Sonic Youth weaves intense vocals in new album

Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 12:00am
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SONIC YOUTH

When Sonic Youth began recording in the early 1980s, the band members were so focused on creating their own path through the DIY musical terrain, there was no way to know that they would become the influential mentors to so many other groups who would follow in their footsteps.

“Our goals weren’t anywhere near that big,” longtime bassist, vocalist and guitarist Kim Gordon said during an interview. “All we were thinking about were landing a gig at CBGB’s, maybe getting a record deal down the line and doing some concerts out of town. We certainly didn’t have any lofty ambitions and we had no idea how long the band would last.”

Now, some 28 years later, they are universally acclaimed as a seminal band whose ideas regarding rhythm, melody and alternative tunings are admired by musicians ranging from jazz greats like Ornette Coleman and David Murray to punk and metal ensembles.

Their most acclaimed release, Daydream Nation, was honored as one of the first 200 albums chosen by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Recording Registry. They recently scored with a new generation due to their version of The Carpenters’ “Superstar,” which was featured in the Diablo Cody film, Juno.

Back on tour once again and headed to Nashville for a Saturday appearance at War Memorial Auditorium, Sonic Youth is still tinkering with their sound. Their latest release The Eternal (Matador) marks a return to the indie label roots and offers some subtle but important changes in their overall sound.

“We had done the major label thing for a while (Geffen had issued their previous four discs) and we’ve found that it’s really better for bands like ours to be on indie labels that really understand and know what our music is all about,” Gordon said.

“The majors are mostly interested in doing music with what they consider is broader appeal, and music where they can spin off singles for radio airplay. That’s not really what we do,” she added. “We’ve known the people at Matador for a while — they’re a pretty big label for an indie, and they really enjoy and respect our music. So it’s been a good match.”

And, the band wanted to try something a little different musically in terms of the recording, Gordon said.

“For one, there’s more vocal interaction on The Eternal than we’ve ever done on any record. We thought let’s try to focus more on the vocal end for a change. We’d work on the songs here (Gordon and fellow guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore live in Northampton, Mass.) during the week, then go down to New York and cut them on the weekends. The melodies and rhythm seem sharper as well. Overall, to me, this would be our best album from a recording standpoint.”

That’s really saying something considering such past Sonic Youth works as Bad Moon Rising, Good, Dirty and of course Daydream Nation are all deemed classics.

Ironically, though they were associated with both the No Wave and the hardcore punk scenes in New York during their early days, Sonic Youth became best known for the odd ways that Moore would tune his guitar, as well as their embrace of everything from frenzied percussive surroundings to thrashing, attacking textures and beats.

The willingness to experiment with all things from instrumental timbre to vocal sound and structure proved popular with both the growing DIY movement within rock and also the loft and outside jazz movement in New York City.

“The main thing about us is that we really wanted to get away from the whole aspect of music making being something that was so precious and removed from everyday people,” Gordon said. “We never really deemed ourselves exemplary musicians; I know I don’t consider myself one. It was more important for us to get out there and make our own statements in our own way, and that kind of put us on the outside to a degree. But I feel it also empowered a lot of bands and groups because it said you really can make your own music if you have the courage to get out there and do it.”

Despite their successes, Gordon said that one of the things that happens when people put an icon status on you is that it generates of a lot of resentment.

“When we started out we were among other groups like The Meat Puppets or the Minutemen who were just working outside what was considered conventional musical ideas,” he said. “It’s always better when you’re viewed as an outsider, because the more popular you become, the more people start to take shots at you or look for reasons to dislike what you’re doing.”

The current roster includes, besides Moore and Gordon, guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo, bassist Mark Ibold and drummer Steve Shelley.

In recent years, the group also has greatly expanded its business interests. Moore has a record label (Ecstatic Peace) that’s heavily involved in chronicling the current noise scene in New York. Meanwhile, Gordon’s interest in visual arts extends into both collages and paintings and he has a clothing line (Mirror/Dash).

Still, Gordon maintains that none of these activities take precedence over spending time with their 15-year-old daughter Coco and working with the band.

“When things get a bit hectic, then we start setting some deadlines,” Gordon said. “But mostly everything is related, and we’re able to do all these things without anything clashing. Thurston is so heavily involved in the noise scene that he’ll go out there every night checking out bands. I’m not that much of a concert person anymore, though there are some bands every now and then I like to check out. But both of us always find time to do the important things, both personally and professionally.”

What: New York punk, avant-garde and alternative rock legends Sonic Youth in concert
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: War Memorial Auditorium, 301 Sixth Ave. N.
Cost: $25
Info: 782-4000, tpac.org