Questions from Johan Jacobsson
Sounds of Suburbia.
19 March 1995
First I’ll ask you about some of your projects.
Could you tell me about the shows you did with Michael Morley? How did that come about? Will you do more shows together or realese a record?
The shows with Michael Morley came about throught the fact that he was coming to the US for the first time under the auspices of the Table Of The Elements label, and was casting about for someone to do gigs with. Michael and I have been friends since I first met him in 1988, I believe it was, when Sonic Youth first went to New Zealand. We’ve corresponded since then on various subjects of mutual interest including music, painting, poetry, relationships, homebrewed beer, computers, and the trouble with cops. When SY went back to NZ in 91 (?) The Dead C opened all three of our shows. They were great! At that time Michael and I further cemented our friendship, and seriously began talk of doing something together.
Around the same period I’d begun work on a ‘through-the mail’ group of pieces. I sent a tape of 15 different recordings of mine to a small group of people and asked them to record their responses (on 4 track cassettes) and send ‘em back for me to edit all together. Roger Miller (Mission of Burma/Birdsongs/NoMan) also sent me stuff, among others. That stuff is still lying around, and I recently took some of Michael’s tracks from that project and used them on my just-about-completed Spoken Word record, about which more later.
So when Jeff Hunt from TotElements invited MM up fr NZ, he (Mike) began to cast about for someone to perform with, and it seemed natural for us to hook up. Initially I was to do all the US shows with him, but Sonic commitments only allowed for me to do the east coast dates. Michael’s side project is Gate, which is him and whomever he’s playing with (or him solo), so I became 1/2 of Gate for April 93. We did 2 TOTE extravaganzas (Atlanta and Hartford) with Faust, Tony Conrad, Jim O’Rourke, Keiji Heino (fr Japan) and Thurston’s band Male Slut, and a handful of other gigs which Thurston organized for Male Slut, Heino and Gate, which I dubbed the Avant-Garde tour, and which began in Atlanta and ended in Boston. Someday Thurston’s film of this tour will surface. Both these shows were recorded in multitrack and video, and may come out at some point. In Atlanta we were the Gate 5, joined by Thurston, Tim Foljhan and Steve Shelley; in Hartford another quintet with Heino, Steve and Jean-Pierre of Faust playing. Both were pretty wild shows.
Michael and I did some studio recordings here in NYC which I think are amazing, but which to date are not slated for release, but they will be at some point, probably a double CD. Our Boston show is coming out on the Poon Village label in May, I believe. It also includes bits from our New York show, during which we were joined by Zeena Parkins on electric harp. Other bits of this NYC show just came out on a Thread Waxing Space Live ‘93-94 compilation.
Whew! How many questions are there??
And the record you did with Seymour Glass? How did that come about? What does he do on it? Is that record in the shops?
Yes, the record which Seymour released, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill is out now. It is a five track CD or 2 song 7” of material from the recent past. Seymour does Bananafish magazine and we’ve been friends for awhile. Leah and I just stayed at his house in San Francisco last week, during a spoken/music/film tour of the west coast which we undertook along with beat poet Michael McClure and his partner, Ray Manzarek (of Doors fame). The record is on Seymour’s label, Starlight Furniture Co., and Michael did the artwork.
And could you tell me about the things you did for Table of the Elements?
As part of their 7” series of solo guitarists, I sent them three pieces for eight guitars: Smoke Ring, Travis 5, Travis 7, which came out as the element Silicon (each release was an element from the periodic table, first series of 8 were green or white, second 8 all black with beautiful black packaging). Being into computers, I was happy to be Silicon! These pieces were all recorded in Sonic Youth’s 8 track studio, as is most of my recent stuff.
And your collaboration with Leah Singer? Speaking of which I was just
wondering if the stuff you hear in the beginning of the Stephanie Says
track on the Fifteen Minutes CD is Leah’s work? How did you meet? Any plans to extend that collaboration? More shows lined up?
