SONIC YOUTHS, RADICAL ADULTS

May 21, 2009 – 4:22 am

From the indie SST to Geffen Records and now back to the indie Matador, Sonic Youth have a new release, The Eternal, due in June 2009. But everything has to start somewhere, even a group that seems to have been around forever. Let’s go back to 2002, the 21st anniversary of the group from New York City. Fittingly for a band that holds equal weight in the punk rock underground, the chi-chi avant-garde bastion, the champagne Soho galleries and the sleazy fashion world, 2002 saw the arrival Murray Street, their 17th full-length album. On the cusp of a summer world tour, drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist Lee Ranaldo talked to Lee Chung Horn. This article was published in BigO #199 (July 2002).

More than any other band in the alternative rock world, Sonic Youth is a beacon. Nirvana started the landslide, but Sonic Youth loosened the earth first. Kurt Cobain’s teen spirit lives on, but only in memory. Sonic Youth’s in the thick of it all, collapsing youth culture ennui and unconventional playing into a music that’s sometimes beautiful, usually fad-blind, and always challenging.

But a beacon for what? One is tempted to say: for musical risk-taking and artistic deconstruction, and one would be right in great measure. But Sonic Youth have also attracted to their cause unclear political discourse and style-befuddled polemic, and this has led the band to create art that’s been criticised for being indulgent to a fault.

Not bad for a group that started out, to quote guitarist Thurston Moore, “just as any band starts out - four people fresh into their 20s wanting to make music to explore and express their feelings.” Only over the course of two decades, Sonic Youth have become considerably more than just any band.

For instance, critics are unanimous in calling the band’s 1988 Daydream Nation the white-hot centre of the Sonic Youth canon. Then there’s Sister from 1987, possibly the first album to be inspired by the cyberpunk tradition started by sci-fi writer Philip K Dirk. More recently the band explored the avant-garde world, releasing a slew of daring albums on their own SYR label that culminated with Goodbye 20th Century, a tribute to modern composers like Christian Wolff, John Cage and Steve Reich.

The big Sonic Youth news this year, of course, is that they’ve become a five-piece. The new member is the ultrahot Jim O’Rourke. A player like O’Rourke obviously gives great gravitas. Not only is he an amazingly accomplished musician, producer and laptop wizard, he’s also an aesthete whose far-out ideas have brightened the numerous albums he’s worked on in a career of many years. [Editor’s note: Jim O’Rourke stayed until late 2005.]

Steve, you’ve been together as a band for a long time - 1981 was when the band first formed. For a long time, the group has been a four-piece with you, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo. Why have you decided to get Jim O’Rourke into the group now to become a five-piece?

It was not much of a decision, really. In many ways, it was more a natural progression than a decision. As you know, Jim’s collaborated with us individually and as a group in the last few years, and it was easy to continue working with him. We all said: “Oh, it’d be fun if Jim recorded this next project that we’re working on.” I remember when we finished recording NYC Ghosts & Flowers in 2000, and Jim produced and played on that album, we decided it’d be fun to bring him along on the tour and have him play some of those extra things we had on the record.

We had a good time, all five of us together and when that tour was over, it was obvious to us that we should write some new material together, and record some more things. That’s how we got to this point. There was never any real decision made, you know, about whether Jim’s in the group, or he’s not in the group. He’s working with us now and will continue to do that for as long as that happens.

How has having Jim in the group changed the way the band makes music now? I know Thurston’s been quoted in Rolling Stone, saying Jim helps create this really nice Electric Light Orchestra kind of vibe.

Not a whole lot. As you know, we have always relied a whole lot on collaboration. We get together and someone has a melody or a sound, and things roll from there.

Since Jim plays bass on the new album, does that mean Kim Gordon who was the bassist in Sonic Youth has moved on to guitar?

Well, Jim plays guitar on the new album too. The truth is, Kim’s been playing a lot of guitar the last few years, not just now. With Jim in the group, I’d say she plays half bass and half guitar. But they still trade off and it seems to work pretty okay. There’s a song, Rain On Tin, on the new album where there is a lot of guitar interplay between Jim and Lee and Thurston. Kim and I are the rhythm section - she plays bass and I’m on the drums.

Does Jim now live in NYC? He used to live in Chicago.

Yeah, he lives in Brooklyn.

You started work on Murray Street in August 2001.

No, we actually started before that. Well it took about a year all in all. We started last winter and we finished in March this year. We started writing songs in March of last year. We went to Northampton, to Kim and Thurston’s place, and we did demos in their house. But none of those songs wound up on this record.

