Interview w/ Sonic Youth
Quite possibly one of the most unlikely success stories of the 1980s, Sonic Youth's experiments in feedback, distortion, and performance art completely revitalized the dying genre of rock. Formed in 1981 in downtown New York City, founding band members (and husband and wife team) Thurston Moore (guitar/vocals) and Kim Gordon (bass/vocals) are widely recognized as the godparents of alternative rock. Originally a visual artist, Gordon forays in the music world have also included producing albums for bands including the Breeders and Hole, directing music videos, and her own side project, the band Free Kitten.
Sonic Youth's newest album, Goodbye 20th Century, is a 2-CD collection of songs from artists as varied as Yoko Ono to John Cage. While reactions to the album have been mixed—fans expecting to hear the trademark Sonic Youth sound may be disappointed by the Yoko Ono and Steve Reich covers—there can be little doubt that the artists covered on this album have been extremely influential on the state of modern music.
[Holly Day] Did any of your stolen equipment ever turn up?
[Kim Gordon] No. It just…vanished into thin air.
[H] Did someone just rip it off the back of your van?
[K] Oh, they took the whole Ryder truck. They just drove the whole thing away.
[H] So have you been able to replace what was stolen?
[K] Some stuff, but it's kind of—I mean, we're playing Les Paul guitars now where we'd never played them before. It's bad, but in a way, it's kind of liberating to start over with all new instruments, and to cut up all our new sounds to see if we can make them sound anything like the old sounds.
[H] You guys can become a hard rockin' blues band now.
[H] Now, your father was a UCLA dean. Did you have a fairly conservative upbringing or did you get a lot of creative freedom?
[K] Very creative. ?Actually, I went to the Laboratory School at UCLA, which was all about creativity. We used to make mud huts, make spears and tortillas—it was all about learning through doing.
[H] How did the women's rights movements of the 1970's-80s affect you?
[K] Well, I don't know. It must have affected me somehow, because I—I mean, I didn't grow up ever wanting to be a—my first priority wasn't to be a wife and a mother. I wanted to be an artist instead. It's kind of funny, actually, though—the feminist movement was something I saw more in the adults around me. I mean, I was more aware of the adults around me getting divorced, and women deciding they wanted to go off and discover who they were, and that whole sort of thing—I saw that in the adults around me when I was still a kid. I was always interested by it, but I really didn't think that much about it as how it related to me. Until I went off to art school, I didn't think that much about feminist issues, or how important it is to have a space of your own to work and that kind of thing.
[H] How did you think feminism has changed in the past 20 years?
[K] I think, like with most movements, that it was more radical in the beginning, and that it's kind of evolved in a very compromising kind of way. The issues have changed—now, it's much more about practical things, than it is about theoretical things—you know, like equal pay, equal opportunity. I think that's what made the whole Riot Grrl thing so interesting, was that it was composed of a lot of us girls whose mothers were feminists, and the Riot Grrls were the next generation of feminists. It was kind of updating—it was bringing feminism to what was important to them and their scene and their immediate life, because feminism as a movement got so big that it wasn't addressing teenage girls so much. There's still a long ways to go, both here and internationally. It's amazing what still goes on in other countries so far as women being stoned to death for wearing the wrong clothes or accessories, stuff like that.
[H] How did Sonic Youth get started?
[K] Well, basically, I met Thurston through this friend I was playing music with, Miranda, and he was playing with her, too. She just said, "I know this guy you'd really like," and so we met, and started playing together with this other girl, and that's how it all started.
[H] So what was the initial attraction of being in a band for you?
[K] Well, when I saw the NoWave bands, like DNA and The Contortions, it was totally different than the LA punk thing, which to me was more conventional. I liked the immediacy of No Wave, because in my art, for example, I tended to overthink things, because I guess I knew too much about it. When I saw the No Wave bands, it was very—it just sort of struck a chord, no pun intended. The music was just very expressionistic in a way that I wasn't really into in art. It was hard for me to resolve the emotions of personal expression, and I had been approaching art in a more intellectual way—the music was kind of an extension of Warhol's Pop-ism to me, like instead of making art about popular culture, we were playing music to be within popular culture, even though we were really commenting about a subculture, at the time.
[H] How did the Goodbye 20th Century album come about?
[K] Well actually, it was sort of Willy Winant's idea, the percussionist, who I've known since high school—he's a new music percussionist, and it his idea, actually. We've always been interested and influenced by that kind of music as well as other music, so it was kind of fun to actually try and play some of it. Willy kind of led us through the pieces, because he was familiar with some of the pieces, and that kind of scoring--that's his world. And then we thought it'd be fun to bring Jim O'Rourke in on it, and then some of the actual composers came and sat in with us. That was great.
[H] So why did you chose these particular songs for the album?
[K] I don't know. I don't know if I'd even call them songs (laughs). We just wanted to feature some of the people who'd influenced us, like Christian Wolff, who was a really important composer-- John Cage really looked up to him. I really liked his scores, too—I think they're just so radical and so offensive so far as music goes. It's literally like you're just playing around the peripheral of certain themes that are barely suggested, which I thought was a really elegant idea. We really just picked out things that we thought were interesting. The Tenney piece was great, and that was really well-suited to us, I think.
[H] Everyone on this album are such really strong and different musicians—how did you guys work together as a unit?
