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flag 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 that conversation:

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 ourselves."

Carsten: Isn't that a problem, having your own label, Sonic Youth Records (SYR), even though you're with a major?
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 living?
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 achieved?
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.

(Exit Thurston Moore, enter Lee Ranaldo.)

C: After so many records and tours, do you still think about how the media will receive your music?
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 far?
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 trip.

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 ones.

C: This is probably a silly question, but do you have any special favorites in your own back catalog?
L: Songs or albums?

C: Both!
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 it.

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?
L: No, 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.

C: Thanks for talking to me!

Sonic Youth tour Europe in February, but will only perform in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and Spain.

Copyright © 1999 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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