“THEY ARE ALWAYS DIFFERENT, ALWAYS THE SAME” – JOHN PEEL
The late, great broadcaster was talking about his favourite band The Fall, but it’s a claim that could easily be applied to New York’s – alright, planet Earth’s – finest purveyors of noise-rock. Since 1981, Sonic Youth have been shuttling between experimental noise and infectious indie-punk to various degrees, but they’ve never, ever repeated themselves – all the more impressive seeing as they’ve not made any major stylistic changes over their near-30-year career. There’s no synth-pop Sonic Youth album, no record where they team up with the New York Philharmonic for an orchestral version of ‘Kill Yr Idols aka I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick’. And thank god for that. Few bands get to make 15 albums, and fewer bands make 15 albums that are as good as Sonic Youth’s. They may not make another album that sums them up as well as ‘Daydream Nation’, but it’s no way their best – we reckon ‘Sister’, ‘Dirty’ and recent efforts ‘Murray Street’ and ‘Sonic Nurse’ are up there with ‘The Beatles’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’.
New album ‘The Eternal’ is their first since leaving major label Geffen, their corporate home since 1990’s ‘Goo’, but it’s ironically one of their catchiest, most melodic efforts, albeit a lot more driving and distorted than 2006’s tamer ‘Rather Ripped’. The band – Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, and new member Mark Ibold – came to London last month to perform a sold-out show at the extra-small Scala venue, so we caught up with Kim and Thurston in the upstairs of a King’s Cross pub to chat about regional condiments, black metal, name changes and The Kooks.
‘The Eternal’ is your first record on an indie label since ‘Daydream Nation’ , about 20 years ago…
Kim Gordon: I guess so. That’s a little bit of an anniversary, isn’t it?
I’ve seen interviews where you guys have claimed that Geffen didn’t really let you have free rein on your last few albums – is that true?
K: Well, that’s not really true. We wanted to change our name to Washing Machine actually [in 1995], ’cause we thought that would be interesting, and they were like, ‘No, no’. It’s just the overall feeling of now that we’re not on Geffen we realise that we had more of an exuberant sense of purpose with this record, that actually people were gonna work on it who liked music.
The biggest change on this record is the vocal interplay, I think – how has it taken you since 1981 to experiment with that this much?
Thurston Moore: We always wanted to do it – we’ve done it before. We did it on ‘Kotton Krown’, which was on ‘Sister’, but not much. Lee and I tried blending our voices a little bit [live], but on this one it’s much more apparent. I think it’s something we always thought about doing but sort of ran out of time to really try it – usually we’re sort of satisfied with the single vocals.
Are you playing mostly guitar on the record Kim?
K: Yeah, all guitar. Mark [Ibold, ex-Pavement] plays bass on all of the songs.
He’s a proper member now then?
K: Yeah, I guess so.
T: He wrote his bass parts. We brought him in [on] day one to see what he would do, and he immediately came up with really cool stuff. He seems to have a real good Krautrock vibe that he likes to employ.
He doesn’t sound too different from you guys either – it’s not like he’s playing slap bass…
K: Well, we wouldn’t allow that!
He’s been in Pavement and now he’s in Sonic Youth – is he the luckiest bassist alive?
T: Ha! To some demographic maybe.
K: He was also in Free Kitten.
T: And Dustdevils. He’s got quite a pedigree.
K: He’s also a food dresser sometimes. For ads.
He used to mix cocktails in New York – do you get him to mix you some on tour?
T: No, he doesn’t. [We should] get him like a portable bar?
K: Steve [Shelley]’s always trying to get him to put condiments on his amp.
T: Like regional condiments. Mark’s one of these guys who gets up in the morning no matter what city we’re in and scouts out the entire region for what kind of great eateries are open at any given time, so by the time any of us wake up we all have these text messages like, ‘We’ll get coffee here, then we’ll go over here and get some breakfast, then we’ll go here for some bread, then there’s sausages over here’, he just scopes the entire region by dawn. Some people are into that. I prefer just going in the basement and lock the door. Pulling the window shades down. Playing some Mayhem albums. [Kim pokes Thurston]
I can’t think of another band that’s done 15 albums and resisted the urge to change instruments – there’s always a Tropicalia album, or‚”
K: We learn from others’ mistakes!
