Seven million plus. On any given day, that is the number of results returned in a Google search for Sonic Youth.
Together since 1981, the band has been admired, emulated, studied and chronicled. They played an integral part in the early '80s, East Coast "no wave" movement, in which the trajectories of art, music and performance collided. By changing their guitar tuning with sticks and screwdrivers, they changed not only how music was played, but how it was heard. Their music and mystique have prompted novelists, biographers, journalists, bloggers, reviewers, artists and cartoonists to fill pages and canvases with work inspired by the band. The band members themselves, too, have wide-reaching influences and varied means of expression--all of it part of a larger artistic community.
Among a myriad of other endeavors, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon is a visual artist, curator and co-founder of the Mirror/Dash clothing line with her husband and fellow bandmate, guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore. Moore runs record label Ecstatic Peace!; drummer Steve Shelley runs Sonic Youth's record label, SYR; guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo is a writer, artist and curator as well. And while they create and curate, they continue to write, record and perform their music.
The Eternal, which came out in June, is Sonic Youth's 16th studio album and one that shows not only that Sonic Youth still has it, but that fans still want it.
"People seem to be digging it. We're excited by that because we really like it. We think it's a really strong record for us. We haven't had a record out in this long a period," said Ranaldo. (Rather Ripped was released in 2006.) "It's been a longer period of time than we usually have between records. Maybe people missed us while we were gone."
One thing that both critics and fans are saying of The Eternal is "it's definitely a Sonic Youth album."
"I have no idea why people are saying that. As far as we're concerned, they're all Sonic Youth albums," Ranaldo said. "I think maybe it means maybe people are finding this one more rocking than the last couple."
The change was prompted by the mutations of the record industry during the last few years. While a band is putting an album together, record label personnel can disappear like Rock of Love hopefuls. By the time the band emerges from the studio, the community of people who stood behind them and supported their vision may be long gone. An independent label isn't immune to change, that spirit of solidarity, the reason for the label's birth in the first place, often remains intact. And though they have SYR, their own label, Ranaldo said they wanted to have someone looking out for them.
"We talked about [recording on SYR]. We could easily have put it out on that label, and we do put out a lot of material on SYR, mostly more of our weirder or more experimental stuff," Ranaldo said. "But for a record of songs we labored over for a period of time writing and recording, we felt in the end that we wanted to have a company behind it ... basically taking care of the business aspects of it so we don't have to. It's good to have a team behind you that's watching out for you."
Much like it did in Sonic Youth's earliest days, art and music continue to feed into and off of one another. The band has created an art exhibit, indicative of their ethos, their understanding of their place in the larger artistic community, titled "Sonic Youth, etc.: Sensational Fix." It's an exhibit that has been making its way across Europe for the last few years and will hopefully soon be in to the United States.
"It's a show that starts from some of our own artworks and goes on to include many people we've collaborated with," Ranaldo said. "People who've done our album covers or videos. [The exhibit] has video, film, painting, sculpture, poetry. It's a massive show [with] like a hundred different artists."
It includes a big, beautiful book that is half history of the band and half art catalogue. It's another case in which Sonic Youth acknowledges the community that they have influenced and be influenced by during the last three decades.
There are young, unknown artists, art being made by younger musicians, and some famous artists in the show like Jenny Holzer, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.
So many Sonic Youth reviews, interviews, images and stories swirl through the endless vortex, the breadth and number of which represent something much more than just the band's popularity. They are indicative of a band, who for nearly 30 years, has helped shape the sound of American music.