Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon talks consumer culture and America's fascination with celebrity
"We're playing at the House of Blues `in Las Vegas`, and I think this is really the only weak-selling show on the tour," says Kim Gordon. "I'm curious about who's going to come see us.
"I was trying to explain to Coco" - Gordon's daughter with Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore - "what Vegas was about, and I had to say, 'Well, it's all fake.' It's all supposed to be about freedom and pleasure, but the city is incredibly conservative, and it's really this programmed, managed idea of fun, theme parks and weekends, and so on. But she was OK with it, she got it."
Talk of Vegas leads us to Linda Rondstadt's eviction from the Aladdin Casino and Resort after dedicating "Desperado" to Michael Moore. "Maybe they'll run us out," Gordon muses, sounding not a little devious.
But it's not only political conservatives who've recently loved to kick Sonic Youth. Scan the reviews of Sonic Nurse - which, counting mini-LPs, one-off soundtracks, and assorted miscellanea, is something like the 30th release for the venerable group - and one begins to suspect how difficult it must be to maintain concentration above the din of a thousand fusty-crotched old punks, carping about how your band's been losing its edge since 1990 or thereabouts.
By now it's no secret that there's a contingent of reactionary fussbudgets who'd rather Sonic Youth continually remake 1988's Daydream Nation than develop its chops in other directions. It's an old problem, of course, and one that requires serious artistic choices, with consequences: When Arthur Conan Doyle tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and killed him off by throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Solution, fans of the series, including Doyle's own mother, pitched such a bitch that he resurrected the character against his will.
But Sonic Youth has lasted more than twice as long as the Beatles, and it's safe - as well as gratifying - to observe that no amount of pissing and moaning seems to have ever pushed the band in directions other than the ones it wanted to explore at the moment. Poetry, fashion merchandising, visual art, and independent film have all, at various times, passed within the group's scope of individual and collective projects.
"It's not as varied as it might seem," Gordon says, "but it can be scattering. It's difficult to have multiple careers. And Thurston and I haven't lived in New York for five years. We have to go in on weekends. But I think this record may be our most focused. You end up having only a certain amount of time that you can zero in on decisions. We had to mix this one in 10 days, during Coco's Easter holiday. So we had a deadline, and we had to make decisions and stick with them."
Still, the band members' extracurricular projects continue to expand. Consider, for example, Protest Records, the pro-arts, anti-war "virtual label" founded last year by Moore and graphic designer Chris Habib. Through the label's website (www.protest-records.com) visitors can access free music from artists ranging from the Beastie Boys to poet Saul Williams.
Bringing us back to Sonic Nurse, about which the aforementioned fussbudgets are predictably griping, but which seems to have touched an unexpected nerve with the 16-20 crowd. Sonic Nurse initially sounds less ambitious than 2002's Murray Street, which, for the first time, successfully married the band's more structured arrangements to its lifelong penchant for extended freeplay and avant-noise. But repeated spins reveal the reason for the new album's more tentative sound: Its thematic focus is tighter, its subject matter more immediate, and its lyrics (by Sonic Youth's standards, at any rate) comparably more forthright.
The broad subject of Sonic Nurse is new-millennium America; Lee Ranaldo's "Paper Cup Exit" scans the aftermath of the 2000 election: "Memory dis-ease/across United States .../line-up map was ripped and torn/jilted frame with all hope gone." The cheekily titled "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" (originally titled "Mariah Carey and the" etc.) pegs out the cult of celebrity, and the business of celebrity worship, in gritty but compassionate detail: "They say if you press too hard on it/it'll squish into a dense ball/it will lose its fluffiness/that's what you get when you use a boxed mix."
By way of framing such lyrics, SY's experimental side has largely been tempered, though not dispensed with, on Sonic Nurse. As a result, "Peace Attack" sounds less aggressive than Dirty's similarly themed "Youth Against Fascism," but its low-decibel arrangement allows Moore's fractured, mantra-like meditation on war and resistance to become strangely hypnotic: "Reminder of the great/of the great anti-hate/all eyes to the crime boss."
It fits, after all, since what has Sonic Youth's overarching project been about, if not pointing out the intersections between pre-packaged music and pre-packaged experience? On this score, at least, there's some measure of hope for the next generation.
"When we took Coco to the New York, New York Hotel, she got up close to the Statue of Liberty. She's seen the real one, and she knows it's made of copper, and it's green. And when she saw the one at the hotel, she said, 'Ah, see? It's white.'
"She wants to go see Paris tomorrow," Gordon laughs. •