Sonic Youth Ages Gracefully
In its 28-year career, indie-rock godfathers Sonic Youth has experienced unprecedented success—and had unparalleled staying power. Credit this longevity to the band's stability: Guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon and guitarist/vocalist/her husband Thurston Moore have launched numerous side projects, completed countless world tours and released 16 studio albums together.
The band's Matador Records-released latest, The Eternal, marks its return to an independent label. (It had been with Geffen since 1990's Goo.) But Eternal is the perfect extension to the Sonic Youth catalog, a hybrid of resonant guitar textures and jammy, jazzed-out, free-form experimentation. The album evokes Daydream Nation's unpredictable explosiveness and the near-psychedelic, extended harmonies of Washing Machine, but it isn't a musical progression as much as it is a lateral move.
That in particular is Sonic Youth's trademark: Although each new album the band releases might contain heavier guitars, additional harmonies or more noise, they all maintain that beautiful, nebulous Sonic Youth quality. There's something special about the dreamy pop blasts that the band creates together; instead of their dueling talents triggering a compromise, it feels as though collaboration enriches the Sonic Youth sound.
As Sonic Youth's bassist and one of its songwriters, Kim Gordon has long been an inspiration to younger musicians. And as one of the few females in a respected, long-running rock band, Gordon is thought of as the cool, MILF-y matriarch of indie rock. But unlike many women, she's praised as much for her musical contributions as she is for her good looks and her hushed, lusty voice. Her contributions to the band have rarely been as pronounced as they are on The Eternal, though, where she sings lead on several tracks and her imposing bass lines sweep boldly through the din (see highlight "What We Know"). A prolific visual artist, Gordon is also accomplished in many other disciplines—including painting, drawing, writing, producing and organizing both art and music events. She's also fronted two successful fashion lines, X-Girl and the new Mirror/Dash, which is available at Urban Outfitters.
On the eve of Sonic Youth's current tour, we spoke with Gordon about how she balances her multiple interests with life on the road.
You have so many different projects. How do you decide what you're going to work on? You have all the art stuff and the fashion stuff and the music stuff. Is it deadlines?
Yeah, deadlines. Exactly. Well, with the art stuff, some things you have to create [on deadline], either projects with someone or, sometimes, you get asked for a show. I work on ideas and stuff, but when it really comes down to it, it's all about a deadline.
So how can you spend half of your life on the road and still be painting?
Well, this has been a really busy spring, but generally we just tour around a record. We're not one of those bands that goes on tour for a year or something. [Thurston and I] have a daughter, and Lee has kids so, you know, I try and tour around her school schedule. We've been gone a lot this spring already, so it's hard. And I think it's actually harder for moms to leave their kids. I know some people say, "How come people don't make a big deal about asking fathers what it's like to go on the road?" It is hard for them too, but I think it's easier if you have one parent at home that's taking care of it.
Do you bring [daughter Coco] with you on tour?
Sometimes. But as she's gotten older she's been able to stay home with someone. And she prefers to stay home. [Laughs]
So do you get any of your other work done on tour? I mean, it's not like you can paint on the bus...
It's hard. Some people can do a lot of stuff on tour. I can't, because I kind of have a perpetual state of exhaustion because I don't sleep on the bus very well. Like, Lee seems to always have little projects he's working on, but I'm not so good...It's a little anxiety-provoking, actually, to have to go away for six weeks. In fact, I'm in the middle of packing right now.
I know, like, how many shoes do you bring? Who knows?
Yeah, it's like, how do I pack all these vitamins? I always overpack. But you're basically living out of a suitcase for six weeks. It's kind of like you buy all these clothes [at home], but then you kind of have to say goodbye to them. [Laughs.] It's hard to go away during the summer, actually. But it'll be fun once we get going.
So, do you ever have free time? Do you ever have a time where you're at home and you don't have any huge projects staring at you?
Um, pretty much never. Last summer we only did a little bit of touring, but that was the first time in maybe 20 years where we hadn't toured in the summer. I mean, it was kind of shocking, actually.
So what are you doing when you get back from tour? What's your next big thing?
Well, Mirror/Dash, the clothing line, is kind of an ongoing thing. But for the next project, I have a book I'm working on, my paintings, and I'm sort of working on another painting series. But we're going to do a bunch of touring in the fall so I'm kind of keeping my schedule as open as I can. I don't want to be too... pressured. But as busy as I am, Thurston has many more projects than I do. I don't know how he does it, really. But it's energizing if you get stuff back from it.
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