As guitarist Lee Ranaldo is in Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes in this month’s new issue (April 2012, Take 179), we thought we’d share a Sonic Youth piece from our archive. In this feature, published in 2009, Marc Spitz finds the band (who’ve just finished what we now know could be their final album, The Eternal) ageing with more dignity than most, but still finding time to lash out at Oasis, Madonna and U2, and order a baby pig with a donut in its mouth… Picture by Pieter M Van Hattem.
Given the peeling paint, dumpsters and train yard smog, you might think this industrial space, located in a disused leather refinery just across the Hudson from Manhattan, should smell like pollution, stale cowhide and garbage. Instead, the warmly lit studio it houses smells, surprisingly, of flowers. Full of thrift shop furniture, computers, vintage rock posters, strands of glittering paper stars, and dozens of plastic bins stuffed with tacks, screws and guitar lacquer, it belongs to Sonic Youth. And, as they prepare to release The Eternal, their 16th studio LP and first for an indie label in over two decades, you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect metaphor for their legendary career.
Formed on Manhattan’s surly No Wave scene at the start of the ’80s, caught in the spotlight of the ’90s alt.nation star maker machine, and more or less abandoned by their major, Geffen, throughout this decade, Sonic Youth should, by rights, be broken down by fatigue, near misses and regret. Instead, the band – guitarist/vocalists Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo, plus drummer Steve Shelley and former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold – have hit reboot once again, avoiding, as ever, any untoward behaviour that might sully their status as modern music giants.
“I want a donut. I have donut lust,” Moore, still impossibly boyish at 50, mutters wearily. He is red-eyed, suffering from flu, a packet of cold remedy in one hand and a used herbal teabag in the other. Doubled over in his shiny suit pants, Moore, at 6’6’’, is almost as tall as a petite person standing erect.
“Thai is good,” Shelley, bespectacled and genial, suggests.
“How about Cuban?” Ibold offers. “They have that baby pig.”
“I want a baby pig with a donut in its mouth,” Gordon quips. Icy, defiantly Botox-free, and imperious, at 56, she effects the air of a tenured art school professor. She is dressed in a black and white polka-dotted frock of her own co-design, from her line for Urban Outfitters, Mirror/Dash (named after a Thurston/Kim side-project) – a sequel of sorts to her ’90s X-Girl collection.
“I know some people,” Ranaldo quips, mocking the tone of a swine-procuring flim-flam man.
Like Shelley and Ibold, the greying Ranaldo is as rumpled as Gordon and Moore are chic. They opt for the Cuban, but with the kind of restraint that protected them from the tragedies suffered by nearly every one of their peers and disciples, they forgo the decadent little pig in favour of chicken soup and leafy greens. Then it’s to the business of self-reflection. Admittedly, this is a subject they have experience of – 16 albums promoted, and all – but it’s not something they’re entirely comfortable with, even after all this time. Moore cheerfully predicts Uncut’s first question.
Do you feel like The Eternal marks…
“… A new beginning?” he drawls.
Ask if they anticipate any remarkable change in their business model now that they are once again “indie”, and Moore shrugs.
“I don’t know. Matador [their new label] has a better logo than Geffen did,” he adds, unhelpfully.
Like several titanic but commercially under-performing figures – Joni Mitchell, another long-time Geffen artist, or pre-’90s Neil Young on Reprise – Sonic Youth never risked being dropped by their label. Their place on the big roster provided too much prestige, and succeeded in luring in younger acts. But the years of being treated like a B-list act have clearly wounded them.
“We felt better making a record for this label then we felt making records for
Geffen,” Moore allows. “That last record we did for Geffen [2006’s Rather Ripped], all the people who set it up were let go a week before the release. Not a good thing.”
If Sonic Youth are the alpha indie band, then you could argue that Matador is the perfect home for them. Founded in 1989, its catalogue includes a dozen immortal releases from Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville and Cat Power’s You Are Free. Written in Northampton, MA (where Moore and Gordon, married 25 years this summer, live with daughter Coco) and recorded in Hoboken with Hold Steady producer John Agnello, The Eternal certainly sounds like a band enjoying new-found freedom. It covers the Sonic Youth net skilfully, with two-minute punk rave-ups (“Sacred Trickster”), oblique art treatises (“Anti-Orgasm”) and Byzantine space jams (the nine-minute “Massage The History”). It feels like a Best Of…, but with all new songs.
“We’ll probably sell more on Matador than we did on Geffen,” Gordon says. “They know how to sell um… not quite mainstream music.”
Sonic Youth’s love for avant-garde jazz and experimental noise is well known. But there’s a contingent of modern music fans who understand Sonic Youth about as much as they do Sun Ra, John Cage or John-free Yoko. Like a foreign film or molecular cuisine, they know they’re supposed to find it all interesting, but secretly they’d prefer a Judd Apatow flick and a burger. Then there are those who archive every gig and obediently consume every release on Moore’s boutique label, Ecstatic Peace (the late, lamented Be Your Own Pet its brightest light). Sonic Youth polarise, even though nobody will admit to disliking them. When they first came to England in December, 1983, in support of their second LP, Confusion Is Sex, people “thought we were an art-school band,” says Gordon (who did go to art school). “They dismissed us as trust-fund dilettantes.”
