Both are of the utmost sound quality, and as always, you can download everything right here.
The whole thing
Bad Veins – Gold And Warm (live)
Bad Veins – Falling Tide (live)