There’s something rather strange about Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore as he walks into a small café in the Soho district of his legendary hometown, New York City. Maybe it’s his mopped hair, black-rim glasses, and gold cassette tape hanging from a chain around his neck. Then again, it could be the fact that he walked in by himself like a normal New Yorker looking for rather a good lunch. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the indescribable legend and unmatched historical influence that he carries around so effortlessly, but oh so effectively. Either way, he sits down quietly, says a quiet “Hello” and informs Clash of the quality food at the café. In fact, he goes so far as to order the same dish as us. Flattering? You don’t even know the half of it.
Considering how long Sonic Youth have been together, Thurston shows no signs of tour wear and tear. In fact, he looks strangely similar to any other twenty-something hipster wandering down the street outside the window next to us. With twenty-five years of no-wave noise under their belts you would expect to hear of some kind of celebration upon their return to New York. “No, we really haven’t thought about that,” he says with a flip of his shaggy head. “In a way, it might be kind of strange if we bought gifts for each other or something like that. We buy gifts for each other on holidays and stuff, but we’re definitely not a lovey-dovey band.”
When we first went to England we wore t-shirts with Bruce Springsteen and Madonna on them and people were fuckin’ weirded out by us doing that.
Regardless of their love for each other, the band has certainly done enough right in the “togetherness” department to put out sixteen full albums since 1982’s soundscaped noise drive, ‘Sonic Youth EP’. Sure, on the surface, their personalities may seem an odd combination: Kim Gordon’s punk attitude (and marriage to Thurston); Lee Ranaldo’s deceivingly grey haired demeanor; Steve Shelley’s reserved, but strong percussion; and Thurston’s ageless cool. It’s a marriage made in punk heaven, and only possible on the sweat-soaked streets of New York. This doesn’t mean they don’t need space despite their mutual respect. “Yeah, I mean when you’re touring and sleeping on bunks all summer long, you really don’t want to hang out so much,” adds Thurston with a rather distant grin. “We all have our own families. Kim and I have our own little family. Lee has his. And Steve, well, Steve lives in Hoboken, New Jersey – he’s like the mayor of Hoboken.”
With the recent release of ‘Rather Ripped’ (Geffen), it’s no surprise Thurston and company are back in New York after a quarter century of taking their CBGB roots and dipping them into every musical pot imaginable. This is where they began. This is where they started it all. This is where a quiet, bearded man named Hilly Kristal gave them a chance that would eventually change modern music. “Oh yeah, I love it here. I’ve seen [New York] really change. I lived here when it was the legendary ‘Wild West’ New York and you could live for like $100 a month,” he says as he looks out the window at the lemming-like villagers wandering by. “The New York City neighborhood is really special.” So special that when Clash asks about their playing the infamous CBGB’s on the same day as the ‘Rather Ripped’ release Thurston seems to launch into full nostalgia mode. “Back in the day it was a real slum on that street. The Bowery was like a blockhouse for bums, winos, and drug-addicts. Then there’s this club, like a cottage almost, with its white awning, creaky wooden door and little wooden windows - completely weirdo and arbitrary. One day Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell of Television were walking by and asked Hilly if they could play there. The next thing you know bands like Talking Heads, Blondie and The Ramones are playing there.”
The history doesn’t merely stop or begin with one venue though. Sonic Youth have progressed, regressed, twisted, tweaked and warped just about anything that can create sound. Whether it’s the post-wave punk trip of ‘Evol’ or the boundlessly sprawling ‘Daydream Nation’ or the pop-friendly ‘Rather Ripped’, their albums have continually found a way to not only break ground for hidden music venues, but also bands around the world. Thurston, of course, just takes it all with humble strides. “We never really sort of looked at ourselves as groundbreaking. As far as we were concerned we were working within a milieu of people who were really working in experimental music,” he says with a shrug and mouthful of steamed broccoli.
After a short time it’s easy to see how honest Thurston is with his band, those they’ve influenced, and those that have influenced them. In fact, he almost finds the initial reactions, especially here in the UK, to their influences as kind of funny. “When we first went to England we wore t-shirts with Bruce Springsteen and Madonna on them and people were fuckin’ weirded out by us doing that. We were like, you know, they’re making some really fucking good records that were as good as Swell Maps and the other underground bands we liked.” The cross-pond reactions of the past still remain a mystery to him. “People in England were just flipped out. It’s funny cos on one hand we’re supposed to be hardcore experimentalists, but at the same time we’re like, ‘we really do like popular music.’ We weren’t trying to take the piss out of it. We genuinely were like, ‘Prince is pretty fuckin’ good man. As good as, you know, The Slits.’”
