He toured with Neil Young and Nirvana. He was a member of the Crucifucks and now, he plays in Bush Tetras. He’s worked on records by Townes Van Zandt, Daniel Johnston, Cat Power, Nikki Sudden, the Raincoats, Mike Watt, Disappears, and M. Ward. Oh, and he’s the drummer in one of the most important bands of all time, Sonic Youth. Steve Shelley has been a towering figure in underground culture since the 1980s and continues to leave his imprint all over music today.
Shelley joined Sonic Youth in 1985—four years after Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo got the band together in 1981—just in time to lend his talents to their landmark ‘86 LP EVOL. By that time, Sonic Youth had emerged from the No Wave scene to cultivate an identity all their own: alternative rock, filtered through elements of noise rock, post-punk, art rock, and experimentalist detours. Their first five LPs featuring Shelley on drums—EVOL, 1987’s Sister, 1988’s Daydream Nation, 1990’s Goo and 1992’s Dirty—are not only the apex of Sonic Youth’s discography, but they’re considered canon to alternative music as a whole.
I first came to be a fan of Shelley’s drumming when I heard him play on Daniel Johnston's most haunting record, 1990. And I’ve never stopped admiring his work: when Shelley released Sentridoh's Losercore 7" on his label Smells Like Records in 1993, he helped galvanize the burgeoning lo-fi movement. Both of those moves prove that Shelley was doing more than just playing drums in a band: he was documenting underground history, participating in the world of indie rock in a multitude of ways, as it spilled onto MTV and the mainstream.
CREEM spoke to Shelly about his broad influence on modern rock music—from behind the kit or behind the curtain at his record labels—as well as his current projects, playing with Bush Tetras, and that crucial Dirty-era of Sonic Youth, 30 years ago this year.
CREEM: Sonic Youth’s Dirty turned 30 this year. In 1991, you toured with both Neil Young and Nirvana. Is that when you wrote the album?
STEVE SHELLEY: We were asked to open for Neil Young in early 1991 and spent a good chunk of that winter supporting him with Crazy Horse. When the tour with Neil ended in Vancouver, we played a few of our own shows in Hawaii and Japan before getting back home and hitting the rehearsal studio to write what would become Dirty.