As one of the most iconic musical figures of his and subsequent generations, Thurston Moore needs no introduction. Having founded Sonic Youth in New York in 1981 with Kim Gordon, the band went on to record fifteen albums over a twenty-five year period culminating in 2009's The Eternal, firmly establishing themselves as a pivotal force in the process until their hiatus two years later.
In the meantime, Moore has continued to release records both under his own name and as part of Chelsea Light Moving. His fourth and most recent long player The Best Day came out in October to a wealth of positive reviews, many heralding it as his best solo record to date.
Having assembled a band that reads something like an alternative rock supergroup - fellow Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bass player Debbie Googe and guitarist James Sedwards who's worked with Guapo and Chrome Hoof among many others - the now London-based Moore is currently enjoying a new lease of life both on the live circuit and in the studio.
Earlier this month, Moore and his band played a series of sold out shows across the UK, wowing audiences every night with incendiary performances reminiscent of those early Sonic Youth shows. DiS caught up with him prior to the final leg UK tour at Nottingham's Bodega. Words here...
DiS: Your last show in Nottingham was at Spanky Van Dykes earlier this year. How did that go?
Thurston Moore: It was good. We played a more experimental, improv set. It was a gig I did with Virginia Genta who's this great Italian free jazz saxophone player and her boyfriend David Vanzan who plays percussion. It was the last time I was here. I've been in Nottingham quite a few times. When I first came to London with Sonic Youth in the 1980s we played here because the gentleman who brought us over was a Nottingham resident.
DiS: Was that when you played at the Eden Club? I remember it well as that was the first time I saw Sonic Youth.
Thurston Moore: We played at the Eden Club, we played at the Garage, then we played at Rock City when we were on tour with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds right after The Birthday Party broke up. It was the first rendition of that when Rowland S Howard was in the band. Which doesn't get talked about. That he was also in the band for that first run. Mick Harvey saw us in London and asked us to support them on that UK tour.
DiS: Tonight is the last night of the UK leg of your European tour. How's it been so far?
Thurston Moore: This is the smallest venue I've played in quite some time! I was really shocked when I walked in. I thought what's going on here? It will be fun. We're quite a loud band obviously. It's like the smaller the venue the larger the monitors.
DiS: Do you still get as much of a buzz from touring now as you did when you first started out with Sonic Youth?
Thurston Moore: Oh I don't know. I do and I don't. Touring with these guys has been fun. Everybody knows what it's like. Everybody in this band has toured at all different levels and capacities, so there's never any primadonna attitudes or anything. There's no surprises.
DiS: Your band could be classed as a supergroup of sorts with yourself and Steve Shelley having come from Sonic Youth, Debbie Googe from My Bloody Valentine and James Sedwards from Guapo and Chrome Hoof. How and when did you all first get together? Was it always your intention to work with Steve outside of Sonic Youth?
Thurston Moore: It was definitely something I entertained because he's the drummer I have the best rapport with historically. He's also one of the best drummers I know for the kind of music we make. So it was always at the back of mind. But me living in London and him living in New Jersey meant it could be a little problematic, so I didn't have any real ambitions. I just started writing a few songs and thought I'd see who was around London. This guitar player James Sedwards was somebody I knew in the neighbourhood and he's remarkable. I saw him play a few times and talked to him a lot so I called him. He and I played some of these songs as instrumentals at a few gigs we did at record stores and as support slots. We supported Dylan Carlson one night at The Lexington and then we supported Glenn Branca in Paris. We also supported Lee Ranaldo's band at the Garage in London. Steve was there and offered his services so that was great. It was James who said we should call Deb up. She's a mate of his who I've known a little bit over the years. That's how it happened. It wasn't as though I thought about getting a superband together. It was more about getting some musicians together who I could really feel comfortable with and it all turned out really good. I had some ideas about an expansive line-up with two percussionists and horns, lots of different ideas, but then it turned out the traditional line-up of two guitarists, bass and drums was completely sufficient.
DiS: Do you see this as being your band for the foreseeable future? Will they all be involved in the writing process?
