Sonic Youth have lived to see their kingdom come. And some people can't forgive them. Throughout the Eighties, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley were the avatars of a scene they called punk but which had little in common with the Sex Pistols' social baiting. The insurrections they launched from their New York lair seemed purely musical, splicing Free Jazz to Pop Art, restructuring guitar sound and rehabilitating icons from Manson to Madonna. Their anti-corporate ethics were noted, but these just added to their allure. They were playful, pop- friendly ambassadors of a scene which, in Britain, seemed alien, exotic and alive; prime underground icons of a decade in which the mainstream drowned the world.
Then Sonic Youth became the mainstream. They signed to Geffen in 1990, and influenced the signing of Nirvana. "If you like Nirvana, Sonic Youth are okay," was Thurston Moore's sarcastic suggestion for an ad. The door from the Sonics' secret world had opened up, but only for an instant. And when it closed with the collapse of grunge, they seemed stuck on the wrong side. They released one album, then another. People began to look at them, now in their forties, and spit "Sonic Old". In an NME interview last week, they were effectively asked to get lost. What was the point of them?
The point is out now. A Thousand Leaves is Sonic Youth's 14th album, and on this form, ten more would be a blessing. It builds on the unheralded achievements of their post-grunge break for freedom, 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and the flailing, pulsing, 19-minute freak- out which closed 1995's Washing Machine. It's a beautiful record, contemplative and strangely poetic, an Allen Ginsberg tribute as its centrepiece and the dead Beat's spirit inspiring it.
Sitting out a downpour in a Maida Vale hotel, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Kim Gordon sits in briefly; Steve Shelley is absent) seem unmoved by this brave new dawn. Ranaldo - greying, sharply handsome - is more interested in the experimental, independently-released EPs that have preceded A Thousand Leaves; a signal of continuity. Thurston - still an ageless, sardonic teen lookalike - is equally suspicious of intimations of startling change.
What's undeniable is that Sonic Youth have completed the shedding of the corporate skin which briefly seemed to stifle them. As Moore's ad joke intimated, there was a time when being "not as big as Nirvana" was, for many, the definition of the band. Unwilling, yet insistently-invited Godparents to a grunge scene of which they soon despaired, they at least tried to make the most of it, with 1992's hard-rock classic Dirty. Briefly, there were hopes of something more and they collaborated on the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Did it really seem so exciting ?
"Well, that phrase was duplicitous," says Moore. "At the time, we were seeing footage of festival masses jumping up and down to us and Nirvana. We titled it The Year Punk Broke because it was also when punk was commercialised. Motley Crue were covering "Anarchy in the UK". So what we meant by broke was, it's broken. Throw it away, we don't want anything to do with it. There was a moment after Nevermind when it seemed like music's boundaries were going to break. But I was right the first time."
Sonic Youth were distracted by Nirvana's noise despite themselves, wondering if the Nevermind shockwave would hit not only them, but underground music in general. Instead, it hit Alice in Chains. After Cobain's death, the only lasting result was a widespread distrust of the fame with whose icons Sonic Youth once innocently toyed.
"That's the problem with taking the media to be a thorough representation of what's going on," admonishes Gordon. "There's a big difference between a disgruntled, cranky pop star and a depressive drug addict of a self- destructive bent, and who would have been self-destructive no matter what."
"I don't think fame killed Kurt," comments Thurston. "He had a lot of other problems, stomach pains..."
"Courtney killed him, didn't she?" asks Lee.
"Someone should kill her," mutters Thurston.
"Don't print that," begs Lee.
"No, I'm kidding. But it's weird, because people think of fame as a saving grace. Sometimes it's more like purgatory."
Grunge was just an interlude for Sonic Youth, anyway. The new album's Ginsberg tribute more accurately indicates their influences. When they began in downtown New York in the Eighties, they were too busy scrabbling for gigs and food to pay attention to their neighbours. Moore passed jazz giants on the street every day. Avant-garde musicians mingled with prototype punks. As the band grew, the area's movements inevitably seeped into their music. The Beats were as important as any. Ginsberg, a neighbour and friend, affected Lee especially.
"He was a model for us," he says firmly. "He was so inspiring in the way his vitality never stopped. He was 70 years old, and yet his inspiration to create stuff, to network with others and make culture happen had not diminished at all. He'd come out and he'd read stuff he'd written during the last two years. After 30 years of writing, he'd just insist on that being heard. In the same way we're about to embark on a tour playing nothing but new stuff, after being a band for nearly 20 years. We want to be a band in the now. If you don't like us for that, then it's not worth it at all."
It's the importance of solidarity with such unbending figures that Sonic Youth's current critics miss, when they consider their punk credentials. They are not political in the way punk was in Britain. They're not interested in changing governments but in building communities under the shadow of a monolithic cultural mainstream, across every track of their nation's underground. If all they do is make sounds that challenge the ear, it's something.
"The lines between government and the people beneath have been cut for so long," considers Ranaldo, "it's the only way we can affect things. It goes back to Bhuddist principles. So many politicians are venal, disgusting and corrupt. That comes out in what they do. We're sending ripples from the most honest, truthful work we can manage. People say our early records changed their lives. That's gratifying. It's all we can do."
Sonic Youth have found their place now, and they won't be leaving. They'll be stalking Britain's stages again this year, playing music in the now.
"I think as you get older, you start discovering what's important to you," says Kim Gordon, "and art's important to us. We all want to see how far we can go with it. It's important we really do take risks because if we don't, it's a waste of time."
'A Thousand Leaves' (Geffen) is out this week. Sonic Youth play with Spiritualized at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the Meltdown Festival on 1 July, the Phoenix Festival on 19 June, and Glastonbury on 28 June.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies