Sonic Youth started their noisemaking over 20 years ago in a New York City that was in the throes of a cathartic, downtown musical renaissance. The main idea was transgression, by merging disparate styles like composition and rock and jazz; forget everything you know and experiment. Radical freethinking became the mantra. After releasing epic, forward-thinking rock records during their first decade and moving to a major label in the ’90s, the Youth are hardly over the hill. During their career they’ve established strong ties with the Triangle. Thurston Moore even toyed with an audience in Raleigh that he and wife Kim Gordon were considering moving to the area to raise their then-newborn child, playfully adding, “So, which is cooler, Raleigh or Chapel Hill?”
As the band’s popularity and exposure exploded, their generosity in helping fledgling artists get a leg up became world famous. One example of this magnanimity came during a visit to Chapel Hill. Bill Mooney, of design company Tannis Root Productions and Kung Fu, remembers, “Our first encounter with them came at the old Cradle on Franklin Street. We brought some T-shirts we’d made with us and told them we were big fans. Later, we got a call, and that started our relationship with them.” Tannis Root continues to provide official merchandise for Sonic Youth to this day. The band played a 10th anniversary party for the company at Cat’s Cradle in 1997.
“You always hear about their generosity, fostering younger bands,” Mooney says. “Well, I always remember that they took us seriously, even though we were kids. It helps me to remember that when dealing with kids today.” Mooney says the band has shared BBQ with them on visits to the Triangle since, and that guitarist Lee Ranaldo often finds a tennis game in town. Friends here abound, as Superchunk bassist and Merge Records co-founder Laura Ballance’s husband Luc Suer is a former soundman for Sonic Youth, and Jim Vincent, once a SY guitar tech, lives in Raleigh.
Sonic Youth has matured in turns unlike other bands of their genre. They have retained their curiosity and thirst for new forms by working on side projects parallel to their big label contractual obligations. Current activities include Moore and Ranaldo’s poetry, following in their Beat idols’ footsteps, and Gordon’s improv work with DJ Olive and Ikue Mori. Jim O’Rourke continues to show his different sides, from electronic smear to Van Dyke Parks-styled pop, while drummer Steve Shelley runs a label.
Voicing their politics continues to be a subtle part of the band’s work, as they are careful not to overshadow the music. Sonic Nurse, their third in an NYC-themed series, further explores their hometown and its place in the cultural subconscious. One cut is titled simply “Peace Attack.”
Previously, Sonic Youth wrote “Chapel Hill” for the album Dirty. Believed to be partially spurred by the unsolved February 1991 murder of Internationalist Books founder Bob Sheldon, the song takes lyrical snapshots of the Triangle. Look no further for proof that we’re more than just another tour bus stop: “;A bookstore man meets the CIA, and we know/Throw me a cord and plug it in, get the Cradle rocking.”