Sonic Youth was one of the most unlikely success stories of underground American rock in the 1980s. And while success and longevity probably weren’t on the minds of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo when they formed the band with bassist Kim Gordon in 1981, the post-punk scene in Manhattan was looking for an icon. Sonic Youth arrived just in time.
But how could they have known that by the late ’80s, their collective would serve as the godfathers of the grunge movement, supporting acts like Nirvana before it pushed grunge down the throat of America’s MTV-generation-of-the-week? Especially when Sonic Youth was so different: here was a band that started its career by abandoning rock and roll convention and borrowing heavily from the experimental attitude of the Velvet Underground. Its sound employed heavy feedback and alternate tunings to create a sonic landscape that redefined rock guitar.
As their careers progressed, they turned to shorter works with a harder, more defined rock sound. Their breakthrough album was the double-disc Daydream Nation, released in 1988. The album was a huge critical success and generated a college radio hit with “Teenage Riot.” But Enigma, their label at the time, suffered from poor distribution and eventually folded, which created availability problems for the record-buying masses. In 1990, the band decided to forsake such hassles and signed with a major label, DGC. Doing so established a precedent for alternative bands moving to majors, proving it was possible to make the leap while preserving indie credibility.
The band had no problem maintaining its inertia in the ’90s. 1990′s Goo was its first major-label effort, boasting a more focused sound that didn’t abandon the band’s noise aesthetic. 1994′s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, entered the U.S. charts at 34 and the U.K. charts at number 10, making it their highest-charting album ever. The band resurfaced this year with A Thousand Leaves, released in early May, and is on tour in support (in Europe late June through July). VG caught up with Ranaldo to get the lowdown on the stuff that helps create all the dissonance Sonic Youth fans have come to love.
Vintage Guitar: What determined the direction the new album, A Thousand Leaves?
Lee Ranaldo: Well, it’s kind of hard to say. We had a bunch of beautiful tracks. They weren’t very commercial-sounding to my ears, although they weren’t harsh or dissonant, either. A lot of the tracks were quite long – eight or 10 minutes, and were not, for the most part, super uptempo rockers. They were a little bit on the slower side. We’ve been sort of kicking back and stretching out on some of the material.
Similar to “The Diamond Sea” (from 1994′s Washing Machine)?
Yeah, pretty much. That was actually the initial way I was describing the new stuff, “Beyond ‘The Diamond Sea,’” taking what we did with that song, which was a long, epic-kind of thing with a lot of instrumental changes and just going even further. We’d been writing all these instrumental, some of which are included in those EPs. And we’d been doing concerts that were almost all instrumental.
How did that instrumental direction come about?
Things just evolve. We always write the music before the lyrics are ready and it just turned out we wrote three or four of these long instrumentals. In the past we’ve tried songs like that before they had lyrics live. At this point we just had enough of ‘em that we could almost do a whole set of things like that and we just said let’s just try it – go out and play them and see how they fly. I guess we’re comfortable enough we decided to explore other avenues and let the chips fall where they may, figuring people who are interested in what we do will come along for the ride and people looking for the next MTV hit won’t worry about it.
What’s been the reaction from “the suits?”
The people at Geffen are pretty supportive of what we do, and their general reaction is, “We respect what you guys do, just keep doing it.” We just re-signed our deal with them – on their initiative, not ours. I think they’re very happy to have us around in spite of the fact we don’t sell a million records. They’ve been surprisingly supportive.
Let’s switch to gear. What are your main guitars these days?
Pretty much Jazzmasters and Jaguars. We’ve got racks of guitars in the studio, but I think all the material we’ve worked on for the last six or eight months is just Jaguars and Jazzmasters, and even then only a couple of specific ones for me and Thurston. Most of the ones we use are early-’60s. But we do have some of the reissues. We like their scale length. I think both of us have gotten super-comfortable with the body shape and the tremolo bar, and the fact you can play behind the bridge on the string and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been modifying mine for the last year or so.
My favorite guitar sound has been from the Fender Tele Deluxes, because they’ve got the big Fender humbucking pickup on ‘em. I was augmenting that with a couple of Travis Bean aluminum-neck guitars. Oddly enough, they have very similar-sounding pickups, to my ears. So for the last few years when we’ve seen a good Tele or Travis, we’ve bought it. And whenever we’ve seen those pickups for sale we’ve brought them. We’ve collected a little stash of those pickups and I’ve started putting them in the Jazzmasters and Jaguars, so I’ve pretty much got the best of both worlds. We call it the Jazzblaster.
Sonic Youth is commonly associated with Jazzmasters, perhaps to the point of being somewhat responsible for the renewed interest in model in the early ’90s.
It’s hard to say, but there was a point, after we were getting popular in England, when every band that came out had Jazzmasters and Jaguars around their necks; My Bloody Valentine, whoever. There was a time when outside of us and J. Mascis (from Dinosaur), you really didn’t see anybody playing those guitars.
What about amps these days?
I use Fender Custom Shop amps; a Tonemaster head and a 4 X 12 and a 2 X 12 cabinet.
What do you like in an amp?
