"Youth has no age", claimed Pablo Picasso, a point surely proven by New York music veterans Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve, Shelley – collectively Sonic Youth, a quartet who should surely be known as Sonic Maturity by now, were they not as hungry, influential and effortlessly hip as scenesters half their age. As they prepare to release their fifteenth album, The Eternal, and celebrate Sensational Fix, a major Sonic Youth exhibition currently touring European galleries, Hardeep Phull quizzes the band and examines the influence of experimental art on the evolution of leftfield rock’s ageless caliphs.
When people find out that I carve out a living as a music journalist, the most frequent question that follows is almost always along the lines of “who’s the biggest dick you’ve ever met?” Of course, I try my best to recite anecdotes of hissy fits and arrogant rock star strops as best I can, if only because I know that’s what most people are really fishing for. But if I’m being completely honest, the biggest dicks are the ones who try to claim they have created their work in a vacuum. You know the sort; morose looking vocalists in drainpipe trousers and Hitler Youth haircuts who claim never to have heard a Joy Division record, or groups who deliberately drench their songs in howling feedback but get upset at repeated mentions of Psychocandy. For me, it’s the height of rudeness for an artist of any description to deny their influences in an attempt to suggest their own originality and, using that rationale, Sonic Youth are surely the politest musicians I’ve ever come across.
The New Yorkers have long been the envy of the alternative rock world, mainly thanks to their longevity, which is firmly rooted in their ability to retain a unique musical identity while never going over old ground. In short, every Sonic Youth album sounds like Sonic Youth – but different. It’s a progression that is fuelled by deriving inspiration from just about every art form and cultural facet they come into contact with – and being forthright about these influences in the hope that others might pick them up too. Through such open citation and honest referencing, Sonic Youth have helped coalesce the worlds of music, film, writing, visual art, photography, television, fashion and countless other realms into a vast, interconnected whole in which they have become one of the most respected lynchpins. “We never thought we were ultimately referential, but we play with the idea,” explains their towering singer/guitarist Thurston Moore. “Ultimately, we are our own inspiration but we get very excited by the other things around us. It’s something we employ. We’re interested in the broader community in which we belong, no matter how big or small it is.”
Having spent the best part of 30 years exploring so many different cultural byways, Sonic Youth are now part of a vast worldwide network of creativity. However, the community in which they germinated at the start of the 1980s was positively parochial in comparison. An avowed follower of rock’n’roll, Thurston Moore moved to New York in 1976 just as the scene that would later be dubbed ‘no wave’ was bringing together scores of artists, bohemians and nihilists in a brief but explosive period of cross-pollination in downtown Manhattan. “The personalities involved were these wild, alienated young people who came to New York looking for a community that they could belong to,” Moore recalls. “There they would come into contact with much older artists. So you had people like [radical musicians] Lydia Lunch and James Chance who were very young, coming into contact with someone like [downtown scenester/artist] Diego Cortez who was already very established. I don’t think the young people really came to New York to ‘make it’ or to produce art that was a response to anything. There wasn’t a lot of analysis of anything and it was over really quickly. It wasn’t a case of people talking about high art or low art… for the most part you had people like Lydia Lunch saying ‘fuck art, let’s kill!’”
Bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon began her life in New York entrenched in the city’s more established art world, populated by he likes of Dan Graham, Richard Prince and Jeff Wall. So when Gordon and Moore finally met, the two combined their artistic backgrounds, granting the embryonic Sonic Youth a firm foundation that straddled both art and music. Guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo was the perfect compliment to that. Originally an art student with a penchant for drawing and sculpting, he had moved to New York and began pursuing music more actively with his band the Fluks before quickly becoming part of the electric guitar ‘orchestra’ put together by downtown composer Glenn Branca. The role of Sonic Youth drummer would not be conclusively settled until 1985 when Steve Shelley joined their ranks but the core of the band was in place by 1981. Moore was the noise rocker, Gordon brought her artistic sensibility, Ranaldo was part of both circles and together, the trio were immediately hotwired into the New York art world.
As they began to release music and touring took them further afield – first across North America and, by the mid-1980s, much of the world – Sonic Youth’s web of inspirations and like-minded fellow travellers grew wider and more diverse. Indeed, theirs was an unconventional approach to rock music which not everyone appreciated, not least in the UK. Kim Gordon: “At first, the gigs we could get were in galleries but we felt it would be more challenging to go outside of that world. The idea was always to make other people have to deal with us [laughs]. It seemed much more interesting than your peers patting you on the back, but we were looked down upon when we left that environment and tried to do our music in the rock world. That happened a lot when we first came to England. We were sneeringly referred to as ‘art school brats’.” However, that change of context did provide an insight into other forms of creativity for those who were curious enough to investigate. Any music fan who took an interest in Sonic Youth’s early activities could quickly find themselves exposed to the band’s cultural preoccupations, be they the sex’n’gore movies of Richard Kern, the misanthropic rantings of Lydia Lunch, the delicate photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter or the pulpy, sci-fi visions of Phillip K. Dick – and all this was years before the internet would make information on such cultish figures instantly available.
