Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth “wasn’t really surprising anymore”
The centerpiece of Thurston Moore’s fourth solo album, “The Best Day,” is an 11-minute pagan guitar jam featuring some of the boldest lyrics the man has ever written: “You draw a circle around the holy fortress,” he sings. “Animals they sing and adore you.” With its tensely churning guitars and occultic imagery, “Forevermore” summons Tolkein and Crowley and even Hammer Horror icon Christopher Lee to show the weird and world-conjuring power of romantic desire. In other words, it’s a love song—or at least Moore’s version of a love song. Any treacle or schmaltz or heart-on-sleeve professions of devotions are elbowed aside by noisy guitars and an engagement with weird corners of pop history from Zeppelin to “The Wicker Man.”
Last year Moore moved to London—specifically, to a small village on the city’s outskirts called Stoke Newington—after more than 30 years in New York, where he served as an avatar of the city’s boho sensibilities. Whether that move was motivated by the need for a change of scenery or by the dissolution of his marriage to Sonic Youth bassist/singer Kim Gordon is largely beside point. What matters is that the transatlantic relocation has given Moore a whole new underground to explore. He’s part expat, part anthropologist.
Just as “Low” was David Bowie’s Berlin album, “The Best Day” is Moore’s Stoke Newington album, a collection of songs defined by the particulars of locale. The music is steeped in British history and culture—in its folk, pop and even metal scenes. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley is the only other Yank in Moore’s band, which features guitarist James Sedwards (of Nought, The Devil and Zodiac Youth) and bassist Deb Googe (of My Bloody Valentine). Several tunes feature lyrics penned by a local poet named Radiuex Radio.
“The Best Day” is not a dramatic reinvention by any means; in fact, Moore admits it sounds in some ways like a Sonic Youth album, but adds that such similarities are inescapable. Instead, the album reveals once again Moore’s motivating restlessness and curiosity, showcasing an artist forever twisting expectations. From his new home across the Atlantic, he spoke to Salon about… well, pretty much everything: the gentrification of New York City, the revolutionary act of cutting your hair, the radical activism of the 1970s, the differences between writing a poem and writing a song, even the DIY punk scene in Bloomington, Indiana.
How do you like London so far?
What everyone says about living in England, specifically the weather is so shitty, is actually mistaken. It can be gray and rainy here for period, but we don’t have ice storms here like we did in New York. And it’s not like Vietnam in the summer. I dig it. It’s consistently nice here, but you have to live here to know that. When I used to visit, it would be incredibly rainy and gray and horrible, and I could never understand why anybody would want to live here. I guess you have to plant your feet here for a while to see that. But I’m not really here that much. I travel and tour quite a bit, which is okay but can be annoying because I feel like just when I’m getting into being here and discovering all there is to discover about this city, I get uprooted.
There’s obviously a lot of music to discover in London, although I think most of your fans associate you with New York that it feels a little like we lost a landmark or something.
There’s always been a pretty direct relationship between New York and London in my time. I moved to New York City in 1977. I’d been going there since 1976 and most of the information in New York was coming via London—more so, I think, than the rest of America. That didn’t really happen until later, when more regional and suburban activity started happening in the hardcore and underground scenes in the early ’80s. All of a sudden, those American scenes were more interesting than what was happening in England and Europe. But for me London seemed so exciting and glamorous to fantasize about, even while I was living in New York. I had this idea that I would fly to London and live there as a 19-year-old. It’s a good thing I didn’t. New York is three miles wide and twelve miles long—or something like that. And London is the size of Rhode Island. It’s huge.
Has the city been welcoming?
I don’t feel transplanted. I don’t feel like I’m trying to infiltrate England or anything. I found it incredibly welcoming. There’s a very active music underground here, and people get really interested in and excited by anybody who’s doing anything. Of course, it has the shelf life of about a day, but if you have some kind of vision, they’ll let you exist. I have a lot of history, so when I came here, people seemed happy about it. I got out and see bands and go to venues. I do things here. It reminds me a little more of what New York was like in the ’80s. It’s a little less sold out, although it’s still expensive to live here. It’s gritty, and there’s a street culture. It’s a very different kind of culture because everything shuts down at midnight. So it’s interesting in that respect. Plus, people read here. There are bookstores everywhere, which I like a lot. I dig it. But I still love New York City. It’s my home. When I go there, I feel like I’m going home. I know every little corner and aspect of it, even if I’m removed from it in a way because there’s a new generation there. It’s a more moneyed generation.
