Hot Band: Sonic Youth

The New York band's thrash pop may be the sound of young America in the Nineties

Sonic Youth Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

After a night in hell, the members of Sonic Youth have found their own version of heaven in a small record collectors’ shop outside of Atlanta.

“Some of these are really terrible,” says guitarist Thurston Moore, 30, as he wades through a stack of Sonic Youth bootlegs. “And some of ‘em… ...” Before he can finish the sentence, his attention switches to a pile of Beatles, Dylan and Yardbirds boots. The store owner, perhaps relieved that this is one band that doesn’t seem to mind seeing its music circulating via contraband recordings, heaps freebies on them. They make out like bandits.

The shop owner isn’t the only one in the record business looking to curry favor with Sonic Youth. King of the American independent underground since the mid-Eighties, the band is at a critical juncture in its almost decade-long career. Founded by Thurston, his wife, bassist Kim Gordon, and guitarist Lee Ranaldo in 1981 in downtown Manhattan, Sonic Youth was originally associated with the city’s No Wave, white-noise subculture. The Sonics, who have since added drummer Steve Shelley, have evolved from dissonant, abrasive avant-garage improvisation to increasingly skillful pop craft. In the process, the band has attracted more and more attention from the major labels.

Representatives of the majors have been sniffing around the Sonics’ door since 1985, when Bad Moon Rising, released on Homestead Records, won the band its first extensive critical acclaim. “Warners and Elektra asked for copies of the record because they’d read this great review in The New York Times,” Lee says with a seen-it-all smile. “And then they got the record and called the label and said, ‘Are you sure this is the band we read about?”’ These days, things are proceeding differently: Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun has been wining and dining the Sonics, and CBS is also said to be in the hunt.

Since the release of Sonic Youth’s most recent album, Daydream Nation, which topped the college-radio charts for months, the group has played in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe; it recently became one of the first underground bands invited to tour the Soviet Union. But last night’s little taste of hell was a grim reminder of the price the band members are obliged to pay for refusing to give up their ferocious experimentalism.

“Last night was some kind of nightmare,” says Thurston. The gig was the last gasp of a moribund Atlanta punk-rock club where the Sonics had played several times before. “The last time we were there,” says Kim, “these gangs of kids were hanging around outside, and they slashed our tires while we were playing.”

There was no tire slashing last night — just a shadowy, cavernous, trashed club without heat, telephones or adequate sound. “They oughta pay you people for heating the place,” Kim snarled by way of testing her microphone when the Sonics finally took the stage after 2:00 a.m. Thurston, hovering like a gangly scarecrow, his shirttail flapping, his unruly blond hair hanging in his eyes, hit the clarion opening chords of “Silver Rocket,” from Daydream Nation, and began to twitch violently to the supercharged rhythm. Lee, standing as if braced against a buffeting wind, added a careening guitar riff that sawed against Thurston’s manic chording, and Steve’s drums came thundering in like an express train. Cold or no cold, P.A. or no P.A., Sonic Youth was rocking. The songs, mostly from Daydream Nation but ranging back to the sinister, stark Bad Moon Rising, were reduced to charred skeletons in an aural firestorm. The young and diverse crowd — enthusiastic despite the conditions and the hour — moved to the Sonic assault.

If you consider that Sonic Youth plays a full schedule of such dates, it’s surprising the band members have enough energy for other projects. Negotiating their first proper major-label contract is only one item on the crowded agenda. Last year, the group, under the alter-ego name of Ciccone Youth, released The Whitey Album, which includes inimitable versions of Madonna’s “Into the Groove” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Kim, 36, has been working with her old friend Lydia Lunch in a band called Harry Crews, named for the crusty Southern novelist. The group has collected material from European dates for a live album, and Kim — who has written about fiction, music and other pop-culture subjects for publications such as Artforum and The Village Voice — recently shot a video interview with Crews at his Florida home. Lee Ranaldo, 30, has continued to work on the experimental electronic music that first surfaced on his SST solo album, From Here to Infinity, a project that sometimes involves 26-year-old Steve Shelley as a collaborator. Thurston recently worked in the studio with Borbetomagus, a New York noise band featuring two sax players.

