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Sonic Youth's Street Sauce

Their studio decimated by WTC attack, Thurston Moore and Co. regroup underground

December 19, 2001 12:00 AM ET

A post-punk New York City institution, Sonic Youth were spared the worst of tragedies on September 11th, but the band was still hit particularly hard, both domestically and musically, by the events of that day. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo was evacuated from his residence, composer/producer and new member Jim O'Rourke was in the group's Downtown studio and found himself in the middle of the debris and terror-filled frenzy of that morning, and the group's studio remains in a state of disarray, with equipment still rendered useless from the fringe damage of the 11th.

But the band, which formed twenty years ago, plans to regroup in their native city and get back to work, as quickly as possible, to record an album that according to guitarist/singer Thurston Moore will be infused with a keen sense of New York and the city's indigenous music.

You guys had been showcasing some new material in concert recently. How far along is the next album?
We'd written all this music this summer in New York at our studio, before the attack. The studio is right there, so it sort of stopped us for an interminable amount of time. We're just sort of sifting our way through the rubble and try to get things going. We got in a couple of weeks ago, using some certified paperwork from the city to get beyond the barricades. We had our place cleaned out and detoxified, but nothing was working as far as the machines. The power supplies were all zapped, but it wasn't what we were fearing, which was a lot of soot and dust in the tape machines.

How did you proceed from there?
We basically reacquainted ourselves with all this music that we wrote this summer, which felt really strong and personal and evocative for us in light of what was going on in our neighborhood. We got together with [former Television frontman] Tom Verlaine and did this benefit for the New York Women's Foundation, but we haven't really gotten together since. We will soon, though, because we have a few shows we're going to do.

Do you plan to record in the same studio?
We decided that we will record it there, in that environment. Because that is our place and we feel very sort of connected to that neighborhood, even though that neighborhood is devastated. And last time I was there I walked around the perimeter, and it was just too much. So that's where we stand. We're ready to record this material. And it's the first material we've written with a fifth member involved in the band, which is Jim O'Rourke. The music is completely tied into our lives down there. So we really want to record it and release it and have people hear it.

Do you expect the 11th to alter music written prior to that date?
I don't know [laughs]. I think anything regarding anybody's life right now would be quite different prior to the 11th. It's such a marked event in everybody's lives. And the closer you are to it physically, maybe the more profound it is to the point of people who actually suffered loss there. O'Rourke was sleeping there that morning. He was literally thrown off the couch and onto a street full of oil and smoke and he couldn't see, and he thought he was pretty much a goner. He saw the second plane, he saw bodies, he saw carnage and raining metal. It's been very intense for us as a group. We're still dealing with it.

On a lighter note, how is O'Rourke fitting in with the band?
Jim is fantastic. We always thought about doing something a little more expansive. The thing is, we're such non-musicians. We sort of taught ourselves to play by our own rules; therefore any kind of collaboration is challenging, because we're like aliens. We'd do cover songs from time to time, and we're sort of like, I don't know, a monkey looking at a Modigliani and trying to say something. It was always fun, but we could never jam with people, because we don't know how to play. Lee knows how to play and Steve [Shelly]'s a pretty proficient drummer, but both Kim [Gordon, bassist and Moore's wife] and I were coming from super-left field. Jim is a complete musicologist. Jim just started playing with us, and, God, he was just completely in tune with what we were doing. So we just started playing together naturally, it wasn't like "Hey man! You should join the band!" It wasn't like Tommy Lee and [John] Corabi, going, "Yeah! This is great!" Though it wasn't unlike that [laughs]. I just read that book, I was very amused by it.

The Motley Crue bio?
Yeah, it was a real burner. It took the cake. But he just really worked; we shared an appreciation of different things we liked within the world of popular music. Jim and I found out that we were both incredibly huge Sparks fans -- which is unbelievable because Sparks were this Godhead thing to me as a teenager and I always stayed close to it, especially the 1973 period of Kimono My House and Propoganda. And Jim knew all those songs more than I did -- he knew 'em by heart. In fact, he would do them karaoke in Japan. We actually did a karaoke piece in Sweden one night, where Jim was Russell Mael and I was Ron Mael and he knew all the words, the dance moves and everything [laughs]. We asked him to mix and produce our last record, because we knew his skills as a technician and the way he mikes things were pretty formidable. We like what he had done for Stereolab and other people. He knows that stuff inside and out.

