In their 28-year career, the indie-rock heroes who comprise Sonic Youth have experienced unprecedented success — and have had unparalleled staying power. Credit this longevity to the band's stability: Guitarist Lee Ranaldo; drummer Steve Shelley; bassist and singer Kim Gordon and her husband, guitarist and co-lead singer Thurston Moore, have together launched numerous side projects, completed countless world tours, and released copious studio albums and rarities.
The band's latest, The Eternal, out this past June on Matador Records, marks Sonic Youth's return to an independent label. (The group had been with Geffen Records since 1990's Goo.) The Eternal is the perfect extension of the Sonic Youth catalog, a hybrid of resonant guitar textures and jammy, jazzed-out, free-form experimentation. The album evokes Daydream Nation's unpredictable explosiveness and the near-psychedelic, extended harmonies of Washing Machine, but it isn't a musical progression as much as it's a lateral move. That, in particular, is Sonic Youth's trademark: Each new album that the band releases might contain heavier guitars, additional harmonies or more noise, but each maintains the beautiful, nebulous Sonic Youth-ness.
As Sonic Youth's bassist and one of its songwriters, Kim Gordon has long been an inspiration to younger musicians, an indie-rock matriarch. Her contributions to the band's music have rarely been as pronounced as they are on The Eternal, where she sings lead on several tracks and where her imposing bass lines sweep boldly through the din.
A prolific visual artist, Gordon is also accomplished in many other disciplines, including painting, drawing, writing, producing and organizing both art and music events. She has also fronted two successful fashion lines, X-Girl and the new Mirror/Dash, available at Urban Outfitters. On the eve of Sonic Youth's current tour, we spoke with Gordon about how she balances her multiple interests (including barbecue) with life on the road.
The Pitch: You have so many different projects. How do you decide what you're going to work on? You have all the art stuff and the fashion stuff and the music stuff. Is it deadlines?
Kim Gordon: Yeah, deadlines. Exactly. Well, with the art stuff, some things you have to create [on deadline], either projects with someone or sometimes you get asked for a show. I work on ideas and stuff, but when it really comes down to it, it's all about a deadline.
So how can you spend half of your life on the road and still be painting?
Well, this has been a really busy spring, but generally we just tour around a record. We're not one of those bands that goes on tour for a year or something. We have a daughter, and Lee has kids, so you know, I try and tour around her school schedule. We've been gone a lot this spring already, so it's hard. And I think it's actually harder for moms to leave their kids. I know some people say, "How come people don't make a big deal about asking fathers what it's like to go on the road?" It is hard for them, too, but I think it's easier if you have one parent at home that's taking care of it.
Do you take your daughter with you on tour?
Sometimes. But as she's gotten older she's been able to stay home with someone. And she prefers to stay home. [Laughs.]
When you're out touring, and you get to each new city, do you have something you like to do there? You know, like some people like to find the city's best restaurant or used bookstore or whatever.
Oh, yeah, we're totally into picking out good restaurants. And, actually, Mark [Ibold, of Pavement fame], who is playing bass with us now, he's really great at looking up food Web sites and he always knows about places to try. But when we first started touring, it was always like, "Where's the good barbecue place?" [Laughs.]
What, you don't like barbecue anymore?
I like it, but it's, like, you can't live on it, though. Kansas has good barbecue, though. And I have some relatives in Kansas, so when I'm there, I feel the pull of the heartland.
Do you just wanna go out in a field and burn stuff?
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, the flatness doesn't bother me, I guess.
So you have sound check, and then you go do your dinner thing before the show?
Sometimes. I mean, you have to eat a certain amount of time before the show. Steve, our drummer, won't eat if it's less than five hours before our show.
Does he get, like, barfy?
He just plays better. And you do play better if you're not full. Nothing like a whole lot of barbecue and then having to go onstage!
So do you get any of your other work done on tour?
It's hard. Some people can do a lot of stuff on tour. I can't because I kind of have a perpetual state of exhaustion because I don't sleep on the bus very well. Like, Lee seems to always have little projects he's working on, but I'm not so good. I'm going to try and seek out, like, yoga classes and things like that to offset the barbecue. [Laughs.] It's a little anxiety-provoking, actually, to have to go away for six weeks. In fact, I'm in the middle of packing right now.
I know, like, how many shoes do you bring? Who knows?
Yeah, it's like, how do I pack all these vitamins? I always overpack. But you're basically living out of a suitcase for six weeks. It's kind of like you buy all these clothes [at home], but then you kind of have to say goodbye to them. [Laughs.] It's hard to go away during the summer, actually. But it'll be fun once we get going.
Is it easier for you guys when you're touring with another band because then you have more people around to hang out with? Or is that just annoying?
Well, it can be. You're kind of together all the time, and sometimes you sort of create a distance because otherwise you would really be irritated all the time. [Laughs.] Twelve people on a bus is kind of hard. But anyway, God, it's nice to be asked other questions than normal, you know? I mean, we get tired of the same questions all the time, so it's going really well so far. You're doing a good job.
Well, thank you. So do you ever have a time where you're at home and you don't have any huge projects staring at you?
Um, pretty much never. But last summer, we only did a little bit of touring, but that was the first time in maybe 20 years where we hadn't toured in the summer. I mean, it was kind of shocking, actually.
So what are you going to do when you get back from tour? What's your next big thing?
Well, Mirror/Dash, the clothing line, is kind of an ongoing thing. But for the next project, I have a book I'm working on, my paintings, and I'm sort of working on another painting series. But we're going to do a bunch of touring in the fall, so I'm kind of keeping my schedule as open as I can. I don't want to be too pressured. But as busy as I am, Thurston has many more projects than I do. I don't know how he does it, really. But it's energizing if you get stuff back from it.