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Kim Gorden and Thurston Moore,1998


Given the roller coaster ride of being-in-a-band a long, slow climb to the peaks, with plenty of unexpected turns and valleys in between, the screaming rushes and the inevitable end of the line - the unfolding story of Sonic Youth is not unremarkable. Four people - Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley - comprise the New York band that continues, after more than fifteen years together, to make some of the most thrilling, sublime, heady, and increasingly expansive noise that you're likely to hear. That they do this with fairly primitive means - guitars and drums - in a moment when so much music is machine-made, says something about them as well.
If a line can be extended between the primal stomp and subway drone of the Velvet Underground in the late '60s, the glam-racket that was the New York Dolls in the early '70s, and the Saturday morning cartoon punk of the Ramones at the end of the '70s- it leads into Sonic Youth, who formed in '81. But even as they hit those chords within us, and extend that timeline, they've managed to stay creatively restless from from one year to the next. And the music feels as experimental as ever.
Over the past year, the band released two mini-CDs of mostly instrumental music on their own label, and when they appeared on stage, this is what they were playing. It was all-new material, and it was almost 100% pure sound. Nothing to sing along to, and no familiar tunes. And at the same time, all of the parallel activities of the individual band members were very much ongoing. On one night you could see Thurston performing with legendary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. On another, Lee would be with DJ Spooky. Steve might be playing with Catpower, or with his band Two Dollar Guitar. And Kim recorded a new album with Free Kitten, Sentimental Education, which has just hit the stores.
It was clear that something was happening. And it seemed that the music the band members had been producing outside of their shared identity was starting to figure back into the equation that is Sonic Youth. Little-by-little, we would hear something from Jutta Koether, by way of her friends Kim and Thurston; that there was a new Sonic Youth album underway, and that it was being recorded in the band's recently set-up New York studio. For the first time, the band had a place of their own, where they could go every day to play and record. And this was the situation/process in which the band would generate the 11th Sonic Youth album. With its imminent release, we asked Jutta to talk to Kim and Thurston to see how and where it was going.

JUTTA: So, when is the album out?
THURSTON: Between February and April ... if it ever comes out. We don't even have an album done yet. We don't have an album cover.

JUTTA: Do you have any titles for the album?
THURSTON: I want to call it Little Bo Peep, Drunk in the Street.

JUTTA: But you're working on it?
THURSTON: Yeah. We have two piles of tapes. One is for SYR releases ...

JUTTA: What is SYR?
THURSTON: Sonic Youth Records. We've done two so far. When we record now, sometimes songs happen and sometimes sort of loose-ended compositions are happening. And we try to weigh between the two - but it's not like the lesser work goes for the SYR releases, and the really great stuff will go on the album. We don't do that.

JUTTA: Why did the band start its own label?
THURSTON: It was created because we were recording a lot of music. We figured we were going to record a lot more than can fit on an album. And the way we make albums - the way most people make albums - is they're thematic in nature. So we didn't want to just flood the album with music. But the SYR releases and the purported Geffen record sort of inform each other. We don't really have a distinction between the two.
KIM: We do, in a way. I mean, there are some things that are set aside ...
THURSTON: We have a song called "Hits of Sunshine." That will definitely be on the Geffen record. We decided that. In fact, maybe we should call the album Hits of Sunshine.
KIM: No.
THURSTON: I'm telling you, man, if we're going to go on tour with Phish ...
KIM: It's too flower hippies.
THURSTON: But you have to buy into flower hippies because flower hippies are the only way we're going to make money in the future.

JUTTA: Oh, good.
THURSTON: Because Phish sell millions. We sell hundreds. We have to sell millions.

JUTTA: Phish?
KIM: Do they sell millions? I think they have lots of people coming to their concerts.
THURSTON: No, they sell millions. They've usurped the Grateful Dead's audience, which is the audience that we should have usurped, but we weren't as clever as them.
KIM: So this is all about making money?
THURSTON: This is all about making money.

JUTTA: Oh, I see. Is that a driving force?
THURSTON: Money? Not creatively. But it's a driving force for ambitions. I want to tour with Phish because the kind of music we make is more in tune with their aesthetic than it is with any K-Rock or Geffen rock aesthetic. So it's only fair to us, and to that audience. We deserve each other. And I think we can expand their horizon, although they can do nothing for us.

JUTTA: This expansion you're describing ...
THURSTON: Expansion of our market.

JUTTA: But you have other outlets that are the opposite of that expansion.
KIM: You mean, doing improv stuff?

