WORDS BY ANDI LENNON | THURSTON PORTRAITS BY ADAM DE VILLE
EMERGING OUT OF THE BUSTLE AND GRIME OF NEW YORK CITY IN 1981, SONIC YOUTH SKETCHED OUT AN ENTIRELY NEW BLUEPRINT FOR WHERE POST-PUNK SOUNDSCAPES MIGHT EVOLVE. MARRYING NOISE, DRONE AND POP ELEMENTS, THEY FORGED A PIONEERING SOUND AND AESTHETIC ACROSS A SERIES OF GROUND BREAKING ALBUMS AND LIVE PERFORMANCES THROUGHOUT THE 80’S, 90’S AND BEYOND.
Arriving at their commercial peak as they rode the alternative wave’s ubiquitous early 90’s spray, the band would flirt with mainstream success without ever compromising their identity, attracting new generations of fans with each successive release - even as stalwarts may have dropped away. Throughout that time, founding member and visionary Thurston Moore has engaged in myriad side projects and solo ventures including collaborations with Richard Hell, John Cage, Chuck D, Yoko Ono and scores of others, as well as founding and running his own record label ‘Ecstatic Peace!’.
Since the rather messy and public divorce from wife and fellow Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon in 2011 (that led to Sonic Youth’s demise - or hiatus - depending on who you ask), Moore has remained inspired and prolific, contributing to a host of left field projects - the latest of which is 2014’s The Best Day. On the eve of both a new album release and an impending Australian tour with The Thurston Moore Band, we caught up with the legendary guitarist to chat about Sonic Youth, the old New York and over 30 years of music history.
I want to focus on your music today, and I can’t go on without first mentioning your guitar tone and playing style. It’s always been really unorthodox - how did you stumble upon and develop that sound?
Well it had a lot to do with economics. The first good guitar I had was a Fender Stratocaster that my brother gave me which ‘fell of the back of a truck’. He gave it to me when I moved to New York when I was 19 or so and somebody broke into my apartment and stole it, so that left me high and dry.
The only guitar I could afford at that point was just some cheap, no name, off-brand guitar from a pawn shop which didn’t sound good in any kind of standardised way. So I started messing around with it and found it sounded really great when you’d stick a screwdriver underneath the twelfth fret and play it that way, you know?
You make do with what you’ve got. I wasn’t trying to sound like the other guitar players I loved, like Jimmy Page or whatever. I knew I couldn’t sound that way; I wanted to sound like something else… like a motorcycle. I never thought anyone would pay attention anyway. I never thought of myself as a guitarist, I just thought of myself as just some kind of music freak. It could have been any instrument, I just liked the way the guitar looked and allowed you to jump around (laughs).
Did those open and experimental tunings ever present a problem when you were performing live?
I don’t know if it was really a problem for us, but it might have been for the audience. When we started playing we had maybe 3 or 4 different tunings between us, so between songs we’d have to retune. At first the tuning sessions between the songs were as long as the songs themselves, and that was before the days of being able to mute tuners!
Back then I was playing cassette tapes through the amp while I was tuning, so at least the audience would have some sort of sound experience. I was playing ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by The Stooges or a RUN DMC track or some horrible radio track by Pat Benatar, which was a guilty pleasure. When we started making a little coin we were able to buy a few more cheap guitars, so we had guitars dedicated to the different tunings. Those were the good old days, you know? Cheap and free and poor and experimenting.
Speaking of the old days, I really liked the concept behind the book you curated and edited in 2005, Mixtape: The Art of the Cassette Culture. It seems extra poignant now that the art form is all but dead. What inspired you to get involved in that project?
I got inspired by going up to the office of the publisher (Eva Prinz, now Moore’s girlfriend) to pitch some ideas for different books on music. She had this project on her desk and she asked me if I would take over, so I did. Basically I called everybody I knew who had mixtapes, collected all these different images and collaborated with her to put this book together. We’ve been together ever since, so I love the book just for that reason too.
And the idea of cassette culture being all but dead - I don’t think it is! There’s a thriving sort of underground of musicians who are still passing their music onto others through tapes. It’s a real gift item and it’s real inexpensive technology to use. When I’m at a gig and I go to a merch table and see the band has a cassette, that makes me love them even more. Unless it’s just an affectation, like Pearl Jam making a cassette just because they want to be cool or something… No offence to Pearl Jam! (laughs)
It seems you have a really good relationship with Yoko Ono. You worked with both her and Kim on YokoKimThurston. I guess if anyone understands the difficult dance between creativity and matrimony it’s Yoko right?