Meanwhile, the videos for “Teenage Riot,” from Daydream Nation, and the Ciccone Youth cover of “Addicted to Love” have been winning Sonic Youth a raft of new fans through exposure on MTV’s 120 Minutes and RockAmerica. “Lee and I put together the ‘Teenage Riot’ video from bits and pieces of various tapes,” Thurston says, “layering it all into a rush of imagery, which is pretty appropriate for our songs. For ‘Addicted to Love,’ we used stock footage from Macy’s department store and shot Kim singing the song against it in one of those make-your-own-video booths. Neither of those videos cost more than $25 to make. MTV wouldn’t show them as part of their regular programming, but now they’ve come to us, asking us to make a video they can show, so we’re working on that.”

The collision of experimental tendencies and mainstream-marketplace demands — do-it-yourself street tech and pop-culture savvy — is nothing new for Sonic Youth. The Ciccone Youth project, for example, is rooted in the band’s longstanding appreciation of Madonna — Ciccone is her last name and not, as Thurston has been telling people, French for “sonic.” The friction generated when melody meets noise and punk plows head-on into pop is what gives Sonic Youth its edge. The tension, ambiguity and abrasion inherent in these iconic collisions are precisely what this band is all about. Thurston, Kim and Lee met back in 1979, when Thurston and Lee were serving in the guitar army marshaled by avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, whose tiny Neutral label released Sonic Youth’s first album. In the early Eighties, Branca was writing symphonies for groups of up to nine electric guitars, plus bass and drums. An iconoclast among iconoclasts on New York’s new-music scene, Branca introduced his musicians to unconventional guitar tunings and sometimes had them string their instruments with heavy-duty steel cables. His compositions, which lasted an hour or more, were as aggressively hard edged and rhythmic as the most uncompromising punk rock. The performances were the loudest musical events in the history of a scene not known for restrained decibel levels. Today, Branca remembers Lee as “one of the best guitarists who ever played my music,” but he downplays any mentor role he may have had for Sonic Youth. “Playing with me did influence them,” he says, “but that influence is only a small part of what Sonic Youth does.”

Yet the band is quick to talk up Branca’s music. “A lot of guitarists use various nonstandard tunings,” Kim says, “but it doesn’t have the impact of Glenn having four or five guitars all tuned a certain way: That really bowled you over.”

Lee says, “Glenn would structure his guitar orchestra like a chorus, with soprano, alto, tenor and bass guitars, and the soprano would have six high-E strings on it, that kind of thing. Our stuff is not that radical, although we do some tunings with paired or even tripled notes in the same register. But mostly we just make up new tunings and play around with ‘em. It’s pretty much a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants process; there’s no logic to it except for intuition.”

Some of the earliest Sonic Youth shows were just Kim, Thurston and Lee — armed with an arsenal of junk-shop guitars. “All we had were these very, very, very cheap electric guitars,” says Thurston. “A lot of them were no good at all for any kind of conventional playing. We’d try tuning them different ways, find one thing we could do with a particular guitar or pair of guitars that would sound cool, and write a song around that.” The two guitarists varied Sonic Youth’s sound and attack further by playing certain songs with drumsticks shoved under the strings or by striking the strings with the sticks. A lot of guitars and amplifiers have bitten the dust.

Sonic Youth’s musical focus has shifted from feedback, interference patterns and improvised mayhem to tighter song structures. The Sonics’ live shows tend to recapitulate their entire history, although they rarely play a song the same way twice. The poppiest tunes get opened up into raging sonic maelstroms; old favorites like “Expressway to Yr Skull,” from Evol, and the trance-drone classic “I Love Her All the Time,” from Bad Moon Rising, get trashed along with the guitars and amps.

