The godfathers of indie rock

Noisy experiments led to Sonic Youth's own inimitable sound

by Philip Brasor

Twenty-five years into a career that will likely not end until one of its members blasts off this mortal coil, Sonic Youth defies whatever characterizations you throw at them.

Often described as indie godfathers, the New York quartet was one of the most successful major label rock acts of the 1990s — What other indie band can claim that their members maintain middle class comfort on record sales alone?

Rock cliches, in fact, may not be the proper basis on which to judge their longevity. Given their artistic viability, it’s easier to consider the group in terms one would associate with jazz musicians, who we tend to think get better with age, while rockers usually deteriorate or grow stale. Still, there are some perks that only elder rockers can enjoy.

“We’re eligible for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame right now,” says guitarist Lee Ranaldo on the phone from New York. “It’s 25 years from the time of your first recording, and it was 25 years this month that our first record came out.”

Ranaldo sounds enthusiastic, not ironic. The record he’s talking about — an EP, to be exact — contains tracks that could be called songs but the sound itself is experimental: studies in harmonics and dynamics influenced by Sonic Youth’s apprenticeship to avant-garde composer Glenn Branca.

Most rock critics didn’t like it, even those who favored the no-wave scene that offered Ranaldo, co-guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon an outlet for their noisy ideas. But as Ranaldo points out, they all came from rock.

“We had pretty broad tastes,” he explains. “We had already been through the punk movement and all that stuff in the late ’70s by the time we formed, but we were also interested in modern 20th-century music, and from there our tastes continued to get wider and wider.”

However, their aesthetic became more focused, the compositions gaining structure and color as their tunings turned even more unconventional and their guitars underwent customizing to achieve certain textures and make effects more elaborate. By the time Steve Shelley joined as permanent drummer on 1986′s “EVOL,” the group had evolved from their early, dirgelike material into a hard rock band that had a knack for rhythmic excitement. Moreover, the racket that distinguished their music worked perfectly within these song structures.

As a foundation on which to build an artistic reputation and not just a recognizable sound, it was original and appealing. More amazing, it proved to be inimitable.

“I think that’s why we’re still together as a band,” Ranaldo says. “We believe all musicians, from our age all the way down, belong to our peer group. We’re inspired by a lot of different stuff but we’re just out there looking to participate.”

Participation requires a certain amount of visibility, and given the limited reach of indie distribution in the ’80s, Sonic Youth often found themselves playing towns where no one had heard their records because there was no place to buy them. It was this reality of a working-band life that persuaded some dyed-in-the-wool indie bands to go for the major label contract. Sonic Youth’s, with Geffen, was better than most.

“We had already been around 10 years so we had a definite outlook on things,” Ranaldo says. “We had come up slowly through the American indie ranks so by the time we got to Geffen it was too late to sway us from the way we looked at music and the business.”

In other words, there were no A&R guys looking over their shoulders wondering where the hits were.

“We always had creative control, which was unusual at the time.”

Sonic Youth’s first Geffen album, “Goo,” released in 1990, pushed commercial rock into a more adventurous mainstream, paving the way for grunge (Sonic Youth recommended Geffen sign Nirvana) and so-called alternative rock. The decade proved to be a watershed for all types of new music, and one of the few constants was the innovative quality of Sonic Youth’s releases. The band’s fundamental sound never changed and they never followed fads (though they could parody them, as they did as Ciccone Youth on “The Whitey Album,” which took on the dance-pop phenomenon in 1988), but because no one could do what they did they always sounded fresh.

“I don’t think we would have continued if we never felt we were current,” says Ranaldo. “Sonic Youth is a band that constantly plays new music. It’s what we’re about.”

Still, it hasn’t been difficult to persuade the group to look back. In the past several years they’ve repackaged and expanded both “Goo” and its followup, the metaloid classic “Dirty.” Last year they were one of the bands invited to close out CBGB’s in New York, and in December they released their first collection of Geffen-era B-sides and rarities, “The Destroyed Room.”

Nostalgia will peak this summer when, in association with All Tommorow’s Parties, they plan to re-create in concert the entirety of what consensus says is their best album and one of the greatest musical documents ever, 1988′s “Daydream Nation.”

“It was always the big one for us,” Ranaldo says. “But it’s going to be a challenge. About half of those songs we literally have not played for 15 years, at least. We’ll get it together, but we definitely don’t have it together at the moment. It should be interesting to put ourselves back into the heads we were in when we wrote those songs.”

In the meantime, they’re still touring their last studio album, “Rather Ripped,” and will come to Japan next week to reunite with another band from their past, Osaka’s noise kings, Vooredoms — formerly known as Boredoms — who will open all their shows.

“We saw Boredoms on our first trip to Japan in ’89,” Ranaldo says. “I can’t recall if we played with them then, but we hung out and brought them to the U.S. soon after that. I remember when we started getting into the Japanese scene how similar it was to the kind of noise action going on in New York at the time. It was well before there was an international noise scene as there is now. The whole mind set was the same. Noisy cities seem to spawn a certain kind of music.”