Interview: Thurston Moore Discovers ‘Trees Outside The Academy’


Sonic Youth grew up in public, learning chordal structures and basic scales over time, diving headlong into creative finessing in order for their first forays to feel special. The culmination of matured songwriting and freshly expansive arrangements alleviated the restrictive constraints placed upon less inventive luminaries. Boldly uncompromising shrine, Daydream Nation, became a magnanimous double-album defying odds just as former SST label mates The Minutemen and Husker Du did years earlier with broadened landmarks Double Nickels On The Dime and Zen Arcade.

“Kim and I went to see Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division film, Control, and she was remarking how it’s the first rock biopic that ‘gets’ what it’s like being in a band,” he shares. “It’s very sublime. There’s no drug exploitation and bad rock and roll behavior—it’s there, but not focused upon.”

By the late ’80s, Sonic Youth indirectly helped steer the course of popular culture. The whole British shoegaze movement that cropped up during ’85 profited from their dynamic sustained tension and flailing guitar maneuvers. My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Ride seized the opportunity, countering revelatory cataclysmic fierceness with warmer fuzz- toned intimacies. By 1990, the oncoming Seattle landscape would forever be altered as the grunge explosion gained universal acceptance. The Melvins, Mudhoney and Nirvana fully adapted Sonic Youth’s emblematic cranked-up metallurgic heft and droning downbeat skronk for a chilling screech still transversely reverberating.

Signed to major label, Geffen, Sonic Youth thereafter prospered when ’90’s weighty Goo and ’92’s dungy Dirty wavered with conventionality, climaxing with ’94’s skull-fucked blooz’e concision, Experimental Jet Set, Trash, And No Star (featuring somniferous Gordon-whirred helix “Bull In The Heather”) plus its superior dilated conniption, Washing Machine.

“By Experimental Jet Set, we’d stepped away from the heavioisity, went against the grain, and got inspired by interestingly introspective contemporary music by Lou Barlow (Sebadoh), Pavement and Royal Trux. That was more important to us than what was being championed with the success of indie rockers getting into Nirvana,” Moore admits. “Afterwards, one major change was Kim focusing more on guitar than bass. Beforehand, she was playing bass almost exclusively. We became a three-guitar-and-drum band for a few albums and tours. The only low end for awhile came from the kick drum. That was bizarre and cool.”

Fortuitously, following ’98’s specious drone- bludgeoned protraction, A Thousand Leaves, respected Chicago-based producer-multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke entered the fold, first as a collaborating ‘ideas man’ for histrionically dismissive poetry-plodded excursion, NYC Ghosts And Flowers, then full-time on ’02’s bewitchingly contemplative masterstroke Murray Street. Beautiful spindly opener, “The Empty Page,” tempers the usual brutal tumult. And a maze-like neo-classical grandiloquence underscores the serene folk proclivities defying the fuzzily squelched bluster consuming the harrowing balance.

“We became a five-piece with Jim. It was a gradual progression. We felt Sonic Youth was so idiosyncratic it’d be difficult to incorporate anyone into the band. Jim had a good read as to what we were doing aesthetically without selling his own goals out. He interacted with us in a real interesting way,” Moore claims before recalling the tragic circumstances affecting their next project. “After 9/11, the Murray Street neighborhood we worked at got blasted. We needed special passes from the city to get down there. It was off-limits to the public. That atmosphere made Murray Street both sentimental and direct. We took after rock history and named an album after its environs, like Abbey Road or Folsom Street. Much was inspired by Italian photographer Stefano Giovannini’s picture of the corner street sign, which withstood the shock of the blast. You could see dust on top of this beautiful sign.”

Nearly as impressive, ’04’s perilous Sonic Nurse

“That record was the most successful as far as fitting lots of noise to pop structures without separation. The material was unified and couldn’t be dissected so much. We were trying to blur the boundaries using extreme elements with more traditional ones,” says Moore.

Amazingly, Sonic Youth’s final album with O’Rourke, ’06’s Rather Ripped, includes two of their finest accessible numbers, the sunshine-y white soul spangle, “Reena,” and the flinty crepuscule sear, “Incinerate.” It proved they could rejuvenate bygone conceptual designs with renewed panoramic vigor sans predisposed posturing or pretentiously pious posing.

“I’d like to think Rather Ripped is as good as anything on rock radio—which has become decrepit,” gripes Moore. “There’s some cool college stations and I review records for Arthur magazine and get lots of promos. But I’ll buy records. I like mostly avant-garde stuff, and Kim’s been listening to Norwegian death metal lately. Finding time to listen is difficult, but I like the fact there’s so much good stuff out there.”