New York definitely seems like a different place than it was even 10 years ago.
For sure. Manhattan is still really bewitching in a way. There are certain areas that are off the commerce grid, way down in the tip of the island, that you can get lost in. It used to be that the whole area below 16th Street was our apocalyptic playground, but that doesn’t exist at all anymore. And there’s Brooklyn, which is its own entity. It’s great how Brooklyn has had this amazing resurgence of people coming in there and starting businesses and making it this fun capital. But that’s not my scene. It’s a younger person’s scene. It’s also a high-rent scene, so I don’t find it too attractive in that sense.
Brooklyn certainly prices you out if you’re trying to start something up. You’re almost better off going to Detroit.
The whole Detroit thing is great. To actually take that leap, go to Detroit, and do something on a big plot—that’s pretty radical. But it’s too cold for me. New York is cold, too, but Detroit is really cold. I’m in my mid 50s. I grew up in cold weather, but now I can see why old people go south. I can see why Iggy Pop lives in Miami Shores or wherever he lives. I get it. It’s time to worship the sun for a while. Where are you? Are you in New York?
I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, actually.
Cool. I have a bit of a connection to Bloomington, because there was this scene going on there in the mid ’70s, a bit of an art-rock scene coming out of the university. So, when I was 16 years old, I was pen-palling with these guys in Bloomington. There was a fanzine called Gulcher, and the first time I ever got published was a photo-booth photo of me looking tough and smoking a cigarette and talking about punk bands that I saw at Max’s Kansas City. I was writing back and forth with Eddie Flowers, who had a band called the Gizmos. I actually wrote to him in ’76 and said, Maybe I’ll come out to Bloomington and join you guys. And he said, No! Don’t do that. We have enough people in the band. I think MX-80 Sound came out of Bloomington, too. They were a really weirdo art-rock hippie punk band at a time when nobody knew how to cut their hair yet.
That was the whole thing, trying to figure out how to cut your hair and whether to wear straight-leg pants or not. It was a big deal. When I first started going to New York, even the Ramones had long hair. Lenny Kaye had this great long hair in the Patti Smith Group. There are early pics of Blondie where everybody has long hair. That didn’t last too long. I think it’s when people first see Television onstage with Richard Hell. That was really shocking. I remember that the audacity of anybody getting onstage to play rock music was just insane.
Now it seems odd that anyone would get upset about a musician’s haircut.
The identity of youth culture was all about hair. Hence the Broadway play. Hair was the flag. For somebody to cut it off and make this radical music early on, they had better have something to stand on. And there was. There was this whole attitude of change. It wasn’t just Television. It was people like Jonathan Richman—this idea of being a math nerd onstage was really wild. Alienated geeks could respond to people who were smart and looking for intellectual kicks. They knew they couldn’t look like Robert Plant, but they could look like Jonathan Richman. It was a necessary change.
Tell me about the artwork for “The Best Day.” That’s a very striking image on the cover.
The dog’s name was Brownie, and the woman is my mother. Her name is Eleanor. The picture was taken by my father when they were courting in the 1940s. It was down in Florida, around Miami. I found that photo among her photos earlier this year. When I saw it, I thought of different titles for the photo and the record, and I came up with “The Best Day.” I thought there must be a thousand other albums called “The Best Day,” or at least a thousand songs called “The Best Day.” I did a little research and could find only one song, a Country and Western song from years back. I didn’t listen to it. I was afraid to. But I had this other song I wrote, an instrumental, and having an album title already, it allowed me to write lyrics to the title song of the record. I felt good about having a title that’s about goodness instead of anger.
