“How's the air?” Kim Gordon inquires from her hotel suite in Dublin.
“I'm only asking because I heard on the East Coast the air was bad because of the fires.”
Pretty amazing that, despite Sonic Youth's mad schedule (25 dates on their European tour alone), they still find time to keep abreast about the news of the Julian forest fires. Also amazing is that, after 15 albums and 21 years, the band has released its most captivating album to date.
They named it Murray Street, after the location of their studio and rehearsal space, which is located down the street from the now-vacant World Trade Center lot.
“We didn't really have any desire to exploit that situation, for any sort of creative reason,” explains Thurston Moore, Gordon's husband and Sonic Youth co-founder. “We called it Murray Street because we felt we were the only sort of people down there working.
“People who work nine-to-five jobs were completely shut out. But we were just a band that kind of worked on our own accord. We were able to sort of get our work done there. In a way, we really felt a desire to sort of reclaim our place, and our neighborhood.”
From the opening song, “Empty Page,” to the album's final track, “Sympathy for the Strawberry,” the record seems to be laced with references to 9/11. Moore, however, contends otherwise.
“We already had [the] songs written, for the most part, before 9/11. So none of the music was making any indication or response to it. We certainly were aware of, ‘Let's not make it a concept record about us recording at ground zero or something.' That's certainly not something we wanted to do. It's thematic at best, but it wasn't set up as a concept record.
“But, after we started really recording, which was pretty much about a month after 9/11... I think we were somewhat affected by our surroundings, mentally and emotionally, and that's possible that's a vibe [on the album]. The only song that maybe came out of contemplation about the whole thing is “Rain On Tin.'”
One of the more guitar-driven songs, “Rain On Tin” was written after Gordon and Moore retreated to their home in the North Hamptons with several other friends and families in tow.
“Jim [O'Rourke] just sorta lived in my basement here for about a month in a state of, like, you know, complete shock,” Moore adds.
O'Rourke is the newest Youth in the Sonic fold. Known for his experience as a mixing engineer and producer (Stereolab, Tortoise), his addition makes Sonic Youth a quintet for the first time in the band's history.
“He's kinda Brian Eno meets Handsome Dick Manitoba-a fusion,” Moore proposes.
The idea of O'Rourke joining the band didn't surface until they needed someone of his specialty.
“We asked him to sort of mix our last record because we had recorded it poorly and needed some help,” Moore admits. “He started laying down some bass and synthesizer parts here and there. He's such a great bass player-that's his first instrument. We had been doing this triple guitar/kick drum vibe for a few years, so it was, ‘All right, welcome back bass frequencies!'”
Murray Street also marks the second album in their trilogy about the history of lower Manhattan. “NYC Ghosts and Flowers was sort of about the hip-itchy ways, the artists and the people. This record is more about the environment, the architecture and the urban landscape,” Moore explains.
And the response?
“One of our only bad reviews so far has been in the Village Voice,” Gordon says.
“It was written by this 20-year-old, and her whole point of view was just kind of like, that we've been together as long as she's been alive. And that because of that, now we suck,” she elaborates, laughing.
The band is currently riding high on Murray Street's success, and finally recovering from one of the biggest setbacks of their career. Two years ago, a Ryder truck carrying all of their equipment-which they had accumulated over two decades-was stolen.
For a normal band, the theft would have meant a simple, albeit begrudging, trip to the music store. But being rock's premiere sonic tinkerers, all of Sonic Youth's instruments were specially modified. Now, after two years of re-tooling various Fender and Gibson guitars, they have largely rebuilt their arsenal.
Currently on the last stretch of their European tour, Gordon's tired, and a bit rushed. “They gave our bus away at the last minute. So it's been planes, trains and automobiles. Some days you feel like you're on that ‘Survivor' show or something,” she laughs.