JUTTA: Yeah, improv ... or just floating through the noise.
THURSTON: The local experimental noise scene that we've always been involved with is more referential to post-Grateful Dead listening habits. So it makes sense to me that we'd be able to bring what we do with free improvisation and experimental music into a big arena. And the only arena that exists is the arena that the Dead created, and that Phish have bit into. We want in. We should have in to that. It's just not fair. It's not fair for the kids because they deserve us, in a way.

THURSTON: They shouldn't just have post-Dead squibble. They should have Sonic Youth.

JUTTA: Oh my God.
THURSTON: And we both win out. They become enlightened and we become millionaires.
KIM: Is this a Royal Trux interview or something?

JUTTA: I don't know about this ...
THURSTON: I'm thinking about our future.

JUTTA: You need to send Coco to college.
THURSTON: I'm not interested in going out and just playing alternative rock gigs anymore.

JUTTA: Nobody accused you of doing that.
THURSTON: But we do. I don't have anything really against it, but I'm sort of bored of it, and I certainly want to go into a different territory.

JUTTA: All of the members of the band have different musical things they do - other fields of activity - outside of Sonic Youth. How much of that feeds back to the band?
THURSTON: All the music we're making, all these little things that we do, which the story comes out of, we're turning those little things into one big Sonic thing.

JUTTA: I like this picture. Because there is this unit, but it's not totally fixed. The parts are mobile, so they kind of move forth and back.
KIM: I think that it's all starting to get more integrated instead of just getting rejuvenated. It's more free-flowing now. It's not compartmentalized.
THURSTON: Yeah, that's true. In a way, it's trying to blur it even more. I mean, one of the solo gigs at the Cooler was called Male Slut. And instead of what Male Slut was, which was me and two other people, it was Sonic Youth doing new instrumental music.
That was really exciting for us because it was sort of getting rid of this distinction between the things we do. And Sonic Youth becomes a side project alongside all the other side projects.

JUTTA: This situation seems much more prevalent since you have your own studio. Maybe it's coincidental, but it all happened at this moment when you made the move to re-define your state of independence, or whatever you might call it.
THURSTON: It's definitely the most privileged situation. I mean, bands - especially bands living in New York City - don't have that. But it was really necessary for us to have. Otherwise we might have become more disconnected.
KIM: A lot of people have studios in their homes, but that's usually one person working on their own.

JUTTA: With this studio situation you not only have an interesting way of maintaining something, but of redefining what you do.
THURSTON: We're never looking to re-define ourselves.

JUTTA: You never look for that?
THURSTON: No. Because we're not into having ourselves exist as a strictly-defined entity. So re-define what? Having a studio to work in is definitely a defining point of our present situation.
But we've always been involved with projects outside of the band, although the only reason these projects are highlighted is because of the band's popularity.

JUTTA: But they have their own audiences as well.
THURSTON: Yeah. I mean, at any given time in the '80s, I would go see Lee play with Rudolph Gray, or do something at The Kitchen. We've always done things - musically and otherwise - outside of the band.

JUTTA: What's the favorite side project?
THURSTON: Free Kitten is my favorite. And Mosquito is good. That was a side project that Steve had with Jad Fair.

JUTTA: And what about the Ecstatic Peace label?
THURSTON: It's exciting but it's a drag because, again, that's why we have to make more money. It's draining our bank account. I mean, it's fun but it's expensive. Money doesn't really come back very readily from putting records out. So you know what I would like to do - and I think I'm going to do this - is appeal to the people at Microsoft to give me a label.

JUTTA: Why would they have a label?
THURSTON: Because I think Microsoft is looking to go into the entertainment business.
KIM: They're going to start putting music out.
THURSTON: They already have a label called Gold Circle. So I'm going to try to get into the Microsoft camp.
KIM: I think we can get Microsoft as a sponsor of SYR.
THURSTON: I mean, they're just swimming in green.

JUTTA: That's a good title for an album. There's so much concern there - Swimming in Green.
KIM: You know the time you saw us play in Rita's bedroom? I liked that because afterwards I could lay down on the bed and listen to other people playing, which is always my fantasy. Most gigs, you just feel like lying down and listening to the music.

JUTTA: You mean, when you're standing on stage you're ...
KIM: No, when I go to other people's shows.
THURSTON: I agree. It would be nice to lie down while they're playing.

JUTTA: It rarely happens.
THURSTON: Yeah, comfort clubs - that's a great idea for Microsoft to back.

