Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore:
On punk music, staying fresh, amd the strange
bridge between art and rock
December 1999 / January 2000
By Antonio Lopez
I first interviewed Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore in 1986 for an LA-based punk fanzine I co-founded called Ink Disease. Moore sat on a bed munching corn chips and talking about Evol, SY's debut album on SST, a quintessential punk renaissance label representing artists like Husker Du, Black Flag, Minutemen, and Meat Puppets. Over the years I caught more than a dozen SY shows, including a 1995 Denver gig headlining Lollapalooza. What amazed me about their appearance was that despite signing with a major label and headlining a fairly mainstream musical event, SY stuck to their roots, experimenting with sound textures built through feedback and open tunings and playing a hell of a lot of "noise." While many Denver-ites fled with fingers in their ears, I was blown away by the band's sonic landscaping. In the summer of 1999 SY performed at SITE Santa Fe, a nonprofit arts organization. Tickets for the benefit cost a hefty $50. But at the band's behest, SITE opened its doors to a group of teens who had gathered across the street. The teens amped up the crowd with body surfing and a slam pit in front of the stage, and SY jammed with as much vigor and energy as the first time I saw them in 1984.
How often do you guys play benefits for art institutions?
We get asked to do a lot of different things of that nature. We gravitate toward the ones that intrigue us aesthetically. Some are corny or too completely and overly austere. Some of them we just like what's going on with their curriculum.
Unlike most "pop culture" bands, SY have a connection to the avant-garde art world. You seem to be able to keep a foot in both worlds.
We came out of that. When I moved to New York in '77 those were the people I got involved with. They were graduates of Rhode Island School of Design. They were the graduates after David Byrne from Talking Heads, and I was involved with that whole gang. Lower Manhattan, that was where the scene was at that time. It was artists getting involved with musicians and vice versa.
Kim [Gordon, bassist] and Lee [Ranaldo, guitarist] both came out of visual art schools. A lot of people that we knew then as visual artists have maintained their vocation, like Mike Kelley [who did the album cover for SY's Dirty], who is now a really well-known artist. He's somebody we knew from the '70s when he was fresh out of school. We have always maintained those relationships. In a way we have always been interested in the world of art as opposed to just being interested in the world of music.... During the '80s it was kind of weird, especially when hardcore was the center of the underground music world and anything "artsy" was a kind of denigration in a way. We were always this sort of artsy band, artsy-fartsy.
It was funny because after Nirvana became so big and punk rock got somewhat co-opted into the mainstream, the idea of playing more adventurous, or artsy music, became more of a vanguard thing and the idea of looking at free, improvised music, or finding out more about contemporary classical concepts, avant-garde jazz, or Fluxus became a very in-vogue thing to do as far as having some hip cache in the underground. It wasn't like that in the '80s so much. It was very purist and to the point, very raw, and anti-intellectual in a way. I kind of feel like punk rock is more successful now than it ever was as underground music because it has become a completely experimental genre. That's how it started in a way, that's what it was all about.
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Are you defining punk in terms of what you are doing?
Yeah, how it started.
As opposed to Green Day?
Yeah, which is what people turned it into as far as a mainstream thing. They look at Green Day, Bush...I'm not trying to denigrate those bands either. They are hard-working people, but I always saw it as about being radical in the face of the mainstream, that's what the underground has become again to a real strong degree. So I find it more exciting now than it has ever been. It's also more secret, more underground than it has ever been.
Do you feel that same kind of energy you felt when you first went to Manhattan in the '70s?
No, it's completely different here now. The real estate has changed the idea that any artist can come here and live on three dollars a day and get away with it. It's really impossible now. It really changes the face of the city as having a Bohemian quality, which is kind of a drag. But you know, things change. I don't really care. I have no problem with flux. [laughs]
Was there ever a point that you felt schizophrenic, like when you signed with Geffen and you were doing more formalized song structures? It seems you have evolved back to where you began.
Probably, yeah. The only reason we did that was, to us that was kind of like an experimental gesture because we weren't typical songwriters. So for us to do more formal ideas in the music was kind of radical. [laughs] The whole Lollapalooza thing, all these bands before us like Hole, Jesus Lizard, they are considered really radical bands.... They are radical people. Courtney is this radical, weird person, and we're not. We're very straightforward, straight-ahead, down-to-earth. The music those bands were playing was very straight-ahead alt-rock, especially Hole. Whereas when we came out, we weren't. It seems like the most fucked-up people are making the most straight music and the most straight people are making the most fucked-up music. It's a real paradox.... Maybe the fucked-up people want to play straighter music because it helps them think that their identity is a bit more together, and those really together want to get fucked-up without fucking themselves up, by playing fucked-up music.
