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Sonic Youth: More Than Meets The Ear

January 04, 1985|CRAIG LEE

Don't call Sonic Youth a noise band.

Producing thick walls of sound, the New York quartet often plays at blistering volumes on a collection of cheap, junky guitars, some with screwdrivers or drumsticks jammed between the strings.

This makes it seem the group is interested in progressive sound experiments, but guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore and bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon were adamant in a recent interview that the band is first and foremost a rock 'n' roll outfit. To underscore its roots, the combo's forthcoming LP is even named after a Creedence Clearwater Revival song, "Bad Moon Rising."

(The group will make its local debut Saturday as part of "Gila Monster Jamboree," latest in a series of remote desert concerts presented by the Desolation Center. For information, phone (213)-465-3446.)

About the group's affinity for rock, Moore explained, "We really have this feeling about ourselves as being an American band. People tend to think of our music as German-influenced, industrial.

"But there's this big American uprising of Byrds-like, jangly guitar bands. We love Creedence Clearwater, the music of that (late '60s) time. We really feel akin to all that, in the same manner of bands like Green on Red. Only we don't sound the same."

That's an understatement.

Sonic Youth's aggressive sheets of feedback and clusters of ringing overtones seem closer to the epic, multiple-guitar pieces of New York's acclaimed avant-garde composer Glenn Branca than to the jingle-jangle guitars of the retro-'60s "paisley underground" scene.

Indeed, Sonic Youth's guitarists, Moore and Lee Ranaldo, met as members of one of Branca's aggregations. The two then formed their own band in 1981 with bassist Jones and drummer Richard Edson (who has a featured role in the film "Stranger Than Paradise"). They released an EP on Branca's Neutral label the following year. The group even financed its first European tour with money saved while touring with Branca. (Bob Bert replaced Edson on drums after that first EP.)

But Moore is quick to discount the Branca connection. "It's a plague to us sometimes," the unaffected but somewhat introspective musician said. "People tend to think of us as 'Glenn Branca put in a rock-band context.' But that's not it. We're more into conventional things. We're more influenced by the Stooges, MC5 or the Velvet Underground than composers like John Cage or Harry Partch. We're not into making our music a lesson. "

One thing that does interest Sonic Youth is lyrically "re-interpeting history." The group's new album starts with Gordon's "Brave Men Run," an examination of the sexuality of American pioneers, and ends with "Death Valley '69," an impressionistic (and harrowing) look at the Manson phenomenon.

"In a lot of ways, what America is ultimately about is death," explained Gordon. "California is supposed to be the last frontier, this paradise, so it's symbolic that the whole Manson thing happened here."

Some music scene observers have seen Sonic Youth as carrying on the nihilistic "no wave" movement pioneered by New York groups like Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and the Contortions in the late '70s.

Moore and Ranaldo wrote the music for former Teenage Jesus leader Lydia Lunch's "In Limbo" album. Lunch returned the favor by co-writing lyrics and singing on "Death Valley '69." But the band doesn't want to be associated with the "post-no wave" movement, either.

"We didn't go into this saying 'Let's continue no wave,' " said Moore. "We work with overtones, sound coming out of sound, but we don't see ourselves as pushing music to an end. We're just writing songs and we have a lot of fun putting them together. We really like freaking out!"

Sonic Youth has twice toured Europe, where its three records have been critically acclaimed. But Moore claims that New York critics treat the local music scene "like a bastard in their own backyard." Why has the band found Europe (with the exception of the English music scene, which Moore and Gordon found snobbish and affected) to be more receptive to its sonic sounds? "There's not as much the presence of corporate rock in Europe," claims Gordon. "There's no real network, so there's room for other things."

"Berlin's really great," exclaims Moore. "They're really into what we're doing. Some band like Einsturzende Neubauten comes over here and everyone goes, 'Yeah, the new thing from Germany!' Over there, they're just another band--like us. In the States, people tend to think of us as some kind of art-rock thing."

"It doesn't really say anything to call us an art-rock band," Gordon continued. "For one thing, we don't get any money from the art world; the art scene has become very conservative. I still see music, rock, as much more viable in affecting popular culture than what people are doing in the art world.

"Everybody applauds Laurie Anderson because she made it out of the art-world ghetto, but she's not that interesting to me. I may not be into Michael Jackson, but as a multimedia experience, it's gotta be more exciting than what Laurie Anderson does. I'd much rather go see Ratt."

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