Kim Gordon bristles at the notion that Sonic Youth might be called a noise band. Although the members of the New York-based quartet attack their guitars with blunt instruments and produce big slabs of harsh metallic sound, Gordon, the band's bassist, doesn't like the label.
"Noise band is a derogatory term," she says. "It implies we're inept and don't know what we're doing."
Fans of mainstream rock might well accept that implication, but musically, Sonic Youth, which performs Friday at the Complex, has long shown evidence of knowing just what it's doing. Recently, a new seriousness is evident in the group's career direction as well.
The band's original performances and records were loud, noisy and physical; early reports sometimes even categorized Sonic Youth as a hard-core punk band. Gordon, a California native who's an occasional contributor to Artforum magazine, attributes some of the band's reputation to a "pretty raw recording situation." A well-publicized feud with Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau helped solidify the Youth's reputation as troublemakers.
The quartet's current sound, though still more concerned with texture and atmosphere than pop staples like melodies and hooks, is less rampaging; guitarist Thurston Moore has even suggested that the newer material is -- relatively speaking, of course -- "pastoral." Where a Sonic Youth set was once a series of explosions, its recent show at the 9:30 club was more like the gradual combustion of a long fuse leading to the final blow-up, an encore of "Expressway to Your Skull."
Gordon, Moore and guitarist Lee Ranaldo founded Sonic Youth in 1981; percussionist Steve Shelley has been with the band only about a year. (The bassist is in her early thirties, while the others range from 24 to 27.) Whoever writes the lyrics generally sings them -- that's usually Moore, but sometimes it's Gordon, whose pleasant voice offers an effective contrast to the music's fierceness.
There's been a lot of turnover in Shelley's slot: Gordon remembers "three or four" Sonic Youth drummers, and in its early days the band played briefly without a drummer at all.
Among its former percussionists is Richard Edson -- "the movie star," laughs Gordon -- who achieved notoriety in the cult film "Stranger Than Paradise" and can be seen soon in "Howard the Duck."
Though the Youth are frequently classified with other intense New York underground bands like the Swans and Live Skull, Gordon says that there's no real community of such bands.
Nor does she cite as an influence such "No Wave" predecessors as the Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, although Sonic Youth has recorded with ex-Teenage Jesus vocalist Lydia Lunch. Instead, she mentions such outfits as the Patti Smith Group, Television, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and the Shangri-Las as being among the band's favorites. "Lee was a real Deadhead," Gordon adds.
Moore has also credited the Velvet Underground and John Fogerty as major inspirations; the Youth's previous album was named "Bad Moon Rising" after a Fogerty song.
Another influence is Glenn Branca, the Manhattan composer who has written several controversial symphonies featuring massed electric guitars. Gordon and Moore first saw Ranaldo when he was playing with Branca, and later Moore also worked with him. (Moore, Ranaldo and Edson can all be heard on the ROIR recording of Branca's crunching "Symphony Number 1.")
"The exhilaration of his music was really inspiring," remembers Gordon. Despite the connection, Sonic Youth is not merely applying Branca strategies to a rock-song format.
"It's totally different process," she says. "We have about 13 guitars, all tuned differently. They all have different tonalities from the way they've been battered," she explains. "It's not really done methodically. It's just arrived at from screwing around."
The quartet's recent record, "Evol," is their first for SSt, the independent California label that's home to Black Flag, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen. The company is known for more aggressive promotion than most small American record companies; Gordon calls it "a really tight organization."
"We're just getting to the point where we can support ourselves," notes Gordon, who says her band is not pursuing a major label contract. "Basically we just want to have more money to spend on records and making tours easier."
Asked what new listeners might be attracted to the Youth as it becomes better known, Gordon tentatively suggests the college audience.
"I don't really know who comes to our shows now," she admits. The quartet's best audiences are in the Midwest and Texas and on the West Coast -- traditional hard-rock turf -- rather than in the artier Northeast, she says. The band also has drawn well in Europe, where it's toured more often and extensively than in the United States.
With the Christgau incident behind them, the Youth have a new interest: Madonna. "Expressway to Your Skull," which begins with the line "We're gonna kill the California girls," is also identified on "Evol" as "Madonna, Sean and Me" and "The Crucifixion of Sean Penn." ("Why not use all three titles?" asks Gordon. "Thurston makes up different titles for the songs in the set every night.") Gordon insists that there's no malice intended toward Mrs. Penn. "We really like her songs. She's just vastly entertaining."
As Ciccone Youth -- Ciccone is Madonna's surname -- the band has recorded a version of her "Into the Groove" that should be released as a New Alliance single next month. "We used to use it in our set for segue action," says Gordon. "It's a really good song."