Q&A: Thurston Moore on Sonic Youth's beginnings and the impact of Nirvana

From stealing copies of Melody Maker off the newsstands of New York to early rehearsals in Michael Gira's studio, Thurston Moore offers an insight into Sonic Youth's formative years and beyond

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 11 Nov 2014

Thurston Moore has been a London resident for a couple of years now but the man seems very much at home in his adapted city, quite a startling turnaround for someone so indelibly associated with New York and it’s attendant experimental jet set scene, in which his band, Sonic Youth, played such a crucial defining role. Moore has a new solo album, entitled The Best Day, recorded in London with long-time drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe and guitarist James Sedwards. The Skinny met Thurston ostensibly to speak about the new album but we were also treated to a potted history of his formative years, the rise of Sonic Youth and the factors which led to the band’s sudden demise… or is it simply a hiatus? We’ve been warned not to speak about the dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage yet it is somewhat inevitable that it crops up during our conversation; indeed, Moore brings it up himself without prompting.

Thurston, you’ve been living in London for quite a while now. As a teenager, growing up amid the punk explosion of the late 1970s, did the UK have quite an influence on you? Were you an avid reader of the music press?
NME was all about the marginalised avant garde of the punk scene so it was all about The Pop Group, Gang of Four, The Slits, The Raincoats. That’s exactly what I wanted to be and read about and be part of and I felt it was really concurrent with my interest. And NME was the more charged intellectual paper about that. Secondary was Sounds, that had more of a bootboy thing to it but it was fun. And then Melody Maker was more grown up. We would steal all three of them from the newsstand. You know the back cover of the first New York Dolls album?

The Gem Spa?
That was our newsstand! That’s where we would go in the 1970s, take each [music paper] and we would just walk away with them.

Why did you steal them?
They were too expensive! And we would pour through them while smoking cigarettes.

Was it easy to get these British records in New York at the time?
It was easy to get the records in New York City, I moved there in 1976/77. I couldn’t afford to get the records but if I wanted to, they were there. 99 Records was great for us because it was more London-centric, they had things like the first Scritti Politti release [Skank Bloc Bologna] which was genius and that kind of aesthetic was what it was all about. That’s all I wanted music to be like – as good as that Skank Bloc Bologna seven inch!

So, New York became your home very quickly and you never left there until moving to London?
I was living in New York in late 1976 with some older musicians whom I was playing with. I was looking for a place to call my own but I didn’t find that until late 1977. So I was biding my time in New York City and also living in Connecticut where my mother lived which was only half an hour away. I was eighteen years old. But yeah, this is the first time I’ve lived outside the United States. Kim and my daughter Coco and I moved up to Northampton, MA in 1999 and my daughter grew up there and went to university in Chicago; the reason being our daughter shouldn’t grow up there, the school systems were really difficult, you had to really lobby to get into the better schools and the atmosphere is a bit more dangerous. It was much more calm in this rural area, more welcoming with really good schools wanting you to come in. We always maintained our apartment in New York City just until recently. It’s only just in these last few years that I don’t see it as my homebase anymore. I’m in London since early 2013.

And how have you found living in such close proximity to so many British people?
You’re gonna get me in trouble if I talk about British people! I have more of an understanding of the aesthetic of the British personality, which is not singular at all. It’s actually incredibly dynamic for such a small geography. I find that reveals itself to me through time. There’s all these different layers. It was really interesting reading Viv Albertine’s memoir, it really gave me a sense of what that life in 1970s London was like: the night buses, how it was almost these warrior gangs that existed. I was removed from that. New York was [a case of] desperate economics which changed as the 1980s progressed. Now, money defines your lifestyle but when I lived there, there was no ambition or glory in money. It was an annoyance, at best. Nobody was doing anything for money and when someone did start making money like Jean-Michel Basquiat, it was an anomaly, strange and weird. It happened once in a while, maybe to someone like Madonna coming out of the East Village and becoming a superstar. But it wasn’t ever a model to attain. It was only around the time of Nirvana becoming huge that was really ambition.

