Sonic Youth Time Takes Its Crazy Toll
Published Jul 01, 2002Since their inception in 1981, Sonic Youth's creativity has stemmed from their copious curiosity about all sorts of subjects: first wave punk rock, early '80s hardcore, Warholian pop celebrity, experimental noise movements, and the history of the avant-garde. "There's a fascination with those things, for sure," muses founding member Thurston Moore. "But hopefully none of those things are central to what we're doing. What we're doing is always inventing itself. I have no terminology for it." This is a band who has bridged art rock and punk since day one, who were heroes of the '80s underground and played midwife to the Nirvana revolution, and who continue to fascinate, confound, and alienate the complacent on their new album, Murray Street. And after 21 years, no one's bored yet. "None of us are," says Moore. "It's always surprising to us and we're always challenging each other. Luckily we've never had any sort of big success with any song or record or acquire any pressure on us to repeat such a measure."
Kim Gordon, 21, leaves her native L.A. to briefly attend York University in Toronto. She hates it. It's there she forms her first band, which plays a single gig at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. She moves back to L.A. to go to art college.
Connecticut punk Thurston Moore, 24, moves to NYC after visiting every weekend since high school. "I moved there to start a band with Sid Vicious," says Moore, of his naïve young self. "He started bombing around downtown and you'd see him around. I was playing in a band at that point called the Coachmen."
1979 to 1980
Former Deadhead and new wave aficionado Lee Ranaldo, 23, moves to NYC from Long Island and sees Glenn Branca play. He soon joins Branca's six-guitar ensemble and tours the U.S. and Europe when not playing with his own band, the Flucts. He meets Moore when the Flucts and the Coachmen share a seven-band bill at CBGB. Gordon moves to NYC and sees one of the Coachmen's last gigs. Moore is entranced with the no wave scene and auditions for Branca's ensemble, only to be initially rejected for being "too wild."
NYC's art scene and music scene are increasingly interconnected, spawning Sonic Youth. "A lot of [NYC musicians] were visual artists," Moore explains, "and a lot of visual artists were going to CBGB and Max's and wanting to devote their creativity into inter-disciplinary projects. It created its own genre." Ranaldo, Moore and Gordon play four gigs as a trio before adding drummer Richard Edson and debuting at the Moore-curated Noisefest. They record their debut EP at Radio City Music Hall for Branca's Neutral label. On the opening track, Ranaldo plays a power drill through a wah pedal and Moore spikes a drumstick between his guitar strings. Otherwise, the EP is fairly normal by later standards: the band uses conventional tunings and Edson occasionally lays down a disco beat. "We didn't know how to play," says Moore. "What set us apart was that we were so unorthodox in our approach. We always knew that what we were doing was our own."
1982 to 1983
Edson departs for an acting career and no wave aficionado Bob Bert joins. Sonic Youth embark on first tour through the South with the Swans. They all travel in one van, and get into frequent fights on what's dubbed the "Savage Blunder Tour." Bob Bert briefly leaves the band when Moore finds his drumming too conventional. Confusion is Sex, initially supposed to be a seven-inch, turns into SY's first full-length. It features temporary drummer Jim Sclavunos, with whom Moore had been playing and recording in a Lydia Lunch project. The band's use of alternate tunings influenced directly by Branca, but in Ranaldo's case dating back to his love of Joni Mitchell and '60s psychedelia is in full effect, requiring them to amass many cheap self-customised guitars. The difference in the band's sound is striking. "Confusion is Sex was certainly referencing the burgeoning hardcore scene, especially the energy of it," says Moore. "I liked the sound and delivery of what was going on with those bands. A lot of the first generation of punk bands were people in their 20s, and suddenly you had teenagers who discovered this world and started creating their own bands and really stripping it down and playing the only four chords they knew." Moore and Ranaldo tour Europe with Branca in '83, setting up gigs for Sonic Youth a month later at the same artist-run venues to take advantage of their free plane ticket. Branca's tolerance for their opportunism breaks when they write Sonic Youth on their jackets, their guitars, and finally spray paint it on the stage. Sonic Youth's first European tour is a smash hit, except in London, where hardly anyone is there, equipment falls apart and Moore ends up trashing the entire stage yelling "Bomb London!" The British press love it.
Moore starts publishing his Killer zine, partly as a way to introduce himself to his favourite bands. Miffed at a bad review in the Village Voice and the editorial policy of its music editor Robert Christgau, Moore starts introducing his new song "Kill Yr. Idols" as "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick." The Kill Yr Idols EP is released on German label Zensor. The band transports the tapes over to Europe in the back of their guitar amps, demagnetising the tape and removing all the high and low frequencies. It's the summer of love: Ranaldo and Bert both get married, and Moore and Gordon are hitched (to each other) in a traditional Catholic Connecticut wedding. Bert jokes that the wedding money kept the band on the road. The moody, nightmarish Manson-inspired Bad Moon Rising is the impetus for a British fan to found Blast First Records; in America, it's released on Gerard Cosloy's Homestead.
