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 web
cast 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 Born-lie 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. The respect accorded
Sonic Youth is only partly about music; equally significant is the band's unrelenting
sense of integrity in a business not known for tolerating it. Sonic Youth albums
sound essentially the same as they did in the '80s, when the band was part of
the American indie-rock movement that spewed out the Replacements, Soul
Asylum, Husker Du, and many others. All those groups are history, yet Sonic
Youth continue to make exactly the music they want to make. And to everyone's
surprise, for the Universal-owned Geffen, which has such reverence for Sonic
Youth that the band can do whatever they want, from releasing drawn-out feedback
soundscapes to recruiting young, noncommercial artists as collaborators.
(Next month, the label is reissuing Dirty as an expanded-edition double CD,
part of a series that also includes accepted classics like Marvin Gaye's What's
Going On, Frampton Comes Alive!, and, yes, The Velvet Underground & Nico).
"They have the ability to pull people from different worlds and empower them,"
says director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), whose early
skateboard footage was introduced to the world via a Sonic Youth video.
"They're very inspiring in terms of encouraging others that there's not a set way
to do something." For all their trailblazing and too-cool New York artists image,
Sonic Youth's dirty little secret is that there are no dirty little secrets.
Despite their skewed, unconventional songs and their irregularly tuned guitars,
these musicians are disconcertingly normal; scandal does not become them.
The notion is as radical as it is refreshing.
The webcast performance done, the five members sprawl around their control
room (its walls bedecked with Joni Mitchell and Captain Beefheart memorabilia)
and write out, by hand, which instruments they need for an upcoming tour.
Then Gordon-who has been married to Moore for a very im-roek & roll duration
of 18 years-prepares to head home to their 8-year-old daughter, Coco. Ranaldo
makes plans with his 17-year-old son, Cody. No groupies or music-biz types
are in sight-just musicians readjusting to life and family now that work is over.
"Everyone jokes that I joined the wrong band," says recent recruit O'Rourke,
33, on the topic of Sonic Youth versus Wilco (he worked on Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot with the latter). "On the Sonic Youth tour bus, they read.
"The guitars chosen, Moore prepares to leave for a club gig of his own, an
evening of experimental music. "It's just a bunch of the guys and a lot of noise,"
he tells Gordon. "It's cool if you want to go home." They exchange a quick,
rare public kiss, and he grabs a black vinyl guitar case and asks for directions
to the nearest subway. Gordon will return to the couple's center-hall colonial
house in the leafy college environs of Northampton, Mass.
"We're not the most organized group of people, which makes it even funnier that
we've lasted this long," Ranaldo says later with a bemused smile. "We're the
Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead of our generation. Or something. It's very weird."
Everyone remembers the first time they saw them; it's hard not to. Twenty years ago,
one's rock choices amounted to the oozy smarm of the Journey/REO bunch, the
song-oriented indie rock of R.E.M. and its ilk, and this: a stern-looking woman
in flip up shades serving up subterranean-dark bass lines and singing in an eerie
half whisper, and two men who didn't play their pawnshop guitars so much as
assault them, drilling them with screwdrivers and sliding drumsticks up and down
Sonic Youth were part rock band, part art project, and 100 percent extraordinary.
"Whatever notion you may have had about loud rock & roll was torn apart,"
says Cosloy of witnessing an early show. "It was great. As a spectacle, it was a
lot to look at." Even their fellow screw-the-rules musicians of the day were taken
aback. "We were trying to be very adventurous," recalls Mike Watt, then bassist
in the Minutemen. "And when I heard Sonic Youth, I felt very old-fashioned.
And not very new at all." Nor traditional in any way whatsoever: The Sonic Youth
saga began as, of all things, a love story. "We sat down and were just talking abou
t music," Moore recalls of his first encounter with Gordon, at a New York club
"I don't remember that at all," Gordon, 49, replies with a frown. "Oh, I totally
remember that," Moore says, who at 44 still looks as if he never needs to shave.
The couple are breakfasting at a retro-vintage country club in Los Angeles,
where the band is performing; in another sign of their normalcy, the waiters
greet them warmly and ask where they've been. "We talked about how rhythm can
be utilized or not, and when it doesn't really matter."
"I don't remember any of this," Gordon again says. "I do," Moore continues.
"And then, I went to the Ear Inn and you chased me down. I was like,
'What are you doing here?' And you were like, 'I knew you'd be here.' And I was
Whatever the specifics, here are the facts: Both were children of academics,
both were out-of-towners (Moore from Connecticut, Gordon from Los Angeles),
and both had relocated to Manhattan, drawn to the no-wave music and art
community that reflected the city's scuzzedout, no-future mood of the early '80s.
Their musical experience was limited, but expertise was not the point; one day,
Moore ditched chords and began flailing away at his guitar. "It was, "What if we
just played anything'" he recalls. "It totally destroyed any preconceived idea of
rock & roll as a rhythm & blues-based music. It was totally liberating."
When Moore devised the name Sonic Youth- a tribute to both the MC5's
Fred "Sonic" Smith and reggae star Big Youth-a sensibility clicked. Gordon
then suggested they add Ranaldo, an art-school grad who, like Moore, was
disillusioned with stadium rock, and Sonic Youth launched. "To us, rock &
roll meant you had drums and electric guitars," says Ranaldo, 47. "It didn't
mean a whole lot more than that. It didn't mean you had to I play 'Louie,
Louie' or 'Paint It Black.
Starting with the 1982 EP Sonic Youth, and crystallizing on the following
year's a Confusion Is Sex, they stuck to their plan. "We wanted similar
things," recalls Ranaldo, "which didn't include the ego fantasy of being huge
stars or doing distasteful things for the sake of getting your music" heard."
They offset their imposing music (and visuals with sardonic, class-clown
humor, like wearing Springsteen T-shirts "just to f-with people," says Moore.
Creating deafening guitar avalanches one moment and offering up a grinding
take on Madonna's "Into the Groove" the next, they had it both ways-sincer
e and ironic, paving the way for a rock mind-set that would fully blossom
with newer bands in ' the '90s. (Keen networkers to this day, they survived
with the help of benefactors-a wealthy Swiss couple who lent the band
several thousand dollars.)
Then something funny began happening-little by little, they grew as musicians,
wrote more melodic songs, turned somewhat pro. "By Bad Moon Rising,"
recalls Moore of their pulverizing 1985 album, "I remember looking at the
guitar and actually playing it." Methodically, they moved from one indie
label to another, better one. In 1988, they spent an unheard-of amount-
$30,000-to record Daydream Nation, a sprawling double LP of longer,
snakier material and locked-in sonic blasts. "The idea of stretching out
on songs was a radical thing to do, so we decided to just let it flow,"
says Moore of the album, now considered a pivotal moment in indie rock.
"It made this statement at the end of the '80s, that we were ready to take
it to where it needed to go."
Where it also needed to go was bigger and wider. Tired of not seeing their
albums in stores-and wanting "to compete with, or be in the same market
as Prince and Madonna, whatever was happening at the time," says Shelley,
40-Sonic Youth began looking outward, to the major labels. After much
internal debate, they scrawled their names on the bottom of a Geffen contract
in 1989 for a modest $300,000 advance- but not before demanding
(and receiving) total control over their music, artwork, and all creative matters.
("These are not people who want to let anyone else tell them what to do,"
notes their attorney, Richard Grabel.) Geffen acquiesced because, for one,
it knew the band would attract other alternative acts, and two, the label felt
the band "could be much bigger and more commercial," in the words of onetime
Geffen A&R executive Mark Kates. With that, Sonic Youth left the underground
behind and aimed for the heart of America.
THE TIMING SEEMED PERFECT, OR SO EVERYONE THOUGHT.
During the first half of the '90s, a new breed of rock star-scruffy, tattered, and
playing raw, exposed-nerve rock with links to punk- was suddenly the standard.
Nirvana, a band Sonic Youth had championed when Kurt Cobain was barely
known outside Seattle, led that charge, and everyone assumed that Sonic
Youth, the founding figures of the newly coined alternative rock, would have
their own shot.
So they did what other bands would have done in such a situation. They made
videos they hoped MTV would play. They went into the studio with the same
producer who had overseen Nirvana's Nevermind. They accepted an invitation
to open for Neil Young on an arena tour. "All that stuff you read about your
heroes doing," recalls Ranaldo, "and all of a sudden we were doing it."
Unfortunately, they weren't always enjoying it. They rarely, if ever, saw
videos on MTV. They liked producer Butch Vig (later in Garbage) and
enjoyed working with him on 1992's taut, snarling Dirty, but he kept asking
them to tune their guitars and do multiple takes. And Neil Young-don't get
them started. They revered Young for his iconoclasm, but his road crew
wouldn't even grant them sound checks, and his fans booed and mocked
them. "Instantly sobering," Moore recalls. After a particularly hostile show
in New York, they almost quit the tour. "If we ever second guessed what
was going on in our career, it was probably right around that time," says
Ranaldo. "The stakes got a bit higher, and we were having huge black clouds
of troubled moments."
There were bonuses, of course. Albums like Goo and Dirty demonstrated
they could make beefier, remotely radio-friendly records that still sounded
like no one but themselves. They took full advantage of that creative-control
clause and hired not only Spike Jonze but also cartoonist Raymond Pettibon
(the cartoon cover of Goo) and artist Mike Kelley (the found-art puppets on
"Kim was into this skateboarding tape this unknown kid named Spike had
directed," recalls Tamra Davis. "So we hired him for the video with another
unknown kid-[skater and future actor] Jason Lee. Sonic Youth never went
towards what was trendy, but what always ended up happening is that what
they were into became trendy." ft Still, they ultimately didn't like what they saw,
and they worried about preserving their integrity.
During the making of 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Vig
recalls, "they'd do one take and go, 'That was the most perfect we've ever
played that,' and we'd all start laughing. But I could tell they were serious, too.
" Moore recalls rejecting Geffen's suggestion to do a trendy drum-'n'-bass
remix, saying it would be "really wrong, like an old lady in a miniskirt."
Dirty, the album Geffen hoped would sell a million, sold only about a third of that.
The label was "a little frustrated," recalls their former publicist Dennis Dennehy,
but the band was realistic enough to see that the MTV set wasn't for them and
that they were, in Moore's words, "a little too old" anyway. In 1995, they told
Kates, their liaison with Geffen, that they had written a potential hit, "The Diamond
Sea"-then added that it was, well, 20 minutes long.
"I thought the band could be huge if they were up for it," says
Kates. "As it turns
out, I don't know if it was important to them." "We tried to play the game at first,"
says Ranaldo, "and then we reverted back to form and turned inward, started
making music solely for ourselves again." Adhering to the band's old contract,
Geffen had little choice but to comply. "With Sonic Youth, there's a different set
of conditions," admits Geffen president Jordan Schur. "And they're all on their
side, not ours." (It helps that the band is frugal, recording in its own studio and
never spending more than $200,000 per album.)
The records that followed, like 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers, marked a
return to the challenging, abrasive music of the band's past. "We're a really
selfish bunch of musicians," chuckles Shelley, who joined in 1985. "And
people either want to come along or they don't."
For this stance, which O'Rourke calls their "unswerving sense of what's right,"
the band has paid a certain price. They realize that more people know their
name than their music. Their record sales have dropped off; they can no longer
afford their own PA system on tour. Sometimes they wonder how long they'll
be part of Universal, even though two albums are left on their contract and
both Schur and Geffen A&M Interscope chairman Jimmy Lovine (whom the
band has never met) maintain they will stand by Sonic Youth as long as the
band wants to be on the label.
Schur still recalls his first career-strategy meeting with the band after
over Geffen in 1999. "I went to their studio and I made it clear: 'Look, I see
something building with you guys. You're moving toward something and I don't|
know if you want to go there, but I'm here for you and I really think it can work
.' And there was silence. Nobody said anything to me. And that's when I made
a decision that you have to adapt yourself to them."
ON THEIR SUMMER TOUR TO PROMOTE LAST YEAR'S MURRAY
Street, an album more lyrical than its two predecessors, the band seemed ready
to take Schur up on his offer; in an effort to raise their profile again, they even
visited radio stations and signed autographs at record stores. On stage for the
first of two sold-out shows at Hollywood's El Key Theater, with fan Keanu
Reeves in the audience, they are, on one hand, the same old Sonics. They barely
look at each other, and the songs build from slow, moody intros to frenzied
whirlwinds of feedback and space. (During such improvisatory moments,
Ranaldo's earlier quip comparing the Sonics to the Dead suddenly doesn't seem
so odd.) Gordon intensely hops in place, Ranaldo slams down his guitar neck
as if it were a hammer, and Shelley pummels his kit like an overexcited toddler.
But they are also tighter and less indulgent than in the past, playing ferocious
renditions of their college-radio standards. Several times Gordon sets aside
her bass and, for the first time with the band, dances, adding a newly erotic,
At the very end, Gordon addresses the crowd: "Demand to pay less than
for a CD," she tells them, a tweak at Universal for what the band feels is a high
list price for Murray Street. Then she adds, in a voice both seductive and taunting,
"But I just want the big guys to know we can still be friends."
As it turns out,
Sonic Youth do bow to something-their kids and their schedules. These days the
band tours only in the summer to accommodate school, so a few weeks after
the L.A. show, they have returned home. "We do school holidays," Gordon
quips in the book and instrument-filled living room of their Northampton home
while flipping through scrapbooks of band photos, fliers, and, oops, one of
Coco's sonograms ("That's what's fun about these-you never know what you're
going to find").
In this town, chosen for its anti-Manhattan, kid-friendly appeal,
non-mainstream rock and child rearing peacefully coexist: Coco's school schedule
is tacked onto a wall directly above a calendar sporting a Stooges photo.
The surfer-blond Coco, Gordon says, finds Sonic Youth music "noisy"; she
is taking piano lessons and prefers Vanessa Carlton. "I told her Britney Spears
can't really sing," Gordon says. "And I said older men write her songs. That was
a real turnoff for her."
"One thing we accomplished is that we were able to create a true working
model for how bands can conduct themselves for more than five years, playing
decidedly fringe music," Moore says, his lanky frame draped over a chair in a
study lined with Beat poetry journals. He pauses. "I think in the future we'll
probably become more of a pop band," he jokes; as always, he can't resist
deflecting serious comments with droll humor. "There's no alternative for us.
I'll deliver papers if I have to. It's not going to stop me from making records
and doing music on whatever level it is." Then he prepares to go upstairs
, where he will read to Coco before she falls asleep.
Sonic Youth Survives Ground Zero, Adds a Member,
and Refines the Art of Noise: Chaos Theorists
They say you have to know the rules before you can break them.
If that’s true, few bands know the rules better than Sonic Youth.
Step into Echo Canyon, Sonic Youth’s New York studio, and
broken rules litter the floor like so many snapped guitar strings
and shattered drumsticks. It is in this sound lab that Sonic Youth
pulls off the freakish.
Chaos Theorists experiments that most bands wouldn’t—and
probably shouldn’t—dare attempt. By weaving sheets of
feedback into symphonic passages, extending pop songs well
past the ten-minute mark with noisy epilogues, playing guitar
with random objects, rewiring stompboxes, and torturing
amps until the tubes melt, Sonic Youth has once again recorded
a mutant-rock masterpiece that reduces the rulebook to confetti.
The band’s new album, Murray Street [Geffen], is the second
in a trilogy for Sonic Youth—and it got off to an inspired start.
Producer, multi-instrumentalist, and self-confessed “noisenick”
Jim O’Rourke had just joined the band, expanding Sonic Youth
to a quintet for the first time since Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo,
and Kim Gordon formed the group in 1981. Everyone was eager
to start tracking, and O’Rourke was already putting in long hours
at Echo Canyon, often sleeping there after late nights of pre-production.
It wasn’t an alarm clock, however, that jarred him awake one sunny
September morning last year—it was the horrific cacophony created
when, nearly 100 stories above his head, the first jetliner slammed
into the World Trade Center.
“The studio was just two short blocks away,” recalls O’Rourke,
too traumatized to speak about that day in anything above a whisper.
“A jet engine fell from the sky, and landed on Murray Street within
eyeshot of the studio’s front window.”
Soon thereafter, the towers came down. Lower Manhattan was closed
off and Murray Street was derailed indefinitely. But while O’Rourke
may need the rest of his life to process the terror he survived last
September 11, he and the rest of Sonic Youth were finally able to
get back into their studio. Here, Moore, Ranaldo, and O’Rourke
trace the evolution of one of the most exciting and inspired albums
in Sonic Youth’s 21-year career.
Why expand the Sonic Youth lineup?
Ranaldo: On the last few records, Kim has been playing more and
more guitar with Thurston and myself, and while we were really into
mining the three-guitar vein, we started to miss the bottom-end her
bass playing provided. Jim—whom we’ve worked with since the
early ’90s—mixed our last album, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, and
also tracked a few bass lines on it. His parts came out so great, we
invited him to go out on tour with us and play them live. When it
came time to do Murray Street, we decided to involve him entirely
as a band member.
Jim, how do you like being in one the most influential and well-respected
rock bands of the last two decades?
O’Rourke: I don’t really think about it. I just keep a respectful
from the other members [laughs]. It’s funny, when I was about 20
years old and was exploring prepared guitar approaches, people
would often tell me, “You’d love Sonic Youth—they use drumsticks
on their guitars!” Truth is, compared to the wild guitar players I was
into—such as Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey—Sonic Youth sounded
fairly normal to me! Keith Rowe, for example, doesn’t even play
notes—he plays sound. He uses the kitchen on his guitar. He’ll have
a hollowbody lying on a table full of brushes, sticks, fans, motors,
and magnets—all of which he’ll apply in various ways.
What was your role on Murray Street?
O’Rourke: I played bass on two-thirds of the songs and guitar on
almost all of them. Actually, Lee was laughing in rehearsal, because
I’m often playing bass live, which means he sometimes has to play
my guitar parts. It was the first time he has ever had to play parts
that weren’t his own. And although I’m credited as the album’s
producer, I actually acted more as an engineer. The album’s
production was a truly democratic effort by the band.
How did the events of September 11 effect the album?
Ranaldo: To tell you the truth, it was mostly logistical. Except
for the vocals, everything was already written, and we were
just about to start seriously tracking the songs. But after
September 11, we couldn’t get into our studio for two and a
half months. When we finally could go back, it was a matter
of getting past National Guardsmen on every corner. We had
to show paperwork and prove we worked in the building.
When we eventually got to the tracking process, however, we
had a bunch of electrical problems with our gear, so we didn’t
start tracking Murray Street until the first week of January 2002.
What is Echo Canyon like?
Moore: It has professional recording equipment, but any professional
engineer would go in there and say, “Forget this!” Echo Canyon is in
a building where other bands are crashing around above and below
you, and soundproofing is minimal. One time, Pavement was in the
building doing sessions with a producer who had worked with
Radiohead, and the guy was like, “Are you kidding me? I can’t work
here.” But it doesn’t bother us. Our last two records were entirely
recorded here, and with all those bands as our soundtrack. You can’t
actually hear them bleeding through our tracks, but that would be
something I’d like to try sometime. I think it could be hip.
How did you track Murray Street?
Ranaldo: We have an old 16-track, 2" Studer machine and a Pro Tools
rig that are pretty much integrated. We recorded about half the stuff
analog and the other half digital, and we mixed down to an old Ampex
half-inch machine. Pro Tools is an amazing editing tool, but we still do
plenty of editing where we’re physically cutting tape, which I love to
do because you arrive at things differently that way. Plus, the analog
domain is where our final masters end up, and if you’re mixing a song
to tape like we do—in sections using a vintage Neve console—it’s
sometimes actually more expedient to use a razor blade than it is to use
Are you guys still playing Fender Jazzmasters?
Moore: Yes, I primarily use a black one from the late ’60s. I bought
on the road somewhere after we had all of our guitars—about 40 of
them—ripped off in Orange County, California. We also lost all of our
amps, drums, rack gear, and personal effects.
Ranaldo: Jazzmasters and Jaguars are still our favorite guitars in terms
of body length, shape, and whammy bar, but we often modify them.
We rip out most of the electronics, because, to our minds, all those
little switches and doodads are overly complicated and prone to breaking
down. We like our guitars to be as rigorous as possible, because we tend
to throw them around and beat them up quite a bit. So we often hardwire
the pickups directly to the output jack. I usually try to replace the pickups
with humbuckers from Telecaster Deluxes. Once I do that, I call the
guitars “Jazzblasters.” I also have a couple of custom-built guitars that
are modeled after Jazzmasters, but have odd little touches. There’s one
I used a lot on the new record that has a pickup installed behind the
bridge to get further amplification of those little short strings on the other side.
O’Rourke: I mostly played a Gibson Firebird. But to get interesting
sounds, you can’t rely on an amp, a guitar, or a pedal—you just gotta
do it. I’m one of those people who seems to be able to get noise out
of anything. Even if I picked up a clarinet, I’d be doing multi-phonics
before I could play a normal note—and multi-phonics are supposedly
much more difficult!
Describe your rigs.
Ranaldo: In the studio, I use a vintage Fender Super Reverb, but live
I run an old blackface Fender Bandmaster head into a Mesa/Boogie
4x12 cabinet. I prefer older Fender amps when I can get them, but I
do like the new blackface reissues. After a period when it seemed like
Fender had forgotten how to make a good amp, they’re finally
making great amps again. My pedals include a Hughes & Kettner
distortion, an old Ibanez analog delay, a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler,
and a Moogerfooger ring modulator.
O’Rourke: I keep things simple and stick to a Fender Twin Reverb .
When it comes to stompboxes, however, one thing I like to do is
rebuild them. For example, I once rewired a phase pedal so it made
unpredictable sounds somewhat like a ring modulator. I don’t always
know what I’m doing or why it works, but I know what it does sonically.
Moore: For me, it’s all about plugging a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave
Fuzz into a Sovtek Big Muff and a vintage Mu-Tron Vol-Wah pedal
while my fist presses the strings against the pickups roughly. That’s
one of my favorite ways to play, and I do it on just about every song.
For amps, I like nothing more than playing a Jazzmaster through a
Peavey Road Master tube head driving a Marshall 4x12. I’ve been
using Road Masters for years, and I like the way they sound when
the tubes are perfectly matched and firing in a nice, juicy way.
Speaking of Road Masters, Thurston, you’re known for killing one
while tracking “Scooter & Jinx” on 1990’s Goo.
Moore: Yeah, those heads are fan-cooled, and the fan is on the top
of the amp’s cabinet, blowing downward. So I covered the fan
with my guitar and the amp started suffocating. I just maxed it out
and then toggled my pickup selector. It’s a great sound, but I try
to let up on it so the amp doesn’t completely blow, like it did on
“Scooter & Jinx.”
O’Rourke: You don’t always need processors or pedals to create
interesting effects in the studio. For example, in the middle section of
“Karen Revisited” from the new album, there were two or three guitar
feedback tracks that were really close in pitch, so I pumped them
loudly through a P.A. system and recorded that with room mics.
The result was natural ring modulation, which occurs whenever you
put frequencies together that are very close in pitch.
That song is over 11 minutes in length. In the vinyl age, it would
almost be an album side.
Moore: Eleven minutes is really not that long—at least not for us.
a sense, it’s like cuts from great albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane,
and the Grateful Dead, because at 11 minutes, the composition is really
just getting started. The head is sort of a structured pop thing, and then
it goes into this long improvisational section. We combined the studio
version with a live version recorded at a benefit for 9/11 victims at the
Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan.
Those long “noise” sections sound utterly chaotic, yet elaborately
composed. How do you orchestrate them?
Ranaldo: We build them like sculptures—from the ground up. Everybody
hacks away at it until it’s something. We’ll often just sit around in a room
with a tape recorder as a sketching tool and start generating sounds.
Ideas gradually expand and develop until we have a structure and a songscape.
Moore: It’s not noise improvisation, though it may have originated
when we first created it. Each of us is playing a distinct musical part that
intertwines with the others.
O’Rourke: The challenge is keeping it all together, and then, when
apart, making sure it’s a good falling apart.
Early reviews of Murray Street have asserted that it features guitars
that are “more focused” than on other Sonic Youth records.
Ranaldo: I wouldn’t say that’s true at all. The guitars are focused
on all of our records. They’re focused on what we’re trying to achieve,
which from day one has been putting together interesting song
structures. Maybe the new album has more song-oriented stuff that
happens to be more palatable and familiar to their ears.
O’Rourke: It’s kind of ironic when a reviewer thinks that one
listens of a record can possibly equal the same amount of thought that
was put into it by the people who spent a year recording it. Some
albums don’t have everything shouting at you on the surface, and
they require several listens to see how the parts work together.
How are Murray Street and 2000’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers
part of a trilogy?
Moore: Like any band that has a decade or more of history, there
are a lot of times when our identity is dictated by the perceptions of
critics, writers, and listeners. It was music writer Byron Coley who
first made the claim that Sonic Youth was doing a trilogy about the
history and culture of lower Manhattan, and that Murray Street was
the second installment. Though we had never thought about it like
that, we realized he was really onto something. I found Coley’s
comment so completely valid I said, “Boy, that’s a great idea—I’m
glad I thought of it.” [Laughs.]
As you might expect, Thurston Moore, singer/guitarist for New York
underground rock legends, Sonic Youth has a formidable record collection.
What you probably didn't know was that there are virtually no vinyl albums
(and certainly no CD's) in the Western Massachusetts home he shares with
his wife, Sonic Youth Bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, and their daughter, Coco.
"They take up too much room and it takes to much time to listen to one" he
says, explaining why he keeps his LPs in storage. The only album Kim let's
me keep in the house are the first Ramones album, Richard Hell's Blank
Generation and Vincent Gallo's When." Except for that Ramones classic,
the records that have most rocked Moore's discordant world are all on 7"
vinyl, or believe it or not, cassette. Here's a sampler.
Ramones-Ramones (Sire LP 1976)
When this came out, I was 17. The perfect age to discover the Ramones. I
was a 6'6 gawk who was looked upon as a freaky dude, so it was great to
discover a band that basically said,' we're geeky, and we're gonna thrash.
Plus, there was an intellectualism to them that didn't seem to exist anywhere
else. Hearing this record was a landmark event for me. I credit it as the biggest
thing that made me want to play music.
Jane Birkin "JE T'AIME MOI NON PLUS"/ Jane B." (Philips 7"
" Jane blew my mind in the (1966) film Blow up which I would spend every
lawn-mowing and paper delivery dime on, just to wittness her flouncing about
in the photographer's studio. This 7" melts the coldest of hearts."
Bikini Kill "New Radio"/ "Rebel Girl"/"Demirep"
(Kill Rock Stars 7", 1993)
"When I first saw Bikini Kill in 1991, I didn't really dig em. But by the time they
pet this out, they were on their way to becoming one of the best bands of the 90's.
This is as crushing and immediate as any punk single to date."
Minor Threat In My Eyes (Dischord 7" EP, 1981)
" For me,' In My Eyes' is the most important song to come out of the original hard-core
movement. Minor Threat took the generic hard-core song-writing formula and infused
it with a more sophisticated approach. They really upped the ante.
Shirley Collins Of Sussex " Heros In Love" (Topic 7" EP 1963)
" Shirley was the queen of majesty of the '60's Brittish folk scene- a voice to sweep
your mind and soul into a summer green field of free love."
AMM At The RoundHouse (Incus 7' EP 1972)
"AMM was (and still is) a a rotating group of free-improvisers from London who
would open shows by people like Pink Floyd in the late 60's. This record had a
toxic effect on my listening habits: It somehow instructed me to firebomb my radio."
LOL Coxhill "IL FROGA SILRNCIO"/ DISCO DEMENTIA" (UMYU 7"
" Best Known as the cat blowing hot sax lines on the damned's second album (Music
for pleasure, 1977), this bald headed genius has been on the London improvising scene
since the goddamn 60's!"
Sun Ra Cosmo Omnibus Imagiable Illusion Arkestra Live at Pit-Inn, Tokyo,
Japan Aug 8th
1988; EP collection Vol. 3 ( Disk Union 7', 1989)
" Leave it to the mysterious cats at Disk Union in Japan to release three seven-inches
comprising the entire LP/CD release of Sun Ra's fantastic night of cosmelodic beauty.( This is
a practice I wish major labels would adopt- we demand that all CD's be released concurrently
on multiple seven-inch editions now!)
Sven-Ake Johansson Mit Dem Nmui Im So 36'79 ( FMP 7" 1987)
" Johansson is a supreme European fluxis piano and percussion improviser. Sonic Youth
played a set with him in 2000 in Ystad, Sweden, and he was as intense and heavy as Iggy
Stooge and Cecil Taylor combined."
The Hanatarashi Worst Selektion (Worst Selektion, cassestte, 1985)
" Hanatarashi supposedly means 'snot nose' in Japanese. It's also a side project from Boredom's
master-mind Yamatsuka Eye, famous for driving a pitchfork truck into a night club and
destroying the stage while screaming into a microphone. This cassette sounds like an amplified
rake scraped across an electric fence. Highly recommended."
STILL SAYING YES TO ADVENTURE AND NO TO COMPROMISE
"What's that sound?" Thurston Moore asks of his band co-founder and co-parent,
Kim Gordon, intrigued by curious, somewhat atonal chimes ringing from the back
bedroom of their cozy downtown New York loft (they also reside in Massachusetts).
Turns our their seven year old daughter, Coco, is watching kids' cartoons on TV;
an alternative sonic youth, you might say, that oddly echoes the clangorous slashes,
grinds and tingles of their compelling new album, Murray Street.
Much is happening now, as ever, for Sonic Youth, whose indie roots mark them
as self starters. Talk of their 20 year history as lords and ladies of the underground
takes a back seat to tomorrow. Kim displays one of her new artworks for an
imminent exhibition, a sinuous flash of pink on fat silver laminate that evokes
1950s hot rods gleaming in the desert sun. In many media, Sonic Youth still rock on.
We're gathered together today because you have a new release, Murray Street.
TM: It's not necessarily to promote the record. I don't want to talk about
the record. But I guess that's why we're doing it. I would like to do this at any time.
That's the spirit.
TM: Do you think Interview magazine would want to talk to us about nothing?
KG: Maybe if we were Jean Paul Sartre.
Murray Street is where you have your studio, right by the World Trade Center
site. Was 9/11 an important factor in the record?
TM: We were working on it beforehand, but it had a lot of resonance for us,
working creatively in an environment that had been [destroyed].
KG: It was strange to go down there to work and be huddled in that studio,
and there was nothing, just these empty buildings all around. But it's
comforting that when something like that happens, you can still feel good
about your work.
TM: Concurrent with us making this record, they would dig up the street,
then they would patch it; then they would dig it up again and they would
patch it. They kept changing and rearranging conduits of water and electricity.
To me, it was like they were working on their own record [laughs].
KG: And we were also recording a soundtrack for a French movie,
Demonlover, by Olivier Assayas. He wanted us to do a lotof sound
and noise to run parallel with his narrative.
TM: So we put the mikes out the window. When you see Demonlover,
you're going to literally hear Murray Street. That's really rock musique concrete!
TM: We do a lot of musical work outside of Sonic Youth, obviously. We had
been living in downtown New York since 1977. Back then bands existed as
an interdisciplinary kind of activity with filmmakers and visual artists, and that
certainly came out of Andy Warhol's world.
What made New York great back then?
TM: I remember living here in the '70s, on 13th Street and Avenue A. There
was a lot of filth and grime then. Homeless people were sleeping in the street.
It was such a zone of literal lawlessness! But you could live on the cheap. It
was a totally great breeding ground for anybody who could survive as a creative
What about now?
KG: I think the music scene is still very uncommercial and vital. But the
world has certainly changed, because it's always been aligned, or evolved
with, real estate in some way. It's very hard to find anyone doing really
interesting experimental stuff in the art world today.
TM: It's not that solid a theory, but in the late '60s and early '70s you
had this divided line in the culture where youth was radical and adults were
square. But now there are radical adults, from Neil Young to Yoko Ono.
That's what the song "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" is about.
Radical youth culture is huge but completely hidden from the mainstream.
There is another demographic that is an alternate to MTV, which is totally
corny and square. And it's really exciting to me, because I love all these
great new bands like Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Erase Errata and Quixotic.
And you still feed off that energy.
After 20 years, what keeps the group fresh?
KG: It's fun to sing when Thurston writes for my point of view.
It really fools people.
TM: I like writing lyrics for Kim. Sometimes I write as I was Bush
Tetras' singer Pat Place in 1978. A lot of their lyrics were "No-no,
no-no-no," this kind of pop nihilism thing. It had a real effect on me
as an 18-year old. There's always this image I have of Pat Place
playing live. All she played was slide, grrwwhii, grwwhiiii, on this
guitar. With this ripped crotch, and she had blue panties on--it
was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
KG: You have a good memory.
TM: It was a striking image. It burned itself into in my brain.
By Richard A Martin (Pulse) 2002
With the addition of a fifth recruit the art punk
god parents keep the focus on the future.
Kim Gordon walks into a, cultured guitar strewn
side room in Sonic Youth's New York City studio
looking fierce, in a low cut white blouse and striped
gray and white skirt. Then she spills a funny little secret:
she and her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore
sometimes review movies on the cable access channel
in their part-time hometown of Northhampton, Mass.
It's a strange sight to imagine, the rangy godfather and
fashionable godmother of art punk chatting away on TV
like a post-modern Siskel and Eibert.
But then, any one familiar with Sonic Youth has come to
expect the unexpected. After all this is the band that turned
on New York City and then the world with it's unself-
conscious merger of electric noise and razor edged rock
melodies. This is the band that tag-teamed with Nirvana
to unintentionally launch the alternative rock-era. This is
the band that breaks into side projects to push the boundaries
of avant-garde music and then comes back together to
craft albums that somehow, some way find fresh new angles
to further Sonic Youth's legacy. And this is the band that is
flexible enough to unceremoniously add it's first new member
Jim O'Rouke- since Steve Shelley joined the original line-up
of Gordon, Moore, and Lee Ranaldo on 1986's Evol.
There have been a dozen album since, and 16 studio albums
overall including the new, Murray Street (DGC). Yet when
Moore joins Gordon in the studio side room, the couple
resolves to talk about the present, rather then the past.
"When we listen to our old records, we think they're all shit",
snarls Gordon, still sounding like a punk, despite her other
career as a mother. Moore joins in, saying cryptically " This
is our first record". Then Gordon again: After 21 years we
finally - figured it out." Moore finishes.
The other three members of Sonic Youth aren't quite so cynical
about the band's storied past. Squeezed together in the same room
that Moore and Gordon later occupy, the three friends are also
adamant that Murray Street is another in a long line of Sonic Youth
albums and there's not much more to it.
"We joked all along that it was our attempt at a classic rock
record." Says Shelley. "We wanted it to be around 45 mins long.
That's about as far as we go in talking about this stuff. It's not as
though we look at the last album and think that that was untraditional
Sonic Youth writing. To us, there all songs, and I understand if
people say it's more like Day Dream Nation or Dirty or pick your
album from the past, but don't say that were going to try and write
like we did ten years ago."
Or two years ago. Murray Street sounds less like the follow up to
2000;s New Youk City Ghosts & Flowers- which was Moore's
Manhattanized take on his remembrances of things past- then it
does a Zen continuation of Sonic Youth oeuvre. It's filled with
balance: old abraisivness and new melodicism; youthful hardcore
freakouts and mature musical explorations; lyrics that seesaw
between depth and whimsy.
Murray Street is also the band's reflection of a process, which
is evident from the lived in environs of it's studio and practice
space on Murray Street, a few blocks away from where the
Twin Towers used to stand. (A photo that Moore took of the
Murray Street sign that sustained damage from the sept. 11th
terrorist attack is on the back cover of the album; he says that
Ranaldo suggested using it on the cover, but the band didn't
want to be exploitative.) The flat is narrow, long and dusty and
instruments and equipment crowd every corner of every room
and closet. Posters occupy walls; some old blues musicians or
avante friends' bands, others from old Sonic Youth shows
(one from 1992 reads " With punk superstars pavement and
The Pain Teens"). A computer
screen flickers with the bands equipment manifest- Gibson
and Fender guitars listed with worths between a few hundred
and $ 1,200- an essential insurance precaution after the well
publicized theft in 1999 of many of the band's customized
instruments. And CDs litter the floor and counters- Pet Sounds,
Love's De Capo, X's Las Angeles, Paul McCartney's Ram,
Miss Kitten, The Messuge Klezmer Band- a testament to the
band member's vast curiosities.
