Sonic Youth: Join the club

Despite their huge influence on rock, Sonic Youth are famed for their difficult records. Fiona Sturges visits them in New York for the low-down on a 'classic rock album'

Friday 07 June 2002 00:00
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Upstairs from Sonic Youth's lower-Manhattan studio is an office called Off-Wall Street Jams. Essentially a dating-agency for would-be musicians in New York, it brings together Wall Street workers with a desire to play in bands, providing them with instruments and a studio and, after extensive tuition, a chance to display their talents at a monthly showcase. When Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley and, the latest addition to the band, Jim O'Rourke got together in their studio last summer and began writing songs for their 16th album, all they could hear through the ceiling was men in suits belting out rock covers.

"I'm sure that's why our album turned out the way it did," chuckles Lee Ranaldo, a rugged-looking individual who might just have stepped out of a spaghetti Western. "Sometimes you don't know where your inspiration's going to come from. We've finally made a classic rock album."

I'm not sure Bruce Springsteen would quite agree, but by Sonic Youth standards, Murray Street (the album is named after the street where the studio is located) bears at least some of the hallmarks of a mainstream rock LP. Despite the odd detour into buzzing, atonal guitar noise, it remains an unusually coherent album replete with melodies, hooks and ploughing rock riffs.

"There's certainly some straight-ahead riffage going on," agrees Thurston Moore, the 43-year-old singer and guitarist, who doesn't look a day over 25. "As we were making it and listening to all the noises coming from upstairs, we started joking that we were making a real rock'n'roll record, one that might sound like all those great songs that you loved from way back when."

Is this their idea of a mainstream album?

"It depends what your idea of mainstream is," replies Ranaldo. "If it's Britney Spears, then the answer is no."

Murray Street is the first Sonic Youth record to include the Chicago post-rocker Jim O'Rourke in the line-up. O'Rourke had been playing bass with the band on tour and co-produced their album NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Now he's a fully paid-up member.

"He is the first person we have worked with who really gets what we're doing," says Moore. "Our references are pretty confounding to a lot of people – some of the rhythms are pretty bizarre. But he really got it, and got us, from the start."

Getting the members of Sonic Youth in a room together is a mammoth operation, involving weeks of intense negotiation. In the end, I score four out of five (Kim Gordon is absent on promotional duties in Europe) at their studio in New York.

The building is just two blocks away from where the World Trade Centre stood before last September's terrorist attacks. Murray Street was cordoned off, and the band, who had just started the studio sessions, were forced to take some time off. Eventually they were allowed back into the building, although vehicles were still prohibited. For several weeks the band carried their equipment in and out through the barricades daily, to the bewilderment of onlookers.

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"It was certainly a strange time, but we prefer not to dwell on it," Ranaldo reflects. "People assumed we called the record Murray Street because of its proximity to the World Trade Centre, but that wasn't it at all. Before the attacks I had simply been walking around taking pictures of things, and I had this photograph of the street sign. We felt it was somewhat evocative and decided to use it on the back cover of the album. The name came later. I think the terrorist attacks changed all of us in some way, but it didn't change the music."

"We usually name records after far-out literary ideas," says Moore. "To call it after a street sign, something so reality-based, seemed unorthodox. In a way it also fitted in with the whole classic rock thing – like Abbey Road, 461 Ocean Boulevard, Morrison Hotel."

Sonic Youth are the kind of band who don't have fans as much as admirers. In their 21 years together, their albums have ranged from the sublime (Daydream Nation, Goo) to the unlistenable (A Thousand Leaves). Where other long-standing guitar bands have adjusted their sound in accordance with passing fashions, Sonic Youth have plotted a resolutely experimental musical path. These days, music students are assigned essays on Sonic Youth records.

The band's influence is everywhere, too. Nirvana, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo and P J Harvey all owe a sizeable debt to the Youth. Yet they have fierce detractors. One magazine recently wrote off their lyrics as "staggeringly pretentious and meaningless psycho-babble".

"A lot of the ideas in our lyrics get pretty abstracted, so it's not immediately clear what it's all about," says Moore. "We've never made the meaning of our songs explicit. That's just not what we do."

Shelley adds: "We're not these avant-garde élitists that hate rock'n'roll and pop music. We're just interested in doing things in a more radical way."

The band emerged from the "no-wave" scene in post-punk New York. Moore had been playing in a Talking Heads-influenced band called the Coachmen when he met Gordon, an art student. They formed Sonic Youth early in 1981 and were later joined by Ranaldo and Richard Edson (Moore and Gordon were married in 1984). The word soon got around about the band's explosive live performances. Just as critics were proclaiming the beginning of the end of guitar rock, here were a band with energy, enthusiasm and a truckload of ideas.

1990's Goo is their most accessible album. But, in Sonic Youth style, it was followed by some of the most wilfully avant-garde and out-and-out weird albums of their career – Washing Machine, Experimental Jet Set and NYC Ghosts and Flowers.

"We'll go in one direction with one album and then we like to do the opposite right away," says Ranaldo. "But it's not like we ever have an idea before we start – that would be too artificial. It all starts from just sitting in a room and playing."

Alongside their work with Sonic Youth, there are endless one-off projects and collaborations. One of their best-known offshoots was Ciccone Youth, which took off Madonna in "Into the Groovey". You may also remember Gordon's punk-grunge outfit Free Kitten or Moore's last solo album, Psychic Hearts. Then there are the art shows, the books of poetry, the record label and all those tribute albums. It's a wonder Sonic Youth ever get any albums out at all.

I catch up with Kim Gordon in London at the Royal Festival Hall in between sound-checks for a performance at the Ether festival. Juggling projects, she says, is something on which she and the rest of the band thrive. "We wouldn't want it any other way. Having other projects helps keep it going. You don't expect one band to provide everything. Logistically, it can be a problem when people start saying yes to one-off projects. But Sonic Youth is always going to be bigger than anything any of us do individually."

Did she imagine that, after 21 years, she would still be playing in the same band?

"Yes and no," she says. "If I weren't in Sonic Youth, I'm sure I would be doing something similar. I think that we were all committed to having a creative lifestyle one way or another when we started. We were all in it for the music rather than instant popularity. In all the years we've been together, that attitude hasn't ever changed."

'Murray Street' is out on Geffen on Monday. Sonic Youth play Manchester Academy on 22 June, Bristol Academy on 23 and London's Shepherds Bush Empire on 24 and 25

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