“They thought we were a flashback,” Ranaldo adds. “Like Creedence. Guitar rock was dead.”
Their sound remains unique; uncannily so. Whether sung by Moore, Ranaldo or Gordon, a Sonic Youth song is identifiable within a few notes, or feedback bursts, delivering a melancholy but tough emotional tone and the disorienting whirl of de-tuned guitars going where they will.
“Coming out of New York scene it didn’t seem weird at the time,” Ranaldo says of their European debut. “Everyone was tuning guitars differently.” Peers like the Bush Tetras and James Chance, however, were playing skronky and funky wrong-notes down by the East River, whereas the Youth conjured up something more like the Atlantic Ocean at high tide.
“They still make me wet myself when the sonic swell of battering guitars kicks into overdrive,” says Lydia Lunch, who, with Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, was another leader of the No Wave scene (and collaborated with Sonic Youth on the ’85 single, “Death Valley ’69”).
“It’s always been about their incredibly sexy accelerations – a blood rush propelled by sound. Something suffocating yet liberating, like a wet kiss that swallows your whole head yet breathes new life into your broken neck.”
“When we first went over, though, people were really into it,” Moore recalls. “They realised that we weren’t playing guitar like normal guitar players play them. We didn’t know how.”
But by the late-’80s, with The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine in full swing, Sonic Youth were considered pioneers. It behoved them to release a masterpiece. “Daydream Nation was the culmination of that period,” Ranaldo says. “It took what we were doing to a certain peak.”
Released in 1988, Daydream Nation is full of the band’s most classically structured pop (“Kissability” and the Dinosaur Jr homage “Teenage Riot”), yet closes with a 15-minute trilogy which traversed a now vanished Manhattan full of drugs, crime and holy weirdoes. It was a highlight of a watershed year that brought indie rock and hip hop up from the street. It sold modestly but topped critics’ polls and drew major label attention. “It’s the record we’re still known for,” says Gordon.
In 2005, Daydream Nation was added to the US Library Of Congress National Recording Registry where it sits alongside “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Stars And Stripes Forever”, the Harry Smith folk recordings and Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day”. To mark its 20th anniversary, the band performed the album at dates in Europe, Australia, and America. It’s the record that made Sonic Youth more of a cultural universe than a mere band. Pre-Kurt and Courtney, Moore and Gordon were modern rock’s functional power couple, and only old school NYC contemporaries The Beastie Boys and Madonna did as much to build a multi-media sensibility around the music.
“We always operated within a sense of community not just about the band,” Ranaldo says. “It’s important to the way we define ourselves. It’s the entire world in which we operate.”
The artists they chose to design their sleeves (Gerhard Richter, Mike Kelly, Richard Prince) or direct their videos (Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze), to the fashion designers they endorsed (Marc Jacobs) and the bands they took under their wing (Bikini Kill, Nirvana) became part of Sonic Youth: the aesthetic.
The decision to hook up with Geffen concerned many fans. After all, signing to a major had declawed indie heroes like Hüsker Dü. By 1990, The Replacements were spent, as well. REM hardly sounded the same. Many feared that Sonic Youth would be next.
“We were and are aware of what we represent to a lot of people who invest in us artistically,” Moore explains. “So we always had an agreement that we wouldn’t sell that short.” Apart from minor novelty hit “Kool Thing”, featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D’s faux Panther rap, 1990’s Goo was not exactly a Lenny Kravitz record. But the difference between 1990 and 1991, as far as tempting an arty punk band into the mainstream, was seismic. Following Sonic Youth’s example, and in fact on their recommendation, Nirvana signed with Geffen’s DGC imprint in 1991. Which is when everything changed.
“There was an open door for a band like us to go that route, too,” Moore says. Goo’s follow-up, Dirty, was recorded with Butch Vig, producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Lead by the single “100%”, the band’s cleanest, heaviest and most dance-able release yet, Dirty saw them taking a tentative step through the door that Nirvana had kicked down. But they never went through.
“It had a lot to do with being more enamoured with bands like Sebadoh and Royal Trux,” says Moore. “Or outsider songwriters like Daniel Johnston. That was something we felt more affinity for than the glamour of big-time music on MTV.”
1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star was even less commercial-minded. “We still did it with Butch [Vig],” Moore says. “Still at a very nice studio but those songs were more introspective. The label would have loved it to have a big rock sound.”
By 1995, they were headlining Lollapalooza over Hole and Beck, but the notion of superstardom had long been abandoned. “We didn’t want to tour with a band like the Chili Peppers,” Moore says. “We wanted to tour with Pavement. That was the community that we wanted to be a part of.”