Yeah that’s true, but you know that session actually took place while all that stuff was still going on… it wasn’t completely post that period, so it was a really challenging time. But Yoko is just one of those people who gets those kinds of complications. She’s been a real beautiful friend to me and she’s a mentor as an artist. I have nothing but enormous respect for her. To work with her is just incredible; it’s like working with one of the greatest artists of the last century.
Was it a bit of a pinch yourself moment initially?
I connected with her years before in New York; it was during the 90’s, I was asked to work with her and DJ Spooky on this piece called ‘Mulberries’, which she had composed with John Lennon. So all of a sudden I was in a situation where I had to play some music that her and John Lennon had made together.
Totally heavy! So I met her and we got along, and from then on every now and then she would call to invite me to be involved in projects of hers. Any time I get the call I drop everything and seize the moment. She’s one of those people whose ideas are just so pertinent to what’s going on in the world right now. She’s always about concentrating on good things and not giving energy to corruption - that in itself is an exercise in activism. It’s both idealistic and also very constructive. She’s one of the great activist minds of our time.
Switching gears a bit, do you think your move to the UK had anything to do with the direction of last year’s The Best Day?
Yeah, sure it did. But even early on with Sonic Youth, our whole thing was about getting out of New York and playing other places. Sonic Youth became a New York band that was influenced a lot by California, Europe and certainly Australia because we spent a whole bunch of time over there on the Big Day Out tours. We felt like an international band rather then a New York band, but we always remembered our roots.
From the beginning you’ve been super prolific with your solo work and side projects. Is it a case of you constantly instigating new projects or are you just in high demand?
I just have a lot of different interests and want to be expressive with music. I sort of look at it in a dual way - one part is all about songwriting, where it’s just me, solo, experimenting with the guitar. Then there’s the stuff I do with other people, like this band I’m doing with Steve Shelley and Debbie Googe (Thurston Moore Band). But at the same time I have an equal interest in playing free improvised music. I’ve always loved the ideas and ideology of that free improvisation world - the idea that there’s no hierarchy and leaders.
Some people are dedicated to one style or another, but I find I have this kind of dual dedication. It can be a little problematic for promoters or audiences who come to see me, because they don’t know if I’m gonna come out with a really together rock n’ roll songbook set, or I’m gonna come out and blow up a piano onstage (laughs).
Speaking of your roots, the New York Bowery CBGB scene has been so mythologised. I always find it interesting to hear what it was like from people who experienced it firsthand. When I spoke to Legs McNeil he said it was quite grim but very exciting.
I love Legs! We’re around the same age, actually. I’m 57 now and I moved there when I was 19, in late ‘76 or ’77, and there was definitely a wild street life there. It was very destitute economically; all assets to the city were somewhat frozen by the national government. It was just this decrepit city that Washington DC and the White House had given the middle finger to, so it became an incredible playground for anybody who could withstand it.
For anybody who went there for the purpose of being a creative individual, it was an amazing time. William Burroughs was in my neighbourhood, Allan Ginsberg was in my neighbourhood, Patti Smith and Lou Reed were close by. It was a small town of these amazing people, all below 14th street. It was so great but at the same time I would be thinking “What can I eat today?” and dreaming about hamburgers that I couldn’t afford (laughs). It’s not the same now, though; it’s been rescued by real estate money.
Coming back to present day, are you working on a new record now or is that already in the can?
We just recorded a new record in this studio in London called The Church. I found out about it by talking with Mark Stewart (from The Pop Group), who told me it’s where Adele makes all of her records. I couldn’t figure out why a band like The Pop Group would work in that situation, but it turns out Adele’s producer, Paul Epworth, is from the same place as The Pop Group (Bristol). He was interested in working with me, so we connected.
He has these two beautiful analog mixing boards – one is the board Pink Floyd used and the other was used by The Rolling Stones. So I worked something out with him, brought the band in and we recorded 9 things in 4 days. It hasn’t been mixed yet – I’m gonna do that with a guy called Randall Dunn who works with Sun O))) and Earth. It should be a really interesting mix. The record will be called Rock & Roll Consciousness.
You mentioned a couple of the bands who used those boards, were you sort of awed by the ghosts of them?
Oh yeah, those bands are so iconic and sold millions and millions of records - but it’s really a matter of timing. That’s something I like to think about. Like when Pink Floyd started and they had songs like ‘See Emily Play’, can you imagine if a band put that song out now? How noticed would they be? (laughs). Or when radio was primarily used and bands like Foreigner were around, would Jimi Hendrix have made a mark, or would he have been more obscure?
I wanted to ask if you ever felt much of a connection with the no-wave or punk scenes in the States? A sense of camaraderie with the anarcho-bands bands like Crass who were interested in the idea of the collective, perhaps?
