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Hear and Now


"I don't like the word practice," declares Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth's majestically disheveled guitarist, hoisting his lanky frame out of a battered old couch in the band's poster-splattered downtown studio. "It makes it sound like you're still trying to figure out what you're doing. We know what we're doing."

It's hard to argue with that. Having pioneered New York's No Wave scene in the eighties and inspired indie rock in the nineties, the members of Sonic Youth -- (from left) drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, singer-guitarist Kim Gordon, Moore, and new guitarist Jim O'Rourke -- earned their peculiar designation as punk-rock elder statesmen through relentless experimentation. Their faces may not be new, but their sound always is. Last year, the band recruited producer O'Rourke to give NYC Ghosts & Flowers a subtle sheen; they just added him to the band, altering a lineup that hadn't changed in sixteen years. Now they're working on a soundtrack for French director Olivier Assayas and recording the first tracks for an upcoming album Gordon describes, with some irony, as "classic rock."

"That's it," says Ranaldo. Listening to a demo in a scuffed office chair, he hears a bridge that needs help. "Where we at?" "Reel 14 -- twelve minutes in," his assistant says. Guitar pick in his teeth, Ranaldo scribbles on a yellow pad and looks at his bandmates: "Let's work on that."

"Wait," mutters Moore, "I can't figure out which guitar I was using." Known for collecting guitars as well as torturously detuning them, Moore stares at the masking tape on the back of one guitar neck to see what he's done to it, sighs dejectedly, and then ambles off in search of another.

He returns with a different guitar and smiles as he strums it -- then stops and shakes the instrument. "Oh, that's not it, either," he groans. So he walks out the door once more, guitar in hand, still searching for that next new sound.

"Basically, our mothers set us up," says Teddy Thompson. It was 1997, and the son of folk-rock musicians Richard and Linda Thompson had just moved from London to Los Angeles, where Rufus Wainwright, the son of folk-rock musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, had also turned up. "I was expecting one of those hemp-wearing, introverted folk musicians' kids, and I was expecting to be bored to death," says Teddy. "Wrong on both counts, of course."

"Linda was like, 'Oh, my poor little son's all alone there,' " remembers Rufus. "I think she wanted me to be Teddy's boyfriend. And he's straight. But you know those crazy artist people!"

They certainly do. And it may be one reason why Rufus, Teddy, and Martha Wainwright, Rufus's younger sister, also a musician, hang out together, back each other up on albums, and routinely join each other onstage with an easygoing, sometimes intoxicated rapport. They're not quite rock royalty -- more like talented, hard-working children of talented, hard-working musicians -- but they all share their parents' gift for incisive, smartly arranged songcraft. Rufus's and Teddy's debut albums and Martha's self-distributed EPs all have an intelligence uncommon in today's pop. Rufus's follow-up, Poses, written between social engagements while he was living at the Chelsea Hotel, has a dusky romanticism at times reminiscent of Cole Porter. "However you dress it up, you have to have a good song," Teddy says. "Rufus's songs sound just as good when he sings them in the living room, which he invariably does."

Which sounds like something else they could have learned at home. "Teddy and Martha and I," says Rufus, "our parents are all from the troubadour tradition." So while Martha can happily recall "a great night at the Dakota, at Sean's house," she's quick to add, "I know that conjures up a 'rich kids' image, but there was also a natural sort of real friendship." She guesses that the little scene they share has been easy to sustain because, despite Rufus's and Teddy's recording contacts, "nobody's become a really huge pop star -- we're still pretty concerned and insecure."

"Although I would love to be a superstar, I have a very good sense of what it would be like just to play a gig here and there," says Rufus. "I think in any musical family there's stuff that's transmitted genetically, and I feel very fortunate that with us it's more like . . . we had the corner shop. I knew that I had to work behind the cash register for a while. And then become the general manager." He laughs. "And then turn it into Bergdorf's."

"C'mon, let's lick this!" shouts rapper Mos Def, bounding into a rehearsal space on West 26th Street, his new band Black Jack Johnson in tow. Every bit the dandy in a crisp white dress shirt and brown Bermuda shorts, Mos (né Dante Smith) turns and smiles at the two kids snoozing on the room's black leather couch. "What y'all doin'?" he says in a Bill Cosby grumpy-old-man voice. "Been drinking teenage malt liquor?"

Just as Mos livens up a lazy afternoon at a rehearsal space, he's been shaking up the city's hip-hop scene, first as half of the political rap duo Black Star and then on his solo debut, Black on Both Sides. Now, with the rock and jazz virtuosos in Black Jack Johnson -- (from left, behind Mos) former Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun and ex-Parliament synth maestro Bernie Worrell -- he's trying to transform the sloppy rap-rock hybrid pioneered by bands like Limp Bizkit into legitimate fusion.

It hasn't been easy: At a Roseland show in December, the group muddled through Bob Marley covers. But today, the band falls into a loping groove, with Mos pounding out a syncopated rhythm on Calhoun's drum kit, then plunking sullen chords on the piano, and then belting out the theme from the Batman TV show. When the band settles to a stop, he takes Wimbish's bass and plucks a dubby rhythm: It's "Batman," rewritten as "Blackman," with lyrics about racial profiling. "No, officer," Mos sings, a mockquaver in his baritone, "I don't have a valid driver's license."

Done kidding around, Mos leads his band into Jimi Hendrix's "Who Knows?," trading in some lyrics from Black Sheep's hip-hop hit "The Choice Is Yours." "No, no, no," Mos shouts when Wimbish stops, "not yet." The rhythm picks up again, slowly taking shape as an old Bad Brains song. "Faster," insists Mos, and Calhoun hits out a machine-gun beat as Mos leans into the mike. "That's it!" he declares. "That's some real rock shit."

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