Published Jul 26, 2009Ten years into a new century and Sonic Youth remain one of the most significant and influential rock and roll bands of the past 30 years. Formed in New York City in 1981, Sonic Youth have altered cultural landscapes in North America and beyond, bridging the gap between underground music and mainstream expectations by honing an uncompromising and distinctive sound. After a mutually beneficial, near-20 year working relationship with Geffen Records, Sonic Youth have just released a stunning new album on Matador Records. It's called The Eternal and we recently caught up with guitarists/vocalists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo to chat all about it.
It seems to me that, over the past decade, there's been a particular gravity to Sonic Youth's more pop-oriented records, which seems appropriate given the trajectory and state of the world these days. The Eternal is certainly heavy but it also seems to have a bit more levity, both lyrically and within the arrangements, some of which recall Sonic Youth's work in the early '90s. Do you suppose The Eternal is a particularly fun record for the band?
Thurston Moore: I think everyone's having more fun now and is more happy. I think a lot of it has to do with the psychology of the planet. The United States has a more forward-looking, positive vibration going on in the administration. So yeah, we were kinda happy with that; it was like a dark cloud had been removed. We felt good moving to a new record label; that was kinda hip for us. We'd been on Geffen Records all through the '90s and into the 2000s and that was getting kinda boring (laughs). So, it was nice to go to a label like Matador who were old friends of ours and had kinda grown up with us in their own way and became such an established, genius label that it was really cool to do a record with them.
Lee Ranaldo: We always have fun making our records but I would agree that this one has a certain lightness to it that is pretty special in a lot of ways. It's hard for me to attribute it to anything in particular. I think we're just at a really good place at what we're doing these days and we've come off of a good run of various things. We made Rather Ripped in 2005, which was the first record we'd made in a quartet format in eight or 10 years because we'd been working with Jim O'Rourke for a while. Jim left and went to Japan and so we made that record as a quartet. It was interesting to feel our way into what the Sonic Youth quartet was in 2005. And then the very next thing we did was we revisited our Daydream Nation record from 1988/1989 and got a really good blast of what the quartet was like at the height of our first, sort of "classic period," if you will. There are all these bands going around doing this "play your favourite record" thing. We're really good friends with Barry Hogan in England who does the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival and he was asking us to do Daydream and we kept saying "No, we don't wanna do it; we're not nostalgic enough to wanna do that kind of thing." Finally our arm was twisted into doing it and we spent time re-learning that material and I think we were all really surprised by the intensity of the music we were making back then. If anything, I think going out for a year and playing sets of Daydream Nation-dominated material really, in some ways, influenced what we came up with on The Eternal.
So it sounds like external forces have affected the band generally. Beyond this Daydream Nation experiment, what about the aesthetic of the band; has that been impacted at all?
TM: Well, I dunno. We don't do too much self-analysis. We never try to spin wheels or anything but I know that, the way we write music aesthetically, it's pretty much always the same because we're the same people. We never try to fool ourselves into doing something that's not us. I like bands where, when you hear them, you know it's that band and they have a certain identity. I think we have established a certain Sonic Youth identity, as far as what our songs sound like. As far as being focused on pop music, I think right out of the gate, that was always something we were interested in. I just don't know if we were able to play it with any kinda real expertise (chuckles). We became more sophisticated players through the years but when we first started, I didn't know how to play the guitar. I just sorta taught myself, my own way, and I still play that way; I really don't know how to play "real" guitar (laughs) or write real pop songs. But I love pop music the way like, Paul McCartney writes pop music, but I don't ever fool myself into thinking I'll ever have those chops or voice. So, I work with what I got.
You're fooling everyone else my friend, if I might say; I think everyone agrees that you're a great guitar player and a great pop songwriter.
TM: That's great to hear. My favourite guitar players and songwriters were the people working outside of the margins any ways, when I was growing up. So that's what informs me more than anything.
In terms of the band's dynamic, you went from a four-piece for the longest time to having accomplished musician Jim O'Rourke join the band on bass for a spell, then back to a four-piece again. Now you've got Pavement's Mark Ibold on bass; how has Mark affected the live sound of the band?
TM: Mark's quite a different player than Jim is. Jim is such an academic musician, y'know; he went to music school (chuckles). Mark is more primal and they both added something unique and personal to the band. In a way Mark is not, in any respect, a replacement for Jim. We basically wanted somebody who could play the bass, whereas Jim was much more multi-faceted. He worked at recording and mixing us because he was such a great audio engineer. That's how he first came into the band, working in that capacity. Then we had him play bass because he loved playing bass and he could hear how it would work in the songs we were writing when we were a three guitars and drums band for a period in the '90s. So, they just came in with different ways. Their personalities are quite different but both really good people and Mark has this really good vibe.