Leah and I have been collaborating for a couple years now. We met when she invited me to perform in the Handmade Instrument Festival series she was programming at the Knitting Factory in 1989. Leah is a photographer and filmmaker. For the last few years we have had a collabarative performance piece, sometimes called Drift, which involves spoken word texts/gtr and tapes from me, and live film projection/manipulation from her. She uses special analytical projectors which allow her to do visually with film what scratchers do with records, forward and back, stop and go, fast or slow. It’s pretty cool looking. We’ve done a few tours in Europe and a show or two here in NYC. This west coast tour described above was our first ‘tour’ in the US. We have also made a couple films together, it being something she does alot and I do occasionally as well.
No, that’s not her work at the beginning of Stephanie Says, although she helped me assemble it. The song was recorded on the first day of the Gulf War, and those sounds are taken from radio broadcasts on that day.
What is the ‘Fifteen Minutes CD’??? Can you tell me??? I’ve never heard of it. Is that track on it?
It was made for a Velvet Underground tribute record done by Imaginary records in England.
What about the spoken word album? Is that realesed? Could we expect stuff
like Bloomington, Indiana on it? (That’s a really really great “song”)
The spoken word record, tentatively titled Dirty Windows, is just about done, after a long time of on and off work on it. It’s something I’ve done for awhile now, yet I have ambivalent feelings about being seen as part of the ‘spoken’ wave. I’ve been writing for awhile, and just had my first (small) book published, called Road Movies, with photos by Leah. It’s out on Soft Skull Press, 50 E Third Street, NYC 10003. It’s $5. Online: NAHicks@aol.com. A second book, called Bookstore, is also in the works, should be ready in a couple of months. It will also have Leah’s photos.
The record is my music and spoken texts taken from the books and other places. Yes, a version of Bloomington will be on it.
Have you done some more producing lately?
The only record I’ve produced recently is the new album by Australian band You Am I, called Hi Fi Way. It’s an amazing record, if I do say so. They are a great band, and this is the third record I’ve done with them. I haven’t really produced a lot else, one each by Kleg (NL), Babes in Toyland, and Diety Guns (F). That’s it. One or two production gigs a year would be plenty. It’s fun to work in the studio, I enjoy it, but you have to really be into the band to let it take away from yr own work.
What can we expect from Lee Ranaldo in the future? Films?
There may be some further film work, as it’s something I enjoy doing when I have time. I have a short film documenting a visit Steve and I paid to Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachussetts, called Book of Dreams, shot with a Pixel camera, which came out well. My favorite of mine is Notebook, which exists on an Atavistic video compilation, and has as soundtrack an early spoken word effort. Leah and I have one called Here, about a trip to ghost towns out west, which so far has only been seen in live performance.
Speaking of films I was recently interviewing Brian and Hugh from the
Thinking Fellers and they wanted to do soundtracks in the future..
Soundtracks without any film, just songs creating a vision for the
listener.. Do you operate in the same way, trying to create a distinctive
mood with your songs or do you just sit down and let things happen? Do you
understand what I’m trying to say here?
I think of plenty of good music as film-less soundtracks. Certainly lots of early SY music seemed to have that kind of feel. Songs are alot about ‘mood’. At this point I’m more interested in songs being songs and making soundtrack material for actual films. Sonic Youth had the opportunity to do one back in ‘86 for a film called Made in USA. The film wasn’t great, but we did some nice music. It was just released by Rhino records. I recorded a soundtrack recently which Thurston wrote for an indie film called Heavy, which came out pretty well, and I did some music for the soundtrack of a film-in-progress called Frisk.
To answer yr question musically, yeh, sometimes we just let things happen and then try to latch on to it and see where it takes us, and other times we’ll have a mood-scape in mind, and try to conjure or emulate it.
And some more general questions:
I know Lou Barlow once wrote to you guys telling you how great he found the Sister album and how it changed his life. Have you ever done anything
similar to that? (ie writing to persons that you really admire?)
It’s cool to correspond with people you admire, but it usually feels more like a peer thing than fan letter. That’s how Michael and I became friends. It happens from time to time. I wrote to baseball players as a kid, but can’t really remember writing anyone in music a fan letter out of the blue. Of course once you meet someone who’s work you admire it’s easy to let out the praise.
Which songs of yours are you the most happy with?
O gee who knows.
What kind of bands do you listen to nowadays? Are you too into Japanese Noise?
I’m listening to all kinds of stuff at the moment, from new Pavement, Royal Trux, Guided by Voices, PJ Harvey, and Oasis (!), to old John Fahey records and Glenn Gould piano works. Japanese Noise? Sure, who doesn’t like it!