Thurston Moore: I hope it's the band I can work with for the foreseeable future. It's different now that I can write songs knowing who the musicians are. As regards writing them, I probably won't get involved with that so much. I tend to just show them the songs I have. I generally never dictate what people should play so much. I just give them a few ideas of what I'm looking for. I would never tell Steve how to construct his drum pieces. James right now is playing for the most part in unison with me. When we started recording I thought maybe he should try his hand at fleshing a couple of songs out on lead guitar bits, which he did. I didn't realise how great he was and thought God, I wish I'd foreseen this! Then the whole record would have just been James playing lead guitar all over the place. So maybe the next record will be something along those lines.
DiS: You're based in London at the moment. Do you see any parallels between London's underground DIY scene and the one which you grew up with in New York in the early 1980s?
Thurston Moore: It definitely has a little more of a rougher edge than New York used to have. Which I like. So there is that parallel. Besides the economics of living there it's almost prohibitive. London is just really expensive. I'm not quite sure what my future is in London. I don't know how sustainable it is.
DiS: Are there any bands on that scene who've caught your eye since you've been based there?
Thurston Moore: I don't really go out to clubs to see rock bands so much. I usually go out to see more marginalised music like free improvisation or jazz music. Completely experimental stuff. I don't tend to go and see bands and musicians that deal in traditional songwriting per se. I really like the band Trash Kit who are these three young women from London. But on the whole it's a bit difficult for me to go to these gigs because I find I can't really be anonymous at those sort of shows. I prefer to go somewhere that I don't have some kind of profile. It's like going to the office on your day off. So when I'm not playing I'd rather go to the cinema or one of these musical things that are happening which don't pertain much towards what I'm doing with the band or Sonic Youth or whatever. I hang out at Cafe Oto a lot because they put on a whole lot of interesting music and I feel comfortable there.
DiS: Your most recent album The Best Day came out last month to a wave of positive reviews including a 7/10 on Drowned In Sound. Do you pay much attention to what people are saying or writing about you and your music?
Thurston Moore: Oh I read everything! I've always been voracious about music journalism. I was an avid reader from day one. Even before I started playing in bands in the 1970s I was always looking through rock magazines so for me, people like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer who were writing for Creem magazine were equivalent to the musicians themselves. Patti Smith too before she became a recording artist. Their styles were as significant as the musical styles of the bands they were writing about. That was always interesting to me, and then stealing issues of Sounds, NME and Melody Maker so I could read articles by Nick Kent and so forth. These were very musical figures for me. And I've tried my hand at doing fanzines. I read everything and process it in any which way I can. Some things have a little more critical facility than others. You can tell who's new to the game and who's been at it for a while. So if I read something in the Independent or the Guardian by Kitty Empire I usually get that because she's been around for a while and has this great critical facility which I enjoy reading. I guess with most people it's all about looking at the photographs!
DiS: Have you ever felt the need to respond to individual writers or editors over the years?
Thurston Moore: I have once or twice but that can sometimes lead you into a bit of a rabbit hole. So I've learned not to do that any more.
DiS: I guess in the age of social media there's always an internet page or forum where anyone and everyone can have their say nowadays.
Thurston Moore: Everybody from the general public has their say. Everyone's a critic. I'm a critic. I had a counterculture music column with Byron Coley in this newspaper called Arthur so I've filed my missives here and there. But generally, I want to shy away from that because I'd rather not confuse the issue of what I'm doing. It doesn't really matter to me. I like the fact that Morrissey used to write for the NME, thinking that The Ramones were just something to pass on. Which people always bring to light when they start talking about Morrissey.
DiS: The Best Day feels like it's taking the listener on an expeditionary voyage, from the experimental 'Speak To The Wild' and 'Forevermore' at the outset, to the more accessible title track, 'Detonation' and 'Vocabularies' later on. Was that your intention?
Thurston Moore: No, it was just a matter of sequencing. I tried my hand at different sequences. There was a lot of other material on that record. Originally it was twice as long. There's some songs that were recorded with Chelsea Light Moving that never got issued. Four of them. Then there's some other solo pieces, some noise improv things. It was kind of a more potpourri record but I kept peeling things out until it was focused on this band's session that I did. That was when I realised what the record should be like. It had a more distinct focus. I felt it wouldn't necessarily be suitable for the listener as the attention span is now fairly challenged.
