At first glance, the notion of Yoko Ono pairing with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth to create a mini-album of experimental noise rock with Ono’s spoken word and howled syllable vocals over minimalist guitar seems like the weirdest music news to come down the pipeline this year. But think about it a second longer, and the whole project makes a lot of sense. All three figures have been leaders in experimental rock. All are proud outsiders, all seasoned vets.
“YOKOKIMTHURSTON” is the most recent project in one of Ono’s most fruitful periods. Now nearing 80, she’s released three albums in the past five years, including 2007’s remix record “Open Your Box,” which helped launch her current incarnation as dance club queen. She’s also remained an outspoken peace activist – like her days with husband John Lennon – most recently awarding her biannual LennonOno Grant for Peace to jailed Russian activist musicians Pussy Riot on Sept. 21, the UN’s International Day of Peace.
To mark the release of “YOKOKIMTHURSTON,” out today on Chimera Music, Billboard caught up with the legendary icon of out-there.
You’ve been creating experimental, avant-garde music for decades. What makes this particular project stand out?
I am putting out sounds that are hard to take for most people — to expand their experience of musical sounds. I compare what I am doing now to what 12 Tone composers did, especially, [early 20th century Austrian composer Arnold] Schoenberg. We are used to his music now. [Ed. Note: 12-tone music suggests using all 12 notes equally, instead of focusing on lateral-note melodies]. But in the beginning it must have been hard to take. That’s how we advance our ear experience. We do it step by step.
You’ve been in the same sphere as Thurston and Kim for years. Tell me about how this collaboration finally happened?
I have so much respect for both Kim and Thurston; for their work in experimental music. John and I felt we did [bond over experimental music]. But if it was only us, we’d have been buried deep in the ocean by people who felt we were totally insane and should be shot. Well, they can’t say that. There are Thurston and Kim, who vouch for our sanity!
What exactly do you respect about them, musically and as people?
Most people like to hear sounds they are used to. Unlike many rock or pop songwriters, Thurston and Kim are taking a chance in creating new sounds, without worrying about being unpopular. I like that in them.
Yoko, Thurston and Kim Perform ‘Mulberry’ Live
The record was created in February of last year, all in one day. Tell me about the process of creating this whole album in just a day.
Every moment in our lives is a miracle we should enjoy instead of ignoring. We just happened to not have ignored this incredible moment that happened between us three.
The record isn’t easy — it’s pretty much the other side of the spectrum from radio pop music. Do you feel like the album is for everyone, or is it aimed at a specific audience?
Well, people are used to seeing their mirror image. Now we are showing the other side of the image they are so used to seeing. It’s like being used to seeing a hero standing and waving the national flag. We are showing his guts, where the excrements are produced. It’s not meant for a specific audience. It’s to get used to the other side of the mirror.
You’ve worked with many musicians in your career, most famously your late husband. Which artists today are doing work you find fascinating? Who would you want to collaborate with from the current crop of musicians?
I’m not interested so much in collaboration. You see that from the history of my albums. I think John, Thurston, Kim and Sean [Lennon] are the main ones. But in live music situations, I’ve played with many very interesting musicians.
The music world really got behind the incarceration of Russia’s Pussy Riot. Do you feel the spirit of Pussy Riot’s protest — for which they were arrested — replicate the energy and vigor of protest music in the 1960’s?
Are you living in our century to ask a question like that? So many musicians are now activists! It makes me very happy. I want to report to John and say, “Hey, are you looking at this?!”
There’s that famous quote from John, when he called you “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” Does it ever bother you that so many people know who you are, but don’t know much, or anything, about your art?
It doesn’t bother me too much. I know I’m good. And I know there are a few who know it. That’s about what you can get in life.
You’ve been a cultural icon for decades. But what do you fill your days with?
I’m pretty organized because I have to be between so many projects I’m taking care of at once. I’m on a roll, so to speak. So it doesn’t bother me. I eat and sleep when I can. That’s how it is.
Your canon of work is truly gigantic. In a hundred years, what do you believe your legacy will be? Is that different from what you wish it to be?
Well now, I don’t have time to think about what would happen to my work a hundred years from now! That’s why I am energetic, I think. Not thinking about things like that. What will be will be. I hope they create their own music, and feel kindly towards us old folks.
You’ve never been afraid to speak out about aspects of culture or politics that you felt were damaging to society. What do you see in the current US presidential race that angers, or inspires you?
Take it with a pinch of salt, my friends. Otherwise it will affect your health. The game up there is like a bad play. I wouldn’t get too emotional about it.
Your career has been pretty unpredictable. What’s next?