by James K. Willcox, courtesy of StarPolish
Few bands of the past two decades have been as influential on succeeding generations of artists as Sonic Youth, sometimes referred to as the greatest band never to strike it big. Bursting on the scene in 1981, heavily influenced by the experimental music of Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth quickly became known for their wild, energetic live shows and a strong emphasis on sound textures. By the mid-1980s the band — which was now comprised of the current line-up of guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley — had signed to Black Flag’s punk label SST. By the late 80s the band had released two albums — Sister and Bad Moon Rising — that are in retrospect considered the avatar of the band’s independent period, which ended when the group surprisingly signed with Geffen Records (which promised them artistic freedom). During this period Sonic Youth also recorder Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album with Black Flag’s Gregg Ginn and Minuteman Mike Watt.
After signing with Geffen — the label for which the band still records — Sonic Youth released first Goo and then the Butch Vig-produced Dirty, two more commercial albums that brought a bit more mainstream attention, but which also produced internal tensions within the band and criticisms from the band’s staunchest fans.
Follow-up albums in the mid-90s, including Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, saw the band returning to their more experimental roots, with many believing the band hit its ultimate stride with Washing Machine and its 19-minute closing song, “Diamond Star,” which boasted deep, cohesive soundscapes, ethereal images by Moore, and a powerful vocal performance by Gordon.
In the ensuing years, the band has steadfastly remained creatively independent despite recording for a major label, and has pushed its craft to the extremes, creating highly evolved sonic soundscapes that defy the conventional three- to four-minute formats required by radio and popular music. But by operating beneath the radar of mainstream attention and its attendant requirements, the band has continued to create amazing body of music that remains true to their artistic vision, in the process winning them a loyal legion of fans that has supported the band though every twist and turn.
Recently, StarPolish editorial director James K. Willcox visited the band at their downtown New York City studio, where guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley discussed recording for a major label, the band’s new album, Sonic Nurse, and their reputation as a 22-year-old underground band.
The Current Climate
STARPOLISH: I think a good place to start, since you guys have been around for a while, is to discuss the environment into which you’re releasing the new album, compared to even a decade ago. It seems like there’s been a sea change in terms of how the industry operates. Although it sometimes seems that Sonic Youth is able to operate totally independent of the industry itself, you’re still musicians who are earning a living from music, so you’re in the business to some degree. Could you talk about how you approach releasing a new album now compared to 10 years ago?
SHELLEY: Well, you know to some degree being an artist of the scale we are, we operate fairly similarly to the way we did 10 years ago. I mean, obviously the whole environment has changed now with the Internet and downloading and all this stuff; record sales in general are not what they were 10 years ago. When a hot album came out 10 years ago, your record company would expect it would go through the roof. I suppose today they imagine a certain portion of their sales is getting siphoned off. Whether that’s true or not seems to be a subject of much debate these days. But we’re pretty much a self-sufficient band, so we kind of operate in the same way we did 10 years ago: we make the music, we put it out there, and the record sales, they sort of fluctuate, but they have a certain amount of consistency with our fan base, in terms of how many people buy our records and things like that. So I guess to some degree I think we’re slightly exempt from the vagaries of the marketplace just because we do have this long tradition of who we are and this tide of fans to support us.
STARPOLISH: I think that sometimes it’s surprising to people that you’re on a major label .
SHELLEY: (Laughing) It’s surprising to us!
STARPOLISH: When you left to sign with Geffen initially back in the 80s, a lot of people just didn’t understand that move at all. Is that something that you can talk about? I know there were some issues involved with SST, royalties and things like that .
SHELLEY: The deal with Enigma at that time was a one-off I think, so it wasn’t like we left them; we just sort of didn’t do another record with them. We started going around and meeting all the labels — it’s what you do when you’re going to sign — and they take you out to dinner, and we initially flew out to California because we had some pretty close ties with some people at A&M, and we really thought we were going to sign with A&M. But it while we were out there, this guy from Geffen really wants us to come by. And we really liked Geffen a lot, and at the time it was the last independent major label. It was still owned by David Geffen and you could actually go into his office and talk to the owner, where the buck stopped. That was pretty interesting and they didn’t have a whole lot of artists back then, which was really interesting to us as well, so we felt like it was a good home.
