Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Thurston Moore

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Sonic Youth legend Thurston Moore

What are you holding on the cover of the July 4 1992 issue of NME

“An American flag in flames and I’m tearing it apart.”


“It was a proud moment. I love my family and friends and the world I was brought up in the United States, but I take umbrage to a lot of the administrations there who are complicit in so many war games and military industry complex – and especially now being represented by somebody who has so much hate in his heart. A lot of people hijack this symbol of nationalism and paint it in the colours of money and greed, so I’m happy to burn that baby! I wanna burn it again! I’m more of a believer in a Rainbow flag – that’s my ideology.”

Apparently the photographer originally wanted to shoot it in Times Square… 

“(Laughs) I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you now if that had occurred. I’d be in a pauper’s grave somewhere in the United States of Ameri-KKK-a.”

Who suggested you should have your rock license revoked?

“Mr Mark E Smith of The Fall, Manchester’s finest.”


“I was never influenced by them, and never understood why Mark had such a hair up his ass about Sonic Youth. But he was very envious of anybody who was getting attention contemporaneously to his own work. I think that quote came from when Gavin Rossdale was interviewing him – and I can’t imagine Mark E Smith being a Bush enthusiast! He was kissing the ass of Gavin and then denouncing something so incredible and great and cool as Sonic Youth.

“We connected a few times through the years – Sonic Youth played with The Fall in New York City and Germany in the early ‘80s, and we got on fine. He came to a couple of our gigs and came back to the dressing room and was a very congenial gent. The people he slagged off in the press knew he was just having fun, so I never took offence. He knew I was born to rock! (Laughs) But I’m honoured to have been slagged off by him – I feel part of an extremely intellectually interesting gang.”

What language were the liner notes of ‘SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings) 3’ [part of a series released via your label SYR] released in?  

“You’re stumping me here! The first one was French… I’m going to go out on a limb and say Lithuanian?”

WRONG.SYR 6′ is in Lithuanian….’SYR 3′ is Esperanto. 

“(Laughs) I wasn’t even close! I was a great fan of ESP-Disk records which were trying to promote Esperanto as a language. The first SYR was in French because it was based on this design series of new music recordings from the late ’60s/early ’70s that came out in France of composer music like Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis,  et al. We re-modified those designs and created our own series in reference to this obscure 20th century classical record design. We wanted to make all the record geeks we knew have conniption fits. The plan was to run through the languages, but I forgot the Esperanto one!”


Which Britpop band did Lee Ranaldo call “the biggest yokels Sonic Youth ever met”? 

“That would be Oasis!”


“(Laughs) A retrospective on Britpop was the first time I ever heard the term “knuckle-draggers”. And that’s what I remember of our interaction – there was definitively some knuckle-dragging going on there! The first time we met, we were playing a radio-sponsored festival in the US, and were in the dressing room with Butch Vig from Garbage who produced ‘Nevermind‘. Liam came looking for Butch and introduced him. He wanted to tell Butch how much he thought ‘Nevermind’ was this great record, which was sweet, but Butch laughed and said: ‘Well, if you like Nirvana, you should listen to these guys, Sonic Youth’. Liam looked at me thinking: ‘No, there’s absolutely no connection here with Sonic Youth – this unlistenable, impenetrable noise-music versus Nirvana’s punk-opera majesty.’ I could read it in his eyes; he didn’t get Butch’s commendation at all.”

Noel Gallagher once said: ‘I don’t think music should be clever or avant-garde, artistic. I hate art in music, all this pompous art-rock like Sonic Youth and all that. You couldn’t hum one of their tunes. Sticking guitars in dustbins and you know, playing them with screwdrivers and that. I mean, fuck art – let’s rock’… 

“I saw that interview on MTV and found it funny because it’s such a conservative perspective of being in a band. I’d copied that interview onto VHS and at the time, and was asked to do a remix for Blur for a Japan-only release. I was friendly with Graham [Coxon, Blur guitarist], but didn’t know the others. I’d already got into a spat with their bass player [Alex James] because he drunkenly said some derogatory remarks to me and ever since then, I hated the guy. So by remixing their record, I took the bass player’s track completely off and deleted it – and replaced it with screaming feedback. And I opened the track using Noel Gallagher saying: ‘I don’t like bands that are clever, putting these guitars into dustbins…’ (Laughs).”

“The bass player was in a magazine – probably Country Life! – shortly thereafter where he expressed being upset by my horrible remix, which made me even more proud of it!”


Which two horror movies feature in the artwork of the vinyl of Sonic Youth’s 1985 album ‘EVOL’?

“Well, the cover is [model and actor] Lung Leg [aka Elisabeth Carr] from a Richard Kern film [Submit To Me] and the back is us pictured inside a heart. Is it Evil Dead?”

WRONG. The vinyl insert contains images from Friday the 13th Part 2 and Children of the Corn.

“I never knew that! I’ve never seen Friday the 13th – I’ll watch it tonight. You learn something new every day.”

