Sonic Youth: Story of a 'Kool Thing' The highly influential band has been crazy on stage for decades, but its members lead a surprisingly normal real life, according to David Browne, author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth.
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(Soundbite of song "Teenage Riot")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) Everybody's talking about the stormy weather And what's a man do to but work out whether it's true? Looking for a man with a focus and a temper, Who can open up a map and see between one and two.


The name of that song is "Teenage Riot," and the name of the album is "Daydream Nation," and the name of the band is Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth are so influential to many thousands of bands who cite them as an influence that no doubt all those bands are rolling their collective eyes because we played Sonic Youth's best-known songs - perhaps it's their most accessible song. Well, that's how it goes in the world of indie rock. The name of our guest is David Browne, author of the new Sonic Youth biography, "Goodbye 20th Century." Thanks for coming in, David.

Mr. DAVID BROWNE (Author, "Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth"): Glad to be here, Mike.

PESCA: Sonic Youth came out of the New York rock scene, or new wave scene, or kind of pre-punk scene, in the late '70s, early '80s. It was a moment, a really brief moment in time, right, that they helped dub "No Wave." And I know Thurston Moore, who is vocalist and guitarist for Sonic Youth, has a book out about No Wave. Why am I hearing about this now for the first time? Like, where did No Wave go? And why is it coming back?

Mr. BROWNE: In part, you know, it's a nostalgia for a period of time in New York, that late '70's, early '80s period, when you had an incredible vibrant art scene. You had musicians, and artists, and painters, and all these people coming together downtown, especially in creating this, you know, kind of French community that it still reverberates in the culture. You know, it's just - it's a nice period to recall when French artists could move to New York, and kind of get by on like day jobs, and 100-dollar-a-month apartments.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Did No Wave, and by extension, Sonic Youth when they first started...

Mr. BROWNE: Uh-huh.

PESCA: Did they stand for anything? Or was mostly in a reaction to something?

Mr. BROWNE: That's a good question. I think they basically felt that rock 'n' roll, by the late '70s, had reached a dead end, and it needed something new. And so they thought, well, let's just, like, throw everything out the window, and we'll start from scratch, and if we want to use a power drill plugged into an amplifier on stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROWNE: Why not?

PESCA: Well - now, that's - that was a thing - that was a device they sometimes relied on. But how would you define their sound overall?

Mr. BROWNE: Uh-huh. The sound overall is - it's almost unclassifiable in a way. It's a sound rooted in guitars that are tuned to - differently than your standard tuning. So, they sound, maybe to outsiders, slightly out-of-tune. It's kind of a mass of guitars...

PESCA: Like every guitar, the strings go - what is it? E, A, D - I - you know, I don't play guitar. I'm trying to do this from memory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROWNE: Right.

PESCA: Like, when I did. But they just tune their guitars with the strings don't even sound like that, for instance.

Mr. BROWNE: Right, each one is tuned in a different way. So, that when you strum it, it co - creates all kinds of new overtones. The guitars sound much more expansive, and also, the - you know, the songs in, quote, unquote, "rock," but at the same time where, halfway through, the whole thing can just crumble in to this, like, chaotic feedback-y, you know, muddle, almost. And then, the song will slowly come back together. It's almost like a noise version of a jam band, or something.

PESCA: What's a good version of a song, maybe an early song, that does that?

Mr. BROWNE: You could probably go back to their "EVOL" record, a song like "Tom Violence," or even - boy, you know there are just so many of those kinds of songs.

PESCA: Was there a "Tom Violence" (unintelligible)... (Soundbite of song "Tom Violence")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) There's a thing in my memory Holding on for dear life...

PESCA: All right, let's talk about the people in the band. Who were they? Where'd they come from? How'd they meet?

Mr. BROWNE: OK. The three founding members are Thurston Moore, who grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, Kim Gordon, who was raised in California, and Lee Ranaldo from Long Island, from Glen Cove. They were the core of the group, but the real genesis of the band was Kim and Thurston, who were two outside kids, interested in the arts, and some kind of career in the arts, and some kind of life in the arts. Both came to New York in the late '70s. Kim moved here for good in 1980, actually.