STARPOLISH: Were there artists on that roster that made you think, “Well they’re doing well by them, they can probably do well by us,” or was it more the guy you met there and sort of the vibe of the company?
SHELLEY: I think it was the vibe of the company. There weren’t a whole lot of people of our type on major labels at that time.
RANALDO: There were hardly any.
SHELLEY: They were doing really well with Guns and Roses, but it’s not like we saw ourselves as following in their footsteps at all, but it was like, “Well this kind of a different rock band, and they’re doing crazy business with it.”
RANALDO: They seemed most receptive to allowing us to continue as we were, you know? There was the least amount of controlling forces from the record company’s side. We wanted, obviously, because of our history, to be completely in control, and they seemed very receptive to that; they seemed most receptive to wanting us for who we really were. Although we talked to a lot of different people at the time; we had dinner with Ahmet Ertegan from Atlantic, and all different kinds of people. And all the labels were to some degree very similar, so it made it a hard choice. But something just gave Geffen the edge in our opinions.
SHELLEY: I guess we’re lucky that we went where we did go and it was sort of a good choice, because even though Geffen has had its own ups and downs, we’re still on the label, where there’ve been so many labels that have disappeared or consolidated. And that’s even happened to Geffen, but it seems to have its own identity right now, at least. When we were on the independent labels — that was a great thing and a really wonderful music scene to be a part of, but there were always limitations. We were always sort of striking further than the labels were able to.
STARPOLISH: Do you mean sonically?
SHELLEY: Business-wise. For example, we were traveling all over the world but our records weren’t getting all over the world. So the main goal of being on a major label was that we would go to a town and play a show and if a kid liked us, he could go buy our record in the shop. Not to any fault of the independent labels, but often when you were on an independent label, in a lot of towns you would end up in an import bin, and your records would be twice as much as a record on Warner Brothers or something. So there were just these limitations to being on an independent, and as a band we were pushing to be where we wanted to be.
STARPOLISH: Another interesting thing is that you each run your own labels, and the band has its own label, which means that sometimes you have to act as label heads. Has that changed the way you relate to Geffen? Are you smarter about certain things now, or do you understand things differently?
SHELLEY: Just sometimes when they say “no”, you know that may not be the final “no” (laughing). Sometimes we know that we actually can do this if we can persuade the right person, so that’s one aspect of it.
RANALDO: We’ve always been kind of involved enough in the business of making records and how it all operates; we’ve always been interested in it, so maybe we know more about that stuff as a group then your average musician does. And certainly having gone through all the labels that we’ve gone through, we’ve always kept on top of how they operate and what’s possible and what’s not possible and how that works.
Sonic Youth Records
STARPOLISH: What’s the idea behind having your own label? Many times artists’ labels are regarded as vanity labels, and other times the reasons are quite different. For example, some bands I’ve talked to say that there are a lot of great bands who can’t get signed to a deal and it’s a way to help get their music out, while for other artists it’s that they have so much creative output that they couldn’t feed it through the normal distribution pipeline. Can you talk about your label?
RANALDO: All of the above makes sense for what we do. The SYR label is a label that’s run by the band as a collective, and it’s mostly recordings that we wouldn’t want to make Geffen have to deal with. And it’s for those times when you don’t want to put out an album a year or an album every nine months with a major label. So we can slip something out on an independent label, and not overtax the major label system that you have working for you. And it’s also usually recordings that maybe they wouldn’t understand or that they wouldn’t know how to market or sell, while we can kind of just slip it out, and fans who like the band and want to have that stuff, they know how to get it.
STARPOLISH: Do you have distribution?
RANALDO: Yeah. We have excellent distribution. It goes through a company called Revolver USA out of San Francisco and they distribute thousands of independent record labels. So that’s one aspect of what our record label is. We haven’t gotten too into putting out other artists, but it’s always a possibility. We really haven’t done much with a label in the last year or so because we’ve been working on our new album for Geffen. But probably in the next year we’ll do a number of releases and put some things out.