Sonic Youth's latest contribution to the proverbial CD pile
starts out with a trio of expansive, moody songs that are as
comfy and familiar to fans as the studio is to the band.
"The Empty Page" has a warm glow and clarity reminiscent
of 1987's Sister, Moore singing calmly over a slow burning
rhythm that unfolds into an epic jamboree of competing guitar
solos. "Disconnection Notice" flows out of this with an
ambiguous tempo, then settles into an emotional groove,
with Moore playing loose with metaphor as the band tugs at
threads of the simple, likable melody. Next comes "Rain On
Tin" a more dramatic eight- minute excursion that strikes at
the heart of the old VS. New Sonic Youth paradox. It single
handily disproves Gordon's statement about hating the sound
of their previous records and eloquently asserts that Sonic
Youth is every bit as vital as it was when the band's members
were actually youthful.
"I think it's the nicest opening we've had to record in a long time"
Shelley attests. Especially when you get to "Rain On Tin" it's
kind of like every stop in the Sonic Youth song book."
The albums other four songs represent the member's disparate
interests and their ability to rein them in as parts of a whole. They
include vocal contributions from Ranaldo and Gordon, a guest
bout with a bleating from two saxophonist friends (Jim Sauter
and Don Dirtrich) on the propulsive, "Radical Adults Lick God-
Head Style," and a lot oddball and/or soothing electronic noises
created by O'Rourke.
That the musicians are able to harmonize all their interests and
tastes is the beautiful mystery of Sonic Youth, and it's a harmony
they were willing to risk by inviting O'Rourke- the itinerant pro-
ducer, solo artist, former Gastr del Sol member. O'rourke worked
on NYC Ghosts & Flowers and several of the bands self-released
experimental records from the late 1990's, but Murray Street marks
his debut as one of the five song writers and producers in this self-
Moore and Gordon credit O'Rourke with deciding the albums
sequence and twiddling the right knobs during recording. "Jim really
had such a technical wherewithal in the making of the record, to guide
us into a situation that was much more conducive to the way we
work.That really gave the record focus" pledges Moore.
Still, there is the question of how Sonic Youth will function with
yet another member who has an entire separate career away from
the nucleus of the band. Moore has his Estatic Peace label and
frequent duets with sundry horn and guitar experimentalists; Gordon's
side projects include Free Kitten and being an unofficial spokes
woman for an elder states woman of riot grrrl culture; Shelley runs
the ambitious Smells Like Records label and often drums for friends'
bands.; And Ranaldo frequently teams with New York free jazz
players and spoken-word artists.
"All the side stuff we've done, has a definite effect" Ranaldo says.
"Especially when we started going off and playing more freely with
other people. It allowed us to the one hand to take ideas that we
wanted to explore that maybe never got fully explored in the context
of Sonic Youth. And even more so to take things that happened
outside of the band and bring them back. With (1995's) Washing
Machine forward, the music started opening up, and that was
simultaneous with when we started doing more playing with other
Moore points out that five of the songs from Murray Street started
as ideas he'd considered using for a second solo album. He weighed
a follow up to 1995's Psychic Hearts against the idea of shortening
the process of the next Sonic Youth album.(The band also had a
couple of soundtrack commitments to director Allison Anders for
Things Behind The Sun and another to Oliver Assayas for Demon-
Lover, and worked on them simultaneously with Murray Street." I
knew the songs as they were, would become much more interesting
if the band started taking them over", Moore recalls. "I'm so glad we
did because it really gave those songs the potential they had, and lived
up to it."
It also allowed Sonic Youth to open up a new chapter without closing
any of the previous ones. Moore and Gordon may seem jaded, or
perhaps mock-jaded, so it's better to go to the source of the groups
fresh blood. " Anyone who does something creative has a lot of things
there interested in." O'rourke declares." And there are there times when
they bring certain facets of what there interested in out so the public
can see it. It's not like things go away. It's just things go dormant under
the surface. People say somebody's reinventing themselves, or that
they're back , but it's not that they ever really went away."
Especially not Sonic Youth.
No one has come close to even approximating the ecstatic
crush of loud and disparate elements that exist inside of
SY's music. As evidenced once again with their new double
album Dirty (DGC), they blend absolute discord with ideo-
prissy mass-toung formulated pop impulse in a way that
makes all other bands' metaphoric pants fall down as soon
as they stand up. Listen to the catachrestic instrumental
break that happens amidst Kim Gordon's white bread vocal-
turn, "On The Strip" and give me a list of other bands capable
of even conceptualizing such a completely subverted commercial
move. There aren't many. If we amend the criteria to include
only those bands badgered by the A&R twits who infest major
labels, I don't see any one making the cut.
Kim: We may be unique, but everybody on a major label thinks
they're unique. Did you see that Penelope Spheeris documentary
on metal bands (The Decline Of Western Civilization part II:
The Metal Years)? Every one of them said their music was unique.
Of course, at the same time they'd really like to be every one else.
But the major labels are full of people who are unique. Look at Cher-
she's a total freak.
Sonic Youth, after a career that has already lasted longer than the
Beatles did, occupy a crucial and unique place- representing the
juncture between America's usually exclusive avante-garde and pop-
culture traditions. At this point, the fusion of these dogmas has be-
come so complete inside of SY's gestalt that it's bogus to even try
and pry them apart. It's no longer a question of weather they're self-
conscious experiementalists appropriating popular form and iconography
for their own ironic ends, or "mere" pop musicians attempting to market
their low-art product as something all together more hoity-toity. These
apparent contradictions resolve themselves inside the SY universe. By
passing through the bands creative flames, both art and crap are subject
to a process of transubstantiation that renders standard aesthetic cate-
gorization even more dumb-bellious then usual. If you examine the band's
history and roots, however the fact that they've ended up in just this
spot is not really all that unpredictable-and that they exist there by
them selves owes more to their incredible tenacity than anything else.
The only American bands with longer flows of continuous history are the
Beach Boys and The Greatful Dead-none of who's members ever fucked
Thurston: Let's get this straight, it wasn't any of us. A guy who was a
good friend of mine was going out with Madonna right before she really
hit the big time. And as far as I know he was only getting tounge-stick
anyway. I don't know that he ever went beyond that.
The NYC scene was pretty formless right at the dog end of the 70's.
Ignoring the great masses of impotent "new wave" musicians then
strutting their wanna-be-comercial turd choked "talent", there were two
hindsight-approximated, highly nebulous camps into which interesting
Noo Yawk artists can be lumped: post-no-wave-art-noise and pre-hard-
core-punk-shit. The later category, considered singularly declasse at the
time, included the Misfits, Stimulators, Bad Brains, various Heartbreak-
ers devolved combos and whatnot. The former category would include
all band connected with the original no-wave outfits (Contortions, Mars
teenage Jesus, Theoretical Girls, DNA ect.) Plus the weird Lower East
side bands who would become the lost records gang ( Chaingang, Blind-
ing Headache, information, mofungo), the confused (sometimes suberban)
bands who might owe equal debts to the no wave and The Talking Heads/
Television/Modern Lovers/Voidoids/assorted other Velvet-spawn (like
Flux, Coachmen, UT High Sheriffs Of Blue, et al) and a variety of other
losers. ( This is admittedly a bland generalization, but it's detailed as space
allows). SY guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and bassist Kim
Gordon were all associated with the artsy wing in one manner or the other.
Drummer Steve Shelley was still a highschool student in the Midwest some-
where, but he shows up later so sit still.
Lee: All the bands were so self-conscious then. I was listening to some
old tapes of The Flux, and my vocals were so David Byrne-damaged, I
couldn't believe it. We did have one great, long song that had lot's of
extended guitar textures on it. Then Polurock put out that album (Polyrock
RCA '80) produced by Philip Glass, and they ripped us off totally. We were
The actual seeds of Sonic Youth's formation were sown somewhere in the
haze of 79/80. Thurston's band The Coachmen, shared a week night bill
at CB's with The Flux where he met Lee. At the Coachmen's penultimate
show, Thurston was introduced to Kim, who was impressed that The Coach-
men (artist JD King among them) were all 6"6 or better. She and Thurston
hooked up with keyboard player Ann Demartinas for a series of gigs under
a variety of names ( Red Milk, Male Bonding, The Arcadians). Simultan-
eously with this, Flux had ceased to exist and Lee began playing with Glen
Branca, who's chiors of massed/over-amped guitars were then starting to
make jaws drop and ears bleed on the edges of the art music scene. Anne
eventually Bowed out after a gig or two under the Sonic Youth banner, and
Kim and Thurston convinced Lee to join. They also talked Richard Edison,
(then of Konk, later an actor for Jim Jamusch) into serving as semi-permanent
guest drummer. The band began to develop the bulk of their early material
almost immediately, and Thurston started to perform alongside Lee in Branca's
six-guitar band.( Continuing their performing/recording relationship with Branca
through his first two symphonies.) Meanwhile, Sonic Youth- a name Thurston
had been aching to use since his days as a farmboy in the nutmeg state-turned
into a real band.
Thurston: At the time, I was really into Sonic Rendezvous Band's City
Slang single, and also Big Youth's Screaming Target LP. I kept wondering
how I could be true to both these geniuses, and finally arrived at Sonic Youth.
(Laughs) Sounded a lot better then the Arcadians.
Before 81 was out, Branca had started his own label, Neutral Records. He
wanted an SY record to be the labels first, so the band prepared to a 24 track
studio and layed down what they've since claimed were the only five they
knew. Released as Sonic Youth in March '82, it caused little ruckus outside
of the neighborhood- but heard in retrospect, it continues many of the sound
patterns upon which they would continue to ruminate. Lee and Thurston have
always used weird tunings on their guitars, the way Coltrain used weird and
abstract tunings on his saxophones. From the very first, they were getting
these incredible bonging choruses out of their sync-locked downstrokes
that set a rhythmic mood for a song much more clamorously then any kind
of regular-issue drum n bass hunch. The actual rhythm section set a second-
ary pulse beneath the foundation of the guitars pounding, giving the instru-
mental leads two different time signatures to play against. Vocals were
often tossed out with metric coefficients unrelated to the other stuff going on,
and guitar lines were blured in clouds of distortion-so what you ended up with
was a magnificently structure of jumbled rock n roll, that sounded spaced,
foreign, and even non-functional in simple rock-as-rock terms.
The few critics who even bothered to note the band were quick to dismiss
them as technicians applying the lessons of Branca's- and Rhys Cathyms-
messed up guitar harmonics to rock undergroundism. There are elements
of truth to this (which the band have long stubbornly denied), but it stops real
short of the actual situation: SY were beginning to create a totally new, totally
hep art/rock hibrid, infusing sophisticated conceptual and technical precepts
with the power of hard-core punk- a form that was about to hit its styilistic
high watermark with Black Flag's My War, Minor Threats's Out Of Step,
and the eponymous debuts by Die Kruzen and The Meat Puppets.
Thurston: We were caught right behind the so-called art sophisticates and
the hardcore kids. By the first time I saw a kid wearing a leather jacket that
said"Reagan Youth" on it, I thought he was making fun of us. We actually
preceded the NY hard-core thing by about a year. I can remember the first
flyer I saw for a NYC hardcore gig. It had this great line on it: THE SEX
PISTOLS WEREN'T ENOUGH. I told branca about it, and he just said;
"The sex pistols were more than enough". That's when I realized I had to
break away from the old men of the scene. (Laughs)
Almost immediately after Sonic Youth was recorded, Edison left. His re-
placement was the tom-rolling, cymbal pounding terror of Hoboken, Mr.
Bob Bert. Bob's first fiery trials with SY were comprised of brutal southern
and Midwestern tours in a van shared with the Swans. The few who turned
out for these shows assumed that the bands were both "hardcore units from
NYC" (as they were sometimes billed by especially idiotic promoters), and
SY did little to dissuade them. The songs that were floating and zoned on
that first record had coalesced into explosive nuggets of rock-hard shit. Lee
and Thurston had begun beating each other, their guitars, and drumkit into
pulp during some shows-jamming drumsticks and screwdrivers into the
bridges of their guitars, then plowing things into the stage. Negative vibes
hung over the band like a hot red blanket, and not every one was pleased
with the way things were turning out. Bob left soon after, replaced by Jim
"Voon" Scalavunos- as fine a man with a peckor and/or drumstick as you're
likely to meet. And veteran of Teenage Jesus, 8 Eyed Spy, Panther Burns,
and many more exciting situations. "Voon" stayed for part of '82 and '83,
exiting only after working on most of the band's second Neutral release,
Confusion Is Sex.
Kim: Scalavunos was great trashy drummer- but the day after he joined,
he fell in love with this Dutch woman who wanted him for her own band.
We could see from the very beginning that he was on his way out. But we
had started recording confusion, so we were sort of stuck with him.
Released in Feb '83 confusion is much more definably "rock" then
predecessor. Smudgy, crappy, diving- and far less pristine sounding-this
LP showed they were really on to something. Some people thought that
their smash em up cover of I Wanna Be Yr Dog was some sort of ironic
slummery, but people who breathe with all their holes open began to sus-
pect that a noisy parallel universe was being constructed right next door to
the that hardcore had erected earlier. Lyrics to songs like Making The
Nature Scene also seemed to indicate a radically philosophical base-
something borne out time and again since- contrasting with hardcore by
manifesting a kind of existential opacity in place of hardcore's connect-
the-dots moralizing. During a European tour they organized as an adjunct
to a Brancan excursion, SY found their message was being much more
clearly heard in Europe than at home. They also briefly aligned with the
German label Zenzor- netting them little in the way of remuneration, but
resulting in the release of the excellent Kill Yr Idols mini-LP in the fall of
Lee: Kill Yr Idols really was like the end of this backwards technological
progression we'd been making. The first record had been done in a full
twenty four track studio, Confusion had been done on eight tracks under
truly ridiculous conditions, and Kill Yr Idols was direct to two track.
(Laughs) We just felt like we were being unbelievably radical.
Back in NYC after the Euro tour, Thurston and Lee began to lose interest
in playing with Branca, and also became disenchanted with Neutral. Thour-
oughly tired of the whole damn she-bang, they decided to cool it with SY
shows for a while and went about their workaday tasks- painting apartments,
working in copy shops, and so on. At the same time they began to fuck
around with their guitars- physically damaging them, restringing them,
throwing them around a bit- so that they'd have to write new material to
match the tones their "revamped" instruments were spewing. The result
was the bands first "breakthrough" record, Bad Moon Rising.
Thurston: Actually, the first job I had after the tout was selling fruit
street. The bassist for Certain Generals told me I could make tons of money
selling this rotten fruit, I don't think I ever even made more than forty dollars
a day. It was a fucking drag, too, since you had to get up about four in the
morning . I remember one day I was selling the stuff and I saw Lenney Kaye.
We played the night before, and I knew he'd been there so I said "hey Lenney!"
I told him what band I was in and he said "Oh yeah, it's obvious you guys have
been into Radio Etheopia" so I said, "uh yeah... wanna by an apple or something?"
The material on Bad Moon was conceived and recorded as a set, complete with
complex segues designed to bridge the between song gaps that resulted from
Lee and Thurston having to switch guitars. Each tune was built around the sonic
profile of one particular guitar- a guitar that had been through so much trauma
at that point that attempting to recreate it's tormented voice would be all but
impossible. If a guitar broke or was lost, it meant that song died with it; it was
far easier to just write a new one than attempt the old one with the wrong guitar.
Recorded in the fall of '84 with their own funds, Bad Moon is still one of the band's
most beautiful listening experiences. Bert's Backbeat is absolute, Kim's bass
throbs like a Neu drum pattern, and the guitars alternately chug, chime, and squeal
like nitroglycerine charges set off inside a gargantuan metal pig-whistle buried
somewhere in California's deep dessert. Martin Bisi's production allowed the
vocals to have more space and focus then they'd previously had, making it possible
to really hear for the first time how good the band's words could be.
Thurston: By the time we recorded Bad Moon, we'd started to refine some of
our weird tunings. We'd really figured out chords and fingerings for them and stuff.
Kim: Yeah, but it took so long to get the guitars right between some songs
it was completely ridiculous. That's when started playing cassettes through amps
as segues between the songs.
The English Label scheduled to release Bad Moon was Doublespeak- then
home of occasional SY collaborateuse, Lydia Lunch. One of the label's partners
decided that the whole NYC scene (as represented by the swans, Sonic Youth,
Live Skull, Rat R Rat, etc) was too ugly to support. Consequently, another partner
(a guy with exquisitely bad teeth named Paul Smith Bodden) split off to form a new
label specifically to present this ug to the English ear; Blast First ( The name
stems from the debut editorial of Wyndham Lewis's antimodernist, polemical
lit zine, Blast). In the US, the record was released in March '85 by Homestead
(Then the domain of displaced fanzine fatty from Massachusetts named Gerard X).
Just as BMR hit the shelves, Bob Bert was replaced by corn-fed Midwesterner
Steve Shelley. Steve's best known prior work had been with the Crusifucks ( a
photo hardcore joke band) and a weird college-poetry-gauze-psych collective
strange fruit. The lineage made him seem like he'd be a sorta doctrinaire polka-beat
lad, wheras Bert had really been pummeling those things- the spate of shows the
band did in the wake of Bad Moon made it clear that Steve wasn't that square.
Steve: I had been planning to move to San Francisco, but Thurston kept saying,"
The San Francisco scene sucks. New York's is happening, and everybody's
always looking for drummers." So I brought my drums to NY and sublet Kim
and Thurston's apt. while they went out touring. The tour got extended because
they were open- ing a bunch of shows for Nick Cave, and I was just sitting there
drooling. I wanted to play on a bill with Nick Cave so bad. I couldn't believe
they were so lucky.
With gigs subsiding at the end of '85 SY started thinking about a new batch
of songs. The guitars molecules were rearranged once again, and in march
of '86 the album EVOL was committed to tape. Concerned more overtly with
popular culture, EVOL included songs that deconstructed Hitchcock, questioned
the existence of Madonna's hymen, and equated Bridgot Bardot's menstrual
blood with that which poured from the wounds of Christ. But the songs had not
been allowed to expand and contract on stage before they were recorded. Con-
equently, old-time fans who'd hoped for world ending explosion from the band's
first then-hot SST label were surprised by it's relatively sedatedness. The rock-
as-rock and noise-as-husk elements weren't fully integrated. With songs seem-
ing to exist next to the noise-routines- thus relegating the non-linear gushing
to a kind of secondary status. Since it was the first album that critics seemed
to notice, EVOL is often tagged as SY's first classic- but it doesn't quite crunch
the way that Bad Moon did.
Steve: It's funny you don't rate EVOL, cause a lot of people still think
our best album. I know I really like it, since it was the first one I played on,
but I have often wished we'd recorded it later, once the songs had really de-
Lee: Some of those songs got to be so amazing live....it really is unfortunate
that best versions of them aren't the ones most people have heard.
Kim:I just listened to it again for the first time in a long while, and I
think it's our most pop album. Because of the way it's recorded, I think the
songs really stand out.
Immediately after EVOL, came a few side projects: Lee did a solo LP of
feedback loops while Thurston joined Mike Watt (of Minute Men and
Firehose) for a tribute band called Ciccone Youth. The group as a whole
wasted much time on working on music for a Movie called Made In The USA
that got released in Guam (with their sounds mostly on the cutting room floor),
played a host of groovy shows, and eventually started working on a batch of
new tunes. By bashing these around a bit and recording in an ancient NY
studio, they were able to create a monstrous pile of wax, called Sister (SST).
Ranging from a flat out cover called Hotwire My Heart (learned off of a
'76 scum rock single by Frisco's legendary gay art punks, Crime) to the
goergousness of Cotton Crown ( a love song that sounds like it was played
on a detuned carillon by an army of french hunchbacks), it was a brilliant
goddamned record that met with hails of kudos upon it's release in June '87.
Pen Jockeys viciously elbowed each other aside in their attempts to discover
this"hot new band" one former SST flak says that several big-time A&R
assholes requested copies of Sister, then called back, sure they'd been sent
the wrong thing. What a bunch of ponies.
But even deaf ponies have eyes, and Sonic Youth was becoming such a big
shebang in underground terms that major-labol turds that don't have a clue
began waddling around the band in ever tightening circles. But the band
refused to piss in their outstretched cups, even though they'd decided to
Lee: People from major labels kept making noises like they were interested,
but whenever we'd send tapes, they'd balk. No Matter how many times they
heard us, they'd read something somewhere and think that we must have
changed somehow in the meantime. Then they'd hear us again and feel like
they'd been duped.
Recorded in the stinking summer of '88, Daydream Nation (Blast First)
provides almost more great life soundtrackery than a stomach can hold.
Where the beatles capped the 60's with the dulling, fragmentary white album
(which basically shouted hippies suck) and The Clash capped the 70's with
the bloated louse-ridden London Calling ( which made it pretty obvious that
Joe Strummer had played punks for suckers), Sonic Youth capped the 80's a
year early with Day Dream Nation ( which tracked interior visions across the
cluttered post-potpunk landscape, and documented the band's true arrival at
workably syncretic pop/anti-pop form). Each element was now fully integrated
into the whole, and the thrust was so "rock" that the grinding and laceration-
which one seemed so inimical to song-form- had started to exude their own
scrambled pop imitations inside the context of SY's undeniable populism.
Teenage Riot was the record's hit: A perfect distillation of the MC5, jammed
up jelly tight inside a little glass figurine modeled after the videotape of Patty
"tanya" Hearst's world famous bank robbery. The song's hooks were so
big, it's lopped rhythms so addictive, even schmeedles were able to ignore
the unorthodox weevlings the guitars were making. After this, it became clear
that the band was gonna have to make the jump to the major label. The wind
was howling at their backs, and the alternative departments of all the majors
(most now gone the way of edible condoms) were braying at the front door.
Prevailing industry theory seemed to be that anyone who snagged SY would
be getting enough street credibility to float their ass for years to come, and
the bidding got so hot and moist that the band actually had to engage the
services of a manager. Sheesh.
Kim: There was a point wear I was trying to deal with the labels on a day-
today- basis, and it got incredibly frustrating. You end up talking to all
these people who will only have fake conversations with you because you're
an artist, which means that you're supposed to be incredibly fragile. It was
the most extreme because I'm a girl, and dealing with this on a daily basis
was making me hysterical. The song Kool Thing came out of that experience,
but it became obvious that we needed someone who was willing to spend their
time actually dealing with whatever label we signed with.
The battle of label creeps raged into the dawn of the 90's. Eventually some
dust cleared, and it was announced the band had signed to DGC/Geffen.
Whatever the other provisos might have been, the release of Goo made it
apparent that they'd retained control of their material. Not only was it on
vinyl (still the only format that makes since), it was packaged in a black
and white Raymond Pettibon jacket, that apparently gave running sores to
the label's art and promo departments. Ha! and it had none of the crabbed
sterility that makes virtually all major label muzak sound about as peppy as
big-assed lambs wearing satin tour jackets and chugging Geritol. The exsist-
ence of material as left-field as Tunic on a major label release ( about Karen
Carpenters entry into heaven with an instrumental break that represents her
head splitting open to let loose a river of bumblebees) is such a bodacious
contradiction of the presumed intent of the assholes who control the flow
of "mass entertainment," that it sounds like a stake being driven into the
heart of the beast. That Chuck D. did a guest spot on the big push single/video
Kool Thing probably got Goo into a lot of households that would have never
bothered with it otherwise, and I can only imagine that some little brains shorted
right the fuck out attempting to grapple with the adult-strength head-cheese
that packs the thing. Thirty years ago the critics derided Coltrain for producing
music that was "deliberately ugly". Now it seems unlikely that even the stodgy
white pucks who staff rolling stone would dare heap that kind of opprobrium here.
Steve: In a way it seems like we maybe made some concessions to the label,
at least in how we recorded the last two albums. But I think that dirty is easily
the best sounding thing we've done- you can really hear everything that's going
on. It's the first time I really felt like the album's musical base was as deep and
wide as it could be. So I'm Not sure I'd even consider that any kind of concession,
Lee: And some of the songs on Dirty- Mostly ones that Kim ended up singing-
are as abstracted as anything we've done. As far as the difference in major and
indie labels.....it's really more in your head then anywhere else. You do a record
and give it to some people who try to sell it for you. Weather it's a major label
or any independent label doing the selling makes little difference to the way you
live your life. We're fortunate in the fact that we've not allowed anyone to take
much control out of our hands- but that's something we've never done. Maybe
other bands are just to willing to sign that away. I think we've all been pretty
happy with the way things have gone with our label, and I don't think we could've
made a record that's better than Dirty, regardless of wear we were.
Through fortitude, persistence of vision, and an all inclusive digestion
ephemera, SY have succeeded in foisting their own unique view of the world-as-
hole onto the shoulders of the world itself. If they aren't your heroes, you don't
have very much imagination. In order to borrow some of theirs, purchase Dirty
and allow your soft head to sink slowly into the waves of ion-charged detritus
that will waft from your speakers. Maybe Neil Young will even take them on
the road with him again, and you'll be able to see see them at the stadium near-
est you. You Lucky Duck.
There's a scene in 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Sonic Youth's
documentary of fin de siècle, no-more-heroes rock and roll on
tour, where a European reporter sticks a microphone in Thurston
Moore's face and asks him something like "What are you going
to do onstage at the next show?" And Thurston, staring straight
ahead, not deigning to look at the guy, starts walking and spewing
a fantasy story which rapidly decends into non-sequitur: "I'm going
to take a machine gun and blow away...I'm going to defecate and
light my shit on fire and kick it into the audience..." The reporter
keeps up with him, nodding and smiling at every word, as Thurston
improvises lines like "And then the lie/ will get caught in my eye..."
1991 is a disturbing movie, a docu-Antonioni-style story of rock
and roll coming to decadant Europe and withering in tuneless,
meaningless noise and bored, self-consciously clichéd star behavior.
Cobain jumps into the drums and the crowd goes nuts; Dinosaur Jr.
and Babes In Toyland crank up carbon-copy walls of guitar solo
slop and the crowd goes nuts; elder punk icons Iggy and Joey
Ramone are held in neither reverence nor contempt, just kind of
mocked, like everything else. The feeling you're left with at the
end is a faint disgust that these people are your heroes.
The star of the show, the overriding personality behind it all, is
Thurston Moore. In addition to the scene just mentioned, we
see Thurston involved in various banalities: eating catered food,
flushing his shit down the toilet, and mooning the MTV playing
on his hotel television. He calls himself an over-thirty spoiled brat.
Subwaying up to Thurston and Kim Gordon's apartment in Soho,
the movie was haunting me. I knew at some level it was a goof
on rock stardom--that Thurston and Sonic Yuth have in reality
always prided themselves on their levelheadedness and normalcy.
But I was nervous. This was a rare chance to interview a musician
who also possessed a critical/intellectual view of his music--who
had the potential to say more than, "We just do what we do". I
had something like the chance Lester Bangs had with Lou Reed
20 yers ago, to do battle with "the one hero left worth battling",
or some much. There was also the chance I'd end up like the
European journalist in the movie, listening eagerly to how punk
rock as rebellion had become a non-sequitur. In other words,
I might get mooned.
But that didn't happen. The encounter wasn't exactly Lester and
Lou: the 90's version of a battle between star and critic is more
of an earnest discussion over tea than a struggle between a drunk
and a speed freak. My first reaction on meeting Thurston
(and Kim, briefly) was amazemznt that this was the same guy
I'd seen rolling around onstage shrieking and bludgeoning his
guitars all these years. I couldn't beleive this person could put on
a rock-and-roll pose at all.
He was very nice-- no attitude, totally cool, the whole nine. He
was so lacking in edge, in fact, that I began to see 1991 and Sonic
Youth's recent career in a new light: the bored-star trip hadn't been
just mockery or demythologizing, but an attempt to kill off for good
the already dying concept of rock and roll as fantasy-- putting the
music in its place within '90s corporate pop culture, changing the
standards of success for rock musicians. But I'll get to that later.
I misremembered the address and walked first into a building with
an auto-parts store on its first floor. No "T. Moore/K. Gordon"
on the apartment list. Next door, a hip/kitsch accessory shop
flashed neon at me. That was the place. Had I imagined Sonic
Youth would live above anyhing but a hip/kitsch accessory shop?
Thurston was in domestic mode when I walked in: coffee, wet hair,
shoes off, year-old baby Coco playing on the floor. I felt stupid
remembering my friends and me listening to EVOL and Sister in
high school. On a tree-lined smalltown street, that music frightened
us to death. More than just a horror-movie soundtrack, it was
American gothic come to life, music to be murdered by. Checking
out he Sonic digs, a decent-sized loft with two booklined studies
framing a living room cluttered with baby toys and a big pink doll,
I decided the whole Sonic Youth thing wasn't made for 11 a.m.
Tuesday. I was disappointed that I wouldn't get to use the description
I always thought suited Thurston onstage: John Cage meets Dennis
the Menace. He wasn't either of those; more a gawky big brother
with mop top, baritone surfer drawl, a bit of an absent mind, and
a willingness to spiel.
We fell into conversation about his recent solo record, Psychic
Hearts (Geffen). If early Sonic Youth deconstructed punk by
spraying it into chaos, this does the opposite, reducing it to riffs
without momentum. Thurston didn't seem particulary interested
in it. "I don't really care" was his definitive comment.
"I wanted to do something where I called the shots. Sonic Youth
is such a democratic process, which is good and bad. I originally
thought I would just do these basic tracks on our basement and
put it out myself. It wasn't suonding too good down there, just
these repetitive riffs. We got some good feedback on a tour of
the South, and then Lee [Ranaldo] said I should take the songs
to Sear Sound and do them on a 16-track. I talked to the guy at
Geffen and said I had some damaged pop tunes I want to put out.
He'd seen us do them live and was like 'Yeah, we'll do it'. It costs
them nothing. I mean, they're used to blowing out huge production
budgets for White Zombie or whatever."
"I didn't finesse it too much. I don't like being locked in a studio,
I go stir-crazy with the anxiety of having to capture a sound. All
the records I've done, half the quality is lost in the studio. During
the period we were on SST, when we toured, our songs would
be amazing... We'd be so focussed every night; then we'd go back
and listen to the studio recording and it would be kind of plodding."
"I'm pretty sick of these song already. Geffen wants me to tour and
suport it, but I think I'll just play totally different stuff. It's not a career
move, anyway. It's not as interesting to me as Sonic Youth -- that's
mysterious because it can go different ways. This stuff is pretty etched.
The best reason for doing the record was probably to get Rita
Ackerman's art on the cover."
At this point Kim walks out of a back room and says hello. There's
some talk about the baby, who's ready for a nap, then Kim starts
making phone calls. While I'm talking to Thurston I hear her involved
in some gossip -- "So what happened last night?" etc. I must've
expected a Satanic ritual or something scary, but she too was normal,
stopping us to ask Thurston how to spell "savor". They agreed on the
Brit "ou" style. Not jet-set axactly, but worldly enough.
Sonic Youth had just finished laying down basic tracks for a new
record in Memphis. Thay stayed an extra day to see Al Green preach
on Easter Sunday. "Al was amazing. He ran up to us and asked us
where we were from. I said New York City, and he yelled 'Praise
Jesus, New York City is here!' Then he asked my friend who was
like 'Uh, New Jersey' , and he yelled 'Praise Jesus, New Jersey's here!'.
He did spirituals and pop tunes, Burt Bacharach, all that. At the end he
collapsed and his deacons had to carry him off -- like James Brown.
I had some shit to say to him, because I saw him on that show Night
Music once, and he was making fun of Sun Ra. I remember saying,
'Fuck that guy!'. So I wanted to walk into the church and say,
'You dissed Sun Ra!' But it didn't happen."
"We went to Memphis so we could make a record outside New
York, to try something different. We had never recorded a full
album away from here. The studio was a relaxed, homey place
where Pavement had recorded, and we just went down for two
weeks. I think we're going to call it Washing Machine. For a
while we were thinking of changing the band's name to Washing
Machine. Because Sonic Youth has become a brand name."
"I mean, I like the fact that we're nearing 40 and we're called Sonic
Youth. It's the best thing about our name. But it's gotten so it
carries so much baggage. In the end we thought our management
wouldn't be too happy with the change [laughs]."
"The last record we did [Experimental...] was pretty conceptual:
each of us brought in an idea and we would elaborate on it, put
tracks over it. That can be rewarding musically. This time, we
sat down together and improvised organically. We taped these
long-ass instrumentals, then went back and rifled through the tapes.
Experimental had truncated song structures, which was inspired by
bands like Guided By Voices, where it's just a great fucking chorus
and a great fucking verse and that's it, what else do you want?"
"The new Sonic Youth record will be a product -- I guess for the
first time -- not so much of our influences, but of what each of us
had been doing outside the group. We had been on our own for so
long last year that it made this recording friendlier, less tense, as
we came together from our other projects."
"For me it was playing with Japanese noise guitarists and listening
to avant-garde stuff on underground cassette labels like Apraxia
[in Seattle] and Chocolate Monk [in Scotland]. They're fascinating --
kids throwing away their Pavement records and listening to Blowhole.
Punk is like disco to them, like bubblegum. They're into free-form jazz
and German avant-garde composers, the whole FMP catalog. I went
through a heavy period with that stuff, but there wasn't a big scene then,
just No Wave really, and now John Zorn. Now it's coming full force,
and I'm sitting back wondering what's going to happen with it. Is it going
to get big? I saw the Clash sell out the Palladium and I thought that was
as big as punk would ever get. I thought that was totally nuts, and now
Green Day are selling millions of records. It's amusing to see this whole
avant-garde underground growing up in reaction against punk."
"The new Sonic Youth record takes in some of that stuff, but it'll be
weird because most people are unfamiliar with these cassette labels.
They'll hear us and say 'What the fuck is this?' The people who are
familiar with it will think we're obnoxious, like we're ripping it off,
making it mainstream. They'll say 'How much did it cost to put that
hiss on there?' " "I guess they have a point, but we're not trying to
steal their underground." I confess I've only heard about this cassette
underground by word of mouth. Thurston shows me a copy of Woolly
Bugger, a paper which documents a scene he has moved to assimlilate
before it even becomes the new thing.
It makes sense, though, that Sonic Youth would need to leave straight
punk behind. The current alternative-rock world, from Nirvana to
Pavement, is something SY essentially created. Keeping on with it
would be merely devising new tricks on old themes. It would mean
becoming mannered or miniature versions of themselves -- something
that often happens to artists as they age, and the expansive possibilities
of their life and art begin to shrink.
At the risk of coming off trendy, the band have got to keep their ears
open, and to incorporate new sounds. Up to this point, Sonic Youth
have been successful at transforming themselves without sacrificing
the gestalt that runs through their work. Their devotion to the new,
and their musical egalitarianism, have kept the work consistently
opened, allowing it to form a question about the nature of art vs.
rock, noise vs. tune, artist vs. star, etc., rather than forcing it to
make a definitive, and limiting, statement about any of those paradoxes.
Thurston puts baby Coco to bed, with blues guitarist Tommy Johnson
on the stereo singing her to sleep. Politics comes up in our conversation,
and I ask him why the band have retreated somewhat from Dirty's
explicitly activist lyrics -- and what he thinks of the Gingrich regime
and the way it could affect rock music.
"Getting more political wasn't really a call to activism as much as
was an artsy thing. I thought using those words could be interesting
poetically. I'm intrigued by politics because it's so absurd, but I learn
more towards spiritual or social matters. With Gingrich in power it's
like Reagan again, which is a nightmare. On the other hand, fascist
politics can make for excited liberal art... With Reagan you got the
hardcore movement. It's hard to figure the '80s musically, because
so many great bands never got documented. Now people make
cassettes before they even have a band together."
"I don't think the new politics will affect alternative rock's popularity.
The stuff that's big now, after Nirvana, is just a more alienated
generation coming in. The only thing corporate record companies
have done to rock is change perceptions of the creative scene .
It hasn't much changed the actual musical product. Yeah, Nirvana
were important, because there was this forceful message, and it was
sexual. But Green Day aren't like that. They're pretty blank. Billie
Joe seems like a nice guy, but..."
