A friend of mine introduced me to Thurston Moore because she thought I would like him. He was playing with the tallest band in the world, the Coachmen. They were sort of like Talking Heads, jangly guitar, Feelies guitar. Anyway, it was love at first sight. His band broke up that night. And we started playing. We kept changing our name. Finally Thurston came up with the name “Sonic Youth.” He said it came to him in a dream, but I think it was partly taken from MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. And we were really into dub music then, and there were all these bands like Big Youth, so the “Youth” part really didn’t come from the hardcore scene. That was like a year later and suddenly there were these hardcore bands like Youth of Today. So people kept thinking we were some hardcore band.
The eighties were actually a very spiritual time. You had groups like the Feelies who played amazing uplifting guitar music, who really influenced us. And places like the Mudd Club, where people really intermingled and you could be this weird noise band playing before people who had no idea what they were listening to, but they were there because that club was cool. That whole thing carried over to Danceteria, but it was bigger. The second floor was where people danced, and then the third floor was the restaurant?video lounge, where art and commerce were supposed to come together in some perverted form of decoration. It was a really interesting time, because it was supposed to be this utopia. That just disintegrated. But that was the background for eighties spiritualism.
In the early eighties, there were a lot of artists involved with the music scene. All those young artists, before their careers took off, were into music. Robert Longo used to play some guitar. He had a band for a while. Basquiat had a band. I mean, people were always trying to mix music and art – in fact, I’m guilty of it myself. I curated a show, asking musicians and artists to design record covers. They were always trying to mix the two, and to my mind it never really works. One usually suffers, usually the art. Installations that combine visual things and musical things are one thing. But to have bands play in a space with art on the walls is never a good idea. It just doesn’t have the impact.
When the hardcore scene sprang up, we identified with that a little bit because it was a continuation of punk rock and the whole do-it-yourself thing. We were interested in that, even though they were younger than us and we didn’t really see ourselves as part of it. There are three or four different kinds of punk rock. There’s old punk. There’s ska punk. There’s pop punk. And then there’s groups like Bikini Kill, even though they’ve broken up, that fall into the category of traditional punk, as far as real attitude, what punk rock is supposed to be – going against the status quo, educating your peers, and trying to establish that individual expression is more important than homogenization of culture. Which is where we fell into the punk rock.
The first tour we went on was with the Swans. There were eleven of us in this van, with a U-Haul. They had this Swiss percussionist who was the only one who could turn the van around with the U-Haul. He was pretty wild when he got drunk. I think we were better received than the Swans. We were the good guys and they were the bad guys. It was weird. The first place we played, Chapel Hill, there was a snowstorm, and there were six or seven people in this tiny place. Most of them were rednecks. They were literally yelling at Mike Gira, the Swans’ lead singer the whole time, “Free Bird! Free Bird!” And Mike would just get so belligerent, yelling at them.
Years later, after Goo came out, everyone kept asking during interviews, “So what’s it like to be in the mainstream?” And it was really hard to think of things to tell them. It didn’t really feel that different. But then when we toured with Neil Young, it was like, “Okay, this really is the mainstream.” His audience is a lot of redneck hippies. At first it was freaky. At the first few gigs, they had our volume turned down, until we complained to Neil. Obviously, we didn’t want to be as loud as him, but we need a certain amount of volume to get across, especially in a stadium. Otherwise it’s not worth playing. So after that got adjusted, it was really fun in a way. It really felt like being a kid again. That we could still come out after all those years and play music that shocked people and really upset them. I got so I didn’t look out at the audience, ‘cause sometimes there’d be some guy with long hair standing there, giving me the finger. Or other times they’d be standing there, smiling, with their hands over their ears. And there would also be these young kids who used to be into Sonic Youth, and now they’re into the Dead and Neil. We’d run into them at truck stops, after the gig, and they’d be like, “I used to be into you guys.” It was very puzzling. Who is this new generation? But we really got into playing. That’s how we got into playing those big places.
Neil himself was really nice. And his band was really nice. I got to cook dinner for him once. One night after the show, we got in Neil’s bus. I was gonna make this chicken dish but couldn’t find any chicken. So somebody went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and got uncooked chicken wings. And I was sure that I was gonna poison Neil Young.
But he sat there, like – he has this train business; he puts sound effects on his model trains, like cows and stuff – and he sat there tuning this one cow’s moo sound: “No. That’s not quite right.” “Moo!” “Nope. Not quite right.”
Interviewed by Ethan Smith