Sonic Youth is old. Probably older than you. But they're also an endlessly inventive bunch of grown-ups, a band that for 20 years has been examining and re-examining guitar-rock, finding and occasionally discarding new ways into the form. Murray Street, their new album, rocks. Probably more than you'd expect, and definitely more if you've heard their last couple of albums, which have largely circled back to the obtuse explorations of tone and sound and dynamic that marked their earliest efforts. There's plenty of that on Murray Street--its centerpiece, the 11-minute "Karen Revisited," billows out into a liquidy mushroom cloud of delay and reverb--but there's also the songs fans of the band's early-'90s albums Good and Dirty have long missed. So where's the switch, and what made Sonic Youth flip it back?
"Well, nothing is ever as black and white as people kind of interpret things," Kim Gordon demurs on the phone from a tour stop in Dublin. "We've always sort of liked to go in one direction and then sort of change and go the other way, so, you know, it's nothing out of the ordinary or weird to us."
DO: Was the process--songwriting, rehearsing, recording--the same as it has been for the last couple of albums?
KG: The last couple records, most of the songs came out of sitting around and all of us playing and sort of jamming till things start congealing, then arranging it and recording it at spontaneous points, whereas about five of these songs Thurston [Moore] had been playing on acoustic guitar for about a year, and was gonna actually use them on a solo record. But at some point he just thought they would be much better songs if he gave them over to the band, and we sort of further developed them. That has happened in the past; that's one way we write songs: Someone, usually Thurston, will bring in a riff or a song, and then we work on it and make our parts for it and kind of rearrange it and stuff.
Sonic Youth with Mary Timony
DO: What I really like about the record is its balance between the two poles you guys have sort of established: noise and melody, or structure and improvisation.
KG: Sometimes people are really under the impression that we go out onstage and half of it's improvising, which really isn't the case. There are some songs where there are certain sections that are looser that are slightly different every night--there's a structure there, but it's allowed for that. But on this record I think there's only one song like that--the end of "Karen Revisited" is like that. There are also within "Sympathy for the Strawberry" some parts where, you know, Jim [O'Rourke] brings the bass in at different points, but it's always the same part. It's just a matter of feeling it out.
DO: I happened to catch an episode you guys did of that old PBS show Sessions at West 54th a few weeks ago, and what really struck me is how much more accessible some of the stuff from the last couple of records is live as opposed to on CD. It was easier to sense those structures you're talking about.
KG: There is a certain physicality or visceral quality to the way we make songs and music, and you definitely see that when you see us play live in a way that doesn't come across on the record. It's funny, the thing that got me into Led Zeppelin is I saw this really early clip of them doing "Dazed and Confused" on some early TV show, and it amazed me--Jimmy Page, the way he used a bow and stuff, he might as well have been using a drumstick. It just kind of gave me a totally different take on their music. Records have a certain one-dimensionality to them; when you see someone live, it definitely makes the music literally three-dimensional.
Yet Murray Street seems to do that on its own. The trio of Thurston songs that opens the record--"The Empty Page," "Disconnection Notice," "Rain on Tin"--make for some of the most captivating and most realized music SY has recorded, Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitars twinkling like crystallized sugar over Gordon's bass throb and Steve Shelley's propulsive backbeat. And, oh yeah, everything new member Jim O'Rourke did. O'Rourke came to the band as a producer on 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers; formerly a member of the active Chicago post-rock underground, he brought to that disc a devotion to pure sound SY's '90s material maybe overlooked. Touring that album later, he became a full-fledged member of the band, playing guitar, bass and keyboards. He's stuck around, and he played on and led the band in self-producing Murray Street.
DO: How's Jim O'Rourke's presence in the band affected things?
KG: It's fun; it's like another person adding their sensibility to the songwriting process. And Jim shares a lot of appreciation for a wide range in music, from noise to pop and '70s rock, and yet he's also very much a musician's musician and really attends to the songwriting process, kind of with a producer's ear. He's really good at letting the songs become what they want to become, but adding structural ideas or just embellishments that bring out certain things in a way that none of us would be thinking of.