"I guess playing for a major is good and bad. We've always wanted
to make money, if only so we can financeother projects. Look at
Eddie Vedder. He has millions, but he uses it in a way that's cool.
He finances projects without making a big deal out of it. The bad
side of a major is obviously that it isn't DIY. There's no shared
sensibility. Unless you keep tight control over what's going on,
they'll promote your product in a corny way. Geffen's offices
have Cher posters up, it's silly. But we have people we trust
there-- Mark Kates, the alternative A&R guy, and Ray Farrell,
who was at SST. For us, when we broke with SST, there was
nowhere to go unless we did it ourselves. I think we've carved
out a place at Geffen. At this point, I'm older than most of the
workers there anyhow, so I can get my ways [laughs]."
The niche Sonic Youth have carved at Geffen is an important
one, I think. 1991 was not only about how punk's meaning as
rebellion had been broken, but also about how punk's insular
scene had inherited a rock-star tradition it wanted nothing to
do with. Musicians acted bored because the roles they were
supposed to be playing were boring. If rock were to keep up
its pretentions to personal, honest expression (which is what
sets it apart from other forms of pop music to start with), yet
extend its reach beyond the indie cul-de-sac, it had to forge
a middle ground.
Pop culture in the '80s had outgrown rock, overwhelmed it.
Michael Jackson's fame made Elvis's seem quaint, almost human
by comparison. Madonna's Warholian sense of commerce as
art, and the endless ironies that idea produced, made rock's
claims to authenticity seem old-fashioned. Sonic Youth were
the first to realize this, in their mid-'80s "Madonna, Sean, and
Me"/ Ciccone Youth phase. I asked Thurston about that time.
"I guess celebrities then had gotten so huge they became like
part of your family. We saw Madonna as a big sister, almost;
we kind of embraced the human side of celebrity idea."
That human side is what they've brought to corporate popular
music. It's where Matador an Sub Pop, with commitments to
marketing quality music with major-label dollars, have followed;
it has allowed eccentric artists like Pavement, Beck, Hole, and
Liz Phair to have mass impact without necessarily aiming for
mass sales; ant it led the most popular rockers, Cobain and
Vedder, to call into question the concept of celebrity. That's
Sonic Youth's legacy-- the stubborn endurance of personal
expression despite the efforts of popular music to silence it.
Sitting in the domestic calm of Thurston and Kim's apartment,
I turn over an idea of them as people who make rock safe for
adults. They've scrapped celebrity, taken the music seriously,
and turned it once and for all into an art form.
The way they measure success is new for rock and roll:
where the classic rock star measured his success by the level
of fantasy he could indulge, by the level of privilege he reached
or the ease with which he could flaunt middle-class values, Sonic
Youth (and Cobain and Vedder) measured it by their work
(middle-class value), by the dialogue they hold with other people,
by their inclusion. To keep creating, an artist has to live in the world.
As Thurston said about Beck, "He's not into making hits so much.
He's a middle-class kid who doesn't need to be a millionaire, and
he knows it." It's hard to imagine a star ten years ago knowing he
didn't need to ba a millionaire to be successful. But the adult artists,
it turns out, are also going to be headlining Lollapalooza this year.
"It's funny to me that we're headlining. At first we said no, because
music [we're doing now] is so freaky. We were going to do a tour
with Pavement and Beck on our own, have fun, lose money. But this
was an easy chance; everything is set up for us. I don't really want to
be associated with Perry Farrell's company, but basically we just
come and play. So what the fuck? I expect when we pull this free
-form shit at the end of the day, people will be heading for the gates."
Two final questions: What does he think of the recent Sonic Youth
biography [written by Alec Foege]? And what does he think these
days of Robert Christgau, the canonical critic who once inspired
their song "I killed Christgau with my Big Fucking Dick"?
"I hate panning [Foege's] book, because he was so well-meaning--
but the whole thing was pretty empty. We wanted Byron Coley to
do a book, but this guy was contracted by someone first, so we
agreed to do the interviews with him. The book is like bad cocaine
to me. I read it and I wondered if there was any soul to our story at all."
"Having Christgau defend our last album when no one else would give
us the time of day was great. It made the whole thing worthwhile. I don't
know what to think of him, really. I've never met the guy. I do think he
started a bad trend by grading records, which is basically what all
reviewers are about today."
"He's a better writer than most of what I read, though. A lot of younger
writers call Sonic Youth cynical , which is too bad. On the song "Screaming
Skull", they thought I was making fun of Superchunk and SST, which
I wasn't. I had been to the SST store in LA, and these ads for Superchunk
flashed out at me. It was weird: here was a label and a band I'd always
connected with something real, something industrious, and now they
were just signs, just products in downtown LA. I think younger writers
mistake our detached, sort of oblique writing for cynicism."
Kim leaves to buy socks at Bloomingdale's (the banality of evol?),
and my tape has run out. Thurston seems willing to talk longer, but
I've covered everything I wanted to cover.
So I'm out, down into the Village, where I walk into a record shop
on First Avenue with a copy of EVOL on the wall for $25.
After the easy atmosphere of Thurston and Kim's apartment,
the record doesn't hold the old myths for me. I think of it as
simply music made by a couple of people who live in Soho,
and listened to by a person in Brooklyn or wherever who
relates to it. Underneath the markets, dollars, hype, history,
etc., that's what it is. And if Sonic Youth had their way,
maybe that's all it would ever be.
(from sleazenation )
Whilst the UK press has gone mad for pretty progenitors of
New York's current rock n roll renaissance, Sonic Youth re-
main largely unimpressed. Rather than delighting in stylised
retrospection, the key for the youth is- and always has been-
moving forward musically. Sleaze caught up with Thurston
Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, William
Winant and new member Jim O'Rourke over dinner, to discuss
their forays into avante garde, experimental music and to
contemplate the changing face of New York.
Young people: Sonic Youth- sacred cows who havn't made a decent
record since daydream nation? Or the only living rock band who got
out of grunge alive and went deeper underground, where no other rock
band has gone before, to make noise and fuck royally with the program.?
The answer is: which ever you want it. Kim Gordon: " When I meet
people who ask me what I do, I say play in a band, they're like the beatles
but more fucked up."
The trouble, or supreme joy, of Sonic Youth is, that any one of them,
including Chicago genius, Jim O'Rourke and former John Cage percussionist
(And Kim Gordon high school pal) William Winnant who join us for dinner
the night after their performance at SONAR (a festival of electronic music
held annually in Barcelona,) are so individually prolific and active across
the entire spectrum of the arts, that to whack a tape recorder on the table
and attempt to encompass all their activities with equal respect, and crack
the enigmatic nut that Sonic Youth has become, is, ultimately, to invite noble
For the record: At 43, Thurston Moore looks like, and occasionally acts like
an 18 year old skate punk brat. It's freaky. Lee Ranaldo's partner, photo-
grapher/artist Leah Singer, is imminently due to give birth to the couples first
child. He seems vaguely distracted. Jim O'rourke is dressed for a Chicago
winter and often breaks into high pitched hysterical giggling. He eats nothing
but desert, surviving on three espressos and cigarettes. Steve Shelley says
little. "I mean we talk about experimental music for an hour," he finally offers
during his chocolate mousse, "and each one of us has interests that go way
beyond that. Lee loves Dylan as much as I do, Jim has a Paul McCartney
fetish, and VanDyke Parks. Experimental music isn't the only thing that
influence us. "We're a rock band". Kim Gordon holds grace and quiet
presence throughout. "When they start talking about records and computers
she confides, femme-to-femme, "I just switch off. I like to daydream."
Sleaznation: Is there anything left for Sonic Youth to do?
Thurston: Make money?
Sleaze: With regards to SY's rare position of being able to experiment
in any way you want.
Thurston: "That's available to any band. It's how you conduct yourself. I
think most bands burn out because they're young and they're relationships
are immature. It's hard to stay together. We broke through to the other side."
Indeed, the other side is why we're here."
Sonic Youth's well-documented history spans Lee Ranaldo and Thurston
Moore's late &)'s apprenticeship with NYC guitar improv king Glenn Branca
and Kim Gordon's art school background before the trio, solidified with
Steve Shelley on Drums in 1985, kicked off on a voyage of avant-guitar
punkcore attack, where alternate tunings are the norm, mangled distortion
is equal to lead guitar breaks and melodies, with lyrics as urgent, impressionistic
street poetry on the run. With Daydream Nation, their undisputed meisterwork,
they capped a decade of flirting with the US circuit of hardcore, via releases
on the UK indie Blastfirst, with towering epics of sprawling beautiful noise.
And then they signed to DGC for Goo and catapulted punk-rock into the
US mainstream. Essential document? 1991:The Year Punk Broke tour video
documentary. Lingering image? Gordon's pop-art Marilyn Monroe printed
stockings in the Kool Thing video. The follow up, Dirty, utilised Grunge-gold
engineers Andy Wallace (who infamously mixed Nirvana's Nevermind into
the stratosphere) and Butch Vig.
For Sonic Youth, the mainstream was an experiment. When it was over,
they found they had better things to do.
Thurston: "The more mainstreamized the underground got through the success
of punk-rock, the more tacky and corny it became. I think that's why a lot
of people gravitated towards more radical and fringe music that existed
even underground to that, and realized how strong it was."
Sonic Youth's SONAR performance was a three song historical snapshot,
beginning with She is Not Alone, a track from their first EP, a John Cage
piece, four6, recorded on Goodbye 20th century double set of modern
classical interpretations, and side2side from their last 'rock' album, NYC
Ghost & Flowers. Gordon hits her guitar with a drum stick to sheet music
notation, Ranaldo plays with a violin bow and Moore plucks a lap-guitar,
while Jim O'rourke is busy chopping on a lap-top computer. It's static
white noise, staccato feedback interference and brief floating moments of
restraint, suggesting a potential foray into something like a heady rush of rock
power, only to swerve back into the abstract. Meanwhile, Darren Emerson,
in the aircraft hanger adjacent, has the crowd partying hard. Fuck dance.
Let's art. Event: All Tomorrow's Parties 2000. Sonic Youth headline the
schmindie fest inaugurated by Belle & Sebastian the year before. Quelle
horror! They play a set in the vain of their Goodbye 20th century mode.
Quelle surprise! The Sonic Youth backlash kicks in.
Thurston: "We were so hated. We thought All Tomorrow's Parties was a
festival to present bands playing experimental music. We thought that's why
we were asked to play. To present something other than a typical rock show.
So we wrote an extrapolated piece." (J'accuse Ted Hughs)
Kim: "And we played a few new songs with out lyrics."
Thurston:(protesting) "But we've done this before in New York at certain
smaller venues, we'll play music that were working on and it's sort of skeletal,
the structure, it's really rewarding, and people like it because they don't want to
hear Kool Thing. It's really good. We did it at the Lincoln Centre (NYC) once
where we presented music we had just written and it was primarily instrumental.
So we decided maybe that would be appropriate for ATP, an appreciative
audience. And we were very mistaken. I couldn't understand it. We played this
very weird, weird set and as soon as we got off and we're hanging out with a
beer, the vibe I got from certain people was that something terribly wrong just
happened. The music press just said, this is bullshit. They said this is a band that's
completely lost their mooring. Like, how dare they get on stage and waste our time,
doing a 20 minute improvised piece. Kim was playing the trumpet."
Jim O'rourke :"That was gonna be the first show I played. But when we
in London a year later it was all, (adopts a voice of doom) ' just when you thought
it was all over.
Thurston: (accusing London) "Just when you thought it was all over.
Shepards Bush for two nights and did a set of all our back catalouge. And they|
Jim: " It doesn't make sense to me. I dont know what it is about London.
Sleaze: The English are eternally paranoid that somebody is taking the piss.
Thurston: (Jumping on this idea) "That's what the audience thought,
that we were
taking the piss. But why would they think that? It wasn't a joke. And it's only
happened there to this day and I don't know why." Beaten, but not broken by their
UK ATP experience, Sonic Youth are presenting the first US ATP in October,
featuring Stereolab, The Boredoms, and SY themselves.
Thurston: I just want to see Merzbow."
Lee Ranaldo: "New York City/ Breath it out / let it in." (Skip
Tracer from Washing
Machine, 1995) New York City is the place to be. Again.
But Sonic Youth have been in the NYC cultural miasma for over 20 years, steadily
infiltrating the beat poetry scene, the art world, the improv set and endless per-
mutations therof. Ranaldo in particular has a close affinity with the poets. He was
project co-ordinator of the Jack Kerouac CD of un-released material, Joy, Kicks,
Darkness, has published volumes of poetry, and indie albums of his guitar and
word experiments, as well as pilgrimmaging to Morroco to hookah up with the
Pan Pipe Players of Jojouka, made famous by the Stones' Brian Jones in the 60's
and referenced by William Burroghs and a swathe of beat-gen types. Both Moore
and Ranaldo were invited to read at a benefit for recently passed poet Gregory
Corso, whose final-now archived- wish was to be buried along side his idol Percy
Shelly in a cemetery in Rome. NYC Ghosts & Flowers was a mark of respect to
a slowly passing era.
Thurston: "Corso was this beast of a person, a beautiful poet. He was
a local guy,
but we weren't friends with him. He was a difficult person to be friends with. You
were either very friendly with him and lived his world of insanity, or you just knew
Lee: " I met him a couple of times. He was around New York, you'd see
around. I heard this great thing the other day, it was John Giorno doing something
at William Burrough's funeral, and he was talking about how Grant Hart (Husker-Du)
slipped a glass phial of heroin in the coffin and they put joints in his pockets, how
they chose his suit and all this stuff. It was really good."
Thurston: "NYC Ghosts...was definitely wanting to reference that culture
way that was serious. As far as wanting to accept being part of that lineage, it is
somewhat of a very fringe culture. It's recognized in rock'n'roll quite a bit, you
have people like Patti Smith or Lou Reed. There's no depiction of that lineage
in our generation. Patti's generation is sort of the last of them. Moving there in
the 70's, it has since become really familial. However, although it's always in a
flux, New York has become such a different thing to what it was. It might be the
end of whatever Bohemian world existed there; it's being shut down. It's really
scattered and the idea of the city being in the flashpoint of cultural information
has really changed with communications etc. It's less necessary. We felt like,
existing in that time, it was interesting to reflect on that."
Kim:"The other thing that is interesting is, what came after the beats
in the 60's-
the whole youth culture-in the 70's that became co-opted, but the whole literary
thinking worlds and art-works, that stayed as a sub-culture and that's interesting."
Needless to say the hottest band outta NYC right now, The strokes, mean
approximately nothing to Sonic Youth.
Thurston:"Nobody knows who they are in New York. The Strokes are part
a very traditional rock'n'roll scene. To us, being in New York, it's always been
about very ultra experimentation. And we've always been a part of that. They're
not an experimental band, they're a rock'n'roll band. The New York Dolls were
an avante-garde band, in a way. You could say they were basic rock'n'roll and
The Strokes are referencing them, but at the time the New York Dolls were very
fringe and experimental even though they were playing gutter trash rock. But at
that time that was very radical. At the time it was James Taylor! You can't repeat
something like that. The dynamic is completely different. It becomes nostalgia."
Kim: " The people in New York that are most interesting there are the
who are in the improv set, like Loren Mazzicane."
Last year, to the bafflement of the Scandinavian press, Sonic Youth performed
a week long workshop in a contemporary art museum in a small town in Sweden,
playing in different improv-based configurations every night. Even little Coco
Thurston: "We're geared for that sort of thing. That's what we want
to do,I can't
think of too many bands who would want to, let alone get invited to do it because
the museum director realizes that we have affinities with contemporary art. We work
a lot with this whole improvised scene and there's a whole new generation of young
people who are interested in being improvisers and that's where they work as musicians.
They know about pop music, they can come out of pop music and know everything there
is to know about pop music, but they don't play pop music. They play improvised music.
And it's a really radical thing to do cause it's not popular.
Kim: "Even the fact there are really young people who are interested
that's a phenomena within the last 5 years that's really evolved. We come at it ass
When Thurston Moore and Jim O'rourke met in the early 90's in Reckless Records,
Soho, sonic tetonic plates shifted into alignment. O'Rourke studied composition, and
practiced the art of electro-acoustic music ( recording disengage in 1992 with Warren
Fischer, now of Fischerspooner) musique concrete, electronics and free improv guitar.
In Chicago he moved into production, playing and remixing, working with every indie
type from Autequre to Smog, via the minimalism of Gastr Del Sal with David Grubs,
as well as releasing contrary records of his own, notably the strange folk-pop album,
Eureka. Sonic Youth, coming from punk rock, were now looking at new ways to
experiment. The SY/O'Rourke hook-up came when Jim was invited by Merce
Cunningham's dance troupe in NYC (Cunningham was John Cage's lover and choreo-
graphic foil ) to perform Cage's music. He invited Thurston to join in. Then came SYR
EPs and Goodbye 20th Century and by the time NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Jim was in
the band and has seemingly exerted considerable influence on their direction.
Thurston: "We're non musicians. He's a musician."
Jim: "Oh come on! Don't say that. You know how I feel about the word.
I don't like
musicians. That word gets me edgy. Being a musician is like being a boomerang.
You're either interested in a boomerang you throw that never comes back or you're
interested in one that comes back. If you're a musician you're interested in the ones
that come back. It's a mirror that reflects on you."
Kim: (droll) "I thought that was a rockstar."
Thurston:" Since Jim started playing with us, I don't know if it's influencial,
inspirational. We were always looking for someone else to play with, in a way, we
entertained that idea, but I think were so fucked up that, we didn't really want
another fuck up! Anybody that could really play wouldn't want to play with us
anyway, because we don't know how to play really very well. He's written symphonies
on the computer. I've heard em they're amazing, symphonies of repetitive beauty and
transcendence, Symphonies of repetitive figures that sort of slowly alter their signatures
and create these magical sounds and vibrations. He's a genius, a computer music genius."
Jim: "oooh hooooo hiih heeeee heeeee heee hee hee hee!"
For O'rourke, joining Sonic Youth fulfilled his teenage dreams of loft heaven.
finally moving there this year.
Jim: "New York is minimalism central. When I was growing up, I lived
in my room, just
buying records and reading books and New York was fascinating to me, because when I
was a teenager I was a minimalism freak and all the heavyweights were from New York.
Glen Branca and Rhys Catham and Steve Reich, early Phillip Glass until like '75 was
totally mind blowing, Tony Conrad and Phil Niblock, Arther Russel and to this day there's
still a really strong community for it there. For the fact alone that New York rocks. Even
though I grew up in Chicago, that's where I lived in my head. I remember always dreaming
in my head of these lofts, reading about these all night concerts, that this amazing stuff
was happening, it blew my mind, it continues to blow my mind."
Thurston: (dissmissivly) "They were just pick up joints".
Jim:(excited) "But that's amazing. That's what's amazing about it."
Thurston: "That's where I met Kim."
Jim:(deeply impressed) "Oh that's heavy! The first show we did in Chicago,
I wore this
T-shirt that said I love NY- oooh my god, I still get shit for it."
Steve: (knowingly) "People in Chicago have no sense of humour."
Jim:" No, they don't, I know 3 people in Chicago that are funny."
Sonic Youth voyage onwards. Their next project is scoring the soundtrack
director Oliver Assayas' new film, then recording their next rock album in the autumn.
Sacred cows? No, they're just dancing to the beat of a different drum.
05/05/98 (from MTV News)
In a creative meeting destined to blow at least
a few minds,Sonic Youth tapped 23-year old
Harmony Korine, the young man behind "kids"
and "Gummo" to direct the bands next video
which will also feature Macauly Culkin.
The pioneering New York outfit teamed with
Korine, last weekend to shoot the clip for "Sunday"
the first single from the bands up-coming album
"A Thousand Leaves."
"Harmony is somebody that we've known through the years,"
Sonic Youth guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore told MTV
News on Tuesday. Moore said that he first met Korine as
well as Chloe Sevigny and a number of young actors featured
in "Kids" when the group was on the hunt for kids to appear in it's
video for "SugarKane"He then watched the kids grow up as they
hung out at a skate shop down the street from the apartment that he
shares with his wife, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, and the couple
even turned to Chloe when looking for the first baby sitter for their
4-year old daughter Coco.
"It was funny watching them grow up and sort of become stars in this
film," Moore said. "Then Harmony himself became really active as a
creative person in a way, and then he did this film, Gummo which
was just completely a tripped out, psychedelic, sick, sick film last
year that actually was pretty interesting." Despite being more than
familiar with Korine, Moore said the decision to let the young
director take the reigns on the groups new video was not an
"We never really thought about asking Harmony to do a video
. We were actually talking to a lot more established video
directors," Moore said.
"We were overseas doing some press,and somebody
asked us," 'Are you going to do a video for your
album?' And we said ' Yeah, we suppose we will.'And
the guy says, Who?' and we didn't have any answer, and
I saw an ad for 'Gummo' in the paper,and I said,
"Harmony Korine's going to do it.'And Kim looked
at me and said, You know that's just so screwed up
that it might work," Moore explained.
"We came home and called him, and he was just like
'yeah, I'll do it. In fact, I was just on Letterman and I
met Macaulay Culkin there, and he's just the perfect
person for me.I always wanted to videotape somebody
like him just 100 times over so it just becomes this big
blob of blurry, slo-mo color like a painting dripping,' He
was just going off on this tangent about Macauly being
this perfect visual image."
But despite Korine's artistic vision, the director didn't
think he could actually get the former child actor to
show up for the shoot.
"I said, Why don't you see if he wants to do a video?'
and he said, 'Nah, Macauly doesn't really work
anymore, and he said no to every film director in the
last 10 years," Moore said. But he called him up, and
I think Macaulay was intrigued by the fact that
somebody like Harmony Korine called him up and said
'I'd like to do something with you and Sonic Youth.' It's
not the kind of calls that he's been getting for the last 10
years, I think he sort of gravitated towards that because
it was something that was interesting to him, and he was
there. He was right there, and he did it within our budget,
which was somewhat no-fi. It was really nice. Harmony
totally had it together. It's basically all Macaulay. We're
in it for like maybe milliseconds. It's more of a study of a
boy and himself... and there's a lot of ballerinas involved
The fruits of a creative union should turn up in the coming
weeks, while the new Sonic Youth album,
" A thousand Leaves," arrives next week. The band will
be taking that new material on the road on a tour that
kicks off on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
The Preeminent '80's Guitar Band Discovers Songs
Call it growing pains. In the seven years since they've converged
in the bowels of Manhattan's downtown scene, Sonic Youth has
been through it all -four drummers, half a dozen independent labels,
guitars stolen right off the stage, gigs in the Mojave dessert, you
name it. But they've never experienced this. As a result of record
company machinations, the master's of uncompromising guitar rock
n roll find themselves linked, however precariously with Durran
It's like this: Enigma records, which recently hooked up with the bands
British label Blast First, is in turn distributed to Capitol. The upshot is
that, through absolutely no effort or inclination of their own, Sonic
Youth is suddenly part of a conglomerate, and the affiliation leaves
them uneasy. As the band sprawls around the one room Lower East Side
offices of Blast First, a simple reference to their capitalization brings a
curt denial from normally pun-filled guitarist Thurston Moore, he of the
tumbling blond hair and basket ball player height. After finally admitting
to the deal, the bands other guitarist, shorter, darker, and more pock-
marked Lee Ranaldo, flatly adds, "It's not really very exciting, It's
The band's ambivalence is understandable. Sy has become arguably the
preeminent guitar band of the 80's, but they've done so on their own
terms. Recording for indies like Neutral, Homestead and SST, the group
has pushed the limits and controlled hysteria, sometimes unlistenable
results: When Moore deadpansMost of our songs are inspired by the
sound of Gaffer's tape being ripped off guitar cases,"he's only partially
kidding, Their unconventional tunings and playing styles ( screwdrivers
and drumsticks instead of picks, thanks,) and tendency toward disembodied
shrieks and chaotic rumblings (epitomized by their live cassette, Sonic
Death) are not for the faint of heart, but the result is challenging rock n roll
that answers to know one.
Despite all that, SY is slowly, inevitably, becoming more popular and more
successful. They play in Spain and Greece, there are SY bootlegs, and at
a NY show this fall young girls shouted" I love you Thurston"! as the band
played one of their new songs, "Kissability" all over the stage. Their new
album ( The first distributed by capitol)- four glorious sides of whipped-to-a
frenzy fury called Daydream Nation- marks a musical milestone as well; it's
at once their most accessible and most forward thinking work. Moore half
jokingly calls the quartet "professional punks" ( their ages range from early
30's to 26) but that's why their on the verge of becoming.
Major labels and international tours were a mere dream when the original
line- up were formed in 1981. At the time, Ranaldo and Moore realized that
their respective NY bands, The Flux and The Coachmen, were going nowhere
fast. Eventually, both found themselves working with composer Glen Branca,
and it was during that time that the two guitarists and California born bassist
Kim Gordon (soon to be Mrs. Moore) began gigging with assorted friends,
including drummer Richard Edison, future Co-star of Stranger then Paradise
and Tougher Then Leather.
We kept changing the name of the band recalls Gordon, whose deadpan, icy
stare could stop stampeding buffalo." I thought, well let's get the right name
and everything will fall together" because it was really eclectic and not quite
happening. Then Thurston came up with the name Sonic Youth, and that gave
us a feeling for what direction we wanted to go with."
Only a few months later, the original quartet made their first record, a self
titled EP financed by Branca and recorded and mixed in two days. Since then,
the band has been nothing if not prolific, releasing five albums, numerous EP's
and 12 inchers, solo albums and, on their own ecstatic peace label, records by
admired musicians and bands. What Gordon dryly calls "certain sounds that
aren't exactly melodious" persisted, but with each record-culminating in 1986's
Evol (which introduced current drummer Steve Shelley) and cascading guitars
and locomotive lurch of 1987's Sister-they turned their dissonance and oddball
tunings into a plus.
Daydream Nation, which Moore calls "pure and simple art-rock," maybe
their finest moment. Recorded for $30,000 ( our first non econo record" says
Moore), the album has the usual mix of urban-decay landscapes(The Sprawl,
musique concrete (Providence) and accessible (for them) rockers like Total
Trash, that explode with fret scraping frenzy. For the first time since their
early days, the band worked out arrangements onstage before recording the
tracks, which added to the records success. Admits the baby faced Shelley.
"It's more like playing music instead of working out a structure in your head.
Your actually playing songs." Gordon simply states, "I think in general we
wanted to have as much power as any mainstream rockband."
Her comment is especially telling, for despite their much loathed "noise band"
tag, Sonic Youth maintains that they're misunderstood."Oh yeah, definitely,"
Gordon says, "that we aspire to dissonance." Shelley adds solemnly, "that were
a dark band." Gordon continues," We don't want to be thought of as an indie
band or a noise band. We think of ourselves as a guitar oriented rock band."
These are big words coming from Sonic Youth .Like the major band status just
around the corner, though, the topic of group development is a touchy subject.
"I don't think of it in terms of growth," Gordon states flatly. "I'll hear an older
song of ours and sometimes it'll take me awhile to figure out what it is."
Moore, who's been contemplating the possibility of breaking a Crime and
The City Solution album in half, sits up. "Yeah, but the bass playing you do on
Teenage riot and The Sprawl, you wouldn't have been able to do on the first
album. There are things you know about playing music now that you didn't
know then. That's growth." Gordon isn't buying it,"Yeah, she says, "but I
don't really think...I mean, when I hear our music, I just don't think about the
That, then is the jist of today's Sy: You can fight progress, but you can't stop it.
Or, as Moore cracks, "We can't get rid of our punk roots. We try washing them
out-We try bleaching them out."
At a group meeting, it looks as if the powers-that-be want to do something along
those very lines. SY's second Blast First/Enigma/Capitol release, The Whitey
Album- A collection of tape manipulations and Madonna and Robert Palmer songs
released under the Ciccone Youth alias-is being readied for release. A Blast First
honcho is already concerned about the projected cover: a close up of Madonna
used without her permission. Since the band had not ever gotten flack for using
a shot of Mrs. Penn on the sleeve of their 1986 Ciccone Youth single, a demolation
of "Into the Groove" called "into The Groovy", the executive's objection does
not go over well.
"Come on," Gordon says incredulously."Fuck him."Ranaldo shoots back. The
quartet then considers the possibility of substituting a blow up of Madonna's nipple.
"How could they prove it's her nipple"? Moore asks. Everyone laughs with him,
but no one has an answer. Chances are Simon Le Bon doesn't have these problems.
By Dave McConnell with Graeme G
Sonic Youth have been around for a long time now. Their debut release
was 1981 and they've been an unstoppable bulldozer of new musical methods
and creativity ever since. Their impact on the underground music scene is
immeasurable. They have been described as the quintessential New York
band, all the while reinventing their sound for each new record. Their discog-
raphy reveals a band seriously committed to exposing as much of their work
as possible-- in eleven they've released more than some artists do in a lifetime.
They work hard, and they get results.
Needless to say, I worship this band to dizzying degrees and when the opportunity
to interview them arose I just about had an out of body experience. I called up
Graeme "Video Cracker" G (another Sonic fanatic) and we headed down to Geffen.
As luck would have it, Geffen has about 20 entrances and we couldn't find the ones
we needed. It was after hours, and the place was pretty much empty. An old security
guard tried his best, but couldn't help. ( Who you lookin for? Sonic who?)
We returned home in a state of sadness, but a quick phone call to Geffen revealed
that Sonic Youth was, indeed, still there and waiting just for Fiz! Now you have to
understand, they had been doing press since that morning, so the fact that they waited
for us was pretty fucking cool. Even more cool was a call from Kim two days later
inviting me to go with them to host the Rodney On the ROQ show at L.A. radio
station K-ROQ. This was some amazing good fun.
As you read, you'll notice something about the band on the whole-- they have an
incredible sense of humor. Hardly smug, uptight, arty types you might have thought
they'd be. In fact, they are the exact opposite. Thurston has a joke for everything,
and Lee is the classic New York wise guy. Steve is a bit more enigmatic-- the guy
who makes you afraid to pass out at his party because you might wake up in another
state in women's clothing with a mustache and beard drawn on in magic marker.
You'd call the next morning to ask what happened, and he'd just giggle. Kim is
plain old nice. Probably smarter than anyone you know, and just smart enough to
So here it is. Have fun-- I did!
Lee: This is Sonic Youth on KROQ. We're your DJ's for the evening and we're
takin some calls. Who is this?
Caller: This is Jay.
Thurston: What does the J stand for? Is it J or Jay?
Caller: It's J-A-Y.
Thurston: What's your last name?
Thurston and Lee: All right!
Thurston: What's happening, man? You guys are pretty hot. (Referring to Dinosaur Jr,
and the real J Mascis.)
Lee: We really like your records- we just played one of your songs.
Caller: Yeah, I know dude.
Thurston:That was when you guys were on SST (Records). You guys were smokin
back then. You were totally amazing. So any question or comments you'd like to
Caller: Well, I'd like to hear some live Dirty Boots.
Steve: Next call.
Lee: Do you have anything theological to ask?
Caller: Yeah, I do.
Lee: Do you believe in God?
Thurston: Next call, next call. Dump him! You know, requesting Sonic Youth is
kind of a drag. We play those songs all the time so we feel like hearing something
Lee: We like to talk about other stuff.
The deal is, the band likes to spread it's wings. There is an endless list
projects and associations that shroud the Sonic experience. Not just music, but
an all encompassing embracement of music culture and all that comes with it- from
art to film to their own Sonic Death fanzine that's included with the fan club member-
ship. The list of people outside the band that have been involved is most impressive.
Glen Branca, Lydia Lunch, J Mascis, Richerd Kern, Don Flemming, Mike Watt,
and Richard Hell are just a few. Sonic Youth doesn't compete with their peers. Instead
they choose to support and encourage them-- utilizing the creative energy to further
the cause and benefit all that became involved.
Fiz: Lee, you played with Glenn Branca, correct? (Glen Branca- a pioneer
guitar utilizing dissonance and textures as opposed to traditional melody and pop
structures. A member of the early New York band Static, he later formed his own
Lee: Thurston and I both did.
Fiz: Did that have a big effect on how you play your guitar?
Lee: In some ways yes, in some ways no. We played with him for a couple of years.
We picked up some stuff from him-- certainly the attitude. What he was doing with
guitars at the time was very unique. Nobody was really approaching things like that.
Fiz: Are you still in contact with him?
Lee: Yeah, maybe once or twice a year.
Fiz: What does he have to say about what you guys do now?
Lee: Well, what he has to say about it is, he thinks it's great. He says he likes what
we do a lot.
Fiz: How would you explain dissonance to somebody who knows nothing about music--
in terms they could understand.
Lee: A traffic jam.
Kim: It's different notes-- non-consanant notes. It's not the melody part. Instead of the
melody you play the.....it's almost the space in between. Some people get confused
and think dissonance is the same as feedback, which, of course it isn't. If you think
about what the word discordant means-- like 'chord.' chords can make melodies, but
they can also make dissonance. So discord is like anti-chord.
Fiz: Do you get approached by a lot of people who really don't have any idea of what
you're trying to do?
Kim: Sometimes. It's mostly people who come up and say something like,"I heard the
new record, and gee, there's not as much dissonance on it as the last record." What
they really mean is-- it's mostly Europeans who say this-- what they really mean is
they don't hear feedback or something that they may have on a different record. And
that's weird. It's as if, "Oh, I forgot to push the feedback button!"
Fiz: Do you think Sonic Youth is an acquired taste?
Kim: I don't know, I guess so. I mean we're not accessible like, say, Nirvana.
Fiz: Do you find yourself learning to play like Sonic Youth as you go?
Kim: Well we're better at song writing. I mean you can't help but get more refined
at what you do. And we've got better recording stuff.
Fiz: One of my favorite SY songs is Mote. Was that written in response to the
poem Eye Mote or to Sylvia Plath?
Lee: It was in response to the piece, I guess. I was reading a lot of her stuff around
that time, and that particular one-- the imagery really grabbed me. I just wanted to
do something under the influence of that imagery.
Fizz: I know you were flown out here to speak at Cal-Arts. Do you want to comment
Kim: I guess they new that I had a background in art. I guess it was just some vague
connection with the art world. I play in a band-- instead of creating visual arts.
Fiz: Do you have any other medium?
Kim: No, this is my medium.
Fiz: When they asked you to speak, what was it regarding?
Kim: My relationship to popular culture. I made slides of all our record covers and
we talked about them. We talked about appropriation.
Fiz: Sonic aesthetics?
Kim: Well, about how you can appropriate in the art world and get away with it. You
can't always get away with that in a commercial world. There are a lot of artists that
draw from popular culture. I also showed them this video that this teenager sent us--
this 16 year old-- of her painting Raymond Pettibon's cover-art for Goo on her
bedroom wall. It was amazing, this tape.
Thurston: (Exploring the desk of a Geffen executive, he procures a snapshot of a
teenage boy) Corporate rock son! (laughing) He looks like Jeff McDonald.....or
maybe it's Steve McDonald.
Kim: Anyway, there are a lot of students at Cal-Arts that work with and are involved
with teenage personas, so they were really into that tape.
Fiz: I want to know about the whole film movement in New York. Richard Kern
(One of the most well know of the NY underground film community, and known for
his weirdly artistic graphic violence and sexual imagery) didthe Death Valley 69
video/film, and I also saw a photo of Steve where he appears to have his brains blown
out. The photo credit said Richard Kern
Steve: Yes (chuckles quietly)
Fiz: Is he someone you seek out to work with or.....
Kim: He's just a friend of ours....we just became friends.
Thurston: He used to live in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the '70s. He's a guy who came
to NY to be an artist in some kind of fashion. I think he was really interested in photo-
graphy. He's a great photographer. That his his main base and film was just sort of
an extension of that.
Fiz:I saw (Jim) Foetus once and he used Kern footage as part of the show. Then when I
saw Death Valley 69 I thought it was amazing. The way the film looked, and the song
sounded were so compatible-- perfect. Do you have any aspirations to work with him
like that again?
Steve: We did a video with him last year. He did Scooter and Jinx.
Lee:He did that for us for the Goo compilation. The one with the girls massaging each
Kim: The totally voyeuristic one.
Lee: And took Photos on the new album.
Fiz: The reason I ask is because it seems you are all so interested in things outside
the band that end up coming back into the band.
