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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

July 10, 2009 at 3:56 PM

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Interview: Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth

Posted by Andrew Matson


Sonic Youth headlines Capitol Hill Block Party in a few weeks, and that alone's enough to make it the hippest Block Party yet.

The band's simply one of America's best and has been for a long time. No Wave, noise rock, "alternative rock" back when the label meant something...Sonic Youth's always made unconventional, dangerous-sounding music (although a tuneful pop song constantly lurked around the corner).

A good deal of its wild, artistic innovation rests on Thurston Moore's guitar playing and songwriting. Strange tunings, playing below/above the last/first fret, using feedback like an instrument: These things only add to what I consider his primary gift of writing catchy, sad-sounding melodies.

The band's still making forward-thinking jams; new album "The Eternal" is noisy and groovy as ever.

It was a little intimidating to talk with Mr. Moore. He has a storied history of touring with Nirvana (and Pearl Jam, also) so I asked him about Seattle, a friend had a question about Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth member and Moore's wife) so I asked that, but mostly we just chatted.

Collected quotables:

"I've had pancakes on Capitol Hill. Yeah, I've had coffee, pancakes, bookstore, I've done it."

"I think a lot of our stuff has sort of a gloom-core thing going on, even though we're all nice people."

"I always feel kinda gnarly. These are gnarly times."

"People sit down and pick up my guitar, and they're like, 'Man, this is out of tune!'"

"I find we're kind of an over-documented generation to begin with. I'm a little more interested in mystery, rather than history."

"I just want to be a record."


Are you doing interviews all day?

No, just a couple. I'm gonna do sound check pretty soon.

Oh, you're playing a show tonight?


Where are you?

Richmond, Virginia.

Ah, I see.

Did you write the promotional one-sheet for "The Eternal"?

I did.

On it, it says it's a "celebration of newfound freedom," 'cause it's the first album you've made since leaving Geffen. Did Geffen feel like being in jail to you?

It didn't feel like being in jail. It felt like maybe being home alone.

What do you mean by that?

Well, you wake up and you realize all the people who are supposed to be taking care of you have kind of, like, left town. It's that kind of vibe. Yeah, that's pretty much how it was.

But we always took care of ourselves anyways. It wasn't that much of a bad deal. I'm extremely into anyone that wants to put our records out.

I don't want to complain about Geffen so much, but it just became a company we didn't have any sort of personal relationship with for a number of years at the end there. They kept hiring and firing people at such a rate that it didn't do anybody any good. Particularly a band like us, that has a record coming out and needs people setting it up, so to speak, and a week before the record comes out, those people disappear and are replaced with a whole other crew of new, young hopefuls wanting to break into the corporate record industry. That happened consecutively, to the last two or three records there, and it was disastrous, in a way.

Did it happen for the last record? For "Rather Ripped"?

Yes. And, you know, records come out, and they fly 'em up the flagpole, and that's about it. I always thought, at some point, the perception of any band like us that's on a label like that, it gets somewhat devalued just because of the personality of the label, which is sort of faceless, in a sense. And I've been into record labels that had a certain personality to them, and when we first signed to Geffen - or, as it was known, DGC records - it had a small coterie of people there that I knew, people I had known from 1980's college radio.

The same people that got Nirvana on the label?

Yes. 'Course.

That was what was appealing about being on a major label first of all, at that time, was that you knew these people coming in there that had supported you through the '80s at college radio. So we went there because of people like Mark Kates. He was one person. And then they let us bring in Ray Farrell, who worked there. He was somebody we worked with at SST Records.

And Geffen Records, at that time, was kind of considered an independent, among those other major labels.

Because Geffen himself was such a maverick?

Well, yeah, he was a maverick, but the label was a self-sufficient label that utilized the WEA - Warner, Elektra, Atlantic - distribution system. And I think six months to a year after we'd signed with them is when they did their corporate merge with Seagram's, and it became part of the bigger picture. But when we signed to them, people considered them a unicorn label.

One of a kind?

Yeah, and that was appealing. And they had a little house. Their office was like this old, little house on Sunset Boulevard, sort of a holdover from a great era, the late '60s, early '70s L.A. music scene.

And now their office is a Costco?

I don't know where the fuck their office is. I mean, I stopped going to the office at some point. But yeah, it was kind of cool, on one end. But it stopped being cool pretty quickly.

But I'm grateful they put our records out. And it was also a sort of secure situation. I mean, we had health care, things like that.

Does Matador give you health care?

Matador does not give us health care, but we have a stable situation. We also don't have a ten album contract at Matador, either, it's just a one album deal we did with them. And we'll take it from there. Nobody does multi-album contracts anymore.

It's just one-off.

For the most part, that's sort of what's going on.