STARPOLISH: By the way, I have to ask you, since I have the pre-release: is the album called Nurse, or Sonic Youth Nurse?
RANALDO: It’s Sonic Nurse .
SHELLEY: It’s partially our fault because we changed the name from Sonic Youth Nurse to Sonic Nurse . It’s never been just Nurse, but it’s kind of confusing.
STARPOLISH: And on the back of the CD, does that say Surfing Nurse?
SHELLEY: Yes. When you get the real booklet, it’s a series of paintings by this artist, Richard Prince. He took these pulp novels from the 60s that all had nurse in the title and he made paintings based on these book covers, which are beautiful; his paintings are amazing. I don’t know, there’s like five or six of these paintings in our CD booklet and each one of them is a different title, whether it’s New England Nurse or Surfing Nurse, so we’ve changed one of them to be called Sonic Nurse.
STARPOLISH: That’s pretty cool. I was thinking that I’m old enough to remember buying record albums, and they’d have great album art and my bedroom walls were decorated with posters. I was the kind of kid who read all the credits to see which guest musicians played on the album, so I wonder if people seemingly satisfied to download music on a computer lose the connection that I had as a kid.
RANALDO: Well you lose one connection, but there are other connections going on, you know? When we were kids that was one of the few games in town. Now kids are distracted by computers and the Internet and video games and whatever; there’s a zillion other things going on so, the impact of a record is not the same as it was in our lives when we were kids. That’s just a given at this point. So kids today are making different connections, I suppose.
Embracing the Internet
STARPOLISH: I think maybe community is one of the things that makes up for that. You don’t have the booklets, but now you are able to connect with people. With kids in my neighborhood, if you got along with them and listened to the same music, that was your community. Now with the Internet, that community has became vastly larger. I guess that leads to something I think you alluded to earlier, when you were talking about the business and putting a new album out. And that is that you have pretty well-defined fans, and to me it seems that the people who can leverage the Internet perhaps the most effectively are bands like yours, that just have a fiercely loyal community who are going to support you financially by buying things. So I’m wondering if you, as you move forward, have thought about having a direct approach to your fans via the Internet as opposed to going through a record label and trying to handle that on your own.
SHELLEY: I think we’ve always felt we could do more with the Internet. I mean we’ve got a pretty intense website, but there are certainly tons more things we could do with that. We have a lot of free mp3’s on our site and videos and things like that, but there are definitely artists who’ve embraced it and are leading the way into that next chapter and what’s going to happen to music and the Internet. It’s all pretty interesting, but I don’t know — in some ways it’s strange to say, but we’re a pretty traditional band. I mean, we’re pretty physical about playing guitars and drums and we carry this junk with us and play these shows and it’s a really big part of what we do. So I’m not sure what will happen next between the Internet and us, but I know all of us feel, in different ways, that there’s more.
STARPOLISH: Has the experience that some artists have like Prince or George Michael, who’ve had public conflicts with their labels and then decided to try to do it on their own and not really been particularly successful, become cautionary tales in any way?
SHELLEY: Well, those are such strange stories to me because those are people who, business-wise, live in a totally different world then we do. They’re people who get advances for millions of dollars and who are still not happy with what’s happening after the advance. So our story is pretty far away from that, and we live much more modestly as musicians; we relate more to blues or jazz musicians than to George Michael and Prince, who by the way I love and we were actually talking about him yesterday.
STARPOLISH: Have you heard the new album?
SHELLEY: Yeah, it’s great. He’s going to do really well this year, getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s awesome that he’s back. But it’s sort of weird for me that he probably made a lot of money from Warner Brothers, but at a certain point he was so unhappy with the deal that he would write the word “slave” on his cheek. And I think that he signed the contract (laughing). You know, he agreed to get into the situation just like George Michael did, and they knew that these people who don’t care anything about your music have all this power over you. So it’s sort of like they chose their path and they’re dealing with it. When we were talking about a major label, Lee was saying that Geffen seemed to want to give us control. They didn’t give us all the money; they gave us all the control. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those stories, and they don’t seem really related to what I do. That’s like a different world, the George Michaels and the Princes of the world. But I hope that they do what they want and they make good records and they have fun. I don’t know if that answered the question…
STARPOLISH: No, you definitely did. I just remember back to 1999, when I left journalism full time to help launch an Internet music company, and the word of the hour was “disintermediation,” meaning that you no longer needed a record label. And boy were they wrong, at least for the time being. The Internet is a tool. So I’m just wondering if some of these examples, if not particularly relevant to your situation, underscore that that utopian idea of the Internet being the be-all-end-all really is not instrumental?
