Erratically tuned guitars, oft-strained vocals, and walls of ear-bleeding feedback aren't everyone's cup of noise. But if you meet Sonic Youth on their own aesthetic terms you have to concede that, almost 30 years into their history, the band has aged as well as almost any other rock band you can name.
Their latest album, The Eternal, has garnered a batch of glowing reviews, heralded by many as their best release in years. We've reached the point where we can refer to its sound as "classic Sonic Youth," and if they're not as radical and trailblazing as they once were, drummer Steve Shelley insists that doesn't concern them. "We don't feel like we have to break new ground," Shelley says from backstage just before the band's appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. "Or compete with Radiohead or Flaming Lips or whoever. We're more interested in storytelling."
Born from the no-wave/post-punk scene of late-'70s and early-'80s downtown New York, Sonic Youth's 1982 debut EP took the lessons guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon learned from avant-rock composers Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham and filtered them through a four-piece rock group. (Midwestern hardcore drummer Shelley joined in 1986 following a string of more rudimentary, art-damaged drummers.) Fusing retooled, detuned guitars with punk's verve and primitivism, the group released a series of albums that got progressively better as they veered closer to traditional rock forms, culminating in 1988's canonical Daydream Nation. (It's in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.) They signed to major label DGC in 1990 and became international rock stars. They inadvertently assisted in changing the music industry after getting their buddies Nirvana signed to their label, they've collaborated with hundreds of musicians and artists and, to the chagrin of some rock purists, inspired legions of imitators.
It's worth pausing to reflect just how unlikely it was for a group with Sonic Youth's beginnings to have had such an impact on popular culture. They have, directly or otherwise, influenced practically every band who fall under the unwieldy "indie rock" umbrella. Unlike seminal underground bands such as Velvet Underground or the Stooges, however, Sonic Youth are still a functioning unit, recording an album and touring every couple of years. And while they'll probably never match Daydream's creative and critical success, the band continues to release albums of consistent quality—10 since Daydream and not a dud in the bunch—that endlessly rework the basic principle of a sound they created. With an ever-expanding body of songs and growing collection of customized guitars, their live shows remain unpredictable, exciting, and very, very loud affairs.
While the reliability of their output may be attributed to the band's working methods remaining more or less the same over the years—Shelley says they still record mostly live to 16-track analog tape in their own studio—there have been a few noticeable recent changes. The band remained a quartet until 2002, when Jim O'Rourke joined full-time to play guitar, bass, and synthesizer. He appeared on Murray Street in 2002 and Sonic Nurse in 2005 but left the band that year. Soon after ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold began playing with the band.
"For [2006's] Rather Ripped tour, Kim felt it would be good to have someone play the bass and free her to sing," Shelley explains. "It would also allow her to play more guitar, which she had been doing for a while. Mark had played music with Kim before, so it was sort of a natural progression. We thought for The Eternal it would be more fun for Mark to play his own parts, so some of the songs have three guitars, and some have two basses."
The other recent change for the band is their decision to pad the indie-superstar roster of Matador Records a bit thicker, following a 16-year partnership with DGC/Geffen. "The major label plan doesn't work," Shelley says flatly. "Our contract ran out and it was time to move. We thought for a while we wouldn't be on a record label, just release the album ourselves. We have the SYR label, and we run other small labels on the side, but those are for fun. For our bigger records, we decided we'd really be happy to have a team."
These changes, along with a multitude of side projects, seem to reflect a desire of the members to keep things interesting for themselves. But it's doubtful at this point that Sonic Youth will ever deviate too much from their norm, and why would they? Having built such an enviable résumé, including a record preserved for the ages in the Library of Congress, what remains to be done for the group?
"We don't look at things in that way," Shelley says. "We don't really have goals. We think the journey is interesting. Getting there is interesting, and I don't think anybody in this band feels uninspired right now."