Was "Rather Ripped" your attempt to give Geffen some final hit songs before you left?

Yeah. I don't know about "hit songs," but it was definitely giving them a record of songs that were not too marginalized. I don't think when we're writing songs that we're like, "Let's make this more accessible for the record company," but we knew we wanted to make the kind of songs we make, you know, but with a kind of accessibility. I always feel no matter how we write or what we deliver, it's always gonna be somewhat unorthodox. As far as what's going on in the "real world." So I don't fool myself into thinking, "There's gonna be something here that's a hit song," or anything.

["Incinerate," the first single on "Rather Ripped":]

But it's the kind of music I think any music supervisor could use in a Hollywood film, and it would still sound OK, or you could probably use it on any network TV show. I don't really watch TV so I don't know. One of those vampire shows.

Vampires are so in right now.

Yeah, man. They're in it.

They're in it for blood.

I listened to that album, and also "Trees Outside the Academy" pretty much every night walking home from work for about two years.

Oh, cool.

["Silver>Blue," my favorite song on "Trees Outiside the Academy":]

Just really made an impact on me, made me like guitar again.

Oh, yeah. That's awesome.

I used to work at a high school dormitory before I worked at the newspaper, and I would walk home really late at night because I would have to put the kids to bed, and then leave after that. So I was always listening to those albums at nighttime.

That's great.

Do you ever listen to music when you're walking around?

No, not so much. I don't really have headphones, and iPod, all that stuff.

You don't have an iPod?

I have an iPhone that has iPod on it, sometimes I'll plug it into the car. But no, I like watching music more than listening to it. I like watching live bands. Looking at records. touching them. Smelling them.

[The software stops working. Oh my God. This can't be happening during the Thurston Moore interview. I close to the program and open it again, starting a new audio file while talking. The conversation turns to Capitol Hill Block Party. Has Mr. Moore been there?]

I've had pancakes up there. I've had pancakes on Capitol Hill.

You've had your cup of coffee on Capitol Hill.

Yeah, I've had coffee, pancakes, bookstore, I've done it.

How many times do you estimate you've been to Seattle?

I feel like I've gone there pretty much once a year since we've been together. So at least 25 times.

Ever considered moving there?

No, but not for any reason. I don't really have a bent toward anywhere specific. The only reason I'm living any type of stabilized home life is because I'm married and I have a daughter, and there's a responsibility to do that. If I were some single dude, I'd probably be more nomadic.

I get stir crazy. People always ask me to produce their record and I just say no because, to me, being in one place in some room with no windows working on something...I'd rather jump out a window.

After Seattle, you go on to play Spokane and Boise. Have you ever been to those cities before?

I've never been to Spokane, that I remember, I have been to Boise. Boise I know because it's the home of Septic Death. That was Pushead's hardcore band. Pushead was the preeminent hardcore artist at one point. He's kind of a renowned skate/hardcore illustrator. Pushead.

A comic book artist?

Well, comic style artist. I don't know about any books. But he did a lot of t-shirt design, skateboard design, poster design, and some album cover design.


For bands like the Necros. So Pushead was kind of a big deal in the first-generation hardcore scene, and he came out of Boise. As did Tad, I think.

[Tad opening for Nirvana:]

Is Tad originally from Boise?

I think Tad came out of Boise, if I'm not mistaken. Might want to use your fact-checkers on that one.

I'm gonna use my Internet for that one later.

Ha ha.

[Still don't know.]

So, because "Rather Ripped" was so tight, so tightly composed, is "The Eternal" a reaction to that record?

Yeah, it might be a little more explosive than "Rather Ripped." As far as the whole liberation thing, in a way it was more a psychology thing, across the board, in everyone that was around. And I think it had a lot to do with the overthrow of the Republican administration, as well as us leaving corporate-record-industry world.

Like a brave new world?

Like a brave new world. We were set loose, in a way. That was fun. I think the record has a more excited vibe to it. I think during the whole eight years of the Bush administration, there was a sense of despair. That permeates a lot of your work. That's always something that has to be considered.

Like if you did good work, it would still be in vain somehow because of events outside your control?

Nah, I think it's just going to have this element of discomfort. I think this record has less of that. I mean, I think a lot of our stuff has sort of a gloom-core thing going on, even though we're all nice people.

Yeah, it's funny you can feel so happy and free and the album sounds so gnarly and aggressive.

I always feel kinda gnarly. These are gnarly times.

I'm curious if you ever make up a song using a specific guitar tuning, and then mess up that tuning, and then you never get that guitar to sound like it did, and the song dies and you never are able to play it again?

