The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Matthew Stearns

It’s hard to believe, but Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is now 25 years old. In celebration of the album, a beloved indie masterpiece which also merited enough mainstream praise to be permanently housed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, we sat down with the author of our 93rd book in the 33 1/3 series, Matthew Stearns. In the years since he wrote the book, a lot has changed for the band (Thurston and Kim’s marriage, RIP), but even more for our intrepid author.

sonic_youth_1988What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
MS: I was a freak for the 33 and 1/3 series itself. I felt sneaky about it at the time, but I tactically chose Daydream Nation based on factors that I thought might increase my chances of getting chosen. I was very, very green as a writer back then and figured the odds of getting picked to do a 33 1/3 at less than nil.

So, looking at the backlist, I noticed crucial gaps in the types of albums being covered in the series. There were all-too-many books dealing with the Jaggers and Richards and Plants and Pages of the world (no offense!). Very few titles were looking at records that fueled the emergence of an arch music movement that directly challenged canonized pop formulas. Beyond that lack, there were even fewer titles about records that prominently featured women artists. I cross-referenced these holes in the series’ growing catalogue with albums that I did the triple splits over and came up with Daydream.

My choice was not all strategic. I was bonkers for Sonic Youth and saw Daydream as their centerpiece. I loved the record’s vast, double-LP ambitions and its (often gorgeous) convergence of “anything goes” experimentation with more formal song structures. The front-and-center presence of the almighty Kim Gordon in the group was added incentive to give this album the long-form attention I thought it deserved.

Who knows if the specifics of my master plan played a role in getting me the gig? Regardless, no one was more surprised than me when my proposal was accepted. I hope in some small way my book helped expand the list of 33 1/3 offerings to include under-served music. It’s been such a thrill to watch the range of the series grow to include artists as perversely varied as Nas and Celine Dion and Throbbing Gristle.

Who did you reach out to during the writing process? Why?
MS: Funny thing about this question: I initially read “reach out to” in the sense of “seek emotional support from…” This is telling, in terms of the troubling personal situation that framed my experience of writing the book. The real-deal is that I was almost fired from my duties as a writer by the previous (and beloved) editor of the series, David Barker, due to outrageous tardiness. I was almost a full year late submitting a completed first draft. Well, okay, any kind of draft. Even with all of that extra time, David still had to threaten to send in his Russian knee-capper dudes to get me to finish.

I wish I could say my lack of productivity was down to writer’s block or some other innocuous hoo-hoo, but the truth is unfortunately messier.

For starters, as soon as my proposal was (miraculously) accepted, I quickly felt out of my depth with the scope of the project. This was my first book and I had little experience with long format writing. Hell, I barely had any journalistic credits when I sent in my pitch. I’d written a few profiles and record reviews for Resonance magazine but the editors there were constantly yelling at me for turning things in late and overusing adjectives (a chronic problem). I felt like I had no idea what the hell I was doing writing a book and had zero practice even faking it.

So I procrastinated. Which came easily for me because, simultaneously, my personal life was spiraling into a shit-storm of chaos. I’ll bypass the details here but suffice to say that the situation was expansive and dire. Like, hospitals and police and I-almost-died dire. With the heroic efforts of my friends and family, my situation was eventually stabilized. But during most of my 33 1/3 period, I wasn’t fit to lace a shoe, never mind write a book.

Sonic-Youth-circa-1988Mind you, it wasn’t for lack of raw material: I did hours and hours of interviews with Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo at Sonic Youth’s studio in New York; I had less extensive but still rich email exchanges with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; I spent a couple delightful hours at a cafe in the West Village talking to Daydream’s producer Nick Sansano. Everyone on the Sonic Youth side was gracious and accommodating and ready to help get this project done.

Finally, around September of ’06, David gave me one last month to send him something substantial lest he drop the axe. Since the fear of writing was less acute than the fear of failing to have written, I flew to Cape Cod and wrote the entire book in about 30 days at my mom’s house. The process was a bloodletting. I tore at my hair. I had anxiety attacks. I cried like a grad student in a crying seminar at the University of Cry.

During this time, my (all time classic) mom would leave me notes of encouragement on the kitchen counter in the mornings. I’d stand there slurping my Kashi crunch and half-gallon of Dunkin Donuts iced coffee and read her notes: “You can do it honey! Do it for Sonic Youth! Do it for David Barker! Most important: Do it for you! Love you – Mom…” I’m not kidding. She really did this.

So I guess, when you ask me “who did you reach out to during the writing process?” my mother is the first person that comes to mind.

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
MS: I was planning a small feature for Resonance on the 33 1/3 series. I called David Barker’s editorial assistant to have some press copies sent to the magazine to help with the article (if I’m honest, this was mostly a way to score free copies of the editions I didn’t have yet).

When I was on hold, something occurred to me. The reason this series got me so amped was because since I was a kid, I’d always been an obsessive album-oriented listener. In that instant on the phone, I realized that I might be a long shot, barely-professionally-qualified candidate to write one of these things. As it turned out, the request for proposals window for new books in the series had just recently opened. I asked for the submission guidelines and set to choosing an album.

Once I settled on Daydream, I did something only really twisted music freaks can do: I listened to the album from start to finish over and over for two days straight. I took a break on the first day to sleep but basically did nothing else. I mean, I went INSIDE this album and lived there.

