In the early '80s, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo came together to form an experimental no-fi (or No Wave) band called Sonic Youth that played dissonant, noisy rock 'n' roll directly influenced by the punk and hardcore movements of the time. The band evolved into something that was entirely unique and self-contained--nobody was playing music like Sonic Youth. After several albums with various drummers, the band found its fourth permanent member in percussionist Steve Shelley. They recorded two indisputable classics--Sister and Daydream Nation--and became media darlings credited with more or less inventing what would become known as "alternative" music. Their influence spans the rock 'n' roll spectrum--from the grunge movement in the early '90s to the current resurgence of noise rock, it sometimes seems as if Sonic Youth's fingerprints are everywhere.
And amazingly, they've never stopped. Since 1983, when they released the seminal no-fi classic Confusion is Sex, a new Sonic Youth album has hit stores every few years. (This is in addition to a plethora of side projects and interests; the band has scored movie soundtracks, and gone on experimental tangents with a series of self-released albums dubbed SYR, among other things.)
They signed to Geffen records in 1990 and released their most popular album, Goo, which was followed by a slew of poorly received (though not easily dismissed) albums like Dirty, Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves. They continued to make music on their own terms, though fans and critics weren't always happy. They re-emerged in 2002 with Murray Street, a dark, brutal return to form that thrust them back into the spotlight. They released two more albums and then said goodbye to Geffen.
Sonic Youth's newest album, The Eternal (released through indie label Matador last month), is the band's most aggressive, tightly wound album since Sister. It's uncommon that a band of musicians in their 50s would still have this much aggression and edge, but they've proven themselves the exception by releasing a searing rock 'n' roll record that sounds as relevant and, ahem, youthful as ever, and puts their young contemporaries to shame.
They're currently on tour in support of the album and make a stop at Cain's on Thursday, the 16th. I spoke to guitarist Lee Ranaldo on the phone about the current state of the band.
You guys have been on Geffen records for nearly two decades. What prompted the switch to Matador?
I think it was probably just the general changes in the music business climate over the last six or eight years, mostly down to the internet and what not. Ya know, we'd been on Geffen a long time and, I don't know, I think the majors are just in a strange position at this point. Their main focus is acts that sell tons and tons of records in order to generate tons and tons of revenue, and there was just not anybody left at Geffen that we felt very related to anymore. We didn't really feel that engaged or tied to anyone at the label and we just felt like it was time to switch and try something new, especially in light of the climate in the industry--we just felt like a smaller label where we were more of a featured artist would be a better place for us.
Did you ever have second thoughts or regrets about signing to a major label in the first place?
We never had any thoughts like that, we were super happy with it for the most part. It was a really good relationship for us, exemplified by the fact that when our contract was done recently, Geffen offered us a new one; and we just decided to go elsewhere and do other stuff.
But it was good, I don't think we ever regretted it for a minute.
You guys have refined your sound into something that on this record feels really lean and concise. The experimentation and the Sonic Youth signatures are still there, but it feels like you guys have almost refined it to a science. Do you go into the studio with a conscious plan for what this record's going to be or do you just feel your way through it as you're recording?
We definitely do the latter. We don't ever go into a record with a conscious plan. We just start generating music and let it just kind of lead into whatever it's going to be. I guess there are certain aspects of refining the sound that's sort of inevitable if you've been playing together as long as we have. We never have a game plan going into a record, we're just always writing new material and working off whatever's been influencing us recently--things just floating around in the air, or in the case of this record I think the back to back situations of recording Rather Ripped as a four-peice for the first time in many years after Jim O'Rourke's departure, and then following that up with a revisit to the Daydream Nation record. I think those two things back to back had a significant impact on how this record sounds. In particular probably just revisiting Daydream Nation because we haven't played a lot of that material for a long time, and i think we were surprised at how ferocious and exciting some of that material was, and I think it sort of prompted us to move some of the new material in a similar direction.
You and Thurston both have signature Jazzmasters out now--
Yeah! They just came out a week ago.
You guys are both famous for thorough customization and tweaking in kind of an unconventional way. I was curious how a signature guitar would translate for you guys--are you happy with the final product and do you think it represents you as a guitarist fairly well?
Yeah we're really happy with them. We worked quite hard and over a long period of time developing them. They pretty much represent the technical state of the guitars that we play currently, the ones we get modified by our crew, so they're pretty much each set-up--Thurston's is the way he's playing guitar these days and mine the way I am. We're playing those Jazzmasters live every night these days and they're just another guitar in our arsenal now, but they're definitely representative of the evolution of our guitar. We're definitely psyched about it.
After being around for so long and having such an influence on the rock 'n roll landscape, how important is critic's approval to you?
We read our reviews. We're always interested in what people have to say whether it's positive or negative, it's always an interesting read. The best reviews are going to tell you things about your music that you don't even know yourself, just because it's an outsider's opinion, and sometimes that can be thoroughly instructive. But ya know, audience and critic's opinion is obviously important on the level of just, you need it to survive to some degree ya know. You can't continue to exist as a group without some sort of positive opinions from both audiences and reviewers. So it's important on that level, but it's never been in any way a guiding force. We just kinda go ahead and do what we do, and we're happy to have a fairly strong positive critical base behind us.
You guys have been going non-stop for such a long time, do you ever see it slowing down? Do you have a set cut off for retirement?
We've got the whole thing down to a pretty magical place at this point. We do work year round non-stop, but not always specifically on Sonic Youth stuff. We've all got our own lives and families, so we've got it in a pretty good place... In general it's about the most fun and exciting thing going, we don't have any plans to stop at this point.
How do you feel about playing Tulsa?
We played once at Cain's, and we're definitely really into just the whole history of the place, and all the stuff that's gone down there, from the classic stuff way way back when to the Sex Pistols. I think the room sounds great, it's one of those classic old ballroom style rooms which is a great thing. We're really into a lot of the people that have played there, from Bob Wills and Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, did he play there too? I think he did. It's a great place for us. And we've been digging Tulsa as well. We found a new favorite hamburger stand, this place called Hank's just outside of the city. (Tulsa) is not a place we get to that often, and we're looking forward to getting back into that club because we had a really nice time the last time we were there.
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