SHELLEY: Well we’ve definitely thought about it but for those guys, I think they really lost something when they didn’t have structure, you know? Like for Prince, when he’s putting out his record he thinks, “Well, I can do anything.” And he did, and he has a hardcore group of fans, but it didn’t reach everybody; he sort of lost touch.
STARPOLISH: And maybe not just with music, but with reality .
RANALDO: Well I wonder how many copies those records sold. They might have still sold staggering numbers…
SHELLEY: Well, I don’t know, but he lost touch with the public, and then something like Outkast came along. And Outkast could have never happened without Prince and a hundred other bands, but they touched peoples’ lives and that’s great. So I don’t know if the Internet record label thing is going to work. You know, some of it’s closer to us. Einsturzende Neubauten was going to do that, and they wound up putting the record on Mute Records, which is a great label. It seems like it’s not there yet for the Internet only album.
RANALDO: It’s getting there — there’s no doubt it’s changing; all that stuff is changing the face of the industry, but it’s not there yet. Like you said, it’s a tool, it hasn’t replaced record stores — or records labels
SHELLEY: I think it’s a great way to put out like secondary music in your life. Let’s say we went on tour and we wanted to compile a greatest hits live album from our last tour, and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I think an Internet version of that, where you still sold a CD but you sold it over the Internet, would be a great thing.
STARPOLISH: Sure. I see more bands now doing shows where you can actually get a copy of the live CD as you leave .
SHELLEY: Yeah they actually do that over at Maxwell’s right now. I’ve heard of that.
RANALDO: I guess I have mixed feelings about that I guess. I mean I guess it’s cool from a fan’s perspective, that if you’re at a show and you loved the show you can walk away with it. But bands that are doing that at every show… when we were touring with Pearl Jam a couple years ago they put out CDs from every show on that tour. I mean I guess if you’re a hardcore fan it’s a cool thing, but it’s almost grueling at a certain point. There’s no critical intervention there.
STARPOLISH: And there are just some bands that would prefer to have control over what gets released .
SHELLEY: I don’t know if it’s because those bands are bootlegged so much or…
STARPOLISH: Like Dave Matthews is doing that now, and he’s always had a really pro-taping policy. So I wonder if the idea is that, “Hey I can’t stop it and it’s going to happen and it doesn’t really bother me, so why not monetize it?”
RANALDO: But the thing is, we have a total pro-taping policy as well, and we’re all for kids taping and trading it and it’s partly a great way to keep our archive in good shape because we get copies of all that stuff. But when it comes time to sell it, I think we’d rather be more selective about the stuff that we sell because you’re putting a certain imprint on it when you start selling it. And if you sell every single one, I mean, you’re either doing it just because you know you can make a ton of money doing it, or you think you’re god’s gift or something like that and it’s all really great. I don’t know. I think for us it just wouldn’t make sense. I think we’d want to have much more of a critical say in [it], and say, “Yeah, this is a group of songs that we endorse.”
SHELLEY: Maybe every other night (Every one laughs).
RANALDO: (Laughing) Exactly!
An Underground Band
STARPOLISH: When I was doing some research for the interview I came across a New York Times article in which they referred to you as a 22-year-old underground band, which I thought was funny, because there’s almost something oxymoronic about calling a 22-year-old group an underground band. At the same time, it does seem apt. Do you still see yourselves as an underground band?