It certainly puts these songs in an almost literally sunnier context.
And my mother is still alive. The dog is no longer with us. My father’s no longer around either. In that respect you just think about how we all have these amazing days in our lives, but we have so much else—a lot of difficulty, a lot of stress. To me, it was like I was acknowledging that those times do exist and celebrating them. So there it is, on the cover. But you know, there’s always this underlying wistfulness in these things. We’re all wistful creatures.
The best day ends at midnight and then an okay day starts. Or a bad day. That push and pull between contentment and melancholy can make for a dynamic album.
We all have bad times in our lives. That’s a commonality among everybody, so to contemplate it is good, especially if you’re doing it as an artist. It’s an emotional expression, whether you’re doing it in music or visual art or literature. For me it feels like there’s a bit of self-medication to it, for want of a better word.
I would imagine that it would make them easier to live with for the next several months, when you’ll be playing them every night.
Sometimes I see bands whose whole oeuvre is based on anger and their own pissed-offed-ness. Every song is, I’m fucking losing it! Any kind of hard punk/metal thing is all about anger and negative vibes. Man, you have to express that anger all the time when you’re on tour. I find I don’t want to do that. There’s a lot I could scream about, but I’d rather transmute it in a way and try to turn it around. Put some light onto it, make it humorous, and see what happens. Maybe not talk about the bad, but talk about the good.
Yoko Ono said to me once, Let’s not talk about these people who are doing such bad things on the earth, be it Putin or whoever. When you talk about them, you name them, and when you name them, you give them this energy and this power. So don’t talk about them. Talk about the people who are doing good things. Let’s name them and give them the power. There’s something very ancient and Buddhist-centric about that kind of thinking, obviously, but I find it to be a very good rule of thumb in writing and presenting yourself as a public figure. That did have an effect on me.
Is that where “Detonation” comes from? Some people might look at the subject matter—political activism in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s—and see something very negative. But that song actually celebrates that kind of radicalism?
Those activists were university students, poets, and artists who wanted to make a point without harming anyone. They wanted to create some damage in the face of this imbalance of power in the cities. It was young men and women together—very gender-balanced. They were thrown in jail for being rabble-rousers and anarchists, and most of them continued their radical lives when they got out of jail. Some of them even lost their lives. That kind of devotion is really intense. They just couldn’t walk away from the cause, and that impresses me. I live in a little village called Stoke Newington, and there was a group here called the Angry Brigade, who were imprisoned for putting explosives in different places that were identified with the war machine. They made sure nobody got hurt; it was complete theater. Still, they were caught and thrown in the pokey.
That song looks at their creative lives. I didn’t write the lyrics. It was written by this transgender poet friend of mine who lives here named Radiuex Radio. She wrote three lyrics on the record—that song, a song called “Vocabularies” and another called “Tape.” I did do a little editing, which I’ve never done. In Sonic Youth we would trade lyrics. Someone would write a song for Kim [Gordon] to sing, and I would take some lines from her and use them in a song I would sing. So this kind of collaboration is nothing new. “Detonation” was one of the first songs from this record that was composed, and there’s another song called “Speak to the Wild” that warns against falling in line with authority. I always thought “question authority” was the great badge of my era of ’70s, ’80s, ’90s punk. I always thought it made sense.
This whole album seems to be concerned with your relationship to authority.
I’ve always had a problem with being told what to do. I don’t know why. I think it’s because of my family unit. My parents weren’t especially authoritative. My dad was a typical father coming out of the Eisenhower era. He would spank you as a kid if you were acting up, but he was certainly not a mean guy. He was actually a very nice guy. But he passed away when I was a teenager. My mother was very liberal and open to me having experiences. She wouldn’t lay down the law. She would just worry. So I think what happens when I come into contact with some kind of expectation of authority, I kind of bristle. I feel like I want to create some kind of independence in reaction to it. I think that’s why I was really into hardcore music, because it was rebellious and it wore its rebellion and its emotions on its sleeve. Steve Shelley [Sonic Youth’s drummer] was in a band called the Crucifucks. They were a Midwestern hardcore band that I thought were fabulous, and they had these songs like “Democracy Spawns Bad Taste” and “Who Are All These Men in Blue Pushing Us Around?” My favorite, actually, is “Hinckley Had a Vision.”
