10 QUESTIONS : Sonic Youth
N ew York’s Sonic Youth was one of the most important rock bands of the ‘80s, the one that most successfully reconciled that decade’s trash-culture obsessions with the nihilist urge of punk.
The group’s strangely tuned guitars rang out like distorted bells or Indian sarods; its deadpan lyrics lay obscurely as punk koans. Their records were noisy and loud, and perennially some of the most popular on college radio.
Under the pseudonym Ciccone Youth, they recorded an album-length salute to Madonna in 1988, and not even their most avid fans could figure out whether they were kidding or not.
The band--guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley, all of whom, except Shelley, sing lead on various tracks--has recorded for half the important independent labels in the U.S., including SST, Homestead and Blast First.
Sonic Youth may now be tied to the same record company (Geffen) as Cher and Guns N’ Roses, but it remains the quintessential underground band of the day. As the avatar of ‘80s indie underground rock, making its mega-corporate major-label debut with “Goo,” its sixth full album, it faced a conundrum: How does an aggressively confrontational band make a) a commercial record, without b)selling out?
The answer, of course, was to make the record an elaborate joke on the idea of making a commercial record--a hermetic, album-length parody . Its best moments include a wistful elegy to Karen Carpenter (“Tunic”) and a song about a woman, Goo, who raises passivity to an art.
Gordon and Moore, Sonic Youth’s founders and principal songwriters, talk about their new life in the mainstream. They’ll be in concert Friday at the Hollywood Palladium.
Question: So have you sold out?
Gordon: I don’t think anyone really thinks that--at least musically . . . unless they haven’t listened to the record.
Q: And the poppiness of the record?
Moore: It’s certainly not a conscious maneuver on our part. We were writing these songs before we were dealing with major labels. Those riffs really rock our soul. Why shouldn’t we play them if we dig them? I mean, they’re funny. There’s some irony in those songs about that whole commercial thing.
Q: What difference did being on a major label ultimately make in the album?
Moore: We had a much bigger budget, and we were advised to spend it, which we did. Usually, money disciplines what you can do in a studio but this time it didn’t. Although by the end of the project, we were worried about the budget. This cost $150,000. The last one cost $30,000, and that was a double album.
We had to sort of do it in pieces, so the whole physical sense of it was disturbed. It’s the way Foreigner works, constructing one lead guitar solo from like three miles of tape. This was just an experiment in working with overly involved studio techniques.
And we learned a lot about the politics of a certain level of the (recording studio world). In the next room, you have, like, engineers doing Pepsi commercials. And it was funny, because when the Grammys were on, all these people were sitting there gathered around the TV, the Pepsi commercial with Michael J. Fox came on--big premiere, kind of blaring--and I reached over and turned it off. The whole room erupted. All those engineers gathered around the set had like worked on this commercial for like two months.
Q: Did the people at Geffen give you any grief?
Gordon: Not really. I mean, Geffen was the last label we thought we’d ever sign to. We were already talking with A&M; and Atlantic, but we didn’t think they were serious. We were looking for a situation where we could have complete creative control. Everybody said they’d give it to us, but Geffen actually did. We have it in our contract.
There were certain things like the cover . . . we wanted to use the Raymond Pettibon drawing, and we liked that in one way it looked like a bootleg, y’know, and the record company probably disliked that it was black and white even more than they did the text (“I stole my sister’s boyfriend . . . within a week we killed my parents and hit the road”) just thinking that chain stores won’t carry it in the Midwest. But they put it out.
Q: This obviously isn’t what you had in mind when you started as a noise band 10 years ago .
Moore: We were trying to freak people out then, and we didn’t really have any goals or ambitions. At that age, our ambition was to maybe get a gig someplace. We came out of a void, in a way--we wanted to blow people’s minds--and we’d like write songs one night and play them the next at some art benefit, just banging on my guitar or a snare drum, Lee playing a guitar and an electric drill amped up to 10.
Q: Were you playing mostly to hard - core punks at that point?
Moore: The places we played across the country were hard-core. If you were non-hard-core, they treated you kind of weirdly. When we first went on the road, we went up and down the East Coast on a tour that we set up ourselves. We’d play to like 15 people a night, of whom 10 would be hard-core kids.
So these kids in North Carolina would be coming out to see this New York hard-core band, and it would be us. We were more extreme than most hard-core bands, but we weren’t generic. We were just loud. There was a period when those kids would sit in front of the band and demand that we play faster: “Play fast songs!”
Q: Does that still happen?
Gordon: When we were in Russia last year, it was the first time in a really long time where people had no idea who we were. It was like playing a really small town in Alabama or something. And we were playing in absolutely acoustically dead rooms, rooms that were made for KGB spokesmen. These Lithuanians, like the first independent promoters there, brought us over. And people in the audience were yelling, “Punk rock!” because they had just discovered the Sex Pistols. The older people--you get people of all ages over there--were going, “Turn it down!” instead.
Q: Do you ever feel that you have to be the spokesman for something?
Gordon: It used to be (people asked me about) women in rock. Now (they ask) about being signed to a major label. It’s kind of annoying being put in that position. Sonic Youth has always been the exception to the rule, so we’re terrible spokespeople. Suddenly we get lumped into certain categories with other bands. Like now, since we both get played on alternative radio, we’re the same kind of band as Depeche Mode.
Q: Maybe it’s your paean to Karen Carpenter .
Gordon: It’s pretty sincere. Not that the song was meant to be completely serious, but the interest is there. Actually, y’know, those early recordings . . . Richard (Carpenter) was really clever the way he did all that layering and stuff, because there wasn’t really that much audio technology. He was doing the things that people are doing now, and his arrangements were actually pretty sophisticated. Though later on they got cheesy.
Q: So Karen Carpenter is your Madonna of this year?
Gordon: She’s our Madonna of all time.