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.
As for that tour you did with Nirvana in 1991: that turned into the film, The Year Punk Broke, right?
Yeah, we took a break from writing in the summer of 1991 and toured with Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr. for what would become The Year Punk Broke tour movie—which amazingly only lasted 11 days in August. We came back home and continued writing only to be interrupted again to play Neil’s Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Cali. on November 2nd.
Neil had already started performing quieter Harvest Moon material and we were honored to be asked to take part, but we experienced a miserable set and were traumatized for years by our performance.
Why? Was that the notorious Sonic Youth show where you guys had to play acoustically?
Yeah, we knew we were expected to play acoustically, but we might’ve taken [that] direction more literally than some of the other performers. Ultimately it was a learning experience… and interesting to be booed at a benefit concert.
Ultimately it was a learning experience…and interesting to be booed at a benefit concert
Is this the same benefit show where you looked over to see Paul McCartney and Neil Young watching you play? They were standing side-stage, right?
That was the second time we played for Neil and the Bridge School Benefit in 2004. [It was] a totally different experience and an almost magical evening—our gear was still in transit after a performance in Mexico City, so I wound up playing the Crazy Horse drum kit that was used on [the 1969 LP] Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Paul McCartney was the headliner and we visited with him after our performance. He was incredibly gracious and kind to us.
Amazing. So back in 1991, when Sonic Youth went into the studio to record Dirty, you worked with produced Butch Vig. Was he chosen partially because of his work on Nirvana’s Nevermind? Or records he worked on before that?
Yeah, back to 1991, we loved Butch’s work [on Nevermind] but we were also very familiar with his history at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, and his work with Killdozer, Mecht Mensch, and the Tar Babies. The [latter] two groups featured Dan Bitney (who eventually helped form the band Tortoise.) [He] had been a close friend of mine while I was in the Michigan-based band Crucifucks. I often slept on the floor of his Madison apartment when playing shows there in the early-'80s.
We ended up choosing the Magic Shop, an awesome [now-shuttered] studio in downtown Manhattan, to record Dirty. And we’re still friends with owner Steve Rosenthal, who recently transferred and digitized some unreleased recordings for the upcoming Washing Machine box set.
So 1988’s Daydream Nation was a double LP, and Dirty was, too. Is it fair to say that was the most prolific period of the band?
I guess we were on a roll. We had a practice studio in Hoboken, NJ, and we would get together four to five days a week to write and rehearse. Maybe this prolific period lasted through [1995’s] Washing Machine-era.
"Chapel Hill" is a track off Dirty—what led up to writing that song?
We always loved playing in North Carolina, especially in the Triangle [an area of the state which includes Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham] and specifically at [famed venue] the Cat’s Cradle. Sonic Youth’s infamous gig with Swans was at the Cradle in '82, and we’ve returned many times over the years. In 2000, we were supporting Pearl Jam, and we had a night off in North Carolina. So we presented an evening with Sonic Youth which we titled “Perspective Musicales.” That show is part of our archive on Bandcamp and features two sets of music: solo, duo, and trio performances [as well as] full band performances of songs from NYC Ghosts & Flowers. It was really satisfying to present such varied and unique performances.
I'd also return to the Cradle with other musician friends—maybe the most memorable was when Two Dollar Guitar, a trio I played in, opened for Townes Van Zandt. I'd been working with Townes on some new recordings for Geffen Records, but sadly, that record did not come to fruition before his tragic passing.
You turned a lot of people onto Lee Hazlewood in the late '90s. When did your own fascination begin with Lee? Was he still living in Sweden when you re-released all of his records on your label, Smells Like Records?
Lee’s music started to pop up and was covered by some of our contemporaries. I saw Einsturzende Neubauten in the mid-'80s at the Ritz in NYC, and they played their version of [Hazlewood’s 1996 track] “Sand,” which intrigued me. Lydia Lunch and [the Birthday Party’s] Rowland S. Howard released their version of “Some Velvet Morning” on a 12” single [in 1982.] As his name and music was getting passed around, Sonic Youth were touring constantly. One thing we would do every time we hit a new city on tour was visit the local record stores. We’d comb the used bins and we’d dig up Lee’s strange records—[both] solo and with Nancy Sinatra. The Lee and Nancy duets record became a tour van staple back then. In the '80s, we would make mix tapes and that would be our entertainment while driving across the country. The Stooges, Television, and Neu! were van favorites, and Lee and Nancy became part of that rotation. We never imagined that we would actually meet Lee and Nancy. When I started working with Lee, he was living in Florida and he would move every couple of years, it seemed.