This period would have been the No Wave era; it’s interesting to note that yourself and Swans appear to have had the greatest stamina, despite Swans having their own hiatus during the noughties.
We used to rehearse at Swans' place in the East Village. No windows, it was a windowless cave of two rooms, one in which Michael Gira lived, the other in which the bands rehearsed in. None of us had any money. Mike said at one point ‘I’m not gonna eat. I’m not gonna eat anymore’, he felt it was an expenditure getting in the way of his true love: creating this music and his art. Having to make money to eat was dragging him down! [Laughs uproariously] We were all of the age where there is no sense of 'what are we gonna be doing in a decade from now?' Whereas now a decade just flies by. The idea of mortality becomes more apparent when you come into your fifties. He’s always had a commentary about mortality.

What do you think ensured Sonic Youth had such longevity?
Our longevity… we never had any success that brought anything, there was no hit single, there was no record that was a hit record for us. Our records had critical acclaim but it was never something that we had to repeat for an adoring audience. We never had a gold record. Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star had the briskest sales when it was released, just because of the time it came about. But it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t following the grunge rock game and going in a different direction. That was our own way of not being a star act alongside the culture that was coming up.

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Did this refusal to conform push you into repeated conflict with Geffen?
There was always this hope that we would have records that would push us into the R.E.M. world or even the Nirvana world and all these bands were coming in the wake of Nirvana like Stone Temple Pilots and Phish, but at that time, there was a realisation, certainly for me, that the interesting work was being done in the margins of that. The early recordings of Pavement, Sebadoh, Royal Trux, all of that, for me, was the culture and music that I feel more inspired by and attuned to, rather than what was happening with the commodofication of grunge rock – much to the displeasure of our record label and our management! 'Why don’t you do more hard rock tunes, and become the performing act you can become in that respect?' We didn’t have an articulate decision about, like ‘we must be true to the avant garde area’, that wasn’t a decision, that was a genuine feeling. That was where we thought we were. Especially that first Royal Trux record, I felt that was the coolest record of that year, it was reckless, had a casual vision and sense of danger to it, it was completely experimental and it rocked. Much more so than any record Red Hot Chili Peppers had that year, or whatever.

During this period in the nineties, was there any moment in which you felt truly anointed as the elder statesmen of the burgeoning grunge genre?
It was getting to the point of anointment as elder statesmen when Nirvana became the zeitgeist. We spent a lot of time with them… we were the slightly older band. They were the ones that hit. No one saw that coming but it made sense. Much to their credit when they would tour, they would tour with bands that were friends of theirs. When it came to doing this recent Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame thing, they weren’t associated with anything in the big time that made sense. Usually you bring out the members of Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin… but who do you bring out for Nirvana? Gibby Haynes? That wouldn’t work on national television! And then Joan Jett came in and that was cool – she produced the Germs and Bikini Kill – and we talked about it and decided it should be all women. I thought that was the perfect way. Kurt was so pro-female… but then who isn’t?

During the last few years of Sonic Youth, was there a sense that the band was winding down or that you were becoming increasingly introverted proposition?
I don’t think Sonic Youth were ever winding down. Just with the last record, The Eternal, which, like all the records, I feel strongly committed to, I never felt like we were making a record just to make a record. It was always a very serious concern about the record being really reflective of what was going on with the band musically. I don’t think it was until we were touring that record that I felt there was a plateau that was happening, there was not much we could do about it unless there was some fluke of a radio hit or a movie hit which brought in a different element, which again wasn’t something I desired at all. I did feel like we were sort of a very well known entity at that point and whatever factor of surprise or newness seemed to be dulled a bit. And my consideration of us, working on different disciplines, maybe changed the band up a bit but, I mean, how much can you change it? Do we all go out playing pianos? Go out and do a chainsaw orchestra? That would be disingenuous. We were gigging around the countries and it was pretty much the same amount of people each time and I felt gracious for it, I certainly didn't bemoan it, but there was this level of acceptance and recognition that was unnerving for me, to the point where I found myself leaving the stage a lot, going to the audience and molesting people with my guitars to get some reaction! You can only do that for so long… and of course, my personal life decisions changed with the band, one thing led to another but you know, Sonic Youth is sacred to me, I would never want to say I was through with it or tired with it.

