Sonic Youth: Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Kim Gordon, Mark Ibold, and Lee Ranaldo. Photograph by Max Vadukul.
by Sasha Frere-Jones
During the nineteen-eighties, there was a sort of competition among certain members of the American independent-rock scene to make the most hideous noise possible. Guitars were rebuilt to produce wild and staticky new sounds, then played painfully loudly; lyrics and stage antics were often gruesome and intimidating. Butthole Surfers, a psychedelic-punk band from Texas, projected graphic footage of penis-reconstruction surgery on a wall behind them while they performed, and a woman danced around the stage wearing only a loincloth. Steve Albini and Santiago Durango, members of the band Big Black, made their guitars screech at frequencies that seemed designed to give listeners tinnitus. Michael Gira, the lead singer of the almost comically misanthropic band Swans, sang about rape and ritual physical humiliation, and on more than one occasion leaped into the crowd to assault an audience member.
Though Sonic Youth have always been a sober, hardworking bunch, they began their career as an arty, hardcore-influenced band, as partial to abrasive racket as some of their noise-rock peers. Their music was often accompanied by lurid images: the video for their 1985 song “Death Valley ’69” reënacts the Manson murders, complete with fake blood and spilled intestines and the bassist, Kim Gordon, sporting dark hair and wielding a shotgun.
One summer night in 1986, I saw Sonic Youth play at CBGB. The club was oppressively hot. Thurston Moore, six feet six and sandy-haired, originally from Bethel, Connecticut, looked slightly distracted at first, like a surfer who’d wandered indoors. He opened the set by pressing a button on a large boom box; Madonna’s “Into the Groove” began to play while he fiddled, slowly, with his gear. I loved Madonna, and I was a little afraid that the band was making fun of her. But they let her song finish without comment, and then launched into “Tom Violence,” a dirgelike piece that drones and whines. If the bright, square notes of “Into the Groove” came from a world of easy round numbers, Sonic Youth’s music was made of intricate fractions. Each song was crammed with information. Moore swayed as if the stage were heaving, and he sang as though he were trying to calm himself down. Lee Ranaldo, a rugged kid from Long Island with a shaggy hair style, stood stage right, whipping his guitar through the air, now and then crouching to get a better purchase on it. Kim Gordon was center stage, bass in hand; she was the least seasoned musician onstage, and her playing was simple and relentless. Cool, blond, serene, she was like the lead in a movie who refuses to read from the script, more Marina Vlady than Brigitte Bardot.
I stood close to the stage, crushed in a group of people who had probably been pogoing or moshing to any number of bands that week. As loud and powerful as Sonic Youth were, the music was not straight punk, or even modified punk. I had no idea what kind of music it was. “White Kross”—which would soon make its way onto their 1987 album, “Sister”—was fast, straightforward rock, except that every guitar was strangely tuned, moaning and howling instead of crunching in satisfying consonance. The song that stood out that night was one of the quietest, “Shadow of a Doubt,” from the band’s fourth album, “Evol.” Moore and Ranaldo played a series of lightly fretted harmonics that, just as they were on the brink of becoming actual chords, dissolved in a series of electric pops. Gordon whispered the lyrics: “Met a stranger on a train,” and then, later, “Swear it wasn’t meant to be.” The guitars opened for a surge of ringing chords in the middle of the song, but it was determined to remain unresolved. The feeling was a little like being held hostage in a room with someone who refuses to turn on the lights.
