Years ago I got called up as a fanzine writer (with one issue under my belt) and asked to come to London and interview Sonic Youth. I think this was about 1998 or so. I was absolutely amazed. Alas, in the end it got pulled. The band ended up playing Glastonbury instead. It was nice to be asked though and I met Thurston Moore too. He was tall.
Sonic Youth have a new album out called Sonic Nurse. I decided I would interview the band and ask them why I should buy it. I can't afford to blindly buy SY records anymore so I wanted to know why they thought it was good. If they can't justify its existence then who can? And I wasn't going to settle for a load of clever-ass comments. I wanted to know the real answers.
This time I thought I could be more objective and ask them things I always wanted to ask them. I veer between loving Sonic Youth and not so much disliking them but wishing they were different. It's a struggle. As a fan, they've let me down as many times as they've energised or stimulated me, both on record and in the live format.
Obviously I couldn't get a reply from anyone about interviewing them. So, undeterred, I interviewed myself instead.
So what the hell is there not to like about Sonic Youth?
Well, plenty of stuff actually.
Like what? They are the forefathers of the whole avant rock thing, right?
Well, maybe the Velvet Underground were, but I don't like them either. All that nihilism and art posturing.
Look, we both play guitar and we use weird tunings and noise. That's all from Sonic Youth.
I learned to play the guitar to Sonic Youth records. Weird tunings were really natural for me to use, because I never learned the guitar properly, so when it came to listening to SY I didn't have to unlearn my guitar technique or something. I just read magazines and then later websites and just copied the tunings and it shaped the way I play and the way I enjoy playing the guitar which is, admittedly, a very large part of my life. I even started the Gearology page on their official web site. I gave it over to the guy who does it now who does a much better job too. Hell, my friend Gareth even got one of their stolen guitars back for them!
No one did that tuning thing before SY either...
Now that's bullshit. People write that in magazines who don't have a clue. American folk music is based entirely around alternate tunings. Skip James played in open D minor and most all of Delta blues stuff is in Hawaiian (G) or Open D Major tuning. Then you've got John Fahey doing treated guitar and weird open tuned guitar in the 60s. Even Nick Drake used bizarre 'backwards' tunings (where the high strings are lower than the low strings). And that's just westernised stuff, we're not even getting into crazy eastern open tuned instruments that carve up the 12 note scale we are familiar with into hundreds of fractured tones. But yeah, I suppose in the context of music that still actually rocks, SY were certainly the first to use tunings as a basis for composition.
And you have made rock music with noise and weird tunings - so you owe them personally
Owe them for what? Making music has hardly been an effective use of my time. I am financially crippled and my brain is retarded by the sheer weight of useless information about music stored within it. Yeah, cheers Sonic Youth. Thanks a lot.
But think of how much music you've been turned onto by SY, and think of everyone else who gets tipped off to great bands by SY...
Yeah, they're a fucking charity, aren't they...
Come on. The bands that open for Sonic Youth are like a tip-sheet for what's going to be cool.
What, and they're like some kind of amazing divining rod for underground talent, yeah?
Rubbish, SY must know every hipster in the USA, fuck it - the world. And every one of them is going to tell SY about hot bands they've seen. The promotion of those bands is as much to do with SY wanting to cling on to any remnants of their youth by being 'down' with hip new talent as it is to do with their ability to actually spot it.
But those new bands that are patronised by SY all love SY and are all influenced by them
Be realistic! Do you think if someone came up to your band and said 'Do you want to play with Sonic Youth?' you'd say 'Hmmm, no I don't think so, even though it would be a hugely beneficial badge of cool. I just don't like their mid-era period very much'? It benefits both parties. The new band gets the Sonic Youth badge of credibility and something to write in a press statement. And it colours peoples perception of Sonic Youth's own work, purely by association. They get cool points themselves.
It's true. Thurston Bloody Moore is getting to be as bad as Bono. Every documentary or book written about a supposedly obscure artist has some qualification for their greatness written by Thurston in mumbo-jumbo hipster NYC slang revealing how they were a massive influence on his band. Rubbish!
What do you mean?
Man, it's obvious he bought all these records after he got minted on the Geffen contract. If I had the chance to buy that many records you'd be damn sure I'd pick some good ones
But I mean, it seems like a lot of obscure artists seem to have just been born to influence Thurston Moore - that's the one qualifying feature of any single written piece about a lot of people. John Fahey is the best example. He created a world of his own from nothing, he released records independently, and he built himself a language that runs through his records - and all he gets in every write-up or obituary is 'Thurston Moore liked him'. It's almost poetic justice that Nirvana outgrew SY, and so in some circles SY will always be the band that discovered Nirvana.