Ultimately what I like is an amp with as few choices and combinations of knobs as possible. The Fender has two positions. It’s just perfect for me. It’s kind of like the amps we grew up with, where they were really simple, you could play them low or you could play them loud or you could make them more trebly or more bass, and that was pretty much all you needed to do.
Do you use your Custom Shop gear to record with?
Yeah, it’s set up in the studio and goes out on the road when we play live. We have a bunch of smaller amps around we fool with for recording, but that’s the basic setup I do stuff with. I have a ’50s Fender Deluxe, a Concert, a Super Reverb from the pre-CBS days, and a bunch of weird little amps, like a souped-up old Princeton, one of these new Prosonics, some Ampeg Gemini IIs, an old Silvertone amplifier, some real cheapo 5-watt amps. They’re all useful for different things and they’re fun to have around. But we record and rehearse with our touring gear.
Let’s talk about pedals; I have to ask about your ring modulator.
(laughs) Okay. Outer-space kind of sounds, real high-pitched, real low-pitched? Sometimes it sounds like a crazy synthesizer or alien bleeps and blips. I’ve been having a lot of fun with that pedal. It’s a Maestro. We’ve generally been using a lot of vintage ’70s pedals (conversation switches to Ranaldo’s Mu-Tron Phasor). I shouldn’t talk about that pedal, because I love it so much. It’s the coolest thing going. I use it all over the place on the new material. Unfortunately it’s a huge monstrosity that necessitates its own little suitcase.
Is that the thing that stands upright onstage?
No. That’s a thing we were using pretty heavily around the time of Washing Machine. It’s the wa-wa-wa-wa-wa sound at the beginning of “The Diamond Sea.” It’s the Ludwig Phase II guitar synthesizer, I think is what it’s called. It’s a big suitcase-like affair that stands straight up.
There are a couple more modern things. And a DOD 2-second delay. A Real Tube distortion.
Sonic Youth has been pioneers as far as alternate tunings go. When did you start experimenting with alternate tunings?
The first release has mostly-normal tuned guitar in it. I’d played in-tune guitars long before that, actually, when I first learned how to play acoustic. Right around the time Sonic Youth was starting, myself and Thurston were playing with Glenn Branca, who was doing all these specific-tuned, more orchestral kind of things. When we started the band, we immediately started gathering guitars. Most of them were not very good and they didn’t really hold their regular tuning very well.
So, in the spirit of the experimentation of the day, we started to do different things with ‘em. We took all the frets off one and put bass strings on it and took other ones and strung ‘em to an open chord or one note, whatever we could do to get these funky guitars to do something dramatic and interesting. And it just kind of evolved from there. We immediately found that once we started tuning the guitars, we had all these new avenues to go down that set us apart from everybody else. It almost made our guitars different instruments. It was a real easy pull for us right from the beginning, especially not being super-technical players. The tunings have allowed us to work in different areas and reinvent ourselves.
I’ve got this image of you and Thurston sitting down to work on some weird tuning, taking a few hours or an entire day to figure something out…
It doesn’t usually take very long. Sometimes it’ll happen when you pick up a guitar that hasn’t been played in six months. You strum it, and there’s a grain of something and you spend 10 minutes tweaking the pegs until it’s something a little more realized, and there you have it. Or one of us will come in with some changes in a tuning. Like, Thurston will come in and he’s got a tuning going, I’ll hear it and figure out what the root notes are basically and grab something I have in it. We play a lot of stuff in G and F sharp, and E and C. We have some guitars that are in tandem already, where he’s playing guitar X, I immediately pick up guitar Y. They’re not in the same tunings, but they’re in two tunings that work well together.
Sounds like a lot of time and effort.
Well, I guess it has been. But it’s been over such a long period that it’s been basically effortless. We’ve been luckily enough to have a road crew that’s gotten deeply involved in it, knows how the stuff goes, and has made further refinements for us.
How many guitars does the band take on the road?
On the last bunch of tours, we’ve taken 25 to 30 guitars for the three of us. The reason for taking them all is because they’re all differently tuned. A couple of basses, Kim’s two or three guitars and then maybe 10 guitars for Thurston and 12 for me. And sometimes there’ll be a backup of a certain tuning if it’s one you rely on a lot, or if it’s a finicky tuning where you tend to break strings. Like “The Diamond Sea” tuning, which is a really crucial tuning and it’s used in a few different things. If that breaks in the middle of that insane middle section of “The Diamond Sea,” when you come back to the end you’re kind of lost.
Let’s wrap up on a philosophical note. Something I’ve always admired about Sonic Youth is the way the band has operated in a “punk or DIY” approach while still staking out new musical territory and holding on to a desire to explore new avenues with guitars, something folks might not normally associate with a punk or indie band.
We started with that kind of punk spirit and I think we maintain it in the way we operate today. We’re lucky we’ve had the career we’ve had. In the early indie days we learned how to be self-sufficient through touring and figuring out how to deal with the major labels, and we’re in a pretty nice position.
We’ve always felt the most important thing was the music – pure and simple – and let that sort of guide where we wanted to go. That’s definitely served us well as an overriding philosophy. We always let the music dictate what was going on, and we tried not to let the economic factors come into sway. That was pretty important to us.
Photos courtesy of Lee Ranaldo.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.