Sonic Youth lets other bands make noise


Sonic Youth may be at the top of the bill for Lollapalooza '95, but you wouldn't know it from the press coverage.

Whether you go by the photos, the headlines or the gossip column items, it's easy to get the impression that Hole singer Courtney Love is the tour's big star. She has held the limelight so relentlessly that it wasn't until a pregnant Sinead O'Connor dropped off the tour that any other Lollapalooza star made national news. Even when Jesus Lizard singer David Yow was arrested after exposed himself to protest censorship in Cincinnati, it was noted that Love also flashed the crowd -- and was not arrested.

Does that kind of scene-stealing bother Sonic Youth? Not at all, says guitarist Lee Ranaldo. "It's sort of what we expected," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Boston. "We realize that she's the big media presence, and it's easy for journalists to come in and focus on her show because she's the most flamboyant. She's certainly the first person who's going to get her picture in the paper.

Ranaldo said that people don't write about Hole's music. "They write about Courtney's antics, or what she said from the stage. That's a lot easier to do than interpreting music -- especially some of the bands on this bill, like us or Pavement. It's easier to write about a celebrity, a personality, than it is to dig in and write about the music."

Of course, it doesn't help Sonic Youth's cause that its set is not only dense and demanding, but that some of the songs are drawn from an album that won't be released until the tour is over. Dubbed "Washing Machine" and due out in September, the album finds the band moving away from the relatively pop-oriented material featured on recent efforts like "Goo," "Dirty" and "Experimental, Jet Set and No Star."

On those albums, the emphasis was on conventional songwriting, as opposed to the free-flowing aural experiments the band unleashed on earlier work like "Sister" and "Daydream Nation." By the time the band got around to "Experimental," says Ranaldo, guitarist Thurston Moore was bringing in fully formed songs, "and no one seemed very interested in taking it apart and putting it back together five times, the way we often do."

There was more group composing for "Washing Machine." "Just playing together, then evolving structures, and letting the structures dictate what happens next. There's a lot on this record that has a convoluted form, rather than a more standardized form, and I always find that more interesting."

Not everybody agrees on that, though. Many reviewers early in the band's career dismissed Sonic Youth as noise. "We used to have endless discussions with journalists about that," he says. " 'Why are you calling it noise? It's not noise, it's music,' and make references to everybody from John Cage to whoever. At this point, it just doesn't bother us anymore. We just do what we do, and I think a lot more people are hip to it today than there were six or eight years ago."

The fact the band is last on a long bill hasn't furthered the impression that more people get Sonic Youth these days. Ranaldo mentions a reviewer in Chicago who "focused intensely on that fact that people were leaving in droves to the parking lot while Sonic Youth was on."

People have always filtered out of Lollapalooza during the last set, Ranaldo points out. "When you've been there since noon, you're totally burnt out, and the last band is on, if they're not your favorite band, you watch a few songs, and then you leave," he says. "That's to be expected, and it varies a bit from night to night, and varies from situation to situation.

"Unfortunately, this year Lollapalooza is being held a lot more in these venues called sheds, with the overhanging awning and seats in the front. They're not general admission. So if people in the front are bored and they leave, you've got a big hole in your audience in the front. Whereas at a field show, with 15,000 people there are always 5,000 people that want to crush up to the front, no matter what time it is."

Still, Sonic Youth isn't complaining. "There are still thousands and thousands of people watching, and as far as we're concerned, that's fine," says Ranaldo. "Basically, it's an oddity that we're in that headlining spot to begin with. So it's fine. The people that stay seem to really dig it, and the people that want to leave, well, they got what they came for. Let them go."

Lollapalooza Online

Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo is filing a daily Lollapalooza tour diary for CompuServe's Rolling Stone Online; to reach it, log on to CompuServe, and type "GO RSONLINE." Fellow guitarist Thurston Moore is doing the diary thing, though for America Online's Spin Online. To read Moore's diaries, log onto AOL and at the keyword command, type "SPIN ONLINE." For general Lollapalooza information, visit the Lollapalooza home page on the Internet at

Lollapalooza '95

Who: Main stage acts are Sonic Youth, Hole, Cypress Hill, Elastica, Beck, Pavement, Jesus Lizard and the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones; second-stage acts are Superchunk, St. Johnny, Redman, Helium and Built to Spill.

When: Aug. 3, 2 p.m. (Gates open at noon)

Where: Charles Town Races, Charles Town, W.Va.

Tickets: $31, includes parking

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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