And then you get the All Tomorrows Parties festival where they picked all American bands. It's insulting. Because of the internet we can find out endlessly about what's good and what's happening in the USA, but the difference is those cats don't care about the music made over here.
But if you hadn't gone to ATP, you wouldn't have found out about Charalambides and you like them a lot.
True, true, they were good. But a lot of the stuff that day has a British version that is twice as good and is ignored. Every US band comes over here and who do they pick to play from the UK? The Fall. Cheers.
What, you can't tell me you don't like the Fall?
I love The Fall.
What about free jazz? You like free jazz, and you can't deny SY's links to the free jazz world are impressive. They pull the worlds of rock and jazz together with their own music and their collaborations outside of the band. It encourages people to branch out and listen to new things
Does it? I don't think it does. I think some of the things written by SY about jazz and improvised music make the whole thing so fucking elitist I wouldn't be interested in hearing it. It wasn't Sonic Youth that got me into Sonny Sharrock. Free jazz is supremely LOW brow, it is primal gut music. It cannot be about the head as it is instant and spontaneous, so any thought made by the player in preparation is self defeating. But the way Thurston describes some things is just too damn cool to appeal to anyone apart from him and his NYC Knitting Factory mates, and that's pointless. They're going to know about it anyway. It reads like an excuse for him to have his name associated with these people, and again it colours people's perceptions of the work he does because they relate his name to the name of the bands or artists he champions - whether or not the music he makes actually has any link to it all. I want him to use his position to genuinely popularise the art form.
You seem to have a beef with Thurston?
Hmmm... maybe. I suspect he is retarded.
What? He is an amazing guitarist.
That's another myth! I have this book called the Complete Guitar Book and it lumps Thurston and Lee together in the great guitarists section. It says there is not much to pick between their playing. In some books and magazines, Lee isn't even mentioned. Thurston always gets the respect and Lee never does. Thurston just plays kinetic, fast-strum chords that owe as much to the rhythm as the notes and then he occasionally slips in some minor sounding picked stuff or a freakout. And his freakouts involve stomping on a pedal and throwing himself on the floor. It's a physical thing. It's my experience that people who put that physicality into playing are doing so out of frustration that they can't play what they want to play, their instrument isn't enough. That's cool and inspirational a lot of the time, but just doing that for 25 years?
It's way deeper than that. You're being a snob. He is the punk rock heart of the band playing chugga-chugga downstrokes like Joey Ramone but using weird, harmonically out tunings. It's a real coming together of forms that should be opposed and impossible to clash together. It gives Sonic Youth the power they have. It'll always have a punk rock base because of the energy that Thurston has. Just thinking about The Year Punk Broke and all the energy and excitement of the performances... it blew my mind when I was 16 or so.
Maybe... maybe... I mean, it is exciting to see him play and some of those riffs are great, 'Teenage Riot', 'Schizophrenia'...
And what about some of the jazz stuff he's done?
I don't know about that, it's the same thing. When he did that Dream Aktion Unit thing at ATP it was like he ran out of ideas midway through, and it was very visible when it happened. I'm not advocating a Pat Metheny approach to jazz but it is possible to do something else other than running your hands up and down a fretboard. Well, other than smashing everything up. I'm just not sure what he's saying.
Well, it just seems to be about the fury or about this explosion of sound. I don't necessarily want dynamics; I just want to see that the personality of this music is rounded in some way. Like Sonny Sharrock again, his records are furious but are also righteous, uplifting, beautiful, and angry. You've got to have that humanity or that rounded quality or it becomes an art prank or an event.
Well, Sonic Youth are an art band...
Maybe that's why I don't like them. I don't believe there's any room for irony or art poses in music. You're trying to communicate something, no matter what it is, so not being honest just throws up a smokescreen. It's for cowards and people who don't know what it is they want or that they're trying to say. It's for lazy people. People who want the listener or the observer to tell them what their own music is about. And if the viewer/observer doesn't like it, they can always say 'Well, it was ironic, we didn't mean it.' You know, they make a great pop album like Dirty and then they want to disown it and label it as a statement or an experiment.
I don't think they've ever disowned it have they?