Cosloy books their first American tour. Their first L.A. show is the acid-drenched "Gila Monster Jamboree," alongside the Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Perry Farrell's Psi-Com. Minutemen bassist Mike Watt accosts them and insists that they sign his copies of the first two Sonic Youth records. The Crucifucks' drummer Steve Shelley, 26, sublets Moore and Gordon's apartment while they're touring in Europe. While there, Bert announces he's quitting, and when they return Shelley joins the band.
Sonic Youth sign to seminal label SST to release Evol, insulting Cosloy by also pulling Homestead act Dinosaur Jr. with them. Mike Watt, still grieving the death of Minutemen band-mate D. Boon in a car crash, plays bass for the first time since the accident on "In the Kingdom #19," a Ranaldo poem about a car crash. Evol features the band's best pop songs to date, "Starpower" and "Expressway To Yr Skull." Neil Young calls the latter the best guitar song every written. In their spare time, they record four-track versions of Madonna's "Into the Groove" and "Burnin' Up" with Watt, which they release as a single under the name Ciccone Youth.
The sci-fi influenced Sister leads off with "Schizophrenia," which could almost be considered a dance song. With increased popularity and an artier bent to Sister, Sonic Youth attract sniping for being too much of an art band. "When we first started, we were so attached to the experimental underground in downtown New York. When we signed with SST and the whole hardcore culture became the high profile underground culture of the '80s, you had bands like us and the Butthole Surfers making unorthodox weirdo adjuncts of it. We were denounced as an arty band; it was a denigration, like if you were arty you weren't a real band. You were just fucking around. I remember being in conflict with that so much because we were coming out of a visual artist background." Although their aggressive live shows and unconventional approach intimidated many, Moore insists that Sonic Youth were always normal folk. "We were always pretty straight and conservative people. A lot of the bands who had reputations for being so crazy and fucked up, their music was straight-ahead rock. We had a reputation as nice guys but our music was off the deep end."
Ranaldo writes in his journal that with their new double album Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth have finally "accomplished all that we set out to do." Recorded over six weeks for $30,000 with a hip-hop engineer, it sells 100,000 copies and ends up #2 behind Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop critics poll; both were recorded in the same studio. After encountering financial trouble with SST, Sonic Youth license the album to Enigma/Capitol, the American distributor for Blast First. Gordon forms side project Harry Crews with Lydia Lunch and tours Europe. Ciccone Youth record a full-length, The Whitey Album, featuring several piss-takes on goth dance music, and Gordon singing over a karaoke version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" recorded in a department store; the accompanying video shows a deadpan Gordon dancing in front of army training footage.
Sonic Youth make their first national television appearance on Night Music, where they perform a spastic version of "Silver Rocket." Over the show's closing credits, they do "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with David Sanborn on saxophone, Daniel Lanois on guitar, and the Indigo Girls on backing vocals. Frustrated with distribution of Daydream Nation and seeking a new audience, Sonic Youth entertain major label offers. Lanois offers to produce; the band declines. "When I listen to old tapes of live stuff now which I've been doing because we're reissuing these old records with live material it's remarkable how we've developed," Moore says. "I can't believe how sloppy a player I was. And I wasn't focusing on how to sing with this material. It's extremely hard to sing with this material, because there isn't always an obvious or central key to this music sometimes. And it can really wreak havoc with a non-trained singer, so listening to old live vocals just sounds like a braying donkey."
The band signs to Geffen and spends $150,000 recording Goo (originally titled Blowjob). Despite having complete artistic control in their contract, the band agrees to let Ron Saint Germain (Bad Brains, Whitney Houston) mix the album; he's a compromise between artist and label. Chuck D makes a cameo as a slurred political fetish object on "Kool Thing."
Sonic Youth are picked as opening act for Neil Young's Ragged Glory tour, over other contenders Public Enemy and Einsturzende Neubauten. Audiences are indifferent and Gordon clashes with Young's sexist road crew, but Young is truly inspired. The following year, he releases a double live album with one disc comprised entirely of SY-inspired feedback. While in Vancouver, they flee an interview with Nardwuar the Human Serviette after beating him up and breaking a vinyl record he brought as a gift. Sonic Youth take Nirvana on tour with them in Europe just before Nevermind's release. The tour is captured in Dave Markey's goofy documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Moore forms the Dim Stars with Richard Hell, Don Fleming and Shelley. Gordon forms Free Kitten with Pavement's Mark Ibold, the Boredoms' Yoshimi, and Julie Cafritz (ex-Pussy Galore).
Sonic Youth hires Nirvana's producer Butch Vig for Dirty, which becomes the biggest selling Sonic Youth album at 300,000 copies. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye plays guitar on "Youth Against Fascism" "Dirty was such a chug-a-lug rock-out record. But when it came out, it was obvious to me that it was still too weird. Nobody could get a handle on that record." Gordon produces Hole's debut Pretty on the Inside; Ranaldo produces albums for Babes in Toyland and You Am I. Shelley starts Smells Like Records, which will release albums by Sentridoh, Blonde Redhead, the Raincoats, Dump, Catpower, and Lee Hazlewood.
