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Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth: Medicine For Your Ear

Pending the arrival of their new Sonic Nurse, we spin records for Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon without showing them who the artist is. Which bands do they actually know?
by C. Bottomley

"We never really were an 'it' band," says Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon.�But her husband, lanky guitarist Thurston Moore, begs to differ.� "Hey, around Daydream Nation, we were 'it'."

It seems strange to think of a time when these

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New York oddballs were the center of the rock universe, but around the mid-80s, circa the landmark Daydream Nation, their mix of guitar experimentation and tuneful know-how made them a touchstone of alternative rock, a band with clout. They recommended the then-unknown Nirvana to their record label, then scurried off to downtown dens to jam with free jazz musicians and hobnob with William S. Burroughs.�

The original foursome has participated in various solo projects, art installations and poetry endeavors, but after 23 years, the band, now augmented by guitarist Jim O'Rourke, is still the home they all return to. "The other stuff is fun," Moore explains, "but Sonic Youth is the big cheese."�Their 15th album Sonic Nurse is also one of their best, fuelled by outrage and feedback. With its tightly controlled noise and exhilarating melodies, this might be the first SY album you can drive to.�

Punk pioneer Richard Hell acted as in-studio inspiration, the disc's de facto producer.� "Punk rock has become so commercial," says Moore. "We said 'who's the guy who invented this?Let's go get him!'"�Sound-wise, the album is also inspired by SY's under-the-radar progeny, "noise bands" like Lightning Bolt and Hair Police.�

As for the music's message, that's of-the-moment, too. "Peace Attack" lashes out at George W. Bush with the same venom their classic "Youth Against Fascism" administered to his dad. And, like she did with Karen Carpenter on 1990's Goo, Kim Gordon dissects another troubled pop icon with "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream."

Moore and Gordon are well known as thoughtful music zealots, so we played a little "who can it be now?" game with them. We spun discs without showing them the covers, and they guessed who the artist was. It inspired them to consider the link between Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell, the sophistication of Missy Elliot's sound, and the reason why they never listened to the Pixies.

The Pixies  "Tony's Theme"  Surfer Rosa

Thurston: "Toni's Thing"? What's she saying? Oh, "Toni's Theme."

Kim: Is this some L.A. punk band?� I don't know.

Thurston: It's contemporary. Ok, is it the Kills?

Kim: I've never heard the Kills.

VH1: It's the Pixies.

Kim: The Pixies! I saw their videos on TV but I've never heard a Pixies record in my life.�

Thurston Moore: �I don't know Surfer Rosa at all.� I know it's a classic.� I shouldn't say this  but when the Pixies were around, I was not much of an enthusiast. �I was into more far-out things. The Pixies to me were a pop-punk band. They were collegiate in a way. I remember when Nirvana was name-checking The Pixies all the time.� I was like "You're joking."� But they weren't, because they were buying bootlegs of Pixies concerts on the road.� I was like, "Are you guys nuts?"� [Laughs]

The Beach Boys  "Wendy"  Summer Days (And Summer Nights)

Thurston:The Beach Boys? Mike Love? Yeah, Mike Love and his band.

Kim: �I liked "Good Vibrations."� I heard those songs [growing up in Los Angeles].� I thought the Beach Boys were okay, but they weren't my favorite songs. I was into the Stones. [For me it] was more like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield and the Laurel Canyon scene. ��I started revisiting my Joni Mitchell records and listening to Led Zeppelin III and IV because Thurston's got this interview where [Jimmy Page] says Joni's Song to a Seagull made him cry.� I was fascinated by that.�Some of those [Zeppelin] songs sound very Californian.

The Strokes  "The Modern Age"  Is This It

Thurston: I know this one. The Strokes? I heard Is This It and thought it was decent. It was a modest record. I didn't think it was There's a certain sound they have that I find appealing, but I find them so weighted down by the hype. They're easy to sell, because they're like these good-looking kids who have decent record collections.�

Kim: I'm curious about what the hell they're going to do next.

Thurston: [This music] sounds very safe to me, like it's already found its way.� I always like music that has a certain challenging aspect, where you know that they are reaching and searching for something. �There is a new New York scene that's really amazing, especially in Brooklyn.� There's this whole world of young people who [think] everything's allowed. �What Liars are doing right now is completely crazy. I saw them the other night and it was really great.� It's really out-there.

Kim: I'm not so crazy about the way [the Liars' They Were Wrong, So We Drowned] sounds. It's like "how lo-fi can we make it?" But I think the content is really good.

Thurston: They're art kids.� They came out of CalArts and that's the kind of sensibility you have when you come out of these sort of places.�

The Flaming Lips  "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part One"  Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Kim: We've known the Flaming Lips over the years.� They've been around as long as we have.

Thurston: �When we first played in Norman, Oklahoma, they set up the gig. �It was '84, a really long time ago. They were a new band and they set it up at some little room. They opened for us, too.� I predicted then that this band will stay around as long as we have and have this great trajectory. �So it's amazing for me to see them actually [still] there.� They really do interesting stuff. �For youthful culture, they represent this kind of thing that you can actually have fun. �Wayne Coyne is always going to do high theatre.� [Here's] somebody with that much energy but at the same time, he's a real classic Middle America guy. �He has a very sweet voice.� And the music is very listenable.

Missy Elliott  "Work It"  Under Construction

Thurston: Is that Missy Elliott? Is it? I can tell by her voice. She's good.�I like what she does. When I flick through the radio dial, I'll sometimes rest on the hip-hop stations to see what's going on. But a lot of it is too corny for me.

Kim: We listen to some Jay-Z and certainly OutKast. I like more minimal hip-hop. But I like Missy's lyrics - they're good.

Thurston: A lot of experimental hip-hop can actually crack into the mainstream. To me, it was like the first radical music to have done that, besides rock 'n' roll itself.� That was always really exciting.� The fact that it's all dance-based will always give it that edge.

Kim: Even people like Eminem have a certain radical aspect to them. That's what's so great about hip-hop.�That can happen in that genre.� Whereas it's very rare when it happens in mainstream rock.

Thurston: �It's a locked industry, though. Look at Chuck D's website. There are all of these amazing underground hip-hop acts. He says, "Come here and listen to them because you're not going to hear it on the radio." There's this [world that's] completely below the radar of the mainstream culture.�

Mariah Carey  "Fantasy"  Daydream

Kim: Is that Mariah Carey?

Thurston: That's Mariah. [Laughs]

Kim: I saw her doing a cover of the '70s disco song, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life."� I just couldn't get it out of my head. She was bouncing through this set of gangsta rappers. It was right after her breakdown and she seemed so vulnerable. And she was barely singing!� It stuck with me.� She and Karen Carpenter [the anorexic subject of Sonic Youth's "Tunic"] are both about the body.� Karen was trying to get rid of hers. Aesthetics have changed a lot since Karen. I'm sure they're similar A-type personalities  driven perfectionists who just want to please people so much.� Karen's voice showed a lot of vulnerability - more so than Mariah.� She made the words she was singing her own. That's a scary thing to do when you're standing in a media spotlight. You lose a sense of your identity. �It's a narcissist thing.