If I remember the figure right, I listened to Daydream in its entirety 23 times during that 48-hour period. When I emerged, I had a whole shitload of confusing notes (“research claustrophobia!” “metaphor as violence,” “salvation through tambourines?”).

I assembled this mess into an outline detailing what I saw as a set of potential narrative and thematic arcs running through the album. I wanted the pitch to convey a sense that I intended to write a kind of immersive travel guide to this dense yet sprawling record. Mostly I guess I hoped I could convince David Barker and the 33 1/3 editorial crew of my readiness to transfer my enthusiasm for the rewards of listening to Daydream attentively from start-to-finish to the readership.

“If I remember the figure right, I listened to Daydream in its entirety 23 times during that 48-hour period. When I emerged, I had a whole shitload of confusing notes (‘research claustrophobia!’ ‘metaphor as violence,’ ‘salvation through tambourines?’).”

What was the most surprising reaction to your book?
MS: I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for dealing with the inevitable criticisms that come with putting a book out into the world these days (the internet, which I learned the hard way to selectively ignore, can be a death-suck of anonymous cruelty).

This was my first biggish writing project for public consumption and I felt like an imposter in many ways. I had to figure out how to thicken my (very thin) skin in the face of the harshest attacks. I made the mistake of letting the slings and arrows of criticism get to me. At a certain point, I came to feel like this exciting thing that I’d work so hard to build and which came out of nowhere (I had literally zero expectations of my proposal ever getting selected) was turning against me.

I had to keep hammering the truth over and over again into my brain: “I did the very best I could under really difficult personal circumstances to write something faithful to my love for Daydream specifically and the series in general.” But I knew when I was writing it that my book wasn’t, you know, gonna win a Pulitzer or some such, but in my greenness I didn’t anticipate how flat-out painful it would be to endure all of the (unavoidable) negative reactions to my book. As if press criticism and grim user reviews on Goodreads weren’t enough, I had to deal with a situation when the first copies of Daydream were sent out that hit closer to home.

Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth took public issue (on the 33 1/3 blog) with errors I made in the transcription of his lyrics. We’d sent everybody in the band copies of the book just after publication and Thurston was thumbing through his and noticed that I’d fucked up in my reading of some of his songs. Agonizingly, he seemed more hurt than peeved by this, as he’s a 33 1/3 enthusiast and was eagerly looking forward to seeing how the book turned out.

Shortly after Thurston pointed out my missteps on the blog, David contacted me and asked if I had any way of convincing him to take up these issues in a less damaging forum. I wrote Thurston a heartfelt email apologizing for botching his words and ensuring him that I tried as hard as I could to do my job as a writer who felt a bit out his professional depth but who was basically trying to write an overwrought love letter to his band and Daydream.

His reply was consoling and he even made mention of the book “standing up past [its] complications.” I don’t know if this claim is true, but at the time I was willing to take any positive review I could get. Maybe we should put that as a puff quote on the back cover of future editions: “Stands up past its complications! –Thurston Moore.” Ha!

What would you do differently if you could do it all over?
MS: Well, first I would ask Thurston if I got his lyrics right. Then I would make Ben Sisario (Pixies) and Chris Ott (Joy Division) and Amanda Petrusich (Nick Drake) form a guild and write the book for me. I am so jealous of their abilities as music writers. They’re all so smart and talented. I hate them all.

Next, I would demand a massive increase in the amount of the advance. And my own author’s airplane with the 33 1/3 logo emblazoned on the side to get me to and from Pulitzer ceremonies and international award-winning writer’s spa retreats.

Lastly, I would set up an appointment with a really good skin-thickening coach to learn skin-thickening exercises so I wouldn’t have to go through the misery that comes from being susceptible to harsh criticism.

What words of wisdom can you offer to aspiring 33 1/3 authors?
MS: Look for gaps. Find an album you love (or maybe one that infuriates you) that fits that gap. Listen to that album at least 23 times in 48 hours. Barely sleep. Cry. Tear your hair out. Ask your mom to write you notes of encouragement.

The range of what is possible in this series has really opened up over the years. It is your job, aspiring 33 1/3 writer person, to drive it right out over the edge!

And, for the love of god, will somebody please do a graphic novelization of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers?

How did writing this book change your feelings about the album and artist?
MS: I haven’t listened to Daydream all the way through since the book came out. When tracks from the record come on my headphones I tend to skip forward as fast as I can. I think this is basically a result of two things: 1. My ears reached their lifetime saturation point for that album during the writing process and 2. Without disavowing my gratitude for the opportunity and the thrill of having finished the book, there is a sense of having been mildly traumatized by the whole deal.

I’m still coming to terms with the damage caused by what I was going through back then personally. Thankfully, things are much better now for me now. But my Daydream book and the album itself got folded into that troubled period in a way that makes it difficult sometimes for me to remember how much fun it was to have succeeded in getting the job and what a rush it was to be able to talk with Sonic Youth and play my very damnedest at being something of a writer.

What’s changed in your life and writing since you wrote your 33 1/3? Do any of these changes stem directly from writing the book itself?
MS: My life is completely different. After the book came out, I moved away from music writing for my own sanity and started traveling the world. I guess this may be related in some way to my original vision of the book as a content-rich travel guide to Daydream.
Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is available on Amazon or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.

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