DiS: We seem to be entering a culture where the album gradually finds itself redundant and individual radio friendly tracks are the order of the day.
Thurston Moore: That's kind of how it is but at the same time I think people regard albums as albums if they're serious music listeners. But there is a generation of people who are coming of age now where the album as a focused sequence maybe isn't that integral to their overall experience. I understand it but I don't really feel the necessity of playing to that in a way. I don't think it really matters for the kind of music I make anyway. I can play one night to 2000 people in Italy and another night to 250 people in Nottingham and it won't really make a difference. The kind of music that we're making, experimental post-punk rock, isn't exactly the vanguard of what's happening in the music industry anyway. It's mostly electronic music. The night we played in London at Islington Assembly Hall it was a sold out show and people were completely enthused by it. But across town Flying Lotus was playing at the Roundhouse and that was the big gig in town everybody wanted to be at. This electronic producer gig which granted, was exciting but isn't anything like what we're doing musically. I don't feel I have to compete with what's going on in contemporary, hip recordings. I feel like I've had my day in the sun in a way with Sonic Youth, so whatever I do now will always be seen as this add-on to that. I'm not trying to compete, that would be frustrating. It's just not going to happen. I think it's very difficult for an artist to get beyond what their initial celebrated band has done. The only one I can think of that did was possibly Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground never really had that much history anyway. They were just this arcane thing before Lou Reed had a solo career. Same with Iggy. The Stooges were just some kind of anomaly. They weren't really regarded until twenty-five years later when they reformed, and then all of a sudden became this huge thing. It was great to see Ron Asheton playing in front of 40,000 people and getting all these accolades because he did not experience that in the first era of The Stooges. But there's very few others. Certainly Morrissey succeeded beyond The Smiths, but other than that there aren't any who spring to mind. Sonic Youth were a magical, democratic kind of band so for me that's something I would never want to try and replicate. And I don't think about reaching that pinnacle again. It's just not going to happen.
DiS: Do you find people still come to your shows and shout for Sonic Youth songs?
Thurston Moore: Every now and then.
DiS: How do you deal with that?
Thurston Moore: I ignore it. I also say to them we don't do covers!
DiS: Will the songs you mentioned that didn't make The Best Day be released elsewhere? Will there be another Chelsea Light Moving record?
Thurston Moore: No, Chelsea Light Moving was sort of a transitional project for me. There was a reason I didn't put my name on the front of the record. I wasn't doing any press. I just wanted to do this thing where I was playing to keep busy. It was kind of an extension of the work on the record I did with Beck, Demolished Thoughts. It was basically me and a twelve-string acoustic guitar, violin, harp and some slight percussion. I toured that quite a bit and it was actually really nice. I was just playing different theatres and churches which was really cool. But I knew that I wanted to get back into playing electric guitar again, so I just started doing it and we made the Chelsea Light Moving record in a couple of days. While I was relocating to London I was just touring around, supporting that record. Playing every little place like this. It was fun while it lasted but I knew I had to leave the USA and I wasn't going to demand that Chelsea Light Moving leave with me. They're all spurious musicians in their own right. They play with so many different people and they have their own gigs. There was a sense that it had a shelf life until I did something with a little more serious intent which was this record for the most part. But this record is just my initial foray into settling in where I am and writing songs. The next recordings we do will be a bit more congealed as a band. These songs weren't really written with any idea of a band. I wasn't quite sure how they were gonna exist. But now it will be different so whatever songs I present to this group... I'm kind of curious what they will be? I don't know. I have a few ideas rolling around in my brain. Different riffs and ideas for songs. I guess I need some alone time. Just time to get them together and show them to the band. I'm looking at December. December is songwriting time for me. The holidays will be where I get it together, then hopefully start rehearsing in January. Specifically with James. James is my musical right hand foil in this. Since we started him and I are the nucleus. Certainly Deb and Steve are the rhythm section and they're formidable together. I wasn't quite sure how that was going to work until we went into the studio to record. It was actually the first time they'd ever played together. The first song on the record,'Speak To The Wild' was the first thing we did. I remember doing a couple of takes then listening to the playback and thinking, this is good. It became obvious to me something really great was happening.