LR: Mark's someone we've all known since the early days of our coming to New York; we all met Mark in the early '80s, long before he was even in Pavement.
Oh, I didn't realize that.
LR: Yeah, yeah, he was in this other band called the Dust Devils for a while and we met up with him then. It's been great working with him because he's a super cool guy to have around. After we recorded Rather Ripped, we asked him to come on tour and play bass for that record because we'd gotten really used to this situation where Kim was free of bass duties on some songs and could dance around and other stuff. So, we asked him to come in and then we weren't sure if we'd incorporate him into the writing of the new record but we did and we were real happy that we did because he brought a lot of lively and interesting bass guitar parts to the process. It's just slipped together really smoothly; it's been really great to have him along.
There's been a fair amount made about Sonic Youth's decision to work with Matador Records but can you please talk about what precipitated this move from Geffen to Matador?
TM: Well y'know our contract ran out with Geffen and we had the option of re-upping it but we didn't want to. The record industry has changed dramatically since we signed to Geffen in '89 or whenever it was. It didn't really facilitate anything necessary for a band like us. We never sold millions of records where we could utilize such a corporate label. When we signed with them, labels were still of the mind to develop acts and that sort of vanished mid-way through the '90s, especially after the deflation of the alternative-rock explosion or whatever. So it just became a place that we could bank on: they would invest in us; we'd make a record, and they'd put it out. The relationship was always a little cold; it got that way. Everybody we knew there that appealed to us was gone. So we kinda entertained the notion of doing it ourselves or looking at established independent labels that had a good track record and certainly Matador did. They reached out to us. They immediately contacted us and said, "If you're interested in doing a record, we're here for you." I thought, right away, it was a no-brainer, y'know?
LR: Right now, the big corporate labels are kinda floundering if you ask me. They don't really know what's coming or going and the internet came around and just kicked them in the head. The difference between working with a corporate label and a smaller, indie label has been so profound for us, just in terms of how we feel about it. Y'know, we were certainly appreciated and our time at Geffen was very positive all the way around I think but, towards the end, everyone we knew at Geffen had gone on to other things and we felt pretty divorced from the people there. The majors have such a wide range of music that they work with, it felt very amorphous in a certain way. It didn't really seem like too many people there really got what we were doing or understood what we were all about. Then to move to Matador where it's a label full of music lovers, rather than people just watching the bottom line, and someone like Gerard Cosloy, the president, is somebody who put out some of our earliest records when he was at Homestead in the '80s, and booked us one of our first outta town shows in Boston when he was living up there - it's a big familial homecoming in a certain way. At Matador, they're super-psyched to be working with us so it's a pretty mutual feeling and right now, it feels really good to us.
It's interesting to me that, in this age of majors cleaning house of moderate selling artists, Geffen wanted to keep the band on. The perception might be that even Sonic Youth were likely dropped.
LR: No, no, not at all; they offered us another two records and were very sad that we didn't take them up on that. So, it wasn't a negative parting at all in that regard. It was just us feeling like, in the current climate, there was maybe a different place for us to go that might be a stronger situation or environment for us to be in.
Listening to The Eternal, it's interesting to note how the label transition seems to have had no impact on the band's aesthetic. Do you feel like the move to Matador will impact the way the band operates in any way?
TM: Well, I dunno if it does or not; that remains to be seen. So far, the work we've done with them in terms of campaigning this record has been really great. It's much more person-to-person and sociable and that's really good. As far as they way we work in terms of making records and going out on the road, that hasn't really changed. We always called our own shots on that sort of thing any way. Even on Geffen, it wasn't like we were entrusting Geffen to finance us all the way through. We always took care of our own needs and were very economically-minded; we never spent the label's money and we don't owe anybody anything. We never got into that trap that's so easy to get into when you're working with labels like that.
You do what you want but you do it sensibly.
TM: Yeah, we took responsibility for what was going on with us in that respect. All the nightmare stories people tell you about signing with a major label and losing your shirt. It's like, "Yeah, that can happen if you don't take care of your own business." You can't expect to be babysat.
LR: We've been doing this long enough that our process is really ingrained in the four of us. We've been independently working for so long. We're pretty self-motivated and we know what we've gotta do and when we've gotta do it. So, moving to Matador did not change a lot about that in terms of how the record sounds. The funny thing is, when we first signed to Geffen, the reason we did was, not so much for economic well-being, as much as really wanting to have our records distributed better. We'd go to towns and people would say, 'Oh, we can't get your records; where can we find your records?' which is the last thing you wanna hear after slaving over making a new record. That situation has changed so much at this point that a small, home-grown label like Matador can easily compete in distributing hard copies on vinyl or CD and internet downloading, which, I mean anyone can sell record from their bedroom now. So, the whole reason to have gone with a major has changed and made it easy for us to make the decision to go to a home where we felt more connected to the other things they were doing.
