The band is principally based around guitarist/singer Thurston Moore, guitarist/singer Kim Gordon, drummer Steve Shelley, and guitarist/singer Lee Ranaldo. Richard Edson was an early drummer who left the band to appear in movies such as Platoon and Stranger Than Paradise. Bob Bert also played drums for Sonic Youth, and was later involved in No Wave descendants Pussy Galore and Boss Hogg, among others. Recently, producer Jim O'Rourke has become the fifth member of the band, playing bass. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's long-term marriage was seen by certain members of Generation X as a model of stable family life not based on either the "family values" of adherents of Ronald Reagan, nor on whatever unsuccessful things their parents had tried in the 1960s and 1970s.
Managing to stay afloat in the cut-throat music industry financially while maintaining some sense of self and dignity, Sonic Youth have proved highly influential on underground rock music. They were particularly important in the growth of grunge: their 1991 tour with the then-unknown Nirvana being captured in the film The Year Punk Rock Broke.
In the meantime, members of the band diversified their talents. Kim Gordon started an MTV-adored fashion label X-Girl, based in L.A Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore have played with many experimental/noise musicians, including William Hooker, Don Dietrich, and Christian Marclay, among others. Steve Shelley has been involved in running the Smells Like Records and SYR record labels, as well as playing in backing bands for Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Two Dollar Guitar.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band began releasing a number of limited edition records on their own Hoboken, NJ-based label SYR. These editions featured experimental artists such as Jim O'Rourke, Yoko Ono, and, on Goodbye 20th Century (1999), the works of experimental classical composers such as John Cage and Christian Wolff.
The band was busy working on their 2002 album Murray Street in their NYC studio during the September 11 Terrorist Attack. They were kept out of the studio for several weeks following the attacks.