Thurston: Kern was always very interesting to us. He did really good work, and he's
very unique at what he does. And there has always been a weird film scene in NY--
an underground film scene.
Fiz: Nick Zedd and people like that?
Thurston: Oh, Nick Zedd, and even before that. In the '70s, during the original Punk
era, there was a whole No-Wave film scene.
Lee: Amos Poe.
Thurston: Amos Poe, Scott and Beth B. Richard was a second generation much the
same way we were second generation to the No-Wave scene. We're similar in that
Kim: But we don't have the same obsessions. (Laughter)
Thurston: No, but we do utilize some of his obsessive behavior.
Kim: Not that Richard doesn't have a sense of humor.
Fiz: He must, I don't think he could do what he does without one.
Kim: A lot of people look at his films--- people who are into Death Rock or whatever--
or just people into weird shit.
Fiz: There is some pretty disturbing imagery at work there.
Kim: But he doesn't have his whole body pierced up or anything......he's like a voyuer.
Lee: He doesn't have a tattoo either, does he?
Kim: Actually, he does.
Fiz: Is there going to be any more solo stuff from you Lee?
Lee: At some point I suppose, but Im not exactly sure when.
Fiz: That SST (Records) release seemed almost streamed of conscious, was that how
you approached it?
Lee: That stuff was just some tapes that were sitting around my house. I just sort of
made it up.
Kim: He was cleaning his house. (haha)
Lee: Well basically. It was weird, little instrumental things.
Fiz: I really enjoyed it. It seemed to be a sort of fringe thing. You wouldn't just pop
that thing on unless you were in the mood for something like that.
Lee: Yeah, that's right.
Fiz: I have a video compilation tape with something of yours on it. The altivistic (video)
thing- 12 O' clock High. Weird flashing imagery going on with the music.
Lee: There are two volumes of that, and I've got two very different films on them.
One is the flickering color changing piece, and one is more of a film piece. More of
a narrative film thing.
Fiz: Did you work on that yourself-- as far as directing, and such?
Lee: Well, it's not directed, really. It's just shot. We all have interests in that way
that we pursue when we can.
Sonic Youth continues to dazzle the listener with each release--constantly
new sounds and textures, accompanied by witty lyrics and a bizarre sensation that
more is happening in the material than you think you may be hearing. The center
of this is, of course, the guitar. But even the guitar sounds defy all previous musical
Lee: Let's have the next caller here at KROQ.
Caller: Hi, this is Scott!
All: Hi, Scott!
Caller: I was wondering if you thought that all music, in the near future, would have
to rely on new technology to be non-dirivitive?
Thurston: No, not at all. That's ridiculous! Why would you say something like that?
Caller: It seems that...
Thurston: Technology is a very abstract element to music. It's just something you
utilize, it's not something that is necessary. You should know that man! Next, next!
Caller: It seems that Lee's album, From Here To Infinity, and things likes Metal
Machine Music have taken it pretty much as far as it can go.
Thurston: I don't think so. What you're hearing is sound coming off a 12" piece of
vinyl. That's not taking anything as far as it can go when you're talking about freedom
dude. Next, next!
Lee: Wait, he has another question.
Thurston: Okay, elaborate, elaborate.
Caller: I wanted to know if Lee was going to release another solo album?
Lee: Yeah, probably at some point in the future.
Caller: Any immediate plans?
Thurston: Our immediate plan right now is the next caller.
Fiz: (To Thurston): Last summer I was in New York and saw a show you and
at. You were playing with Rudolph Grey. (Suicide/Red Transistor)
Thurston: Oh Yeah.
Fiz: It was a twenty-minute improvisation-- very heavy. It was really cool. It's funny,
all I know about Rudolph Grey was the tortured, dissonant material and then today I
heard something of his on the radio.....
Fiz: Yeah, but it was this Free Jazz thing.
Kim: Wow, L.A. radio is great.
Thurston: He kinda has a Free Jazz legacy. He is the free guitar improviser as far
as I'm concerned, much more so than anyone else I've ever heard. There are a
couple of dudes from Japan, that might come close, but as far as doing, like, an
American tradition thing, he's in a class of his own. Again, he's on the fringe of what
ever popular music is.
Fiz: He seemed pretty "out there."
Thurston: He's very "out there." He's a very interesting person. He's been playing
music since the early '70s, so he was involved with the whole camp. Before punk rock,
in NY, there was this group called Suicide. You've heard of them, but they existed
well into the early '70s, and they were a very extreme band-- much more extreme
then they were known to be. Rudolph was part of that whole crowd. Plus, he came
out of this underground avante-garde jazz scene.
Fiz: That's what I picked up on, especially after what I heard today.
Thurston: Also, he is the aficionado on certain things like Ed Wood Jr., the guy who made
Plan 9 From Outer Space. Rudolph just published a book on Ed Wood Jr. it's put out by
federal press, which is a subsidiary of Amok. We've done a few records with Rudolph that
New Alliance (Records) has put out.|
Biz: You alone? Or with the rest of the band?
Thrust: It's pretty much just me. I've produced and played with him.
Biz: Do you recall the performance I'm talking about?
Thrust: Oh, Yeah.
Biz: Was that something you just walked up and did, or....
Thrust: I went to see them play-- and they don't play that often. No one really knows
Kim: Or cares.
Thrust: Or cares. Because it can be his...noise.
Fiz: That night had plenty of that.
Thurston: Right, and who wants to hear that?
Fiz: I thought it was great.
Kim: He really is intense.
Thurston: He takes it very seriously. It's not like he's just going up there to show off.
He'd rather not be up there. For him it's an absurd position to be in, but he loves making
music. It's just the whole thing is such a pain. He's kind of like a Martian in that way.
Lee: I guess that would make him the perfect person to write the Ed Wood Jr. story
Thurston: Exactly! I guess he relates to other personalities.
Steve: I saw Rudolph just after the riots here, and he was bummed because he came
back before the riots happened. He said "oh God, I hope they didn't burn down Ed Woos's
house! That place is really important!And I'm Like"oh yeah!"
Thurston: "Sure, Rudolph, sure."
Fix: (to Steve) Have you done anything outside SY?
Steve: I've been playing with Jad Fair. He has a band called mosquito, and we put out
a single, and we'll put out some more singles.
Fiz: Who's putting them out?
Steve: Different labels. I think Thurston is gonna put one on his label, and this little label
out of Albeny is called Earl records.
Fiz: Fiz Records...
Steve: And I started a label and put out a Sentradoh records, which is Lou (Barlow)
from Sebadoh and Thurston and I did this Dim Stars Records with Richard Hell.......
Thurston: Broke up.
Steve: Yeah, already broke up.
Fiz: Is the record still going to come out?
Steve: It's out. It should be out now.
Fiz: What was it like working with Richard Hell?
Steve: Oh it was great. (silence, then laughter)
Lee: Not! (more laughter)
Fiz: He always seemed like he was more of a character than an actual musician-- with
all due respect of course.
Lee: Being a character is his art to some degree. I mean, he's a really good character.
Steve: Notice how Kim and Lee are answering all the questions about Richard?
Kim: We're doing the P.R. Actually I have another band that has a song about Richard.
Fiz: Harry Crews?
Thurston: Harry Crews broke up.
Kim: It's a band called Kitten.
Fiz: I don't want to ask about the new album...
Lee: Good, don't.
Thurston: It sucks!
Fiz: We haven't heard it yet, plus we figure you'll be doing a ton of other press for it
Thurston: It's a bunch of noise! It's just another Geffen record. (more laughter)
Steve: See all these faces? (pointing to all the Geffen acts' gold and platinum records
and photos plastered on the walls en masse) We'll be trading places with them.
Fiz: Do you reckon you'll get a gold disk outta this one?
Kim: I don't know....
Steve: (Laughing) He's ready for one! I hope not. I want copper! Yeah copper disks--
Fiz:When you first signed with DGC, quite a few eyebrows were raised. There was
quite a lot of tension about such a move, but it seemed like it worked out really well for
you. At least from the outside looking in, have you guys been happy with it?
Steve: Well just look at Thurston.
Thurston: (looking very relaxed, with his feet propped up on the unknown exec's desk)
There was never any tension on our part, for us it was nothing.
Lee: It's just another record company when you come down to it. We've dealt with
other labels in the past, and they were all just sort of a combination of good and fucked
up, so right now were happy. They're doing a good job, and they're letting us do what
we want. That's always the way it is. You're always happy in the early stages and hateful
later on. That's just band/record company relationships. They're good when you start
and bad when you leave.
Fiz: It must be great to have a decent budget to work with when you're trying to record
Lee: Definitely a good thing.
Fiz: Especially a band like this-- you really get into the process of recording and making
a good record.
Lee: Well you know, we've always done a lot of studio work and at this point it was
nice to be able to....
Kim: To actually have a producer.
Lee: Yeah, exactly. This record, we didn't spend a fortune on it. We didn't spend any
more than we did on the last one, but at the same time, we never thought about the money
once. We just did it until it was done. That was Butch's (Vig, Producer) attitude as well.
If he had to spend a couple of days doing stuff he felt the record needed, even if we
weren't needed in the room, he did it. And we didn't think, "Oh geez, this is gonna cost
us another $2000.
Kim: With the first record, it was a little strange spending that much money. It was like,
how do you judge how good a record is.....
Lee: In relation to how much money you spend.
Fiz: How much money did you spend?
Kim: I don't know, about a hundred and fifty?
Lee: Yeah, but this time it was much better spent. The last album we spent a hundred
and fifty because we fucked up. This time we spent a hundred and fifty because that's
what it cost.
The interjection of such intense music scapes would usually suggest very
intense, self conscious people. Sonic Youth, on the other hand, while obviously focused
seem to be much more interested in having a good time. In deed, the time I spent
with them was a laugh a minute. I think they simply find the world around them much
more interesting then themselves. And this world being what it is, humor must be the
foundation for all things that are perceived or dealt with in any fashion.
Caller: Hey man, why don't you guys play some Cows?
Steve: Tell you what. Get some Cows on your stereo, then call us back and we'll play
it on the airwaves.
Lee: What's the new Cows record called? Cunning Stunts? It's a very good record,
but I'm afraid we don't have it here.
Caller: Do you think that Rodney ( Bingenheimer) masterbates?
Thurston: Next! That's a question that nobody wants to answer!
Fiz: What do you think about all the promos that go out? I work at a record store, and
we got so many promos of Goo-- even before it was released--- that we sold. People
bought them because they were so cheap.
Steve: Uh....gee....what store do you work at? (laughter)
Fiz: Um, Tower records...the one on Sunset.
Lee: They sell promos at tower?
Fiz: Uh, Lee, I'm pretty sure he was joking-- the store is called "We Sell Promos"
(name changed to protect the innocent?) in Venice.
Thurston: I've been there before!
Fiz: I remember. Right after you left, my other friend that works there called me up
going "Hey man! Thurston Moore was just in here!" And he said you bought a Gabe
(Steve falls into an out-of-control laugh, every one else follows)
Thurston: Who's Gabe Kaplan?
Fiz: From Welcome Back Kotter.
Lee: That's impossible, it was a Thurston clone!
Thurston: No, I know what I bought there. It was a Martin Denney record.
Fiz: Oh, he said you bought a Gabe Kaplain comedy album.
Thurston: No, it was a Martin Denney record.
Lee: It's amazing that you can remember what you bought there that long ago.
Thurston: I can remember before I could talk.
Kim: What record did you buy then?
Thurston: I remember a shoe being held in front of me and my brothers and sisters saying
Lee: And your mother was holding the shoe and beat you with it.
Thurston: I kind of had a feeling they wanted me to say "shoe" but I...
Lee: You didn't know what the fuck a shoe was!
Thurston: No, I knew it was a shoe, but I was really euphoric, and I was just sort of like
"Ghahhhhh." I was just happy.
Kim: Oh just like that?
Lee: And they were actually going "shoe! shoe!"?
Thurston: I can picture the whole thing, I can just see it right now.
Steve: That's really cool.
Kim: Such a strong image.
Lee: But we disgress.
Fiz: No, that was anice anecdote, Thurston. Thankyou very much.
Lee: Extreme close-up!
Kim: Is that where "Dirty Boots" came from?
Thurston: I don't have a show fetish or anything, but there is a line of shoes...
Kim: When we were playing live on tour, people started throwing shoes on the stage.
That never happened before.
Fiz: Was it any particular kind of shoe?
Kim: I don't know. All kinds of shoes.
Fiz: People respond it all sorts of oddball ways. Like when people throw underwear
on stage. Did they bring it with them, or just take it off?
Thurston: Yeah, do they take it off and go" Arrrrrrrgggghh"?
Lee: You're standing in the middle of the audience and you say, "excuse me" and
start taking off your pants. Pull your underwear off and then pull your pants back on.
Fiz: About six months ago I picked up the Sonic Life book by the Italian guy.....
Fiz: Yeah, I wanted to ask you if that guy was suitable to write a biography on you?
Lee: Well it's not really a biography.
Kim: It's just the interviews he did over a period of several years.
Steve: Actually, we shouldn't do any more interviews after that book.
Lee: It's nice that it was the first book done. There is a much better one, hopefully,
in the works from these Spanish kids who put out a magazine called Ruta 66. They
also did a Velvet Underground one called Feedback.
Fiz: Oh yeah, I thought the Sonic Life one was kind of weird because of the translation.
Lee: Well, it was translated poorly. I was flipping through it one day and I was abso-
lutley astounded by what he had us saying. (Now handing us CDs from the closet he
Kim: I didn't even read any of those interviews.
Fiz: It was kind of neat though, lot's of old photos of the band.
Kim: It was really kind of sterile.
Lee: Do you guys have these Nirvana interview disk? They are really good. They
were in the next room. There is a box of them...
Fiz: I can get $40 for this...
Lee: At least, now.
Fiz: Has anybody accused you of trying to do the Nirvana thing-- for using Butch Vig
(Producer of Nevermind)?
Lee: Well, yeah, people have...they just haven't said it often...yet.
Kim: They go, "hmmmmm..."
Lee: It's the Butch and Andy (Wallace--mixed Nevermind) thing.
Thurston: OK, Who is this? What's your name?
Caller: My name is Chris and I live in Sun Valley.
Thurston: What's going on in SunValley, Dude?
Caller: Not a Hell of a lot.
Thurston: How's the Sun Valley Hardcore scene?
Caller: Uh, not a lot. Are you guys going to put out another Sicconey(sic) Youth album?
Thurston: Well you know Ciccone Youth is also the project of Mike Watt from Firehose.
He's going to do La Isla Bonita with some of the Beastie Boys. There going to put it
together and get it out real quick. We might do the B-side. Yo man, my head is feeding
back...get rid of this guy. Go! Go!
Oh yeah, Thurston is THE fan of everything.
Lee: (to all) So what do you think of the Beasties new album?
Thurston: They're really good, the last time we saw them was like, 1982.
Kim: When they were a hardcore band.
Fiz: The Pollywog Stew era?
Thurston: Yeah, and they were the best band in New York. All the other bands in NY
really thought they were little rich kids. But they wrote the best songs. And they
were really, really funny, and they were really core, and the singer sounded like Darby
even though nobody can really do that.
Fiz:A lot of the NY hardcore stuff sounded so serious.
Thurston: Like The Mob and Heart Attack. Heart attack was good, but the beastie
boys were the greatest. And then they went hip-hop with Rick Ruben, who was this
slob who lived in the N.Y.U. dorms...
Kim: A fine man>
Thurston: And then they got huge.
Fiz: What was really cool about them was all The 12"s they put out before License
To Ill, when they were still using all the live guitars and what not.
Thurston: You mean the Def Jam ones?
Thurston: Rock Hard was really a good one.
Fiz: I haven't heard the new one yet, but I understand they are using guitars again.
Thurston: Are you kidding? Oh it's great!
Steve: Oh, man, it's great.
Thurston: And live they are doing everything. They're playing all their hardcore
favorites. I've been into it for a long time-- living in NY--and those guys are just
really, really good at it. They really have the skills, and it's interesting to see that.
They end their set with a Minor Threat song, which is so cool. But the fact, if you
think about it, it's three white, New York, Jewish kids. Scrawny little fucks. And they
started a rap group? And they're good? That is so unique, I mean nobody else can
make that claim except for them. They're authentic. A lot of it has to do with when
they started they got involved with it really early on. When it was a real club thing in NY.
Fiz: I saw them when they had the 18 foot hydraulic penis.
Kim: Was that exciting for you?(everyone laughs)
Thurston: And they had the naked girls in the cages.
Fiz: Well, they weren't naked when I saw them. They were in Bikinis, but that's really
appropriate for a go-go dancer. Something gets lost when a go-go dancer is naked.
Thurston: It seems like stripping is a big thing in punk right now.
Kim: Stripping is very chic, it's very in, it's P.C. now.
Thurston: It's very P.C. right now. The girl from Bikini Kill, the girl from Royal Trux,
the girl from Ho...(e stopping himself short)
Fiz: You can say it, we already know about it.(Referring to Courtney Love's previous
career as a stripper)
Kim: Some girls strip for the money; other girls do it because they think that its a
Fiz: That's a very interesting feminist statement..I'm not quite sure I follow that one.
Kim: It's a power of the body. It's kind of on the Madonna tip.
Fiz: I guess if you do it from the standpoint of "Im naked and I'm up here and you're
down there lusting my loins, so I'm in control." I guess it's kind of like NWA calling
Kim: But some girls go, That;s the only way I can make money."
Sonic Youth has an uncanny knack for relating to their world in a very abstract,
functional way. If there is a god, then he has a job for Sonic Youth.
Caller: I have a theology and linguistics question.
Thurston: What's your name?
Caller: My names Dave. OK the whole idea here is that we, as humans, communicate
with language, right?
Caller: In language we speak in sentences. If you break down the sentences you
have a series of words, and words are just symbols, right?
Thurston: All right.
Caller: If you break down each symbol you have smaller symbols-- namely 26 which
represent the alphabet. So all you are really doing is making a math equation with
symbols equaling larger symbols-- which are words--so that we can understand.
Lee: This is KROQ folks.
Caller: They say that we are supposed to understand these words, but we really aren't
understanding anything. We're just showing symbols and hoping that the other person
understands the communication. Now, they wrote the whole bible in sentences, so how
can you say that we're really going to know God when all we're really going to know
is just symbols of God? What do you guys thing?
Thurston: I don't understand the correlation between God and language.
Caller: Because the bible says that we're going to know God. And the bible was
written in words-- which are merely symbols, so we're all going to know symbols of God.
Lee: Dude, God is in your heart man.
Thurston: Whoa, that was heavy and profound and poignant. In language there are secrets
Caller: But do you think they're personal or do you think they're universal?
Kim: Are you saying the real God is Wittgenstein?
Caller: I'm saying thereal God is Morrisilly.
Thurston: Is Morrisey?
Caller I'm jokin.
Caller: Also, do you think that hemp should be legalized for ecological purposes?
Thurston: I thought it was legalized.
Lee: Where we come from it's legalized.
Thurston: Yeah, were doing big huffs of it right now.
Lee: Yeah, were blowin' some down, baby.
Caller: Another thing, Iv'e got some Cows.
Thurston: You've got Cows? Crank it!
(Cows song is played)
Lee: We'd like to hear some Germs too.
Thurston: God, the lead singer sounds just like a cow when he sings. Moooo
we're listening to the Cows live from somebody's bedroom. A theological symantarian--
through his telephone through our lines, and over the air.
Kim: Since I've been here, I've seen a lot of bums fighting with each other.
are usually polite when they go up to you here, but there fighting each other. It's
like there's a war.
Fiz: Well there's so many of them now.
Thurston: We got this new song called Teenage Bum. It goes like this( to the tune
od Hole's Teenage Whore): When I was a teenage bum...
Fiz: Oh, man, I'll print that!
Thurston: (in a whiny little brat-like voice) Well go ahead!
Fiz: In New York, I don't really notice the bums because of the way it looks. It's
really easy to walk by and not notice them. But here I notice everybody.
Kim: Oh, I notice them.
Lee: I'm sure here you notice them as you drive by.
Fiz: People just try to pretend that it doesn't exist.
Thurston: I don't think anyone pretends it's not here, it's more like,"what can you do?"
Kim: God, this is depressing.
Fiz: Yeah, were the ray-of-sunshine zine!
Thurston: I wasn't dissing Courtney in my Teenage Bum Parody.
Kim: Yeah, you have to be careful, because she believes everything she sees in print.
Fiz: We got a call from her just because we put Inger(Lorre of the Nymphs) on the cover.
Lee: (sarcastically) No Way!
Kim: (imitating Courtney) How come you didn't put me on the cover?
Lee: So, what did she say?
Thurston: (taking an award statuette from the executive's office and trying to fit it
under his jacket) I'm the only one here that likes Courtney.
Fiz: She just basically talked to our answering machine about quotes from NME and stuff.
Kim: Well, she created her own little hell.
Fiz: What about your tour?
Lee: September, we're going to start with the States, then Europe and Australia.
We're probably going to have strippers.
Steve: And a 20-foot penis.
Fiz: It seems you are always giving back to the music community.
Kim: We're taking it back now.
Lee: We're calling in all the chips, baby!
Fiz: It seems that there are certain bands who's signings could have been related to you.
Lee: Hope they know it.
Fiz: Is that something you guys do? Actually go out of your way to help bands that you
think are worth a shit?
Thurston: We're actually more interested in other people's work than our own. Our whole
thing is that we're trying to get away from it being a competitive venture. A large part
of the industry are these cliques of competitive situations. Especially in heavy metal.
Steve: Especially in foxcore!
Kim: Foxcore and heavy metal are the worst!
Thurston: It's really disgusting right now how competitive it is.
Fiz: You coined that phrase (foxcore) didn't you, Thurston?
Kim: Yeah, but it was a joke.
Thurston: It was a joke, and then that fucking dick-fuck who wrote that editorial in
Option magazine said, "What would the people from Living Color think if people
started calling them Niggercore?" How dare he write an editorial equating foxcore
with something like that. Foxcore was sort of a term of endearment, if anything.
Kim: It was supposed to be for boys and girls.
Thurston: It wasn't just for woman to use only.
Kim: He was just making things up to this English journalist because they're so into
tag lines and that kind of bullshit.
Thurston: It was absurd for a magazine of such high profile to print something like that.
Fiz: Did you talk to them about it?
Thurston: No, why should I tell them that I even read their magazine?
Fiz: Well, obviously you did.(laughter)
Thurston: But I'd rather have them read it in Fiz then to read it in their own magazine.
(sarcastically) I just didn't want to blow our chances of being on the cover.
Lee: Hey, we're trying to sell some fucking product here.
Steve: We got like, four million records to sell.
Lee: But when this is printed, there won't be the laughter and giggling. "I can't believe
those self-serving assholes in Sonic Youth! They came up through the community
that Option helped foster."
Fiz: When I mentioned people you had helped, I was referring to names like Don
Flemming and J Mascis. Their names appeared on your album and they seem so much
more visible now.
Lee: Well, they paid us to put their names on the sleeve, so they could get some jobs.
Fiz: And Hole getting signed...
Thurston: They...I don't know what their thing is now, but we thought they were a
great fucking band...they made a great fucking record. They wrote some great songs.
Fiz: But that's the giving back part. You gave them opening slots for your shows that
other bands would have killed to be on. And it seemed as though you had chosen them
to try and help.
Kim: It's just that we liked them. You want the whole show to be good.
Thurston: Plus, you just get involved. There are people that you become friendly with,
and you like them musically too...
Steve: We choose people that we would want to see or spend time with, people that we
Thurston: Alot of bands, especially on major lables--they go out and get a signed band
to open up. I find that phenomenally retarded.
Fiz: It's a waist of resources.
Kim: I think we've started a trend of helping bands though. Like how you read all
these interviews with Courtney--first slagging every band she can think of, and then
going, "I'm really into supporting bands, like Sonic Youth, they're really into that."
Lee: We've done it since we were able to do it. Since the first tour we did where we
were able to pull opening bands along. We did it. Just because it makes the whole
show so much better--more fun for you to go to.
Thurston: You know, Courtney is going to read this and get all bent out of shape.
Lee: Oh fuck it!
Kim: She's a big girl.
Thurston: I know she's a big girl, but I just want her to be happy. I don't want her
to think we had ill feelings...
Lee: Now she's going to read this and get all bent out of shape!
Fiz: Hey, she's married, she's got her record deal, she's heavy with pup. She really
doesn't have anything to complain about.
Thurston: Heavy with pup! (hysterical laughter from Kim and Thurston) Let he who
casts the first stone... wait. Let he who...
Lee: Let he who is with out sin...
Thurston: Yes, thankyou, Lee. But I like her, and regardless of...
Lee: But she cast the first stone. Let's face it.
Kim: Yeah, she was putting down my friends.
Kim: Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. She was slagging off my friends.
Thurston: Oh well, you should rise above that and turn the other cheek. You should
walk up to her and embrace her and say "I love you more now."
Steve: Thurston: That's so Catholic.
Kim: ...for Courtney's name, please don't let it appear...
Thurston: But that's all we talked about.
Kim: Just make it blank. She'll be going, "What are they talking about? Are they talking
Thurston: Look, first of all, Fiz, is an open forum for Courtney Love.
Fiz: That's right.
Thurston: That's the reason they wanted to do this interview.....
Lee: So that she would be sure to read it.
Thurston: And we haven't talked to her in a while, because it's really scary, because of this
Lee: Because we hate her, and she hates us.
Thurston: No, this is really our love letter to Courtney, our interview in your magazine.
Fiz: Well, you can always call Eric (Erlandson, Hole guitarist) He's a real sweet guy,
he'll always talk to you.
Lee: Yeah, but he's out of the band man, he just doesn't know it yet.
Fiz: I hear every one is out of that band.
Steve: She has this new band now, they're from Seattle, what are they called?
Lee: Backing her up.
Thurston: Oh, man.
Steve: End of interview!
Thurston: You know, I think Inger is OK.
Kim: Yeah, we support Inger.
Thurston: Is this the desk she pee'd on?
Lee: Could it be?
Fiz: Ive been friends with people in that band (The Nymphs) for a long time, and--
even before I met Inger---everything I heard was basically, keep an arms distance...
Kim: That's what people say about Courtney, too.
Thurston and Lee: Courtney! Courtney! Courtney! Courtney! Courtney!
Kim: And all she did was talk about Inga (sic)
All: Inga! Inga! Inga! Inga! Inga! Inga! Inga!
Lee: You have to transcribe this with the most accuracy then you've ever transcribed
in your life!
Thurston: Have you ever fucked any of the Muffs?
Fiz: Yeah, the drummer.
Thurston: You're kidding me. Are you going to print that? You're a married man!
Lee: This is Sonic Youth.
Thurston: Hello, you;re on the air.
Caller: Hello, this is Greg.
Caller: Yeah, when is your new album coming out?
Lee: The new album is going to be out in late July.
Caller: The end of July?
Lee: Yeah, it's called Dirty, we're talking about Sonic Youth, folks, in case you
just tuned in.
Caller: I want to compliment you on all your records, I like them.
Thurston: Yeah, thanks.
Lee: Do you have anything theological to say?
Caller: Uh...What do you mean?
Thurston: See you later, we're out of here. Bye.
And so we come to this, The new album will be out by the time you are reading
these words. So you already know how great it is. You also know that they put
the bonus tracks on the vinyl, not the CD. Hopefully you know why that is so
wonderful. Join the Sonic Death fan club to get even more intimate with the
Sonic life. Get the new record to see where they're at right now.
Lee: This is the first album of the rest of your life.
He's not really going to push his amp into the audience, is he?
What will the papers say-"Music Fans Maimed in Marshall
Stack Melee"? But no, Thurston Moore stops pushing his
Cabinets towards the edge of the stage, deciding instead, to
set two guitars on top of the stack, rubbing them against each
other while the maxed out amp shrieks it's head off. Meanwhile
Kim Gordon Pummels her bass with a fist and Steve Shelley
tosses cymbals around on top of his drum kit until Lee Ranaldo
concludes the show by popping every string of his Les Paul with a
While Thurston's stack attack would be a fitting climax to the
feedback frenzy that generally concludes a Sonic Youth show, such
wanton confusion would totally freak the already-agitated Neil
Young fans that pack the San Francisco's Cow Palace. As it stands,
the heart felt boos of Neil's trucker cap contingent are nearly as loud
as the ecstatic screams of the younger young-sters. It's a far cry from
the "Yeah- their okay" that most support bands encounter on the
Sonic Youth paint in extremes, and they inspire extreme reactions.
The two guitar player editors in attendance swear it's the most exciting
show they've seen in years, but tomorrow the local rock critic will write
" Woe to us if these neo-psychedellic poesurs are the face of rock's
future." He's in the minority though; Sonic Youth may be the most
critically acclaimed band of the last decade.
They've amassed a press kit the size of war and peace, not to mention
a fanatical world wide following.
Sonic Youth aren't mere audio-terrorists. For every bout of piercing
guitar squawk, there's a sublimely delicate passage. Grinding dissonance
gives way to a airy, bell like tones; soft picking blossoms into sonorous
feedback that vibrates the room like some ungodly pipe organ. The
guitarists imaginative open tunings ( They tour with 25 instruments,
each tuned differently) tint every song with fresh, unfamiliar overtones.)
A month later, the band members are back home in New York City,
recuperating from a year of touring it's support of Goo, their 7th album
and major-label debut. Despite spawning a semi-hit video (Kool Thing)
and exposing the once underground band to it's largest audience yet, Goo
is no mainstream sellout. It's a challenging, high contrast record, equal
parts joyous pop and confrontational slop, propelled by conceptual|
contradictions that have long littered Sonic Youth's records, performances
Observers have focused on your abrasive side, but a lot of your music is
Lee: "I don't know why critics focus on the violent, fucked-up side.
evenly divided, and the beautiful parts aren't few and far between."
Thurston:" We want to write beautiful music as well as ballsy, and go
one to the other. Extremes are really exciting to us."
Lee: "We like putting those extremes together like film cuts. Having
something atonal and crazy, then- snap!- Something beautiful."
Kim: "I hope are next record embraces all those things in an even more|
cut up way. The most exciting thing I've heard lately is Son Of Bazerk,
this new rap band on Soul/MCA Records. The have this song called
"Change The Style" and goes through rap, R&B, reggae, and thrash
metal for 30 seconds each. I like all those things crammed up against
each other. It's a little like what (composer) John Zorn does, but less
Thurston: "We've also gotten more interested in working with classic
pop structures. But incorporating more diverse ideas."
The last time we interviewed you (Feb. 89) you insisted that you never
planned you're direction so deliberately.
Kim: "He didn't know you that well back then."
Thurston: "It's a whole new me- I'm like Sybil."
And like psychology's most lurid case of multiple personality disorder
SY display a seemingly incompatible array of attitudes. Kinkiest of all
perhaps, is their love/hate relationship with popculture. They seem less
interested in avoiding the cliché of the rock mainstream then in warping
them beyond recognition. Some allusions are quite blatant like "Tunic"
Goo's apparently sincere homage to Karen Carpenter, "Eliminator Jr."
Daydream Nation's tip-of-the-sombrero to ZZ Top or- the most extreme
example- The record SY has issued under the name Ciccone Youth, after
Madonna's surname. They've also recorded songsby Robert Palmer, Neil
Young, Alice Cooper, The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Ramones. The results
check in somewhere between affectionate tribute and corpse desecration.
The process also works in less literal ways according to Lee, 35: "We might
refer to a section as the "Keith Richards riff" or the "Mellencamp" part -
every song has a title like that at one point. On Goo, for example, we refer to
'Disappearer' as the Chicago song because it had corny, commercial
Lee: "Kim and I both went to art school. That's not uncommon- all the
innovation bands did too. But it gave us a working notion different from that
of your average American Rock band. That was compounded by all the unique
things going on in New York in the late 70's. Their were a lot of people with the
mindset of artists working within music: All the no wave stuff-Arto Lindsay, lydia
lunch, James White, Richard Hell- plus bands like Television and Blondie. And
then there were Glen Branca and Rhys Catham. This sounds so highbrow I hardly
want to say it, but most rock bands spring from just radio and records. We look
at music very differently, and we have different notions of putting things together.
Lee: An Obvious one is the idea of appropriation, recycling other genres
a film makermight incorporate found footage. You make it your own just by virtue
of calling it your own. On Bad Moon Rising we went so far as to tape a song off
a Stooges record and put it on our record.
How about the tape recordings that Thurston plays through a second guitar
during and between songs?
Thurston: We got into using different tunings for different songs, but didn't
own a lot of guitars, we've have to spend five minutes tuning up between each song.
So I started playing a tape of "Not Right" by the stooges, and it made people stick
with the show. I started using other things, like Ratts "Round and Round" . When
I played that , all the kids in back ran up front yelling "Ratt, Ratt"! We really got
off on it too, cause we like thinking of our shows as a continuous piece of music.
On the Neil Young tour, we used Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", Gerardo's "Rico
Suave", some Karen Carepenter, and Artikulation, a Georgy Ligeti electronic piece
So where does affection for pop culture end and contempt begin?
Lee:" I have great affection for pop music I like and great hate for
I don't like. We all grew up with pop in a time when it was still AM radio, and
there was a great enjoyment in that. Stuff that reinvents that, like Madonna did
in '85 is great."
Thurston: "But we don't incorporate an idea for it's own sake. It has
Kim:" That's a difference between us, and let's say The Black Crows.
an earlier style to a "T". They don't add anything new, don't give anything back
musically, though they may be doing that attitude-wise."
Thurston: "They're like "Hey MTV generation: you missed the Faces
Aerosmith , so here we are- newely recorded fun!" I think they are really sincere
and I have nothing against them. But I can't enjoy their music for what it is. I'd
rather listen to Redd Kross who have a more loaded, perverse take on 70's music
But a lot of MTV type bands are just pop-art cutouts."
Kim: " But that's what makes pop and rock so accessible: It does go
obvious, and that may mean being corny and simplistic. I personally like a lot of
that stuff. We like to use lot's of obvious things, but then mix them with things
that aren't too obvious."
Without the late 70's crosstalk between Manhattan's art, punk and new music
scenes there might have never been a Sonic Youth. Thurston, 33 came to
New York City from Conneticutt in '78 to play with the coachmen, a spectacularly
unsuccessful punkoid band (their Demos have been re-issued by New Alliance
as "Failure To Thrive"). He met Kim, who had relocated from LA to pursue
visual arts, at one of his gigs; theywere later married.
Meanwhile Lee, a New York state native, was playing guitar in Glen Branca's
group. Branca, like fellow composer Rhys Chatham, created long, loud pieces
that wedded the repetitive producers of so called minimalist composers Steve
Riech and Phillip Glass with the idiomatic vocabulary of the electric guitar.
Thurston too, eventually played in the Branca ensemble.
Thurston: "Branca and Chatham struck such a chord with me when I was
18 because they dealt with the sounds of electric guitar, but not in terms of linear
What did you take from Branca?
Thurston: "Tuning ideas, and the idea that volume itself can be a distinct
Lee: " Also the use of idiosyncratic stringing arrangements with unconventional
combinations of gauges. Glenn would have the guitars simulate a choir with a
"soprano guitar" strung entirely with high E strings, a "baritone guitar" with
all .036's and so forth. The chorusing effect that comes from multiple strings
hitting the same note became a big part of our sound."
How about your screwdriver technique?
Lee: That comes in part from things Glenn was doing with obstructing the
strings at nodal points.You put a screwdriver under the strings on both sides
of it.When you strum on the "wrong" side of it, you get a chimey ethereal
sound with no attack. It's a really pretty effect, a bit like strumming behind
the nut, except you have a much longer and more resonant piece of string.
You can also bend noted by pushing the strings down behind the screwdriver.
I placed it behind the 9th fret for "I love Her All The Time". You get amazing
things there. Especially when you tap the strings with chopsticks. I also use a
screwdriver as a slide under the strings. It's not good for the neck-sometimes
you can see bits of wood shredding
Thurston:" On that song I put a Drumstick under the strings on the 12th
then detune them so there's some play. I take a second drumstick and rub it
against the top of the first drumstick, like trying to start a fire. It activates the
strings- they really start humming."
With such Dense textures and loud volumes, do you sometimes perceive
parts that aren't actually there?