With releases by Jad Fair, the Raincoats, Sentridoh and your work with Mosquito, Smells Like Records has always been one of my favorite labels. You had an office in Hoboken in the '90s, right? Back in the golden years when records could actually support a storefront operation? And when did Smells Like Records morph into Vampire Blues Records?
Smells Like Records grew from a label based in a spare room in my apartment to a small business with employees and a local office space. As things grew, I felt like I wanted to spend more time playing music and less time being a label head. I eventually started Vampire Blues to get back into doing vinyl releases and approach things in a more modest way, maybe. The first release on Vampire Blues was a 7” by Hallogallo 2010 [in 2010,] which featured Michael Rother of Neu!.
So I guess, 2010 was the transition period. Sonic Youth stopped being active a year later, so little did I know that my life would change in a more drastic manner. That prompted diving back into SY’s archive and eventually [putting the] archive on Bandcamp, which has kept me busy during the pandemic years.
Was there a band Crucifucks might've played with in the early days that you felt never got the visibility they deserved?
Absolutely! The best band from my early '80s days, in Michigan, was Detroit's L-Seven. They were heads above everyone in the Michigan indie scene and they only released a 7” during their lifetime. But Third Man recently compiled and released an LP of their music. Such a fantastic band! I saw so many great shows by them and was lucky to open with them with different groups at different times (such as Faith & Morals, the Crucifucks, and Spastic Rhythm Tarts—which morphed into Strange Fruit).
Your band the Crucifucks recorded your first record with Spot, the legendary SST producer, for Alternative Tentacles Records, is that right?
Yes, we drove to Los Angeles from Michigan and recorded with Spot in L.A. I was a big Minutemen and Meat Puppets fan, both of which Spot had recorded. We were sort of an anomaly by recording with an SST producer and releasing the record on Alternative Tentacles. The two scenes didn’t really mesh back then—but being from Michigan, we were clueless in regards to that until we started meeting folks from the two opposing sides, I guess. Spot was great to work with—he had a deal where you could record overnight at a reduced studio rate—so we stayed up all night and tracked our first LP with Spot in one night’s long session.
Between playing with Bush Tetras and Ernie Brooks from the Modern Lovers recently, has running Vampire Blues and re-issuing various Sonic Youth records kept you super busy these days?
Ernie Brooks and I met a few years ago and started playing music together, then the pandemic slowed that down. But slowly, we started playing local block parties in Queens and this cool bar in South Slope Brooklyn called Mama Tried that has an outdoor stage. We started off by playing Modern Lovers covers but we keep evolving, and lately, we’ve focused on material by Arthur Russell (who Ernie and our bandmate, Peter Zummo, worked with extensively in the '80s.)
Bush Tetras had just released their wonderful box set [2021’s] Rhythm and Paranoia when their drummer Dee Pop passed away. They asked if I might be interested in playing [with them] and of course I said, “Yeah.” So we’ve been working on new material for a new LP and they’ve been teaching me their old songs, as we’ve started to play out a bit these days. Also, the work on the Sonic Youth archive kind of led into this recent LP by Sonic Youth, In/Out/In, a mostly instrumental collection released by Three Lobed Records. There are a few more archival SY projects currently being worked on, including a box set of Washing Machine material we’re working on with Universal. I haven’t really felt that busy, though, because the pandemic seems to have slowed down road life. We’ll see how it continues to return.
I have to ask—you’re from Michigan. Did you grow up reading CREEM?
Yes! Of course. I still remember buying my first copy of CREEM at Sid’s Party Store in Midland, Michigan. It was the issue with the Beatles and their “butcher cover” photo on the cover—sort of a dark and confusing image for me at a young age, but I dug in and became a huge fan. Man, I'd love to find that issue again...
...which you can check out exclusively at CREEM’s digital archive, here.