I was certainly of the mindset that we could keep going forever and make music that was, at least, interesting to us and others. But being a professional band in the post-punk world is what it is. I didn’t think there could be too much more to gain from it in terms of getting more popular… well, I didn’t really care. I felt like we had done so much work that there was nothing wrong with putting it to rest for a bit and the way it got put to rest is not exactly what I meant. To me, all that later catalogue, after Jim O’Rourke left, [those records are] there for people to examine possibly at some point when there’s more of a remove from that time period. There was no expectation level when Sonic Youth records came out, most people who follow bands – how much can you process? The records are fairly intense, an hour of music that’s not light, lifting music, it’s very involved, every year a new one, and it’s not a new band! So, maybe it’s good to take a pause and the critical era should have a parameter there.

So, at present, the band is on… hiatus? What’s the situation?
Hiatus? There’s nothing official! [laughs] No paperwork has been signed. It’s completely personal, we are not in a place where we can work together. So… it’s not something that weighs on me because Sonic Youth made a massive amount of music. And it could continue, it doesn’t have to continue. I had that band name before I even had a band, in the early 1980s… before that we had some different names as we were forming. I think it was right after some gig which was disastrous under a different name, I felt like I needed to bring that name in, to galvanise what was going on. And as soon as I said I wanted to do this gig as Sonic Youth, it created this sense of identity and it was right before Lee came in, the last show with this female keyboard player, Anne DeMarinis, me, Kim and her and I think Richard Edson and then Lee came in immediately after that. That’s when it started coalescing into what Sonic Youth was. I felt like it was the name that kept into this place, it was this thing that wasn’t quite sure what it was until that happened.

Having spent such a long period of time with pretty much the same core people in your band, how does it feel to branch out with different recruits? What has changed?
There’s no question about who’s calling the shots in my new band. In Sonic Youth, I might have been the fore figure of it in a way just by dint of where the band started from, as a forum for what I wanted to do musically, but I allowed it to be a democratic concern from the outset. Certainly with Kim, then Kim and Lee and then when Steve Shelley came in – his involvement really elevated the band – he really did become like no other drummer beforehand. A real fourth voice.

How did you first encounter Debbie Googe?
I knew Debbie from My Bloody Valentine, we first played with them in Glasgow in the 1980s and they were still figuring out their vibe. It wasn’t until a year later when I was reading reviews of them in the newspapers saying how fabulous they were, I was like ‘what are you talking about?!’ and then I heard Isn’t Anything, and that was a game changer. They came to New York just then, we hung out, they played every little rat’s nest in New York City, just killing it. It wasn't as ballistic as it became, it was this transition [into becoming] this monster on stage. And that was my favourite period of them because you could still stand there and be enveloped as opposed to being obliterated! I certainly knew Deb to some degree but it wasn’t until James Sedwards and I were playing duo gigs on guitar and I was talking about different ideas with an expanded situation live on stage, double percussion, keyboards, thinking it might be a cool thing to do, but the more I looked at the songs I was writing, they seemed to be more attuned to a more minimalist, traditional rock n roll setup of two guitars, bass and drums. James said he knew a bass player and it was Deb Googe.

At first, I thought it impossible as she was in so many bands but she wasn’t doing anything and she was definitely into trying her hand at it and it was right at the same time time when Steve offered his services after hearing me and James play opening for Lee’s group at the Garage. And that was really exciting for me as he had spent a few years playing with Neu! and Michael Rother: this longer, motorik playing and we recorded immediately. The first song on the record – Speak to the Wild – was the first thing we recorded. These are just the first rudimentary songs in a way, I feel like now we are somewhat established, I can now get down to preparing some material for the band, and take it to other places. I think the record’s good…but it’s just this initial foray of songs but has this potential which is super exciting for me. This record is fairly safe. Which I don't mind, but I want to jump off the map a little bit.

The Best Day is out now via Matador. Thurston Moore plays Glasgow School of Art on 11 Nov http://matadorrecords.com/thurston_moore