Come the end of the ’90s, their lineup augmented by Chicago-based musician/producer Jim O’Rourke, Sonic Youth were making gentle and esoteric albums like NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Murray Street, and Sonic Nurse. Only 2006’s Rather Ripped showed a flash of the old snarl.
But the Sonic Youth brand is stronger now than its record sales ever were. If cool is currency, then the Youth dollar has remained strong.
Last year, they released a comp through Starbucks’ record label, wryly entitled Hits Are For Squares, where Beck, Chloë Sevigny, The Flaming Lips, Radiohead and others selected their favourite vintage Youth tracks. The decision caused much blogosphere debate.
“It was never meant to be like ‘We’re going to make a lot of money,’” says Shelley. “They only printed like a thousand of them.”
“The industry was starting to collapse and for some reason, Starbucks was able to sell records,” Ranaldo continues. “They’d put out interesting stuff like Dylan at the Gaslight. Nobody else seemed to be able to sell records. We thought, ‘Let’s see what happens’.”
Although they seem a smidge defensive, flagging up the scarcity of the LP as if it was a prized punk 7”, the Starbucks venture was, like every other Youth business endeavour, done with a peerless, punk-correct grace; showing younger bands how to diversify without losing mystique.
As Backstreet Boys are fast discovering, having words like “Youth” in your band name can be dicey; especially post-50. But if there’s any further evidence required, beyond the quality of The Eternal, that Sonic Youth are getting long in the tooth with typical aplomb, and little to prove, a listen to their lunch-hour gabbing should settle things. As lunch is unpacked and prepped, Gordon commandeers laptops and fires up the new U2 video.
“I don’t get the title,” Ranaldo says. “There’s always a line on the horizon. That’s what the horizon is all about. What the fuck does that mean? Maybe it’s the lines he put under his eyes.”
We talk of the burden of having to churn out hits.
“The stakes are not the same for us,” Ranaldo says, citing the pressure he assumes bands like The Strokes and Oasis must suffer. “We haven’t had one of those mega records. Musically it’s the death knell. The Strokes will never get anywhere after that first record.”
“And Oasis have never made a good record,” adds Moore. “’Wonderwall’? The worst song ever! ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies is a better song.”
Is Moore wary about starting a war with Oasis?
“No, I’m just saying the truth.”
“Oasis really should have been called Mirage,” Gordon adds. What about Madonna? As Ciccone Youth, one of their countless offshoots [see below], the band lampooned Madge on 1988’s The Whitey Album.
“Madonna is more like U2 – don’t you think?” Gordon asks. “Talk about Botox. When she sees the new Britney video – she might as well just pack it in. She’s never going to be sexy like that again.”
Is there a model for ageing? What about Neil Young, say?
“He’s a good model, yeah,” Gordon says without much commitment, as if to say, “We’re not like anybody else.” To say something so brash isn’t their style. It would be tacky, like ordering the pig.
The best of Thurston, Kim and co’s many, many side-projects
Harry Crews 1988-90
Gordon, Lydia Lunch and drummer Sadie Mae named their one-off No Wave trio after the Southern Gothic pulp novelist and recorded a lone album during an Autumn ’88 European club tour. Several titles (“Car,” “The Knockout Artist”) came from Crews’ books.
Key Release: Naked In The Garden Hills (Big Cat, 1990)
Free Kitten 1992 – Present
The longest-running Youth side-project teams Gordon with Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz. Think murky garage rock. Other members have included Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-WE, and Mark Ibold.
Key Release: Sentimental Education (Kill Rock Stars, 1997)
Dim Stars 1992
Moore and Shelley recruited alt.rock peer Dom Fleming (Gumball) and original punk Richard Hell for a self-titled EP and full-length album. The killer cover of T.Rex’s “Rip Off” sounds like it was particularly fun to record.
Key Release: Dim Stars (Caroline Records, 1992)
Cat Power 1993-1996
Yes, that Cat Power. Shelley and Sonic cohort Tim Foldjan more or less discovered Chan Marshall, co-producing and drumming on her first three albums and touring as an official member between Sonic duties.
Key Release: What Would The Community Think? (Matador, 1996)
“SYR” – or Sonic Youth Recordings 1996 – Present
An ongoing repository for the band’s more avant-garde recordings, these seven [now nine] packages are often gleefully oblique (liner notes written in foreign languages) and free form.
Key Release: SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (SYR, 1999)
Wylde Ratttz 1998
Moore and Shelley, alongside Fleming, Mike Watt (Minutemen), Mark Arm (Mudhoney) and, um, Ewan McGregor, covered The Stooges’ “TV Eye” for Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine film. Points for inviting actual Stooge (the late Ron Asheton) to reprise his deathless riff.
AVAILABLE: Velvet Goldmine OST (Fontana Records, 1998)
Text Of Light 2001 – Present
Ranaldo and a revolving collective including DJ Olive, percussionist Wiliam Hooker, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and guitarist Alan Licht perform live improv to classic avant-garde films like Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man.
AVAILABLE: Rotterdam. 1 (Room40, 2005)