A friend in college once said, "Be a freak with your mind, not with your hair."
That's a good way to look at it.
The last time you were supposed to play here in New Mexico was with Neil Young.
Oh yeah, right, Neil got an ear infection.
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I heard rumors that the tour wasn't going well.
In some places they were throwing whatever they could throw at us. We were just a bunch of guys up there who weren't really playing correctly. That was about it. People have certain preconceptions about what music should sound like.
I wonder how they felt about Neil Young putting out an album of guitar feedback [1991's Arc].
I don't think they bought it. They probably thought, well, great, as long as he keeps putting out the tunes.
I read some interview where you said you wouldn't play old songs anymore.
Yeah, for a long time we'd go out and just play whatever was newest that we wrote. We liked that idea. We did that quite a bit. We'd record an album, put it out, go on tour, and just play that album and anything newer. Which is something we felt was really good for us because you could go every night and play and feel that you weren't doing a Las Vegas punk rock show. You were coming out, discovering new things about what you had just written. We felt that was what we wanted to display ourselves as: a band that wanted to put themselves on the line like that. You know, people always come to the gig and they are like, please play the old stuff. We did that for a long time. The last record that came out last year, we did that all across America and Europe, and in February we went back to Europe to play some shows and we decided that we were even burnt on playing the newness, and so we opened up the back catalog, looked at it to see what would be really fun, what would blow mindsif we came out and did "Death Valley" and that kind of stuff. So we put together a set of oldies and newies, and went over to Europe. It was fun, we hadn't done it for a long time.
How do you remember all the old tunings from these songs from 15 years ago?
They are still there. They are ingrained. They are sort of personal to us, it's like tying your shoe.
How many guitars do you tour with now?
It matters what kind of tour we are doing. It could be anywhere from six to 13.
Total, or per person?
Per person, for me and Lee. Kim plays a lot of guitar; she doesn't play as much bass anymore. She was originally a guitar player when we started the band.
The last time I saw you guys was in Denver at the Lollapalooza show. People just started to leave halfway through your set. They just couldn't relate to your music.
We aren't really known on that kind of mainstream scale. We are a little below the radar. I think a lot of people may have been curious, like, "Who is this headlining band? We've heard their name, but what is it?" They've been out there all day and to hear something that they never heard before that's not exactly that accessible.... I think that people were looking at each other like, "Let's get out of here and beat the rush." That's what happens at all those festivals, unless you're Neil Young.
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Does that bother you?
No, it doesn't bother me that much. I wasn't that aware of it. I knew there were quite a few people there digging on it. It was good enough for me. We came out to do a gig and there were all these people and they got to see it, and we got to do a really huge production. We aren't really setting out to attract the attention of the masses too much, as long as a few people are turned on to it. We basically did it because the production value was so amazing that we could actually play on that kind of stage with that kind of lighting and sound. We got paid well enough that we were able to come back and build a studio to record, which is where we have done the last two records. Lollapalooza paid for that. So for all those people who left, I want to thank them all for helping us.
Do you guys bring in different artists and do different projects in the new studio?
I wish we had more time to do that because we all have different projects we're doing. We fight over who gets in there. What I need is one of those little pocket 16-track studios that DJs plug into in their bedrooms.
What is the function of the SYR label?
When we built the studio we just did a lot of rolling tape while we were rehearsing and writing. We started constructing different, more extrapolated, improvised pieces, tape cut-up pieces, etc.... We told Geffen Records that we have some very outside music that we wanted to release, that it would probably not be very easy for them to sell it, but what we would like to do is press it up and distribute it independently. They said, "Go for it! If you start making gold records, we'll probably step in and want a piece of the action, but it's going to be a very limited audience for that kind of stuff." So we did it. We released three things, we have another one coming out. Some of our solo projects are going to be on the same label, with the same kind of design concept.
Is using French on the cover a put-on to make it seem like it came out on some obscure label in Europe?
[Laughs] Maybe it was sort of a put-on. No, we were just thinking of what would be a really good way of neutralizing the design idea instead of having to get another cover every time. As a record collector, I have a lot of different contemporary classical/avant-garde series of records from the early '70s. There was one of them, from a series in France, that had these really great patterns and other things on the records. We decided to use those for each release.