SHELLEY: I love being an underground band. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
RANALDO: I think it’s what we are to a large degree. It’s an incongruity because we’re on a major label, and yet we have our own indie label as well. But for the larger music-buying population, for people buying Britney and Outkast records, we’re an underground band, because we don’t exist in that world. We’re in this totally other world and we’re really happy there. We love the music we make there and we love the community
SHELLEY: And we’re glad they didn’t kick us out
STARPOLISH: I see you’re doing a Lollapalooza tour, and then you’re touring in Australia and New Zealand with J Mascis. Is Watt playing with him?
RANALDO: I think it’s a solo tour. We’ve seen [Watt] a lot in the last year, though.
STARPOLISH: [Watt] has been a really good friend of ours; he helped us launch the site. He was the first person on our advisory board and he’s just an awesome guy, so I was curious. But doing these kinds of tours — as you get older, and you have families and responsibilities, does that change being on tour? Are you still a live band that loves to play?
RANALDO: I think we are. I mean I don’t think we’ve changed too much about that except that we have to just work a little harder on getting the schedules to work out, with school schedules and things like that. We love making records, but we really love playing live as well. It’s definitely one of the things we do that keeps us energized and that we totally live and love to do. It’s always been one of the biggest turn-ons and it remains that.
SHELLEY: There’s something about when a live show is going well, that’s sort of why you got into a band. Because you’re so in the moment, and it’s not the same moment as when you’re having fun in the recording studio or making a record, but it’s got all that sort of glory going on that you dreamt of when you were 12 or 13.
STARPOLISH: So that still exists?
RANALDO: Oh, yeah, of course it still exists for us. But that’s why people go to live shows, because it’s a unique thing, you know? It’s not like listening to a record. It’s a group experience. It’s not just about the band on the stage, because on a good night it’s about everything that’s happening in the room. The audience is a synergistic part of it and it’s something that happens in this moment and then it’s gone. It’s got this evanescent quality to it, you know? And it’s really just a remarkable thing. It continues to be something that moves people to go out in numbers to see live events, whether it’s rock n’ roll or theatre or whatever. A live show is something that’s happening in the moment. It’s not reproducible. It’s not something you’re watching on a tape that you can say, “Oh let’s watch it tomorrow night.” It’s still this magical thing.
STARPOLISH: A lot of people who will read this are people in bands, dealing with the issue of being in bands, and you have managed to keep one together for more than two decades. So I wanted to know what it was like when you added a member, Jim O’Rourke, to do some production and engineering for you, and whether that changes the dynamic of the band itself in terms of how you do things, particularly live. I think the studio is a little different, as it doesn’t have as much of an impact, but Jim is touring with you, right?
SHELLEY: Oh yeah, he has been for the last few years. You know it’s funny because we were saying this before; it’s changed a lot of stuff on some levels, and on some levels it hasn’t changed anything. We still work and operate in the same way that we have. There’s just another voice in the mix now.
RANALDO: So it really wasn’t that we were searching for somebody to play live with us, it just kind of happened. And it’s worked out really well.
STARPOLISH: Do you have any advice for bands in terms of keeping a band together? Sonic Youth is an interesting band because everyone has a really strong personality in it, and there are going to be conflicts. Is there any advice for emerging artists who are going to have to deal with those things?
RANALDO: I don’t know. I guess the main thing that’s kept us going is that we’ve stayed focused on the music and the community that we exist in, and we’ve gotten what we wanted out of it. We weren’t looking to make a hit single and go for that dream that for most people is fairly unobtainable. We wanted to make really good music and we kind of just went about it and did it and focused on that.
STARPOLISH: I just wanted to ask one more thing about the new album in terms of the expectations. Given the environment that you see where people are complaining that CD sales are down, does the fact that you don’t operate in the huge pop mainstream benefit you? What are your expectations for this album in terms of how it’s going to do?
STARPOLISH: Yeah, sales-wise but also the reaction from your fans. It seemed like with Murray Street there was some feeling that you were pursuing a slightly more commercial direction that was more song oriented, and listening to the new album I thought it might be similarly perceived. I was just curious how you think your fan base will receive it.
