NYC Ghosts

I'm about to start seriously player-hating on this fool in front of me.

It's two weeks ago, and we're standing in a tiny stairwell to the left of the stage at Boston's Roxy nightclub watching Sonic Youth play a show to a couple of thousand appreciative fans, which is more fun than most things, but this guy is on his way to ruining it for me. First off, he's wearing jeans and a denim shirt, which I would say is his biggest problem if he hadn't also elected to give his white kicks a go tonight. Secondly, he's oscillating his at-least-50-year-old ass so badly that he's beginning to extinguish the innate sexual urgency Thurston and Kim and Lee and Steve can still muster with their own almost-50-year-old asses.

But whatever. The band is jump-starting "Kool Thing," and I'm ditching this chump for the floor, where the kids in baggy pants and HONK IF YOU'RE HORNY T-shirts are sort of moshing and not wearing white tennis shoes. I glance onstage and notice Lee's wearing white tennis shoes. Was he wearing those when I talked to him backstage a few hours earlier?

Dallas Observer: So what's up with this little tour? You guys haven't got a new record out, and it's not like you have to worry about getting the name out there or whatever.

Lee Ranaldo: There's no specific thing; it's just to go out and play some shows at this point. We haven't been playing for a while, and we had these two weekends proposed and we said yeah.

DO: What are you playing this time out?

LR: We're playing stuff from the last record [last year's NYC Ghosts & Flowers] and stuff from all the other records, basically.

DO: You guys working on a new album?

LR: We're just starting the first processes of the next album. We've got a few things that we've been doing together, aside from a bunch of stuff that we've all been doing on our own, but we just did music at the end of the winter for this movie by Allison Anders; we did the score for the movie. And we're just about to start on a bigger project along the same lines for this French film director, where we're gonna do the score for his next film.

DO: When recording, is it obvious to you guys what material is for what projects?

LR: It's kind of a little like that. Sometimes we don't know which it's gonna be for, but certainly the stuff we write for the Geffen records or whatever are more song-oriented, and we spend a lot more time working over those pieces and a lot more time and care recording them. But they're weighted pretty equally anyway. We're really into the other stuff, and it's just that when we are in the studio, we record a lot together. And for a while the outlet seemed logically to be these records that we were putting out, these SYR records, and there's actually a backlog of stuff we could release further on that label at the moment.

DO: What kind of shape is the new full-length stuff taking?

LR: It's kind of too soon to tell. They're just kind of these long amorphous jams at the moment. I mean, there's three of them and they're structured, but I'm pretty sure none of them are done. So they'll probably mutate a bit further. But it's just kind of like playing--playing together and slowly starting to shape it into something that seems presentable.

DO: How's Geffen been about the recent stuff, say since Washing Machine, when the music seemed to really start to get away from the more rock stuff of Goo or Dirty?

LR: At this point, the companies have all merged and they've got their mind on Eminem and Britney [Spears] and whoever's selling tons of records, and I barely think they even know who we are at this point. We met with the head of the company--he made a point of coming to see us and stuff--but I don't have any idea what they think or any of that stuff. So far we're still just making records and they're still paying for them, so who knows?

DO: Do you ever step back, like when the last one came out, and think, Wow, considering the other records they release, it's a small miracle that Geffen put this out?

LR: Well, yeah, we understand that at this point. And I think they're maybe scratching their heads about why they're putting it out.

DO: On the way here I was thinking about how bizarre it is that within the last couple of months, both Joey Ramone and John Fahey have died--two guys who, in a sense, could be looked at as representing the poles of Sonic Youth's music.

LR: I suppose so. I mean, there'd be a lot of people you could put in those positions, but they work as well as anybody, I guess, in terms of two aspects of things we're interested in. Yeah, we actually heard about John dying when we were in Japan, and then Joey... [trails off]. I guess they kind of work as two poles.

DO: Do you ever think about where things have sort of gone since the early '90s, when alternative rock was happening and all these bands that were your friends were sort of going through this really rarefied experience together? It just seems so different from now.

LR: I guess so. It's kind of the same road it started out as. Even then, we were entering into this scene where there were always bands that had lifespans happening, and we caught the tail end of some. It's just kind of part of the progression--all these different people that are in some way interested in some of the same things you are, in terms of making music, trying to have a career as a musician.

DO: Did you guys ever view that experience as an opportunity to push up against the whole process of what the mainstream is exposed to?

LR: It never really enters our thoughts. We just kind of go ahead and make the music, just keep focused on that.

DO: Never any thought toward the fact that people who wouldn't or couldn't hear your records any other way now could?

LR: Well, that was kind of the experience of signing to a major, thinking the distribution would get better. The idea at that point was that more people who were interested in checking them out, had heard about it, would have access to them. And whether or not it proved true...I mean, it proved true to some degree, but at a certain point it kind of flip-flopped, and it was kids who bought records in small mom-and-pop stores that couldn't find our records, because at that point Geffen didn't have that together. It's always been about access, and it still is. That's the most important thing when putting records out, no matter what size the label is--to get them to the places where the perceived audience can get them.

DO: How have your ideas changed from then to now about the potential size of your audience, about how to reach enormous numbers of people?

LR: Well, that's one of the interesting things about that in regards to major labels, that at this point you almost don't need a major label in order to reach this huge number of people, if you are savvy about how to do it over the Internet. And it's definitely gonna change the entire way that major labels operate; maybe artists will just jettison major labels. If we wanted to at this point, we could probably do our records completely ourselves, and do a better job of it than Geffen does for us, and make more money at it probably, and sell more records.

DO: How about culturally speaking? Do you miss being in the middle of that sort of zeitgeist?

LR: No, I'm glad it's over, because it wasn't reality, really. The way that it ended up being, with major labels looking for the next Nirvana and fucking up the heads of all these young bands that thought they were the next Nirvana, it just wasn't that good for the music. I think the music's better now.

DO: Because that spotlight isn't there?

LR: Yeah, I think that's probably exactly what it is.

DO: Do you personally miss that opportunity, to play Lollapalooza, for example?

LR: No, I don't think so, because we've done it. We don't miss it, we don't need to do it again. We're looking for things to do now that we haven't done.

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Mikael Wood