Sonic boom: Thurston Moore
Thurston Moore cranks the parent rock
By Robert Eisgrau
So when I interviewed Moore at the downtown loft he shares with his wife and bandmate, Kim Gordon, their one-and-a-half-year-old daugh- ter, Coco, and their cat, Sweetface, I wanted to know his thoughts on Sonic Youth's rock stardom. "It totally exists for bands like ours now," he says as he feeds Coco a bowl of cereal. "People who play in alternative rock bands are celebr- ities. Even when it was an unknown subgenre, you had your own little celebrity world. It used to be really cool getting written up in some kid's fanzine that was really great. Now it's like if you're in Entertainment Weekly it's the same thing, in a way, for bands like us. We're not into exploiting our celebrity. I can walk down Broadway and maybe someone will say something to me, but it's not a problem." Standing over six feet tall with shagged blond hair, Thurston's wearing a navy T-shirt with a "Satan" iron-on, modeled after the Santana logo, and matching deck shoes that sport Dr Pepper laces. "They're from the Dr Pepper museum in Waco, Texas," he says.
Thurston, Kim, Coco and Sweetface's home is a neatly organized, cozy space. Shelves in their office area are filled with books and records, a window seat holds a bunch of Coco's toys, and work by Gordon, Rita Ackermann and L.A. artist Jessica Herman all depicting female fig- ures hangs on the walls. (Their choice of images by such artists as Gerhard Richter, Mike Kelley, Richard Kern and Raymond Pettibon for their album covers reflects the band's involvement with art's cutting edge.) Among music fans with a taste for sounds that go beyond the boundaries of standard rock, Sonic Youth have become a household name. As Moore reveals, it almost literally became so. "We were seriously considering dropping the name Sonic Youth and just going out again as Washing Machine," he says. "We thought it would be an incredible thing to do to get rid of this name that's become like a brand name in the rock 'n' roll world and keep the same four people. We tried to think of a name that was just any household item, like Shoe Horn or something, but Washing Machine was really a good name because it's been said before that that's what we sound like. So we at least called the [new] album Washing Machine."
If you had to describe Sonic Youth to some one who has never heard them, you could tell them to imagine a Can record, a New York Dolls record and some album by a pop band from another planet and picture what they'd sound like being played inside a washing machine. Their aptly titled new album fits that description, though it's hard to imagine where it will fit into the post-grunge grind of today's rock radio. Even though Sonic Youth headlined Lollapalooza '95, Moore thinks there's a slim chance you'll be hearing anything from Washing Machine in heavy rotation on commercial radio. "There's no way. Alternative radio is so safe. I don't expect us to be played next to Green Day 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, 'cause that was an aspect of Nirvana's music that Kurt wanted to get away 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, "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."
Although A&R de-partments are probably more interested in discovering the next Blues Traveler or Hootie and the Blowfish than in finding bands that may be following in SY's footsteps, their status as the first family of out-there post-punk earned over a decade of touring and releasing records on indie labels Homestead, SST and Blast First is under- stood by David Geffen's DGC, the label Sonic Youth have been recording with since their groundbreaking major-label signing in 1990. "They sort of look at us as a prestige act. We hardly sell as many records as White Zombie or Hole or a lot of bands on that label that are more in the rock marketplace, 'cause we're still fringe. But we get a lot of props from Geffen.... We don't feel any pressure from them to go any route."
Sonic Youth's music has redefined rock for a number of listeners. It's as though they've been operating from the principle that rock music is something you can play with as well as play, and have held an impressionistic mirror up to the standard guitar, vocals, bass and drum set-up or slapped a big wad of Silly Putty onto song formula and stretched it into a strange and wonderful aural Rorschach. Their songs seem to come out of anywhere, be about any- thing and go anyplace. Not really being able to tell what the songs are about is part of the adventure of listening to them. "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. "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."
