Although Sonic Youth has been largely dormant since 2011, the band has begun digging into its vaults, and its latest excavation — Blastic Scene, a 1993 live tape from Lisbon — dropped Monday on Bandcamp.
Archival releases have been few and far between since the band’s dissolution in light of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s breakup. But in March, a dozen live shows from various points in the Sonic Youth saga suddenly went up on Bandcamp. The band had been making some of its live content available on another site, but drummer Steve Shelley, who oversees their vaults in New Jersey, began hearing from fellow musicians about Bandcamp. Both its ease of use and its potential profit margins — 85% of sales going to bands — appealed to him and his former bandmates.
“A lot of sites, the musicians are the last ones in the chain as far as getting paid,” Shelley says. “So Bandcamp feels different. Eighty-five percent is humongous compared to other digital platforms.”
The initial batch of recordings included a 1988 gig at New York’s CBGB’s, a 2007 Daydream Nation recreation show in Glasgow, a 1993 show at the Warfield in San Francisco, and a 2011 Brooklyn show that would be the band’s last in the U.S.
“We recorded every night pretty much,” Shelley says. “So there is tons of stuff in the archive, and we’re all self-quarantined right now, so it’s a good time to go through it.” Moore and Lee Ranaldo have also posted their own separate archival material on Bandcamp.
Released in honor of the 26th anniversary of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, the newly reissued Blastic Scene documents a particularly tight and focused show. The band previewed a handful of the songs that would end up on that proudly uncommercial album (“Bull in the Heather,” “Self-Obsessed and Sexxee,” “Starfield Road”) along with catalog deep cuts like “Stereo Sanctity,” “Secret Girl” and “Pacific Coast Highway.”
What’s missing, by and large, are any of the band’s so-called hits, like “Kool Thing” or “Teenage Riot.” Moore introduces “Candle” as from “a record we did a long time ago called Daydream Nation.” Making a Yes joke, he adds, “Or is that Tales from Topographic Oceans?”
“It catches us in a good place in our history,” Moore tells RS. “Just post the Nirvana mania of ’90 to ’92 and our moving away from the overamped thrum of that into more stripped-down, linear and, possibly, introspective tones — completely against the current of what mainstream alt-rock had become. Hits are for squares.”
Blastic Scene was recorded at one of their most unusual gigs — in a ring normally home to bullfighting — and was first released as an authorized bootleg in Portugal in 1995. Only 1,300 copies were pressed, with a quarter given to the band to sell by way of the band’s fan club.
“When Sonic Youth first went into Portugal, it felt like uncharted territory,” Moore says. “We had blasted through Spain and Italy but Portugal seemed a bit disengaged from hosting any band as on the margins of experimental rock music as us. When we arrived in Lisbon we realized that we were to play in a bullring. The stage was makeshift but sturdy enough with a fairly decent PA. I think anyone with the slightest interest in punk, post-punk and beyond in Lisbon was there, which was not more than a couple of hundred.”
“You think of bullrings as large, but this one was actually quite small, like a minor-league ballfield,” Shelley says. “We were playing in the middle and it was really fun. We hadn’t recorded Experimental Jet Set yet, but we were playing songs from that nightly. ‘Bull in the Heather’ is pretty much all there, but Thurston was still working on some of the lyrics for the other songs. So it’s interesting to hear those songs months before the record came out.”
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Goo, the band will next release a 1990 live show from Irvine, California. Shelley says parts of that tape may have been damaged in the infamous Universal Studios fire in 2008, but the band was largely spared from catastrophic loss. “The damage was very minimal as far as Sonic Youth stuff,” he says. “We kept our own copies of nearly everything. We usually had the originals in our own archives. We were very careful.”
Although a Sonic Youth boxed set is not in the works (“It’s not anything that captures our interest and personally, I’ve never been a fan of super-high-priced items,” Shelley says), a deluxe edition of 1987’s Sister remains a possibility — although a reunion remains less so. “I definitely miss playing with the group,” Shelley says. “I miss the touring and shows and traveling. Sonic Youth took me to Lisbon for the first time. It was such a special and unique time.”