It wasn’t just the obscure or highbrow realms of culture which Sonic Youth co-opted either; just months before they released their 1988 art-rock masterpiece Daydream Nation , the band paid an all out tribute to the pop world with The Whitey Album which was released under the guise of Ciccone Youth. Not only did it feature tongue-in-cheek salutes to the burgeoning hip-hop scene and a karaoke machine cover of Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love,’ it also honed it on the group’s collective fixation with Madonna, proffering with covers of ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Into The Groove’, as well as using a photocopied close-up of her Royal Madgeness on the cover – all of it achieved with the pop icon’s full consent. “I think she knew we weren’t really selling any records so there wasn’t much point in suing us,” laughs Gordon. “You’d never be able to do that now.”
It’s commonly repeated how Sonic Youth provided a leg-up for their musical contemporaries (most notably Nirvana) as they made their late '80s ascension from the underground to something approaching the mainstream by signing to the Warner Brothers-backed Geffen label following the success of Daydream Nation. There was also plenty of room on this lofty new platform for the band’s other allies, inspirations and collaborators. The cover of their major label debut, 1990’s Goo, for example, showcased the work of Raymond Pettibon – formerly the in-house artist at the definitive American hardcore punk imprint SST Records, the label which had released Sonic Youth’s earliest work. Pettibon’s darkly satirical, comic-book style drawings had been celebrated for years in the underground but his interpretation of paparazzi photos of Maureen Hindley and David Smith (witnesses in the infamous Moors Murders trial) on the cover of Goo coincided with Sonic Youth’s first protracted chart exposure and exposed Pettibon’s work to a whole new audience as a result, as Moore recalls: “Shortly thereafter, he started getting shown in galleries which was fantastic. But no one thought he would become such a blue-chip artist because he was so esoteric.”
In 1992, it would be the turn of artist Mike Kelley to make an impact on the music world by providing the cover to the band’s next album, Dirty. Although Kelley was already highly regarded in the art world, his stuffed animal images nevertheless attracted attention from the grunge rock generation just as Sonic Youth began to creep inexorably into the mass media spotlight. Those album covers are now established benchmarks of indie-rock iconography but Sonic Youth’s artist remit was an ever-broadening church and their ideas would embrace wild abstraction performance and art just as easily as relatively accessible 2D imagery. Kim Gordon, for example, co-directed a video for The Breeders' 1993 alternative hit single ‘Cannonball’, alongside the then emergent director Spike Jonze. In it she drew on the little known performance work of Dan Graham to inform what would become a heavy rotation, MTV staple. “I liked Dan’s idea about the relationship between the artist and the audience, in that he acknowledged that there was one,” Gordon remembers of her old muse. “Not many people had done that before. In one of his early pieces [Performance/Audience/Mirror], he had a big mirror behind him and he would just describe what they were doing as they were watching him. Then he would turn around and describe himself, describing the audience in the mirror. I utilized that idea in the Breeders video. The band and Spike had no idea where the idea was from but they liked it. His idea was the cannonball which I didn’t get either so there were these two different ideas from opposite ends of the scale that worked in this context of a music video.”
As their dalliance with MTV showed, for a brief moment during the early 1990s, Sonic Youth were close to achieving a tangible level of fame as something like orthodox, marketable musicians. “We never had management or the label sit down and talk to us about it but I think it would have been appreciated if we focused more on the hard rock aspect of the band and re-wrote ‘Kool Thing’ [the band’s 1990 US Top 10 single] over and over again,” says Moore, wryly. But to concentrate on so narrow a creative strand was never really an option for such inexhaustibly magpie minds. Instead they turned away from the bigger productions of Dirty and Goo and settled on a grainy, lo-fi feel for subsequent albums, beginning with 1994’s Experimental Jet Set Trash And No Star. The quartet would continue to explore an ever-expanding panoply of extra-curricular pursuits throughout the rest of the decade, however. Moore’s brief widened to include movie soundtracks and his first full-length solo record. He remained, uniquely, as comfortable contributing to REM’s stadium rock as he was improvising with British ‘free’ guitarist Derek Bailey. Lee Renaldo worked on numerous visual projects with his artist wife Leah Singer and aggressively pursued his love of spoken word with a string of his own releases, as well as collaborating with such luminaries as beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Aside from concentrating on being a mother to her and Moore’s first born child Coco, who arrived in 1994, Kim Gordon also found time to start her X-Girl clothing line and work with Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz and Yoshimi from Japanese trash combo the Boredoms in the group Free Kitten. Meanwhile, Steve Shelley founded his Smells Like imprint and worked on albums by Cat Power’s Chan Marshall long before she attracted the kind of fanbase she now enjoys.
Collectively too, Sonic Youth’s status as a ‘Renaissance band’ become increasingly evident; one minute they would be depicted on The Simpsons stealing watermelons from Peter Frampton, the next they were releasing a string of experimental noise EPs on their own SYR imprint and writing their sleeve notes in foreign languages.
