Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo On Re-defining Guitar Rock While Refusing to Compromise

Bring the Noise
Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on re-defining guitar rock—and refusing to compromise

“It’s just noise, man!” quips the 16-year-old snark queen of Juno, who appreciates Sonic Youth’s haunting, relatively straightforward cover of “Superstar” but has no use for the band’s famously avant-garde output.

Guitarist and co-founder Lee Ranaldo finds the scene from the quirky, 2007 coming-of-age flick hysterically spot-on. After years at the forefront of the art-punk movement, Sonic Youth still baffle listeners. “People hear something that’s a little bit palatable, delve into the rest of our catalog and come up with a reaction like that,” he says, laughing.

Since forming in New York City nearly three decades ago, Sonic Youth have managed to go mainstream without a conventional—let alone commercial—sound. Some of their music hints at what would become grunge; at other times, they explore punk. Experimentation abounds throughout.

Core members Thurston Moore (vocals, guitar), Kim Gordon (vocals, bass guitar, wife of Moore), Ranaldo (guitar, vocals) and Steve Shelley (drums), plus recent addition Mark Ibold (bass, formerly of Pavement), make recordings that evolve and mutate regardless of the times or fan expectations. “It is not something we think too hard about any more,” Ranaldo says. “We just go about making the music that we make.”

Sonic Youth’s Matador debut, The Eternal, released last June, ranks as one the band’s most excellently varied records. It smartly cherry-picks from the many styles Sonic Youth have honed throughout their long-running career. “I think our music sounded more different in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Ranaldo opines. “In the early days of noise rock, only a small contingent of musicians used discordant sounds or alternate tunings to make records. To the rest of the music community, it was definitely odd-sounding music.”

Sonic Youth’s highly influential 1988 album, Daydream Nation, also likely informed the band’s latest release. In 2007, Sonic Youth performed each song on the game-changing record as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival’s “Don’t Look Back” series. Ranaldo’s initial reaction to the project? “Why spend a month or two relearning old material when you could be writing new stuff?”

He concedes, though, that the experience may have played a role in shaping the band’s well-received 2009 album. “The fact that Daydream Nation was so hard-rocking may have rubbed off on The Eternal a little bit,” Ranaldo says.

Sure, Sonic Youth revisited a beloved release and put out a new record that incorporates elements of past work. But the band have never been seen as a nostalgia act. It’s a testament to their longstanding reputation as trailblazers who have made few, if any, concessions over the years.

“Luckily, we’re not saddled with tons of old ‘hit records’ that we’re obliged to play in concert,” Ranaldo says. “We can play all new music people haven’t heard, and our audience will just go for it.”

Add the fact that Sonic Youth continue to make challenging, innovative albums—and don’t sell too many—and you have a perfect recipe for a band that will remain cool eternally.

Sonic Youth’s lack of interest in making music to be rich and famous helped the band focus on developing their trademark sound. The template-busting song structures, atonal tunings, and shredding with stuff like a drumstick or screwdriver re-defined guitar rock—and landed Moore and Ranaldo at No. 33 and 34, respectively, on Rolling Stone’s classic-rock-intensive “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” published in 2003. “A lot of the stuff we’ve done with our playing has seeped into the lineage of younger players that have listened to Sonic Youth through the years,” Ranaldo says. “We’re not technical chops players like other people on that list. We can’t fire off strings of leads or anything like that, but we can play really well, with the music that we do, on our kinds of guitars.”

Fender sells those kinds of guitars: namely, the Jazzmaster. The retailer’s website explains, “In the hands of both men, the sound of Sonic Youth is the sound of this guitar used as part paintbrush and part cluster bomb.” By next year, Moore and Ranaldo will have their own artist versions of the Jazzmaster in stores. The instruments come with sticker sheets that can be used to make the axes resemble Sonic Youth’s. If you wanted to set up your guitar exactly the way the band members do—wonderfully weird tunings, heavy string gauges and all—the guitar also comes with a Ranaldo-penned, instructive fanzine. “If you’re a guitar player, it’s kind of a cool thing,” Ranaldo says. “Otherwise, it could just be seen as geeking out.”

As Sonic Youth wrap their current tour in California—playing Fox Theater Pomona Friday—there are no signs of the musicians slowing down. They plan to record a follow-up to The Eternal in the spring. And look for an upcoming Daydream Nation DVD. A Sonic Youth exhibition featuring the band’s work in visual art, print and multimedia, as well as the band’s collaborations with visual artists, filmmakers, designers and musicians, is currently being exhibited around Europe.

Music isn’t enough?

“We just like to have full creative lives that bounce off each other,” Ranaldo says. “That’s the way we’re happiest.”

Sonic Youth at Fox Theater Pomona, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, (877) 283-6976; Fri., 8 p.m. $30.

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