Perhaps I was overanalyzing when I told Moore I thought "Ono Soul," the single from Psychic Hearts (at least the first line: "Bow down to the queen of noise"), puts in a good word for Yoko Ono when too many people have dismissed her as the villain who broke up the Beatles. "Maybe she did break up the Beatles. I'm glad she did if she did. She should have broken up the Rolling Stones while she was at it. But that song wasn't specifically about Yoko Ono. That solo record was very the- matic in a way. I wanted to write a lot of lyrics about my lifestyle, which is pretty much surrounded by female culture in a way living with Kim and Coco and being socially involved with whatever girlfriends Kim has. My life has always gone that route anyway. Maybe I'm just sort of a mama's boy," he laughs. "I was very close to my mother; my father died when I was a teenager. I don't know why it's worked out that way. It was like that in school, too, a lot of the friends I had were girls, more so than guys. It wasn't a studly thing, because they weren't girlfriends or anything, even though I sort of would've liked them to have been, but I was too...I was a skinny, gawky kid. I wasn't a jock or a cool stoner or a cool kid."
I noticed that he chose to publish the songs under the subname "Feminist, Religious," and asked him to talk about that: "I was trying to think of two strains that were running through the theme of the recording, and it runs through a lot of themes of what I write relating female culture and really more spiritual ideas. So I just called it 'Feminist, Religious' as opposed to just part of a sentence. I thought it was a humorous title. Because it's so heavy and loaded, I'm very wary of espousing myself as any kind of pro-feminist in print because I don't want to be so identifiable as something like that that just gets kind of silly. It's kind of akin to middle-class, radical-thinking white guys going to Black Panther rallies to show their solidarity. I don't want to get involved with any sense of inbred guilt for any radical concepts be they black nationalism or feminism although I find both of those things attractive. I just let my lifestyle dictate how I am involved with them. That seems more rewarding to me, especially if I use it experientially. Just being married to Kim and having Coco and women who come into our lives like Julie Cafritz [ex-Pussy Galore member and Kim's partner in Free Kitten] and Kathleen Hanna [Bikini Kill singer] those people are formidable as far as being right there for lots of good thought."
The dynamic of Gordon and Moore's personal and professional togetherness is an elemental part of Sonic Youth's history. "The band sort of developed alongside our relationship," he says. "We don't know it any different. We lived together for a number of years before we decided to get married. I was fairly young when I met Kim in my early 20s. I was playing in a band called the Coachmen and playing music with this woman Miranda, and she said, 'Oh, you should meet my friend Kim.' So she was a matchmaker. The Coachmen did one of their final shows and Miranda brought Kim, and that's where I met her. Kim was kind of pursuing me and I wasn't really aware of it until the third time I ran into her. I couldn't really see what Kim looked like when I met her at the gig because she was wearing flip-up glasses. She wore those for years. When Sonic Youth first started, she was the girl with the flip-up glasses. But then I ran into her a couple of times once at CBGB's, once at Tier 3, once at the Ear Inn and we started hanging out and dating and one thing led to another."
Ultimately, this all led to Moore getting a tattoo of a cross and the words "Sonic Life" on his upper left arm that serves as his wedding ring to Gordon and symbolizes what his life has become. "We started playing music with no real battle plan or anything. We were just penniless and we fell in love and decided to support each other and it was great, but we were penniless for years and the music just developed organically."
If Thurston Moore has a rock star's lifestyle, it's a healthy, low-maintenance one that's enriched by his role as family man and the foundation laid by Sonic Youth's work. "A lot of people think we're wealthy. We definitely make more money now than we ever have, but a lot of that has to do with our sense of history: We've never broken up and we continue to record, so we have quite a catalog. We just sold our entire back catalog to Geffen, and that helps." When asked about the future, he's mellowly optimistic: "Sonic Youth is in a really good place right now personally. It could go any which way, and I like that feeling. We're not committed to any real stylistic endeavor. Washing Machine was just so much fun to make because we felt totally open to do whatever. There's no guideline for us commercially, and we never felt there was."