Mothers of Invention
As hugely influential indie-rock jam bands, Sonic Youth and Stereolab couldn't be more dissimilar. The first began as an ominous roar on hardcore punk's horizon, the second as a groovy, European drone off Nirvana's bow. Both brought the avant-garde to an emergent alt-rock throng (see "Talk Dirty to Me in Esperanto"). But SY's weirdness was distinctly Lower Manhattan--a cacophony of odd guitar tunings and devil moans about American evil. Contrast this with Stereolab's London cocktail of French lyrics and vintage electronics, which offered hummable haikus about evil's impermanence.
There was always a kinship of taste, if not sound, and the bands have developed a relaxed friendship. Now they're embarking on a U.S. tour together, kicking off Friday at Walker Art Center. Weeks before, City Pages made a conference call to Stereolab lead singer Laetitia Sadier and Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon in hopes that they might find conversational common ground. After all, both are married to their guitarists--Sadier to Tim Gane, Gordon to Thurston Moore--and both are moms. Gordon's daughter Coco is nearly six; Sadier's son Alex is not yet two.
In fact, Sadier and Gordon keep in regular contact, separated by the ocean between western Massachusetts and Camberwell, South London. A study in contrasts themselves, the two exchange greetings, Gordon's California-bred sarcasm putting Sadier's Parisian-accented sincerity in high relief. Gordon asks Sadier right off if she has received a copy of the liner notes for the CD Intimacy (named for an art exhibition Gordon curated in Holland), to which Sadier has contributed music. Presently they turn to the subject of touring with their children.
KIM GORDON: It'll be fun for Coco to have someone to play with who's more her size.
LAETITIA SADIER: And Alex, in turn, will have someone to play with.
CITY PAGES: I imagine it must be hard bringing kids on the road.
GORDON: It's exhausting. Even though there's somebody there to help take care of them, if that person's young, you always worry that they'll burn out being in a hotel room with a small child. All the rest of the crew are together, interacting more.
SADIER: Yeah, they're in a separate world, basically.
CP: Do your kids ever take in live shows?
GORDON: Yeah, usually. It depends on how late it is. Actually, when Coco was younger, she took in more live shows. I remember her seeing Stereolab. But now that she's older, you have to hustle her out before she gets too wound up.
CP: What kind of records do you play for your kids?
GORDON: I used to play this Franz Gall [the German founder of phrenology] CD a lot when she was little. And now she has to listen to all the weird noise stuff her dad plays. I don't know if she knows what real music sounds like [laughs]. No, Coco's really into that Jay-Z hit from the last record, "Hard Knock Life."
SADIER: Alex gets to hear a lot of [film composer] Bernard Herrmann at the moment. Lots and lots and lots. [Both laugh.] And actually he's quite keen on [electronic pioneer] Raymond Scott's music for babies. He's starting to dance now. But if it's too experimental he does tend to switch off.
CP: Both of you are in bands that have made convention-breaking pop music for a long time but... This isn't gonna be anything but a dumb question...
GORDON: You're halfway there...
CP: I was wondering how you've been able to keep at it.
SADIER: Tim is currently writing some songs as we speak in a little room at the back of the house. Before each album, he questions why he's still doing music. Believe me, he wouldn't be writing songs if he didn't have something to say.
GORDON: It's kind of an ongoing dialogue with yourself and three or four other people. In some ways it is sort of like what you do. I'm sure painters or writers question what they do, too.
I did an interview earlier and this woman asked me, "Is this record a turning point in your music?" and I had to say no. I don't even know what that means. We're not like Billy Corgan, going, "I had a breakthrough." It's a lot more subtle than a "turning point" or saying, "Now we're going to do a rap record."
CP: Do you ever feel like you need to step out of your bands to grow?
SADIER: I understand that Stereolab is going where it's going and I'm sure at some point it will slow down--somehow--so that when I'm 65 or something I can start on my own stuff [laughs]. No, I am writing songs, and this week I was recording downstairs in a little studio we have.
CP: Both of you deal with politics well in your lyrics. What issues animate you these days?
SADIER: Well, what animates me is, to give you a sort of title for it, A Degraded View of Humanity. There is no trust between people, basically. And it goes to the degraded view of the self--the idea that people are not to be trusted and, therefore, cannot trust themselves.
Which means that there's a lot of intervention from the state into people's private lives, that every responsibility must be taken away because we're not good enough, because we're too weak. I don't understand what good there is in just saying that rapists and pedophiles are everywhere, that the world is divided between the victims on one side and the aggressors on the other. That's not how I want to see people, or myself.
What about you, Kim?
GORDON: Wow [laughs]. I guess I'm kind of bugged by how the media and MTV make kids feel that their scene isn't important, that they have to be part of this sort of homogenized idea of what's hip. When you first start going out to a club and hearing music, it has such an impact on you. That's far more important than anything MTV is gonna present to you.
CP: Do you resent that your band has become a signifier of cool?
GORDON: I think people have this wrong impression that we want to be cool or we try to be cool or something. But when you've experienced childbirth and people dying around you and stuff, those kinds of questions don't really matter.
CP: Do you still get excited when you see your new record in a store?
GORDON: You know, I never go into record stores [laughs]. I try to avoid it at all costs. Laetitia, have you seen High Fidelity? [Sadier hasn't, though Stereolab is on the soundtrack.] Thurston buys records, but going to a record store isn't fun for me. I could go and spend 15, 20 minutes and be done, but then there's a lot of hanging around, waiting for him.
SADIER: Yeah, it's tedious, isn't it? That's another point we have in common.
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