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Steve Shelley - Sonic Youth's Drummer


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Steve Shelley, Midland-born drummer for Sonic Youth

By Martin Bandyke • Free Press special writer • June 25, 2009

When compared with Sonic Youth, the groundbreaking Manhattan-based quintet formed in 1981, most alternative rock bands sound positively tame and lame. Liberally employing dissonance, noise and eccentric guitar tunings, founding members Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo have relentlessly pushed the boundaries of rock music, while keeping just enough song structure, rhythm and melody to maintain a faithful fan base. Keeping the beat in Sonic Youth for close to 25 years has been Midland native Steve Shelley, whose rock-solid, primal drumming is the hitching post to which the band's wildest excursions are anchored. The other part of the rhythm section is new recruit Mark Ibold, bassist and longtime friend of the band, who was a member of fellow indie rock pioneers Pavement. Kim Gordon has moved from bass to join Moore -- her husband -- and Ranaldo on guitar, with all three sharing vocals. Leading up to Monday's show at Royal Oak Music Theatre, the 47-year old Shelley talked to the Free Press about his band's highly acclaimed new release, "The Eternal," as well as playing with the Stooges at their legendary '03 reunion concert in Clarkston, early-'80s Detroit post-punk group L-Seven and more.

QUESTION: How did you become the band's drummer?

ANSWER: I joined in the spring of '85. I had moved to New York and was house-sitting Kim and Thurston's apartment while they were on tour with Sonic Youth in England, opening for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

They came home from that trip and their drummer Bob Bert decided not to play with the group anymore. They had previously seen me play with (Shelley's band) at a matinee performance at CBGB's, and so I was sitting there in their apartment and they asked me to join their band.

Q: After working for the major label Geffen Records for almost 20 years, what's it like for Sonic Youth to go back to an independent label like Matador Records, which released "The Eternal"?

A: We're really happy to be on Matador and there is a new energy within the band to do really great work with Matador. But I don't think it's changed our approach to making records and touring. To their credit, Geffen pretty much left us alone during the creative process. We never had to turn in demos and no one was watching over our shoulder while we were making an album. However, as the music business has changed in the last 10 years or more, it was more difficult to sell records on a major label, especially with the antagonistic relationship the majors have been building with current listeners over the downloading issue. So we are happy to be off a corporate label right now and to be with Matador. We feel a kinship with the people that we meet that work there and a lot of them have shared experiences.

Q: Sonic Youth was one of the opening acts at the legendary Stooges reunion show at DTE Energy Music Theatre in 2003. Could you share some memories of that incredible evening?

A: It was always really fun to play with the Stooges because it was one of those reunited bands I just never thought I would have the pleasure of seeing. Plus the added bonus of our friend Mike Watt playing bass with the Stooges was just such a great thing.

They were just such an inspiring and influential band to all of the band members of Sonic Youth and our fans. It was such an unexpected treat to see them play live.

Q: You've released music by everyone from Cat Power to Lee Hazelwood on your own record label Smells Like Records. What led you to start SLR?

A: I started it around '92 and I was inspired by Thurston's label (Ecstatic Peace) and other labels like Merge and Dischord and Touch & Go. I was around a lot of music that hadn't been released and I thought I was in a pretty great position to slip this stuff out.

The next thing I'd like to do is entirely Michigan-related. I've been working on an anthology of L-Seven music with the band's guitar player Dave Rice. They only ever released one 7-inch in '83 on Touch & Go. There's a lot of stuff that's never seen the light of day.

They were the most influential band to me in my early life. Once I was able to actually get down to Detroit and see music when I was 18 or older, L-Seven were my band. They were the band I loved to see.

Q: Sonic Youth collaborated on a piece to celebrate the renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham's 90th birthday. What was that all about?

A: That was a lot of fun; that was weird. We went and played music at this dance performance at BAM. (Brooklyn Academy of Music). We had written scores of music to play of various lengths -- a 6-minute piece, a 10-minute piece -- and every night we performed they would throw down the score in a different manner. Our music would be played in a different order each night, and so it didn't really go with the dancing in a traditional sense but in a more abstract sense.

We were also performing with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Takehisa Kosugi, a longtime Merce Cunningham compatriot. We were sitting on this weird metal sculpture they had built for the show that looked like a spaceship or building scaffolding, and it was just a very odd but very fun event to be at.

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  • 2 years later...

Thanks for giving me a heart attack, guys.

My first thought when I saw this thread(I somehow missed it when it was originally started) was "oh no! Steve Shelley died!"

What a relief to find that was not so...and it gave me a chance to read an interview with Steve I hadn't read before. Steve Shelley is one of my favourite modern-era drummers; not that the earlier drummers were bad, but Sonic Youth really took off when Steve Shelley joined.

Sonic Youth is a permanent member of my personal Top 20 rock bands of all-time. I first encountered them, almost by accident, in a Berlin club in 1983. By "Daydream Nation" in 1988, they had ascended to Top 20 status.

There are very few bands that stay interesting and challenging and together long enough to warrant me seeing them more than 20 times. Even if a band recorded an album and toured EVERY year, that still means a band would have be together 20 years to see them 20 times in concert. Sonic Youth are one of those chosen few that I feel have consistently deserved my money and support.

Probably seen them upwards to 40 times over the last 30 years...all but a few of those with Steve Shelley on the drum stool.

Great band...great guy.

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