Thurston: " Yeah, and I love it when that happens. Glen and Rhys were
definitely working with that idea, and also the idea of really feeling movement
at loud volumes."
Lee:" We're not into volume for it's own sake, or for destructive reasons,
but because it's necessary to create what were trying to do."
Do you record loud?
Thurston: "Sometimes. For "Scooter and Jinx" (Goo) I 10'd
everything on my
amp. There's no guitar, just amp sound. And at the end you can hear a pop
where the amp blows up. We just ran it to tape, 24 tracks. And the long ending
for "Mote" has to be one of the loudest takes anyone has ever made- it's
just saturated, broiling guitar. I had a guitar in front of a Marshall stack, going
through a bunch of boxes that boosted the sound. I just stand there, bending
the neck. We could only leave the amp on for a few seconds at a time, because
it was so pre-amp overloaded that it would have just popped. It was brutal- I've
never heard anything like that!"
Why do you record songs like that?
Thurston:"Why? Because it sounded great! Why? The pleasure heads must
It's pure, unadulterated electric sound. It's like that famous quote from Iggy Pop
saying that his main musical influences are home appliances. Same with Glenn:
He's sit in his bedroom, studying overtones created by his electric fan."
Just as SY songs sound like warped reflections of "normal" rock
and pop, some
of their instruments appear to be genetic mutations of the guitars favored by
most of the folks you read about in these pages. Thurston and Lee share a
fascination with bizarre instruments, but the main reason for the crappy gear was
that the band couldn't initially afford decent guitars for all their tunings. As SY's
fortunes have risen, they've replaced their trashiest guitars with decent fenders.
The battle-scarred harmony on this months cover, one of their original guitars,
has been retired to a place of honor on the wall above the toilet in Lee's Tribeca
Still, the band tends to flirt with tones that don't conform to the "industry standard"
of good sound. Sister was recorded in a mega-funky all tube studio, and one track
on the Ciccone Youth album was cut in a coin operated "make your own record"
booth. The band clearly has mixed feelings about the way ever increasing production
budgets have shaped their sound.
Lee: "We would never take a cheap guitar over a good guitar. The interesting
about cheap guitars are the idiosyncratic electronics, like weird tone controls or
built in fuzz."
Thurston:" But I'd like to do more songs with totally fucked-up guitars-I
sound really good. You can do more preparations with cheap guitars without having
to worry about the instrument. But if we were really wealthy, I would do it all with
800$ Fender Jazzmasters."
Lee: "Jaguars and Jazzmasters our are favorites, because you can play
of the string behind the bridge, they have a light, comfortable body shape, and the
tremolos are pretty good-we hate string-lock systems of any sort. We've also used
a lot of telecasters and tele deluxes, and I've come to appreciate Gibsons lately.
It's funny- the one guitar we've never had in the band is a Stratocaster."
Kim: " On stage I play a cheesy B.C. Rich bass, but I recorded Goo with
early 70's Fender Jazz bass."
You're not big on high tech effects.
Thurston: "I have a Proco Turbo-Rat, which I use as a preamp to my vintage
Marshall 100-watt amp, and I also use a DOD Fuzzbox. But basically effects are
like legalese to me- I just don't want to know about them."
Kim:" I play through a Crybaby Wha and a Turbo-Rat. I use a slightly
setting for just about everything."
Lee: "I'm Playing through five different pedals, an MXR phase shifter,
Baby, a DOD digital delay-not as good as my Fender delay, which broke- a Tube
works distortion pedal, and a Boss CS-2 compressor."
Kim: " A Mesa/ Boogie 400+ amp with a 4x12 guitar bottom and another
with an 18."
Lee: " A Fender 4x10 Super Reverb souped up Harry Kolbe, with two stock
speakers in the top, two heavy duty Electro Voice speakers below. I also have
a stock Fender Concert. Both are pre-CBS blackfaces."
Does your low-tech aesthetic also apply to the recording process?
Thurston: "Sort of. We might record our next album in an 8 track at
studio where Mudhoney did their last record, though our record company may
not go for that. It would sound like what we play in rehearsal, as opposed to the
overdubs we've used on our last 3 albums."
Kim: "If you only have a certain amount of money to spend on making
there's a sense of spontaneity, because you don't have time to go over everything
until it's perfect. You can end up with a really bad record too- it's more of a coin flip."
Thurston:" I read in an interview with Tom Petty where he said that
recordings of the 60's really do sound better, more spirited and life-like, but there's
nothing you can do about it, because digital is how it's done now. I thought "You
Lee: "We're not working in the 60's vein, but a lot of what were interested
music coalesced during the 60's and 70's. Some of those things have gotten lost in
the modern studio technology. That music and technology weren't meant to be united,
in a sense-the music in itself is low-tech."
By conventional reckoning neither Thurston, Lee, nor Kim are extraordinary
technicians - at times they're barely competent. But from the neck up their chops
are prodigious. The hours that some players devote to running scales, they've
spent swilling mass quantities of high and low culture. While touring, the first thing
the band does is hit the used book and record stores.
These art sponges are no less absorbent at home. Thurston and Kim dash out of
our photo shoot in time to catch the matinee of Madonna's Truth or Dare (front
row seats) before heading over to the village for the premier of Branca's new
string quartet. Then it's back to Thurston and Kim's dingy Lower East side apt.
to transcribe a few guitar licks with frequent interruptions to spin the punk/noisecore
and Sun Ra 45's Thurston picked up in Japan. ( He's big on Free Jazz these days,
while Lee's been listening toLeo Kottke, Speedy West and Hawaiian Slack-Key
Master, Gabby Pahinui. Kim Gigs Nelson- Go figure. After that, it's time for free jazz
giant, Cecil Taylor's late set-front row again, at the knitting factory, Manhattan's
According to Guitar For The Practicing Musician, Joe Satriani cited Goo as
of the year."
Thurston:" That's sick!That's so weird! Are we like a novelty pick or what?"
Lee: "That's perplexing. I don't think we feel much kinship with what
accomplished player though he is. He sure knows a lot more music theory then
any of us. But what we lack in technical skills, I hope we make up in idea's. The
conceptual side is 75% of what we do."
Thurston: "When we started, we considered ourselves the classic non-musicians,
except for Lee, who was very studied. Initially we just crashed about, and people
picked up on it. But I really do regret not spending the last 10 or 15 years
developing my playing in standard tuning, I was talking to Neil Young about how
a lot of his songs are veryD-Em-G, and I really like that kind of playing."
Kim:'So put on a Neil Young record!"
Thurston: "I 'd love to play "Red House" but I'll never be
able to. I could start now
and maybe whip out a killer version when I'm 50. I just retune, experiment, try to
be creative. But I don't think of myself as doing any thing crucial with guitar, anything
that anybody else couldn't do."
Kim: "That's ridiculous. What a lot of people look for in a great guitarist is reckless
abandon. When you have a free concept of playing it takes you places most people
Thurston: "But what about someone like Hendrix, a player of utter technical
in "classic" guitar playing who actually took it somewhere new?"
Kim: "But he also had reckless abandon. People who are really glib tend
to play the
same things over and over. They don't have an impetus to do anything creative."
Thurston: "No! It's a way of playing that is so deft, so musical. I
have no sense of
rhythm or pitch, and my sense of melody isn't so great either."
Kim: "I think you're crazy. And anyway people compensate in interesting
what they don't have.
There's this guy that I really like. He tells everyone that he doesn't
even like me as a friend, but when we're alone together we do
things that are reserved for people who think of each other as
more than friends. What do I do?
A friend, more, or less? Huntly, IL
The guy's a jerk. I know that won't discourage you from liking him,
but he's got a major personality flaw, Disrespecting you.Be careful
of this kind of butthead, because his sleaze behavior may rub off on
you, and then your life will become more and more hellish. Next time
you're alone with him and he tries to get friendly, tell him your friend
Thurston Moore wants to kick his ass, And then tell him why.
I'm in sixth grade, and I like a boy in fitfth, but he's going out with a
grader (total slut). She's only going out with him because I like him, but
he doesn't see it. I know he likes me because every time I talk about
another guy he gets jealous. What should I do?
Karen, New York, NY
You know, it's kinda hard to dissuade a fifth grader from going out with
a ninth grader. Especially if she's a 'total slut'. But you might want the dude
to find out the hard way between love and lust.Wait until Miss ninth
grader drops Mr. fifth grader for someone else.He'll be bent out of shape,
and it'll be up to you to decide if he's worth helping up out of the gutter.
If he realizes your kindness and shows affection, you'll be lucky.
If not, look around for someone a little smarter.
I am 15 years old and have extremely large breasts. I'm not going
to get into exactly how big they are but they're way bigger then
triple D. Everyone that I meet, guys especially, wants to get
to know me because of that.The girls try to act like they're fake.
What to do?
Big-busted in Brooklyn, NY
Large breasts are a very attractive asset, Some people are turned
off by them, but they are a minority. You're going to have to be
proud of your self and accept the fact that a lot of people are
going to give you grief. Large breasts, or large buttocks,
or large anything will attract attention to the person who's got em'
but so what? Laugh all those idiots off and smile to the fact that
you have something special.
My first problem is that boys I like who like me back are kinda
shy about making the first move. The second prob is that I am
too! Can you give me some tips on first move-making that
won't be scary for either of us?
Not gettin ' any, Fresno, CA
Shyness is cool and if you want to hang out with somebody
equally shy, a movie is a good idea because then you don't
have to talk so much. And when the movies over, you at
least have something immediate to relate to. I know asking
someone out is easier said then done, but come on, you
only live once! I should talk though. I couldn't even look
at girls I was attracted to with out blacking out.
I'm a lonely 14 year old. I'm not pretty, outgoing or
interesting. Why do guys only like beautiful girls?
Because the majority of guys are too stupid and insensitive
to realize a person like you may posses qualities of beauty.
Become aware of chats beautiful within you and cultivate it.
Don't be afraid of men. Be true to your self, and hopefully
an honest love will come your way. The more you have
confidence and believe in your own beauty the more likely
this is to happen.
There's this really bitchy girl at my school. I can't stand her!
I really wanna kick her butt, but if I do I won't be able to
go on the eighth grade trip, and I could get expelled.
Ignore her, that'll be worse then kicking her butt. She'll
probably be in your face even more though so be careful.
And any way eight years from now you probably won't
even remember her, either that or you'll be best friends.
Every time something goes wrong and I'm around, I
get blamed. Even people I don't know blame me for things.
Blamed in Stratford, CT
Next time someone blames you for something, look
em' straight in the face and ask, "How may I correct
This will startle and dumbfound them.Then go up to
them and kiss them lightly on the cheek and whisper,
"No matter what happens, I will always love you."as
you back away grab your head and scream bloody
murder and run like the wind.
Music is a virus from outer space.
sonic Youth brought the virus back
with them from one of their last trips
out there. Now your tripping with them.
It's1974, and sci- fi writer Philip K Dick"s tooth hurts
like a bitch.He calls the Pharmacy, and when he answers
the door to receive his medicine, he notices the woman's
golden necklace, the familiar Christian fish sign used by the
persecuted members of earlt churches to secret identify
themselves to one another. He is transfixed by the necklace,
and his reality implodes. He finds himself in Roman times,
communicating clandestinely with the woman, in deadly fear.
The impression lasts for only a few seconds, but over the next
few months, Dick's mind is taken over by a benign divine
force that he calls "VALIS" or Vast Active Living Intelligence
System. It works something like a computer and speaks to him in
"AI:" or artificial intelligence voice. Once, while PKD was listening
to the Beatles, VALIS replaces the lyrics with message that
his young child is near death.He and his wife get the child to
the hospital in the nick of time. In 1976 VALIS leaves him.
It's 1987 and sonic Youth releases "Sister". The album is rife
with images and ideas from Dick's later books, most of which
deal with his VALIS experience. Dick is thanked on the lyric
page. The insert also contains signals used in Haitian vodun
( voodoo) rituals, and a strange drawing Dick made, a hybrid
of the Christian fish sign, the eye of Shiva, and the double-helix
It's1981, and PKD publishes Valis.In it he asserts that Valis
crossbands with human."As living information, the plasmate
travels up the optic nerve to the pineal body.It uses the
human brain as a female host in which to replicate itself
in an active form. The divine virus is camouflaged, and
doesn't obviously alter the humans that it enters into
symbiosis with. Valis replicates itself-not through information
or in information- but as information.
It's 1988 and one week after Blastfirst/Enigma/Capitol disseminates
Day Dream Nation worldwide, A virus programs infects Arpenat
and Milnet, huge computer networks that service research and
data management for America's military industrial complex. The
virus steals passwords and disguises itself as a legitimate user.
The program spreads throughout networks around the globe,
replicating it's information up to hundreds of times in each
machine it uses.
It's 1982 and in March, the same month that Lester Bangs
dies, Philip K. Dick succumbs to a massive heart attack.
It's 1982 and sonic youth releases their first record.I would
say that this is only the beginning of the story, but thats a
misrepresentation of the facts, because nothing as recognizable
as a story ever emerges. There are just fragments of some grand
cable, after images, bits of torn messages, patches of infection,
arrows pointing in a thousand directions: genetic engineering,
Walt Disney, the Illuminate, Madonna, the dog star Sirius, Compact
discs, Thomas Pynchon, guitar rock, video games, LSD. But it's
seldom more then a shredded map, and never a narrative with polite
beginnings, and endings. Maybe the thing itself is just some
all-too-human conspiratorial network that supports multi-national
capitol, a technological system of power and information control,
that most pop-culture isdesigned to obscure. Or maybe it's, well,
something else, some sentient force outside conventional versions
of reality, but no less real("there's something moving over there,
like nothing I've ever seen"). But whatever the thing is, once you've
glimpsed it, you start making conceptual leaps you probably shouldn't
be fucking with."We make up what we can't hear"). Once you realize
that, like Satan, it's greatest trick is to make you think it doesn't exist,
The viral network of information is the social paradigm of the '80's,
one that has a horrifying downside. Aids makes viral metaphors
dangerous, and yet, all the more inevitable. It should be mentioned
re the above chronology, that AIDS first hit the TV networks in
1982, and it was initially associated with Haitian immigrants. But
conspiracies breed counter-conspiracies and a virus is not always
malignant; genetics engineers use viruses to splice helpful information
into the cells of people with congenital effects. AIDS and VALIS
are opposing forces, one too real, and one not quite real enough,
under the same form("hey-hypostatic information").
It's a week before Halloween and I'm with Sonic Youth in the Blast
First record office in SoHo. They're acting about the way I expected.
Thurston Moore, a blond beanpole is campy and cocky, and the most
talkative. Lee Ranaldo, the other Vox/guitarist looks like a pizza- slinger
with pupils the size of oranges, and he cuts through the bull a bit more
than Thurston. Bassist Kim Gordon comes off sweet, friendly, and
mildly shy, a bit odd, given her convincing Bo-Ho witch get-up and
stage presence that burns with a sexuality once removed from ritual.
Steve Shelley, who was raised as a child by mall-rats, seems tired,
and doesn't talk much.
The conversation's okay rock talk, covering: The history of Blast First
( named after a futurist manifesto), some TV documentary about them
on a "middle class arty channel" in England, dissonance("It's more like
sibling rivalry") open tuning ("We're not into the math of it"), Why Day
Dream Nation sounds so fucking awesome(It was a great studio"),
Why both the jams and riffs are their best record('We played the
jams a lot better before we recorded them, We never did that before").
Interesting enough, but it's more fun watching thurston go off on bugs:
"We're into like, bug things. Dinosaur's record's called 'bug.' Das
Damen's new single is called 'bug'. The U-men just put out an album called
Step on a bug."
"And the Rapeman EP was called bud", Kim laughs.
"They really missed the boat," Lee adds,"wrong letter"
Steve is asleep.
"It's not like hip-hop"Thurston explains, "like 'you're bugging me.'
It's like actual bugs".Someone passes out Xerox's of various insects,
while Ranaldo goes on about "arachnid rock".I can't help thinking of
the drug-addict in the opening of PKD's 1977 A Scanner Darkly, who's
only purpose in life is to eradicate millions of bugs that he (falsely perceives
are infesting his apartment, his body, and his dog, So I bring up PKD,
and the bugs disappear.
Sometimes you see the symptoms everywhere, crystalline visions that
jam the air with meaning, like the multi-national logos that loom over
Times Square. It's a lovable rush: your neurons become like sentient
fingers of a monstrous mutant network that sucks up every sign in it's
sublime reach( hey gold connection").But it's getting harder and harder
to reach that state. You realize that your incapability to deal is due to
the greater numbers of increasingly minute bits of data they keep
slamming into you. ( "Scattered pages and shattered lights"). Your
brain has already been reprogramed into a mult-channeled hunk
of perceptual technology that manages information and images, but
your capacity to integrate the shit is beginning to fry ("gotta change
my mind before it burns out"). The signs become fragments of signs,
then just fragments,meaningless bits of junk, in all their nauseous,
stupid, difference and faith is just another stupid psychic disorder
(" her light eyes were dancing, she is insane, her brother says she's
just a bitch,with a golden chain").
So you watch TV looking for any kind of sign("I'm keeping my
commission to faith's transmission").You're on the viral network
and paranoia and schizophrenia are the only channels you pick
up. But you can't stay tuned to either one- you keep getting this
strange interference, the distorted but alluring noise(" looking for
a ride to a secret location"). You realize you're picking up the live
signal to a club down the street, a slick slam-hole called the post-
modern Sensorium. You pull on your lizard boots,go down, check
it out and start dancing the latest dance: The cyberpunk stomp.
Sonic Youth's playing and their clearly the hottest sensorium
dance band. As one percept hacker tells you, " they're real rock
dog stars". No one can match their mutant post-sub-hyper-meta-
generic thrash, and you learn that denizens deal their boot-legs like
drugs, digital cartridges in multi-colored packages with hundreds of
names: Conspiracy Camp, Lethal Bubblegum, The Dissonant Riff,
Divine Trash, Zebra.
"phillip K Dick understood and wrote about the schizophrenic experiences
better than anybody," Thurston explains. "He's definitely important on Sister.
The lyrics to 'Schizophrenia' and 'Stereo Sanctity' were really taken from,
like Radio Free Albemuth (an earlier version of Valis). I can't get laid cuz
everybody's dead is taken straight out of Valis.
"He's like a modern day philosopher", Kim says." His books can be depressing,
but I feel centered every time I read him."
"He was very well read", Thurston points out. " but he writes in common speech,
not like an academic. Dick was really compulsive. He'd change his mind all
the time. I suppose he turned a lot of people off because he'd hop on any
religious thing that that came his way. Schizophrenia's just another word for
Or vice versa. When Dick wrote in Valis, that "the symbols of the
divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum," He was
anticipating Sonic Youth's lyrics, which mix in religious and occult
imagery with their scuzzy skanking for pop and violence. The stuff
is powerful enough to set off Dick's kind of spiritual paranoia. One
nutso Kim remembers " was really strange. He wrote saying things like
he couldn't believe it when he heard Sister.He said 'how could you
make this record, cause I was hearing these songs in my head.' He
sent lot's of weird letters and books." Kim says she can't remember
what books he sent.
I call them on their Voodoo- Catholic acid dreams, but they dodge.
" Well I'm not religious, Kim explain ( let's go walking on water/now
you think I'm Satan's daughter"). Thurston was raised a Catholic," but
it's just something that fascinates me"(" no need to be scared/let's talk
to the dead"). Thurston breaks in: It's not really about religion. When
I hear realign, I think of organized realign. I mean, the most separatist
thing in our music is the lyrics. The person who sings usually writes the
I'm about to ask them why, if their lyrics are so separatists they have such
a similar feel, but Kim anticipates the question and says " We all share the
books we read."
Thurston jumps in. "We share the knowledge behind them, but as far as
espousing anything..." We talk about this shared information thing for
awhile: PKD, The society's newsletter, David Chronenbergs's "sex as
virus metaphor" and his unfinanced Dick screenplay, and cyberpunks
like William Gibson, Lucious Shephard, Bruce Sterling, Michael
Swanwick, John Shirley. Thurston's disappointed when I tell him
that Gibson is 40. Well that blow my theory that were contemporaries.
Some more linkages are attempted, and the Kim comes out with the peak
audacity of the day, crystallizing the Zeitgeist and shattering it at the same time:
Sometimes it's amazing that anything happens."Like when you're in a plane
and you realize that there's like 300 people with you, and there's all this
baggage. It doesn't seem very aerodynamic. It feels like you're are on a
boat, and it's flying. It's just amazing, and at the same time it seems so
old fashioned. It doesn't parallel the level of communication most of us
operate on, like with fax machines. It seems almost archaic."
Pop theorists have noted that hip-hop is one of the most innovative
and visceral technological culture around.Nichola Sansano, who
helped engineer Public Enemy's " It Takes Aa Nation To Hold
Us Back" offered his services to sonic youth, and produced It
Takes A Day Dream Nation To Put Up With Us. Though on
a different plane Sonic Youth share the same sublime matrix
as hip-hop: dense, tough, hip to the harsh creole as machine
language. The Youth bring the (white) noise to the urban
stratosphere.("I'm just walkin' around/ the city is a wonder town").
True, the Youth have stepped into their share of East Village art-shit:
They wank in loads of different tunings,stick forks into their guitars,
use tape loops and digital delays on live guitars, and employ dissonant
structures and hyperharmonic over tones.But they still resonate more
with BOC than Branca,'cause they play viral variations of the same rock
n roll guitar. They know the alchemy of noise that propelled the greatest
guitar bands: the search for the philosophers rock, and the dangerous pacts
with technology that need to be made to get there ("You're gonna take
control of the chemistry/ you're gonna manifest the mystery").
These secret exchanges between guitars and certain arcane machines
have nothing to do with mere distortion. If that were the case, then
80's metal would really be a demonic legion, instead of a hack pack
with only a few unholy stars. It's subtler than that: The machines
gotta be fucked with just enough to wake up and fuck back. Most
of the really bad ass barterings went down in the late 60's and early
70's: Blue Cheer, John Mclaughlin, the first two Velvet discs, Stooges,
Sabbath, Led Zepplin II, Robert Fripp,. But Hendrix was the unholiest
of unholies, the first, and perhaps last love magician, to learn how to
psychedelicize the themselves.
If the Voodoo Chile got windowpane into his wah-wah, Sonic Youth
get microdot into their microprocessors. But they're too grounded in
the electronic junkyard to drift off into deep space( "it's total trash/and
it's natural fact"). They use these succulent, thrashing machines to tune
into 80's pop consciousness. They know the pop virus can be both
lethal and divine, that if PKD heard saving graces through his beatles
records, Charles Manson heard insane mythic violence through his.
The youth are hip to the fact that today's sonic Matrix is saturated
with signals and messages, and that music of vision is about being
jacked in at the right nexus, with the right machines, picking up the
right signals, and then just jamming the whole shitstream into a techno
frenzy of sexual furyand open frequency psychic channeling(" transmittin
all the time/lookin up to the skies/I'm seein' ghosts fly"). The revolution
may not be televised, but the astral plane is, and the youth prepare you
for it's hyperreal combat, armed with the data only popesoterica affords
. And you can hear shit in the overtones. We have met the dreaming
machine, and it is us. (" All comin' from human imagination/day dreamin'
days in a daydreamin' nation").
We all know and love Thurston for his guitar/vocalist role in and
as a founding member of Sonic Youth (emerging from the Arcadians)
and his roots in the punk and New York Noise scenes of the late 70s
/ early 80s (Even Worse and The Coachmen); his politicized, irony, pop
subversion, the Ciccone Youth bonanza; his work with Dim Stars
and his solo work such as the 1995 album release Psychic Hearts;
and his arrival at the top of the cult rock ladder, whilst successfully
marrying not only co-Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon, but also
commercial success with art. Yet Thurston continues to push out
the envelope through his more experimental side projects both in
the field of music and other art forms.
Thurston was born 25 July 1958, in Coral Gables, Florida and
grew up in Bethel, Connecticut - a state he still spends a lot of time in,
although he generally lives in a New York loft with Kim, their daughter
Coco and cat Sweetface.
He is surrounded by experimental art, from work by L.A. artist
Jessica Herman, Rita Ackermann, to that of wife Kim and Thurston's
own paintings, and work from photographer/film-makers Richard Kern
and Raymond Pettibon, who have also provided
cover artwork for Sonic Youth. I spoke to him about his side projects,
which are becoming more numerous, with appearances on work as
varied as Schneider TM's Star(t) Fuck(ing), where he not only adds
guitar, but also singing bowl, piano, zube tube and turntable, as part
of his remix, to the recent Root project (Fringecore 7) for which
Thurston submitted 30 different one minute pieces on a DAT to Lo
Recordings who parceled them out for around 100 artists to create
new forms of audio/visual cross fertilization, using one of Thurston's
pieces as a start- point.
In addition, Thurston's label Ecstatic Peace! is not only putting out some
great stuff, like Thela, Nels Cline Trio, Zen,Fuzzhead, Mouthcrazy, Crude,
White Out, Guv'ner, Yoshomi, and of course, the Stockhausen releases;
but is also organizing some amazing gigs, such as the couple of shows at the
Cooler in New York in late November, featuring Thurston with DJ Olive; Lee
Ranaldo with William Hooker and Christian Marclay, Jackie-O Motherfucker,
Gerald Malanga's films and Diadal (Rita Ackermann, Jutta Koether and David Nuss).
Thurston also has a new label together with Byron Coley, called Key Records. So as
always, plenty to talk about.
Dee: What are you seeking for yourself in the solo/side projects you are
embarking upon? How do you select your collaborators?
Thurston Moore: I'm not seeking anything - I'm being pulled|
as if a siren is whispering from a rock offshore - collaborators are of the
flesh/spirit matrix and therefore equal - I shy from genre specifix tho only by
disallowance - I prefer the old child/soul - the noise maker - the Romanian
composer Dumitrescu says he hears the future of composition in the sounds
of the contemporary noise artists.
Your links with noise started way whenyou met Glenn Branca at the New York
Noise Festival in 1981. Glenn helped you to record and actually put out your
earlier pieces on his label Neutral. What did you actually take out of that link?
TM: I conceived and curated Noise Fest and had Branca play. My links with
noise began much earlier than any meeting I had with Branca - I saw him perform
at A-Space and was astounded and loved it and got involved with playing with him
- actually "for" him is more appropriate as his work did not involve so much group
composing but that was OK. I loved the strum and I learned what I did not want to
do as a musician in tandem with others - from today my retrospection holds more dear
to seeing a lonesome Jean-Michel Basquiat - also at A-Space way before he was a
famous painter. He was playing home-made electronic junk in front of like 10 people late
at night - it was curious at the time. It remains in my mind as something innocent, beautiful
and everlasting and I call it on this a bit more than I do the hammering of Branca. I loved
Glenn's music tho don't get me wrong and I still am interested in it - the desire for
wonder-lust amongst resultant overtone magic is a practice I can always thank him for
You also had contacts with John Zorn's New York no-wave scene. Have you worked
with him since and what contribution did he make to your own evolution?
TM: Zorn was one of the few NY'ers involved with free-improvisation as relative
the European school (as well as the lesser celebrated yet equally interesting USA
school - Chadbourne/Shoup/D. Williams/Ladonna Smith/P. Bradfield et al) and
therefore distinct and set apart from the internalized downtown NYC no-wave scene
which centered around Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Arto Lindsay, a.o. Zorn was
critical in his desire for shared activities regardless of sub-media trends - I thought he
was the epitome of "quirky" which I was cynically opposed to but realized he is a great
musician with a great musicians mind and I love him for it and slowly met up with him
and we crossed and harped together and we're pals and I hope to rock with him on
future planets as he transcends a lot of bullshit which mires the waters of this creative city. -etc.
How do you see the inter-relationship and differences between noise and sound?
TM: Not sure if I see it at all - both descriptions are of elements utilized
measure - it is sensuous science and I like it when you do it when you do it the way
I like it (if your purpose is to create: music from noise, found sound, etc. - let there be
rock, know what I mean).
How do you work the interface between noise, feedback and distortion?
What effect and dynamics are you looking forward?
TM: Total destruction.
Which guitars and effects do you usually use?
TM: Any / all.
Why did you choose to work with no-wave, free-form guitarist Nels Cline
(Nels Cline Trio and member of Carla Bouzulich's Geraldine Fibbers),
especially on the "In-store" album (Fringecore Oct/Nov 1997) and how did
that unusual recording come about?
TM: Nels was a west-coast guitar experimentalist with a very learned traditional
technique - he was in love with radical concepts and dug sonic youth early on -
he slowly broke from the trad-dads he was involved with and became more
active with noise freaks - he is the only musician besides Zorn I know who has
the trade chops who can meet a self taught noise fuck like me half way - so we
always wanted to do it and we met in a garage studio one morning and recorded
a CD for little brother and then that afternoon did a live record store gig - easy -
we got "into it".
Have you worked with Dos's Mike Watt, who has also worked
with Nels, since Ciccone Youth?
TM: Yeh, whenever we can we fucking plug in and blow.
Through your work with guitarist Elliot Sharp, especially on "Shamballa"
with William Hooker it seems that you strive for a high level of technological precision
- how do you see that type of duetting?
TM:Actually I've never played with Elliot - he plays on one piece - I play
other (the 1st one) - I'd play with the baldie anytime tho.
I was inspired by the work you did with Blue Human's Tom Surgal, on the
Klangenfarbenmelodie... And the Colorist strikes Primitive album. I also heard
the live show that you did with him at Khyber Pass in Philadelphia, a couple
of years ago was a blast. What extra forces can you conjure up from playing
with percussionists such as Tom or William Winant, both of whom performed
together with you on the "Piece for Jetsum Dolma" release?
TM: I prefer improvising electric guitar with percussion and those two are
together as they're quite different yet highly personalized . Many of these
collaborations are with artists who also appear on the free jazz scene.
How do you relate to the jazz aesthetic?
TM: I have nothing to offer the history and care not a wink about being part
- I love jazz.
What is it like making the change from playing pretty structured pieces
before a 20,000 audience, to free form improvisation in front of a couple
of hundred or so?
TM: It's like the party's over and just the hardcore potsmokers are left
and we start
wrapping some major bones.
You have always fought to keep away from the "art-rock" epithet
and the whole arty
avant-garde scene, hence Sonic Youth, but many of your side projects are being
categorized as such, how does that jell?
TM: We're all dead.
Aside from being one of Sonic Youth's founders, Thurston Moore is one of
modern music's pronounced developers. To his credit, Thurston has
filmed a movie, 1991 The Year Punk Broke, documenting Sonic
Youth's European tour with Nirvana, The Ramones, Dinosaur Jr. and
Babes in Toyland.
Thurston has also recorded albums with drummers
William Hooker (Shambala) and recently with Tom Surgal
(Klangfarbenmelodie... and the Colorist Strikes Primati) in addition to
releasing an out of print 7" for Table of the Elements Records and his solo
Geffen release, Psychic Hearts.
Moore, along with Surgal and drummer William Winant, played an improvised
piece at the Canadian based Festival Musique de Actuelle Victoriaville this year.
After the show the group discussed improvisation and influences at a press conference.
Their comments seemed well worth attention.
Thurston is remembered by many as a performer with composer Glenn Branca,
which is how he met band mate Lee Renaldo. Their session together is documented
on Symphony # 1 : Tonal Plexus. "He's [Branca] a composer who pretty much dictates
what he wants and so there's not much creative interaction," said Moore.
"It's all technical; but I was introduced to a lot of ideas concerning guitars and
alternative ways of tuning guitars. He introduced me to the world of music,
especially in New York. I don't think he's really into free improvisations. When
I used to see him in the '70s he was really inspiring: his musical presence, the way
he approached the guitar physically."
Be it a recording or an improvised performance the generation gap is always something
to ponder in Moore's work. "Sonic Youth attracts a really young audience and a lot of people
probably have no idea where we're coming from doing a free piece. It's not necessary for
you to have an excessive history. I know so many young people who are completely
immersing themselves in wanting to find out about improvised music. I've never seen this
happen before on such a scale. There's such a huge underground of bands, a cassette
underground, who are playing purely free improvised music. It's kind of like junk
improvisation. I think a lot of them aren't interested in dealing with music that they've
identified with as punk rock. They identify us from the mainstream and these kids are
throwing away their punk rock records and getting involved with a world that is hardly as
successful but just as exciting. It's the first time I've seen that happen on a large network.
So there's all these young people who are looking for all the old Incus Records, FMP
[another obscure European label], and it's become a trend. They're going from punk rock
to Schlippenbach [a well known improvisor in the European circuit]."
Thurston is a well known record collector among the New York circuit. It is noteworthy
to learn a bit about the complexity of the musical taste of a self proclaimed music junkie.
"We were aware of the jazz underworld of New York...of John Zorn's work. We were
more into collecting John Coltrane and slowly started getting into free improvisers.
At first I thought that music didn't make sense. I remember listening to a John Stevens/Evan
Parker duo record; for the longest time I just stood there amazed...how could these records
have existed? Who were they playing this music for? And who was buying this music? It was
a chirping kind of music and it really intrigued me. Here were these musicians who had been
developing and creating this language and they had to document it in order to communicate to
each other. It was through the recording more than anything that everyone could hear what
everyone was doing.
I wrote a piece in a magazine called Grand Royal [a magazine issued
by the Beastie Boys], it was a primer for free jazz. A lot of people were angry [when the
article ran] because they thought there's this world they're involved in and they thought,
'You're introducing it to these kids and they're going to ruin it.' So there is a little
One of the most influential New York guitarists who remains incredibly underappreciated
is Arto Lindsay. "He is an amazing guitar player. Just his approach to playing. Even Branca,
who spent diligent time tuning, would cite Arto as his favorite guitarist [William Winant made
the comment that Lindsay doesn't even tune his guitar]. He was self taught. The interplay
between Ikue Mori on drums and Tim Wright on bass [in Lindsay's group DNA] was
At this point Thurston began to talk about why they played this small town three hours
east of Montreal. Incidentally, the name of the performed work was "Piece for Jetsun
Dolma." The name arose from a female deity in Tibetan Buddhism. "It was recorded
but I have not heard it. I would release it in a minute if it sounded good and I really
enjoyed it [most likely a release might stem from the festival's own label Victo Records].
To me it really works as a piece because if you just give a piece a name it creates its own
entity. That's what I use for playing, I title a piece and with the title in mind create the
Although Moore had released the recording with Surgal, neither of the two had performed
with the eclectic Winant. "The decision went through a couple of phases. I wanted to
extrapolate what we were doing with more musicians. First we were going to put some
sort of ensemble together. Charles Gayle was going to be playing with us. Charles is an amazing
drummer, he's an amazing pianist, an amazing stand up bass player [an amazing tenor
saxophone player documented on Knitting Factory Records]. He's a remarkable all
around musician. So at first I was just going ask Charles and Tom and these two
saxophone players, Sabir Mateem and Danny Carter. They work really well
together and play in this group called the Test with Tom Bruno on drums, another
remarkable NY drummer that was never heard of. But Charles flaked out and said,
'I don't think I can do it right now.' I thought about it some and I called Willie up
and I said 'We've talked about playing so long, would you be interested in doing
something?'" Winant has played with Frank Zappa, Mr. Bungle, Glen Spearman,
Anthony Braxton, and John Cage. His role in the trio cannot be underscored.
Having played at the festival a few times before, he gave his voice to the project.
"I thought it would be a more interesting thing not to have the saxophones because
there's going to be a lot of saxophones at the festival."
The evolution of bands like Sonic Youth into the global scheme is described by
Thurston as a process of familiarization. He seemed currently excited about
affiliating himself with an English pop sensation group whom Sonic Youth recently
toured with. "The biggest band of this genre is Stereolab. They took the pop elements
of 20th century classical... Stockhausen...etc. It's also a mixture of late '60s, early
'70s German electronic music like Can and Faust. They're playing it in a music like
that of punk rock. Stereolab's singing style comes out of the classic French
Moore is undoubtedly an artist who never followed the normal musical paths and
it shows in every aspect of his career, from political statements like "Smash the
PMRC" to his eccentric musical taste both in collecting and in releasing recordings
for his tiny label Ecstatic Peace.
