Music: Indie icons

by Dan Grunebaum

Recharged with a fresh album and a new band member, indie-rock elder statesmen Sonic Youth took a few minutes to speak with Dan Grunebaum before their appearance at this weekend's Fuji Rock Festival.

Sonic Youth (l to r): Jim O'Rourke, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley

Murray Street, the new album by Sonic Youth, is the name of the avenue where the indie-rock pioneers recorded their latest effort. The street also happens to be located in lower Manhattan, not too far from the World Trade Center; a jet engine landed there after one of the airliners slammed into the Twin Towers.

Sonic Youth were in the middle of recording the album when the planes hit the towers, but despite the profound effect of the attacks on the New York-based band, Murray Street doesn't directly confront the issues posed by September 11. Rather, the album is the second installment of the New York City trilogy launched with their previous record, 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers.

Murray Street also marks the official addition to the band of post-classical composer and sometimes Japan visitor Jim O'Rourke. O'Rourke had contributed to NYC Ghosts & Flowers, and according to founding member Lee Ranaldo, after that it became logical for the band to take him on as a full-time member.

Formed in 1981 in New York by experimental guitarists Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth have long been essential to the city's musical fabric. And while their name may have become something of a misnomer with the members mostly well into their forties, Sonic Youth still hew to an uncompromising experimental ethic that has influenced generations of indies, alternative, and grunge rock bands.

Sometime in the late 1980s, the intensely urban sounds of Sonic Youth's downtown New York underground also began to strike a chord with the inhabitants of Japan's own megalopolises Tokyo and Osaka. "Our first trip was in 1989 when a young Japanese promoter invited us to come for four or five shows—it was very exciting for us that first visit," says Ranaldo.

The trip was also momentous in establishing a cross-cultural connection that has proved surprisingly durable. "It was on that first trip that we met our now-good-friends the Boredoms," adds Ranaldo, "who amazed us then when opening a show for us and continue to do so today."

Regular tours throughout the '90s and visits by other travelers in the "post-rock" frontier such as the aforementioned Jim O'Rourke and Chicago's Tortoise have only served to confirm the links between the US and Japanese urban music communities. "We've been heavily involved in the Japanese noise music scene for quite some time," notes Ranaldo. "We even wrote a song, 'Tokyo Eye,' about our affection for this music, and for the connection we feel between Tokyo/Osaka and NYC in musical terms—large cities spawning somehow similar extreme musical sounds."

Ranaldo says that the audience for this music has only grown stronger over the last decade ago, a belief borne out by the fervent turnouts for Sonic Youth tours, and for their regular performances at Fuji Rock since its founding six years ago. "There were times when we found the 'reserve' which Japanese audiences have a little odd—but we recognize it as a part of the cultural make-up," says Ranaldo. "That said, it seems Japanese audiences have opened up a lot over the years."

Meanwhile, Ranaldo, who cites "countless" Japanese bands as inspirations, including Merzbow, Keichi Haino, Shonen Knife and composer Toru Takemitsu, says he'd like to return to Japan with his own unit (Moore recently toured with his own Diskaholics Anonymous project). "I'd love to come with another side project at some point … Christian Marclay and I came for four shows in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, some of them in conjunction with Elliot Sharpe," says Ranaldo. "I'd love to come back with my music and film quintet Text of Light."

Beyond the individual songs and landmark albums, Sonic Youth will perhaps best be remembered for introducing the expansive non-traditional song structures and densely distorted guitar textures (the result of the interplay between Ranaldo and Moore) that have become integral to the sounds of everyone from Nirvana to Pavement.

They were also the first "indies" band to sign with a major label, and, along with acts like the earlier Grateful Dead, were one of the few bands espousing a non-traditional approach to achieve mainstream popularity. Do they think the time is ripe for something new along these lines? "No, not really right now," quips Ranaldo.

"The climate right now, in mainstream terms, seems very homogenized and manufactured to sell massive amounts of records rather than inspire really creative music. We ignore the mainstream and stick to the fringes, where there is always so much creative energy and fascinating music being made."

Sonic Youth play the Fuji Rock Festival White Stage on July 27 and a non-traditional, freeform "first cup of coffee" noise set at the Field of Heaven on July 28. See listings for details.

Photo by Stefano Giovanniin

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