This description of you as this neo-beatnik type is that something you can
live with? Do you think it’s correct?
I’m into Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, the beat poets, and lots of other writers. Raymond Carver. I don’t really care about labes at this point but it’s not ofter one has the priveledge of being labeled a ‘neo-beatnik’ type, dadeeo.
What’s Glenn Branca doing today?
I don’t know, sorry.
He just did some performances here in NYC, and has a bunch of new Symphonies just or about to be released – S. 8, 9, 10. Some are electric, some are orchestral. He’s writing a lot more for real orchestras now. I’m trying to convince him to do a solo record.
What can we expect from Sonic Youth in the future?
We’re about to being recording a new record next month (April), and we’ll be touring in the fall, I think. Lots more freekouts to be expected from us all, together and individually.
Finally, a sort of stupid question to round things up.. What do you think
of the band Eric’s Trip?
I saw them once, awhile ago, they were okay. I really liked those cut up ads they had in the magazines for their new record. They’ve got a good name…
What kind of films are you into? Fave actors/directors?
Oh, man, the list is long. I love film, like nothing better than to sit in a dark room and watch ‘em. I could definitely go to the Cinema on a daily basis, and sometimes do! First off: Godard. For me, he is king, and I don’t just mean for the older work – even the new ones I’ve seen are remarkable. On the flip of the coin is Stan Brakhage’s amazing work. In between these two are innumerable European and American filmmakers whom I love (in no order): Antonioni, Fassbinder, Wenders, Chantal Ackerman, Maya Deren, Jim Jarmusch, Scorcese, Coppolla, Bergman, Kubrick, Bruce Connor, Warren Sonbert, Orson Wells, Woody Allen, Greg Araki, Alain Tanner’s Messidor, Ken Jacobs, Jane Campion, Peckinpah, Nicholas Ray, Trauffault, Spielberg (!), Tarkovsky, Nick Roeg’s Blade Runner is one of my favorite films, Lucas’ Star Wars films, Ozu’s films, Hitchcock’s, Richard Linklater is interesting. List’s of films and directors go on and on. Actors/actresses too. Although I love a lot of Hollywood films, there’s also plenty to hate, especially today in Hollywood. The independants are where it’s at. In Europe you’ve known it all along, we’re still learning it here in America. Fuck Oscars and Grammys.
So could you please tell me about the Near Here book?
This was an early title for what became Road Movies. See above.
And what are your feelings conserning this upcoming tour?
We’re all excited to get out and play again. It’s been great to be here in NYC for an extended period, but playing live is what we dig and we’ll probably keep doing it as long as people want to come to shows. I think we’re moving into a very cool new period now, judging by the way we’ve been playing in rehearsal. Very loose and free, shaking off the stiff early major label period. Grunge is over and anything is possible once again.
25 April, 1995
One. How do you feel about Alec Foege’s new book (Confusion is Next; the
Sonic Youth Story)? Is it the definitive guide to the world of SY?
I guess Alec’s book has all the information in the right order, you know what I mean? We worked on it alot with him to get things sorted out as far as our chronology goes, and I guess for many people it will have lots of information about people or scenes they’ve never been aware of. It’s a bit flat, though, in spots as far as the writing goes.
There is another book, very deluxe with tons of cool pix, called “Sonic Youth: I Dreamed of Noise” that came out in Spain. It covers the same ground in an ‘oral history’ manner and it is in many ways cooler, though more expensive.
Two. Could You tell me sth about the Scriptures of The Golden Eternity album? Is that in the same vein as From here to Eternity (sic)? I haven’t heard it that’s why Im asking.
The Scriptures LP (title fr Kerouac book of same name) is actually a semi-official “bootleg”, not an actual release. It has been available on vinyl and will soon be out on CD. It came to my attention that it was being made, and I basicly said ‘okaye’, but it is in the tradition of eLPees of live gigs. The record has two solo gigs by me, both at the Knitting Factory here in NYC, one from ‘88, the other from ‘89. Hopefully the sound quality of the CD will be better than that of the record… It’s pretty different in intent from the Infinity record.
Three. Any favourite japanese noisicians?
