Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sonic Elders

The Manhattan loft where Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have lived since exiting the deep Lower East Side in 1993 is neither huge nor luxurious by Soho standards. There's the usual central living area, with artwork splashed across the walls and Moore's collection of vintage paperbacks behind the glass of an antique or thrift-store bookcase. In the sole closet, a walk-in off the smallish bedroom, socks and T-shirts and underwear are half-folded in wire baskets. Each spouse has an office; Moore keeps his hoard of plastic-sleeved vinyl shelved in his, with the CDs stashed in drawers.

The sound of cooing prattle floats our way as we sit sipping tea.

"Is Coco dressed yet?" Gordon asks.

"She just said, `I want to stay in my room.' Just sort of a complete state of three-year-old ennui."

It's widely known that the longest-running couple in alternative rock are parents now. What's less well-understood is how profoundly that could change their music and their way of life. "You tend to just get sucked into being around them--they are very addictive," Gordon says. So soon these quintessential Manhattanites will do more than sign with a major and buy a coop. While maintaining the loft, they'll relocate to Northampton, Massachusetts, three hours away, where Moore owns a record store with long-time scenester Byron Coley.

"It's better for us as parents," Gordon explains. "In New York you have to hover over your kids. I don't want her to grow up in a competitive atmosphere." Anyway, she goes on: "I'm sure that when Coco is 12 or 13 she's gonna want to move back."

Born July 1, 1994, Coco was on the road most of the time from age eight months till a year ago. She learned to walk at Lollapalooza. "There was a two-day thing when we left her once," Moore tells me. "Yeah, when we went to Seattle," Gordon remembers. "That was weird." Coco will be on the bus through July as her folks promote the band's 11th album, A Thousand Leaves, which deals explicitly with themes of domesticity, childhood, and leisure. How they'll tour when their kid is school age Gordon has no idea. "There's always summers and maybe we could tack a week onto vacations." She admires Yoko Ono--Yoko and Sean are still so close.

Coco has been coaxed into a dress, the skirt of which covers her head as she contorts backward off the couch.

"Coco, that's very very intriguing and interesting," Moore says. "I could never do that. Enjoy it now, 'cause you're not going to be able to do that forever."

"Not, but not, but not for, but not for big people," says Coco.

"No big people can do that very easily--unless they're yogis." Delighted by the word, Coco giggles. "You could do it."

"Yeah, I guess, with a little practice."

"You just have to hold on."

At 35, drummer Steve Shelley is the youngest Sonic Youth, and the newest--13 years instead of the full 17. He lives with his girlfriend of seven years in Hoboken, where they bought and remodeled the fourth floor of an old frame building last year. A sometime member of the Raincoats, Cat Power, and Two Dollar Guitar, he records bands he likes for Smells Like Records, which he owns. Smells Like distributes the three mostly instrumental EPs on which Sonic Youth take off from "The Diamond Sea," the ambient-noise miasma that caps 1996's Washing Machine.

Shelley was the chariest about abandoning indieland back in 1990, but he wanted it too. "It was weird putting out records we thought were really good and you couldn't get reviewed in People magazine. Sellout tours and you still show up in towns where they don't have your record. I'm glad about every part of it in retrospect." Shelley loves having the band's catalogue available worldwide from Geffen, which re-signed Sonic Youth in 1996, before its contract was up. Without a gold album, the band makes its living off record sales.

Guitarist Lee Ranaldo's son Cody, born in 1985, was the first Sonic Baby to tour. He was falling asleep to Neil Young raveups at six. A graduate of the kiddie-punk Stinky Puffs, he's now on the tennis team at a good Manhattan public middle school and argues with his father about Puff Daddy.

Divorced from Cody's mom, Ranaldo shares a book-crammed Tribeca semi-duplex with experimental filmmaker Leah Singer. He bought the loft in 1995--"It took a long time to find a place we could afford"--and sits on the coop board. Admirers may expect "some trashy New York band with torn pants and junkie lyrics," but to Ranaldo middle-class life seems natural. "I think younger musicians are not as surprised by us as peer musicians. They're surprised that we're as straight as we are--that we have families and clean places to live."

Ranaldo oversaw the construction of Sonic Youth's studio in a rented space nearby. A mostly analog 16-track long on classic analog equipment, it's also a rehearsal space, office, and "clubhouse." Convenient, too: "Steve just comes over to the World Trade Center on the PATH train, and for Kim and Thurston it's two stops on the subway." So after it was decided to settle down and let Coco get her bearings in New York, the band gathered there every day with engineer Wharton Tiers. The EPs and, ultimately, A Thousand Leaves were the result.

Given the circumstances of the album's creation, it's no shock that beneath the outré overtones of the band's trademark tunings it often sounds contemplative. But the band wasn't ready for that reaction.

"I thought the songs were really noisy," says Gordon, who's definitely punkier than the others on this one.

Moore agrees. "I never thought of it as mellow but on the Internet there's a Sonic newsgroup I look at and kids are going, like, `I heard it, it's mellow, they never bust out once.'"

No matter where they live, Sonic Youth are in music for life. The model they talk about isn't Keith Richards forcing out "Jumping Jack Flash." It's jazzmen, or Uncle Neil. But for younger alternative vets, they'll be the model. Thurston thinks it's amusing that the people who sold them the Massachusetts house never sussed that they were in a band. "They thought we were New York professionals," he grins.

"But you are New York professionals," I say. "You're professional artists."

Moore ponders this. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I don't know."

Rolling Stone, June 25, 1998