Most importantly, Moore has never seemed to rest on his laurels in his pursuit of new
art. Ironically enough, when he began performing it actually was rebellious to be in a
punk rock band. It seems perhaps people have become immune to this now and
perhaps it would be just as rebellious to play ukulele or Hawaiian guitar. But Moore
still seems to bring out a bit of rebellion in this art form. Perhaps he has simply
perfected a technique others are wearing out trying to mimic. Hoping to broaden
the musical world of the uninitiated to improvised music seems to be the position
Thurston Moore holds.
From The Music Monitor
Jane magazine, May 2001 by Jeff Johnson
Whose idea was it to get a pad in Western Massachusettes?
TM: Whose idea was it to price out the artist bohemia of NYC?
We pay less and live larger here, and it's only a three-hour trip
to New York. It's the Northeast center of book arts here, no
real industry apart from academia and farming. It's also a major
women's community, an environment where organized feminism
has a distinct foundation as well as being the lesbian capital of
Who owned the house before you, and when was it built?
TM: The house was built in the early 1900s as a residence for the
president of Smith college. It was also a hideout for Sylvia Plath
whilst confounded academic suitors sought out her gracious mystery.
When did you move out there?
TM: We fully moved here in 1999. We had rented a summer
split-level affair in the neighboring Hadley Township and another
summer in a cabin in the wilds of Conway with attendant goats
How do you split time between there and NYC?
TM: We tour quite a bit, so we'll be gone a month at a time here and
there--sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. We hit NYC almost
every other weekend to work, play, etc. We still maintain our old
Any weird neighbors?
TM: Our next door neighbor is a remarkable school designed to teaching
"sounding" to deaf children. When we bought this house the local papers
had the headline "Avant-Garde Duo Buy Home" and went on to chortle
about the fact noise-rockers were locating themselves next to a deaf school
. You see celebrated writers like Kurt Vonnegut and jazz artists like
Yusef Lateef bopping around from time to time.
Can you make a lot of noise?
TM: Yes. Can you?
TM: Kim had a satellite TV installed just to watch Knicks games on
Favorite piece of art that wouldn't work in a NYC apartment?
TM: The preexisting wallpaper of blooming roses.
Any weird town laws?
TM: Well, pedestrians have the right of way here, which keeps the
local emergency room pretty busy. Who shovels, mows the lawn,
etc? TM: Fuck that.
Where did you get all the furniture?
TM: Kim is a professional carpenter by trade and has pretty much
built and constructed all the furniture here.
Favorite thing to do?
TM: Going to the post office, the dentist, the doctor, the store--
everyone's welcoming, nice and there's not interminable waiting.
(by Andrew McUtchen)
Andrew McUtchen meets Sonic Youth mainman and
guitar torturer extraordinaire Thurston Moore
"I moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith" writes Thurston Moore,
going back, going way back to an epoch of rock history when Sid
Vicious was at his most vicious, prowling the Village's streets after
Nancy's brutal murder, when Lydia Lunch was just a "girl on the
corner with a nose ring", and when Kim Gordon was a pretty blond
he hadn't met yet. These, and other tasty details of the late 70s New
York scene, are exposed by Moore in an endearingly naff little short
story found on the Internet titled 'On the Loose', which ends (gag) with
the words; "..and that was when I first kissed Kim".
Adolescent prose aside, this brief fusion of flesh meant more than just
two badly dressed kids getting it on in a seedy loft apartment. It meant
that Moore would soon tattoo his upper left arm with the prophetic
words, 'Sonic Life', and the band we all know, and mostly love would
soon follow. Neither Moore (thank god) nor I, however, have a Sonic
Youth history lesson on the cards today, and we move quickly over the
details to greener pastures.
In short, Moore summarizes for the record, they wrote a bunch of
albums, most good, signed to a major, became a 'brand name', were
slated as much as celebrated, but they survived, and they can still shake
it, as demonstrated by their latest album NYC Ghosts And Flowers.
And they're really, really nice. Even Moore, who could understandably
have an ill tempered stoat down his trousers about the way he's been
written up over the years, (NME described his Root tribute album as "
…a snowman celebrating warm weather by commissioning a statue of
himself made out of more snow". Ouch!) is expectant of demeanor
rather than defensive, gentle of temperament, rather than bitter and
quietly erudite in a non-threatening, non-Radiohead kind of way.
Would a true beret owning, deconstructa-rock svengali admit to loving
the Spice Girls? You'll find out. But let's first take it back to the genesis.
On a fundamental level, I challenge Moore, little has changed in Sonic
Youth land over the last 20 years. He nods, and smiles.
You still write songs about Patti Smith; "Yep". (Check out the
licious 'Patti Smith Math Scratch' on Moore's last solo album Psychic
Hearts.) You still aim to transcend the 'usual' with your standard rock format;
"uh-huh", and a guitar is still not just a guitar right? "Of course".
So, I push on encouraged by such a wonderful, and compliant beginning to
the 'difficult Thurston Moore interview', overlooking Moore's cruelly un-ironic
streak: …and what has been your greatest 'rock'n'roll moment' of recent
times? "Well, I was watching the Spice Girls movie" Moore recalls, turning
unpredictable all of a sudden "and when they cover Gary Glitter's 'You
Wanna Be In My Gang" I got goose-bumps. It was chilling. When they
came out in those costumes with all the dancers I thought to myself, this is
as great as the first time I saw Blondie at Max's. This is as exciting as sitting
behind Sid Vicious at CBGB's right after he lost his mind. I could just see being
an eight-year old girl, and wanting to be that."
"At the same time, there was something freakish about it, and it struck
this completely total rock thing.God bless them all, that's what I say.
You've often exalted music as a "magic"medium of information, one
often more than just the sum of it's parts, does that apply to what happened
between you and the Spice Girls, in that plane somewhere over the Atlantic?
"Hmmm, yeah, it kind of relates to my attitude to music other people
'cliched' or 'recycled'. In my eyes you don't need to be so spiritually involved
with music to be considered a valid musician in my eyes. Some of the most
wonderful moments for me musically were machine made and plastic."
"You ask me about Matchbox 20, and bands like that, and I say what
about Matchbox 20? I don't know much about them, but they seem to
me to exemplify a group of people getting off on the sudden rush of
making rock'n'roll music, and I think that's wonderful. Maybe I'm wrong,
maybe they are something put together by a machine and then plugged in,
I don't know, but they don't offend me."
Surely corporate punk bands like the Offspring who resort to plagiarizing
themselves to make hits must offend you…
"It does, they do, and you know what? Forget the Spice Girls, it's American
Alternative radio stations, not mainstream rock and pop stations that bug me.
We're considered, in a broader sense, 'Alternative', but don't expect us to be
played next to Blink 182 and Offspring. Those bands cater to people their age,
and we're hardly of that generation. We're parent rock in a way. Musically we're
a lot more extreme and radical than a lot of those bands that seem to cater to
the safest aspect of Nirvana the verse/chorus/verse thing, which I always found
kind of disappointing."
"That was an aspect of Nirvana's music that Kurt told me he wanted to
from. So I find it discouraging to see all these bands taking this really simplistic
element from Nirvana and employing it to their own success. I don't really care.
I'm not bitter about it," he laughs sensing the heat of his own diatribe, "but it's not
very interesting to me. That's what they're calling punk rock, but to me it's as
prevalent and as annoying as disco was in the 70's. There's this whole underground
of lo-fi cassette-label musicians who are really good. So I like that stuff, but those
kids think of us as being totally over the hill."
And also, while Offspring rant about 'flys' and 'white guys', Sonic Youth
singing free-style lyrics in a stream of consciousness winding well away from
the mainstream. Is it true that, when you're working with an ambiguous
message and the masses, you gotta keep em separated?
"Not always. Our 'big hit singles' gave nothing away, but their popularity
probably had more to do with the music, and the fact that they were 'weird'
sounding by contrast. Every now and again, the 'alternative culture', by way
of momentum swing, is cherished by the mainstream for what it is, rather than
how it should be like the mainstream popular music."
"Lyric writing is an interesting process in Sonic Youth. There's three
writing now, and we've all had a lot of interest and involvement with
expression through words, or poetry or whatever. I hardly think we're the
only people writing lyrics with that frame of reference or that frame of mind,
but our fusion of styles in this framework is interesting.
"Most people can't tell now who wrote what, and to make it more confusing,
I wrote some lyrics that Kim sings, and vice versa. I like that blurring of
identities within the band, because it becomes a unified thing that can't be
related to other forms of historical poetry."
How do you respond to detractors when they criticize your lyrics as
"staggeringly pretentious, and meaningless psycho-babble" (NME) ?
"A lot of the lyrical ideas [that run] through Sonic Youth and my solo
record [Psychic Hearts] do have a lot of meaning in a way, although it is
somewhat abstracted," Moore says, unfazed by the quote. "Especially
when you're writing them. They're written down with just the poetic sense.
They have some kind of meaning to you because it's emotional, so it's like
trying to translate that emotion literally beyond the poetic sense of the words.
You don't want to analyze it so much because I just like the abstract nature
of it, that it can take on any shape that you might feel it should take on."
You speak a great deal of poetry and it's place in music, I've often wondered
to myself if Sonic Youth's album title, 'A Thousand Leaves' isn't a coy play
on Whitman's 'Leaves Of Grass'?
"You know, you're right, and the first person to pick that up. (Spike
I didn't want to draw attention myself to the reference, but yes, that indivisible
notion of art and nature is what I was getting at. It makes me happy when the
slightest intentions can be picked up. Whitman is so amazing don't you think?
(Spike nods) There's a lot of his 'New England Mysticism' that we aspire to.
The way his words seem to breathe, and have colour, and shape, and texture.
As a member of Sonic Youth, and as a solo performer I'm also playing with
the same type of evocation. The same way he improvises with images and words,
we improvise with sounds and notes."
I've heard, and seen you spiral upwards, towards these trance like
improvisational jams live the last couple of times, is that Whitman
inspiration pushing you closer to this almost structure-less musical energy?
"What I'm aiming for all the time when we play live is a balance between
high energy of loud music, and a calm meditational energy you sometimes find
at its core. Recording tends to restrict too much experimentation, 'cause when
you're making a record it's a part of you, for that time it's your whole fabric.
But when we tour the songs, they tend to get more and more expansive, and
actually evolve over time until they are something quite different. For this
reason I never go back and listen to the recorded document. The thrill, instead
of listening to our CDs, comes when the balance I was talking about can be attained.
Everyone in the room can have a shared, communal rock experience. I'm only too
happy to be the conduit of it, after all rock'n'roll saved my soul."
Thurston's "Throbbing" 13:
Funhouse - Stooges
White Light / White Heat - Velvet Underground
Marquee Moon - Television
Blank Generation - Richard Hell & the Voidoids
Ramones - Ramones
Radio Ethiopia - Patti Smith
Damaged - Black Flag
Bug - Dinosaur Jr
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Public Enemy
Impressions - John Coltrane
Ege Bamyasi - CAN
Bleach - Nirvana
Killer - Alice Cooper
SD: How many records do you actually own Thurston?
TM: How many do I own?!... like five million... I really
have no idea how many records I own, but umm, going
through Europe for the last six weeks, I picked up about four hundred...
SD: Four hundred??? All free jazz right?
TM: A lot of European free jazz, weird improv stuff... I even found
weird American stuff that I can't find in America. Cause I went
through all these weird little French towns like Toulouse and... we
don't usually go through these little places; it's like Spain or Germany..
So I made a point of ... taking care of business. Whatever I have, I
have an extra four hundred, so its like, a one in one out situation.
What was the last record you listened to?
TM: The last record I listened to... right before I left home
I was listening to that Movietone album, I thought that was pretty hot...
SD: Do you think "experimental" is the right word for your music?
TM: It's as valid as any other word I guess. I mean... as compared
with most of the music we're aligned with maybe it is... I don't know,
I mean experimental is such a funny term, cos almost anybody making
music is experimenting with music, so we should all be experimental.
SD: Yeah, and if its experimental, what are you trying to prove or find
out? and how do you know if you succeed?
TM: Exactly. Its just - music taking off from what the standard is in the
mainstream is considered experimental.
SD: Do you ever... lose faith?
TM: Lose faith?
SD: Well, after that explosion of the American underground,
it seemed like things, from then on, we're just gonna be... better
anyway. Like there'd been a permanent shift in the mainstream.
TM: The American underground has always been really interesting,
at least to me it has been, and still is, and right now I'm more
interested in the underground that's going on all over the place,
especially with all these cassette labels that are doing this stuff
with young bands that are doing completely free music-
SD: What like Chocolate Monk and so on?
TM: Yeah the Chocolate Monk label, like we had Prick Decay
play with us in Glasgow...
SD: How did they go down with the audience?
TM: I think the audience was just baffled for the most part. But
we are drawn to that kind of music-making anyway and not just
for the whole hype of wanting to "dig the underground"... but - I
don't know - what do you mean lose faith? Just because of the
spotlight on the underground?
SD: No...Well, yeah, in the whole co-option of it, the way its made
just a feeding ground for majors, but more... It kinda seems like
things never really change or progress. People stay in certain
attitudes, bigotted or whatever and to music and what it should be.
TM: Yeah, but at the same time, everything is changing in a way,
there's always a constant flux, this dynamic... the thing is, the way
people market music, they hope it can stagnate so they can get
something that really sells, and they want to keep it selling. If
things change they have to deal with that and its a mystery to
them. Are you happy on a major label? Yeah, its alright. To me
its not really that much different than when we were doing totally
independent records and doing it all ourselves. Bands just have to
be really aware of how majors work before they deal with majors.
We definitely made ourselves aware of that. So when I read about
these scenarios, about bands getting ripped off, fucked over on
major labels, scenarios that Steve Albini will write about to prove a
certain point, it makes me kinda laugh, because the people to blame
here are the band, not realizing the situation they were getting into,
thinking they were gonna be totally babysat by these labels and that's
not how you should deal with these people at all. There is a big
difference. Major labels aren't gonna be that intimate with you,
as far as being into what you're doing, so you almost have to be
more independent by being on a major label, work for yourself,
that's what we found out, se we just totally do all our own business.
SD: I heard you're not really happy with that solo album you put
out? (Psychic Hearts)
TM: I wasn't? I dunno, I did that, and I was doing so many other
things. I was doing a lot of music that was just, more far-out; with
improvisers in New York and at the same time I was doing this
trio with Steve Shelley and Tim Foljahn, where I just wanted to
do these really minimalist pop-damage songs. We just wrote a
bunch of them... I had all these song ideas and I didn't really
wanna foist them on Sonic Youth because I think Sonic Youth
works better when its more of a group-composed effort anyway,
than me bringing in song ideas, so I wanted to find another outlet
for it, this trio thing. I played a bunch of gigs like that, as well as
these other gigs with these free players. And this pop stuff I
recorded and all this other stuff too, and I didn't know what to
do with it, so I figured maybe the only way I could afford to
record this other stuff was to have something else pay for it,
so I called up Geffen and said I'd do this record if they put it
out... I didn't really want to make a big deal of it, I didn't tour
SD: Didn't you play some Lollapalooza sideshows?
TM: Yeah but that was like, me alone.
SD: Really? Just you and a guitar?
TM: Yeah, so it was quite different. But then after Psychic
Hearts came out, the shows that I did do with that trio, we
did all instrumentals, stuff that we wrote after that album,
nothing off that record.
SD: So are you gonna record another Psychic Hearts record?
TM: I don't know, I sort of may, I might do another album with
Geffen if it would be like, a completely different thing. Yeah,|
instrumental. In fact it might all be instrumental, ha... just to
do something else, heheh.
SD: Does long-term domestic and financial security hamper creativity?
TM: What?!! (laughing) Does it happen creatively? Oh does it
have to happen? What?!... Oh, oh, oh, oh, not at all, I mean it
doesn't for me, it's just another experience I can bring into what
we do. I never really subscribed to the whole thing of... people
who were brought up in privileged circumstances cannot have the
same sort of emotional validity that someone who is suffering
does... I mean, can a rich man not play the blues? I mean who's
to say? It's such a personal measure that I would never want to
draw lines like that. I've heard musicians who had kind of rough
beginnings and they feel that their lifestyle sort of adds a certain
kind of edge to their music, and they'll denounce anybody who
they think didn't have the same kind of harsh reality.
SD: Have you hear much Britpop? Oasis? That's a whole
working-class attitude thing.
TM: I never really listen to that music with any kind of political
idea behind it, that these are working class youth making
populist music to rise above where they come from... I never
think about that when I hear them. To me the whole Oasis/Blur
thing is funny cause people equate it with the Rolling Stones vs the Beatles...
SD: And neither of them are really either?
TM: Well the thing is neither of those bands really have any of
the history or complexity or sophistication of the Rolling Stones
or the Beatles.
SD: I dunno, Blur are pretty sophisticated. They're sophists anyway.
Pedants. I dunno.
TM: Actually, I hear it more in their music than I do in Oasis's. Oasis
seem like a guilty pleasure in a way. I find both bands totally bubblegum
and... the Rolling Stones and Beatles were people who had different
agendas, they were really interested in rhythm and blues and researched
it a lot, and played it and learned it and rehearsed it, did a lot of paying
in the trenches and stuff like that, really refined what they were doing.
And Blur and Oasis seem to have a whole different set of standards.
I dunno what to think about those guys. We did some shows with
SD: A friend of mine in Vancouver nearly saw one. It was weird
to imagine you two on the same bill. Did you meet them? Did you talk to them?
TM: Yeah, yeah, they were nice enough I guess, but they were just sort of...
SD: They're not renowned for their intellects.
TM: Well, no, but it wasn't even that. I just sort of felt like.. They just
seemed really goal orientated. I don't relate to that so much, as far as
being in a band. I don't know... I have nothing against them.
SD: I can remember the whole plagiarism/sampling/unoriginality debate
going on since... forever... every band that makes it right now is accused
of it. Do you think its worth accusing people of that anymore? It seems
like, its reached the point where it's the norm.
TM: I don't know what to think about that. To me, as far as I'm
concerned, the music is free, anybody should be able to do whatever
they want apart from... stealing lyrics I think would be sort of criminal,
unless you're like sampling them and using them in a creative way.
Didn't REM have a song where every line was a cliched song lyric?
I was wondering about that, did they have to pay rights for that?
On one hand I can understand why someone who writes something
and publishes it, its okay for them to demand compensation from
someone who is just taking it for their own measure. But, I like
the idea of plunder-phonics or whatever.... (laughs). END
Sonic Youth Thurston Moore and
Beastie Boy Mike D. A conversation
(from option magazine) 1992
The scene, a trendy restaurant in L.A. called the Hollywood Canteen.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is sitting in a corner booth, slouched
over a plate of pasta wearing a punk rock T-shirt, and a backwards
baseball cap. He's Flanked by a couple a pudgy major label dudes
gesturing and talking excitedly to him about the ad copy for his bands
new DGC album, Dirty. The other end of the table is beastie boy, Mike
Diamond (AKA Mike D.) also in an over sized T-shirt with his cap on
backwards. Fortunately for Mike D. the ad copy for the Beastie Boy's
latest release, Check Your Head, has already been written.
Earlier in the day Moore and Diamond were looser and more animated,
sitting in the sun-room of Diamonds two-story, Spanish style stucco home,
located on a hillside in L.A.'s Silverlake neighborhood. Moore had flown
in from New York for the day on the glitzy MGM Grand Airlines; with a
few hours to kill, he decided to visit his old friend from the New York
hardcore scene of the early eighties.
No one on that scene with a shred of sanity could have forecast the Sonic/
beastie career path of the last ten years. The Beasties' first record, Poillywog
Stew( Rat Cage,1982) came out the first year as Sonic youth's first self titled
EP on the obscure art label, Neutral. The former featured snotty hardcore songs
like "Egg Raid On Mojo" and "Transit Cop" ; the latter was total noise and poetic
posturing. By mid-decade the two groups had gone in two completely different
directions. The Beastie Boy's hip-hop leanings had been hinted at on the goof-rap
indie single"Cookie Puss"; By 1986 The Beastie's were selling four million copies
of Licensed To Ill, the first rap album ever to top the charts. At the same time
Sonic Youth was turning the dissonance and feedback of it's early records into
beautiful noise on EVOL (SST).
In the years since while the Beasties's palafaced funk has emboldened acts
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they themselves have become more experimental
on Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head. Meanwhile Sonic Youth has developed
into the of the most influential guitar bands of it's generation, continuing on Goo and
Dirty to infuse it's dissonance with the best elements of pop. Likewise both groups
have re-embraced the art-core and hard-core of their shared past.
Surrounded by a couple of turntables and endless shelves of LP and singles,
Mike D. and Thurston Moore talked for nearly three hours about hardcore,
artcore, obsession,rock stardom, record collecting and getting shit for free.
What comes around goes around.
The Free-Shit Program
Mike D: The best part of rock stardom is that part befor people know who
you are on any kind of big-time national or international level. It's that period
of time when you get, like, free shit. And it's at a time when you really need
free shit. See most people don't understand the value of the free-shit program.
When we were at the point where nobody had ever heard of us outside the
island of Manhattan, it was great. There was a certain period of time when
Sonic Youth was putting out a record every six months, and we weren't doing
anything, but we were going out to the clubs and getting in for free and getting
free drinks and shit. That was really cool because it enabled us to live this life that
was like...I don't want to say fantasy, but it was like a totally untroubled existence.
We didn't really need to have much money.
Thurston: You mean like Springsteen? I think it was Springsteen who said,
like, uh... what did he say? Oh yeah, he said something like it makes living
easier, but it doesn't make life any easier.
Mike D: No, I'm talking about the irony of Free shit. Getting free shit when
you really need it, before you get to the point where free shit isn't important
anymore. I'm talking about the kind of local stardom that has now I get a
box of free clothes and I don't need free clothes! Like if I want clothes....
Thurston: You can go out and buy the shit.
Mike D: But when I had no money, and when I had no record out and I
was a total bum, I really needed free shit, It's totally ironic.
Thurston: When our records first started becoming more popular and I
would go in a record store to buy something, they'd give me a fucking discount.
I'd be with a friend, and he wouldn't get a discount because nobody knew
who the fuck he was. But he'd really need the discount. He wouldn't have a
pot to piss in. So he's just sort of bum and say, " Man, you're makin money off
records now and they're giving you discounts. What's the deal?" Capitalism
is funny that way. Not that I'm against capitalism. But it's...(pauses) you know,
you just have to deal with some of thetrickier aspects of it.
Mike D: It's totally weird.
Thurston: What you have to do, is give the shit away. You just give it away
The Beastie Boys Rule
Thurston: To, me the beastie Boys are the weirdest band in the world,
look what's going on: three white Jewish kids from New York being a hip-hop
band. And they're good at it. That's not suppose to happen. Why is that
happening? It isn't suppose to be. But like you guys are good you're one of
the best hip-hop bands around. So people don't really think about it like that; they
don't think about how absurd it is. That's weird, why's it authentic? Well it's
because it's got soul. But why? I mean our whole thing with( the experimental
EP), Master-Dik and ( the noisy side-project) Ciccone Youth was, like, we
can't fuck with the soul. I'm not going to pretend that I got hip-hop soul, 'cause
I don't. So Ciccone Youth was never really meant to be a hip-hop project, it
was more like, sorta, anything goes. We were just in there kicking tape-recorders
Mike D: But that's not all that different than what we do. When we make records
it's really pretty close to that attitude. And it's really not all that absurd, dude.
I mean if you look at it more in terms of a geographic thing and not a racial
thing, then it makes sense. We grew up on that shit, we're totally a product of
the late 70's and early 80's and growing up in Manhatten. So there's no way
we could have arrived at where we are now without having gone through not
only the hip-hop side of music, but all the other kinds of music we were
exposed to- like hardcore, PiL, stuff like that. The thing is, that period of time
in New York is kind of underrated in terms of music history and influence.
Even terms of existence of free jazz and where it was going at that time. After
seeing( the harmolodic guitarist, James) Blood Ulmer play with public image,
I definitely checked out Blood Ulmer a few more times. And then I checked
out Art Ensemble at a public theater. And the Ronald Shannon Jackson.
There was that kind of fusion cross-over shit from no wave that really influenced
how I started hearing things.
Thurston: You saw Art Ensemble at public theater?
Mike D: But that was only because I became aware of that music at that
particular time. I don't even know why, but I think it was a combination
of the fact that it was going on in the clubs and the fact that I was reading
the Soho Weekly News.
Thurston: Yeah, that period was really important. And the thing is a lot
of it went by so fast, and now different things are happening. But a lot of
new-style shit that's going on now- you know, shit that's very hardcore and
very Nike- is going back and taking the real strong elements of the stuff from
that period. It's really important and relative to what's going on right now. In
England they may look at the Beastie Boys doing old school stuff and say
" Why are the Beastie Boys doing these old beats now"? But see, they just
don't get it, they're like this isn't new, but what they don't understand, is this
is new. It's not regressive, it's not "The Stray Cat Shuffle"; this stuff is still
fresh. It went by so fast, and few people really got it because it was kept
to an elite few.
Mike D: I think about some of the records that came out back then
on the hardcore scene and they'reall really overlooked because the bands
never went anywhere.
Thurston: Right now, there's a big insurgence of young people getting
into music that was very, very obscure even back then. And that's really
wild. The improv scene was very small; like in England, there was
Derrik Baily and New York had John Zorn. But it was a very, very,
very tiny scene. Now, it's pretty huge. All these styles that were way
obscure back then are coming out now and being treated in a big way.
So you might as well wear old school Pumas these days because they're
way fresher then new-school Nikes. It's weird 'cause that's never happened
Mike D: That's true, it's kind of weird, because it's like you're wearing
something that's old, but it's definitely newer then some things that are actually new.
Thurston And do you know what that is D? That's super post-modernism.
That's my term for it.
Hardcore, Artcore: The Early Years
thurston I knew you back then, but you didn't know me. Like I heard cookie
puss but you never heard Confusion Is Sex. But that's because you guys were
punk rock and we were art fags. We were like Soho and you guys were East
Mike D: Yeah, but now artcore rules. Artcore actually beat out hardcore.
know, Fugazi's artcore. But Sonic Youth were Artcore from the beginning.
Thurston: See the beastie Boys were really deceptive, really scary. When
Puss came out I thought it was like a joke. I never thought you guys would get
seriously into beats and shit. But when Licsenced To Ill came out we thought
you guys were getting into disco. We didn't know what the fuck was up with that.
Mike D: What people don't know, is we were about to go new wave.
Thurston: I remember the first time I ever heard about the Beastie Boys,
was in a review in Short News (an early NYC punk zine) of a show you
guys did at a hardcore festival in Tompkins Square Park. It went something like
" This band called the Beastie Boys came out and nobody new who they were
and they immediately went spastic and left the stage". I was like, "what the fuck?"
And then I went to see you at the kitchen, or something.
Mike D: No man, that was later. That was after we became artcore.
Thurston: Oh yeah, cause The Kitchen was just an art space, but then they
decided to start having all different kinds of music together on the same bill.
So they would get an art band, a country band, a punk band......
Mike D: ....And it was really cool. The bill would be Ned Sublette, The Beastie
Boys and Swans all in one night. And maybe Sonic Youth and uh... what was
that band I didn't like, Thurston?
Thurston: Rat At Rat R?
Mike D: No, the one with the violins.
Thurston: Oh,oh, the Ordinaires. Yeah, you made fun of em, afterwards.
Mike D: Well the Ordinaires were kind of weak, c'mon!
Thurston: Yeah, you were coming out dissing the Ordinaires, and you were
dissing the audience to You were saying," Man it's hard to play because there's
too many people out here with beards; I'm not use to playing for people with
beards." You kept saying that over and over, and finally The Ordinaires came
out and one of them had a beard.
Thurston: Did you read England's dreaming?
Mike D: Yeah, I got it, but I gotta start reading it.
Thurston: Dude, man, you really gotta read that book! It's really annoying,
it hints on some really crucial stuff. It's written from an academic view point,
covering the whole idea of multi-directionalism coming into focus in the 80's after
punk rock became established and then collapsed on it's self, but at the same time,
nothings been the same since. And the only thing that's breaking up this multi-
directionalsm is politics and a bad economy. People wanna cross over culturally-
nobody's really scared to get in touch with the ethnicity of their country- but
politics and economy have gotten in the way.
Mike D: People are always fascinated to some extent with different cultures.
Thurston: Yeah, and that's the strongest cultural point this country has-
multiplicity. To split it up through totally destructive economic policies is really
fucked up. And it starts in the cities because the concentration of money now is
outside the cities. But anyway, I've been talking politics enough. That's all they
wanted to talk to us in England. But it's significant musically.
Crime And Obsession
Mike D: Obsessions are the best parts of life.
Thurston: But when you get older you get a more sophisticated perspective
things, Which is important. And that's when your obsessions actually become fun.
Because you have a better perspective on them.
Mike D: Obsessions are really important, like music is my obsession, right?
music is probably the most cross-cultural part of my life today. I mean I'm far less
integrated in terms of the people I come into contact with or what I do on a daily
basis and stuff, so probably the only extent to which I'm truly versed in any cross-
cultural way is through music. I certainly don't consider that I know all there is
to know about music, just in terms of being completely obsessed with discovering
different kinds of music, that's the way I'm able to open myself up to different
cultures and different people.
To me, latley- I mean I don't know what it is about the world that's making me
feel this way- But, like latley I've been totally obsessed with aggressive music.
There's a beauty that I see in agressivness. Whether it's seeing (Henry) Rollins
play, or hearing a Sonic Youth record or an Ornette Coleman record or a
Miles Davis record, there's just this raw beauty in it. I see it as just anger,
you know? And that goes completely across any kind of outward trimmings
that any of these different kinds of music may have, or what types of people
play it, or even what time frame it came from. When I'm listening to music
those moments are the only times in my life that I can truly transcend where
someone comes from or what cultures making it. It's that sort of feeling that
runs through every culture and you can hear it in the music. It's just like, a
raw, beautiful thing.
Thurston: You can trust music more. It's the most pure form of information.
Mike D: Yeah, you can check out all different kinds of information from all
these different voices of expression. All you have to do is check out and listen
to it to really develop a complete, 100 percent genuine love, and fascination
Thurston: That's because with music you're getting the emotion od the culture.
Politics, on the other hand is nothing. Politics is like.... I mean it's nothing. Oh
sure it has something to do with culture, but it's not the real emotion of the culture.
Politics is just borish, there's nothing intellectual about it at all. That's why politics
tries to destroy the arts- particularly right now, there's like a war going on between
politics and the arts, and to me it's like a war between good and evil. I guess politics
has to exist, because people need policy, but politics really shouldn't be involved
in the arts. Without art, all we'd have were psychotic serial killers. That's why serial
killers have always been so big in this country.
Mike D: But there's also that correlation between serial killers and art.
how some serial killers are good painters or writers?
Thurston: Yeah, but that's just because they're frustrated genius artists.
Mike D: Like Charlie Starkweather. I was reading that Charlie Stalkweather
where they'd show all these paintings he's done and I was actually kind of into it.
It kind of scared me. Here's this guy who's a total killer, yet somehow this disturbed
being inside him is creating these paintings that I kind of like and am fascinated by.
I always thought the coolest part of Badlands was when Martin Sheen was playing
Charlie Stalkweather goes and makes his own spoken word record in that booth.
That was just wild.
The Economics Of Record Collecting
Thurston: D, what's the most you ever paid for a record?
Mike D: The most-see it doesn't really count, cause it's not vinyl- but I
Mingus boxed set for like a hundred.
Thurston: No, no that doesn't count, that doesn't count, I mean like a collector's record.
Mike D: It was Definitely JB's Food For Thought, and that was either 35 or
bucks. That's the most I've ever paid for a record. What about you?
Thurston: I spent 200 bucks on a record. It was the first pressing of Call
the William Borroughs LP that came out in like 65. It was a bookstore in Paris called
The English Bookstore. It's like this super obscure beat item. It was released years
later on ESP, and even that one goes for a hundred now. That's sick. But, see I usually
trade for records like that. I'll go on tour and buy really obscure jazz records and then
trade ten of them for one really intense thing. But this one I saw somewhere and
called up my sources and said I'd seen this thing for 200 bucks, and they were like
"pick it up, cause you can sell it for five". So I picked it up because I like the artifact
aspect of collecting. That's the only reason I started record labels and stuff- to create
artifacts. I'm not into getting involved in the record industry at all.
Mike D: See, I always get mixed emotions about stuff like that. Probably
I have that are worth the most are are punk rock records. Like that Fred "Sonic"
Thurston: You got "City Slang" (starts humming the song)?
Mike D: Yeah, lemme find it ( Walks over to his singles collection and starts
through them) I remember seeing that X-ray Spex album for like a hundred bucks,
and now they've released it, I was into that album when I was 13, but did I wanna
buy it for a hundred bucks? Nah.
Thurston: You have some really rare early hip-hop sides though.
Mike D: Yeah, but the record collector element hasn't really hit hip-hop culture yet.
Thurston: I buy that shit because it's like, mostly gone. Where do you go
the old singles? You can't find that stuff. Hey do you have like a hundred
thousand hardcore singles from the first wave?
Mike D: Definitely.
Thurston: See both of us probably have a few grand worth of that shit. If
look in the back of Flipside or Maxim Rock And Roll, the first Necros is like
200 bucks. It's sick shit. It's so much sick shit.
Death To Classic Rockers
Thurston: Guess What? We were on a plane a few days ago and these people
on and one of them had a guitar case. I looked at it and it was that fucking guy who
sued The (rapper) Biz (Markie) for sampling. What's his name? You know, he does
(sings) "Clair, the moment I met you, I swear..."
Mike D: Gilbert O'Sulliven.
Thurston: Yeah, Gilbert O'Sulliven. We were sitting there, Me, Kim, Lee,
All in a row. I said " What the fuck, it's Gilbert O'Sulliven!" And he sits right next to
Steve. I was like" What are we gonna do?"
Mike D: Yeah, stand up for the Biz.
Thurston: We were thinking that we'd just go and beat the shit outta him,
" This is for the Biz". So Steve was sitting next to him and I was like writing on
my napkin " The Biz" and I'm holding it up, and Steve's saying like, "No man,
put that down". Cause he was afraid the guy would see it and shit.
Mike D: But, what could he do to you?
Thurston: Nothing, so I was thinking of what I could do. I was thinking about
up The new Musical Express, or Melody Maker and saying, "Meet us at the airport,
we're going to beat up Gilbert O'Sullivan for the Biz". I mean, it was such a great
opportunity. Gilbert O'Sullivan created such damage. Sitting next to him, I thought
the plane might crash or something.
Mike D: I would have been scared sitting next to him. Sitting next to him,
almost been like sitting next to a secret service agent, or a narc, or something. Here's
a man who ultimately, in a way, has ratted out are art.
Thurston: Oh yeah, it was na evil vibe, man, I mean, it's like The Turtles;
shit happened with De La Soul, I couldn't listen to a turtles song anymore.
Mike D: Yeah, ya know, there hassling us.
Thurston: Yeah, you did some Flo And Eddie beats, didn't you?
Mike D: Right, we thought we;d done all we were supposed to do about it and
was cool, but I guess it isn't.
Thurston: Those guys just don't get it.
One Sample Beyond
Mike D: With us- even more so on Check Your Head, then on Paul's Boutique
or Liscenced To Ill- we thought it was just the coolest thing to have like Hendrix
jam with the turtles jam with Ron Carter.
Ultimatly, that's one of the cooler things about sampling. You're just creating these
superstar jam sessions. It's like that Al Kooper, Stephan Stills, Mike Bloomfield
album Super Session.
Thurston: We sampled Hendrix on the Ciccone Youth Record- really blatently.Our
whole shit was that we wanted to do turntable shit, but we didn't have any turntables.
So this guy in the studio brought out this old BSR turntable that still had the old flicker
needles on it. We did all the cutting on that thing. It was like, when the Beasties were
away the fuckheafds like us played.
Mike D. See that's the thing about rap music. To me it's weird that people
manipulated on a more sonic level. That was what was so amazing about Rick's (Ruben)
first record, (T La Rocks) It's Your's. The cutting on that record was so loud and
abrasive and so dissonant. It was just basically so fucked upthat like (Def Jam co-
founder) Russel Simmons never would have made it because he never....well he
would have thought there's just no way that black radio would play something like
that because it was too fucked up. So in a way, it took a college student from NYU
to be that fascinated That he'd make a record that was that fucked up.
Thurston: It was like punk rock.
