DENVER (AP) Ä Kim Gordon bangs a tambourine against her bass guitar, glancing out into the packed arena with the relaxed nonchalance of an alternative-rock icon.
Gordon is the bassist for Sonic Youth, a band that rose to fame with the orchestrated chaos of oddly tuned guitars and high-frequency feedback, in an underground culture of indie rock and fanzines.
Sonic Youth recently opened for R.E.M. and will join Lollapalooza this summer. This is new for a band that spent the 1980s thriving in relative obscurity, playing art galleries, clubs and private lofts in New York and touring the country in smoky vans.
And while there are no hit singles and no gold albums in Sonic Youth's 14-year history, their independence and innovative sound influenced scores of bands, including Nirvana.
''I see the influence in superficial kinds of things,'' said Gordon, now in her early 40s. ''For other bands, its more like an attitude ... maybe the way we've handled our career... and how it became a career.''
Called too young to be punk and too old to be alternative, Sonic Youth emerged with a guitar-driven sound in 1981, just as hip-hop and synth pop were taking hold.
Major record labels seemed to be looking the other way as the foursome experimented with vintage guitars and natural distortion. They joined a growing number of musicians across the country learning to network and promote themselves through fan magazines.
Slowly, the band built a following. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore used hollowed-out, junky electric guitars played at different tunings. They created chiming and humming effects by hitting and rubbing the strings with screwdrivers and drumsticks.
For her part, Gordon brings to Sonic Youth the understated presence of a bohemian-style renaissance woman. A one-time art student, she has written for art magazines, modeled in the pages of Vogue and Elle and more recently, designed hip-hop clothes for X-Girl, a store in New York City she co-owns.
Gordon didn't pick up a musical instrument until age 27, when she was a Los Angeles transplant finding psychic connections in the New York art scene.
Since then, she has explored vocal styles ranging from soft whispers to hoarse screams. She writes abstract lyrics, at times comical and disturbing, that deal with such themes as violence and mid
sexism with a subtle hand.
On the 1992 album ''Dirty,'' a Gordon song called ''Swimsuit Issue'' turned a raging eye on sexual harassment, drawing a parallel between a secretary at her desk and a model in Sports Illustrated Ä both the object of lusty thoughts from a boss.
'They're no better than you when put in that context,'' she said. ''They're no less vulnerable ... and to think that's what they've achieved.''
But she is blase about her image as a trailblazer for women in rock, saying she prefers to focus on the music, and on finding ''the rock within.''
''Its about redefining rock in a personal way. ... It's like when you're in your room listening to music ... and you just feel like this is such a great moment or this song is so great and you experience the rock, or whatever.''
Much has changed for a group that once made a video for $20 and showed up to tour Europe with $65 in their collective pockets.
In 1990, Sonic Youth signed with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records. The contract gives the band a larger budget and complete creative control. As a result, some tracks on the 1994 ''Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star'' album were recorded through spontaneous improv in the studio.
''The fact of the matter is ... we did it for better distribution,'' Gordon said, brushing off critics who say they've sold out. ''It hasn't changed the kind of music we're doing.''
Also, Gordon now tours with 10-month-old Coco, her daughter with Moore, whom she married in 1984.
''She's really at that age where its easy to tour with her,'' Gordon said. ''I covet the time I spend with her.''
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