Kool Things: SPIN’s 1990 Feature on Sonic Youth
After nine years as underground megastars, Sonic Youth emerge blinking into the harsh mainstream light
[This article was originally published in the September 1990 issue of SPIN. To coincide with the 25th anniversary of Goo, we’re repromoting this feature, which features Sonic Youth during the video shoot for “Kool Thing,” near the time of that album’s release.]
“Maybe you should come over and fellate my guitar, Steve.” Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore is lying on his back on the foil-covered floor of a downtown Manhattan production studio. He wants drummer Steve Shelley to give his guitar a blowjob because the band are shooting a video. These guys know what plays well on MTV.
Actually, they were going to call the new album Blowjob, but settled instead on Goo. Which probably made their new record company, Geffen, happy until its executives saw the cover art: a drawing by renowned underground artist Raymond Pettibon. The drawing itself of a guy and a girl in a car presented no problems. But the accompanying text — which read in part, “Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road” — gave some Geffenites fits.
“They were still talking at sales meetings about an alternative cover, even though our A&R person knew quite well that there was no way we were going to do that,” says bassist Kim Gordon.
After nine years of doing pretty much anything they want, Sonic Youth are finding the adjustment to corporate-label status somewhat difficult.
Not that they don’t make every effort to understand the company’s position: “I mean, all it takes is one kid to go kill his parents and have our record in his room,” says Kim. “But still, the cover art isn’t just decoration. It’s important to us.”
The band also had problems with the video they’re shooting for the first single from Goo, “Kool Thing.” Kim had wanted to wear a beret and carry an Uzi — anyway, she’d threatened to — but Geffen didn’t find that idea particularly, um, appealing. She backed down on this one — after all, there are limits to this “no compromises” thing. Especially when you’re dealing with potential medium-rotation MTV exposure.
In parody/homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory, the floor and walls of the production studio are lined with aluminum foil. A couch is situated in one corner, an easy chair in another. Shiny star balloons hang from the ceiling, while stuffed toys, yellow plastic chains, dynamite, and pieces of fruit are strewn about the room. Purple and green lights refract at crazy angles off the foiled surfaces. It’s a surreal vision, like a twisted Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The perfect setting for Sonic Youth’s twisted rock music.
With each take, the band gets progressively wilder. Thurston and fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo thrash around the set like they’ve taken too much catnip, ripping up the foil, knocking over props, and upending furniture. At one point, Thurston, Kim, and Lee end up in a pile on the floor, wrapping each other in shredded foil, in the course of which Kim gets whacked on the nose with a guitar. Overall, an impressive simulacrum of actual performance.
“Kool Thing,” the video, is clearly Kim’s show, mainly because she’s the lead singer on this one. She climbs up ladders to check out the camera angle before shooting begins, and confers with the director, Tamra Davis, after every take. She seems completely at ease in front of the camera, lip-synching, dancing, gesturing. Watching her, watching the band, listening to the music, it’s easy to forget that Sonic Youth are making their first real video. After nine years.
“It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my entire life,” says Kim of the video. “After we finished the inside stuff we went down to the federal courthouse and did some shots of me and two dancers standing outside. And there was one of those sandwich catering trucks parked right in front, for the policemen and the people who work in those buildings. It was like, the most embarrassing moment of my life, and it was catered.”
Sitting in her Lower East Side apartment, Kim Gordon looks anything but nonplussed now. But to hear her tell it, her prowess before the camera is a put-on: “I was totally horrified at the prospect. It was a sink or swim thing, like being thrown in a pond.”
Kim’s the oldest member of Sonic Youth, most of whom are in their thirties. She’s married to Thurston. Everyone in SY seems fascinated by celebrities, but none more than Kim. On their new record, there’s a song about Karen Carpenter (“Tunic”), and on EVOL Kim sings a song called “Starpower.” She often wears a necklace of metallic stars. Kim was “raised as a visual artist” and went to a school that didn’t have textbooks (“You just went out, made grass huts and spears, and studied Africa.”).
Now, of course, with her band poised to enter the mainstream, Kim’s in danger of losing her ironic distance from celebrity. How do you make fun of MTV videos when you’ve just made one yourself?
“Well, I don’t think there’s much danger of us becoming famous,” she says. “We do hope we’ll get to meet some more celebrities. Well, actually, I don’t really want to meet them; I’d just like to get up really close and observe them. It just becomes this game. You get to read about them with some sort of continuity every week. It’s almost like reading a cartoon strip, but it’s real people. Our society puts so much importance on celebrities. It’s the ultimate success, as well as a national preoccupation.”
Although they’re being treated as a new band by their record company, Sonic Youth have quite a history. They began in 1981, with Thurston, Kim, Lee, and drummer Richard Edson, who was later replaced by Bob Bert, who was in turn replaced by Steve Shelley. They put out a couple of records on a tiny independent label, Neutral, then moved to slightly less tiny Homestead Records in 1985, where they recorded Bad Moon Rising and started attracting serious attention. In 1986, they put out EVOL on SST Records and, in 1987, Sister, also on SST. 1988 saw the release of the double record set Daydream Nation on Blast First/Enigma, which topped many critics polls and brought widespread recognition — including the deal with Geffen — that the band’s innovative sound was more than a novelty.