JUTTA: Isn't that ultimately the idea of the lounge?
THURSTON: But the American lounge thing is stuck in the past because it's all martinis and cigarettes.

JUTTA: That's true.
THURSTON: And crappy music.

JUTTA: The show of just you two at Rita's, this was the smallest concert I've ever seen.
THURSTON: The Mirror Dash concert.

JUTTA: How far does that go back, the two of you as Mirror Dash?
THURSTON: We did a 7-inch a long time ago.
KIM: It was like, '88 or something.
THURSTON: The only reason we did that was because there was an ad for Ecstatic Peace in Forced Exposure. I listed forthcoming releases for all these bands that didn't exist, and that was one of them. I had made up band names. But then everybody wanted to know when the Mirror Dash record was coming out. So the only reason a number of side projects existed was just to fulfill ...
KIM: ... the ad.
THURSTON: Fantasy Band Land.

JUTTA: And what are the fantasies now?
THURSTON: Well, that's how songs are created. What you're doing is you're sort of obligated to fulfill the fantasy.

JUTTA: I always wonder how that works, and with different people. I mean, I can follow that in regards to one person. But when it's with four people, it's really different. Whose fantasy is it then?
KIM: You may not all have the same idea ... and you sometimes get ideas in a way that seems without any process attached to it in the beginning.

JUTTA: But you have to communicate.
THURSTON: For us it's more like, somebody does something - "Oh, I have this thing" - and somebody else throws their thing on top of it.

JUTTA: It becomes much more complicated when other people are involved, layering on top of it ...
THURSTON: It becomes less personal. It becomes more of a shared property.

JUTTA: I don't know how you always manage to keep that going. Because that is a very difficult process.
THURSTON: It's letting go of the personal ... which is kind of difficult for a lot of people. And that's why bands break up a lot. You just have to accept the fact that a person's creative urge is not as precious as they think it is. It's like, big deal, we're all going to die anyway.
KIM: I think you find a way to reclaim the personal part somewhere. Maybe initially you lose it, and as it gets shaped ...
THURSTON: ... you reclaim it.

JUTTA: I'm amazed that it still seems to be working with you guys.
THURSTON: It is kind of amazing that it still works. And it works better now than it has in the past. I think we finally found a space that we're sort of agreed upon, as far as being a creative group.
KIM: We all have our own names for the studio.
THURSTON: Lee calls it Echo Canyün. C-A-N-Y-Ü-N, with an umlaut over the "U." And that's what it's mostly known as. Lee's the one who really worked a lot on the physical aspect of the studio.
THURSTON: I decided I wanted to call it Second Home. Kim wanted to call it TriBeCa Music Center.
THURSTON: Steve calls it Steve's Place.

JUTTA: Speaking from the audience side of things, if Sonic Youth has developed something amongst other things, it is a specific style or sound. When you look at what you're doing, is that something important?
THURSTON: Well, I like being able to hear or see something and know who created it. Because I like seeing that I.D. in a way.

JUTTA: It's like a signature.
THURSTON: But I've always thought it would be great to go out on tour as Sonic Youth, and have it be like a Living Theater thing, a theaterscape.

JUTTA: No music?
THURSTON: Music would be involved, but it wouldn't be a band playing a set. Of course, we could never do that because nobody is going to back you - your management or your record label - and you don't have enough money to do it on your own.
KIM: And think of all those fan letters.
THURSTON: So we're in the process now of doing a lot of bridge burning.

JUTTA: But not with any big gesture.
THURSTON: No, it's not out of malice. We just really have to be truthful with ourselves about what we want to do with music. So we're doing it. And it doesn't really jibe with what I think our record label wants ... I mean, it's not as bad a scenario as all that. They know what kind of people we are. They're into the fact that we take this other road. But at the same time, it may be somewhat of a disappointment.

JUTTA: For who?
THURSTON: For people who work with us. It's like, come on, look at Beck. He was really experimental, but now he sort of choreographs his whole thing into a package that really appeals to a lot of people. Why can't everybody do that? Why can't the Sonics do that? It would be great.

JUTTA: Well, you can.
THURSTON: That's why, when we first signed on their label, the first thing they said was, "We really can see you guys being the next Pink Floyd." And when you think about it, with the kind of music we make, well, yeah, we could gear ourselves to that - into more extended, accessible kind of experimental opuses. And still be sort of contemporary. Yeah, we could be the next Pink Floyd if we really work on it. But you know, it would be completely dishonest to what we want to do. And I think it would ultimately destroy us.