In New York City we didn’t have much of an anarcho scene going on, and the no-wave scene was just radicals having a wild life. It wasn’t really about political expression for us. We just felt like we were in the apocalypse anyway, so it didn’t really matter. The political stuff was mostly coming from the guys in England who were concerned about Thatcher. It seemed so alien to us, but it did give their music a lot of energy and a sort of localised definition that made it really exotic.
I remember seeing Crass when they first came to New York at some weird little art loft and nobody knew who they were. They all wore the same clothes, black shirts with arm bands. Steve Ignorant was just bellowing into the microphone and one guy was like, playing a guitar without even touching the neck of it (laughs).
I just remember thinking what they were doing was so weird and completely different to anything we were doing in New York. It was like, ‘Wow, they’re from a different planet’. It wasn’t until bands like The Clash and The Damned came over that people jumped out of their seats. The Clash just decimated the place the first time they played here - they incinerated it.
You had bands kind of ping-ponging across the Atlantic for a while there - the New York Dolls, Richard Hell, The Clash going back and forth.
Yeah, it was so cool! And everyone was aware of the Saints too. I remember hearing ‘Stranded’ and just being like ‘What the fuck was that?’. It’s one of the best songs ever written!
It’s so strange to think that a band like The Saints could come out of such a small place in Brisbane at that point in time.
Totally! Did they come from a place where something was different in the air? Was it a different planet that was as political and purposeful as the one the Ramones or the Pistols came from? And I remember coming across Radio Birdman really early on and looking at that cover and just being like ‘What is this band? I gotta have this!’.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that bands like The Birthday Party wanted to go to England but when they got there they found it really dismal.
Oh man, they shouldn’t have gone! But at the same time, as horrible as it would have been for them, it kind of made them what they were - that kind of really impoverished and desperate sound. The first gig we played in London was at the 100 Club. It was an amazing gig, not many people came along but Nick Cave was there.
He came to see us and I think he was aware of what was happening in New York and the US. He was the only one in the band that came and hung out and talked to us for a while. He knew we were friends with Lydia Lunch, so he was really cool with us.
Before we go, I want to talk about the certain zeitgeist where you guys showed up on The Simpsons. Did you ever think two such subversive forces would collide like that in such a mainstream way?
Well you know The Simpsons was born out of the mind of Matt Groening, who comes out of the LA underground of the 80’s. His Hell comic book was in the LA Weekly which a load of great rock writers came out of. The fact that it became an animated feature on the Tracey Ullman Show, then got its own slot and became this cultural nova explosion was kind of like Nirvana in a way. People coming from the underground and becoming so global happens very rarely, if at all these days - but it happened with Matt Groening and The Simpsons.
When we were asked to do the show it was because Matt was somebody who had heard of us, liked to listen to records and hung out with our friends. It wasn’t completely out of left field because he had this compatible credential with our world. But the fact it was this mega show was really amazing. I think more people ended up knowing about Sonic Youth because of The Simpsons than anything else we’ve done (laughs).
How do you feel about looking back on your time with Sonic Youth, given the turmoil and now the distance? What are your feelings about that final show in Sao Paulo?
Well I never thought of it as the final show! In my mind we were going to take a break as things got worked out in our personal worlds. I find it really strange that I get demonised for the break-up of Sonic Youth when I myself had no intention of breaking up the band; that was a real surprise to me. I get the reasons behind the band not existing at the moment - everyone has to be on the same page - but there was never any announcement. Well, I never made one.
Sonic Youth was a bond that existed between four of us. I have a tattoo that says ‘SONIC LIFE’ and it’s something that defines me forever. For me, it goes on and won’t end. I write songs now and people say “It sounds kinda like Sonic Youth” - well, that’s my vocabulary, you know. What you’re not hearing is Lee and Kim because they’re not playing the music with me, so it’s a different situation.
With the new music, there will never be a democracy like Sonic Youth. I certainly allow musicians that I work with to do what they do, but I do make the final decision on how things are going to sound. Sonic Youth was not that way - it was 8 hands. The band will be forever with me; the fact that we’re not playing at the moment comes down to what happened in our personal lives.
You’ve managed to age gracefully. You’ve tried things here and there but you’ve evolved with it, as opposed to some of the other legacy bands.
I just worry that my haircut is gonna make me look as though I’m trying to look like a 20 year old as I get older (laughs). Sometimes I see people in their 50’s and 60’s with a 20 year old’s hair cut, and I’m like ‘Dude, the hair has got to go, just let it be’. I’m really into acting my age; I don’t want to be the old lady in a miniskirt.