Mike D: That's the thing, like when Public Enemy came out with Bring The
Noise it was
so... I mean for months in New York, you know, sonically, you know, that was all you
heard. It was so punk rock. The fact that you could hear that for months in New York
some how was just the most appropriate thing in the world. On our last record, a lot of
how we got into using fucked up Sony mics and stuff came out of listening to those old
fucked up battle tapes( Live hip-hop tapes that were recorded on crude recorders in
Harlem and The Bronx before hip-hop records started coming out) Yet, the first
generation of rap records that were coming out were more like R&B because the people
who made them were making them with the idea that they had to sound good so they
could get then on BOS or KISS FM,
Thurston: Yeah, there was no real lo-fi punk rock attitude in at that time-
except for maybe
those battle tapes, Public Enemy and you guys. That's what we wanted to do with Ciccone
Youth. We just wanted to scratch the shit out of records, but with no skills and no production.
I'm surprised that attitude didn't take off more, especially with the young DIY kids. And
like the whole Wax Trax thing is such a real bummer because that's like getting into real
techno beats and shit. It's like this very hardcore stuff, but it's still played really conventionally.
Nobody ever got into punk rock/hip-hop except the Beastie Boys.
Mike D: The Wax Trax stuff is just more speed metal; it's like the whole
kick drum shit. So
that automatically turned me off. I mean some critic from the Daily news paper might think
it's cool cuz there combining noise with beats, but to me, instead of it being this totally free
and inventive thing, it was just taking something that was still much more conventional.
Thurston: It's also way too self conscious- all that goth imagery and all
that kind of
(In a feigned Nazi voice) disciplined bull shit. That's just so played out. I don't want to hear it.
I don't want to see these guys wearing cowboy hats and long hair and easy rider shades,
playing hardcore beats. It's just bullshit. And it also isn't very danceable, it doesn't have any
of the rhythm of hip-hop. It doesn't have the swing. That's the main thing, it doesn't swing.
Remember that schoolly D beat? It was just so hardcore and punk rock.
MikeD: Yeah, Schoolly D- that was the most punk rock rap record ever. To
was a great punk rock record. Right down to the cover. It was on his own label.....
Thurston: And he did it on a little drum machine with lot's of reverb. It totally jammed.
Mike D: Just turntables, drum machine, and a mic.
Thurston: That really excited me. That shit was so fucking down. Our old
Bert) started Bewitched and it was sort of like a cross between Schooly D and Swell Maps.
But they broke up. I remember seeing a picture of you guys at the Ritz, and you were
Mike D: My Schoolly D T-shirt, yeah Schoolly D gave me that shirt.
Mike D: You know to me it's always seemed weird that more bands haven't came
taken all those noise aspects, all these punk rock and hip-hop aspects and just gone for
it like that. I wanna see 16 year olds doing it. I wanna see kids who can rock the computer,
but who can also come out with the most amazing, beautiful noise ever. I have this thoughtful
wishful thinking that all of a sudden, there's gonna be this new generation of kids who are
gonna do this thing. Because to me, that's the future of music.
"We were very upset when the Berlin wall Came Down"
says guitarist Lee Ranaldo, leaning forward in his chair in
the lobby of the SoHo recording studio where Sonic Youth
are working on their new record. "It's kind of nice having
another planet on your own planet", explains fellow guitarist
Thurston Moore. It's kind of nice too, having a band like
Sonic Youth on your planet. Suppose they didn't exist.
Would you have to invent them? Probably not, which is one
reason they're so cool: You would never come up with their
particular music idea.
The Sonic revolution they started some 8 years ago has
been gathering speed slowly. Walk into any low rent rehearsal
studio these days and odds are, you'll find several sgraggy
haired guitarists torturing their instruments in suspicious SY
like ways. And now their preparing to put out a new record,
their first major label, a real "money" record, with maybe a
rea l"money" video to go along with it. (I want to do an all
nude one, I want something like the Cher video, says Thurston)
Don't worry that the move to Geffen will tame Sonic Youth. I've
heard snippets of their new stuff, and it sounds a lot like the
old stuff, except maybe better. The SY experience is never
going to be found on a record anyway. They are, above all
a live band. Live, the massed overtones produced by their
altered tunings hover and dart above you, making you hear
things that aren't really there.
Recorded, SY may never be able to match that pure harmonic
splendor, but there are compensations. Stripped of their coat of
many overtones, the intricate musical structures of SY's songs
gleam like many polished bones. Scrape off enough scuz (what
we rock critiques usually call texture) and you'll find songs under-
Some of the lyric themes they'll be tackling on the album: "UFO's,
chicks, rockstars, the homeless, the white problem, the Jesse
Jackson dilemma, the corporate rock problem, mayors on crack."
Surprises in store: Cameos by Chuck D.(Public Enemy) J. Mascis
(Dinasaur JR.) Jad Fair(Half Japanese) and Don Flemming(B.A.L.L.,
Velvet Monkeys). "Tom Verlaine came by for one session too, but
he didn't do anything. He just stayed for like six hours and smoked
about a million filterless cigarettes and left them all over the floor",
As we move into the 90's, we also move into, I guess, Sonic middle-
age. We sat in their recording studio watching recent TV footage
of the Rolling Stones ("Put a shirt on dude", was Kim's advice to
Mick Jagger) How their going to handle that promises to make them
at least as interesting in the next five years as in the last.
After nine years as underground megastars, Sonic Youth
emerge blinking into the harsh mainstream light. So far
they haven't noticed their shadow. By Jim Greer
"Maybe you should come over and felate my guitar Steve." Sonic
guitarist Thurston Moore is lying on his back on a foil covered floor of
downtown Manhatten production studio.He wants drummer Steve
Shelley to give his guitar a blow job because the band are shooting a
video. These guys no what plays well on MTV.
Actually, they were going to call the new album Blowjob, but settled
instead on Goo. Which probably made their new record company,
Geffen , happy until it's executives saw the cover art: A drawing by
renouned underground artist, Raymond Pettibon. The drawing itself
of a guy and girl in a car presented no problems. But the accompanying
text- which read in part, " Within a week we killed our parents and hit
the road"- gave Geffen some fits.
"They were still talking at sales meetings about an alternative cover,
even though our A&R person knew quite well that there was no
way we were going to do that" says bassist Kim Gordon.
After nine years of pretty much doing anything they want, Sonic Youth are
finding the adjustment to corporate-label status some what difficult.
Not that they don't make every effort to understand the company's position
:" I mean all it takes is one kid to kill his parents and have our record in his
room,"says Kim."But still, the cover art isn't just decoration. It's important to us."
The band also has problems with the video their shooting for the first single
Goo, "Kool Thing." Kim wanted to wear a beret and carry an uzi-anyway, she
threatened to- but Geffen didn't find that idea particularly appealing. She backed
down on this one- after all, there are limits to this " no compromise" thing.
Especially when you are dealing with potential medium- rotation Mtv exposure.
In Parody/homage to Andy Warhol's factory, the floor and walls of the
production studio are lined with aluminum foil. A couch is situated in one
corner, an easy chair in another. Shiny star balloons hang from the ceiling,
while stuffed toys, yellow plastic chains, dynamite, and pieces of fruit are
strewn about the room. Purple and green lights retract at crazy angles off
the foiled surfaces. It's a surreal vision, like a twisted Pee-wee's playhouse.
The perfect setting for Sonic Youth's twisted rock music.
With each take, the band gets progressively wilder. Thurston and fellow
guitarist Lee Ranaldo thrash around the set like they've taken too much
catnip, ripping up the foil, knocking over props, and upending furniture.
At one point, Thurston, Kim, and Lee sit in a pile on the floor, wrapping
each other in shredded foil, in the course of which Kim gets whacked in
the nose with a guitar. Overall, an impressive simulacrum of actual performance.
"Kool Thing" the video, is clearly Kim's show, mainly because she's
singer on this one. She climbs up ladders to check out the camera angle before
shooting begins, and confers with the director, Tamra Davis, after every take.
She seems completely at ease in front of the camera, lip synching, dancing,
gesturing. Watching the band, listening to the music, it's easy to forget that
Sonic Youth are making their first real video. After nine years.
"It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my entire life"
says Kim of the video
. "After we finished the inside stuff we went down to the federal court house and did
some shots of me and two dancers standing outside. And there was one of those
sandwich catering trucks parked right in front, for the Policemen and the people
who work in those buildings. It was like the most embarrassing moments of my life,
and it was catered".
Sitting in her lower eastside apartment, Kim Gordon looks anything but nonplused
now. But to hear her tell it, her prowess before the camera is a put on: " I was totally
horrified at the prospect. It was a sink or swim thing, like being thrown in a pond."
Kim's the oldest member of Sonic Youth, most whom are in there thirties.
married to Thurston. Everyone in Sonic Youth seems fascinated by celebrities,
but none more than Kim. On their new record, theirs a song about Karen
Carpenter( Tunic) and on EVOL Kim sings a song called "Starpower". She
often wears a necklace of metallic stars. Kim was raised as a "visual artist" and
went to a school that didn't have text book ("You just went out and made grass
huts and spears and studied Africa).
Now of course with her band poised to enter the mainstream, Kims in danger
of losing her ironic distance from celebrity. How do you make fun of MTV
videos, when you've just made one yourself?" Well I don't think theirs much
danger of us becoming famous", she says. " We do hope we get to meet some
Well, actually I don't really want to meet them: I'd just like to get up really close
and observe them. It just becomes this game. You get to read about them with
some sort of continuim every other week. "It's almost like reading a cartoon strip,
but it's real people. Our society puts so much importance on celebrities. It's the
ultimate success, as well as a national preoccupation."
Although they're being treated by a new band by there record company, Sonic
Youth have quite a history. They began in "81 with Thurston, Kim Lee and
drummer, Richard Edison, who was later replaced by Bob Bert, who was
in turn replaced by Steve Shelley. They put out a couple of records on a tiny
independent label, neutral, then moved to slightly less tiny Homestead Records
in 1985, where they recorded Bad Moon Rising and started attracting serious
attention. In 1986 they put out Evol on SST records and in 1987, Sister, also
on SST. 1988 saw the release of double record Day Dream Nation on Blast
First/Enigma, which topped many critics polls and brought widespread recognition-
including the deal with Geffen- that the bands innovative sound was more then a novelty.
For the uninitiated, a Sonic Youth show can sound and feel like a tornado being pulled
through one ear and out the other. Some people don't like this, but an increasing number do.
The most distinctive features of there sound derives from the non-standard
Thurston and Lee use on there guitars. The result is dissonent-the intervals they use
simply don't sound "right" to ears bread on standard Western pop- as well as beautiful.
Clanging overtones fill the air with soundsand textures that aren't really there. The effect
can be alternately symphonic or simply mind bendingly noisy. An acquired taste, to be sure,
but an easily acquired one.
Especially since the band has refined their tequnique to the point where
you often don't
notice the "weird tuning thing". Back in the early days, SY would build a song around
a particular tuning, whereas now creative tuning is less and end then a very effective
means. Sonic Youth have developed from an art- based rock band.
In doing so, they represent the last breed of rock bands who, starting in
the early 80's came
out of the underground to achieve success in the main stream arena. The replacements,
Husker Du, even REM all grew out of an extensive networks of underground bands, clubs,
and record labels that sprouted in the wake of the punk explosion of the late 70's. That
network has shrunk now to the point of virtual inviolability, Every major label now has an
"alternative music" department with promotional wherewithal to swamp available (and
shrinking) outlets for such music. As a result, not only is"alternative music" becoming
more narrowly defined(" people should no an alternative to what's there"says, Thurston"
But are we still alternative, being on a corporate label?" but the bands that try to operate
on an independent level are finding it increasingly difficult. College radio, formerly a bastion
of independent music,has turned largely into a "farm league" for the major labels.Were Sonic
Youth to start today, they would have a hard time achieving the level of success they've now
reached, albeit after 9 years.
So in a sense, Sonic Youth are lucky, but their currant success is also a
tribute to how
hard they have worked-after all there are bands, like Husker Du, The Replacements, and
REM, toured like demons. Inaccessible music remains so, only if a band is unwilling, or
unable to give people access to it. That's never been Sonic Youth's hang-up. The result
has been a slow but steady progress over the years in the number of converts to the
"sonic life", even to the point where old fans are predictably crying"sell out"
at the bands move to Geffen.Rather then selling out the band feels like they're "buying in".
But it can't go on like this forever. Every progression reaches an end, and
so to will Sonic
Youth, probably with-in the next few years. What then? "I don't know what I'm going to do,
but I don't think I'll always play in a band" says Kim. I mean it would be really ugly, once its
you hit your 40's its time to retire."
The official Sonic Youth line on their new album, Goo, is that it is a reaction
to their last
record, Day Dream Nation, which tended to have very extended, nicely textured, almost
psychedelic, intros and outros, whereas on Goo most of the songs begin and end abruptly.
There also trying to reach more people with this record, to keep growing, to find a new way
to get across to people what they want to say.(Bla bla bla)
"Yeah, that's our line" says Lee Ranaldo, wearing sun glasses,
even though were in a dark
East village bar.( Sonic Youth our very much into sunglasses- the pile I saw on the table
while they were shooting their video was worthy of Elton John.)" All bands have a line when
they set out to promote a new record: were no different. But there's an element of truth to
it as well. In actual fact, we don't really think about it in terms of development or progression".
Lee doodles on a napkin, which he later folds and puts in his pocket. He's
probably the most
serious member of the band, or at least the most earnest- though he has a goofy side as well.
He's spent the week shopping for a new video camera (he's documented most of the bands
history on film and video tape) but promises not to talk about it.
Spin: What does the future hold for Sonic Youth?
Lee: I think about the future, but I don't really think about what it's going to hold, I mean
were not kids, and were real serious about what were doing. And being in the business
in a major league way they expect you to do things, that at a certain point, will become
incredibly distasteful. You feel like a prostitute or something. I mean I'm not totally down
on it: there are a lot of good things about being on a major labe lin terms of acsess and
so on. It's just that if you're struggling to accomplish a goal, which is only , like to sell a
million copies, thats just jive. Thats why Billy Idol will probably end up on the cover of
spin instead of us. And that's fair enough if you're a bussiness man.
Yeah, but like it or not, you are a bussiness man.
That's in it's self a hard pill to swallow. You never start out doinf this, imagining it as
if you want it your profression. If you stay in the bussiness long enough you'll always
get to that point.- where you're juggling how much you are doing, because it's your
profession versus something else you might be doing. We've always faught against
that professionalism attitude. We've always just played music because that is just
what we did, what we grew up doing, what were still doing. There's a point where
you can't just look at it simply anymore. I find all that stuff is kind of uncomfortable
to deal with, and yet is very much a reality.
Do you really think the 14 year-old kids who worship Bon Jovi or Guns and
are going to appresiate your music?
Thurston: You know nothings impossible. But to them we might be a little too weird.
There's certain aspects of our sound that for the most part will sound really bad to
them. When we went to Russia last year, a lot of people thought we were just
doing it wrong., Because their only guidelines were the beatles and Iron Maiden.
So these suberban kids listen to Bon Jovi and GNR for the most part- they
don't know any better, they're not musically inclined. It's more of a social thing
To me, our music is elitist in a way.Were tied in with this elitist aesthetic. The only way
to overcome it is not to think about it: but your instantly tied into to it, because you
don't come out of it. Just the fact that each of us was one of those kids who would
say: "fuck Led Zep, lets drive into the city and see a Ramones gig. And the next day
in high school you'd tell somebody that and they'd think you were a total alien.I was
one of about 3 people in my high school who knew about Patti Smith and the Ramones.
I don't want to subject anyone to do anything against their will to do something that's
outside their sensibility. Why should Geffen force-feed anything down anyone's throat?
Guns n Roses are easy because it's a path that's already been paved by all the lame
rock classics. But us, Who are they gonna feed it to?
Won't they feed it into the usual channels and see what happens?
That's the most interesting thing to us. The house wife who's thirty something in
middle class America and buys one cassette a month- probably even bought the
GNR one because it's played a lot and she liked that one song- she's defiantly not
gonna buy our record. And if she does, she's going to be subjected to something
that's most likely going to disturb her. And I don't really want to disturb anybody.
I don't want to force-feed anybody.
More so than a lot of bands, Sonic Youth have always shared a kind of collectable
sensibility. In interviews usually given as a group, whoever answers the question
usually speaks for the band as a whole- eg., " We hate spinach", "We love Advil"
or whatever. This impression of solitidary, is of course not entirely accurate.
"Is that really annoying"? asks kim. "Sometimes just for the
sake of getting the interview
over with, I won't open my mouth to say "Well I don't think so." "But I often don't
think so" I think in a way it's often dishonest to think of the band as a unified thing,
which we're really not. Ultimately it does come together as some kind of unity, but
one thing that's kept the music varied are the differences in our personalities."
In the same way, Sonic Youth gives the impression that they're just, as one
put it," really happy to be in a band together" You'd imagine that they'd never
fought with one another, that they always agreed on everything, You'd be wrong.
"Oh yeah, We fight all the time" says Kim." I mean Thurston's a Leo, he has a
temper. But it's usually not for any rational reason. Steve probably feels that he
always gets the brunt of it, even though he's been in the band for four years, he's
still the new kid on the block. He doesn't even have the same background musically,
and he's younger than us. He thinks that we always bury the drums when we mix
"Actually there are three songs on the new record where the drums are
the right level" says Steve Shelley smiling as he prepares to devour an enormous
cheeseburger in a West Village bistro. Steve is 28, not only the youngest member
of Sonic Youth but the only un-married one as well. He's also one of few people
I've ever met in my life who never so much as tasted a beer in his life. "It's funny
that the whole straight-edge hardcore seen started in D.C. in the 80's. I thought,
yeah, great, that's how I live any way. But I never found it necessary to be a
fascist about it, the way some of them did."
Steve joined the band in 1985, just after they had returned from touring in
Europe. As luck would have it, he was staying at Thurston and Kim's place
while they were gone. Their old drummer quit on the flight back, when SY
came home they asked him if he wanted to join.
"It's scary how much of a fan I was right before I joined. Bad Moon Rising
had just came out and I would go down to the stores and just look at the
record jacket. So I had hesitation about joining when they asked."
His decision was salutary; The dynamic sense he brought the band fit in well
with their emergent song-writing skills. Sonic Youth wouldn't be as strong a
musical force with a different drummer. From Evol on through Goo, Steves
sharp sense of how to play within a song rather then underneath it has
contributed dramatically to their development.
"I'm a better guitar player then thurston or Lee too", Steve adds.
Although Kim says she's always tried to avoid the married couple thing,
her marriage to Thurston Moore plays a large part in Sonic Youth, if only
because it's unusual for such an arrangement to be successful for such a long time.
"I've tried not to make it like we're a couple within the band," says Kim."I think
that's one of the reasons why the band has latest however long. I mean that
could be so annoying for other members of the band.Maybe it is." When
Thurston and I are alone, we don't really talk about the band business unless
we absolutely have to. Otherwise you don't have any sort of separate life, and
it becomes a 24 hour nightmare. But really we were together when the band
started, so it's hard to say whatever kind of effect it's had, because we don't
really know anything different."Infact the only real display of domesticity in
evidence during the time that I spent with this supremely domestic band
(And let's face it rock n roll domesticity is not interesting, says Kim) is when
thurston sets off to buy a new TV.( His Landlord was doing some work
on the building, and blew the electricity, frying most of the appliances in
Thurston's apartment- including, most importantly, the television.)
"Don't you want like, a huge screen and everything?" He asks his wife. "No I
don't, get a Sony Trinitron. That's the best kind, says Kim. "Nah, I'm gonna
get a Hitachi SZ- 100 something." Sony Trinitron,Sony Triniton." " Hitachi."
Later I find out from Lee that Thurston bought the Hitachi.
from the Catalogue (october 1988)
Thurston moore and Kim Gordon converse with Deborah Cohen (tape-recorder)
D Right, what's the title of the album mean? let's start out with that.
T Day Dream Nation?
K It's our political record.
D Tell us more.
K This is election year, I think, and the first song, Teenage Riot,
Thurston really wanted to call Rock n Roll For President.
K Yes so there you go
T The perfect candidate is in our daydreams.
K It's like the record is...
T It's like Idealism
K If Jesse Jackson had won ya know....
T Yeah, we were gonna call the album " A vote for Jesse"
D So, why didn't you call the album any of these titles?....Cause Paul Smith told you not to?
T The Catalogue said " No three page phase for you if you call it after Reverand Jackson"
D But seriously, would there have been problems if you had called the album
something like that, in getting into shops?
T A Vote For Jesse?
T There might have been problems aesthetically with...|
K The candle image.... Like elect him and he's dead ya know. He would have been
T Also, there's less to read into if you call it something like that.
K Yeah, like maybe if we called it a vote for Jesse's son.
T Well there you go, exploiting the future.
D Are there other tracks on the album with political overtones?
K Well, The Sprawl, which is the second, no the third track on the album,
on side one... well every song has a message, erm, of political... it's about, America, the suberb.
D From coast to coast.
K Yeah right, sort of.
D So therefor, did you actually have the candle image first?Before you thought of the tiltle?
T We didn't have any title or image until we were pretty much 3/4 of the way through recording.
We discussed certain ideas. The candle image came from,er, they're two paintings from
Gerhard Ritcher, a German painter, who's known more, I think for his abstract impressionism.
K Well he does both.
T Yeah, he did a series of photorealist, paintings of these candles. I believe theres 7 or 8
of these candle paintings. These are two of them. He does other series of paintings of, uh,
certain people, certain items.
D So why did you choose this one? Did you just like these images?
K Well it was one of the paintings everyone liked. Everyone liked the,uh, candles.
T It was funny, we've met him.
K Yeah, I know him.
T He's very...he's like probably the most famous German artist alive.
T Yeah, painter. And for "Sister I was trying to instigate using one of his paintings, of his-
K Of his daughter
T And I thought it went well with "Sister" because, actually they're very romantic paintings.
K But the head was sideways, it looked kind of odd, it looked like it could have been cut off.
And in a rock format, it just kind of took on a different meaning. Anyway, some of the
people in the group objected to it.
T So we didn't use it, but we all sort of admired it.For this record, Lee actually brought it up once.
It was kind of in the back of my head, especially about the candle paintings, and Lee said
you know, I was wonderin about those.
K Yeah, I was thinking the exact same thing too, but it was like no one wanted to mention it cause...
T Cause it failed last time.
T But we all...So that was kind of interesting that we all, sort of like were thinking the same
thing about... some kind of band telepathy thing... we all felt good about it. We only saw
it in black and white, and it is in color though, it's very subtle coloring, the painting. It looks
nice in color. I don't know what the significance is, with the tilte. I mean the title came afterwards.
Really, we had different tiltes that we were throwing around.
K Well, I see it as, you can either look at it aseither like the one glimmer of hope, or... the oppisite.
There is only one glimmer of hope.
D When that one goes, then that's it/
K Or it's like the, dimly lit daydream, kind of, or a trip out to the barn... I dunno
T I just see it as simple, like romanticism. But er, hopefully it's not too pretensious. It's also,
just for me, It's just exposing something that is beuatiful.
D Why's it a double album?
T We usually do our albums as thematic as possible, as like what we're doing. We
had an option of cutting out a lot of material, but it's sort of like cutting out... chapters, in a way.
K And theres one song that was a....It's like a trilogy, you know? And if there's a trilogy
Then it's a double album!
T It just turned out that way. The sides aren't like 25 min sides, which is pretty like,
good, nice generous side of an album. there 18 min sides... so sort of brief, but not too brief.
D You had too much to make it into one?
T I was into the idea of making a three sided album, ala "Johnny Winter's" album.
K People really tried to discourage us from putting out a double album. Like Enigma.
T People in the business....
K It's like a double album, no one will buy it. It's ridiculous, it's a cheap double album too.
D But you finally persuaded them to do it?
T Fortunatly, every ones doing it these days. I think it's a new trend.This is an excuse for
us to expand the actual object. See what we can do with this? It's an actual gatefold sleeve.
K Yeah, we wanted to do a gatefold sleeve.
T But Ive always liked the gatefold thing.I guess. They get kinda borish though, after awhile.
This one also has a poster in side.
D Whatever happened to Ciccone Youth's album?
K We decided to Bootleg it. Prince did the' black' record, so we're doing the 'Whitey Album'
as a bootleg.
T It'll be out in Jan or Feb... That's the kind of record that we don't care about, and we just
sort of kick it around, and it'll come out, like, when it's ready.It almost came out a week
before this one, and then we said, no let's put this on the back burner... It's kind of like a goofy
record in a way, so we don't want people to get the wrong idea.' cause our last record was....
K And Bad
T Considered the worst record ever issued.
K Which was really our intention.
D It worked, then you would say?
T To show that we could probably make the worst record ever? I think we suceeded, yeah!
I'm real happy about that.
D Right, why are you only playing two dates in the UK?
T Because we're only over there to, erm...actually not play the UKbut to play in these sort
of licsensee countries like, Spain and Greece, etc, etc. Like they've liscenced the record and
we never go there, cause their a bit outta the way, but, er we're gonna go there now, and sort
of appease them.
K It's great to play places you've never played before.
T Yeah were really looking forward to playing them.
D You must get really good audiences there, cause they just don't get that many people.
K yeah, they're a different kind of audience.
T But we're gonna be here, like after february, and we will probably play more in England,
that's for sure, at least two dates.
K We'll do 3 dates!
D These two dates are like a warm-up for next year.
T We still don't know the words to the songs yet, or how to play them all that well.
D So, you wouldn't reccomend anyone coming along really....
T No, we're hoping that nobody will come. It's like the last dates of an 8 date thing.
So hopefully we'll be a bit warmed up. London, it's these places you play, like the town
and Country clun and, now, Astoria and it's.... they're kinda like mammoth places, I mean
below kind of Odeon and what not and you can't feel like, "we're just going to go to the
club, plug in and just play." You feel like you're going to the arena.
K Plus you're playing in London.
T Plus we're hyped up to such a point, that people are expecting, like,..The christ child to
be born on stage, and whatever. It's not always that way.
D Yeah it's very difficult, and you've got to get in the right mood.
K Yeah, New York is that way too.
T We're very audience minded 'cause we go to a lot of shows...I go to a lot...and we
know what the expectation is and people will... I mean, you basically understand whats
going on, unless you're a total dimwit. You understand what's going on, you know on stage
as far as performance is...you know, even if you don't know if somethings breaking down,
or what it is, you know that. It's strange..... I don't think people go, "Whoops... wrong! why's
K I dunno, I think most people don't know what's going on. I really don't think they do I mean...
T I think when you talk to...I talk to anybody, they'll say, like even if it was a bad gig, they'll say
"Yes, bad gig" but they'll say, like," the sound was, ah......" and they'll notice a certain aspect...
K Some people do, and other people want to be entertained. It's like something happens to your
equipment , they just think you're just, like a, being a, you know... a dilittante or something,
because you've got to, like, talk to the moniter person or your amps gone out, and they just like
I mean, they want you to, ah, I mean you don't need that. "Come on, just make some noise!"
T We don't have the desire to have to connect with people like that, anyways.
D One would have thought you're audience was slightly more on the ball, anyway.
T We get a mixture. I mean cuz we've been getting a lot of press...like in America we're
getting all this press in Heavy metal magazines, like "Rip", and "Creme Metal Stars", or something
and there will be some kids at the gigs who're like decked out in metal regalia, or slayer T's,
and "yeahhh! we read about you guys in "Rip", you know, and" kill em tonight!" and I feel
kinda guilty, cuz we're not gonna like...
D You're gonna keep some of them anyway
K yeah, so hopefully you'll get some of the fans, the smarter ones.
D Whats your favorite color, book, film, etc. right now
K I think glitter is my favorite color.
K Wow, "A Childhood" by Harry Crews.
T Oh, what was the last good book I read?
K Actually, I just read James Ellroys new book, called "The Big Nowhere", is it the "Big
Nowhere", or is it The Big Nothing"?
T It's the "Big Nowhere".
K It's really great.
D I wonder if it's available here? I don't think Harry Crews is available here. Someone should really...
K Really? That's really weird.
D This is what Richard said, but it's hard to believe.
K Well I think Madonna and Sean will be publishing his books soon.
D Sorry, Thurston have you remebered the last book you read?
T No, cause they're all kind of, like, mediocre books, I mean it's very rarely I read a book I really
just.... I mean James Ellroy usually is pretty amazing, the books I've read by him. I read a lot of
sort of, uh, new writers, like people sort of my age, who are writing kind of science fiction, but they
refer to it more as ' speculative fiction' cause it really has nothing to do with robots, or...I just read this
book by Lewis Shiner, called "deserted cities of the heart", and that has absolutly nothing to do with
science fiction. It's, just sort, of a tale that took place in Mexico and the only place you can find it is
in a science fiction store, which is totally ridiculous, cause It's totally mainstream. It's a great book.
D They just don't get classified as kind of.... If it's "contemporary fiction" it has to be kind of about,
I dunno, relationships or something like that.
T I like contempory fiction. I mean I like some of it. I like Anne Tyler, Iv'e read some of her books,
they're pretty neat.Ha-ha She's an American, like, writer, who writes about the mundain, but theres
such a bizzare under element of it, so they're always really interesting.
T I liked, "Last Temptation"
D I thought you might say that, that's opened here.
T It wasn't long enough, it was really interesting. Plus the fact that somebody like Zefferelli, thought
it was the most, disturbed, horrible piece of...
K Really? He thought so?
T He just lashed out at it. Didn't Zefferelli have a movie called " The story of Christ" years ago,
that was a very valued, Italian Film?
K I think, some religous film....
T This movie is like Italian Ameriacans going "Yo Christ"
D They talk like they come from...
T And that was just great. It's this cross between, like, this American and Italian thing, as far as,
like the Christian ethic. And the... It's just really good. The acting is really great. Though it was
really low budget in a way.
K It's only like an 8 million dollar film, I think.
T It's still huge, ya know like, en locale, kind of thing.
D where was it filmed? was it Mexico?
T It was Mexico, which is another great addition to the kind of superstitios aspects of it But,
it's just dealt with things in a way that were really interesting. You wanted to, like, break out laughing
at certain points, like when Lazerus was brought from the dead, and he was like, sitting there, looking
like he had a horrible hangover, and Harvey Keitel comes over and says" Yo Lazarus! How ya feeling pal?"
I thought that was just amazing.
T The crucifixaion scene was just.... awesome.
K I can't wait to see it.
T It's frightning, in a way. And then it goes into this part that everybody's thinking, is this great evil.
He has a dream where this gaurdian angel says " You're not the savior, you're just a regular man"
and then he gets married and has children... and then the dream fades. But, that's like, what
everybody's upset at, that christ had desire to be like a man.....the Messiah...
D But, did it actually work in the film?
T Oh yeah, I thought so. It was very corny, and if you didn't have any interest in it, you'd just be
very bored by it. Cause' it's not like, high adventure at all.
K High adventure with Christ?
D Was it actually quite seriously looking at Christian ideas?
T I think so. Oh yeah, it's a very serious movie, on his part. I don't think he was bastardizing it....
but you know, I mean, if you see these people outside of the cinema, y'know, holding up
there....there, Jesus pictures and denouncing everybody. There just totally ridiculous. Aw, there
just idiots. But to each his own.
D Anything else you'd care to....
T Oh, "The DeclineOf Western Civilization, Part 2: The Metal years"
K Ah, the metal years......
T The metal Years, go see that.That's like high comedy of the last decade.
K That's one of the best documentaries that I've ever seen.
T You remember the movie " The Decline Of Western Civilization".....
K By Penelope Spheeris
T About the Los Angeles punk rock scene.
K Claude Bessy was actually in it.
T But this is like a bigger budget and it deals with the metal scene of Hollywood, and it, it's just....
K It's amazing, it's just so depressing.
T It's unsigned bands, and it's interviews.
K And all it's interviews with established people like Ozzy...
K And Aerosmith and Lemmy....... and then it's interviewing these young kids who all want
to be stars, and will persist untill.....they just don't consider anything else....they'll kill them selves if
they don't make it.
D And do any of them appear tTo have any talent whatsoever?
T Not really, they're all, there backgrounds, they're rich brat backgrounds from Hollywood, so they're
kind of like sittin in their saunas, being interviewed, then going to the club, and all the woman are
just totally exploited, and it's just, uh...
D Nothings changed in 30 years.
T It;s just so amazing, and everyone's so young...and so waisted.
D Their whole life is dedicated to that.
T It's an amazing film.
D OK, what do we have next? In fact Richard has mis-interpreted 'The Sprawl', or interpreted
it in a different....
K Well infact that's where I got the word, actually from the book jacket of 'Mona Lisa Overdrive"
D So, there's a song on the album called 'The Sprawl' so how do you relate to the whole "cyberpunk"
T Oh dear....
K I was looking for a title, and I just happened to be glancing over this book jacket.
T Well they're like our contemporaries for rocking in a different media.
K Yeah, right.
T Parallel rocking, sort of like Benny Goodmen and Hemmingway.
D Have you met any of them?
K No, but a couple of them have listened to our music, I guess.
D I didn't go and hear William Gibson when he was over here, I was away I think.
T Richard went to see them and thought he was great.
T I'm not that big a fan of all those guys, I mean I like the....I mean none of them were cyberpunk.
I mean only Bruce Sterling, sorta...
K He's one of the better ones.
K The less stylised.
T Yeah, he's an amazing writer. They just sort of deal with certain things, you know, that only people
of their age could come up with, I think... you know certain aspects.
D Otherwise, recommendations?
T "Schismatrix" was great.
D Now we get on to the platidudinous stuff...Where are you headed, apart from Vienne, of course?
K I don't know really, I can't really say...nor would I want to think about it.
D Do you think about it? Do you have a plan?
K It's more a general kind of....I mean it's sometimes a reaction against the last records.
D Rather than recording on old valve equipement, go and do something else?
K Or like 'Sister' is all kind of somgs like, just short and concise. This is , I guess, more extended,
in retrospect. It's just more of a feeling about it. Each record is written at a different time>
T As J. Mascis said "We don't see what all this big deal about music is, anyway." You know
in that "Sounds" interview.
K "It's just something to help fill up the time so I don't have to watch TV all the time."
T He's very honest." All these weekly mags, all this bussiness, what's the big deal?" The big deal is, it tends to sell.
D How do you equate the hard/artcore elements?
T That's too tricky.
K I'm not too familiar with artcore.
T We want to be like, if you could imagine Mark E. Smith singing in an Oi band, that's sort of
what we're trying to attempt. I just saw the fall with Michael Clark, it was great.You should get to go.
D I enjoyed the last stuff.
T He used to be a big fan of ours.
T Yeah, cause Charles Atlas who was doing the lighting came up and said, like" I told Michael you were
here and he was very surprised, cause he used to live in New York, and see all your shows, and stand
in front and be a groupie." And I said, "What are you talking about?" He said " You actually used to know
him" because he used to live with a fellow where we used to rehearse, so I have this faint image of
this person, and that was Michael Clarke.
D He's a great dancer.
T The whole troup are, amazing.
D He's actually quite liked by the straight ballet world.
T It's interesting, because there were actually a lot of straight theatre people there in their 50's and 60's
for the fall and all this repetitous rock rifting! They seemed to enjoy it, and nobody left.
D When we went to see....It was X-mas time, the last time...with a lot of music by the Wire, and
some people did leave..... Right, what's the interview question you'd most like to be asked... and
how would you answer it?
T It's never happened.
K How tall is thurston?
D Is this a secrete?
T What's the first record you ever bought?
D What was it?
With my own money? er...
D Well the first one your mother bought you...
T "Inna Gadda Da Vida" by Iron Butterfly, remember them?
T That was my first purchase. I remember then buying "Satanic Majestics Request" and not knowing
what it was, untill maybe a week or two later, after hearing it for a long time, trying to figure out, that
was the Rrolling Stones? I was so young, and I wasn't familiar with them, and my brother said, "like
you should buy this record" that was...wierd...All the best bands, all the people in these bands, they all
had brothers and sisters who were into the classic rock thing....
D It's very difficult, I think one of the first records i ever got was "the beatles"
K "Hayley Mills"
D Cliff, my mother's younger brother, had all these Johnny Ray and Billy Hayley things around,
they must have started me off.