Gordon directs several videos for the Breeders' Last Splash album. Sonic Youth record "I Love You Mary Jane" with Cypress Hill for the Judgement Night soundtrack. Moore begins an extra-curricular career playing experimental music with many collaborators. "Sonic Youth was a real forum what I was developing personally as a style, a language, a vocabulary. It wasn't until I felt I could use all the elements that I'd used in terms of pure sound and electricity and the relationship between the guitar and the amplifier, as something I could bring into a collaborative work with musicians from different disciplines. I was discovering the whole active world of improvisational music, which I always knew had existed, but I never felt like it was something I'd wanted to get involved with."
The quickly-recorded Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star moves away from the hard rock of Goo and Dirty. Gordon's "Bull in the Heather" is one of their best singles. "After Dirty, people thought we should keep playing heavy rock records, and we didn't," says Moore. "We were inspired by bands like Royal Trux and Pavement and Sebadoh, these kind of weird, grey-area sounds, and less to do with populist rock sounds of post-Nirvana music making."
Geffen re-issues all pre-Goo material on CD and the compilation Screaming Fields of Sonic Love, with accompanying video. Sonic Youth headline Lollapalooza while promoting Washing Machine, and also open for R.E.M.'s Monster tour. Moore plays guitar on R.E.M.'s "Crush With Eyeliner," and releases solo album Psychic Hearts on Geffen, which sounds like Sonic Youth leftovers. Moore is named "Bustiest Boy in America" by Bust magazine.
Live shows eschew old favourites in favour of new material, confounding Dirty fans. "In the mid- to late '90s, we would play only the new record. People want to hear something they can reference readily. We realised that, but we were into not complying with that. In the last couple of years we've been doing a melange of old and new, which seems to get a much happier response."
The band builds their own studio, and release three EPs of improvisational material, SYR 1-3. "Those came from having the ability to record ourselves in a proper way and listening back and hearing things. We also felt that having played together for so long as a unit, this kind of material had a certain kind of value that could be released as a record." The releases mark a renaissance for the band, and sound more inspired than their Geffen releases. "A lot of the material we felt as strong about as working on classically-structured songs." The band release the EPs on their own imprint, Sonic Youth Records. "Releasing anything with a major label such as Geffen, it still requires a major campaign, and they don't want to throw things out that don't require promotion. It's not worth their while."
While on tour for A Thousand Leaves, perhaps their least inspired '90s album, a van full of their equipment is stolen in Orange County. Because so much of their gear was customised and unique, the theft forces the band to rethink their entire repertoire and start again. Ranaldo publishes his '80s tour diaries as JRNLS80s (Soft Skull Press).
NYC Ghosts and Flowers is co-produced by Jim O'Rourke, who collaborated with Sonic Youth on SYR 3 and 4 and tours with the band. It's by far the most experimental SY album on Geffen. "The reason we weren't dropped [from the label] is that no one wanted to be the person to ixnay Sonic Youth. We have this sort of prestige there, and we've never cost them a cent. We're very self-sufficient and autonomous. We've never really made them any money, even though we've been a successful act. But I think they see some kind of potential." SYR 4 is not an EP, but a double album, subtitled Goodbye Twentieth Century, paying tribute to avant-garde composers: John Cage, Steve Reich, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and a commissioned piece by Pauline Oliveros.
The band does a small European tour for Goodbye Twentieth Century with an expanded line-up including Jim O'Rourke and percussionist William Winant. "It was us sitting down on stage with music stands and people handing out programs. The most interesting one was at the Sonar festival in Barcelona, which is an experimental electronic music festival. These kids were there and they didn't like it; I could really feel it. I realised afterward that what they were hearing would be like if we played some avant- jazz festival and came out playing King Oliver. We were playing these early pioneers of electronic music pieces, some Fluxus music, all this fuddy-duddy academic music at a cutting-edge electronic festival. In a way we were really squaresville." Jim O'Rourke, now a full-time member of the band, is sleeping in the band's Murray Street studio, three blocks from the World Trade Centre, when the planes hit. Ranaldo and his family, who live another three blocks away, are evacuated from their building. One of the engines from a plane lands outside the studio.
Geffen packages DVDs of their video releases as well as a two-CD remastered version of Dirty including live tracks, demos, B-sides, and additional artwork, all due in the fall. Expanded editions of Daydream Nation and Goo are scheduled for 2003. Sonic Youth is somewhat shocked to discover that Geffen actually likes their new album, Murray Street. "It was more of an inward record for us, but we also wanted it to be a rock'n'roll record. The time we were making the record was a very weird scene for us as a band, internally. We had to work in this weird environment downtown New York was complete and utter destruction, and that's where we live and work. It put us into a deeper mode. I feel like we've finally hit a balanced hybrid of dealing with extrapolated noise ideas and classic pop/rock song structures. This record fell into place more than it ever has; it felt like a real grown-up measure. I felt like it was a real first step."