For more than 20 years they've stood as rock's ultimate alternative band, inspiring artists from Kurt Cobain to Spike Jonze. Some say they could've been huge. They chose instead to remain unique.

By David Browne
March 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

You know it’s coming; it’s only a matter of when, and how long it will last, and how loud it will be. On a recent afternoon, the only band in rock history to be caricatured on The Simpsons, endorsed by Neil Young, and accorded an exhibit at New York’s Printed Matter art gallery has gathered for a webcast performance from its windowless rec-room rehearsal space two blocks north of Ground Zero. As the other members of Sonic Youth take a break, Thurston Moore, the band’s lanky blond grasshopper of a guitarist and singer, can’t resist. Six-string slung below his waist so that his gangly arms can reach the strings, Moore crouches in front of his amp, grabs his guitar’s whammy bar, and out it comes — a screeeggghhhh of feedback. Imagine a whale, in its death throes, attacked by seagulls. Despite egg-carton-shaped soundproofing on the walls, the clamor reverberates down four floors, to the lobby of the building.

Soon after, the rest of the band — rumpled, gray-flecked guitarist Lee Ranaldo; lean-faced, diminutive bass player Kim Gordon; boyishly eager drummer Steve Shelley; and impish, matted guitarist and bass player Jim O’Rourke — join in. Except for Gordon, who is done up in an off-white blouse, sky blue skirt, and heels, the musicians are dressed in sneakers, gashed-knee jeans, and work shirts. The mood is casual and unprepossessing, but the music that emerges from it is anything but. Guitars and melodies lull one moment, erupt into metallic shards the next; Ranaldo croons as Gordon bites off her words. As if killing cockroaches, Moore, Ranaldo, and O’Rourke jam their feet down on effects pedals to create tornado drones. Moore leans over and picks up what looks like a giant nail file and jams it between the strings, resulting in another harsh roar. Together, they create a sound like no other in rock — a hypnotic mix of melody and disharmony, structure and chaos, beauty and cacophony. ”Well, the songs didn’t stop on a dime,” Shelley cracks, ”but they did stop.”

Sonic Youth have been making that sound for 22 years and just as many albums — alternative-music touchstones like Confusion Is Sex, Daydream Nation, and Dirty that dismantled rock & roll and reassembled it in ways no one had done before. None of those albums have sold more than 300,000 copies, but as with the Velvet Underground before them, the impact of Sonic Youth is not judged by numbers. Nirvana admired them so much that the trio signed to the same label, Geffen. The Sonic Youth sound can be heard in a wave of bands that followed, from PJ Harvey to Pavement; their concerts were attended by, among others, future members of the Donnas. ”They’ve created an environment where people who make music that is even crazier than theirs have a chance of playing in front of more than 10 people,” says Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy, who signed the band to an indie label in 1985. Similarly, female musicians and artists have taken their cue from the fiercely assertive feminist heroine Gordon. ”To see Kim and the strength of who she is, a woman playing bass — she’s a goddess,” gushes filmmaker Tamra Davis, who graduated from Sonic Youth videos to Billy Madison and Crossroads. To Simpsons producer Bonnie Pietila, who recruited the band for the 1996 ”Homerpalooza” episode in which the group appeared, Sonic Youth are ”an icon — there’s nobody else like them.”