The band’s unpredictable musical interplay has helped Sonic Youth hold the attention of the often-fickle underground-rock community, while its more sharply honed songwriting attracts a broader audience. “We still write a lot of the songs around guitar riffs,” Lee says. “How the parts end up fitting together has a lot to do with the mood the song develops. Sometimes when we’re figuring out the guitar parts, I feel like I’m putting my part in opposition to Thurston’s part. If he’s doing a certain thing and it would be real easy to fall in with it, I’ll say, ‘No, let me try something that’ll make it sound a little bit fucked.' " The rhythm section thrives on the same sort of conflict, with Kim frequently refusing to play bass patterns that would match Steve’s beats.

This musical vision of togetherness through conflict is often evident in the band’s lyrics as well. The songs on early releases such as the 1982 mini-album Sonic Youth and the 1983 album Confusion Is Sex were often tales of violence and extremity (“Kill Yr Idols,” “Shaking Hell”) set to squalls of distortion. But the band had sharpened its lyrical focus by Bad Moon Rising, its breakthrough album. Bad Moon Rising was a semiconcept album that probed beneath the surface of then-burgeoning Sixties nostalgia, reminding listeners who were too young to have lived through the decade that in addition to flower power, the Sixties spawned military adventurism, which was explored in “Brave Men Run,” and Mansonite helter-skelter, the subject of “Death Valley ‘69.” “We pass a lot of books around between us,” says Thurston. “When we wrote ‘Death Valley ‘69,’ we’d all been reading Heller Skelter and The Family. The music of that period was also influenced by the mid-Eighties horror-movie phenomenon.”

Evol, which was released in 1986, included “Shadow of a Doubt,” based on the Hitchcock film and sung in a breathy near whisper by Kim, and the unforgettable “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which was listed on the album’s back cover as “Madonna, Sean and Me” and sounds something like a demented Beach Boys tune: “We’re gonna kill/The California girls.”

But it was on their next album, Sister, that the Sonics’ songwriting made a quantum leap. Inspired in part by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, the album’s songs explored what Lee calls “that line between reality and dreaming — if there is any.” The blurring of that line was a major theme in Dick’s novels and stories; another was the exploration of anomalies in time. “Sister was record of the month in the newsletter of the Philip K. Dick Society,” Thurston told Creem magazine with pride. “They thought of it as a concept album based on time theory.”

All these concerns, and more, are tackled on Daydream Nation, which was released on the small label Blast First. It’s the band’s richest album so far, and the one that comes the closest to capturing the full range of the live Sonic Youth experience.

On The Whitey Album, however, the group uses the freedom afforded by recording as Ciccone Youth to elucidate shared interests that have fallen outside Sonic Youth’s musical purview — Madonna, white-bread rap and hip-hop, and rhythm-and-noise experiments taking off from the early Seventies work of German bands such as Neu and Can. “Ciccone Youth isn’t going to be a continuing alter ego,” Thurston says. “It started in 1986, when we were talking with Mike Watt [fIREHOSE’s bassist] and discovered we shared an affection for Madonna. We recorded ‘Into the Groovey’ with Mike as a one-off thing. Other than the single beat on the album, and a blowup from a picture of her being the cover, Madonna doesn’t have a lot to do with The Whitey Album. I know the fascination with her seems glaringly inconsistent; some people have said we’re giving her what she wants, hip credibility in the nether reaches of the underground. I’d hate to be guilty of that! In any case, I don’t think we’ll use that name again. It doesn’t extend itself too far.”

If Ciccone Youth is just a side trip, and if major-label contract negotiations will precede any work on the next Sonic Youth album, one wonders what sort of direction the band’s music, and career, is likely to take.

“We don’t constantly sit around and write songs,” says Thurston. “A lot of the music for each new record is generated by what we’re into at the time. Our last few records seem related musically; we’ve been building a style of playing and writing, constantly refining it. I don’t know if I like that refining process anymore. I get the feeling the next record is going to be really far out.” But can Thurston’s prognostications be trusted? This is the guy who promised before Daydream Nation, the band’s most accessible record to date, that “there’s not going to be any songs on it. There’s gonna be no tones, no melodies, no rhythms, no grooves, no experimentation. But it’s gonna blow your mind.”

Characteristically, Lee is more straightforward. “We’re not really an underground band anymore,” he says, “and we’re not a mainstream band, either. It’s going to be interesting to see how that works itself out.”