[K] It was very easy, actually. When you have a score to follow, it immediately brings musicians together—it's a common denominator for communicating.
[H] Your daughter Coco performed on Goodbye 20th Century, too—is this the first official thing you've done together?
[H] Did she pick the Yoko Ono piece herself?
[K] No, but we somehow thought it'd be appropriate. It didn't seem so much like exploiting her to let her just stand there and scream into a microphone.
[H] Does she show any interest in becoming a musician herself someday?
[K] Well, she doesn't talk about it, but she's very sensitive to sound. She's very sound-observant. She's always making up little songs.
[H] What do you think is the biggest change in the music industry from when you first started recording?
[K] In the music industry? Well, journalism-wise—and don't take offense—but maybe it's because there's so much music out right now, there's such a glut of music and it just keeps getting more congested, but it seems like writers spend less and less time thinking about the music that they're writing about. It's really changed journalism, I think, for one thing. I think part of it is just because there's so much stuff to write about, and it's kind of—but also, things turn over so fast, that historically, there's not a sense of what came before, say, two years ago. MTV's really changed things a lot that way, too.
[H] People seem really concerned about breaking the next Big Thing.
[K] Yeah, but that's a very mainstream music, MTV-mentality. It's so funny, because I was channel-flipping last night, and there was an interview with Dave Grohl—it was on Video countdown, or something—and it was from a few years ago, because his hair was so long, and he was saying something about—God damn, now I can't remember what I was going to say, or what he said, but it was really interesting. Well, he was talking about pop stars, and how unusual it is today when a musician manages to last for a long time, other than Madonna or Michael Jackson—actually, it was Kurt that said that. But David said something really great, that was really telling about the whole music scene. Damn, I wish I could remember (laughs)! Anyway, blah, blah, blah.
[H] It'll wake you up in the middle of night, probably.
[K] Yeah. What were we talking about?
[H] Just how the music industry's changed in the past 20 years.
[K] Yeah. Oh, I know what he was saying. He said that before Nirvana's Nevermind hit, there weren't any rock bands on the charts, it was all stuff like Whitney Houston, and I couldn't help but think that aside from the Limp Biskits and the Korns and a few other bands like that—I mean, for a while there, it was exactly the same. I remember when the whole grunge explosion was happening, people kept talking about it like it was really going to change the music industry, and it was, like, so obviously not. It was just this trend that people saw was popular, so they were exploiting it, and lots of people made lots of money off of it, but it was obvious that as soon as the hype died down, it would be on to the next thing, and the next thing wouldn't necessarily be interesting or fresh but could possibly be exactly the same stuff that was charting before grunge hit. It's a fact that whenever the music industry gets tight with money, they get very conservative, and that's exactly what's happened. In the mainstream, it's so conservative right now, and yet there's just tons of interesting things going on in music itself, in the underground, but most people won't get a chance to even hear that stuff because it's not easily available to them. So things are pretty much still the same.
[H] What effect do you think the fact that anyone can record and release a n album from their living room will have on the music climate
[K] Well, I think it definitely puts things back in the hands of the consumer, and the fact that you can get things directly to people via the Internet, I think that's going to make things even more like MTV, or like sports, or game shows. They are relegated to break just the very biggest mainstream thing, or soundtrack records.
[H] Are you still running the X-Girl clothing line?
[K] No. It's been over for a couple of years. Well, in Japan, it's not over—we sold the rights to a company in Japan a while ago, but we don't have anything to do with it, it's basically just a cheesy knockoff, and the clothes may show up in Target and K-Mart someday.
[H] How did you get started doing that?
[K] I knew the X-Large Boys, and my friend Daisy was working at one of their stores for a while, and they asked us if we wanted to do a girl's line, because they knew we went shopping together to analyze clothes.
[H] So were you designing the clothes?
[K] Yeah. We hired someone to design the logo and the logos for the different T-shirts, but we designed the clothes themselves. You know, we would try and do them based on things from thrift stores, like when you find a really good-fitting pair of pants or T-shirt, and you try and copy it? Easier said than done, of course—the first line, everything came out way too small, and that was not intentional, though we did get labeled as the inventors of the baby T-shirts, or something like that. But by the time we ended the company, everything we did was just so big, and it was really frustrating, because we were constantly sending things out to LA to try and get the designs right, but when it came back from the manufacturers, it'd still come out wrong. It's something everybody in the rag business experiences. We wanted to try and make clothes as cheap as we could, though, so could sell them cheap, and still have everything fitted so that things would look good on all women, including bigger women. The clothes were supposed to be made to look flattering on all types of women.
[H] Do you think you'd ever do that again?
[K] I don't know. Probably not. I mean, I'm really trying to get back into doing art, and I just thought I'd be better off doing something more satisfying visually. I think I'm more into home furnishings than designing clothes, but it's all just such a headache. You really have to do it full-time for it to really work out as a viable career, and I don't really want to do that.
[H] So what kind of visual art are you doing?
[K] I first started painting again a few years ago, when I was pregnant with Coco, just sort of portraits of girls and doing video stuff. I'm actually curating a show in Holland in March, featuring a lot of cool artists. It's called Kim's Bedroom, just because it's great being self-indulgent. I'm not some snobby curator here—it's just a collection of stuff that I like. And there's going to be a CD, and a catalogue, and performances—different stuff.