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Sonic Youth’s Obama-Era Rock Record

Jul. 15, 2009
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Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore was driving down the road, looking in the rearview mirror-not at the highway, but at his and his band's career.

Three decades after teaming up with guitarist Lee Ranaldo and 28 years after forming Sonic Youth, Moore has been looking backward while continuing to push the band and its music ahead.

"I've been doing the same thing since I was in my early 20s," Moore says as he drives down a highway near New York City. "I'm going to be 51 this year. I should be having a midlife crisis."

Social networking Web sites have contributed to Moore's newfound nostalgia, as fans have posted and sent him pictures and recordings from the early and mid-'80s. Also contributing was the last Sonic Youth tour, when the band played the entirety of its 1989 "best of the year" breakthrough album, Daydream Nation.

"If anything inspired The Eternal, it was revisiting Daydream Nation," Moore says.

The Eternal is Sonic Youth's lauded new album, a disc that revisits the band's sound throughout the years, from the fractured pop of Goo to the scraping, psychedelic guitarscapes that have been in the band's repertoire since the early '80s.

But most of all, The Eternal is a rock record.

"We're rocking," Moore says. "I always thought we were writing rock records, to some degree. Some are darker than others. This record we were fairly excited and happy and in a good place."

Some of that excitement, happiness and optimism came from the election of Barack Obama, which took place just as Sonic Youth was recording The Eternal.

And some of it came from the fact that after nearly two decades on a major label, Sonic Youth has a new home for its recordings, independent stalwart Matador Records.

"Being liberated from a corporate label like Geffen, where we had been for so many years, and going onto a label like Matador, who have been our friends for years and which is a better fit for us, it felt really celebratory," Moore says.

The Eternal continues Sonic Youth's celebration of art and rock 'n' roll, with a tribute to French painter Yves Klein opening the disc, a song dedicated to Beat poet Gregory Corso and references to the MC5 and Sonic's Rendezvous Band, as well as the song "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn," aka Darby Crash of the early '80s Los Angeles punk band The Germs.

Moore is obviously thrilled to be back close to, if not in, the underground music world where he began playing as part of the noise-rooted "No Wave" movement three decades ago.

"We never really left it and never had any ambition to leave," he says. "We have no problems doing the David Letterman show. We have no problem if U2 wants us to open for them at some stadium somewhere. But that wasn't our goal. We took what came to us.

"For me, there's a kind of absurdist thing that happens when a band like us can exist in the mainstream for a minute," Moore adds.

Sonic Youth indeed had its flirtations with the mainstream, including starring in 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, a documentary of its tour that featured a then little-known opening act named Nirvana, and landing a handful of videos on MTV, including one for "Kool Thing," a song that's now on the "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" video games.

But Sonic Youth never had an album come close to the top of the charts or anything resembling a pop hit. That's more than fine with Moore.

"It's like, why would you want to be the most popular kid in high school?" Moore says. "That's stupid."

Sonic Youth headlines an 8 p.m. show at the Turner Hall Ballroom with Awesome Color on Monday, July 20, at 8 p.m.

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