We continued writing through the spring and summer, then we did some touring last summer in Italy, England, France and Switzerland. Then we came home and really starting working on the album, recording rehearsals and what not, and just before September 11, we had eight tracks recorded. Then we got shut down for a couple of months.

And that’s what your press bio says about September 11 - how it interrupted the recording of the album.

Yeah, we got shut out of our studio for about two months. We didn’t know what was up with our equipment. But the city in general was a big question mark. We were all affected as people, and it’s not like our studio was the biggest and most important thing on our minds. Lee, who lived closest to the Twin Towers, was effectively shut out of his apartment for quite a long time, he was displaced for almost two months. There was a lot of strangeness in the air, and we were all affected by it. We didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about our business, and about our little piece of the world.

Did the five of you get to meet each other regularly during those two months of hiatus after September 11?

We were in touch mostly by email and a few phone calls. I don’t think we saw a lot of each other during that time. After they opened up the streets again, we went back into our studio and picked up from where we left off.

Of course, by that time most of the songs were already written. A lot of people asked if the material changed after September 11, whether we altered the music or the lyrics. Well, we didn’t, really - not a great deal. Our attitude to life, to things in general definitely changed, and that would be natural for anyone who lives through any major world event, but the music didn’t. We didn’t change the lyrics to make them more topical.

I guess the two months of lost time pushed back the completion of Murray Street.

Yeah, it did. We were hoping to put this album out around the new year.

To my ears, and I’ve listened to the record many times, Murray Street is a great Sonic Youth album. It’s a return to songs again, and superficially my personal feeling is that it resembles Goo and Dirty and some of the earlier albums. It’s got a very different feel from NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Goodbye 20th Century. What was the thinking, the general idea behind this return to writing songs?

I know what you mean when you say about returning to songs. But I don’t think anyone of us in the band was trying consciously to write “songs.” Goodbye 20th Century was a totally unique project. We had a different vision for it, so it was not a typical Sonic Youth album. On Goodbye 20th Century, we played other people’s material. We were improvising and high-riding modern composition. I guess that’s why a song with verses and choruses would be perceived as being quite a bit different.

Is the new album different from A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers? I guess you could say that because Murray Street’s got more arranging on it like some of the earlier albums. We did try to get away from arranging for a while. On the new album, we’re arranging again, and in more intricate ways. There’s more interweaving of melody and structure, you know, all of those things.

Do you work out the songs before you record them?

Well, we’re recording all the time. When we rehearse in our studio, we’re almost always recording as well to see if we could catch anything we like. And we write the songs together, all five of us, in the studio.

Tell us more about your studio. I know you all decided to name this new album Murray Street because that’s where your studio’s located. Just like the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Does your studio have a name?

It has several names. Each one of us has a different name for it. Lee’s name for it has cropped up the most times in print - he’s dubbed it Echo Canyon, and his name gets used on record covers. Thurston sometimes refers to it as Second Home. Kim calls it Tribeca Recording Studio, and I sometimes call it Manning Electric. I don’t know if Jim has a name for it. But it’s a place where we get together.

Is it in the basement or is it on a high floor?

It’s up a few floors. We’ve had many basement rehearsal studios and recording studios before. But it’s not really a loft. It’s hard to tell what used to go on in this building. We’re in a pretty funny building. It’s all music-oriented now. Above us is a practice studio called Off Wall Street Jam. It’s a place where, from nine to five, guys and gals can get together and say, “Hey I can play guitar and I know some Creedence songs.” They get together and they play Proud Mary 10 times one floor above us. Sometimes it’s pretty infuriating when we’re mixing. Kids who want to be in cover bands go there, and we get treated to real interesting cover versions all day long.

What do they say to you when you meet them in the elevator or on the stairs? Do they recognise Sonic Youth?

Oh, rarely. Most of these people aren’t remotely interested in us. I think we’re below the radar for a lot of people. We’ve never been asked for autographs.

How long did it take for you guys to build your studio?

We started moving in some time after Lollapalooza. I think we got the lease during Lollapalooza. An engineer-producer friend of ours, Wharton Tiers, helped us put together a lot of the studio, and he was responsible for recording a lot of the first projects that came out of here. And then we continued to keep adding to, and changing it. We got a new board recently. It grows little by little. It’s definitely not a typical recording studio where someone would pay us for studio time, and then work by the hour. It’s pretty much set up as our own rehearsal space, and it’s geared towards us and all of our eccentricities, but once in a while we’d use it for friends. Lee’s in there right now working with Christina Rosenvinge, a friend of ours from Spain.

She has an album out on Smells Like, the record label you run.

