The diseased amplifiers and sweet, lethal feedback of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation” | Spanlish


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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The diseased amplifiers and sweet, lethal feedback of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”

Getty/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon

Getty/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon

Excerpted from “Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation” by Matthew Stearns (Continuum, 2007). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Armed to the teeth with song-structures, lyric ideas, and raw creative energy, Sonic Youth entered the studios at Greene Street in the cast-iron, loft-ghetto canyons of Manhattan's Soho district to begin recording "Daydream Nation" in the oppressive late-July heat of 1988: A truly troublesome year, even by modern American standards. Having ushered in a new age of social and political conservatism, Ronald Reagan–that docile, lethal cowpoke–was on his way out of office, soon to be succeeded by the ruthless, patriarchal George H.W. Bush. Meanwhile, the dual calamities of crack addiction and AIDS had reached full-blown epidemic proportions in most major metro areas. Consequently, people were dying/being klled at unspeakable rates with little (any?) mature national attention being paid at all. In a grisly, ironic twist—which in the end comes as no surprise—some of the top-selling albums that year, according to Billboard, included Tiffany's eponymous debut, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and George Michael's "Faith." All of which stand as textbook examples of meant-for-mass-consumption eighties-era pop in all of its paralyzing inanity.

But, thanks to Greene Street, all was not culturally lost. Greene Street studios were responsible for generating some of the most vital music of the contemporary New York scene. By some estimations a cultural-historic landmark, Greene Street (closed and gone gallery now) facilitated recordings essential to the nurturing of early NYC hip-hop (Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys all spent time in production there). Avant-gardery was in the air at Greene Street as well. The studios, in their previous incarnation, served as Philip Glass's headquarters; and the likes of Nico and Kurt Munkacsi, if only as apparitions in 1988, were present too.

While the experimentalism of the more avant-garde work done at Greene Street has an obvious parallel in Sonic Youth's sound, the sweeping presence of hip-hop, if somewhat indirectly, also figured into the making of "Daydream Nation." In New York at that time, the culture-quakes caused by developments in the burgeoning hip-hop scene were as inescapable as they were electrifying. When they arrived at Greene Street to give the studio an initial once-over, Sonic Youth was introduced to Nicholas Sansano, who was to handle recording and engineering duties during their sessions. Sansano's previous credits at Greene Street included production work on Public Enemy's seminal, thermonuclear mind-bomb "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." As he explains it, "I remember when Sonic Youth first came to the studio to check it out and meet me. I played Public Enemy for them. Which is odd, in a way—they were this noise-rock band—but I felt like Public Enemy was the most important work that I had done and that it was representative of the studio and me. I always felt like [with Sonic Youth and Public Enemy] it was basically the same approach; this aggressive, multilayered sound, this density" These records share more than a thickness in sound mass. Telling also is how each makes reference to some form of a nation in their tides. Part of the grandeur of these albums inheres in the scale of their ambitions. In the face of the repugnant social and political realities of the late-eighties (read: Reagan/ Bush), these outfits were ready, each in their own particular way, and with the help of a committed, sympathetic studio engineer, to take on entire nations with their respective arsenals of sound.

Given Sonic Youth's propensity for unhinged experimentalism and Sansano's background with the groundbreaking ear-assaults of Public Enemy, the pairing would ultimately prove to be a fruitful one. When asked if it was a challenge to achieve what they were after sonically, given how adamant Sonic Youth is about tearing up standard audio blueprints, Sansano confirms; "You can't tell them what to do. You really can't. And at that point, I did NOT at all. When the project first started out, my job was to just get them on tape, just record them and have it sound as good as possible. But as our relationship developed, we started to trust each other more, it became more collegial, and more creative."

Eventually, as one would expect during a Sonic Youth recording session, established physical thresholds were breached, mechanical failures were induced, things got out of hand, and, finally, shit blew up. "We tried lots of different, unconventional things," reports Sansano, "like: 'let's see how much signal we can put on the tape machine before we blow a fuse!' At some point, we blew a fuse and the whole studio went down. I think Thurston did it. We had some sort of noise—I think a tube had gone—anyway, this noise was being generated and it turned into one big feedback loop and eventually the whole studio just shut down completely." Such (legendary) destructive anomalies have always been interpreted as fertile creative opportunities by Sonic Youth. In their naughty hands, the sound of a diseased amplifier may contain an embryonic groove or a warped tonal progression sent like encrypted sonic manna from feedback heaven. On "Daydream Nation," there are fascinating examples of this wide-open availability to all possible sound permutations, regardless of their coarseness or the wreckage from which they were derived. As Sansano explains: "At the end of 'Providence' everything kind of melts down. Well, that's the sound of the amp blowing up! When amp tubes go they make some really interesting sounds. Whenever something was going we would let the tape roll. I remember doing lots of tape-speed manipulation, as things were recording, or when we were mixing things back. We'd vary the speed on the multitrack machine, slowing things way down or speeding them way up, altering the whole harmonic structure and allowing for feedback. Sometimes we slowed down the tape machine during performances. There would be some sort of feedback thing happening or some sort of blowout sound: I would be at the dials as we were recording—slowing things down or speeding things up. When you played it back, you'd get these modulations that created very unnatural overtones."

Unnatural overtones, blowout sounds, exploded amp tubes. To listen to Sansano talk about a recording session with Sonic Youth is like listening to a soldier talk about the experience of frontline warfare.

After less than two weeks of recording, Sonic Youth emerged from the sessions at Greene Street in August of '88 with the master tapes of what is now commonly considered—let's just go ahead and say it already (I'm tired of skirting the issue)—one of the first genuine album masterpieces of modern rock.

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Source: The diseased amplifiers and sweet, lethal feedback of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”

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