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Keep Listening, Keep Changing - Thurston Moore's Sonic Mantra

Puncture #33, summer 1995. Article by Steve Signor. Translated and trascripted by Vincent Kirsch.

Presentation of the article (in the Summary):
24..... Morning becomes electric : Thurston Moore.

So who is the lanky lad that makes his guitar howl and groan? Bohemian spokesman for the art-punk set? Musical terrorist? Doting daddy? Steve Tignor debunks some rock-and-roll mythology at an early-bird encounter with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.

The Secret of Eternal Sonic Youth

Keep listening, keep changing, keep starting over- that's the message Steve Tignor gets from a morning's conversation with Thurston Moore.

There's a scene in 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Sonic Youth's documentary of fin de si�cle, 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 clich�d 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 expecting 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 it 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 the 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 sockets 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.

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