Several years ago I looked on in horror as MTV pundit Gideon Yago sweated through an interview all five ferociously smart members of Radiohead. The memory of that encounter made me more than a little nervous in advance of my New Yorker College Tour interview with Sonic Youth, which took place last Saturday. In addition, I had a certain personal investment: the band's Daydream Nation was the second rock record I ever bought, during my belated discovery of non-classical music in college, and it permanently rearranged my view of the musical universe.
In the end, it went pretty well, despite several dumb questions from the interviewer. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo have been playing together since 1981 (drummer Steve Shelley joined in 1984), and they muse on their long career with the ease and wit of people who have nothing left to prove. The most interesting part for me was when they talked about their creative process, which mixes conventional song-oriented work — filling in the outlines of an acoustic sketch — with a procedure much more like that of a jazz group or solitary composer. A lot of the time, they said, they simply set a process in motion — patterns and textures in collision — and see what emerges from the mix. They never talk about chords in the studio, they said; no one ever says, "OK, let's go to F." Yet the result is not nearly as dissonant as you might expect (ferociously dissonant as this band can be), because they nourish clear forms when they rise up. There's an obvious kinship with the working methods of the minimalists. Sonic Youth's new album, the semi-eponymous Sonic Nurse, has some of their sweetest melodies to date, alongside the usual hallucinatory soundscapes.
On the train back, I was happy to read in Arrive, the official magazine of Amtrak’s Acela Express, of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Quiet Car, which I rhapsodized in a previous post. (The irony of a Sonic Youth fan sitting in the Quiet Car is duly noted.) Quiet Car turns out to have been brainchild of Alma Goodwyn, pictured above. She is the deacon of a Philadelphia church and an activist on behalf of the homeless. After she worked with sympathetic passengers and conductors to create a Quiet Car on her regular commute, Amtrak made the institution official. “I just like to make things better if I can,” Goodwyn said. Alma Goodwyn is an American hero.