Didn't you bring him along as part of your touring band too?
Yeah, he played bass and stuff like that. And this summer when we got together we asked Jim if he wanted to be involved with the songwriting process, and he said, "Yeah, sure." He just enjoys it, and he's a free agent. It's not like you have to die to leave this band or something [laughs]. But so far it's been very interesting. Now I can sort of do twin leads [laughs] with Jim. Whereas before, if I constructed some sort of guitar motif, I could sort of suggest to Lee or Kim to mirror it, but of course they would never do that, because they would do their own thing, and it would always be very interesting. But to have somebody like Jim say, "OK, I'll play exactly what you're playing on that part, was just very unusual for us, and, all of the sudden, it creates this really nice kind of Electric Light Orchestra kind of vibe [laughs]. So the music is sort of taking a weird turn right now. Jim and I are sort of high-fiving each other over these classic moments. And Lee sort of comes out of the Grateful Dead side and he sort of looks up at us like, "What the hell is that all about?" And we're like, "It's ELO, man!" So I'm afraid to say, we have become a very weird mutation of classic rock. But I think it might be deserved; we're well into our forties. We're really sort of stuck between MTV youth rock and the classic fogey rock of Neil [Young] and everybody. Maybe we're sort of catching up with that [laughs].

So will we see a spaceship on the album cover?
I don't think we'll have any spaceships [laughs]. We're still intellectual artists from SoHo, so probably a no on the spaceships.

Do you worry the delay will cause the new material to be replaced by newer pieces?
I would hope that we will actually be able to document this music we've written, which we feel really strongly about, because it's a real soundtrack to our existence there. If need be, we'll go down to Memphis again. It's a wonderful oasis in the South for us. I love it down there and it's verrrrry inexpensive to record, which is fantastic, but logistically it's difficult because we have school. You can't take kids out of school. We aren't rockers, man. There's no guide book for parent rockers.

Much ado was made about your equipment being stolen last year, that it was irreplaceable. Has the theft altered the band's sound?
Well, we made the best of it [laughs]. It sort of took us away from a lot of the tunings we had settled on. It took us away from that comfort that we had created for a couple of years there and threw us almost into being in a new band, but with the privilege of knowing each other for so long. But I kind of felt bad about it -- it was a little too crybabyish. I mean, who cares, bands get ripped off all the time.

It was never found?
No, they found the truck somewhere in Compton. It was just completely cleaned out. A lot of it went South of the Border, they think. Which was kind of exciting, that there could be these impoverished bands with this gear that's just so f---ed. At least, they won't be about to sound like Limp Bizkit, even if they tried [laughs].

Does the new album have a working title yet?
It's funny, this summer the working title was "Street Sauce," but that's not the working title anymore. In the early Seventies, moving to New York, things were starting to be called "punk rock," and there was this thing called "street rock": The [New York] Dolls and the Heartbreakers and the Ramones. It was beginning to be known as punk rock, but it was also called street rock. And I always identified with that. That first Ramones album cover, of them leaning against a brick wall on the street, that was it: New York City street rock. That's sort of an element that I wanted Sonic Youth to retain as a New York City band was coming out of street rock and being part of that tradition and not ever sort of losing it or trying to get above it for any reason. And that's why that working title existed. We would write some music and there was some talk of trying to infuse it, you know, with some street sauce [laughs]. You may see some bootleg demos with that title, but there is no working title at this point. We have some song titles. We have a song called "Disconnection" and a song called the "Empty Page," both of which could be fine as album titles.

After two decades, you guys are nearly an institution. Are you bemused by the trends you see come and go?
We never really felt any kind of real affiliation with mainstream pop trends even though we had such access to it by being on a mainstream record label. But to see it become completely controlled by these svengalis and their boy bands, it's just so strange to me. I would have never predicted that's what the landscape would become in popular music, a pre-teen Disneyland with this cornball extension of punk rock. I can see why a thirteen-year-old would like it, [whispers] because it's dangerous. But I find it also creates a more radicalized underground and in a way I appreciate this sort of Twinkie mainstream. Because I'm always seeing very interesting music going on underground. And that's always been our milieu anyway. The fact that we have been around so long, people know the name even if they don't have any regard for the music. I still do what I've done for the past twenty to thirty years, which is go to s small club and hear the local experimental band.

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