When Free Radicals Become Free Agents
In the late '80s, close to the release of a little-known double LP called Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth were hell-bent on destroying their amps, massacring their guitars, and rewriting the rules of what accessible rock 'n' roll could be. Meanwhile, however, frontman Thurston Moore and bandmate Lee Ranaldo were swooning over folk-guitar icon John Fahey.
Such blasphemy could've been a deal-breaker for kids who then wanted nothing to do with anything unplugged. But with Fahey's music, Moore was tuning into something more aligned with his avant-garde tastes. "Lee and I heard that he used industrial sounds and train sounds on his records, stuff like that," he recalls of Fahey's music. Or, to put a more scholarly spin on it, "He was extrapolating Eastern-influenced concepts in American blues idioms. He was a fascinating figure."
Two decades and 17 Sonic Youth records later, Moore is only now releasing his second solo album of proper songs, Trees Outside the Academy. (He released the ragtag punk-rock masterpiece Psychic Hearts in 1995, and has dabbled in various free-jazz side projects along the way.) The big surprise? It's folky. And it kind of sounds like a Fahey record. Tracks like "Frozen Gtr" and "The Shape Is in a Trance" feature delicately strummed, alternately tuned acoustic guitars and beautiful, swirling violin arrangements. So what gives? Why abandon the full-throttle, no-wave guitar suicide that Moore pioneered for a roots-rock style perfected decades ago? "Because coming out of the New York punk-rock scene, it's the last thing people would expect you to do," says Moore. In other words, folk is the new punk.
A lot has changed for the 49-year-old. For one thing, he and his wife, Sonic Youth bassist and singer Kim Gordon, left downtown New York in 1999 for the leafy suburbs of Northampton, Massachusetts, where they bought a Georgian-style brick house with a nice yard. They could no longer afford New York. Plus, their daughter, Coco, was growing up, and Moore loathed Gotham's competitive parents. ("The last thing I wanted to do was become a part of the whole PTA scene," he says.) But more attractive to the couple was the burgeoning group of downtown writers, artists, and academics that found new life in the Berkshire Mountains region. Plus, they could get dogs: Merzbow (after the Japanese noise musician) and Chime. "When we moved here, the headline on the local paper was, like, 'Avant-Garde Duo Buys Home,' " Moore recalls with a snicker. "But we're pretty conservative. This isn't like a rock 'n' roll house."
Perhaps, but one town over, in Amherst, Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis operates Bisquiteen Studios out of his home, so Moore recorded Trees there this past spring, enlisting the help of violinist Samara Lubelski, vocalist Christina Carter, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, along with a rotating cast of people associated with New Weird America folk-rock, which has a thriving scene in that corner of the Northeast. Naturally, the recording process was a relaxed affairwhen Moore thought a few tracks could use some oomph, he'd call Mascis and ask him to come upstairs. "He'd come in, slump on the couch, and plug directly into the console," Moore recalls. "I'd say, 'Dude, do you want to hear the song first?' And he'd be like, 'No, that's all right.' He'd play this amazing solo and then take the dog for a walk."
Life may be good for Thurston Moore, but it's certainly hard to be a recording artist when the industry is in free fall. When Sonic Youth signed with Geffen Records in 1989, they lucked into a pretty sweet deal: complete artistic control, a nice $300,000 advance, and mainstream distribution. But with the release of last year's Rather Ripped (and contractually mandated B-sides collection The Destroyed Room), Sonic Youth are now free agents.
Looking back, it's a funny story: Sonic Youth scored a major-label deal before the '90s alt-rock fad imploded, and they're getting out at a time when business-savvy artists stand to make money without the help of a label. Enter the band's much-ballyhooed deal with Starbucks. In the early months of next year, they'll release a compilation of songs selected by fans, including everyone from John Mayer, Avril Lavigne, and Mick Jagger to LL Cool J, Posh Spice, and Thomas Pynchon. (The band has yet to decide which label will put out their next batch of original songs.) Moore has no regrets about getting in bed with another global corporation. "There's something counter-countercultural with [the Starbucks deal] that's really interesting," he admits. "I want to see the action and reaction effect. I want to have our records available in places that sell records now. Tower closed down and Starbucks is thriving. It's a record store. People say, 'Where are the record stores?' They're all online, but fuck online. I can't think of anything more boring."
Not that he hasn't dabbled with the Internet. "I set up my own MySpace thing, and I started blogging on it," he says. "Then all of a sudden I got like 6,000 people wanting to be friends. I still get all these e-mails every day, like, 'The Flying Zipper Squirrels want to be your friend,' and I'm like, 'OK.' I'm afraid to open it up again because I think it will explode."
Rather than dwelling on friend requests, Moore instead focuses on working his ass off. He's currently editing three books, including a photo retrospective capturing New York's booming '70s no-wave scene. He runs the label Ecstatic Peace, which has released thrillingly weird records by the likes of Magik Markers and Tall Firs. And he has his sights on eventually opening a space in Northampton that houses a bookstore, record store, galleries, and a concert venue. ("Hopefully, it'll be a chain," he jokes.)
For this permanent radical, it's all about moving forward. So it's somewhat strange that this past summer, Sonic Youth went on tour to perform that little-known record, Daydream Nation, live in its entirety. "You forget about your past in such a way where it's this kind of paper history," he says. "To get back into it, there was something very heavy about it for us." Still, Moore is not one to wallow in nostalgia. "You should grow old and mature as opposed to trying to spin the wheels on something people reacted to once," he says. Then he goes into a funny story about a Jamaican guy he used to work with in 1977 as a shipping clerk in New York. He gave Moore some advice that he follows to this day: "He used to say, 'You should never boil an egg twice. It's really bad juju,' " Moore recalls. "And I really thought that was true. You can't be new more than once."
Get the Music Newsletter