DO: Has he changed the dynamic between the four of you guys?
KG: Well, everyone likes Jim, and he's funny. It's like having the new adopted kid in the family. Or the pet, as he likes to say. Like Lassie. But Lassie's probably before your time.
A new member wasn't the only force acting on the band. Right in the middle of recording Murray Street, terrorists descended on a portion of New York City a couple of blocks from Echo Canyon, SY's lower Manhattan recording studio. This changed things, a sentiment magnified by a project the band was supposedly in the middle of on September 11.
DO: Tell me about this trilogy thing. Murray Street's supposed to be the second part of a cultural history of lower Manhattan?
KG: OK, well, that's just a made-up thing. Byron Coley, this friend of ours who wrote the record-label bio, just made up all that stuff.
DO: Well done. Have you seen the reviews? You guys have gotten a lot of mileage out of that joke. If that's not for real, what about September 11 in general? Did it affect the making of the record?
KG: Not a lot. I mean, you know, most of the material was pretty much written, the basic songs, and maybe half of the songs had been recorded, so it really just interfered with the recording process and made us appreciate what we had. And it was definitely strange working down there, but it's really hard to say how that sort of thing affects lyrics or...It's just kind of hard to say. It's certainly not anything we want to exploit. Calling the record Murray Street, it's more like, nobody in New York really knows where Murray Street is; it's this innocuous little street that happens to be a couple blocks away from where the World Trade Center was, and they run all the electricity for lower Manhattan under there, as we found out, because it was dug up and quickly became a huge corridor with chain-link fence on either side. It was kind of like that for months.
They've been dabbling in a little self-invented cultural history, as well: This fall, as part of an ongoing series of deluxe reissues, Universal is scheduled to release a double-disc version of Dirty that will include the remastered album along with a spate of extras. "Somebody from there got on it and suggested we do it and proposed it," Gordon explains. "So we've been working on putting stuff together for that--demos and stuff that was on obscure B-sides and stuff like that."
DO: So you've been going back and sifting through some of the older stuff.
KG: Yeah. I'm actually not so into that process; I'm not really into archiving and going back. It is kind of interesting to hear it. Like, when we were getting ready to go out on tour, we were going back and relearning old songs; that's kind of interesting, listening to the records and seeing what they sounded like.
DO: The new one's been getting compared to the late-'80s, early-'90s stuff. Has hearing that stuff brought out any similarities to your ears?
KG: Well, it definitely has absolutely no similarity in how it sounds. I mean, I really think this record sounds better than anything we've ever recorded, in terms of it being a naturalistic recording. And it kind of has a modesty to it.
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DO: How do you mean?
KG: It doesn't have a big rock sound to it, you know? Like Dirty was a big-budget thing with [producer] Butch [Vig], and we always wanted to have Andy Wallace, the guy who did the Slayer records, mix our record, just to see what it would sound like. We were really into this hard rock mode. I mean, since we started, people were always like, 'Are you an art band? What are you?' We'd go to England and we'd say, 'Oh, we're into rock,' and they'd think that was just the worst thing you could possibly say about your music, because they just think that rock is so stupid. And people who really are into it, that's just stupid Americanism. So we would always kind of say that to belie people's expectations and kind of fool around with that notion and contrast it with more avant-garde ideas. So Dirty and Goo were kind of the height of that, but this one--and Washing Machine, I like the production on that, too--it just fits the nature of the song. The sound matches; it doesn't put anything on the music. And it doesn't have this sound, of course, that it's gonna get played on the radio, though.
DO: Was that a difficult sound to pull off?
KG: Well, I'm not an engineer. But it's kind of fun working with Jim because he's a musician as well as engineer, so he knows how to get things to sound the way they sound when it's standing next to your amp. As well as doing some trickery that doesn't sound like trickery.