For the uninitiated, a Sonic Youth performance can sound and feel a lot like a tornado being pulled through one ear and out the other. Some people don’t like this, but an increasing number do.
The most distinctive features of their sound derives from the nonstandard tuning Thurston and Lee use on their guitars. The result is dissonant — the intervals they use simply don’t sound “right” to ears bred on standard Western pop — as well as beautiful. Clanging overtones fill the air with sounds and textures that aren’t really “there.” The effect can be alternately symphonic or simply mind-bendingly noisy. An acquired taste, to be sure, but an easily acquired one.
Especially since the band has refined their technique to the point where you often don’t even notice the “weird tuning thing.” Back in the early days, SY would build a song around a particular tuning, whereas now creative tuning is less an end than a very effective means. Sonic Youth have developed from an art-based guitar-rock band to a guitar-based art-rock band.
In doing so they represent probably the last of a particular breed of bands who, starting in the early ’80s, came out of the underground to achieve success in the mainstream arena. The Replacements, Hüsker, even R.E.M. all grew out of an extensive network of underground bands, clubs, and record labels that sprouted in the wake of the punk explosion of the mid to late ’70s. That network has shrunk now to the point of virtual inviability. Every major label now has an “alternative music” department with the promotional wherewithal to swamp available (and shrinking) outlets for such music. As a result, not only is so-called “alternative music” becoming more narrowly defined (“People should know an alternative to what’s there,” says Thurston. “But are we still the alternative, being on a corporate label?”), but the bands that try to operate on an independent level are finding it increasingly difficult. College radio, formerly a bastion of independent music, has turned largely into a “farm league” for the major labels. Were Sonic Youth to start today, they would have a hard time achieving the level of success they’ve now reached, albeit after nine years.
So in a sense, SY are lucky. But their current success is also a tribute to how hard they’ve worked — after all, there are bands, such as Pussy Galore and Live Skull, just as good as SY that never “made it.” The fact is, Sonic Youth, like Hüsker, the Replacements, and R.E.M. before them, toured like demons. Inaccessible music remains so only if a band is unwilling or unable to give people access to it. That’s never been Sonic Youth’s hangup. The result has been a slow but steady progress over the years in the number of converts to the “sonic life,” even to the point where old fans are predictably crying “sell-out” at the bands move to Geffen. Rather than selling out, the band feels they’re “buying in.”
But it can’t go on like this forever. Every progression reaches an end, and so too will Sonic Youth, probably within the next few years. What then?
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I don’t think I’ll always play in a band,” says Kim. “I mean, it would be really ugly. Once you hit your 40’s, it’s time to retire.”
The official Sonic Youth line on their new album, Goo, is that it’s a reaction to their last record, Daydream Nation, which tended to have very extended, nicely textured, almost psychedelic intros and outros, whereas on Goo most of the songs begin and end abruptly. They’re also trying to reach more people with this record, to keep growing, to find a new way to get across to people what they want to say (Blah blah blah.)
“Yeah, thats our line,” says Lee Ranaldo, wearing sunglasses even though we’re in a dark East Village bar. (SY are very much into sunglasses — the pile I saw on a table while they were shooting their video was worthy of Elton John.) “All bands have a line when they set out to promote a new record; we’re no different. But there’s an element of truth to it as well. In actual fact, though, we don’t really think about it in terms of development or progression.”
Lee doodles on a napkin, which he later folds and puts in his pocket. He’s probably the most serious member of the band, or at least the most earnest — though he has a goofy side as well. He’s spent the week shopping for a new video camera (he’s documented most of the bands history on film and videotape) but promises not to talk about it.
SPIN: What does the future hold for Sonic Youth?
Lee: I think about the future, but I don’t really think about what it’s going to hold. I mean, we’re not kids, and we’re real serious about what were doing. And being in the business in a major-league way, they expect you to do things that, at a certain point, will become incredibly distasteful. You feel like a prostitute or something. I mean I’m not totally down on it; there are a lot of great things about being on a major label in terms of access and so on. It’s just that if you’re struggling to accomplish a goal, which is only, like, to sell a million copies, that’s just jive. That’s why Billy Idol will probably end up on the cover of SPIN instead of us. And that’s fair enough if you’re a businessman, but I don’t want to be a businessman.
Yeah, but like it or not you are a businessman.
That’s in itself a hard pill to swallow. You never start out doing this imagining that you want it as your profession. If you stay in the business long enough you’ll always get to that point — where you’re juggling how much you’re doing because its your profession versus something else you might be doing. We’ve always fought against that professionalism attitude. We’ve always played music because that was just what we did, what we grew up doing, what were still doing. There’s a point where you just can’t look at it that simply anymore. I find all that stuff kind of uncomfortable to deal with, and yet it is very much a reality.
Do you really think the 14-year-old kid who worships Bon Jovi or Guns N’ Roses is going to appreciate your music?