Which beloved actor appears on the cover of the first issue of the Sonic Youth fanzine Sonic Death?  

“I assume you mean Keanu Reeves?”

CORRECT. He (in a jokey made-up quote from one of your zines) says: ‘I really like Sonic Youth. And I had the opportunity to be in one of their movies…but I didn’t feel cool enough’.  

“The picture’s of Bill & Ted.  Keanu was a zeitgeist-y young actor at the time, but why we put him on there is beyond me! He was a sweet kid and would come see Sonic Youth play in Los Angeles. He asked me to play his birthday party once so I put together a band and we played on an ice-skating rink while Keanu Reeves and his friends skated around us, which was a disaster because it sounded terrible. I haven’t seen him in a long time but he was a good person.

“I had a situation where I had to call him to talk about directing or being in a video Sonic Youth wanted to do. It didn’t come to fruition, but I remember talking to the other people in the room about how spacey Keanu was. But the phone didn’t hang up properly – and he heard everything I was saying! I met him afterwards in Los Angeles after seeing his band, Dogstar, play and he said: ‘By the way, I heard what you were saying after the phone call!’. (Laughs) I felt so bad, but he laughed and said in Hollywood nobody cares about that stuff.”

How many copies were released of your 2016 Bernie Sanders collaboration track ‘Feel It in Your Guts’?  

“What the fuck is that? Like 500?”

WRONG. It was 1000.  

“They bumped it up. It was originally going to be 500, so we’re both right! (Laughs)”.

Not quite! Do you think the Democrats will win November’s presidential election?  

“I can only hope so. I don’t align myself with the parties in the two-party system in the USA. I’m a Green Party progressive, but I realise that voting for the Democrats is the only chance to unseat the current Republican nightmare party. By voting Democrat, it will also allow space for real progressive liberal democrats to have voices in the Government such as the fantastic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the true voices of humanitarian consciousness in North America. We need to help the Democratic party overturn the current administration, which is a shitshow at best.”



What was the Madonna-inspired working title of Sonic Youth’s tour documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke?

“I don’t recall this – I should know.”

WRONG. It’s Tooth Or Hair, a pun on her tour documentary Truth Or Dare.

“It should have been called Tooth Or Hair! Although the actual title’s hard to forget – people have talked about punk breaking into the mainstream through the years where, as the movie depicts, you have Mötley Crüe covering Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’ in their sets, which felt completely off-base in 1991. But in retrospect, why not? They’re a crass metal band that’s no more or less crass than Johnny Rotten is – especially now! (Laughs) But I don’t remember Tooth Or Hair – that’s still a hip title we can maybe use somehow.”

Did you realise it would end up such an important cultural artefact?

“No. We only wanted to make a VHS tape we could sell through our fan club. Nirvana being on the road with us [at the time] was just happenstance. They were unknown when we invited them on tour, and their overwhelming success shortly thereafter meant it probably got as many views as any feature film that year. I sold the idea to the band and was the only one making sure there was content for the film besides the live performances. That’s why I’m on camera all the time just joking around and making a complete ass of myself!”

Did Madonna (her surname’s Ciccone) ever give you any feedback on Sonic Youth’s Ciccone Youth project, a part-tribute that featured some of her songs, with a picture of her on the cover?

“We ran it by her and she responded with a missive saying: ‘I’m not going to complain – just don’t tell my management.’ It was because we’d recorded ‘Into The Groove’, where we listened to her song on headphones and played over the top of it. Whilst mixing the song, I was setting the fader of her track so you’d hear it come up and I’d harmonise with Madonna.

“She probably just listened to it once and laughed – she came from our downtown New York City scene and we’d bump into each other in clubs. People thought we were making fun of her, but we were embracing the idea that somebody from our neighbourhood could become so mega. When we came to London, we wore Madonna T-shirts and people thought we were taking the piss.”

What movie did you record a version of The Stooges track ‘Fun House’ for?

Velvet Goldmine”.

CORRECT. It was as part of a supergroup director Todd Haynes put together called Wylde Rattz, comprising you, The Stooges’ Ron Asheton, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, The Stooges and Minutemen’s Mike Watt and Sean Lennon, among others. Did Iggy Pop ever hear it?

“I never played it to him, but he was certainly aware that Ron Asheton was playing Stooges’ music with some young cats from the ‘90s and 2000s. When Asheton, Mascis and Wat played the All Tomorrow’s Parties [festival] that Sonic Youth curated in Los Angeles in 2000, I came out and sang ‘Real Cool Time’ – it was one of the most incredible moments I ever had as a guitar player. When Iggy found out they were playing Stooges material with alternative rock people, I think he became righteously proprietorial about it – and it kicked off the band getting back together.”

Fun House by wylde ratttz

What did your record label prevent Kim Gordon from wearing in the video to Sonic Youth’s ‘Kool Thing’?

“Was it carrying a gun?”

CORRECT. She wanted to don a beret and carry an Uzi.


The verdict: 6/10

“That’s not bad!”

– Thurston Moore’s new album, By The Fire, is available now