Just two years ago, they toured supporting the re-release of their epochal album Daydream Nation. Then 2009 saw the release of The Eternal, the band’s Matador Records debut, which included some of their most highly regarded material in years.
“We’re coming off the high of releasing a record we really felt good about, and the celebration of Daydream Nation,” guitarist/singer Lee Renaldo says. “It’s been an amazing several years, so we’ve taken most of this year off to work on side projects.”
But they are very much the same band they were in 1981, excited about making music together. “The hardest thing, with Kim (Gordon, bass/guitar/vocals) and Thurston (Moore, guitar/vocals) living in Massachusetts part time, it’s hard to fit Sonic Youth into the mix,” Renaldo admits. With their success, band members have the luxury of time off from making music.
Almost from the start, Sonic Youth’s members have worked on a number of side projects, the sheer quantity of which would put some bands’ main output to shame—this phone interview with Renaldo, in fact, is taking place while he’s in British Columbia to play a solo show and open an exhibit of his artwork.
“Anything any of us do, we claim has some relationship to the band. Sonic Youth is likely to go in those directions, as well,” Renaldo believes. “But you can keep your musical individuality and be captain of your own ship.” Some of these projects have involved major figures in the avant-garde, like John Zorn and Derek Bailey. He reveals what is perhaps a key to the band’s longevity: “Sonic Youth is so democratic.”
With Marc Ibold (formerly of Pavement) playing bass, it’s a three-guitar band again, as it was in the early 2000s with Jim O’Rourke adding a guitar. “We do three guitars in a very unique way,” Renaldo notes. “Our roles shift and change. At various times, different people will take up the slack.” This is no “jam band” with aimless guitar noodling, but an ever-evolving interplay, at times amazingly subtle when you consider their brazen punk-noise origins. This is music with such shifts of texture and dynamics that it’s almost cinematic at times.
The New York City that was home to the band’s beginnings amid the “No Wave” reaction to punk in the late ’70s and early ’80s is, of course, quite a different place now.
“The art world was shifting, and a lot of people were moving to New York at the time,” Renaldo recalls. “Art people were applying their talents to the music world, and it was a very exciting, very inspirational time to be starting out.”
By the late 1990s, the New York City music scene had taken a backseat to the art world, Renaldo felt, but that changed again in the mid-2000s with new punk-influenced groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars.
Today, Sonic Youth, which has had a tremendous influence on both the avant-garde and mainstream rock music (Neil Young once toured with them during his “noise” phase), is capable of going in almost any direction they choose in a live show. July 2009’s Gallivan Center show was one of the best-attended and most raucous concerts of the summer.
Sonic Youth can still stretch out and explore the interior vistas of any given musical pathway, or paint a picture from their sonic palette that’s crystal clear and razor sharp. And they are always willing to add a new element to their sound.
“Our last record took us 30 years to get there, to three people singing,” Renaldo jokes. “It’s funny that it took that long.”
In The Venue
579 W. 200 South
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.
$25 advance/$28 day of show