SHELLEY: There are no expectations sales-wise, it’s just sort of whatever happens and we never think about that when we’re getting together. Murray Street, we didn’t conceptualize it before it happened, it’s just the way it came together. About the other stuff, we just sort of embrace the taping and file sharing and we hope that if someone hears something [they like], they’ll be excited enough to go look for the record.
RANALDO: The whole thing about being more song oriented, I mean, our pendulum swings back and forth from more soundscapey, noisy stuff to more actual songs. We kind of hear that every five to 10 years, you know? We heard it when we made Goo and we heard it when we made Sisters. It’s kind of like one of those things that is always droning away in the background. And the same goes for record sales. We’ve heard [for a lot of] records since 1989 that “This one’s going to do really well,” or “This one’s going to be really big.” So we just put them out there and see what happens. All that stuff is unpredictable. It depends what’s going on in the market and underground, you know?
STARPOLISH: Well, one of the things that I think is interesting, particularly for a band that has been around for a while and that continually experiments with music, is that there’s always the possibility of alienating a part of your fans who liked what you did during a certain period. I’m just wondering if that happens at all .
RANALDO: I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think it sort of happens in a kind of the reverse — it’s easy to alienate the fans that have kind of come recently and sort of dip in and check it out, and then move on to something else. I think especially for a band like us, our hardcore fans are really interested in the different directions that we go, and the same goes for us; if we like an artist, even if they go through a period that has you scratching your heads and wondering, “What the fuck are they doing?” — like with Neil Young or someone like that when he goes off on these crazy tangents — you still like something about who they are and what they’re enough doing that you keep coming back to see where they’re going. Hopefully they come around and do stuff you really love again, as [Young] has for sure. So I think that because we’ve been around for so long, there have been fans that have been with us for a really long period of time, and in general they look for us to do different things and sort of challenge their expectations of who we are and what we are. In 1999, I think it was, we did that Goodbye Twentieth Century record where we played all this modernist music. And you know, it’s something I think our fans always thought we had in us, but maybe before we did it, it was kind of one of those unspoken things. But for us it was just opening up that we could do other things like film soundtracks, etc. I think the people who are interested in what we do are kind of interested in all of that — at least it seems to be the case. If you read our net chat board, we all do a lot of weird solo stuff, from freaky improve to singer/songwriter stuff or whatever. And the fans seem to be into embracing quite a lot of that stuff as part of that thing that is Sonic Youth.
STARPOLISH: Maybe it’s more true for more popular artists who have pre-packaged images .
RANALDO: Sure. Also, when you’re dealing with popular artists, you’re dealing with somebody who’s had a hit on the radio that has turned a lot of people on, but on one hand it’s kind of anonymous, you know? They don’t have a lot of history with these fans, and so the fans are just as liable to be flighty when the next hit comes along by someone else and move over there. One thing, for better or for worse, that we’ve avoided is the whole super popularity thing. We haven’t had hit records and sold millions of records. I think a lot of bands that do that feel that they have this great spike in their career, and then everything else in comparison [seems less], even if they’re still doing stuff. Like with Prince, even if all those records he did over the net or whatever were great, he’s got to be thinking, “Well, I’m not getting the buzz in Rolling Stone that I had with Purple Rain,” or whatever. It must be a weird thing, because even if you’re still doing great and selling respectable amounts, compared to that spike it’s not. That’s why someone like Mariah Carey gets dropped by her record company while she still sells five million records or whatever the fuck it is. It’s just hat on everybody’s side, the perspective gets totally warped.
STARPOLISH: I remember when Eminem’s second album sold 7 million units and not 13 million like the first, and people were disappointed.
RANALDO: It’s totally insane. And for us, that’s been one of the lucky things that as kept us going. There have never been these crazy spikes that have caused everything to get out of whack. I think we’re lucky that way. Aside from bands like the Rolling Stones, who are just this crazy institution, there are a lot of bands that have been around for along time, like blues artists or even the Grateful Dead. They’ve never had that insane moment of popularity that caused things to get out of balance and go bust. I mean, B.B. King, he’s 80 years old, he’s probably has a steady, straight popularity for 40 or 50 years. He’s had a career rather than a moment. For certain artists it’s great to have that moment, but we are much happier having a career.