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MUSIC : SONIC YOUTH : Play It Loud : They hit the big time with an album on Geffen, but they haven't turned down the volume.

November 01, 1990|BILL LOCEY

Is it a cat fight in the machine shop, an endless car wreck in a Bruce Willis movie, Saturday night in Beirut or merely the end of the world soundtrack?

Or it could be that Mick Jagger was right when he sang, "It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it." Then again, maybe Archie Bunker had it when he said "Edith, stop singin'--the neighbors will think I'm killin' ya."

In any case, Sonic Youth--those musical believers in truth in advertising--will be playing at Campbell Hall on the UC Santa Barbara campus Friday night. Real loud.

The New York quartet's latest release, "Goo," is a hit on the college radio stations, where music is played that is considered too good or too hip for middle-of-the-road radio programmers who are too unhip to notice what's going to be the next big thing.

College radio plays music that is sometimes called "progressive rock" or "alternative music," which used to be called "new wave." Anything that is new in music is "progressive," for a minute or two, at least.

"Any music that tries to develop certain ideas and carry them a bit further is progressive rock," said Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore in a recent telephone interview. "For us, the people in college radio are our contemporaries. We represent a certain lifestyle that they can relate to. College radio really supports us--we owe a lot of our success to them."

Apparently, being a college radio success means less in New York, Sonic Youth's hometown, than it means elsewhere.

"In New York, we don't get much in the way of radio reception: There's too many tall buildings, and there's no cable. Most of our fans are these white urban-suburban middle-class kids who are very aware of what's going on around them."

The band has put out seven or eight albums in the last 10 years on a variety of small labels, including SST of Lawndale. The current album on Geffen marks the band's big-label debut.

"I don't really know how many records we have," Moore said. "There are albums, then EPs, then 12-inch singles, all that stuff. But I do know that our new label is very committed. Now we're cruising around in a big tour bus that Cher used to use. It's even got two televisions, plus we have a separate van to carry our 20 or so guitars. So obviously, there's a lot more capital involved."

And critics, by and large, seem to love this band. The bio sheet is chock full of impressive adjectives. Then again, Sonic Youth used to call for the assassination of one prominent New York critic.

"That was a long time ago," said Moore. "His thing used to be promoting safe, genteel rock music. But he's come around since then. He likes us now." Which doesn't mean that the critical world is forever safe from the wrath of Sonic Youth.

"There's this (reviewer) from the L.A. Weekly--I'd like to shoot her. We don't mess with rock critics, but she's attacked us, and she doesn't know what she's talking about. It totally matters what critics write because everybody reads what somebody writes. We're different, and I think that's exciting to them."

Often referred to as a "noise band," Sonic Youth's latest is their most accessible effort yet. That means, it's not as atonal and annoying as usual.

"Dirty Boots" and the Karen Carpenter song, "Tunic (Song For Karen)," sound like real rock songs, with rhythms and melodies, although not quite sing-in-the-shower material. Then again, there's a song called "Mildred Pierce," which is, well, noisy. Don't be surprised if Joan Crawford comes back from beyond, really angry. Mostly, Sonic Youth music is all about Angst and youthful energy done to Warp 10 intensity. But if you play it at home when Mom and Dad are in one of their moods, expect to be cut out of the will. And the cat will never forgive you.

It's probably that dual guitar onslaught from Moore and Lee Ranaldo. "Well, we have all these guitars that are tuned differently," Moore said. "There's a certain logic to it. We stick stuff under the bridge, and just rework them physically to make them sound different. It's all very experimental; it's music in development."

Before Cher's tour bus and Geffen Records, Sonic Youth was one of the first alternative bands to play in the Soviet Union. Since World War III didn't start, the tour apparently was a success.

"We went there a couple of years ago," Moore said. "It was like playing with '90s technology in a world stuck in the '40s. We'd play in these places called 'The Youth Hall' or something like that, no p.a.'s, nothing. Other than that, it was really interesting. A lot of people came to see an American band, but some of them thought we were doing it wrong--they thought we were Iron Maiden. Since we spoke English, everyone assumed we were British. The lack of information there is astounding."

But even that gig didn't rate as their strangest. That honor goes to a recent show played at a Basque Club, perched on top of a mountain in Spain.

"In this club, there was a wall that separated the audience in half, and they could only see half the stage. So Lee and I would crisscross back and forth to check them out. Half of them were digging it while the other half were sort of just tolerating us. Very bizarre."

Very bizarre. Very loud. Sonic Youth. Friday night. UCSB. And don't forget those earplugs or you'll be stuck for an answer next time someone says hello.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Sonic Youth will open for Chris Isaak at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Campbell Hall on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. Tickets are $13 and $15. Directions: North on U.S. 101, off on California 217, follow the signs to the campus.

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