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You don't need to hear Sonic Youth to like them. In fact, the less you hear them, the more likable they probably are. Since the band's inception in 1981, its New York City, post-punk-rock story has been an inspirational tale: a group of young misfits who defied convention to make "experimental music" on their own terms and at their own frantic pace. They've inspired other bands with their raw ethos and an ability to maintain an aura of disenfranchised youth even though the band's members have all pushed past 40. That the band has managed to do all this without the benefit of substantial radio airplay or huge record sales is even more inspiring. Ironically, Sonic Youth's success at staying somewhat commercially unsuccessful is what makes the group's story even more compelling.
"A lot more people have heard of us than have heard us--and that's been true for a long time. We're a band that attracts critical attention and gets a lot of stuff written about us, so people can't help but read about us, but they may never buy an album," explains Lee Ranaldo, guitarist/vocalist for Sonic Youth and one of its three founding members, along with husband-and-wife team Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. "And part of the reason that people remember us is because of the ways in which we do things that are really atypical--the way we write songs, the way we do our business dealings, the way we do our groupthink thing to make our decisions, the way we run our studio--I still think a lot of that stuff is pretty unique to us."
The band's best song is arguably "Bull in the Heather" from 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, which was produced by Butch Vig (who, not coincidentally, also did Nirvana's Nevermind). The song, monotonously "sung" by Gordon, made it to the charts by a cultural quirk of fate: Radio's mid-'90s fascination with the dissonance of grunge neatly coincided with Sonic Youth's noise experiments, rewarding the band with a semi-hit and even a headlining spot on 1995's Lollapalooza tour. Almost a decade later the band still enjoys a somewhat mainstream following and retains its major-label deal, eking out studio albums via Geffen at roughly two-year intervals. It's rare for a non-superstar band to have a major-label deal and still be allowed to put out recordings on its own indie label, but Sonic Youth takes full advantage of that opportunity, releasing obscure recordings that a major-label wouldn't touch. The band sells vinyl versions of its own albums on SonicYouth.com right alongside CDs of members' diverse solo projects that often tend toward the bizarre.
"We've managed to make it work on our terms, which is not the terms of hit singles or selling millions of copies or anything like that," says a proud Ranaldo. "We've managed to maintain this unique situation where we've got our own indie label, SYR, and the major-label thing happening at the same time and sort of make it work to our own best advantage. I think that's much more of our achievement--getting signed with a contract like ours and having it still working 14 years down the line. That's more the rarity at this point."
Perhaps that's the bigger story. After all, the band's iconic status can't be explained by its music alone. The fact is that listening to a Sonic Youth album isn't something most people would want to do more than once. Imagine the finale of a loud concert--the part when the band plays as loud and crazy as it can while gradually increasing the volume until the drummer raises his sticks over his head and everyone jumps in the air in time to land on the song's final thump and shout, "Thank you and goodnight!" With Sonic Youth, that cacophony is the basis for an entire album.
Or perhaps part of the band's indie cred comes from the fact that although Sonic Youth is technically part of the machine, the band's members manage to pursue individual tasks and side projects that will never be mainstream. "We're all heavily into the work ethic, and we're all constantly doing different things," says Ranaldo, "whether that's playing together with different people in different configurations, or running record labels, or working on literary or artistic pursuits--Kim and I have been showing in galleries and museums, and Thurston and I have been publishing small press books. We're just constantly busy."
Sonic Youth's 19th full-length album, Sonic Youth Nurse, is tentatively slated for release on June 8. The band's upcoming three-date Texas tour will be its first live performance of the new album's songs since they've been recorded and will be followed by a much more extensive outing this summer.
The band's latest songs are hyped as being more political and progressive. As always, they will not sound like anyone else--and that's a good thing. "Our music is different, but why shouldn't it be different? Why shouldn't everybody be different?" muses longtime Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. "Our role as a band is to work outside of the parameters of ordinary music, and to do that we've created our own musical universe." It's a universe that's rewarding and inspirational, but not necessarily because of the music itself. But then with Sonic Youth that's not really the point. As Shelley says, "Don't you think that music in general is boring? That's when you've got to shake things up."