I think that has happened a couple of times where I have a tuning happening at my house and I'm getting something happening, and I'm like, "This is so cool," and like I leave it be for a week and somebody comes over and retunes my guitar. That happens a lot. People sit down and pick up my guitar, and they're like, "Man, this is out of tune!" And I'll be like, "Nooooo! Don't do that that was so great what I was doing it's gone."

Does that make you want to record everything you do all the time?

Well, it makes me want to notate, maybe. But I'm not really into trying to record everything. I find we're kind of an over-documented generation to begin with. I'm a little more interested in mystery, rather than history. So to speak. I tend not to always have a tape recorder running, when I'm by myself. When the band's playing, we do have Pro Tools running, just to document.

You use Pro Tools to make demos?

Referencing your rehearsals and stuff. I don't know what happens to these files. I'm sure they exist in some Sonic Youth superdrive somewhere. I don't have too much concern about that. I'm not really a technical geek. I still don't know how to...I kind of know how to turn the lights on in the studio.

Where do you play guitar at home, do you have a desk?

I have a desk that I put my computer on, and then stacks of noise cassettes falling over, and boxes of stapled poetry mimeo books I need to file away and organize, and then I have an acoustic guitar that I play. Sometimes I take it into the other room and sit on the couch and play it. That's kind of my workspace. I have a basement that has amps in it, and sometimes I go down there.

So mostly the amps are downstairs.

Well, there's a couple amps in the living room. But I mostly go un-amped, unless I have to deliver some noise for a noise cassette I promised I'd work on, which I'm kind of backlogged on.

What are your cassette responsibilities?

I have a few cassette labels that I'm committed to working for. I used to be able to do that stuff really quickly, but I've kind of been putting it off.

Your job is to construct tone poems?

It's just basically creating a cassette of whatever I want to do. It's usually these labels that are interested in outsider noise improv. Harsh wall-noise. And I put that stuff out on my own label. I've been archiving that stuff, from the early '90s Japanese noise cassettes, to the '80s. It's become quite an active scene in the last ten years in the States.

What's the best part of running your own label?

Making the ads. Making the advertisements and advertising what's happening. I've always been into record labels with cool ads. Particularly back in the day, when I was a teenager, and I would open up a rock 'n' roll magazine or a fanzine and there would be an ad for the first Richard Hell seven inch. It would be a low-budget ad compared to the major label ads. That's what I like to do. I like to advertise.

It's like making a show flier.

Kinda, yeah.

So I sure like the design aspect of having a label. Some of the social work of it, where you not only have to chase after musicians to get what you need, but they chase after you, "How come my record's not out yet?" "Well, because it's the kind of record label I am, I'm kind of on tour all the time. That's the way it is." I'm sort of an anomaly as a record label. I sort of, I just want to be a record.

You want to become a record.


I asked some people what they would ask you if they could interview you, and I'm gonna do a few of those and be done. Somebody wants to know what's your favorite sandwich, if you eat sandwiches.

I try not to eat sandwiches because I'm not really a big bread-eater-guy. But I like really good fried oyster po' boys.

Good call. I also want to ask, "Does Kim ever wear pants, because I've never seen her wear pants ever."

Oh no, she wears pants. Totally. She wears shorts, culottes, pants. She used to wear 'em on stage more back in the early '90s. She doesn't wear pants on stage much. But she wears them more in civic life.

And does she wear the proverbial pants?

Yeah, yeah, she's the master of the domain. I am at her beck and call. She's the queen bee. I am only here to service her. She's my goddess.

That's deep.


And the last one is: What's the first song you can think of that you wish you'd written?

"Daydream Believer"?

Oh, wait, as a kid? First thing I wish I'd written as a kid? Oh, "Louie Louie."

Actually the flipside to "Louie Louie" was this instrumental called "Haunted Castle" that was on the seven. That was the one jam I wish I had written. Talk about the Pacific Northwest.

OK, one more question. I got into Sonic Youth because my cousin gave me "Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star" when I was in seventh grade.

Did you have anyone that got you into cool music when you were young?

Yes. I remember when my older brother was getting records, and I felt like that was a good idea, and I had asked my mom to buy me this record at the supermarket. And it was "Their Satanic Majesty's Request" by the Rolling Stones and it had that 3-D cover, and I thought that would be a cool record to get.


And as we were standing in line to buy it, my mom says, "Well, who is this band?" And I didn't know who it was. I just knew it had a 3-D cover that looked cool. And I was like, "Well, it's this really good band."

And I took it home and it was this really spooky, weird record, and I realized by reading the cryptic text on it that it was the Rolling Stones. And I was like, "Oh, that's cool. They're supposed to be really good."

And so I always loved that record. People always denounce that record as like not the most happening Rolling Stones record, but it's one of my favorites and it has a lot to do with that experience.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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