By the close of the century, Sonic Youth were largely, perhaps thankfully, marginalized again, with barely a toehold in the mainstream music world. While rock critics relied on hindsight to bestow on the band the mantle of innovators and pioneers, excellent, but somewhat overlooked albums such as NYC Ghosts And Flowers found Sonic Youth being as honest about their influences as ever, once again underscoring their debt to a grand lineage of art, as a candid Lee Ranaldo reflects. “On that record we were digging deeply into the idea of New York as this cultural spawning ground from as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. It felt like this very fertile ground that we felt very close to. There was the William S. Burroughs painting on the cover and on the back was a painting by Joe Brainard who was a product of the St Mark’s poetry scene. We were paying homage to the people we were ripping off in one way or another!”
If the last ten years of Sonic Youth has proved anything, it’s that they are not art school denizens, and neither are they pioneers in the truest sense, but rather they are judicious cultural curators. It’s a role that they have grown into slowly and which is reflected in their mature, post-Millennial albums. Murray Street, Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped offer the most confident and accomplished music of the band’s career and each is an essential album of the last decade. 2009 sees them make a full return to indie world as they sign to New York’s Matador label.
It’s a perhaps appropriate moment for them to take a rare backward glance in the shape of Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix, an exhibition which was first shown in France last year and is currently on a tour that covers Italy, Germany, Sweden and Spain. The vast display is a full scale art-project in itself and collates the band’s multi-disciplinary activities over six separately themed satellites, helping to illustrate clearly just how far beyond the parameters of rock music Sonic Youth have travelled. Although the official curatorial duties were assigned to Roland Gronenboom (who first worked with Kim Gordon on her ‘Kim’s Bedroom’ installation in 2000), Sensational Fix explains exactly where the “art” in “art-rock” is gleaned. “I’ve always seen them as a cultural magnet but also as a diffuser,” reasons Gronenboom. “Everything they attract, be it musicians, artists, photographers, fashion designers, whatever, they give it back in some way. They have the ability to transfer all these things into their songs and the other work they do. For me, art and culture comes through the band and they’re so interested in sharing it with people. They’re not one of those artists that just think ‘I’m gonna do my thing’ and that’s it. They approach their work by saying ‘I’m gonna do my thing… but who else can I involve?’ That idea of collaboration and community is not something you find too often in music or art in general.”
The way that breadth of community reflects in the various patrons of Sensational Fix was all too evident as I took a walk around the exhibition when it was staged in Düsseldorf recently. It wasn’t difficult to spot the young indie rockers paying close attention to the assemblage of exotic electric guitars in the hope of finding some kind of insight into the band’s distinct and dissonant sounds. Then there were the more thoughtful looking art lovers who pondered the sacrilegious intent of Christian Marclay’s assemblage of thousands of pieces of vinyl across a floor, which the visitor was invited to trample over. It’s a remarkable and singularly unique experience to see these two worlds – and others besides – being brought together under the auspices of what most people would simply regard as a band. Lee Ranaldo: “The exhibition pulls together the different things that we feel are important. That’s kind of what it’s all about – the band as curators – and it’s a mixture of things everyone knows and nobody knows. We have so many interests and it’s kept us going. You feed off one thing, then you move on to another and all the things we do personally – whether it’s writing projects, artwork projects, other groups, compositional work, record labels – all that stuff flows into one collective thing. It keeps us inspired and I think the interests that we have has contributed to how long we’ve been around.”
Creativity, like life itself, requires sustenance and Sonic Youth continue to show that they feed themselves very well with their latest album The Eternal. Once again, the songs are teeming with overt references, this time to the obscure Massachusetts-based noise artist Noise Nomads, beat poet Gregory Corso, punk band the Germs’ suicidal singer Darby Crash (aka Bobby Pyn). The cover this time carries a striking abstract piece by legendary, late ‘American Primitive’ folk guitarist John Fahey. Even after all this time, their enthusiasm for cultural stimuli hasn’t waned in the slightest. For fans, the way to get the most out of Sonic Youth remains to treat them as a portal to wider artistic world.
But with such a consistently referential attitude, Sonic Youth suggest that true artistic originality is always elusive. “What’s really innovative?” asks Kim Gordon rhetorically. “Something always comes from something else. It doesn’t come out of nothing. Certainly with pop melodies in particular, there’s a lot of shared history to draw on. It sounds awfully pretentious to say that we’re pioneers.” So what would she call the band? “I kind of like the term ‘sacred trickster’ which was something that [mid-twentieth century French artist] Yves Klein came up with (and is also borrowed for title of the The Eternal’s opening track). He liked to think of himself in that way. People just didn’t take him seriously at first but you look at his work now at it just seems so modern…”
As a member of a band who have made the transition from ‘art-school brats’ to feted creative luminaries, it’s easy to understand that sense of affinity.