T J. Mascis from Dinasaur Jr, his major influence was his elder sister....Since you were a little baby
You're hearing all these things, ther's no real jumping off point.
D So Kim, do you have a question you've alwayse wanted to be asked?
K No, actually, I don't.
T What are the two things you hate most about England? That's what they asked "Mark E. Smith" and
he said, "Dogs, and the fellow who invented 'The Face" The two things that most English people are
suppose to like.
D And what two things do you most dis-like about America?
K 'Nancy and Ronald Reagan' hahaha
T But we;re dog lovers
K Definatly dog lovers.
T You can tell the dog lover bands, like The Butthole surfers are definatly dog lovers...
K Their dogs used to tour with them.
T We went to the dog races the other night. That's probably a dog lovers thing. We're dog lovers.
The fall are not dog lovers. It sort of shows.
I met up with Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo
on the eve of their European tour. Blondie is on the hifi and
Thurston is talking about Daniel Johnston's problems. ( Did
he push a woman out the window? Or did she leap?) We discuss
the CMJ convention and everything the band is up to.
Most of the members of the band work on quite a few other
projects. How does all this other activity effects SY?
Thurston: Sonic Youth is everyone's main thing. But if there is
room to do more individual projects the we go ahead and do it.
But we challenge ourselves a lot within Sonic Youth. As a group
we went into the studio and did a whole record of.....nothing, I guess.
I don't know what exactly the record is. That was pretty challenging.
Lee: It was the kind of thing where we went in without any ideas of
what we were going to do. No rehearsed songs or written pieces. We
just started making stuff up in the studio. It was a way to break from
what we were doing prior---over the last couple of albums. We wanted
to clear our heads and do something on a different tack. We needed
an escape from the rehearsal routine and writing.
Thurston: Plus we have the ability to do other things budget wise. It
costs money to record and to re-rehearse if you don't like the way
you sound. Now that we don't have to worry about the money as much
we don't have to worry about the time we spend recording as much.
It seems from the earlier records to now, that a good deal of popular
music around, has sort of " caught up" to SY. Now people use SY as
sort of a marker for now sounds, but what does that mean to you
when someone says "Oh they sound like SY?"
Thurston: Like the new Voivoid " Their new record sounds like a
cross between us and......well I like it.
Is it harder to keep on growing and be challenging to yourselves when
you started out so challenging?
Thurston: I don't think it's harder. Maybe it's cuz we don't think about
it. We just go ahead and do. We've become a bit more formulaic in our
song writing over the last few records. But we still try not to think about
what we are going to do much. It's a more interesting way to work-
to be anarchistic about the whole process. The first records- well no,
the very first record doesn't count because we were so naive-- but
Confusion is Sex and Kill Yr Idols were very crazed. Immediately
anarchistic. They were as spontaneous as possible. Not much time was
spent on what was going on, structure-wise or tonal-wise. Those songs
were tunes that were just scratched out. Much more then in the recent past.
As far as doing what we're doing because of the way people regard us,
well we don't do anything as a reaction to, or in conjunction with. We
our very aware of what's going on with our peers and we are constantly
aware of what's current. But we don't try to be unique just for the sake of
So would it bother you then as you set off for your European tour, and
Daydream nation is eagerly awaited, if people don't see sophistication in
your song writing as a way of challenging yourself. What if people instead
say, they sure have changed just to appeal to a wide audience.
Lee: Well people have said it already, and will probably say it more with
the new record.
Thurston: Yeah, and a lot of what appeals to middle America-- as far as
what you can see-- appeals to us also. What influences middle America
influences us a lot. We utilize it, in fact.
Lee: Yeah, we are not that conscious of the direction we take, but without
being aware of it we still tend to move from one thing to another in jumps.
Records we do don't usually sound that much alike. Evol and Sister were
the two that sound the closest. What we do is follow what's in our heads
at the time, without thinking; Oh, this is going to be more poppy sounding
or gnarly. Until the record is done an assembled all in order, and you can
take a cassette home and listen to the final project, for us that's when we
have an impression of what it's going to be, what it's going to sound like
as a whole. By that point though, it's too late to make any impression come out
of it. So, what happens after that, we have no control over. We just want
to move with whatever is moving us at the time. We've always been trying
for better production. We want to work in better studios. So production
sound will differ from record to record. But then people say," oh here they
go getting really pop", but that's not the case at all. It's the case that better
sounding quality isn a logical progression. Alot of times fans, and people
who are observing a band really want the band to stay the same, even though
that's destructive to the band.
Thurston: Well people come into a band at that point. Maybe if they came
into it early, they've had their fill of it by now--- it's just more of the same
Lee: It's the viewer's perspective. Everyone gets tired of something after
awhile. Now when we play out, it seems that a lot of newer people, that
are just getting into SY are there as well as the hardcore fans who have
been there since the beginning. It's interesting.
I bring up the show that I saw last year at the Cat Club that seemed full
of newer people---packed out infact.
Lee: That was the loosest show we had done in a long time. We played
three sketches for things, and two of them made it to this record, sort of.
But at the show, we started out with like a couple of chords for the guitar
and said let's use these and maybe do this or maybe do that......it freed us
up to go out and do these things that had never been rehearsed and try
that out on an audience. It got us to this record which, as we were saying,
is much looser again.
I ask them to talk about this circle that seems to pull in all these people
like Kim playing with Lydia Lunch, who also played with Thurston, and
Rowland S. Howard, who has also played with Lydia in different projects.
Thurston: Well all of that comes just from hanging out together, which
you do if you have the same general philosophy. These people are our
friends. You identify with them. You probably had a lot of the same
experiences growing up. We all moved to a city to do a certain thing.
There are definite similarities in our experiences and our expression of
them. But there are also big differences. Like Lydia's thing is not playing
Lee: It's the people you gravitate to, like the little kids in the neighborhood
who are playing war together. All of this intermixing comes out of seeing bands
and being attracted to them stylistically. Then you get friendly. There's
something behind why you like them for sure. So you can get friendly with
these Immortal Souls or The Bad Seeds---you try to run into them when
you are on your own and sit down and talk or whatever.
Thurston: Well, why don't we play with Lemmy? Or flavor flav? I guess
How do you feel about having to go off on your European tour? Are
you looking forward to it?
Thurston: Yes. Our relationship with people there is different though. They
regard us differently because America to them, even if they won't admit it
is the birthplace of what we are doing. In Europe we are more exotic. And
it's kind of nice being in a totally foreign place. You can almost do any thing
without being embarrassed. For the most part, people who come to see us in
the states are plugged into almost every nuance SY has. In Europe large
parts of the audience don't connect at all, weather it's subtle humor or
language. But that's the way with anything. We see Einsturziende Neubautan
totally different then a German would. That's their art, and there are inter-
esting things in there that we will never know about. That's what makes us
fascinating to Europeans--- we are so strongly rooted in American culture,
pop culture. Even though they don't know what it is, they know it exists,
they can feel it.
Lee: There impressions of things are skewed from the perceptions people
have here. The first time we went on tour over there we were lumped in this
American guitar thing, which included The Long Ryders and Green On Red!
That's a weird kind of skew point. It's a comparison that wouldn't happen as
readily over here. And it did happen that we got lumped in with the Long Ryders
because all people from another country saw was all of us being American
youth pop rock culture. The difference between us weren't very apparent. The
difference between a nostalgic approach and a newer approach didn't quite
translate. And European audiences are less critical on the whole. We are very
well liked over there, but we like playing in the states better cause when you
win over audiences here it feels more authentic. There's longer tradition over
there of just going out to see music and not knowing anything about it. And
listening to it and taking it in, and not being so quick to say "this is shit!" and
walk out. We have a lot of fun over there. You can go wild and they'll stand
there and look at anything, no matter what you are doing. We can smash
guitars. On the stage, or bury our heads under them, and people will stand
there and watch it all as a performance. Of course England is a different story
because we share a lot of the same culture.
I mention the death of " let's go out and see what's on" is fairly
Seven or eight years ago in NYC, there were a lot of people going out to
clubs just to go out and watch whoever was playing.
Lee: That's because there are not those club hangouts anymore. Back
then you went mostly for the club. There were distractions in every corner
and the band was just another one.
Thurston: Yeah. First there was just CBGB"s and Max's and people went
there for the music. Then Hurrah's opened--- it was this huge disco room
and it started a trend. A bunch of places like that opened.
Do you think the demise of places like The peppermint Lounge or Dancetera
helps or hurts bands?
Thurston:When we first started playing out, those clubs were in their prime.
We'd play CB's one night, then a big nightclub the next, and it was strange--
you'd have your friends come and see you at the club, but the vast majority
of the people were there just to party and that's it. They weren't music lovers.
We were just something that was going on stage that was whacky and loud
and that wasn't enough.
Lee: But we had some great gigs at Dancetera because we made sure we
weren't just a part of all that stuff going on. We couldn't be ignored on the
Thurston: I couldn't imagine those people going out the next day and buying
our record even if they lasted the set. I don't think we made many converts!
But it was helpful for us in dealing with playing live.
Is that what it's like in Europe then---big clubs and lot's of people?
Thurston: No, there halls we play in. Halls/clubs. Not many discos, except
Steve: It's really unorganized and chaotic. Some sort of youth organization
gets money and has us play. We'll play the Skinhead house one visit, and
big 50's ceiling disco with a hanging ball the next visit.
Thurston: Yeah, the audience at that kind of place watches and then comes
up later and says "oh you're from New York! You must know the Beastie
Sonic Youth take the Lollapalooza caravan to the zone.
Lets go back to 1987. Sonic Youth's newest album, its second on the
SST label, was Sister. Song number two on one side was called ( I Got
A) Catholic Block. If you know that song, take a moment to recall the
first time you heard it and what it felt like. If you don't know it, then
read no further. Run immediately to the nearest compact disc emporium
and purchase a copy of the splendid DGC reissue, then run back home
and slap it on. Make sure you're comfortably seated. Ready?
This is the first sound you should hear: The hum and buzz of electric
current, as Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo plug, unplug, and replug
their cables into their guitars. Once a complete connection is made, the
open strings are left ringing for a few seconds. Tuned to some incom--
prehensible interval, they produce overtones that summon images of
window panes breaking or funeral bells tolling. Clearly, something
very, very scary is about to happen.
And here it comes. Steve Shelley launches an inside out drum pattern
that sounds like the chatting of a haunted assembly line. The song's
central riff quickly follows. Menacingly catchy, it's delivered by a clean
guitar with plenty of bite. Thurston's voice takes up the theme, his pitch
is shaky, his tone a bit bratty, his commitment undeniable. Kim Gordon's
bass rumbles in at about the same time, heavy and distorted. Although
the riff's tonal center is F#, Gordon hangs on a roaring C#, giving the
song an ambiguity and tension that isn't relieved for the whole time
Thurston sings. After the singing's over, the band pulverizes several
more hot riffs in swift succession, ending with a brief breakdown into
pure noise. Moore returns to the mike with the immortal words: I got a
catholic block/do you like to fuck/I got a catholic block/I guess I'm out
of luck, and the band explodes again. Left behind at the end of this last
burst is one rapidly picked guitar, a slide perched beyond it's freeboard.
Slowly the slide inches downward as the band comes back in, playing one
of the early sequences at half speed. An acoustic guitar moves to the fore;
the mood is pensive, unsettled. The song ends abruptly, but the guitars are
left to ring once more.
Three minutes and twenty five seconds is all it takes, 3:25 full of power
and invention. The sound is disconcertingly strange yet at the same time
familiar; writer Alec Foege has called it " tomorrow's music recorded
yesterday." Go back and listen again. There isn't much else to say. This is
why Sonic Youth matters.
Of course the song doesn't have to be Catholic Block. It could be just about
any song on any one of their albums, from 1983's Confusion is sex to the just
released Washing Machine. For this is perhaps the most remarkable thing
about SY: they've always mattered. Born in Manhattan amongst the the
wreckage of punk and No Wave, they've worked diligently combining the
two, arranging thrash tunes like avant-garde composers, going for the per-
fect mix of intellect and instinct. Every album has a progression in that quest,
a further step forward. They've never stopped reaching, and they've never
sounded like anyone else.
Considering the length and consistency with which this band has dominated
the underground, it's only fitting that they were the headliners of Lollapalooza
1995, bringing the true alternative gospel to a new gang of kids. They didn't
get there by being popular or selling lot's of records; their career has been
the ultimate slow climb. They've hardly made any concessions to the market-
place, and Washing Machine- a dazzling collection which gives the holy '80's
trinity of Evol, sister, and Daydream Nation a run for it's money- suggests
they aren't going to cozy up to the mainstream any more then they all ready
have. Sonic Youth made it to Lollapalooza through the sheer depth of their
influence and importance. Just try and imagine the last 15 years in American
music without them.
Great athletes and and great improvisers sometimes talk about getting into
a "zone", a metaphysical place where mind and body work together without
effort, where everything happens just as it should. Think of Michael Jordan
draining an off-balance threepointer and just shrugging his shoulders in dis-
belief, or John Coltrain floating over the rhythm of Tyner, Garrison and Jones,
each phase following the one before with unconscious ease- that's the zone. And
that's what SY have found on Washing Machine. Their trademark blend of rock-
solid riffs, winsome melodies, freaky noise, and subtle group improv is now
seamless. When the Youth play, their music seems to breath of their own
accord, as if it was generating itself. And it's been doing so in front of big
festival crowds all summer long. Not a bad time to find your zone.
Lollapalooza '95 ended at shoreline Amphitheater near San Francisco, homeland
of the Grateful Dead, nine days after the passing of Jerry Garcia. We spoke
to Thurston, Lee Kim and Steve two weeks later for a summary of recent
events, and Garcia's name kept coming up. Surprising? A little ay first. But
look closer and you may find when it comes to fundamentals, The Youth and
The Dead are not so far removed from one another. Read on.
Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore had a baby in 1994. For that reason, their
band didn't do a lot. Which meant projects galore. "Between the four of us,
we must have put out ten or twelve things in the last year and a half" says
Lee Ranaldo. "Doing all that weird solo stuff freshened us up and brought
something back to the group." Lee worked with downtown dudes like Mich-
ael Morely and William Hooker, while Thurston put out a solo album called
Psychic Hearts, and Kim played in Free Kitten, in which she plays guitar
rather than bass, a piece of information that will soon become significant.
Once the band had reconvened, the first big decision was to record some
where other than New York City, something SY had never done before.
Several colleagues-- John Spencer, The Breeders, Guided By Voices-- were
in Lee's word, "talking up the vibe" of Easily Studios in Memphis. That studio
was built by the Bar-Kays in the '70s and it has the same feel that you get
from seeing old pictures of, say, The Beach Boys in those studios they worked
at in the '60s. It was built from the ground up as a studio, not shoved into a loft
space like most New York studios."
"We were into spending little money" Thurston says. "And Easily was a little
The funky new surroundings were further enlivened by the pronounced lack
of producer. Butch Vig was involved with the Youth's last two albums, Experi-
mwntal Jet Set Trash And No Star (1994) and Dirty (1992), while Ron Saint
Germain worked on 1990's Goo. This time the band felt like going it alone.
"This was the first record we've done on Geffen where the fewest possible
people were involved." Says Ranaldo. "It was just the four of us making
decisions. Usually when you're putting a record together somebody's always
hovering over your shoulder. But this time the record company never even
asked for demos."
By the time the band hit Memphis, their new material was pretty well devel-
oped, having been fine-tuned on an eight-track reel-to-reel in the bands
Manhattan practice space. (Two pieces on the album, Pantie Lies, and the"
opening section of No Queen Blues, are taken directly from those New York
demo tapes, as the band felt too much studio polishing could ruin them.) The
one song there aren't any demos of, The Diamond Sea, was written just before
the sessions began. Steve describes it as "the closest thing to a spontaneous
song that we did."
But spontaneity is present to some degree in all the tracks on Washing Machine.
Songs frequently veer off in unforeseen directions rather then sticking to one set
plan. Shelley puts the approach in one historical context. "I felt like Experimental
had Sister-like tendencies. It was a bunch of snappy songs. This ones going into
Daydream Nation territory, with extrapolations and extended codas. When we
were in the studio, we'd finish the bulk of a song, and then something else would
happen, so we'd keep the tape going. That happened a lot. I guess it's something
you don't want to do on every album, or else you're going to be known as a band
that goes on for another five minutes after the songs done. But when the time
comes, it's interesting to play with it."
You can hear just how interesting it is on the album's churning nine and a half
minute title track, which starts out riff based, fades into noise, jams out, then
returns to more noise almost of majestic nature. "Washing machine came out
of riffs that I had" Kim says, "but I never said to the guys,'here's a song' it
evolved gradually. We were more into letting the music go where it felt like
going then we were on experimental."
The trend towards more straightahead and concise material that marked SY's
previous albums for Geffen hasn't exactly been reversed on Washing Machine,
but it's been subverted; the album's epic closer, The Diamond Sea, features a
tune that's winning as anything they've done in the '90s, but it sprawls on for
nearly 20 mind expanding minutes. Extended pieces are nothing new for the
Youth, but between Diamond Sea, Washing Machine, and the 18 minute Elegy
For All The Dead Rockstars on thurston's Psychic Hearts, 1995 has proven
to be a year without precedent in the song duration department.
Listening to Washing Machine and Experimental back to back, it's hard not
to feel that the songs on the new album sound more like the products of a real
group. "It's true" says Shelley. "Definitely on Experimental, Thurston pre-
sented his ideas to the band in a more finished shape then usual. He'd say, play
along with me on this and see what happens, instead of just bringing in some
chords and have us work on them for several weeks. This time, because Thurston
had just done a solo record, he didn't come in with a lot of preconceived ideas,
so we had to get together as a group to come up with new material."
Much of that material was designed to be played with three guitars. For the
majority of the sessions, Kim put down her bass and played six-string, as she
did earlier with Free Kitten. "It was shocking, when we started mixing," Lee
recalls, "because when you mix, you always look for the bottom end, and it
just wasn't there. But we got used to it."
Getting used to the absence of bass isn't that hard. Kim's detuned Gibson
still covers the lows, and the sheer destiny of the three guitar arrangements
insures that the music's got plenty of heft. There is something of a historical
precedent to this: bass lines were more often felt then heard on the Youth's
old albums anyway. "That's because we didn't really know how to make records
back then," Thurston comments. "You could say the same thing about the drums
on a lot of those earlier albums," Shelley pipes up. "The Rhythm section as a whole
has suffered through the years on our records. But we're doing better."
Speaking of drums, Steve's parts are uniformly scintillating on Washing Machine.
Junkies Promise is particularly effective. The force of the opening guitar riff
leads you to expect a fast beat, But when Shelley enters, it's with creepy,
staggering rhythm that drags behind the rest of the band. When asked about it,
Steve simply says "well it's a creepy song."
The two most striking features on the new album are prominent guitar solos
and smooth vocal harmonies. Most bands use both as a matter of course, but
for SY to employ them is nothing short of revolutionary. "Stuff like that has
always happened," Lee says of his upfront leads on No Queen Blues and Junkie's
Promise. "But I think we're allowing it to sit in the mix the way a lead guitar
does more now. It used to be a scary thing to think you had a lead guitar on a song.
We never wanted to get into that. I always admired Television because Richard
Lloyd's and Tom Verlain's roles were never clearly defined; in the same way, we
liked it that neither Thurston nor I was the lead or rhythm guitarist. But now were
just going according to the song's dictates."
Not all the lead parts are Lee's. The crazy bends on Washing Machine are Thur-
ston's. "That's my big rock solo." He says with a touch of sarcasm.
As with guitar solos, backing vocals have been heard before on SY's songs; Kim
and Thurston sing together on Sister's Cotton Crown. And Lee accompanies
himself on Goo's Mote. But the warmth and ease of the groups harmonies on
Unwind and Saucerlike is unprecedented. "I like singing with Lee," Thurston
says. His sense of pitch is clearly defined, whereas Kim;s and mine are not. So
it's risky for either one of us to sing with him, because we're going to be wherever
we are. But when we do unwind and I hear him sing along with me, it's like this
flashlight guiding me. I only wish I had a better ear."
With it's lush guitar backdrop and delicate melody, Unwind has got to be the
prettiest song this bands ever done, and Saucer-Like, and the first part of
Diamond Sea aren't too far behind. "We've always had pretty songs." Lee says.
But unwind is special. It reminds me of some Spanish guitar line. By the way,
the tweaking sound in the middle of that song is Thurston running a slide up
and down the strings of his Fender. "It's right over the pickup, so the sound kind
of gets canceled out," he explains.
The guitarists weren't the only ones making funny noises. Steve Shelley got into
the act, too. At the end of No Queen Blues," what sounds like the clattering of
a cheap drum machine is actually Steve banging on a cracked cymbal resting on
a pair of congas. "Sometimes Im hitting the cymbals, sometimes I'm hitting the
congas. The cymbal's getting muted by the congas, so it almost sounds gated,
but in an organic way."
Ask any band member what accounts for Washing Machine's more open sound,
and chances are the Memphis studio's more relaxed environment will be at the
top of the list. It's just different down there." Steve says. "The air is different.
And we were in a different frame of mind, not trying to over achieve or going to
long on each day."
"Making a record in New York is more difficult," Ranaldo says, "because
people always know where to find you. In Memphis we were more removed.
And the towns so steeped in music. We went to this old juke joint in Mississippi.
It's Sunday night, you drive down these dark roads for an hour and out in the
middle of this insane darkness there's a little jumpin' shack and all the cars
parked on the side of the road. You go in there and it's like stepping into 1945.
A group of old black guys playing the most authentic sounding lowdown blues,
people doing these suggestive dances. It's amazing that something like that still
The scene inspired SY to create their very first stageset, which debuted at Lolla-
palooza: a Facsimile of-what else?- the battered plaster of a juke joint wall. "We've
never done anything as cheesy as having a backdrop before, and we were uncom-
fortable about it at first," Lee says. "But we got used to the theatrical aspect of
it after awhile, and it worked out great."
"The Fact that we were headlining Lollapalooza was perverse," says
Moore over a late breakfast at Jerry's on Prince street in Soho. "We're not a
superstar band, more like a recognized brand name. But the way it's been set up
is that the real headliner isn't the last band. The second to last band is the heavy
celebrity band that all the kids want to see. Maybe the people who are seriously in
to what's out there in weirdoville would stay for Sonic Youth, but the MTV generation
for the most part wants to see Courtney say, 'Fuck you,' then go home."
Kim Gordon, sitting next to Thurston adds, "I think most people who left were jock
types anyway, so that was kind of good."
"Second to last is good on any kind of package tour," Steve Shelley agrees, "but I
don't think that would be true for any year. If Neil Young had played after Hole,
people wouldn't have had the same attitude. But that suited us fine. People are
leaving all day, it's a weird thing, but you've got to psyche yourself into it and say,
'We're playing to more people then we would on our own.' For a lot of people it
was there first concert ever, and if they made it all the way from Jesus Lizard to
Sonic Youth, what a first concert they had. You know, the first concert I ever saw
was ELO and Heart at Pontiac Silverdome. This was such a cooler experience."
ELO and Heart?
"Yeah, ELO had just come out with Out Of The Blue, the one with the spaceship
on the cover. That was a huge record. But I lost interest in them later when they
stopped sounding like the Beatles."
Back to Lollapalooza. Thurston: "Amphitheaters don't really foster audience
energy. A lot of kids don't know about getting reserved seating, so they're
stuck all the way up on top of the hill."
Kim: "Either that, or they don't want to pay the money."
Thurston: "Yeah, Beck referred to it as a 'reverse mosh pit.' All day you'd see
these empty seats up front and people sitting reading their programs.....and
way up there are the moshers. And a bunch of kids straining to see the bands.
But they can't get down there. That was the most stupid thing about the whole
tour: putting these high energy club bands in and environment made for James
Kim: "Half way through the tour though, we worked out something with the
security guards to let people come down, and it made a huge difference. It was
so much more fun.
Thurston: "Lollapalooza doesn't really cater to people for whom music is a priority,
it's more like spinal tap playing the theme park."
Kim: "Some kids are so young it's shocking."
And, as Steve points out, They Know very little about us" Maybe they've seen
one of our videos on Beavis and Butthead."
Considering the makeup of the crowd, playing several songs each night from an
album that hadn't been released yet, made a kind of sense. But there was still
something subversive about it. Which for this band was completely appropriate.
Lollapalooza was the occasion for another band first. For the first time on a major
tour the band was joined by a real sonic youth, one Coco Hayley Gordon Moore,
age 14 months. Thurston and Kim seem to be adjusting reasonably well to their
new roles as parents on the road. (Having a full-time nanny certainly helps.) "It
can be exhausting sometimes," Kim says, "because she changes all the time.
But it's gone pretty well so far."
"She's part of the road crew" Thurston says nonchalantly. "And she pulls her
weight. You know, there's a lot of down time on a big tour, so it's great having
a baby around to keep everybody entertained. And she's got a good temperament;
she's not a squawking brat." He pauses and smiles "She's learning though."
"I think Washing Machine is a preface to Jerry Garcia's passing."
So reads a
quote attributed to Thurston in Geffen's latest SY press bio. Confronted with
the statement, Thurston at first denies saying it, then fesses up: "It wa me being
flip, the key words are 'in a way.'"
"But at the same time" Kim interjects, "Some nights after he died, you couldn't
help but think about him."
Thurston pauses. "I never listened to Jerry Garcia's music that much." He says
"But I liked him as a player. And his whole approach to being a celebrity was
"Totally non-sensational." Kim adds. "Even as a drug user, he was not in the
media's eye at all."
"You know," Thurston continues, "If you listen to sonic Youth next to the
Grateful Dead, their completely different animals. But there does seem to be
some elemental thing we do that's relative to them."
"The songs are different every night," Kim suggests, "and we sort of jam."
"We jam," Thurston counters with authority. "It was interesting that Jerry
died two weeks after we finished the tour, and all that time we were heading
towards San Francisco. No, not interesting, it was very heavy."
Similarly heavy is Washing Machine's untitled 9th song. A brief instrumental
piece, it was originally the coda to the disc's opener, Becuz. For purposes of
making an accessible first track, the end of the song was cut out and reinserted
later in the album sequence. Listen to the shimmering guitar tones and vast waves
of reverb, and see just how easy it is to think: Fillmore West 1968.
"We Won't work much on new material for the next year probably,"
Shelley, "But when we get done touring, we'll finally get back to the basement,
or wherever, and start throwing things around and rolling tape. Because we've
got the eight-track now, we tend to record more. It's a big part of our writing
process, and it lets us attack things more experimentally, like, what if I don't
turn up this track? It's a lot easier then when we just had a little cassette player
with a built in mike. Trying to hear what the bass line is on those kind of tapes
can be tough."
Lee Ranaldo describes how the Youth's division of songwriting labor works.
"Thurston generally brings in more riff oriented stuff, I bring in more chord
changes, and kim brings in more weird note patterns. But since almost everything
this time came out of tumbling jams, it's harder to discern who came up with what.
We don't do lyrics until the music's all written, so nobody comes in with a riff and
two verses. It's dealt with at first on a purely musical level. Lyrics are tackled by
whoever sings the song."
The sounds of instruments other than guitars are often inspirations in the writing
process. "We give parts names according to what they sound like," Lee says. "It
might be a song or an Albert Ayler sax line. I'm completely into bell sounds. I got
a big collection of them on tape."
Another major inspiration, of course is the tuning of the guitar. It's generally
believed that Thurston and Lee's apprenticeship with composer/altered tuning
freak Glenn Branca was what set SY on the path of mangled tunage, but Lee points
out that his tuning experiences began much earlier, when he was still a teenager in
Long Island. "An older cousin of mine taught me a few. Open E was immediately
great; even if you were a novice, you could play a couple of trills and sound amazing.
And so many people in rock use them-the velvets, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Keith
Richards, Never mind the bottle neck blues players-that it never seemed like a
foreign thing. When Thurston and I started playing with Glen, that just recon-
texualized it in a conceptual way.
Sonic Youth's 1981 self-titled debut EP is all in normal tuning; nothing has
been since. "Part of that was because some of the guitars we had sounded
shitty in normal tuning," Lee says, "so it was better to use them just as tone
generators rather than instruments to play C chords on. In retrospect, I think
the luckiest thing that happened to us is that all through the 80's, while the
'revival of the guitar band' was going on and you had all those Long-Ryders type
bands coming out, we were exempt from standard rock chord changes because
we didn't play in standard tuning. In those days you'd put on a record and there'd
be a couple of cool songs, and all the rest of the record would sound just like
those two songs. Wheras we could switch the guitars and completely change the
tonality. We always had this broader palette to work with."
Ranaldo says he never thinks up tunings in advance, but simply arrives at them
through instinct." I'll be around strumming and just turn the pegs until I get a
nice sonority happening. The same thing happens when were rehearsing. If
Thurstons playing an interesting riff, I'll pick up a guitar that's closer to the tuning
he's in and then start modifying it until something resonates- The two of us hardly
ever play in the same tuning at the same time anymore. From there it's a question
of figuring out fingering positions. Unlike the way someone like Branca would work,
it's always ears first, never concept first."
I only use four different tunings in SY," Thurston reveals. "For my solo stuff, I
use a fifth tuning and just about everything's in that. But it isn't even my tuning. I
stole it from Pavement."
One of the longest-lasting of one of Thurston's four classic tunings - heard pre-
viously on Bad Moon Rising's Death Valley 69 and Goo's Kool Thing- appears
again on Washing Machine. Two pairs of F#s make up the bottom, the first pair an
octave below the second. E (a whole step below the second pair of F#s) and B( in
normal tuning the 2nd open string, here the 1st) round it out. On the same song,
Lee's tuned to A-F#-E-F#-E-B, a more complex and lower sounding version of
Thurston's tuning, without the unisons.(The low A should be about the same pitch
as ab open A on bass.) "The new tunings on this record were mainly variations
of earlier ones," Lee claims. "I have trouble remembering them all, because the
roadies tune the guitars now and it's not ingrained in my head anymore." Luckily
each of the guitars tunings are written on the back of the headstock.
"If we're in a rehearsal situation," Ranaldo says, "and somebody starts playing
first, the others will ask, 'Which guitar are you using?' Just so we have an idea
weather its centered around Gs or Fs or whatever. It's a little less random then
it once was, but it's still pretty fucking random. And now that Kim is involved
on guitar, it's created more sound chaos because she's in a specific different
tuning too, where before she was playing a normally tuned bass."
Kim uses one tuning consistently, the same one she uses for Free Kitten, but
unlike her bandmates, she declines to divulge it. Even Lee doesn't know what it is.
"I think it's got some C's and G's in it" is his only comment. Kim's one hint:
"A lot of the strings are very loose."
Lee Ranaldo is sitting in his new apartment, within firing range of NY's
The rooms full of boxes; he moved in just before Lollapalooza started and didn't
have time to set it up. The unpacking may still have to wait. SY are going to
Europe next week for two concerts, one in Barcelona, and one in Paris, and Lee
is preparing to go to Morocco for the first time. The Master Musicians of Jajouka
are on the stereo, and a documentary featuring Paul Bowles commenting on
Moroccan culture is rolling on the VCR.
Of all the members of SY, Ranaldo seems to be the most pleased with Washing
Machine. "It's probably my favorite album since Daydream Nation. It's sprawling
in the way that Daydream was. After that record we got more tightfisted about
recording. It was good experience, but it's great now to say 'we don't retake each
guitar part ten times until every note is fixed.' There's bum notes all over this record,
stuff that's out of tune. But it's useless to worry about that. We're going for some-
thing more immediate.
"I don't know what was going on when we made the last record, but there are more
songs on it where we where we came up with one riff and made a song out of it then
we've ever done. Some of them work, some of them don't."
(Thurston on the contrary, stands defiantly behind the Sonic's last album. "I think
Experimental's got a great feel to it. The problem people had with it was that it
wasn't noisy. They said this wasn't experimental.' But what's experimental? Anyone
can make a fucking racket.")
Had the band felt the need to make their songs more accessible once they'd
signed with Geffen? "Certainly with Goo and Dirty, we were trying to make
records that were more produced, more rock sounding," Lee answers, "But it
wasn't completely conscious, some of that came from hanging out with Nirvana
and Mudhoney. Those bands would come out and rock from first song to last.
It was inspiring and it made us want to play that way. But looking back on that
period, there was another side to us that was more delicate, less balls to the wall,
that was getting lost in the attempt to keep up with these full on garage-rock bands.
With this record we've came back to that side."
Lee reveals that the names of NEU!, Can, and other 70's German progressive bands
kept coming up during the Easly sessions. "I also started telling people that what
we were doing now sounded like Pink Floyd. It was a joke at first." The very inter-
stellar Overdrive- like middle sections of Washing Machine, and The Diamond Sea,
suggest that the joke was based in fact, as does the Syd Barret boxed set prominently
displayed next to Ranaldo's stereo.
Another drug-tormented '60s icon soon makes it's way into our conversation." I'm
sorry I didn't make it to Haight Street to see the memorials" says Lee, "The last
week of the tour, though, it was definitely hanging over. "We dedicated The Diamond
sea to Jerry Garcia just about every night. I wrote a piece about it in my tour journal,
because The Dead definitely mean something to me. I guess what I liked about them
has some kind of confluence with what we do. It's not in the way we play, but in the
fact that both bands had a lot of open playing sections where you knew you were
going to start here and eventually get there, and the way you got there was left
up to the musicians. With The Dead there were long stretches where you weren't
listening to pop songs. You were listening to people playing music. And that's what
we've tried to be about too."
The talk turns into how SY had been asked to do Lollapalooza before, but not as
headliners. "We wouldn't have agreed to do it this time either if we weren't on top
of the bill," Lee says. "That's not because we feel we're the best. It's just hard for
this music to exist in the daylight hours. Alot of bands get sold short because of that.
And because the light show was expanded this year, we really needed the darkness.
We had backdrops and weird constructed lights, and that made a difference. I've got
a video of the last show that I haven't seen yet. Want to check it out?"
A couple of minutes later we're in the middle of the Shoreline concert. Three big
speres hanging from the ceiling contain banks of strobelights. One chain of lights is
against the back wall (the one that looks like it belongs in a juke joint);another string
of lights is out front, plus moving lights on the sides. Occasionally Lee comments on
the proceedings: "Here's the part where I change guitars," "Wish I could remember
what the tuning on that Les Paul was," Gradually, become more fanlike as for the
first time, the performer sees the show from a vantage point of the audience. "We
never saw any of this on stage," he remarks with a smile. As the lights flash wildly
back and forth during Diamond Sea Ranaldo goes quiet. "Wow" he says." Psych-
"It's like getting married," says Lee Ranaldo about Sonic Youth.
thing about what we can do together that's further confirmed by the solo things
we do. We've built a language up over a long period, and it's great to step up on
stage with 10 or 15 years dialogue behind you. Everyone knows the point we're
starting from and where we could go. Sometimes it's a hindrance, but most times
it's freedom." Sounds like something Jerry Garcia might say, doesn't it?
All right, all right, so you're getting tired of all these crazy references to the Dead
and how you're supposed to think they've got something in common with Sonic
Youth. Obviously it's unfair to both the Youth and the Dead to draw too close a
parallel. SY's music rarely sounds as hippie or as laid back as the Dead's can.
They don't have an extended family following them around the country. They
don't often wear tie-dyed clothes. And the underground scene in which they toiled
throughout the '80s has little to do with the counterculture that embraced Garcia;
it's so much less optimistic, so much more fragmented, so hard to easily understand.
Yet the temptation to connect still lingers. For different as the details may be, the
aesthetic core of these two great American bands lies in the same uncharted region,
the same zone, if you will. Could it be that a child of lower Manhattan in the dark
Reagan/Bush days is the true inheritor of the Haight/Ashberry spirit?
In at least one sense the answer is yes. Remember that Lee said the Dead were
never about pop songs, they were about people playing music. Likewise SY have
never been about pop songs. They've never been about No Wave or punk or
rock n roll, either, even though all of these have been important in their devel-
opment. Like the Dead they are about people playing music.
Thurston Moore put it this way: "I like playing in a rock band, but I don't have
a purist idea about rock n roll. I would never want to feel that I or Sonic Youth
would have to prove our selves as an authentic rock n roll band. That's silly. We
started out wanting to play rock n roll, that's our basis. But we're getting away
from that. And the more we get away from it, the better."