They met a few months later. They were both in their, you know, early 20s, became a couple pretty quickly, and within a few months, started playing music together. Even though both - neither of them ever had a music lesson in their life, and that's - that was just typical of the scene back then. And if you just wanted to, like, bang away on your instrument, even if it was in tune, or out of tune, a chord or not, it was - it didn't matter so much as the energy that you were conveying.

PESCA: You know, so, you mentioned that Kim and Thurston, they felt like outsiders, and as much as they did, and always have, and kind of want to keep that status. They're kind of fascinated by pop-culture, Madonna...

Mr. BROWNE: Uh-huh.

PESCA: They had a whole Mariah Carey song, or period, and in fact, they even cover Madonna "Into the Groove." Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of song "Into the Groove")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) Get on into the groove. Boy, you've got to prove Your love to me, yeah.

Get up on your feet, yeah. Step to the beat, Boy, what will it be?

PESCA: What do you think they are trying to do there?

Mr. BROWNE: They're doing something that was unique at the time - we're talking the mid-'80s - and there's another sign of their influence. They were bringing this kind of ironic, deadpan, pop-culture appreciation and humor, this sense of, oh, this mass-culture thing, that's kind of cheesy, but we love it. And we're just going to revel in it.

PESCA: Now, they're not adverse to fame or success.

Mr. BROWNE: Right.

PESCA: They put their - they put one of their best known songs on the new "Guitar Hero" soundtrack.

Mr. BROWNE: Exactly.

PESCA: And that's a song called, "Kool Thing."

(Soundbite of song "Kool Thing")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) Kool Thing sitting with a kitty. Now, you know, you're sure looking pretty. Like a lover not a dancer. Superboy, take a little chance here.

PESCA: And for those of you playing "Guitar Hero III" along at home, that one goes, red-yellow, red-yellow, green-red-yellow, red-yellow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Let's talk about their influence for a moment. One of the things that has been noted is that they're a really an influential band, and yet, not a whole lot of bands who they influence sound actually like them.

Mr. BROWNE: Right, right. Exactly.


Mr. BROWNE: I think they're - yeah, they're one of the most influential bands in rock history, but not in the typical way you'd expect. It's true, there aren't like127 Sonic Youth copy bands out there, and part of that is that the actual sound those guitar tunings and things like that.

PESCA: Yeah, it's hard to play the drill.

Mr. BROWNE: It is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROWNE: Their influence is just - is much broader, in a way. Their influence is showing bands, younger bands, dating back from the early '90s up through now, that you can kind of work within the system, and still do what you do, and still maintain your credibility. Their influence is in all of the people, the younger artists, not just musicians, but directors, and illustrators, and painters, who they've brought along with them into the mainstream.

PESCA: Another reason they're influential, is they're - they usually don't go long periods without a record, every couple of years.

Mr. BROWNE: Uh-huh.

PESCA: Like I said, very professional.

Mr. BROWNE: Uh-huh.

PESCA: I think their last record was in 2006, "Rather Ripped."

Mr. BROWNE: Yep.

PESCA: Let's hear some of that, "Incinerate."

(Soundbite of song "Incinerate")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) I ripped your heart out from your chest, Replaced it with a grenade blast. Incinerate. Incinerate.

Incinerate. Incinerate. The firefighters hose me down.

PESCA: That's pretty accessible, compared to, you know, stuff they were doing 20 years ago.

Mr. BROWNE: It was, and it's a perfect example of the left turns that Sonic Youth always managed to take. I mean, on one hand, they - there's something very traditional about Sonic Youth. They still have the two-guitar, bass and drum lineup. They're not using, you know, synthesizers, and mash-ups, and whatever else.

They're kind of traditionalist at this point in time, yet they always come up with some new twist on their, you know, their, quote, unquote, "formula," and that record two thou - "Rather Ripped" in 2006, actually, had these sort of hooky little songs. You know my daughter, who was only - was a couple of years old at the time, actually liked that song, "Incinerate."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROWNE: She said everything else was noisy, but she would actually sing along with the chorus of that, which I found really amazing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right. David Browne is a long-time music writer, and the author of "Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth." Thank you, David.

Mr. BROWNE: Thanks, Mike. Good to be here.

(Soundbite of song "Incinerate")

SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) You doused my soul with gasoline. You flicked a match into my brain.

Incinerate. Incinerate. Incinerate. Incinerate.

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