I know you're already touring and playing songs from The Eternal; can you tell me what the shows have been like?
TM: Basically the bulk of the set is songs from The Eternal, for better or worse, as far as audience expectation. I mean everybody wants to hear things that they know well by us; everybody wants to hear 'Teenage Riot' and 'Kool Thing.' Y'know, we've been playing those songs quite a bit for the last few years, so we're trying to dig out older songs that we haven't played that much or at all in the last few years and peppering the set with that. But basically, the set is new stuff. They're gonna hear a lot of the album and some nuggets.
What kinda nuggets can people expect? What era?
TM: Oh, all eras. Last night we did "She is Not Alone," which is on what, our first record? "P.C.H." which is on Bad Moon Rising I think. So yeah, we reach back. There's stuff from the Jim O'Rourke years - stuff from Sonic Nurse - that, it's a little harder to get into in a way, just because that five-piece isn't there anymore. So we kinda shy away from delving into there. But y'know, we have a short list of songs that we wanna re-learn.
Any Sonic Youth plans beyond this tour?
LR: We're hitting Japan and then Europe in the fall. We've got a lot of other projects going on, as we always do. There's talk of more re-issues of older albums and some more releases on our SYR label; a couple volumes of film soundtrack work we've done over the years. We've got this big, travelling museum art-show that's been in Europe for the last year and a half. It's called Sensational Fix and it's a show that stems from artwork we've all done individually. Especially over the past decade, Kim and I in particular have been getting back into art and Thurston's been exhibiting some stuff as well. It starts with things we've made and then moves on to works by people we've collaborated with on album covers or videos. Beyond that, it's just like 100 artists in the show - unknown, young noise artists who make visual work and established, super famous artists and everyone in between. It's the visual equivalent of the community we've moved in over the past 30 years to augment the musical community that people more know about. It was organized by a European collector and we're still hoping it'll come to the U.K. and North America before it finishes its run.
It sounds amazing!
LR: Yeah, it's been an amazing show. It's got a mammoth and very cool catalogue that goes along with it and is part history of the band and part catalogue of the show. It's got seven-inch singles in the front and back covers where we each took a side and did solo things. It's something we've really worked hard at the past few years and it's a pretty fun, ongoing development. It's in Sweden now and every time it opens, we go and play a concert and hang out and it's great. Thurston and I also have signature model Jazzmasters issued by Fender, which is pretty exciting after all the years that we've been Fender guitar players, to have models pretty much designed exactly to each of our specs. That's something we're pretty psyched about and we've designed some special artist sticker sheets to go along with them and a fanzine where we interviewed members of our crew about the development of our guitar technology. So, it's a pretty big deal and Fender's been super cool about working with us on that.
Wow, that's great. Well, finally, what do you make of my country, Canada?
TM: I always love going to Canada. It's one of the most beautiful areas on the globe. We never get to cruise through the wilds of Canada because we always hit the main cities. But yeah, beautiful women, girls, beautiful boys and men, really beautiful doughnuts...
Yeah, we do have some lovely doughnuts; it's true. In terms of Canadian music, are there any artists, current or otherwise, that you're particularly fond of?
TM: Oh my God, well of course everybody loves Neil Young and I've always been a huge fan of Randy Bachman.
Is that right? Really, Randy Bachman?
TM: Yeah, huge hero of mine. And I know that Randy Bachman is one of the guitar heroes for Neil Young, which was always interesting to me. I never would've realized that but reading his biography I found that out. But yeah, I grew up really digging the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive when I was a 16-year-old in the '70s. Yeah, totally.
Anyone more contemporary?
TM: Well, I'm a huge enthusiast of the Nihilist Spasm Band who I've actually come up to play at one of their festivals.
Right, the NO Festiva in London; I was at that.
TM: Yeah, the NO Festival. That was an incredible experience to play with those guys and stay at their houses.
And you had them open up for Sonic Youth in Toronto as well.
TM: We have, yeah. And of course Michael Snow, who we've also done things with. A great filmmaker and artist and jazz piano player.
So, you've cited Randy Bachman, who's about the most mainstream you can get in this country and then more avant-garde stuff too.
TM: Yeah man, it's a party! (laughs)
Anything more pop-oriented?
TM: More pop-oriented? Well, I love the Poppy Family. They were great man. I actually had someone make me a t-shirt of a Poppy Family album, which I used to wear around. And one of my favourite Canadian bands is called Fossils; check them out.