Is there a point for you when the rebellion becomes the authority? Do the codes of rebellion become so ingrained that they become the thing to rebel against?
You do have to be careful. Rebellion becomes pretty chic and everybody falls in line with it. I think I’m more interested in unique independence. My favorite musicians were always the outliers, the ones who are beyond category: people like Sun Ra and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, these itinerant people who had a singular voice as opposed to a groupthink mentality. On the other hand, I really like the groupthink of the initial punk movement. I like the idea of community, when a certain music sounds the same or has the same laws of composition, like reggae or Country and Western or different genres of jazz. When people say all reggae sounds the same, I’m like yeah, because this is a really unified idea. And I like that idea of unity, but the people who really attract me are the ones doing something singular. Obviously that’s what I wanted Sonic Youth to be. That’s who we wanted to be, and I guess that’s who we were.
Any band with a catalog as large and a legacy as long as Sonic Youth’s will necessarily meet certain expectations from fans and critics. Do you feel a need to rebel against those expectations of what the band was or could be?
Always. I feel like I don’t want to be decoded. The type of songwriting that was going on in Sonic Youth I think at some point was fairly well figured out. When we used to tour, the audience always had this kind of question mark over its head, but that kind of disappeared later on because they figured us out. People could dig the music, but it wasn’t really surprising anymore. The very few reviews I’ve read of “The Best Day” say that it sounds like a Sonic Youth record. Well, there are reasons for that. I do extend myself into other places where I play completely improvised music or get involved with genre bands like Twilight, but for what I do as a songwriter, sitting alone with my guitar writing a song, it’s going to come out a certain way and sound a certain way. And I’m not going to try to change that just so it’s not recognizable.
In a way it should be recognizable, but it’s certainly not new. You’re only new once with what you’re doing, but that’s a great thing about being in a band—that initial impact that you have. Oh, this is a new sound. By your third or fourth record, it’s been decoded. I think it took a little while longer with Sonic Youth because we learned how to play as we existed. We learned to play in our own way, and we would settle into motifs for a few record. Those would progress and develop as years went by, but there would never be any radical changes. It wasn’t like, let’s go out and all play pianos. I don’t know what would have happened if we had done that. We would have lost our management and our booking agents.
When we did the record “Washing Machine,” it was in my mind to not have our name on the record, and just have the name of the band be Washing Machine. We were supposed to tour with R.E.M. when that record came out, and I asked if we could be listed as Washing Machine. No way. Nobody would go for it. So I had to settle for saying to people that we were called Washing Machine and the name of the album is “Sonic Youth.” But that didn’t fly either. I didn’t push it. I do side with reason. I’m not a complete nut.
I do, and I allow all of those things to inform each other as well. The most separate thing is definitely working with writing. I teach writing courses in the summer at Naropa University, in the poetry workshop there that Allen Ginsburg and Anne Waldman founded in ’74. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, they call it. That vocation is separate from the music activity, although I think there’s a wish that I’ll bring my guitar and play a little bit. But I don’t do it, because I want to be here teaching writing as a writer. I know I’ll never be looked upon as a writer, because I already have this history as a musician. I’ve learned how to deal with that. I like the idea of people being able to do whatever they want to do as artists. There’s always this dictum that says you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin across different disciplines. I disagree with that. I think you should be able to do what you want to do. That’s what John Cage was all about. You do whatever you do in an expressive medium to the best of your abilities, regardless of what medium it is. He called it interdisciplinary art.
So writing a poem doesn’t come from the same creative impulse as writing a song.