Yes, I put out an album of hers called Frozen Pool about a little over a year ago, and I play in her band some of the time. Also, I recorded this Chris Lee record at our studio. We do various things, and a lot of improvising is recorded there.

What view do you have outside your studio window?

Well, there are a couple of window shots on the cover of the vinyl version of the new record. We have a view of another big building right in front of us that’s been vacant since we moved in. It’s an old office building that’s going to be converted into a condominium. So many buildings in NYC are going to experience the same fate. We’ve been watching the urban redevelopment of this area for years, pretty soon there are going to be luxury condos across the street from us. But right now, it’s an empty office building.

No view of Ground Zero?

No, we can’t see that. We’re two blocks away. You can see Ground Zero as you walk into the studio. It feels a little strange everyday. There were points during the winter when it felt like you’re visiting Berlin, the Berlin of years ago.

On the Sonic Youth website, Lee wrote a diary about the days following September 11, describing the street scenes…

Lee lived near our studio. We were shut out of our studio but Lee was shut out of his home. Lee’s safe and he has several small children, and they’re all safe. We all consider ourselves very fortunate.

Lee, I read your notes on your website, describing in graphic and poignant detail the post-September 11 street scenes around Lower Manhattan. Now that the eight-and-a-half months clean-up of the Twin Towers is coming to a close, what are your thoughts when you walk through the area?

LEE RANALDO: Well I live in the area, so I walk through it almost every day. My feelings and thoughts change constantly. It’s still hard to believe all the changes on the one hand, and yet I’ve witnessed it from September 11 right through to today when they will finally remove the last beam and complete the “clean up.” It’s my neighbourhood and home, and the feelings are vast and sometimes hard to pinpoint. Sometime down the road, this area will become the most up-to-date section of NYC with all new infrastructure. But that’s a long way away right now.

How has the whole September 11 thing affected the live music scene in NYC?

LEE: The live music scene in NYC right now is healthier than it’s been in years, and was heading in that direction even before September 11. There are tons of good new bands and it’s very exciting. I wouldn’t try too hard to tie September 11 into all this though, it’s just a good time for music in NYC.

Are you going on tour soon?

LEE: Yes, we’re going to Europe in a couple of weeks. Then we’re going to Japan to play at the Mount Fuji Festival, and then we’re touring the States in August. That’s all we have planned right now.

Are you planning to come by South-east Asia and $ingapore again?

STEVE SHELLEY: We’d love to. We don’t have anything planned right now. The next possible period would have to be after Christmas; so if it’s possible, maybe we could come then. We visited $ingapore twice, the one time we did a bit of press, and the second time we played with the Foo Fighters.

Steve, how do you decide what to release on the SYR label and on Universal? Each one of you in Sonic Youth has his or her side project, and some of you run your own record labels. Is there a judiciary or democratic process to this?

Smells Like Records is my label, so I decide what comes out on that. It’s mostly music that hits me hard, that I really, really enjoy, and mostly it’s music that doesn’t have another outlet to come out by. I started Smells Like as a hobby and it’s turned into a full-time job. I’m trying to keep it as something that I have a lot of love for, rather than let it become something that I have to labour at. A lot of this music has been quieter music, singer-songwriter stuff, stuff that isn’t the trend. For instance, in America right now, we’re told we’re going through a rock revival. Are we? I don’t know.

SYR is run through Smells Like Records, but all its artistic decisions are taken by the group. We all decide together if something sounds interesting to us. You’re right - we often start things and some of them don’t get finished, but whatever generates the greatest group momentum are the things that usually make it out.

For instance, we were real close to this collaboration with French singer Brigitte Fontaine. Right now I’m not so sure of the status of that project. We did some recording with her a couple of years ago in France, and two of those songs came out on a record called Kekeland. There’s actually more stuff and even a concert. Then Ecstatic Peace’s Thurston’s label. A lot of downtown NY type music and improvisation.

The SYR label has so far five releases and these were the more avant-garde Sonic Youth records…

Yes, it’s stuff that we wouldn’t dream of putting out on Universal, and Universal is pretty much fine with that. It’s fairly obvious to us what should go to SYR and what to Universal. The stuff on SYR always tends to be more immediate, whereas the music that comes out on Universal is more traditional, more considered.

SYR4 which is Goodbye 20th Century is an exception to this rule because it was a fully realised concept whereas the others were more like postcards from the studio of what’s going on with us that moment. For instance, SYR3 is very much a snapshot of one of our earlier meetings with Jim O’Rourke, the day Jim came to play. With SYR we try to get away with stuff that doesn’t have to jibe with everybody. It’s okay if only a few people are interested. It reveals a side of what we do.

