Summoning the Sonic Sages

Text by Hunter Holcombe
P­hotograph by Martien Mulder

If relationships were like bands, you’d want yours to be Sonic Youth. The many torrid, short-lived love affairs of rock – Stone Roses, Nirvana – burned hot while they lasted, but, for reasons ranging from drugs to incompatibility to fame to death, could never physically survive for a protracted amount of time. Others have endured long and successful pairings but are mostly resigned to living off the memories of their younger days, such as the Rolling Stones and the Pixies.

Sonic Youth, however, falls into an entirely different category, like the elusive “perfect couple” universally regarded with wonder, the couple that rekindles hope in the idyllic notion of true love.

Passing the quarter-century mark is an impressive feat for any band, but most of the time this longevity is propped up primarily by the enduring success of the band’s early fame. The Rolling Stones may put out a decent track once in a while, but fans aren’t shelling out $200 a ticket to hear these songs. They are doing it to hear 1965’s “Satisfaction,” and for the satisfaction of saying they got to see the Stones.

But Sonic Youth, the original avant-garde noise rockers who quickly saturated the New York underground starting in 1981, are passing their 25th year sounding like they are still hovering at their peak. “I always feel like I am just getting started,” Thurston Moore says. “Like I am just getting to the point where I can do what I want to do.”
Sonic Youth’s 14th full-length album, Rather Ripped, hit shelves in June, marking the start of a prolific summer tour that will include appearances with the Flaming Lips, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Pearl Jam. The tour, like the album, will feature Sonic Youth in its core formation: singer/guitarist Moore, singer/bassist Kim Gordon, guitarist/singer/keyboardist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley.

Rather Ripped takes a few steps towards the center from Sonic Youth’s usual edgy and raucous signature sound. While the album is solid, some critics may declare it their most pop-reaching record, devoid of much of the experimental noise guitar the band is known for. The first two tracks, “Reena” and “Incinerate,” are both relatively simple and upbeat tunes for Sonic Youth, but they are also two of the best on the album. Moore’s “Sleeping Around” brings back some of the dissonant guitar genius that comes from his and Ranaldo’s dueling sound experimentation, armed with guitars that are usually deformed, detuned and rewired to create Sonic Youth’s irreplicable sound.
Another powerful track is the spacey “Turquoise Boy,” with Gordon’s beautifully haunting voice laced with delicate guitar work for several verses, where the guitars then take a familiar detour down a heavier sonic side road before swerving back to join Gordon for the outro.

The album undoubtedly tosses a heavy handful of solid songs into the immense Sonic Youth repertoire, especially when hard-line, old-school fans are open-minded about its somewhat new direction.
“I think this is a culmination of all the work we’ve done,” Gordon says. “The album was made pretty quickly, and there was not a lot of time for rehashing. So it is pretty honest – a ‘here we are’ kind of album.”

Sonic Diversity
The secret to Sonic Youth’s enduring success as a just-under-the-radar avant-grunge hero band can only be understood when the members are themselves understood. Unlike many bands whose fame is also the harbinger of their doom, the members of Sonic Youth live and breathe the music they play. All of them are – and always have been – significantly involved in side projects, both musically and in other artistic forms.

Moore, for example, is heavily addicted to the noise guitar and avant-garde experimental rock genre Sonic Youth comes from, and is particularly interested in new bands and new sub-genres. “I’ve always been fascinated by what is going on with new music scenes,” he says. “Particularly I’m interested in what is going on in the more marginal parameters. That is always where it has resonated with me – people doing more experimental and challenging things that are completely unorthodox to the genre.” He also admits to being a heavy music collector, which he equates with being “record collector scum.” He says, “I try to keep a lid on it, but I’m kind insane about it.”
As part of his new music habit, Moore writes music reviews for Arthur magazine, and he also has his own label, Ecstatic Peace, which he began in 1981. Not so incidentally, he and Gordon are married, and have a 12-year-old daughter, Coco.

The other members of Sonic Youth are similarly spread out over other artistic endeavors. Shelley played with Chan Marshall (Cat Power) on her first three albums and helped launch her career. Gordon plays in the band Free Kitten and recently starred in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a film about Kurt Cobain, with whom she was close friends. And Ranaldo has made several solo albums, books and collections of poetry, produced albums for several bands, and is about to release Moroccan Journal, a full-length book based on travels through that country and its musical heritage.

“We all seem to like to keep working on one thing or another, so we all find time to do things in the holes of the Sonic Youth schedule,” Ranaldo says. “There are certain things within Sonic Youth that, say, maybe aren’t developing, so we take it up with another group of musicians. And vice versa. So it kinda goes back and forth, which is nice.”

But Ranaldo says the success of Sonic Youth mostly comes from the fact that they all simply love making music together, and really haven’t changed much from their first years together in the ’80s. “In certain ways, the band has operated in the same way and sounded the same and everything, right from the very beginning. So I think it is just that we are committed to making interesting music.”

Sonic Beginning
As a sound and as a place in rock history, Sonic Youth is far from being merely interesting. Sprouting from the influential cacophony of Glenn Branca – who brought his noise experimentation mastery to New York in the late-’70s, and with whom Ranaldo originally played – Sonic Youth formed when Moore and Ranaldo began playing together, both with Branca’s ensemble and on their own. Gordon, whom Moore began dating before the creation of the band, joined them along with original drummer Richard Edson (Shelley soon replaced Edson permanently).

They soon began carving their own sound with a creative manipulation of guitars, such as actively using screwdrivers on their instruments and applying unorthodox tunings that had only previously been used in traditional blues. Moore and Ranaldo are also known for using the Jazzmaster, Jaguar and other uncommon Fender guitars, as opposed to the standard Stratocaster and Telecaster, or the popular Gibson Les Paul.
“I like the behind-the-bridge action of the Jazzmasters and Jaguars,” Moore says. “I also feel a sort of kinship to my own physical body – the Jazzmaster has a certain lengthiness to it, and a certain paunchiness to it, sort of pear-shaped, a lot like myself.”

With the combination of their almost entirely different instruments and heavy riffing and jamming, coupled with often dark lyrics and dissonant melodies, Sonic Youth crafted songs that soon found a strong following in the underground alternative music scene.

­But while Sonic Youth’s popularity grew, particularly with the commercial success of the grunge music scene, they did not produce radio hits, and, while selling out shows, their individial tracks stayed mainly off the charts.
It was perhaps this combination – a solid sound and powerful following, yet no major commercial breakout – that made Sonic Youth one of the only bands to stand directly on the line between the shadow of the underground and the spotlight of fame, for 25 years no less. This position has allowed them to have complete creative control over their music, yet with the label power (most recently Geffen) to get their music out.

Rather Ripped is Sonic Youth’s last record under contract with Geffen, but no one in the band has any idea of where they will go with the next album. This attitude sums up how the band views their role as a band, and how they are always simply focused on the music at hand.

“We just don’t think about things like that,” Ranaldo says. “We never had any idea we would be around this long.”