Fav’s from Japan include Keiji Heino, the guitar master, Violent Onsen Geisha, Masonna, Mertzbow, HajoKaidan, and the Boredoms of course and all their spinoff bands (including Hanatarash, a song by whom I did a cover version of which is coming out this month on a Hanatarash ‘tribute’ album. Should be the most fucked up tribute album ever – you can imagine if you know the band’s music).
Can you tell me something about the album you did with Mr Hooker? Any plans to extend that collaboration?
The album with Hooker is called “Envisioning”. It consists of two live sets done at the Knitting Factory in April of 1994 – actually on the day it was announced to the world that Kurdt was dead, so for me it is a document of a very heavy, mixed up evening.
William and I had sone some shows together, and he had heard about my spoken word/music shows with Leah Singer. He suggested we do such a show, as he too is a writer of prose//poetry. So far the sets documented on this record remain the only extended instance of our vocal/insrumental union, although we play together often, and have another record in trio format with Zeena Parkins all set for release.
On ‘Envisioning’, you hear one set completely live as it happened, and one set chopped up into bits and re-assembled to make the final selection, a tape-collage instrumental. I like my synth playing on this record quite alot.
And the recent Mike Watt collaboration. I understand you did a single with
him a couple of years ago?
The ‘single’ we did was material from the Ciccone Youth album of 1986. He also played on ‘In The Kingdom #19’, my spoken piece on SY’s EVOL rec. Yes, Thurston, Steve and I played on his new record called “Ball-Hog or Tugboat?’, along with half the indie rock community of the U.S. Suffice it to say: “Nels Cline is a gas!”
I thought Seymor played something on the album. You contributed a track to
the Bananafish compilation CD didn’t you?
Yes, the CD that came with the Bananafish 1-4 book has a track from a live gig of mine, and a bit of SY’s score for the Made in USA film, which is now out in it’s entirety on Rhino records. He also had a track of mine called ‘Deva, Spain: fragments’ on a 7” single that came with an issue of the magazine. Seymour is a player as well as publisher, but has yet to appear on any of my cuts, sadly.
And being into computers.. Have you ever thought of the possibility to
create music on the computer? Or will you stick to the guitar?
Computers are tools as is the guitar, and so there will be music made on/through them. I have dabbled in this but never really given it serious attention. At this time I would rather write on a computer, and make music in other ways. Much nice music has been created on computer: James Tenney, Morton Subotnick, Gregory Legeti, Neal Haggerty, many others…
Could I print your email address as well accompanying the article?
No, please don’t do this. Print my regular mail address: POBox 6179, Hoboken, N.J. 07030. At some point I will start an e-mail account for this purpose, but at the moment don’t want ‘fan’ letters clogging up my mailbox.
If you’d like to tell me about your previous bands the Fluks/Flucts and
Plus Instruments please do.
The Fluks, first real band, formed with David Linton, Binghamton, NY, 1978-9, became The Flucts upon moving to NYC 1980-81. Art-rock. Played at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s, once alongside The Coachmen. This was where/when Thurston and I first met. This band had no proper documentation released, although at various points David and I have threatened to release some of the tapes which still exist.
Next came Plus Instruments, which consisted of David, myself, and a girl from Holland named Truus de Groot, whom we had separately met on European tours with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. This band performed in NYC and in Holland and had an LP ‘Plus Instruments Avril 1981’ on the Kremlin label in Holland, and a flexi single in the Dutch magazine Vynil. Although the band continued with replacements, David and I left right after that record was made to stay in NYC and perform at the now famous ‘NoiseFest’, organized by T. Moore. Shortly after that, Thurston, Kim and I began playing…
And Cody, how’s his baseball playing coming along? Baseball season starts
sometime now, right?
Beseball season is, as they say, all fukked up. I don’t follow it. Cody, though, is fine. His band with Simon Fair Timony, the Stinky Puffs, have just released their first CD on the Elemental Kids label. Go figure.
And the collages you’ve made? Inspiration/Influences for them? What do they look like?
I do various artworks now and again. Recent collages have been assembled from pictures pulled from fashion magazines, but that was already two years ago or so. It’s too late now to get into an arty discussion of art-world influences, they are too numerous to mention. I do like Ferdinand Hodler, though. Do you know his work?
Keep up the excellent work
All the best
Johan Jacobsson, Sounds of Suburbia