T: We wouldn’t know how to do other genre music.
K: We did the Ciccone Youth record.
T: Yeah, that really made waves… Most of us don’t really know how to play anyway.
It’s interesting reading about all the reference points on the new record – although that’s something you’ve done throughout your career.
K: It just really depends, sometimes a book you’re reading…
T: We’ll reference literature like that, there’s a song on here called ‘Leaky Lifeboat’, which we took from a line by [beat poet] Gregory Corso, we even give him credit in the song title. I always think it’s a good idea.
K: I like to quote art historians – haha! TJ Clark, that was the inspiration for ‘Calming The Snake’, this book on Poussin [‘The Sight Of Death: An Experiment In Art Writing’], about two different paintings, one was called ‘The Calm’ or something, and one was called ‘Death By Snake’. It’s just so I can have something to talk about in interviews.
I interviewed Graham Coxon the other week, and he was wondering if you guys had ever thought about making an acoustic record?
K: It’d be interesting to do an acoustic record sometime.
T: We thought about doing a piano record once.
Tonight’s show is almost a secret gig it was announced so late on…
T: Well, it’s not in Time Out. I was looking at Time Out, and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t even listed’!
Are you playing ‘Pattern Recognition’ tonight?
K: Unfortunately not…
Guys, come on!
K: I love playing that song. Mark hasn’t really learned how to play that yet.
T: He’s not the only one, I have no idea how to play that.
K: I think we only played it once with him.
T: Played what?
K: ‘Pattern Recognition’.
T: With Mark?! I don’t think we ever did.
K: I think we did, we played it once with him.
T: Wow, I don’t remember playing it ever since Jim [O’Rourke] left.
So what are you guys listening to at the moment?
T: Good question – Hush Arbors…
K: The new Entrance demo, they’re great.
T: The Kooks, you ever heard of The Kooks?
You’re not listening to The Kooks, surely!?
K: Our daughter listens to them.
T: Coco plays it in the car all the time – there’s a couple of jams that are pretty dope.
K: They sound a little like The Strokes sometimes.
T: But better.
K: There’s a certain vocal style or texture or microphone or compressor that’s very Strokes-ish. It’s catchy.
They’re kind of private school, well-bred…
T: Cool, I like private school, well-bred punk rock.
K: Thurston’s been listening to a lot of black metal.
T: I guess – does that count as music? That’s not really listening, that’s more kind of embracing the most unholy one. Investigating the depths of humanity’s despair.
K: And Flight Of The Conchords – our daughter’s into that, we went to see them.
Do you ever listen to your own albums? And which are you most proud of?
T: I never listen to them.
K: I’d have to say the new one. But it’s also the freshest.
T: Yeah. I’m almost proudest of ‘Confusion Is Sex’, ’cause when we made that record I felt that was the record I always wanted to make. We were somewhat of an unknown entity, and then all of sudden we put this record out that had all these signifiers on it that I really wanted to display – the black and white cover, the energy on the cover from the live shot and Kim’s illustration, what was going on lyrically, what was going on sonically, the fact that the record ended with this constructed instrumental piece that Lee brought in that he’d done with two reel-to-reels, I thought it covered a lot of bases. We were blurring that distinction between punk rock hardcore bands and art bands, I really liked that. Everything after that [record] was just continuing exploration. I feel like we nailed it pretty quickly.
K: ‘Washing Machine’, that was a great fun time recording.
T: I don’t even remember what those records sound like. Once in a while we have to go back and listen to stuff to learn it, it’s really odd. When we were playing ‘Daydream Nation’, we had to learn all the songs, and there was that song ‘Rain King’ – I remember putting the CD on and thinking, ‘I don’t have any recall of ever hearing this, let alone playing this. If I heard this on the radio, I’d be like, ‘Who are these guys?”
By Tom Pinnock
Originally published in issue 6 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2009