Obviously, the reason you’re been able to do all of this - decide on what music to release and what label to release it on, initiate new projects that might ultimately have a very small audience - is because you’ve been successful, not only artistically but also financially. Do you think there are lessons for younger bands that are starting out?

Well, I can’t deny it’s such a different situation now than it was in the ’80s. You’ve asked a difficult question. Some of it must have had to do with our determination not to sign with a major label until we were very strong as an entity. We weren’t a new band at the time we signed with DGC in 1989, we were an established band and we were able to ask for the things we wanted.

We also knew we’d be able to continue doing what we were doing at the level we were doing it, with or without a major label behind us. Either way, we’d continue to grow a little bit. So we didn’t feel pressured. We felt it would be great to have a bigger budget to get the sounds we heard in our heads that we weren’t able to get on tape yet, and, well, we consider ourselves very lucky.

What changed when you signed to a major? Did anything change?

Even though we signed to a major label, we still acted like an independent band. And that’s true even today. It wasn’t like all of a sudden, the major label was booking our tours. We still made a lot, if not all, of the major decisions ourselves. And basically the label is just there to help us distribute our records. We appreciate all the help that they give us, but we know we’re the ones who are accountable. People can come and go from a record label but we’d still be there.

I love the band’s SST albums. Is there anything you miss from those days?

It’s fun to be on a label where you like the other bands. Now I’m not even sure what our label is called, and who else’s on it. Here in the US we’re on Geffen, in $ingapore, it’s Universal, elsewhere it’s Interscope. I miss the community spirit of SST, but, you know, the music community has changed, and you can’t make it change back. Time marches on.

Unlike so many of the SST bands that are now dead and gone, Sonic Youth have survived. You’ve been called the godparents of alt-rock, younger fans and critics have grown up with you and left you, it’s been all of 21 years…

Yes, 21 years. We were joking about that earlier last year - Sonic Youth will finally be illegal, Sonic Youth will be an adult band. I’ve been in the group for 16, maybe 17 years, and, in some ways, it feels like that can’t be possible. But in other ways, it feels like you’re just starting, you’re still learning. I know we’re still inspired by a lot of music both from the past and from the present. Music is something that we have a whole lot of emotion invested in.

For a band that’s been around so long, having a new member join now must feel like having a new baby some 20 years into an old marriage. But I guess you’d tell me if s what keeps the music interesting.

Well, obviously if you know anything about Jim O’Rourke, and I’m sure you do, you’d know what an easy collaborator he is. He has a deep understanding of what works with us and what doesn’t, and way before Murray Street, he’s gone through a period of figuring out how to play with Kim, how to play with Thurston and Lee, and how to play with me. He’s really a sensitive, listening musician, and that’s something really valuable in this group.

Playing music’s just so easy, and such a no-brainer that we really don’t have to discuss it in any way. You’d never hear us say: “What do we do now that Jim’s in the group?” It’s more like: “Pick up your guitar and start playing!” In a way, it’s like another kid has just moved into town. It’s like a garage band that just counts down to three and starts playing!

Let’s talk about All Tomorrow’s Parties, the music festival Sonic Youth curated in LA in March this year. You were also responsible for a fabulous record of music from it.

Yes, Shellac curated the other festival in the UK.

What was the guiding idea behind the selection of the bands that appears on your record?

We had a list of several hundred acts that we would like to see at All Tomorrow’s Parties, and, not surprisingly, this included people from another generation like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Roy Harper, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. We sat down and asked ourselves: “Who would we present now that we’re in charge of a festival?” Then as we went on and found out who was available and who wasn’t, the festival became defined.

We wound up having Television and Big Star play, then there was Cannibal Ox, Unwound, Cat Power, the Boredoms, some SST bands like Saccharine Trust, the Dead C from New Zealand, Wilco, Lydia Lunch and Califone. It was just all over the map. It was a three-day festival held in two different halls on the UCLA campus. We had a great time.

Bob Dylan didn’t make it.

No, he didn’t. He was getting his Grammy.

What albums did you like listening to lately?

My favorite album of last year was Lovers Rock by Sade. I think that was the finest record made in quite some time. As for new underground music, there’s so much going on, it’s so fragmented, it’s hard to say.

What’s dilruba and sarangi? What new instruments are these?

You know, I don’t know! Man, there are a lot of typos in that press bio! I’m just happy you didn’t ask me about this New York Trilogy thing! But truly, there was a lot of creative writing going on there. Who did it? It’s our friend Byron Coley who did all of it. You know how Byron is.

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