Though frequently cast—or miscast—as a noise rock band, Sonic Youth’s dense guitar textures, disregard for conventional song structures, dreamy dynamics, and alternate tunings have certainly put the group at the forefront of New York’s underground scene. But Sonic Youth’s signature sound was threatened in 1999, when the band’s massively customized, one-of-a-kind guitars were stolen.
“It was a drag,” understates guitarist Thurston Moore, “but it was also kind of cool how we were able to come back. We had relied on this equipment for so many years, we felt really comfortable with it, and, all of a sudden, it was gone. That forced us to reinvent ourselves.”
The band’s sonic evolution continues on Rather Ripped [Geffen], but with a twist. For the most part, the epic sturm und drang is MIA, replaced with lean guitar tones, spare arrangements, and structured song forms. Although “pop-ish” might be a controversial word to categorize a Sonic Youth album, the overall sound of Rather Ripped is definitely closer to Radiohead than the Velvet Underground. What’s going on, here? Moore and co-guitarist Lee Ranaldo recently talked to GP about what exactly was churning in their unconventional little heads.
Rather Ripped is a pretty sparse album by Sonic Youth standards.
Ranaldo: This is probably our most stripped-down record ever. There are also more direct guitars [plugged directly into the mixer with no guitar amp in the signal chain] than you’ve ever heard on a Sonic Youth album. Part of the reason is that we had a pretty compressed time span in which to write and record the album, so we couldn’t do our usual thing of really working the song structures to death. We knew going in that we didn’t want a lot of overdubs, so we just recorded the songs quickly. As a result, I think Rather Ripped is more traditional in its song structure and in our performances. I mean, I’m playing some serious leads all across this record—which is kind of unusual. Fun, but unusual.
What did co-producer John Agnello bring to the process?
Moore: He’s a great engineer, he’s very personable, and he’s a great intermediary—which is kind of a lousy job, really. But recording and producing a record by democracy is really stressful, so it’s always good to have someone in the capacity of a decision maker or tiebreaker who also has some engineering expertise. We co-produced our last few records with Jim O’Rourke—who used to be in the band—and he had a distinct, non-fussy aesthetic that helped forge our sound. He’s not radical or anything. He just strives to be organic, well balanced, and warm. We simply didn’t want to face making all those types of decisions solely by ourselves this time. I remembered John from when he worked in tandem with Don Fleming in the early ’90s on those really great records by the Screaming Trees, so we asked J Mascis [of Dinosaur Jr.]—who had been recording with John for years—if he thought he’d be a good producer for us. And J said, “yes.”
What gear did you bring to the Rather Ripped sessions?
Moore: I have a couple of Fender Jazzmasters that I use for just about everything, and I plugged into a Fender Princeton—which is much smaller than what I usually use, but it recorded great. I also had a ProCo Turbo Rat, a Sovtek Big Muff, and an MXR Phase 90, and I used the Dunlop JH3S Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz for creating more noise. I ran everything through a vintage Mutron Wah/Vol pedal, because it gives the sound a certain presence and bite that cuts through the din.
Ranaldo: For this record, I used pretty much the same rig as I do live. My main amp was a ’63 Fender Super Reverb that I busted out of its combo casing to make a separate amp head and closed-back 4x10 speaker cabinet. I did that mod primarily to keep the sound from blowing out the back of the [original] cabinet onstage.
For about half the album, I used a guitar that was kind of an unusual for me—a Les Paul—and for the rest of the tracks, I used my Fender Telecaster Deluxe, a Jazzmaster copy made by Saul Koll, and my modified Fender “Jazzblaster” Jazzmaster with humbuckers. We are loyal to Ernie Ball strings, and mine are super heavy. I think the lightest string I use is a .017, and then down to a .058 or .062 on the low end. This is partly because our tunings are so deep, and the sound is fuller and richer with heavy gauges. I can’t do anything on a .009 or .010. God forbid! We all use Jim Dunlop picks. Mine are these very specific red .73mm nylon picks, which are a little stiffer than the standard, gray .73mm plectrums. For me, it’s the absolute perfect pick.
What are the tunings you used for this project?
Ranaldo: The tuning is from, low to high, D or D#—I tune to D#, and Thurston usually goes for D—then C#, A#, D#, G, and G. During the course of the band, we’ve used a lot of different tunings, but there’s no formula for how we find them. We make them up. It’s really just a matter of sitting around with an instrument and turning the pegs until something happens. Certain tunings just seem to have a resonance that’s pleasing to our ears. The interesting thing about playing with some of these tunings is that we’re not saddled with any traditional chord positions. In fact, we never talk about chords or keys—it’s just a matter of how it all sounds together.
Are there any elements that you incorporate into your style that might surprise people?
Moore: Joni Mitchell! I’ve used elements of her songwriting and guitar playing, and no one would ever know about it. In the early days, I frequently employed veteran guitar moves from metal groups such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Lee wasn’t really into that back then—meaning before punk rock. He was more into the Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage, and I was more into Grand Funk Railroad and Deep Purple.
Ranaldo: There are many types of music around the world that have a lot of influence over various aspects of Sonic Youth—such as Balinese Gamelan, and certain things from Africa. In particular, there are these legendary guys from Morocco called The Master Musicians of Joujouka. Brian Jones went to their village, and made a record with them in the ’60s, and they’ve been in and out of the public eye ever since. They play really loud, repetitive, and trance-y music that goes on for long periods of time. It’s about reaching a certain ecstatic state through the repetition of sounds—very similar to what rock and roll is all about. Sonic Youth has even jammed with them on occasion. Of course, there are also a lot of our influences that are more obvious—like John Fahey, and the whole fingerpicking school.
Considering all the styles and influences Sonic Youth has absorbed and subverted, does anything still inspire you?
Moore: Well, I’m still mining references from bands such as Sparks, Roxy Music, and David Bowie, but, lately, I’ve been involved in the worlds of subterranean experimental noise music and avant-garde folk. Both genres kind of co-relate in the underground circuit, and they’re so beyond the realm of mainstream music. For me, playing guitar has always been really fascinating. It seems like it would have so many limitations because it has six strings and a certain standardized architecture, so I always try and think of ways to expand it. When I see people really expanding the guitar in ways that are sort of Dada, I get excited. There’s something so visual about the guitar, and it can always be used in new ways— from how Hendrix used it, to this guy I saw in Los Angeles who attached shoes to the back of his guitars and walked around like they were some kind of ski shoes. It looked so insane, and it sounded fabulous! Those kinds of things keep me going.