JUTTA: It becomes an apparatus that then demands more and more, not only financially, but also aesthetically.
THURSTON: It certainly wouldn't be a new, fresh idea. Even if it was super-successful, it would just be more of the same. So when I see people package themselves in ways that are more accessible and they're very choreographed to an audience, I congratulate them, but it's not very inspiring.

JUTTA: Every individual develops ways to fuel themselves, to go on. Are you seeking out things that keep you going? I mean, you guys work in a way that is not like, handing your fate over to anyone else. And you started changing things also.
KIM: Yeah, I guess in a way it was harder for me to think of things on the bass. The band was getting so locked into this drum and bass holding things together, and playing a certain way all the time, and I just sort of felt like, well, I don't want to hold it down anymore.

JUTTA: So you switched from bass to guitar.
KIM: Yeah, I liked playing guitar with Free Kitten, so I just switched. I mean, when we first started Sonic Youth, we used to switch around a lot. The attitude was more like, we really didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't need it to be so formal. We just sort of did it that way, without thinking about it. And so we started writing songs.

JUTTA: And relating to the idea of rock music.
KIM: Yeah. Today I was thinking about the different kinds of rehearsal spaces we used to have. Like when we wrote Evol, we were rehearsing in this 8-by-10 foot square, concrete room that was so live and noisy. When we were in there playing, the only way we could really hear each other was maybe to play stuff that was more melodic. And the songs came out really melodic. I was just thinking about how rehearsal spaces really affect the way you play.

JUTTA: So how do you feel about the studio you have now? This is bigger.
KIM: Yeah, it's big.
THURSTON: This is the end. This is the final chapter.
KIM: It's so all-enveloping that we can be sort of fragmented and feel like it's all going to come together. It's just a very secure feeling. It just lets you be really relaxed.
THURSTON: This is the Book of Revelations. We're still serving our apprenticeships as artists. Is that what you want to hear? That's what we tell every interviewer.

JUTTA: Is that why you still stick to the name? Mike is always saying ...
THURSTON: Mike Kelley?

JUTTA: Yeah. He says, "They should drop that 'Youth' word."
THURSTON: But I don't mind being misunderstood as a band. I think we are.

JUTTA: You think?
THURSTON: I think so, yeah. I don't think we even understand ourselves.

JUTTA: But it's not just one misreading, it's a variety of misreadings.
THURSTON: There's different aspects of misunderstanding going on. You know, be it the fanzine guy or the older critic, the general audience person or the kid writing a letter. The letters we get are just amazing.

JUTTA: How young are the youngest audiences?
THURSTON: Teenagers.

JUTTA: Like 13 or 14? That age?
THURSTON: That's my favorite age for audience members. 13, 14-year-olds are the ones who, to me, are less judgmental and have less of a history to have a critical viewpoint towards what you're doing. They seem much more open to anything, the whole experience around them, because it's a very new experience for them. I just get that sense when I talk to them that their whole thing is like, just wide-eyed - "That was rad," blah, blah, blah. They're just so happy that they actually have this chance to be part of something like that.

JUTTA: I'm always a little bit cautious when I hear this praise of the really young audience, with the so-called innocent ears. It's a fetishization of that so-called innocence.
THURSTON: But that's why I want to infiltrate the Phish camp. I think their audience is more geared towards less of a cynical rock alternative thing that's based on values taken from Spin magazine and TV. It's more like this post-Grateful Dead thing of, "Hey man, you guys should paint, you should do books, you should do poetry ... do it all, let's go!"
KIM: Pot smoking.

JUTTA: Yeah, is pot involved in that a lot?
THURSTON: You know, I'm not anti-pot. I don't really smoke it, but I'm not anti-it. I have no problem with pot. I like the fact that it's an herb and that it's sacramental amongst all these art lovers.

JUTTA: The tape is almost running out. Maybe we'll just let it run out.
THURSTON: Did you know that we're going to go on tour next year with Patti Smith?

JUTTA: You are?
THURSTON: We're talking about it.

JUTTA: Do you think that would make sense?
THURSTON: Yeah. I think it would be really good.

JUTTA: And you'll tour here or in Europe?
THURSTON: The world ...
© index magazinegelatin1
Kim Gorden and Thurson Moore by Chris Moore, 1998
© index magazinetobias
Kim Gorden and Thurson Moore by Chris Moore, 1998


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