Stroking NY's Ego with Sonic Youth

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From the beginning of time, Sonic Youth has been there. “Beginning of time” being defined here as that pinnacle moment in the history of the universe (universe being defined as the landscape of American rock music) when rockers who considered themselves artists stopped trying to prove and justify the sounds of their genre to the academic establishment and started creating intelligent, artful rock for intelligent rock fans (here being defined as angry fifteen-year-olds and stoned college students).

Stepping into their third decade of existence, Sonic Youth is still writing new and vivid chapters in their story in a world where very few bands are able to remain mold-free beyond their third LP. I was able to sit down for an in-depth conversation with the seminal noisemakers. The following are excerpts from my conversation with founding member, Thurston Moore and newest member, Jim O’Rourke—but Jim didn’t have much to say, so basically, it’s just with Thurston.

What do you think of World War Three so far?

Thurston: So far? I’m completely ignorant of World War Three.

Jim: You mean that British band?

T: Oh, those guys? Yeah, they’re good. They’ve been broken up for quite a while – The Third World War.

J: They had the greatest album title of all time—their second album was called The Third World War II.

What was David Geffen like and did you do any negotiations in his hot tub like he did with Crosby, Stills, and Nash?

T: No. We didn’t get to do any negotiations in the hot tub. We were flown out to LA by the Geffen people who were interested in us. And at the time Geffen was all about Whitesnake and Cher and John Lennon albums and we thought it was kind of ridiculous. But like all the labels at the time, there was this influx of new people with a background in college radio who were finding these gigs doing radio, promotions, and A&R stuff at major labels and they were reaching out to the bands they were working with at college radio previously. It was interesting to hear these executives talk about how they were all into Dinosaur Jr. and we were like ‘How do you even know this?’ At that time especially there was such a division between mainstream culture and what we were doing. Then all of a sudden to hear people coming out of major labels espousing interest in bands that we thought were our territory—we knew that something was changing. When we went to talk to some of the majors, Geffen had the most interesting and reasonable pitch that we got. And at the time Geffen was considered a Unicorn label—it didn’t have any affiliation with any conglomerates or corporations—they were completely self-contained. It was a small label in a little building and it was funky and left over from the sixties. So we met them and I remember David Geffen sort of came in the meeting and sat down and talked to us and gave us his pitch and then asked us what we were doing there and we said, “well, you flew us out” and then he said, “well, then you have to sign to us”—that was his kind of logic. Then he complained about David Crosby’s book and how it misrepresented him and stuff like that, then he split and I never saw him again.

Never Again?

T: I never saw him again. I remember when Nevermind became a huge record and he would have lunch with Kurt, which was really funny—we were like “what the hell was that like?” I think he was aware of us, but a good year after we were there he sold the company to Seagram’s and he took off and the whole company changed. There’s no remnant of what we originally got involved with—nothing, at all.

Do you think Hip Hop is doing the same thing to Rock ’n Roll that Rock did to Jazz in the fifties—pushing it out of the forefront of youth culture?

T: I don’t think Rock ‘n Roll will ever remotely be displaced by any other genre of music. Plus, Rock ’n Roll is more of a cultural phenomenon than just a genre of music anyway, and it already has a history that is in to its third generation now. I think it can only be sub-genrized, in a way. I mean Hip-Hop is really interesting because it is such a successful music coming out of Black culture and it’s become so successful by it’s co-modification into rock culture. It’s kind of just like Rock ’n Roll in a way. I see them as equals.

So, do you think Eminem is taking culture backwards or forwards?

T: Eminem? I think he’s kind of made it more interesting to a lot of people on both sides of the fence—people who are really purist about Hip Hop who see it as a strict Black cultural event and then people who see it as a cross-cultural thing. I think he’s the first Caucasian artist to be fully, kind of accepted in the purity of the genre—and that’s kind of exciting. But I certainly don’t think he has the resonance of someone like Elvis Presley.

You don’t think he’ll be remembered as an important player like Elvis?

T: No. I don’t think so, not at all. But again, it’s a different landscape in a way. I think he’ll be remembered more so than a lot of people who are flash in the pans through the years. He’s already proven to be a bit more long standing than that. It’s hard to compare things that are happening now with things that happened in the 50’s and 60’s—it’s just different.

What’s your favorite Who song?

T: My favorite Who song is “Happy Jack”

J: “Behind Blue Eyes”

What’s Greg Ginn doing these days? I’ve heard he’s sitting in a shack listening to techno music all day.

T: As far as I know, Greg Ginn is sequestered in a shack listening to techno music all day.

So, Thurston, are you a soccer dad?

T: I have really made quite an attempt to not be a soccer dad, because I really don’t want to be. I don’t want to have to go out there and be a soccer dad, so I refuse. My daughter plays soccer at school, but I won’t go near the field. But I do go to other events, when she’s in other school events, I’ll go out of my way to be there, I’ll fly a million miles, but soccer—no.