Thurston: You know, nothing’s impossible. But to them we might be a little too weird. There’re certain aspects of our sound that for the most part will sound really bad to them. When we went to Russia last year, a lot of people thought we were just doing it wrong, because their only guidelines were the Beatles and Iron Maiden. So these suburban kids who listen to Jovi and G N’ R for the most part — they don’t know any better, they’re not musically inclined. It’s more a social thing for them.
To me, our music is elitist, in a way. We’re tied in with this elitist aesthetic. The only way to overcome it is not to think about it; but you’re instantly tied into it because you come out of it. Just the fact that each of us was one of those kids who would say, “Fuck Led Zep, lets drive into the city and see a Ramones gig.” And the next day in high school you’d tell somebody that and they’d think you were a total alien. I was one of maybe three people in my high school who knew about Patti Smith and the Ramones.
I don’t want to subject anybody against their will to something that’s outside their sensibility. Why should Geffen force-feed anything down anybody’s throat? Guns N’ Roses are easy because it’s a path that’s already been paved by all the lame rock classics. But us, who are they going to feed it to?
Won’t they feed it into the usual channels and see what happens?
That’s the most interesting thing to us. The housewife who’s thirty-something in Middle America and buys one cassette a month — probably even bought the G N’ R one because it was played a lot and she liked that one song she’s — definitely not going to buy our record. And if she does, she’s going to be subjected to something that’s most likely going to disturb her. And I don’t really want to disturb anybody. I don’t want to be forced on anybody.
More so than a lot of bands, Sonic Youth have always shared a kind of collective sensibility. In interviews, usually given as a group, whoever answers the question speaks for the band as a whole — e.g., “We hate spinach,” “We love Advil,” or whatever. This impression of solidarity is, of course, not entirely accurate.
“Is that really annoying?” asks Kim. “Sometimes just for the sake of getting the interview over with, I won’t open my mouth to say, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’ But I often don’t think so. I think in a way it’s kind of dishonest to think of the band as a unified thing, which we’re really not. Ultimately it does come together in some kind of unity, but one thing that’s kept the music varied are the differences in our personalities.”
In the same way, SY gives the impression that they’re just, as one critic put it, “really happy to be in a band together.” You’d imagine that they never fought with each other, that they always agreed on everything. You’d be wrong.
“Oh yeah, we fight all the time,” says Kim. “I mean, Thurston’s a Leo, he has a temper. But it’s usually not for any rational reason. Steve probably feels that he always gets the brunt of it. Even though he’s been in the band for four years, he’s still the new kid on the block. He doesn’t have the same background musically, and he’s younger than us. He thinks that we always bury the drums when we mix our records.”
“Actually, there are three songs on the new record where the drums are pretty much at the right level,” says Steve Shelley, smiling as he prepares to devour an enormous cheeseburger in a West Village bistro. Steve is, at 28, not only the youngest member of Sonic Youth, but the only unmarried one as well. He’s also one of the few people I’ve met who’s never so much as tasted beer in his life.
“It’s funny, when that whole straight-edge hardcore scene started in D.C. in the ’80s I thought, yeah, great, that’s how I live anyway. But I never found it necessary to be a fascist about it, the way some of them did.”
Steve joined the band in 1985, just after they had returned from touring in Europe. As luck would have it, he was staying at Thurston and Kim’s place while they were gone. Their old drummer quit on the flight back, and when SY came home they asked Steve if he wanted to join.
“It’s scary how much of a fan I was right before I joined. Bad Moon Rising had just come out and I would go down to the stores and just look at the record jacket. So I had no hesitation about joining when they asked.”
His decision was salutary; the dynamic sense he brought to the band fit in well with their emergent songwriting skills. Sonic Youth wouldn’t be as strong a musical force with a different drummer. From EVOL on through Goo, Steve’s sharp sense of how to play within a song rather than underneath it has contributed dramatically to their development.
“I’m a better guitar player than Thurston and Lee, too” Steve adds.
Although Kim says she’s “always tried to avoid the married couple thing,” her marriage to Thurston plays a large part in Sonic Youth, if only because it’s unusual for such an arrangement to be successful for such a long time.
“I’ve tried hard not to make it like were a couple within the band,” says Kim. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the bands lasted for however long. I mean, that could be so annoying for the other members of the band. Maybe it is.
When Thurston and I are alone we don’t really talk about the band or band business unless we absolutely have to. Otherwise you don’t have any sort of separate life, and it becomes a 24-hour nightmare. But really, we were together when the band started, so it’s hard to say what kind of effect it’s had because we don’t really know anything different.”
In fact, the only real display of domesticity in evidence during the time I spent with this supremely domestic band (“And lets face it, rock’n’roll domesticity is not interesting,” says Kim) is when Thurston sets off to buy a new TV. (His landlord was doing some work on the building and blew the electricity, frying most of the appliances in Thurston’s apartment including, most importantly, the television.)
“Don’t you want, like, a huge screen and everything?” he asks his wife.
“No, I don’t. Get a Sony Trinitron. That’s the best kind,” says Kim.
“Nah, I’m gonna get a Hitachi SZ-100 something.”
“Sony Trinitron, Sony Trinitron.”
Later, I find out from Lee that Thurston bought the Hitachi.