Those particular EPs, when you are improvising and creating these sonic textures and landscapes, for me that's the perfect moment.
Yeah, I love doing that and getting inside there. The next thing we want to do, I don't know what people are going to think of it. It's this idea that a friend of ours had that Sonic Youth should play the compositions of composers who play just to their abilities, that don't have any technical, traditional, or classical skills. So we did pieces by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, James Tenney, and Steve Reich. We recorded all this stuff and we actually did a gig of it too, which kind of freaked people out. Jim O'Rourke played with us, and William Weinands from San Francisco. We recorded all these pieces and some of the composers actually came in and worked with us. So that's going to be the next release. It'll be a double of John Cage-ian type music called Good-bye 20th Century. It doesn't really have that meshed, sonic improv stuff. It's more toward thorny.
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Yeah. It's interesting in its own right, but it doesn't have that dream improv quality. But, you know, the next one will.
You guys have been playing together for quite awhile, most of you are in your 40s, I don't know how old your drummer Steve Shelley is...
I think he's 18.
He'll always be 18, especially when he wears the beanie cap with the propeller.
Yeah, that gives it away.
From this point, how do you define your success?
Hmm, I don't know. [laughs]
I mean, you haven't sold 300 thousand records.
I think it's the fact that we never really actually tried to fool people into thinking that we were a successful mainstream act. I think people realized that that wouldn't be the case, and that we wouldn't keep trying to hammer at success like that, that we would be a success on our own terms musically. That's what makes us successful. It doesn't really matter. As long as people know we are doing what we want to do and we still experiment. We tour a lot, so we see a lot of reaction from around the world. There are enough people I meet who are so appreciative of our stance among the world of alt-rock, or whatever. It makes me glad that we did stay on that course as opposed to anything else. Yeah, I feel like we are post-successful. I don't even think of it as success, but it's past that. We were successful in '89, and everything after that is just this journey.
A lot of people don't realize that you guys toured extensively SST-style all over the country in the '80s.
This is the secret history of underground rock.
Are there any particular lessons that came out of that?
Things will happen to me on tour now and I can always deal with things, just from doing that for so many yearscrisscrossing America in a van, crisscrossing Europe in a van as we were just trying to make gas money. It gives you a very good, hard, honest perspective on what you are doing, and your dedication to what you are doing.... For us things started happening with the emergence of, you know, the Lollapalooza and Nirvana generation, and we were there and the market came toward us, and we are very grateful for it all. It helped us out; we got a record deal that gave us medical insurance and security in the bank. It doesn't make us millionaires like some bands. We have a very modest kind of deal, but it's good enough, and we are able to do what we want to do full time, and able to buy books and records. That's all we really ever wanted.
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What do you do to keep your ideas fresh?
I listen to everything. I try not to listen to things for ideas, I listen to things for the pleasure of hearing ideas, not looking for ideas. For me it's better going in and letting myself create things and knowing how to judge it, that's something that's really cool. I found out, really, the most unrewarding thing, in a way, is to be enamored by something that someone else is doing, then to try to incorporate it. It just doesn't work because you are fooling yourself in a way. The thing is to utilize the vibe and not the actual sound and rhythm. I found that after getting immersed in serious jazz like John Coltrane, etc., I don't really play like that, but there is a certain quality of approach there that can be employed and learned from.
Will you ever again do something like the Whitey Album [a record that explored electronic music under the band's pseudonym, Ciccone Youth]?
It's funny. There are lot of things on that record that I keep hearing on different techno records. It's freaking me out. I don't know if we will do that again. It was so disregarded at the time. It was like, "Why in the hell are you doing that?" I think if we had done it a few years later it would have made more sense. It got reissued a few years ago. And it was reviewed in an English music magazine that said this record is what we keep hearing coming out of the European experimental techno scene, but nobody is ever going to know it. I wanted to re-release it a couple of years ago when all those records started coming out like that, under a different name just to see what would happen. I'll call it something else with a pretendo techno label with a pretendo techno groove on it and see what happens. Some people would go, "Wait, I've heard this, this is the Whitey Album." And there would be a whole group that would be like, "Hey, what's this?"
Many musicians have been inspired to create second-generation Sonic Youth-influenced music. Do you ever feel like a parent of the underground?
A little bit. I try to think of it more as being an older sibling. Parents are more like guidance counselors. I'd like it to be more of a big brother kind of thing than anything else.