Maybe not directly, but you always get the feeling they dipped their toe into that world of making a quite direct album and I feel there's no room for toe dipping. It is a good record, although I don't think they've ever made a truly great record.
Get screwed! What about Sister or Daydream Nation?
Sister is good yeah, but even then there are patchy moments.
Patchy? Your problem is you're defining the band by their pop songs, by their 'hits'. It's not right to do that, they create something bigger. You're saying 'patchy' as in 'there are some songs that aren't as good on it', whereas those could be pieces, not songs, they're doing a mood thing not a song so it fulfils their brief. They weren't written as pop songs they had a different target for them.
I disagree. I think Sonic Youth is a rock band. It's what they do best. Their non-pop songs are just failed pop songs. Even going back to the start; 'Kill Yr Idols' has hooks. That's why I remember it. 'Schizophrenia' is a massive pop song. Their strength is in making pop songs out of weird source material.
But I just think they do what people tell them. Actually, maybe that's a little sinister. I should change that to 'they are easily led'. They don't strike me as these serious kinds of music players who are constantly busy with ideas. They strike me as being very canny and malleable types who fit themselves into any hole that presents itself to them, round, square or whatever.
They're just music fans like I am. They take from what is in front of them and what they are impressed by. First of all they were No Wave because their contemporaries came from that. So then they became a type of scary almost-Goth thing back when they were hanging with Swans and Big Black, but with a little Creedence thrown in to satisfy the Minute
men-loving side of them. The only time they really stepped out of that was around this time with Sister and Daydream Nation and I think they have a feeling of being something they did themselves - and it's no coincidence that they are viewed by many fans as their best records.
Then they hit on Green River and Mudhoney, and eventually Nirvana, and they riffed it up and got with the hooks and a more simple approach. Then we got stripped down lo-fi after they were hanging with Pavement and Sebadoh. They kind of drifted a bit after that, got more pastoral. They seemed to be looking for a way of growing old gracefully. Now they seem to be looking at the ultimate longevity band for guidance - The Grateful Dead or a bit of Neil Young. I'm not saying it's bad but I mean, they follow, they don't trailblaze as much as people like to think they do. I think a lot of bands could do the same if they had the instant kudos SY have combined with the financial support they enjoy that allows them to pursue their art full time.
But don't forget the side projects and the world they have created for themselves where everything lives side by side. What other band could come to ATP and play an improv set like they did?
But that was rubbish!
You just didn't understand it.
Fuck you! That's the beauty of the position SY lie in. They play to rock fans and maybe some people who are open to the idea of improvised music but don't have a lot of experience with it. The rock fans hate it and it gives the people who want to be into improvised music the chance to say to them that they 'don't understand it'. Improvised music does have a hierarchy of good and bad too like all music does. If you like rock music you won't like ALL rock music. What if people DO understand it, but don't like it or think that it wasn't that good? By disliking that set I'm not saying I dislike improvised music. I am saying I don't think they did it very well in that case. It's a different thing.
But they have Jim O'Rourke on board. He's played with Derek Bailey and done all those crazy records. He doesn't join a bunch of indie rock chancers - he works with people who can give him something back.
Like a house.
Just kidding. But you've got to admit, in the world of 'underground' music, playing with Sonic Youth is high up the list of secure jobs. I can't imagine he worries about making rent as much as did when he was turning it out in Gastr Del Sol. And it's another badge of cred for Sonic Youth themselves; O'Rourke is a cool guy in certain circles. Don't get me wrong, I love Jim O'Rourke, he's perfect for Sonic Youth.
Because he writes great pop songs! The last two records have been a real return to form too as a result. With Murray Street, it seemed to me that having a real traditional bass thing going on suits their new material. It makes it sound rounded and classic. I liked A Thousand Leaves too though, with just the four of them. I saw them on that tour and while I was disappointed they were just doing new stuff I really thought they were on the mark, some of the guitar playing was outrageous. 'Female Mechanic Now On Duty' is so paint stripping. I loved them on that tour. Then they lost their guitars and made that weird album.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers?
That's the one.
Do you own it?
Well, no but...
Have you even heard it?
Well, how can you criticise it? That's typical, you're moaning that people don't think about why they like SY and just say they do and you can't say why you don't! Do you own the new album Sonic Nurse even?
You don't, do you?
No. But I'll probably buy it as I buy all their stuff eventually...
What about Kim Gordon? She's such an iconic figure within rock surely? A real prototype for the Riot Grrl movement?