Why is every magazine trying to convince me that The Strokes are the saviors of Rock ‘n Roll?

T: Those are just magazines that think Rock ‘n Roll needs a savior.

What do you think of the new New York arts scene currently coming out of places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint? And how do you think it compares to the New York scenes of ten and twenty years ago?

T: The bands coming out of Brooklyn and all—a lot of them are pretty exciting. It’s kind of interesting to see a lot of excitement being focused on that area because I never thought that it was going to happen. It did become this thing where the focus had been on Seattle, Minneapolis, bla, bla, bla, and then for it to come back here is kind of nice. As far as I’m concerned, New York has always had this really exciting music scene, but sometimes it was really confusing to the media because it wasn’t always so band oriented. It was about different musicians working together, which to me has always been the most exciting thing happening in New York—all these musicians working together underneath the mainstream profile and all these people coming out to see it at The Cooler, at Tonic and stuff like that. That’s what I’ve always been interested in because it was experimental, it was different, it was a lot of new ideas and referencing really obscure music. It’s interesting that all of a sudden that there’s this real young band scene with a lot of bands that relate to that and reference that as well. But The Strokes are probably the least interesting to me—it’s weird that they’re the most popular with the media. The media keeps saying that they’re referencing the Velvet Underground and Television—but I don’t hear it. But then there’s this band that’s playing with us tonight—the Black Dice who are getting a lot of attention. They’re very avant-garde; they’re very exciting to me. I also like these pop rock bands, I mean, I’ve heard the album from The Strokes and there’s a few songs, which are okay—but it’s not that fresh to me. I mean, they seem like good people—I guess. But I like the Black Dice, I like Lightning Bolt, I like The Liars.

What’s your favorite animal?

J: Bunnies

T: Cat.

Did Giuliani fix or ruin the city?

T: He kind of neutered it in a way. He sort of swept things under the carpet, which I found kind of suspicious.

J: He got engaged today.

T: Oh yeah? Congratulations…I mean he changed the city remarkably. Before he got into office the city was really a mess, but it was kind of a beautiful mess – and we all thrived in it. It was crazy – it was like anarchy. All around East Village there were people in the street, there were left over hippies, and the punk rock thing, and then there’s the influx of money and changing the real estate. So, I don’t know, it’s a little weird to complain about it in a way.

You’ve been around for a couple of decades now, so who are your role models as far as being a long-term rocker? Who’s done it right?

T: Um… John Harper did. I kind of like Deborah Harry—she did it right, she had a sense of class about her which I liked.

How did the early punk audience deal with watching you guys jam on stage or experiment with feedback and sound?

T: It wasn’t much of a punk audience. It wasn’t the same audience for The Ramones, The Heartbreakers etc. – they got this real Rock ’n Roll audience which was from this early 70s kind of street rock thing. We were cultivating more of an audience of young art people and hipsters who were interested in music influenced by stuff that was coming out of The Kitchen and stuff like that. People like Glenn Branca and even people coming out of the New York minimalist composition scene like Philip Glass—that was really radical music at the time. No one really knew about it so much and it didn’t have any kind of conservative vibe to it yet even though it was really academic, it had a real street vibe to it.

What’s the best Rock ’n Roll movie ever made?

T: There’s one called Muddy Tracks that no one’s ever seen—that’s a Neil Young tour movie. It’s one that Neil made, but he can never release it because it’s too incriminating… I kind of liked that movie S.L.C. Punk. I thought it was done with a good sense of humor. It was a real good American movie about punks living in this off-zone of America. I think it really captured this community of punks and goth freaks co-existing with their parents and driving for 13 hours to get beer.

J: It really felt like suburb punk to me.

T: It was really depressing. They really wanted this exciting punk lifestyle, but they were just so removed from the culture and they had their little thing. I really kind of like that movie and I don’t know why.

Youth culture seems to be moving to the right more than at any other time in the past fifty years. I think this is demonstrated clearly when something as subversive as South Park, behind the fart jokes, is coming from the right.

T: Maybe it’s because there are a lot of parents coming out of liberal culture, but I don’t know if that’s the case—that’s kind of like Family Ties—with the hippie parents and the conservative son. But I don’t know if it’s that easy to say something like that. Like, if you look at the hippie era you’d think that all the youth was turned on, but there was 50% who were square, they just weren’t in the news, they weren’t playing for the camera, and the hippies were just so exotic. I think people now who have radical lifestyles as far as being radical outside of the mainstream are not so exotic as it was then.

What are the bands' goals now?

T: We’d like to write some heavy tunes, like really heavy tunes.

Do I smell a Sonic Youth/Slayer album in the works?

T: Not heavy, like heavy metal, but like heavy—juice.

Thurston and Jim then left to get some dinner.

This interview appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Impose.