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The Rolling Stone Interview: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore

Better living through feedback

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Thurston Moore

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS691 from September 22, 1994. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Thurston Moore is a punk-rock dad in the most literal sense. On July 1, the Sonic Youth guitarist and his wife, the group’s bassist, Kim Gordon, became the proud parents of a daughter, Coco Hayley Gordon Moore. According to a press release issued by the band’s record label, Geffen, to mark the blessed event, Coco arrived at 2:37 in the afternoon, weighed 8 pounds, 14 ounces, had strawberry-blond hair and, within days, was wearing a T-shirt that said, Question Authority.

As a member of Sonic Youth, Moore is also a father figure to two or three generations of shriek-beat kids — young bands whose renegade ideas about rock & roll and the music business have been indelibly shaped during the past decade by Sonic Youth’s pioneering guitar terrorism and indomitable DIY spirit. Just the other morning, Moore got a panic-stricken wake-up call at home from the riot grrrl combo Bikini Kill; the band was in town and in desperate need of equipment and a van for a show that right in New Jersey. Moore, with paternal cool, quickly arranged for transportation and the loan of Sonic Youth’s own gear and then drove with the grrrls to the gig.

“They were amazed by it all,” Moore says, grinning, over a late-breakfast bowl of Cheerios in his SoHo loft. “It was like they had never seen road cases with wheels before. And they couldn’t believe the size of the van and how clean it was.” Moore brushes back the sandy-blond bangs that constantly flop down over his eyes and chuckles, maybe recalling a similar episode from Sonic Youth’s long pre-Geffen tenure in shoestring, punkrock showbiz. Moore, who is 36, can’t make up his mind whether he still qualifies as a punk rocker or if he ever did. “I never thought of myself that way so much,” he says. “The bass player in Green Day is punk rock. Or Bikini Kill, with their green-colored hair. When they walked in the door here, the only thing I could think of saying to them was, ‘Welcome to my yuppie loft.’

“The thing is, being punk rock is not having to prove you are,” Moore says. “And it’s obvious to anyone who is authentic in that mind-set. You don’t have to call yourself a punk rocker.”

They still have not invented a rock & roll term that does justice to the visceral rush and revolutionary ardor of Sonic Youth’s art of noise. Stepchildren of New York’s madhouse No Wave and hardcore punk scenes of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Moore, Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley occupy a special, genuinely subversive place in modern rock. A lot of it has to do with guitars — specifically, the loud living hell Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon put ’em through. From the tonal detritus of rock & roll electronics — feedback, distortion, amplifier hum, actual physical abuse of the strings — Sonic Youth have fashioned a trademark attack that is definitely punk in its cacophonic ferocity but also nails you on a higher emotional plane.

The heart of noise has always been there; you can hear it throb and grow in the breathless propulsion and alien rainbow-guitar chorales on the band’s extraordinary run of mid-’80s independent albums: Confusion Is Sex (1983), Bad Moon Rising (1985), EVOL (1986), Sister (1987) and the landmark double LP Daydream Nation (1988). Sonic Youth’s latest Geffen album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, is a work of particularly seductive, disturbing menace.

“Sometimes we get letters from kids going, ‘You guys aren’t noisy,'” notes Moore. “But if you listen to our records, pretty much across the board they aren’t noisy. They’re just different. Maybe that’s the noise those people are hearing — this unknown thing.”

Moore has been looking for unknown noises most of his life. The son of a college professor, he was born in Coral Gables, Fla., but moved to Bethel, Conn., when he was in the fourth grade. He got deep into fringe music while in high school and in 1977 succumbed to the lure of the Manhattan punk scene, moving there to join a Television-inspired band called the Coachmen. (An EP of the band’s ’79 demos was later released by New Alliance Records.)

In 1980, Moore met Kim Gordon, an art-school refugee from Los Angeles. He also answered a classified ad — Looking For Guitarists. Weird Music — and joined composer Glenn Branca’s pulverizing multipleguitar orchestra, which also included Lee Ranaldo, a guitarist from Long Island, N.Y. Two years later, Moore, Gordon and Ranaldo made their vinyl bow as Sonic Youth with an EP on Branca’s Neutral label. Drummer Steve Shelley, formerly with the hardcore punk band the Crucifucks, joined the group in 1986.

For a band that has been off the road for two years, Sonic Youth maintain a ubiquitous presence in and over the underground. Gordon has an offshoot band, Free Kitten, with Julie Cafritz (ex-Pussy Galore), has just opened a clothing store, X-Girl, in Los Angeles, and coproduced Hole’s first album. Ranaldo has issued solo recordings, recently toured as half of the due Gate and has done production work for Babes in Toyland. Shelley was the drummer for the reunited English femme-punk band the Raincoats on their last tour; he also runs an indie label, Smells Like Records (his latest release: an EP by the fine SY-inspired band Blonde Redhead).

But Moore is the walking, talking embodiment of Sonic Youth’s free-rock aesthetic, catholic passion for music and workaholic spirit. He even looks the part, the very picture of arrested, irrepressible adolescence: tall, rail thin, with warm, boyish features and hair cut in an unruly Beatle-ish mop. An avid record collector, Moore also has his own independent label, Ecstatic Peace (established in 1983, now distributed by the fanzine and mail-order house Forced Exposure, P.O. Box 9102, Waltham, MA 02254-9102), specializing in inspired weirdness by a handpicked roster of die-hard mavericks, including the teen-age Australian punk brats Noiseaddict and the veteran avant-jazz saxophonists Arthur Doyle and Frank Lowe. Moore has popped up on MTV’s 120 Minutes, playing videos by the likes of Harry Pussy; he is currently cutting an album for Geffen under the tentative name Male Slut and recently had a rare stab at playing standard three-chord rock & roll as part of the Backbeat soundtrack band.

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In This Article: Sonic Youth


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