DiS: Going back to Demolished Thoughts, how did you end up working with Beck? Would you work with him again if given the opportunity?
Thurston Moore: I'd love to work with Beck again. I've known him since he was a teenager. I first met him when he did 'Loser'. He put it out on a small label in California, and I was aware of a couple of things he was doing in LA. Where he was just jumping on stage and playing a leaf blower or something. He was doing really weird stuff and I love that. So I met him a couple of times when he was a really young kid and then 'Loser' became huge. The good nature of that song coupled with MTV made Beck a real property of value, and one thing led to another so he was able to sustain and maintain that. He's had quite a career because of it. He has a wonderful aesthetic that's unique and distinct. He comes from a very interesting family. He's very close to his grandfather, Al Hansen, who was a Fluxus artist. His mother is Bibbe Hansen who was a Warhol factory girl and his father was a record producer of note in LA. So I always stay connected with Beck. We did the 1995 Lollapolooza tour together when nobody was really paying that much attention and then his thing got huge. But even then he'd tour Europe with us playing solo, opening up for Sonic Youth. So we've always been friends. When I was writing the material for a solo record that became Demolished Thoughts I ran into him and was telling him what I wanted to do with acoustic guitars and harps and violins. He invited me to record it in his home studio at his house if I wanted to. It made sense to let him oversee everything and have his way rather than me worry about it all. Sonic Youth never did that with an engineer or producer. We were always behind them, reaching over and making sure the knobs they were pushing were correlative to our own wishes. But with Beck I said do what you want. Make it sound as if it's your own record. That's what I let him do, and I think if I hadn't liked it I would have pulled it away. It sounds nothing like the way I would have mixed it.
DiS: What would you have changed about it had you mixed it?
Thurston Moore: I don't know. It probably would have been more flatlined. Because he has such a weird idiosyncratic dynamic with mixing he would add some vocal pieces to it then different reverbs. I tend to stay away from reverbs and other effects. So he'd give it a quality that was very Beck-ian. It allowed me to tour with it, which was generally a good experience. When I started touring Chelsea Light Moving it was a different experience as we were playing more basement clubs. Grottier places and I was getting a little burned out on it. But I knew that I was moving. I enjoy playing improvised noise gigs like the one I played in Nottingham earlier this year with various people in the music community, but I also knew I wanted to make a serious solo record.
DiS: Would you say The Best Day is the most definitive Thurston Moore record to date?
Thurston Moore: No, not at all. I think the next one will be more so! This one happened on the quick, and in a way I want to spend more time with the songwriting and working with the musicians. The idea that I didn't have musicians to work with except for James comes into play with the quality of the record. I want to do something that's a bit more expansive. The idea of putting these more challenging pieces at the top of the record. I think if I'd have buried them at the bottom of the record people would have gotten somewhat exhausted by the guitar tunes and "song" songs they were hearing they'd become less focused on it.
DiS: But it's the changing landscapes from one sonic plateau to another that make The Best Day such an enjoyable record.
Thurston Moore: I guess so. I always find songwriting quite liberating. I can do whatever I want when I'm writing a song. I'm really inspired by groups that have a lot of celebration to them. Groups like Sun or Swans that make huge pieces of music. Bands that can come out and play a twenty-minute piece. Well why not? I'd rather be doing music like that than a bunch of short, sharp little songs. As much as I love short, sharp little songs they can be quite throwaway. They're dime-a-dozen in a way. I feel like I can write them all day long. And so can many other people. I think it's more interesting to write long pieces. So I want the next record to get into more expansive places about what a song can be. Like how long it can be. Maybe my next record will be my Tarkus!
DiS: How many takes was The Best Day recorded in?