They can be different impulses. I’ll work on writing poems for the sake of writing poems, because they have a certain discipline—the way the line breaks, or the meter of the line, or just the visual nature of the poem on the page. I’m not writing with any intention for it to be a lyric in a song, but a lot of times when I’m writing songs, I’ll go back to a poem and try to sing the poem without having to modify or adjust it. Nine times out of ten I’ll have to modify or adjust it to fit the song. Sometimes I’ll take lines from different poems and create a third kind of piece that will become the lyrics to a song. I’ll ransack notebooks. When I write lyrics that are primarily for a song, it’s all about rhyme schemes. Rhyme schemes don’t really exist for me when I’m working with poetry. Rhyming in poetry is mostly outdated, but you can still utilize it to some degree. But you don’t want to do moon-june-spoon in poetry.
People generally think of writing as a solitary pursuit, yet you’ve managed to make it a collaborative endeavor. In fact, almost all of the art you create seems to be created socially.
To some degree. Sonic Youth worked best as a really democratic model. I always thought we worked best when nobody was coming in with song ideas. We would just get together and play, and we would hear things happening that we would focus on and create a song out of. That’s where the most interesting and magical stuff happened. But a lot of times one of us would come in with song ideas. I spent a lot of time writing songs and thinking, What am I going to do with these? So I would bring them in to Sonic Youth rehearsals and everybody would write their own parts and it would become a Sonic Youth song. But with the solo stuff, I show people what I’m doing and I don’t really allow much invention with it. It’s not, do whatever you want to do. It’s more like, I’d like you to play in unison with me here. Or I’d like you to do this on bass. It’s a different relationship than I had with Sonic Youth, because that band started with people who wanted to make something together. The band on “The Best Day” formed with me making phone calls to three people and asking if they would play this music I’m writing.
I always want to collaborate with people that I’m really interested in. When I started playing Lydia Lunch, I was so aware of what she was in the early ’80s, so it was incredibly startling to have this invitation to work with her. And then I had this whole history of working with Patti Smith and Merce Cunningham and Cecil Taylor. These people are giants to me, and all of a sudden I was partnering with them. It still happens today whenever I connect with someone who’s significant to me. I’ve always been a huge enthusiast of other people’s works, and I hold it in high regard. Those are teaching materials for me.
I think about people who lead ascetic lifestyles where they get into this state of no belongings and they just have this loss of self. In a way I have a lot of problems with that. I’m intrigued by that kind of life—you can have loss of self, but you’re always going to be imprisoned in your own consciousness. You have to deal with that. I find that the documents are my communications with the real world. I feel like I have plenty of connection with the metaphysical/spiritual world, too. I don’t feel a need to get rid of my belongings just so I can have this unattached lifestyle. I like the attachments. I find them to be friendly and interesting and exciting. I’m thinking of a whole new Buddhism where you surround yourself with mountains of paper.
Is that harder to do when music and culture are becoming less physical and more ephemeral?
Just by the fact that something is digital, it’s automatically insubstantial. I have no feeling for it. For me it’s there for a service and an immediacy of interaction, but it doesn’t turn me on. I don’t think it’s a threat to the more vibratory materials, like books and records and things you can actually touch. Because your senses are not involved in the digital. Even your hearing is negated because you’re just hearing digital output, which is numerical. Your brain doesn’t have much fun with it. It just processes it as information. I don’t get turned on by information. I get turned on by the mystery. But I don’t think these things are disappearing. There’s a lot of replacement going on, but there’s still plenty to deal with. It doesn’t disturb me.
It is a little harder to make a buck. It definitely puts a crimp in a lot of people’s lifestyles, people who made good money being in bands. There’s a certain humbling that I think is significant. Why should being in a band make you more money than any other job? Just because you have a guitar and you’re onstage doesn’t mean you have the privilege of being a millionaire. I never had that privilege, but it’s happened to a lot of people. Would I have accepted it? Certainly. Anybody could use the coin. But I always thought it was a distorted situation where people in the arts should have that ambition of great wealth. It would be nice, but it’s completely unnecessary to the craft.
I try not to have that define me or my pursuits at all. I say that, but at the same time, I’m very clear on how I tour and what is sustainable and what makes more sense financially. You can make more money playing this festival than playing this cool underground club. What are you going to do? I’m going to play the festival. I have to pay the rent just like anybody else.