When Moore and Ranaldo first got together, they were playing what Ranaldo calls “a serious guitar and an O.K. one”—a Fender Telecaster Deluxe and a mid-sixties Harmony. Sonic Youth’s 1982 début EP was recorded and written in standard tuning, a first and a last for the band. After that, Moore and Ranaldo began restringing and retuning those guitars and a couple of “cheap Japanese no-names.” (At the beginning of shows, while the crowd waited, they would spend close to half an hour tinkering with the many guitars stacked on either side of the stage.) Because open tunings sometimes allow a guitarist to play parts without having to fret any notes at all, Sonic Youth’s music gained a resonance that’s simply not possible when you have to touch the strings with both hands. (“Death Valley ’69” is a good example: Ranaldo plays a guitar tuned—bottom to top—to two low F-sharps, two medium F-sharps, and an E and a B. Much of his playing involves no fretting at all.) Take these tunings, play them with nontraditional items like screwdrivers, run the signal through a variety of effects pedals, and you’ve got a pretty big palette. More like conductors than like typical players, these guitarists managed to turn their instruments into a kind of choir. The band’s latest release, “The Eternal,” is its sixteenth full-length effort, and my favorite Sonic Youth album in a long time, though I’ve liked plenty of them. The members of Sonic Youth are in their forties and fifties now, and their recording technique has changed very little since their first sessions. “We’re still playing old analog boxes and electric guitars with guitar amps, recording on tape, mixing on tape,” Ranaldo says. “We haven’t gotten any more professional, thank God.” Songs are communally written, and developed over long periods of improvising. Mark Ibold (who was once the bassist for Pavement) recorded and wrote with the band this time around, making it a five-piece again. (Steve Shelley, the drummer, has been with Sonic Youth since 1985. The multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke joined the band in the late nineties but left in 2005.)
On this record, they’ve focussed on crafting songs rather than open-ended compositions. Moore told me recently, “I remember being on tour in the nineties, when we started releasing more kind of lengthy, experimental stuff on our own label, and Malkmus”—the Pavement songwriter Stephen Malkmus—“was driving us somewhere. We were playing it in his rental car, and he said, ‘I hope you guys don’t leave the power of the song behind.’ He liked Sonic Youth as a songwriting band—he had a sort of charming concern about it.” One of “The Eternal” ’s dreamiest tracks, “Antenna,” begins with a simple guitar figure plucked over a brief wash of white noise and thumping tomtoms. Moore sings, in a gentle, conversational way, “My darling cruises the streets for pleasure, skyscrapers in the dead love dawn.” The lyric might be a rueful nod to the chorus of “The Wonder,” from the 1988 release “Daydream Nation”: “I’m just walking around, your city is a wonder town.”
Much of the pleasure here is in the sound. The producer and engineer John Agnello has captured all sides of the band’s multipurpose guitars. I worried that the album didn’t have one of those lengthy, broken-open garbage bags of noise, a song like “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” from 1986, in which all the dragons and feathers and firecrackers and water pistols get to run free. But “Calming the Snake,” though it’s only three and a half minutes long, comes amazingly close. It compresses the push-me-pull-you rhythm of soft lulls and big buildups into pop-song length without sacrificing any heat or unruly noise, and it features Gordon on vocals, doing the kind of punk yowling that the band hasn’t tried in a while. “Come on down, down to the river, come on down, I want to feel you shiver,” she hisses.
Gordon does the screaming on “The Eternal” while the boys do the nice singing. Several songs feature one or more of them singing in unison, an arrangement trick that Sonic Youth has so far largely avoided. Moore told me that the band was purposefully exploring more conventional vocal techniques, such as “getting Lee to harmonize with my non-singing.” Nonetheless, as has always been the group’s way, the vocals come only after the music for each piece is recorded. At that point, Moore, Gordon, and Ranaldo divvy up the songs, and each tries singing on a different one, sometimes trading after a week or so if someone is stuck, sometimes adding a track on top of someone else’s. The fact that the music is finished first is a point of pride, and is perhaps the best testament to the band’s career-long loyalty to the possibilities of sound. “For us, songs get born out of a guitar’s tonality as much as they get born out of chords and structures,” Ranaldo says. “We’re creating pieces of music as pieces of music. That’s all we’re thinking about. ‘Does this piece of music sound good?’ ”
By the early nineties, dozens of bands had picked up the Sonic Youth habit, developing their own proprietary tunings and making waves of noise. This year, Fender will issue the Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo signature Jazzmasters, each kitted out according to the players’ preferences for things like finish, pickup, headstock, and width of frets. The band that once specialized in manhandling pawnshop guitars has become an institution.
* Dipetik dari The New Yorker, 22 Jun 2009.