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Sonic Youth: A 25-Year Experiment in Artful Noise

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Sonic Youth: A 25-Year Experiment in Artful Noise

Sonic Youth: A 25-Year Experiment in Artful Noise

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR NEWS, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It is pretty rare for a rock band to stay together for 25 years with its original members. Most bands that do rely on their past hits to keep going. Well, Sonic Youth is an exception in both cases. The band is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a new CD this week.

As Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports, it is still trying to turn fans on to sounds from the musical underground.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Sonic Youth has built a respectable if not huge following over 25 years with noise like this.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

ROSE: The band's new record is one of the most straight-ahead rock albums it's ever made.

So you might think Sonic Youth is moving towards mainstream, but if anything, it's the other way around. Consider this, producers of the hit TV show Gilmore Girls invited members of the band to play on the show's season finale last month.

(Sound bite of Sonic Youth):

ROSE: Guitarist Thurston Moore says he and bassist Kim Gordon have been watching the show with their 12-year-old daughter.

Mr. THURSTON MOORE (Sonic Youth): Sonic Youth's name was dropped in the show a few times and we contacted the show through our show through our management and said like what's going on here. You're kind of blowing our minds.

ROSE: There was a time when Sonic Youth never considered playing on TV and TV never considered the band. Musicians came together in the downtown New York art scene in the early 1980s. Thurston Moore says they were inspired by the do it yourself energy of Hard Core and No Wave.

Mr. MOORE: It was total punk rock. It was just like do whatever it takes to make exciting music and don't stress out about not having any kind of traditional technical wherewithal.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

ROSE: Thurston Moore was playing around town in a band called the Coachman when he met Kim Gordon in 1981.

Ms. KIM GORDON (Sonic Youth): He had this sort of golden glow around him.

Mr. MOORE: I was just hungry. I hadn't eaten in a while.

Ms. GORDON: No, my friend Miranda had said there was something special about the way he plays guitar. He was younger than me but I just thought oh why not.

ROSE: Gordon and Moore started playing together as Sonic Youth even though she had never played bass before. They got married in 1984. By then the band was building a reputation for it's wild live shows and for the weird textures it could coax from guitars.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

ROSE: The band's other guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, had played in composer Glen Broncha's guitar orchestra and like Broncha, Ranaldo says Sonic Youth employed unusual tunings to get the sounds it wanted.

Mr. LEE RANALDO: (Sonic Youth): We're not playing your typical guitar tuning so there is no normal chords for us to get our footing with. We're pretty much making it up as we go as far as the sounds we're creating. Often times the song will be inspired by just a certain kind of block of sound that somebody creates.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

ROSE: It wasn't just curiosity that drove the band to experiment with odd tunings and techniques. Thurston Moore says there was also an element of necessity.

Mr. MOORE: The guitars that we had early on were thrift store cheap guitars. They were the cheapest guitars because we didn't have any money and they really sounded horrible, especially when you just tried to play normal guitar with them. But, they sounded great if you would just sort of get a drumstick and put it under the strings and note it, play on either side of the drumstick.

ROSE: The band played many of its early gigs in art galleries, not in rock clubs. Lee Ronaldo was trained as a filmmaker. Kim Gordon studied visual art. Music journalist Michael Azerrad wrote a book about the American underground scene of the 1980s called Our Band Could Be Your Life. He says Sonic Youth learned a lot from the art world, including how to promote itself without a big record label.

Mr. MICHAEL AZERRAD (Author): In the art world one's rap, one's explanation of one's art, is just as important as the art itself. And Sonic Youth picked up on that in a big way. They talked a good game, they courted the press. They did as much as they could to cultivate a kind of cult of cool around the band and it worked. They got a very arty crowd.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

ROSE: Sonic Youth eventually did sign with a major label and that helped it land opening slots for such better-known acts as Neil Young and REM. The band drew its widest attention for the 1988 album Daydream Nation, which this spring was added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.

Despite flirting with the mainstream, Sonic Youth continues to follow it's own path. All of the musicians in the band devote time to side projects that range from noise to free improvisation.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Just as they got the chance to open for established acts, musicians of Sonic Youth like to pick adventurous younger bands to open for them, says Lee Ranaldo.

Mr. RANALDO: Our audience seems to be able to handle whatever kind of weird opening acts we turn them on to. I mean, sometimes it happens to be something like a band like Nirvana or Mudhoney and other times its just weird noise crews that we dig up.

Mr. AZERRAD: There are second and third generations of kids now who are getting in Sonic Youth.

ROSE: Author Michael Azerrad.

Mr. AZERRAD: And I think that's a big reason why, is the band's eternal and unquenchable curiosity about music and art in general.

ROSE: To help those younger bands, the members of Sonic Youth run several small record labels themselves. This year Sonic Youth used one of those labels to release a live recording it a made of music to accompany a film by the late avant-garde Stan Brakhage.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: So after putting so much energy into artier projects, what did Sonic Youth decide to do for it's 21st album in 25 years? Pop songs.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

Ms. GORDON: (Singing) You keep me coming home again.

ROSE: The songs on the new album, Rather Ripped, are short, at least short by Sonic Youth standards, and they're catchy, says author Michael Azerrad.

Mr. AZERRAD: It may simply mean that after 25 years, Sonic Youth are finally coming to terms with conventional song structure. They had always kind of had this kind of love hate relationship with it, partially because maybe they weren't so good at it. But on this new album you can really hear songs that you can sing along to.

ROSE: Besides, says guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth cannot afford to coast on its past hits. It doesn't have any.

Mr. RANALDO: You know, we're always most interested in the music we're making currently and we're going to go out this summer and 70 or 80 percent of what we play will be from our most recent record.

ROSE: There aren't many 25-year-old rock bands that will say that.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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