Sonic Youth An Embarrassment Says Steve Albini
He says that and a lot more in this interview he did with GQ. Albini sat down for the Q&A at ATP NY, it’s just surfacing now. (Thanks for the tip, Jason.) As far as Sonic Youth, he says he considers them friends, but also considers their jump from an indie to DGC in 1990 as something that contributed to fucking things up for other bands at the time and down the line.
GQ: What are your thoughts on bands like Chumbawamba, that once had ‘indie’ ethics but decided to take their political ideas into the mainstream by signing a major label?
STEVE ALBINI: I’m not really interested in participating in mainstream culture. Participating in the mainstream music business is, to me, like getting involved in a racket. There’s no way you can get involved in a racket and not someway be filthied by it. You’re another catalog item, another name on the list of people who are collaborating with the enemy. But by the same token I don’t know what circumstances every other band is in and what they feel forces their hand at some point. I know some bands feel like they have the choice between working with someone at the independent level who they think is inept, or working with someone in the mainstream—who may also be inept, but at the very least may give them some money. That’s the kind of choice I never want to have to make for myself. If I had been approached by a big record label when I was eighteen years old, after I had just made my first demo—that happens quite often now, bands get approached quite young—I have no doubt whatsoever I would have signed the first thing anybody waggled in front of my nose. I can’t fault someone who operates out of ignorance and gets involved with a corrupt industry. They literally don’t know any better. I can fault the people who put them in that position—agents, lawyers, music business professionals who put him in a position of signing away the next twenty years of his life. But the kid who’s in those circumstances, I can’t really cast any judgment.
GQ: What about bands like Sonic Youth, who signed to a major label with a full adult understanding of the choice they were making.
SA: I don’t know the exact circumstances of Sonic Youth’s decision, so I’m not comfortable saying they did it wrong. But a lot of the things they were involved with as part of the mainstream were distasteful to me. And a lot of the things that happened as a direct result of their association with the mainstream music industry gave credibility to some of the nonsense notions that hover around the star-making machinery. A lot of that stuff was offensive to me and I saw it as a sellout and a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene. Sonic Youth chose to abandon it in order to become a modestly successful mainstream band—as opposed to being a quite successful independent band that could have used their resources and influence to extend that end of the culture. They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture’s encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior—I can’t say that I think it’s not embarrassing for them. I think they should be embarrassed about it.
GQ: How do you think music might be different today if Sonic Youth hadn’t brought all those bands—Bikini Kill, Pavement, Nirvana, to name a few—into the mainstream fold?
SA: I think what they did was take a lot of people who didn’t have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry. They validated the fleeting notions that these kids had that they might one day be rock stars. And then they participated in inducing a lot of them to make very stupid career moves. That was a period where the music scene got quite ugly—there were a lot of parasitic people involved like lawyers and managers. There were people who were making a living on the backs of bands, who were doing all the work. Had Sonic Youth not done what they did I don’t know what would have happened—the alternative history game is kind of silly. But I think it cheapened music quite a bit. It made music culture kind of empty and ugly and was generally a kind of bad influence.
The rest of the interview — including choice thoughts on fashion, film, etc. — is posted at gq.com. If you haven’t read, The Problem With Music, check that out for additional historical context. I respect Albini’s surliness (and you can’t fuck with Big Black, Rapeman, early Shellac), but Ian MacKaye wears the anti-corporate hardliner hat with a cleaner closest.