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Books Are For Squares: An Interview With David Browne

By Peter Wild.


3:AM: At the beginning of Goodbye 20th Century, you say you thought maybe your agent wouldn’t be as interested in the idea for a Sonic Youth book as you were.

DB: That comment was largely based on my experience with shopping around a proposal for Dream Brother, my biography of Jeff and Tim Buckley. My agent at the time was actually very supportive of the idea, but that book was a very hard sell to a publisher. My current agent, I might add, loved the Sonics idea as soon as I told her—as it turned out, she was a huge fan but had never told me! With Dream Brother almost every publisher turned us down, mostly because, they felt, not enough people knew who Jeff Buckley was, the audience that existed was too small, music books on cult acts don’t sell, and so forth. We persevered, obviously, and found a fine publisher, and I’m proud to say that the book continues to sell, almost eight years later, and has been published in the U.S. and U.K. and translated into French and Italian. Still, those “too cult” comments haunted me when it came to a book on Sonic Youth. After all, they’re undeniably important, yet they’ve never sold that many records and are far from a household name in any country. And, three years ago, when I first had the idea to do the book, I couldn’t have imagined that they’ve be on the soundtrack of an Oscar-nominated movie, be included in “Guitar Hero,” and have a Starbucks album! But I believed in the idea of the book, and we again lucked out with the fine folks at Da Capo and Piatkus in the U.K.


3:AM: One of the real triumphs of Goodbye 20th Century is that it doesn’t read like a biography of a band (as so many band books do); rather it feels like a biography of four very clearly delineated people who just happen to form Sonic Youth. How important was it for you to try and create a sense of people in the band?

DB: I’m really happy you picked upon that aspect of book, since it was very important. Plenty has been written about the band’s career and guitar tunings and such. And while I wanted to cover all those topics and add whatever new information and research I could, I also wanted to bring a new element: I wanted the book to be intimate and personal. I wanted readers to get to know the people as well as they knew the songs on Dirty or Sister. Sonic Youth is indeed comprised of four very different people, with different backgrounds and sensibilities, and that give-and-take, push-and-pull dynamic is as much a part of the band as their guitar sounds or group songwriting technique. Also, Sonic Youth have always had a somewhat aloof public image, so I felt having readers learn more about their childhoods, occasional clashes, and individual preferences on everything from album titles to recording methods would add an extra dimension: You’d get to know them as complex, creative people, not just rock stars. And, in that way, readers would be able to relate to them (and their career and family struggles) even more.


3:AM: There’s been a lot of chat online about the row surrounding ‘Genetic’ [If you don’t know, ‘Genetic’ is a Lee Ranaldo song that Thurston and Kim decided didn’t warrant a place on Dirty. The subsequent row nearly led to Ranaldo leaving the band.]. Does it surprise you the things about a book that people latch on to – or did you think, as you heard that story, ‘this is book gold!’?

DB: I certainly had a few “book gold!” moments along the way, especially when I got the band to talk about the ‘Genetic’ turmoil. I’d heard rumours about that incident for years, but as a journalist, I admit that I came away from those interviews [with the feeling] that I had a real scoop. I had the same feeling when I sat down for several hours of interviews with Jim O’Rourke, about nine months after he left the band. I didn’t know much about his reasons for departing, and when he basically confessed to his dissatisfaction on several levels, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and thought readers would love that, too. Then again, I’m also surprised when people latch onto certain moments: I’ve heard and read that many readers were fascinated by the part of the book when their lawyer, Richard Grabel, renegotiates their Geffen contract. I figured that would only be of interest to those who follow the music business, but from conversations to an Irish radio interview, I’ve received a lot of feedback on that part.


3:AM Unlike Dream Brother, your biography of Tim and Jeff Buckley, Goodbye 20th Century ends (obviously) where the band are right now. Does it not worry you telling a story that isn’t finished yet?

DB: Absolutely. I suppose I’ll need to update it in a few years! I was well aware that the band still exists (obviously) and carries on, and that they may be together another 10 or 20 years—who knows? But I also felt there was enough history at this point—and enough of a panoramic story, that encompasses the rise and fall of New York, the rise and fall of indie rock, and so forth—to support a book.

3:AM The process of writing a book, especially a nonfiction book, means that you have to cut and edit according to the demands of the narrative. I wondered if there were any stories you had to cut that (despite the fact you knew it was for the good of the book) hurt like hell?

DB: There’s no question that as a result of all my interviews, tons of great little anecdotes were deleted in order to keep the narrative moving and not get too bogged down in details. I can be guilty of that, I know. But as an author friend of mine told me years ago, when I was writing Dream Brother, “You’re painting a portrait—you don’t have to include everything they’ve ever done.” And he was right. That said, I would have loved to include, let’s say, the moment when their tour bus caught on fire in Europe in the ’80s and their lighting/merch person, Susanne Sasic, was seriously burned. That would have been a particularly vivid example of what indie bands had to deal with back then, and occasionally now, still.

[from Sonic Death zine, issue 1]

3:AM: Do you have a favourite SY song / album / gig?

DB: That’s such a hard question to answer. The fave albums change all the time; it depends on my mood. When I’m riding my bike, I love to listen to Dirty or Goo or Daydream Nation, the more “rock” records. Researching the book made me appreciate certain albums, like A Thousand Leaves, more than I once had. As far as songs, I can never get enough of hearing ‘Death Valley ’69,’ ‘Kool Thing,’ ‘Pattern Recognition,’ ‘Makin’ the Nature Scene,’ ‘Chapel Hill,’ ‘The Empty Page,’ ‘Genetic,’ ‘Tom Violence,’ ‘(I Got a) Catholic Block’ … the list could go on and on. The moment when Lee’s organ rises up beneath Kim’s voice in ‘I Love You Golden Blue’ is, I think, one of the most sublime moments in pop, ever.

3:AM: What’s next for you?

DB: Good question. I’m batting around a few ideas for a new book. In the meantime, I’m keeping busy with writing pieces for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Spin, and other outlets…

Peter Wild comes from a music journalism background and is the editor of The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth and Perverted By Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall [both Serpent’s Tail]. He is co-founder of Bookmunch, co-author of Before the Rain [Flax Books] and editor of The Flash [Social Disease].

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 6th, 2008.