Ah, the ills of being a traveling freelancer. A few weeks ago, I secured an interview with one my all-time favorite American musicians, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. But Irene and I were in transit from Santa Fe to our ongoing vacation in Maine and I wasn’t available for the timeslot when Moore was available on the phone. Thus, my feature on Sonic Youth in today’s issue of Boulder Weekly is 1,200 words of me geeking out on the importance of theart-rock veterans rather than peppering readers with quotes from Moore. Hope you enjoy it anyway.
Sonic Youth Will Never Grow Old
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
With all the talk of irreverent Vermont jammers Phish returning to Red Rocks this weekend, it’s important not to overlook a classic American rock band that’s actually been at the improvisational thing a lot longer. Sonic Youth has been called “the post-punk Grateful Dead” for their sometimes seamless performances and volatile, spacey and unpredictable in-concert jams out of songs like “The Diamond Sea” and “Expressway to Yr Skull”; the New York-based group has been recording and performing together for almost 30 years without a significant break from each other, enjoying the international club-and-theater circuit while more financially successful 80’s upstarts like Phish spend their summers playing the big sheds.
Sonic Youth formed from the ashes of the “no wave” scene in New York City back in 1981 and began as a guitar-heavy noise-rock ensemble inspired by sound-art composer Glenn Branca’s “electric guitar ensemble” experiments, utilizing countless tunings and fairly free-form shows. Originally lumped into a genre Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called “pigfucker” (along with other abrasive 80’s acts like Big Black and the Butthole Surfers), Sonic Youth has seen countless stereotypically severe American acts come and go over the past three decades while they keep evolving and renewing their relevance.
Just in the past five years, Sonic Youth, with unconventional guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo still at the instrumental helm while Moore and wife Kim Gordon handle most of the vocals, has gone from the sleek space-punk of 2004’s Sonic Nurse to the psychedelic sprawl of 2006’s diversely brilliant Rather Ripped to this summer’s ultra-heavy indie-thrasher The Eternal, the band’s 16th album. Sonic Youth has always been many things at once – literate, guitar-heavy, dissonant, forward-focused, and even self-deprecating – but on The Eternal, front-man Moore reveals a side of the iconic group that’s rarely been seen since 1992’s Dirty, and even then only in flashes: at least some members of the band are unabashed metal-heads.
In the June issue of Decibel, the 51-year Moore admitted he “basically spent the winter of 2007-08 standing shirtless on my roof with two axes over my head in a crisscross shape just listening to black metal. That’s probably when I was deepest into it. I was just going ballistic.” Moore said that he’s always been into heavier groups like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest but has a special place in his heart for seriously dark death metal and black metal, especially obscure European bands whose names sound like digestive-system drugs, such as Burzum and Abruptum.
“All that overly-reverbed hellish yowling [is] really beyond any kind of tenets of heavy metal,” he told Decibel. “Just kind of desperate, atmospheric howling. I mean, I’ve always been involved with scenes of anti-musical behavior, beginning with punk and then the whole New York no wave scene, et cetera. Just musical destruction, you know? [When I heard death metal] I was just like, ‘man, this is serious.’”
When 80’s hardcore was just starting out, there were a few bands at the forefront, like Los Angeles’ Black Flag and Washington, D.C.’s Minor Threat, who incorporated the speed, attitude and distortion of heavy metal music in a way that got the mosh-pits frantically moving but didn’t make young punks worry about being confused with long-haired, jean-jackted Deicide fans. Sonic Youth, on the other hand, was always closer to the Velvet Underground and Television in terms of posturing, hipsterism and the juxtaposition of cerebral instrumental suites with bursts of snarling post-punk and dual atonal guitar detonations.
But in the case of The Eternal, when bassist/singer Gordon asks “what’s it like to be a girl in a band?” on the album’s raging opener “Sacred Trickster,” the simple answer is “heavy and loud.” When The Eternal made its way onto my iPod a few weeks before its official release, I was amazed that the device actually survived the experience. Following 2006’s sharply epic and varied Rather Ripped, which many Sonic Youth fans agree matched the best of the band’s quarter-century spanning catalog, The Eternal is a furious and fun Stooges-meets-Metallica jaunt through chopping, sludgy guitars; big arena-rock drums; and songs about French painters, German models, Britney Spears and Gregory Corso.
While Rather Ripped in some ways confirmed the blossoming of Sonic Youth’s psychedelic seeds, which were in huge part planted when Lee Ranaldo extensively followed the Grateful Dead on their late-70’s American tours, The Eternal is easily Sonic Youth’s most consistently visceral and charging album since Dirty, effectively taking all of ringleader Moore’s peripheral interests (from his literature-buff column in Arthur Magazine to putting out experimental noise-rock and poetry via his Ecstatic Peace! label) and channeling them into a fist via heated hardcore send-ups like “Thunderclap” and “Anti-Orgasm.” Those tracks and others blending crunchy, full guitars with early-punk-esque surrealist lyrics such as “mission control to the brain police” and “I want you to levitate me/don’t you love me?”
Sonic Youth has always been less about tension-and-release than layering (and then exploding) discord like a fuzz-heavy version of Television, or Black Flag jamming with Albert Ayler; The Eternal takes that classic discord and creates an entire entertaining album out of it.
It’s amazing that, as the three original members of Sonic Youth (Ranaldo, Moore and Gordon) are in their 50’s, the group’s importance, influence and even output continues increasing. They put out a new full-length album of original songs every two years or so and release archival discs of studio and in-concert group-improvisations at least once a year.
“This is as inspired as we’ve been in a long time,” Moore told Nylon recently. “We’re at a point in the band where we’ve made our mark. Now it’s like the apprenticeship is over.”
Sonic Youth have been known as “tastemakers” for a long time. Drummer Steve Shelley, a notoriously busy collaborator, is hugely responsible for troubled singer/songwriters Daniel Johnston and Cat Power gaining wider attention. Nirvana got one of their first big breaks opening for Sonic Youth. Indie icon Kathleen Hanna’s career received a great boost when she was featured dancing around sexily in the 1995 video for “Bull in the Heather.” “Kool Thing,” the band’s classic 1990 fem-punk collaboration with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, has found its way onto the Guitar Hero video game series, and Sonic Youth has even done voiceovers for an appearance on the Simpsons.
Even though some of Sonic Youth’s best early work, like Sister and Evol, are now seen as slightly dated, those records inspired and educated some of the best current rock acts, from TV On the Radio to Broken Social Scene to Tortoise. And loving Sonic Youth’s transcendent 1988 LP Daydream Nation has been a rite of passage for young hipsters from Brooklyn to San Francisco ever since its release.
It’s not hard to see Daydream Nation as one moving piece of music like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Darkside of the Moon, etc, but what’s equally impressive is that Sonic Youth has traversed almost 30 years of diverse musical tastes, interests and inspirations and still offers a cohesive, utterly contemporary live experience.
It was incredible witnessing Sonic Youth’s blazing performance of Rather Ripped’s “Pink Steam” at the Fillmore in San Francisco a few years ago, when they dedicated the dense and captivating song to SF poet Dodie Bellamy (whose book inspired the song), but one wonders whether Denver concert-goers will be blessed tomorrow night with a performance of “Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)” in honor of Naropa’s own late poet laureate.