The aging of Sonic Youth

The ultimate Amerindie band embraces the past, the present, and the future

Moore says he was amused by this parody, which needled him for his role as an indie kingmaker. But he enjoys using his name to help new bands get noticed, and he has no intention of lowering his profile. He previously put his muscle behind the Boredoms, an eccentric, aptly named Japanese ensemble, and he's currently boosting Pelt, which is opening for Sonic Youth during much of its 1998 tour. The downtown New York music scene remains "completely fascinating," he declares. "When we were younger, that's what we were coming out of. And now the underground is the coolest thing--it's informed by free jazz, Glenn Branca, modern classical, weird folk music like the Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble."

The Youth want to seem as relevant as the musicians who've risen in their wake. To that end, their concerts focus on fresh creations rather than chestnuts from their catalogue. During their recent show at South by Southwest, they stuck to material from A Thousand Leaves, which thrilled/annoyed the industry crowd to no end--where, they wondered, was "Kool Thing?"

"We're playing what we're currently working on, as if we're a new band with new material," Moore says, "which is really confounding to a lot of people. It's like, 'My God, why don't you play these songs that people know about?' Well, because that part of our life has gone by. Once in a while, we'll pull something out just for dynamic purposes in a set, but very rarely. I guess a band like us who have some renown aren't supposed to do things like that."

Strategies like this one ensure that Sonic Youth audiences will come and go. Moore insists that the band's fan base today is "reflective of what's going on either in the underground or the kind of MTV 120 Minutes world. But you do see generations overlapping through the years that you play. There were whole groups of people that I would see for two years at a time that don't come around anymore, but there are whole other groups of people that sort of take their place."

He directs no resentment against listeners who left the fold in the years that followed seminal works such as 1988's Daydream Nation and 1990's Goo, the band's major-label debut on Geffen and its first real stab at harnessing some of the chaos into the pop-song format.

"We probably did fall off, as far as they were concerned," he says. "It became less interesting for them. But that's usually not the artist's fault. Usually you've got to take a look at yourself. If you're a changing person, you can't expect the music or the art you're interested in to sort of change with you. It changes on its own accord, and therefore, you're either going to grow apart from it or, for the most part, stay interested in it."

The music remains vital for Sonic Youth, which has been very prolific of late. The group recently issued three mostly instrumental records, including one that features Gastr Del Sol's Jim O'Rourke, on its own SYR imprint. Moore says that such albums allow fans "to hear this part of what we're doing that sort of leads to the songwriting." He adds that the moniker A Thousand Leaves concerns future productivity. "Each album we record we see as a leaf, so the album's title comes from the fact that we're going to stop after a thousand albums. I see this one as an oak, Lee sees it as a willow, Steve sees a fern, and Kim imagines a hibiscus bush."

Though the cynic would insist new Sonic Youth albums are only pale echoes of what came before--the majestic, streamlined Sister in 1987 or the dissonant clarity of Daydream Nation--Moore still sees the band as an evolving entity. He dismisses those who claim that the band that once made history only repeats it now.

"After being together for 17 years, we felt that we really had a handle on what we were doing, and we didn't really feel that we were making a bunch of wank noise," he says. "I think the way we play, which is a completely self-taught kind of playing, has developed in a way that could have only developed through time."

You bet, Thurston--Jerry couldn't have said it better himself.

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