In a way. But she's still thought of someone who can't play. I don't agree with that by the way, as her bass playing is the only thing that's really a concrete link to jazz in what SY do in my opinion. It's hard for her to get a root note because of the tunings and the dissonance so the traditional role of the bassist is redundant. So she is forced to skate around and be more lyrical. I like her playing a lot. She may have become an iconic figure but she's never overcome the idea that she cannot play, whereas Lee and Thurston have done (as proven by their appearance in guitar books). It's like she's become an icon despite her abilities - not because of them. Or because of other things. That to me is a little weird.
Having said that, the one thing that interests me is that she was (I might be wrong here but I'm in the right ballpark) 31 when she started Sonic Youth. Outside of it being a role model for women she's a real role model for people who wish to continue in making their art. People get better with age; youth is no advantage except in having the energy to play tours or the exuberance to hide weaknesses in what you do. That she could continue as an artist and feel like she had something to say at an age when music fans and critics would label you 'past it' is super-inspirational to me.
But as for being a pre-cursor to the Riot Grrl thing, you've got to bear in mind that she lives in NYC where you have people like Patti Smith and someone like Lydia Lunch even. It's a big city, it's very art and fashion orientated, and women seem to find it easier to be respected as artists there - just like they do in London for example. I'm not saying it's perfect, but even in the No Wave movement you had women involved, which is perhaps to do with the fine art links in that movement and that women found more of a platform in the art world before the music world. Compare that to somewhere like Washington State which, even though it has liberal colleges etc I would imagine is nowhere near NYC in terms of opportunities for women to make music and play gigs. I think bands like Bikini Kill were born of rage much more than Sonic Youth - I understand the parallels but it's important to see the differences too.
What about Lee then? I think Lee is really under rated.
It's like he gets dwarfed by Thurston in interviews and has to goof around. That BBC 'Put the blood in the music' TV show from about 1988 is embarrassing. It's like he wants to say something but instead goofs about. Thurston in that just wastes time, the part where he mock decides to sell his John Zorn CD is like watching video tapes of yourself when you're 15. Of course they'd say they were destroying the notion that their art is important or worth profiling, but I think that's the real him. Lee seems to want to say things but can't. He seems like a simpler more honest person to me. Same musically, he seems to resort to that kinetic noise making thing a lot when in fact he plays amazingly when he goes against what the rest of the band is doing.
I watched him at ATP 2004 and it was amazing. I also got to stand right at the foot of the stage when they played London once and my arms were folded about 15 cm from his pedals with his amps blaring away in my face. It was completely like some guitar masterclass. He uses the tunings to create new harmonic clusters and wonderful chords. I love the way he plays. I have a bootleg of them in Germany on the Washing Machine tour and one chord he plays in 'Junkie's Promise' is about the best guitar moment I can think of.
So you think he should go solo permanently?
No, it works best when contrasted to Thurston and put together I think, that's why Sonic Youth are so good.
It's just sometimes I wish they'd play off each oth
er more, like Television or something. It's definitely possible for them to still freak out and heighten the intensity and the noise but be aware of each other whereas a lot of times they just make noise independently. That to me is the domain of the SY imitator band not the real thing. I want to see alchemy on stage! I want magic!
'Sonic Youth imitator band'?
You know what I mean. Bands that just make noise, or who write a pop song and add noise to it instead of drawing out a pop song from noise in the first place like SY do.
And those bands always have such thin sounding trebly guitars whereas Sonic Youth is all about the girth and the fatness of it. It's very dense sounding. No one does that really. Maybe it's the fault of journalists for comparing bands to Sonic Youth. My friends band gets the comparison a lot and they sound nothing like SY, he just makes noise on guitars to colour their songs and that might come from SY as an aesthetic thing but it's not what the song is based on. It's like someone saying KaitO, for example, sound like Sonic Youth - they have guitar noise and lots of it but it's used differently and very much as something tonal rather than as a real foundation. Like 'Kool Thing' by SY is a really catchy song and the breakdown is extra catchy but it's really built on dissonance and built on the noise. It's not like it's a catchy progression played noisily. I think that's the real strength of SY, not improvising or talent spotting or being some empire in their own right. It's about harnessing noise and using it. They are amazing at that.
See! You love Sonic Youth to bits. You're just jealous that they don't ask your bands to play with them.
That's it exactly.
Chris interviewing himself, yesterday
article by Chris Summerlin
SY photos by Mark Connelly at photo.conn75.com