Sonic Youth is old. Probably older than you. But they're also an endlessly inventive bunch of grown-ups, a band that for 20 years has been examining and reexamining guitar-rock, finding and occasionally discarding new ways into the form. Murray Street, their latest album, rocks. Probably more than you'd expect, and definitely more if you've heard their last couple of albums, which have largely circled back to the obtuse explorations of tone and sound that marked their earliest efforts. There's plenty of that on Murray Street -- its centerpiece, the 11-minute "Karen Revisited," billows out into a liquidy mushroom cloud of delay and reverb -- but there are also songs that fans of the band's early '90s albums Goo and Dirty have long missed. So where's the switch, and what made Sonic Youth flip it back?
"Well, nothing is ever as black-and-white as people kind of interpret things," Kim Gordon demurs, on the phone from a tour stop in Dublin. "We've always sort of liked to go in one direction and then sort of change and go the other way, so, you know, it's nothing out of the ordinary or weird to us."
Scene: The record strikes a nice balance between the two poles you guys have sort of established: noise and melody, or structure and improvisation.
Kim Gordon: Sometimes people are really under the impression that we go out onstage and half of it's improvising, which really isn't the case. There are some songs where there are certain sections that are looser, that are slightly different every night -- there's a structure there, but it's allowed for that. But on this record, I think there's only one song like that: The end of "Karen Revisited" is like that. Within "Sympathy for the Strawberry" there are also some parts where, you know, Jim [O'Rourke] brings the bass in at different points, but it's always the same part. It's just a matter of feeling it out.
Scene: I happened to catch an episode you guys did of that old PBS show Sessions at West 54th a few weeks ago, and what really struck me is how much more accessible some of the stuff from the last couple of records is, live, as opposed to on CD. It was easier to sense those structures you're talking about.
KG: There is a certain physicality or visceral quality to the way we make songs and music, and you definitely see that when you see us play live, in a way that doesn't come across on the record. It's funny, the thing that got me into Led Zeppelin is, I saw this really early clip of them doing "Dazed and Confused" on some early TV show, and it amazed me -- Jimmy Page, the way he used a bow and stuff, he might as well have been using a drumstick. It just kind of gave me a totally different take on their music. Records have a certain one-dimensionality to them; when you see someone live, it definitely makes the music literally three-dimensional.
Yet Murray Street seems to do that on its own. The trio of Thurston Moore songs that open the record -- "The Empty Page," "Disconnection Notice," "Rain on Tin" -- make for some of the most captivating and fully realized music Sonic Youth has recorded, Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitars twinkling like crystallized sugar over Gordon's bass throb and Steve Shelley's propulsive backbeat.
And then there's new member Jim O'Rourke, who came to the band as a producer on 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers; formerly a member of the active Chicago post-rock underground, he brought to that disc a devotion to pure sound that Sonic Youth's '90s material may have overlooked. Touring that album later, he became a full-fledged member of the band, playing guitar, bass, and keyboards. He's stuck around, and he played on Murray Street and led the band in self-producing it.
Scene: How has Jim O'Rourke's presence in the band affected things?
KG: It's fun; it's like another person adding their sensibility to the songwriting process. And Jim shares a lot of appreciation for a wide range in music, from noise to pop and '70s rock, and yet he's also very much a musician's musician and really attends to the songwriting process, kind of with a producer's ear. He's really good at letting the songs become what they want to become, but adding structural ideas or just embellishments that bring out certain things in a way that none of us would be thinking of.
Scene: Has he changed the dynamic between the four of you?
KG: Well, everyone likes Jim, and he's funny. It's like having the new adopted kid in the family. Or the pet, as he likes to say. Like Lassie. But Lassie's probably before your time.
A new member wasn't the only force acting on the band. Right in the middle of recording Murray Street, terrorists descended on New York City a couple of blocks from Echo Canyon, Sonic Youth's lower Manhattan recording studio. This changed things -- a sentiment magnified by a project the band supposedly was in the middle of on September 11.
Scene: Tell me about this trilogy thing. Murray Street's supposed to be the second part of a cultural history of lower Manhattan?
KG: Okay, well, that's just a made-up thing. Byron Coley, this friend of ours who wrote the record-label bio, just made up all that stuff.
Scene: Well done. Have you seen the reviews? You've gotten a lot of mileage out of that joke. If that's not for real, what about September 11 in general? Did it affect the making of the record?
KG: Not a lot. I mean, you know, most of the material was pretty much written -- the basic songs -- and maybe half of the songs had been recorded, so it really just interfered with the recording process and made us appreciate what we had. And it was definitely strange working down there, but it's really hard to say how that sort of thing affects lyrics or . . . It's just kind of hard to say.
Calling the record Murray Street, it's more like nobody in New York really knows where Murray Street is; it's this innocuous little street that happens to be a couple blocks away from where the World Trade Center was, and they run all the electricity for lower Manhattan under there, as we found out, because it was dug up and quickly became a huge corridor with chain-link fence on either side. It was kind of like that for months. It's certainly not anything we want to exploit.