The Aging of Sonic Youth

Is Sonic Youth the Grateful Dead of indie rock?
At first the question seems laughable. Whereas much of the Dead's appeal can be traced to the accessibility of the assortment of American music that inspired it, Sonic Youth has consistently challenged its audiences by drawing upon influences that exist on the furthest fringes of pop culture. But like the survivors of the Dead, the Youth aren't so young anymore: bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon is 45, guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo is 42, guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore turns 40 in July, and drummer Steve Shelley is a relatively precocious 35. In addition, the New York-based quartet shares with Jerry Garcia's kids an almost metaphysical devotion to craft and a desire to expand the parameters of pop compositions. It's a kinship that Moore, who's also Gordon's husband, can understand. "There's a whole kind of responsive demographic there--a real sort of spiritual involvement, which is something that we've always been into ourselves," he says.

Further support for this theory can be found on A Thousand Leaves, Sonic Youth's latest album for Geffen Records. The disc features the sort of variety fans have come to expect from the band, including extraterrestrial pop songs (the Moore-sung "Sunday," which has been released as a single); introspective slices of psychedelia (Ranaldo's "Karen Koltrane"); feminist rants (Gordon's "The Ineffable Me"); and ethereal items such as "Heather Angel." But the recording as a whole sports a loose, improvisatory feel, with songs frequently stretching beyond the seven-minute sound barrier. The tracks aren't jam-happy in the Phish sense of the term, but neither do they embrace brevity for brevity's sake.

Moore chalks up the roominess of the tunes to a more relaxed recording method. The band used the money it made headlining the 1995 Lollapalooza tour to construct its own studio. "That was sort of our main ambition--to build a space that we could sort of workshop with," he notes. "So we did that and decided to spend all of our time in there." Just as important, the players felt no pressure to hurriedly complete a new recording. On the contrary, they made a conscious decision to take a break from what Moore calls "the regular cycle of things: writing music, recording it and touring." As a result, he says, "we didn't have any kind of anxiety about ourselves."

Because of the relaxed atmosphere, Moore believes, the latest numbers evolved in an exceedingly natural way. "We always thought that we wanted to have these moments that are part of the songwriting process, with the playing together and improvising being the strong part of the song," he explains. "So by spending a lot of time on our own clock, we were able to cultivate that a bit more, like we used to when we were penniless apartment-dwellers in New York."

Nevertheless, A Thousand Leaves isn't a throwback to the feedback-drenched anti-songs that turned up on Sonic Youth's self-titled 1982 debut EP. In fact, the guitar gymnastics sometimes exude a Sixties feel. Moore sees some common ground between his outfit's progression and that of earlier rockers; he points out that "a lot of bands started out with ambitions to enter the commercial mainstream, but they became more experimental, such as the Beatles, or the whole West Coast thing. I mean, they would be more successful in their AM way, and then they would start freaking out more."

The Youth's latest lyrics occasionally call up ghosts from the Sixties, too. This isn't entirely new territory for the foursome: Moore describes "Death Valley 69," a collection of B-movie Manson-family nightmares first heard on 1985's Bad Moon Rising, as "all about reconsidering the Sixties, but not in a way that was sort of nostalgic." However, the group has seldom dealt with the period as explicitly as it does on the new CD's "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsburg)," an homage to the late poet. Moore says that Ginsburg, who befriended the band in his later years, "was somebody who really was a timeline for the whole subculture and who really sort of helped shape it with his philosophies. The fact that he professed all this kind of otherworldy mystical humanitarian philosophy but infused it with a complete American aesthetic was really interesting to me. He was probably one of the most important figures in the late twentieth century."

Writing tributes to dead icons is sure to raise the hackles of the latest cadre of indie types, many of whom already look upon Sonic Youth with suspicion. For instance, the fanzine Motorbooty lampooned Moore by placing him in the number-one position in its "Bank of Cool and Credibility Index"; the same piece rated the trendiness of other combos on the basis of how many Sonic Youth members were seen at their shows. Moore says he was amused by this parody, which needled him for his role as an indie kingmaker. But he enjoys using his name to help new bands get noticed, and he has no intention of lowering his profile. He previously put his muscle behind the Boredoms, an eccentric Japanese ensemble, and he's currently boosting Pelt, which is opening for Sonic Youth during much of its 1998 tour. The downtown New York music scene remains "completely fascinating," he declares. "When we were younger, that's what we were coming out of. And now the underground is the coolest thing--it's informed by free jazz, Glenn Branca, modern classical, weird folk music like the Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble..."

The Youth want to seem as relevant as the musicians who've risen in their wake. To that end, their concerts focus on fresh creations rather than chestnuts from their catalogue. "We're playing what we're currently working on, as if we're a new band with new material," Moore says, "which is really confounding to a lot of people. It's like, 'My God, why don't you play these songs that people know about?' Well, because that part of our life has gone by. Once in a while, we'll pull something out just for dynamic purposes in a set, but very rarely. I guess a band like us who have some renown aren't supposed to do things like that."

Strategies like this one ensure that Sonic Youth audiences will come and go. Moore feels that the band's fan base today is "reflective of what's going on either in the underground or the kind of MTV 120 Minutes world. But you do see generations overlapping through the years that you play. There were whole groups of people that I would see for two years at a time that don't come around anymore, but there are whole other groups of people that sort of take their place." He directs no resentment against listeners who left the fold in the years that followed seminal works such as 1988's Daydream Nation and 1990's Goo. "We probably did fall off, as far as they were concerned," he says. "It became less interesting for them. But that's usually not the artist's fault. Usually you've got to take a look at yourself. If you're a changing person, you can't expect the music or the art you're interested in to sort of change with you. It changes on its own accord, and therefore, you're either going to grow apart from it or, for the most part, stay interested in it."

The music remains vital for Sonic Youth, which has been very prolific of late. The group recently issued three mostly instrumental records, including one that features Gastr Del Sol's Jim O'Rourke, on its own SYR imprint; Moore says that they allow fans "to hear this part of what we're doing that sort of leads to the songwriting." He adds that the moniker of A Thousand Leaves concerns future productivity. "Each album we record we see as a leaf, so the album's title comes from the fact that we're going to stop after a thousand albums. I see this one as an oak, Lee sees it as a willow, Steve sees a fern, and Kim imagines a hibiscus bush."

The quality of Leaves implies that Sonic Youth won't be withering on the vine anytime soon. The key to its success, in Moore's mind, is experience. "After being together for seventeen years, we felt that we really had a handle on what we were doing, and we didn't really feel that we were making a bunch of wank noise," he says. "I think the way we play, which is a completely self-taught kind of playing, has developed in a way that could have only developed through time."

Jerry couldn't have said it better himself.

Sonic Youth, with Helium and the Rondelles. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18, 830-2525 or 443-3399.

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