US - New York - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 28 - 01/31/99
Sonic Youth - a thousand words ...
Well, I guess if there's one band on Earth that doesn't really
need an introduction it's probably this four-piece from New York
City. Last year they released their fourteenth album, A Thousand
Leaves, and came over for a short European tour where they
concentrated on the new (and pretty experimental) stuff plus the odd
blast from the past (they encored with Death Valley '69).
Around that time I had the chance to talk to both Thurston Moore and
Lee Ranaldo in two separate phone interviews. To coincide with their
upcoming tour of Europe in February '99 here's some excerpts from
Thurston: We sorta spent all of last year
(1997, that is) in the studio that we built and we didn't tour. We
just decided to lock ourselves in there and make music on our own
time. We recorded so much of it and so much was really long and
extrapolated kind of experimental instrumental music and we said "Ok,
this is what we really enjoy doing, let's release this music". But we
knew that Geffen records... there's no way they could've sold this
music. They wouldn't know how to, cause it's completely inaccessible
to the commercial mainstream. So we said, "Ok, let's put it out
Carsten: Isn't that a problem, having your own
label, Sonic Youth Records (SYR), even though you're with a
T: No, cause we said "Listen, let us put them out
ourselves and if for some miracle these records start selling a lot
and get played on the radio and everybody runs out to buy them, then
you can take them over". But for the most part, we'll do all the work
and in a way it keeps the band promotional active and it's doing work
that the label doesn't have to do. The band is still in some kind of a
spotlight, y'know. But we just wanted to do it cause we really enjoyed
doing it and the music was really related to us and to what we like
and the bands we listen to. And so we released three 12" EPs.
C: Do you divide the stuff into two categories? The instrumental
stuff for SYR is the art project, the Geffen stuff to make a
T: No, not really. It all sorta informs each other. We
didn't really make too much of a distinction between what we were
gonna recording for the Geffen Record Co. and what we were gonna
recording for SYR. Basically what was going on with the SYR label was
us developing musical ideas with the knowledge that at some point we
would create a CD worth of music for Geffen but not really thinking
about the accessible aspect of the music. The only thing we knew is
that on the Geffen record we would probably get more involved with
doing vocals. On the SYR records we kind of... it was a little more
relaxed. We didn't really have to sing on those cause they worked
really well as instrumentals. The fact that we could do a whole record
with instrumentals was very enjoyable to us.
C: Do you
sometimes feel limited by the trademark status Sonic Youth has
T: No, I don't really think about it. I know people
see us as a certain identifiable thing, but we tend to challenge what
people think of us every few years. We tend to grow old in a way that
is genuine and not paranoid.
C: Do you think there's a
special secret to Sonic Youth's longevity?
T: It's just the
fact that we're not afraid to grow old! (laughs)
C: You have
been involved in many side projects. How do they fit in? Is that just
a chance for you to live out all the things you can't do with Sonic
Youth? Or is that kinda like fueling the fire? Do you listen to each
other's solo records and think: "Hey, we gotta top that either solo or
with Sonic Youth" ?
T: Not at all! We've always done solo and
side-projects for years. Sonic Youth was created in a sense as a
side-project that was kind of an adjunct to what we were doing
beforehand, working with all these musicians and then we all were
together and we did music together and called it Sonic Youth. It was
just another project and it became the primary one.
Thurston Moore, enter Lee Ranaldo.)
C: After so many records
and tours, do you still think about how the media will receive your
Lee: Well, it matters and we're obviously always
curious how the media will receive the new stuff. But it really won't
keep us up at night or anything (giggles). What can you do at this
point? We're such an established band... there's people that loves us,
there's people that hate us and none of that really affects what
happens to us at this point. We just go along and do what we do. We
got a nice pattern going where we keep going.
C: Do you ever
look back on what you've achieved with Sonic Youth? How satisfied are
you with what Sonic Youth have achieved throughout their career so
L: I don't know...sometimes you hear one of the old
records and it brings back the times in which it was made and all the
things that have been happening then and you feel your sense of
achievement and where you started and what you've come to, but also so
involved in what's happening now that it's not that useful for us to
bother looking back. For instance we're gonna go out on tour and we'll
almost exclusively play new material, the new album and stuff off the
EPs. We're not gonna play stuff off Washing Machine or any of
the other records. It's because we're really interested in remaining a
band that's in the present, y'know? We don't wanna turn into a
"greatest hits"-kinda band.
C: Don't you think that some
fans might be disappointed by that?
L: Sure, in a certain way,
but they'll also be exhilarated if they are into the new material. I
think it's preferable to see a band that's playing what they are doing
at the moment and what they find exciting, rather than to see Mick
Jagger singing Satisfaction. That's more of a nostalgia
C: Okay... but I saw you play this festival on the
Washing Machine Tour and you played like almost everything from
that album, but you opened with Teenage Riot and I really
liked that mix of old and new.
L: Well, the last few years
we've been making an effort to play stuff from various points in our
career. We never used to do that, we used to play almost exclusively
the current material. Since Lollapalooza basically... on that tour we
really thought we should give a nice broad overview, so we did... but
at the moment we're just more interested in playing the new material
again. so maybe there will be a handful of older songs once we get the
new ones down, but I think we'll concentrate mainly on the new
C: This is probably a silly question, but do you have
any special favorites in your own back catalog?
L: Songs or
L: Well, I don't know. Daydream
Nation always stands out as a particularly wonderfully realized
album to me. I really like that one a lot. But we worked on them all
so they are equally... there's not really one that I say I don't like
or anything. I thing that they all had their good points about
them.... I don't really have favorites, I guess. Sometimes you're in
the mood for the anarchy of Confusion is Sex or the
exhilaration of a song like Death Valley '69 or something.
Other times it's something else. The way Sister turned out, or
Evol, even Goo has some nice short-form song pieces on
C: Countless bands have been influenced by your music in
the past. Some probably have become more successful then you ever
were. Have you ever been jealous?
L: Not really. We're pretty
happy where we are. Where we are right now is very appropriate for the
kinda people that we are. First of all, the innovators are almost
never the ones that cash in big time on their ideas. It always takes
someone else to water it down a little bit. When you see the artists
that do make a big success... you really have to sacrifice a lot of
your personality and your personal life. You almost have to become a
cartoon character, with a certain look and certain things you say to
the media and what not. It's just a little bit too fake for us. I
mean, what band in the world could be in a better position right now?
We make exactly the music we wanna make, we got a major deal and an
indie deal, we're straddling the line where we are interesting to
people who listen to both types of music. Even people who listen to
completely pure indie music still find the SYR series has good stuff
about it. I mean we're not millionaires or anything (giggles). But
apart from that we're in a very good position.
C: Do you
ever think about the fact that you might be able to sell more record
by touring more and stuff? Or is it just not important?
it's not important. And for us it doesn't really work out that way.
There's been times with other records, where we thought "Oh yeah, if
we tour a lot we'll sell a lot more records", and all this kinda
stuff, but we're not just that kinda band. I mean we don't have hit
singles and we don't get played on the radio and stuff. It doesn't
really matter. We just tour when it's fun to do.
for talking to me!
Sonic Youth tour Europe in February, but
will only perform in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and
Copyright © 1999 Carsten Wohlfeld