For Thurston and his inspired honesty, he will be the first to tell you the attitude in the UK has changed. He, however, never saw a major political divide to begin with. “The “them” at the time was disco,” he says with a shrug. “Punk-rock here in New York was a real affront to disco culture more than anything else. Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were never really a nemesis – they were just corny.” With artists like the Boss and the Queen of Pop being name-dropped so much it’s like a shake back into punk reality when he gives credit to underground acts like The Pop Group, Public Image, The Slits, DNA, and Television. But, he is quick to clear up what started the whole no-wave idea: “The Sonic Youth was more of a Jamaican reference and connection to the underground reggae of artists like Big Youth. It was more about the sort of post-punk reggae vibe than anything else. In fact, the first song on our first album, ‘Burning Spear’, is named after a reggae artist.”
Talking to Thurston is like sitting in a lecture from the most brilliantly punk professor at the school of cool. Every answer is like a chapter out of the encyclopedia of rock and no-wave. The influences are often as obscure as the sounds and approaches to their albums. But with ‘Rather Ripped’ Thurston blatantly stepped away from the ambiance and expanse found on past releases. Why? “Because everyone else is doing it,” he adds as he sips his oh so punk glass of tap water. “We didn’t really feel we had to prove ourselves as a noise band; kind of more interesting to not do that. In fact, I was emailing my friends in noise bands and writing that our new record sounds like a fuckin’ Blondie record, and they would be like, ‘Cool!’” The idea of an avant-garde sound seems to be a thing of the past – well, at least for about 4 seconds. “The next record is gonna be like scream, noise annihilation,” he says with a playful laugh that you don’t know whether or not to take seriously.
We never really sort of looked at ourselves as groundbreaking.
Despite its overall lack of classic Sonic noise, the new album is not short of dark material amongst the extra poppy beats. Whether it’s the darkly danceable depth of Kim’s voice on ‘What A Waste’ or the simple guitar structures on ‘Jams Run Free’ or the haunting spoken word pounding from Thurston on ‘Helen Lundeberg’ ‘Rather Ripped’ maintains a classically recognizable voice that can only be placed on the shoulders of a band who has its strengths on lock-down and knows exactly what it wants out of a record. It’s simple, but potent, and Thurston’s uber-cool brain knows when to draw the line. “I kind of became aware of economy with lyrics. I’ve done wordy lyrics, but a big model for me is the first Ramones album, which I thought was completely brilliant. The whole thing is about economization in music and words.” Minimalistic patterns are obvious in his work, especially when he openly admits to Clash, “Poets like Allen Ginsberg wrote about that as well – making economy work for you.” Interestingly enough, the moment he says this the waiter quickly rushes our plates away as soon as the last bites leave them.
Amidst the simplicity and poppy sounds, the standout track on ‘Rather Ripped’ may indeed be the psuedo love song ‘Incinerate’. With its irresistible hook it’s hard not to take Thurston seriously when his throaty voice groans, “I ripped you heart out from your chest/ replaced it with a grenade blast.” Violent? Maybe. A love song? According to Thurston, yes. “You know, I wanted to sing a song that has a good hook, and I wanted it to be sort of like a love song, like when you’re in love with somebody and you set each other on fire – figuratively.” With a smile he leans in make the point clear: “All those references to fire and incineration, but in a very loving way, of course.”
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by Thurston and his band’s unmatchable history. He, however, helps keep everything grounded with quirky jokes and witticisms that only a member of Sonic Youth can get away with. Many have accused them of stepping too far away from their New York past, and that this album is too poppy. Some have even gone so far as to drop the term, “sell-out.” It’s nothing new to Thurston, though. After two-and-a-half decades he knows where he stands. “I think it’s all kind of bogus. Why does the music industry have to be so much more special? If you stay true to yourself you’re not selling out.” With a distant look out the window and an adjustment of his glasses he drives the nail home: “Real punk is never having to say you’re “punk.”
Someone once said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Hopefully, for the sake of everyone in the music community, future artists not only learn from Thurston Moore and the twenty-five years of Sonic Youth sound, but also, in a gold-cassette-wearing-polite-water-drinking-kind-of-way repeat their immaculate history – doom has never been so fuckin cool.