Interview: Sonic Youth
No, they won’t be in town soon, and yes, their record came out a while ago, but SLUG had a chance to talk to one of them, so we did. Spare us the attitude and read what Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth had to say about Dirty, natural anarchists, and Free Kitten.
SLUG: What’s your favorite song on Dirty?
Kim: Oh, wow. That’s hard. I don’t know, there’s a lot of songs, but I guess “Sugar Kane.”
SLUG: What’s that all about? I noticed in the liner notes that Thurston kind of shies away from explaining too much about it.
Kim: Uhmmm, I don’t know what it’s about (laughs). The name is the one Marilyn Monroe used on hotel registers, but I don’t know if it’s really about Marilyn Monroe.
SLUG: Does Thurston write most of the Lyrics?
Kim: Only the songs he sings.
SLUG: Is that how it works in SY? Whoever writes the songs, sings the songs?
SLUG: I was listening to Dirty over and over and over and found it had this underlying hum, a kind of pleasure buzz with one song leading right into the next. Is it calculated?
Kim: No, but it’s nice it works out that way. It’s pretty intuitive, you know. Sometimes we… the songs are already done and everything. Sometimes we’re sort of reacting more from the last record than anything. On the last one, the songs are more concise and I think it was a more minimal kind of record. We try to achieve good vibe-ology.
SLUG: Okay. Speaking of good vibe-ology… I’ve noticed you guys are popping up a lot in Sassy Magazine of all places. In the last bit I saw you were getting your roots retouched on a Sassy beauty day.
Kim: They just called me up and said we’re going out to this salon for a day of beauty, you wanna come? [laughs] I said, ‘Okay’.
SLUG: You guys seem to have a lot of fun with image; you don’t seem to really care about it one way or another, whereas with some bands, their image has more to say than their music. What is music about for you? You’ve got a couple of side projects right?
Kim: I have a band with Julia Cafritz from Pussy Galore. It’s called Kitten, actually Free Kitten because of an R&B pop recording artist named Kitten on Atlantic Records. We’ve recorded an EP called “Call Now.”
SLUG: Is it like Sonic Youth?
Kim: No, it’s more… I don’t know what it’s like. It’s more minimal. It’s more basic. It’s just two guitars. Actually, there are a few drums on it, but the drums are more like an afterthought.
SLUG: Did you and Julie do all the work on it?
Kim: We did it all. Next time we are going to hire studio musicians [laughs].
SLUG: Speaking of recording with SY being on a big label now, were you able to indulge yourselves a little more on Dirty? Or has budget been a constraint in the past?
Kim: No. I mean, we spent about the same amount as the last record…
SLUG: How much, may I ask?
Kim: About, like, $150,000. But everything went really smoothly. We felt like it was sort of… I mean, other bands on indie labels have producers. I guess it’s kind of like an indulgence for us to have a producer and it was really easy. It worked out well.
SLUG: What was it like working with Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins)? As a producer, how much did he influence SY’s recording process?
Kim: It was good to have someone there just to say, you know, make sure everything remained straight forward the way it was recorded. He’s also an engineer, which is good. He really knows what he is doing.
SLUG: Do you think that this will be the album that brings SY widespread consumer attention? Not necessarily because of the Vig/Nirvana association, though.
Kim: I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think any album will [laughs]… maybe this will come the closest. It’s been doing good. But every record we put out has sort of doubled [our audience]. It’s like…
SLUG: It builds exponentially.
Kim: …Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if it’s a natural evolution or what.
SLUG: Lyrically, the songs seem to revolve around the seamy side of life. Is that the experience of the band, or your environment, or New York coming through?
Kim: Well, it’s just things we’re interested in. Different things. It’s not that much fun to write a song about, uhmmm—
SLUG: Boy meets girl?
Kim: …Yeah, exactly. And like Beverly Hills 90210. I guess you could write a song about that, then that would be sort of kitschy.
SLUG: So, this being a political year, does SY have anything to say about the choices, or lack thereof, of this campaign.
Kim: Well, we don’t usually talk about politics in any specific way.
SLUG: So that’s a ‘no comment’?
Kim: No, I mean, you know. We’re not like a political band. We’re not working on the rainforest or anything.
SLUG: Well, if you were to do a benefit record, what would be the cause?
Kim: We’ve done pro-choice benefits. We all feel pretty strongly about that. And, I would just say vote for all the women, because men have sort of fucked it all up.
SLUG: I was reading over the press clippings that Thurston put in SY’s bio material and there’s one where you say: “My theory is that women make natural anarchists because they’re outside the system in so many ways—it’s that unpredictable, wild female thing.” (August 1990 Interview Magazine.)
Kim: Well, I mean it’s just that… the rules aren’t for women. They’re sort of made by men, for men, for the most part. So that would leave it that women are used to working around in building another order of their own. A sort of non-order.
SLUG: So is SY only a small part of what your musical plans are for yourself? I’m talking about over a lifetime.
Kim: Oh, I don’t know.
SLUG: Did you get into music because you wanted to, or did you fall into it?
Kim: I sort of fell into it. I was raised to be a visual artist. I just ended up doing music because I couldn’t figure out a way to do.I didn’t have an emotional framework in art in order to say what I wanted to say. Because, I wasn’t interested in abstract expressionism. I just couldn’t put my interests into conceptualism with what I wanted to say emotionally. Like when I came to New York, I was most inspired by the music I saw happening.
SLUG: What kind of music is that?
Kim: Nu-wave bands like DNA and The Statics, this band Glenn Branca was in and The Contortions. Stuff like that. It was much more exciting.
SLUG: Are you doing any visual art now?
Kim: Not really, I think I’ll always sort of… whether I do art or music, I would apply similar ideas. Just commenting on popular culture in different ways.
SLUG: The letter you wrote about the cover art, the bunny art…
Kim: Those pictures are by this artist Mike Kelley. He’s done a series of work with these stuffed animals laid out on blankets around it. It’s sort of to drive home the aspect of the sort of repression of whatever’s dirty in American culture.
SLUG: Comparing your older work like Bad Moon Rising and EVOL to what SY does now, do you think that the earlier music was darker, and that now SY incorporates more pop elements into the mix?
Kim: I think we’ve always done that, but I think maybe now things are just more focused. Or it’s more clear that’s what we’re doing.
SLUG: Lastly, where does SY go from here?
Kim: Good question [laughs].
SLUg: Is the ballad album next?
Kim: I guess we’re going to do country-western and blues songs. You know, copy Sinead. That’ll keep us busy!