Thurston Moore: Just a couple. Not many at all. It was very immediate. There's another acoustic song I did in that session which wasn't on the record. I'll probably revisit it. Those are the most difficult ones because they have to sound natural. For me to get through a whole take of just a solo acoustic piece is something! It can be very stiff because the anxiety gets to you. You know the tape's rolling and everything is being captured. Usually I love first takes because you can hear the musicians finding their place. It has a certain wave to it. But then you tend to find the musicians saying "Oh God! I wasn't playing the way I was meant to be playing," so we end up going again. Even though the feel of that first take was so good. It's most problematic for Steve as a drummer because he'll want to refine his sections and parts. I'll be saying the first take feels the best and he'll say he wasn't getting there. But I can feel him getting there. That feeling of hearing the musician getting there, moving more organically from one thing to another. I've always liked that these changes are more sensual or something. It's a balance between a strong take where everyone's on the money to a take where everything's a little messy but the vibe is so good.
DiS: You've been working with Matador Records for the past five years. How do they compare to other labels you've worked with? Do you think it's of paramount importance for bands to be signed to a label in the current climate?
Thurston Moore: Not necessarily these days. Labels still have certain aesthetic vibes to them, but I don't think it's as strong as it used to be where you could rely on a label to always put out something consistently strong that you'd want in your record collection. I think Matador continues to have a really focused presence. They have an interesting roster. I feel fairly safe on Matador. There's a lot of facilitation that goes on there which I don't feel I have the minutes of the day to deal with. They're part of Beggars Banquet which has a great infrastructure, so I feel good there. It's the strongest independent situation I could be on. I have no reason to think I could go anywhere else, but you never know! The business is really elastic. It changes on a daily basis. A lot of my decisions are based on loyalty. I've networked with the same management for a number of years. Unless I find something unethical going on I don't see that much reason in going elsewhere. Sometimes you wish there was more focused energy on what you're doing because management and labels have other acts making a lot more revenue than I am. But that's their primary concern which is understandable. So maybe it's better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. There's always that kind of politic but it doesn't keep me awake at night.
DiS: Your legacy as one of the most innovative musicians in music remains untarnished. Was it something you ever thought about when Sonic Youth first started out? Do you see yourselves ever playing together as Sonic Youth again?
Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth is such a defining part of my life so it's not something I'd ever have any disregard for. It is family for me. I can't really answer you on what is the future for Sonic Youth. There's no paperwork that says we can't exist in the future. That said, when we first started I don't think we had any foreknowledge of what our legacy might be. I did start noticing when we became the reference point for anything weird happening in rock and roll. People were calling it a Sonic Youth-ism! I kind of liked that in a way. I think our whole way of exhibiting some kind of new radicalism with the traditional set up of guitars, bass and drums was a bit jarring for the Some Bizarres of the world. They were of the opinion that guitars were passé and quaint and listless. Then these Yanks come over with guitars and ripped jeans who are doing this other thing and audiences start responding to it. There was something really fun about that. I know when I first saw younger bands like My Bloody Valentine or The Jesus & Mary Chain coming up after we had first visited the UK that was really exciting to me. I wanted to connect with those musicians. It's funny that all these years later I'm playing in a band with Deb Googe. Deb and I talk about 1985 when we first played together. I had no idea My Bloody Valentine were going to amount to anything at that time. They were a shoegaze pop band, and then they changed their sound to such a degree that all of a sudden it was obvious how great they were. Things like that are just remarkable to me. But if somebody had told me back then you'll be touring around in a band with this bass player I would have been pretty confused.
DiS: Finally, do you have any advice for new bands that are just starting out?
Thurston Moore: The actual object of making a record is still really exciting. People really respond to it if you invest in making cool records. Putting them out there somehow and getting them into the right hands, I think that works best. It's much more exciting than trying to get people to listen to your Soundcloud link. There's no physicality to it. In a way, you still need that tactile connection to the band. That's how I feel. The pleasure of making music in the first place is about creating artifacts. That would be my first piece of advice. Make a fucking record! The fact record and book stores still exist as places with a lot of soul to them has a certain feeling for me. I don't actually foresee them ever disappearing. At least not in our lifetime. I find a certain comfort that it's modest. Anyone that has any ambitions towards becoming a superstar and selling millions of records is caught in a false dream. It does happen, for something like five people every five years. But it's a bit of a lottery, so to be able to exist where you can travel and play, put a record out and have people write about you has a certain graciousness to it. I'm gracious for anything that happens. All I want is an art school riot!
For more information on Thurston Moore visit his official website.
Photo by Shaun Gordon.