Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on relocating to London, solo ambitions and never saying die
After three decades of pushing boundaries with the NYC art-rock revolutionaries, Thurston Moore sets about finding his groove with a new band and explains why he still craves more than consistency
“This record is fairly safe,” says Thurston Moore of his new solo album, The Best Day. “I think the record’s good… but it’s just this initial foray of songs.” Wait a minute. Safe? Good? Hardly standard talk from an artist promoting his new album. But, then again, this is Thurston Moore speaking. The man has a catalogue – nay entire discographies – of genre defining and genre deconstructing art rock meisterwerks.
His band Sonic Youth – the current status of which we’ll come back to – had an undying belief in the redemptive power of rock music and their long-suffering guitars performed coruscating pop cultural autopsies on everything from Sean Penn and Madonna to bubblegum pop and Baudrillard. Sonic Youth were the ultimate meta-band: a totemic symbol of rock'n'roll’s vanguard annexed to the art world. So, would Moore be disingenuous in churning out the clichés to promote The Best Day? The album certainly is that: good, safe, sometimes exciting, other times familiar.
But the spectre of Sonic Youth looms large over our conversation in Moore’s adopted home town of Stoke Newington, north London. Perhaps this is to do with the band’s longevity, one which is quite staggering in comparison to their contemporaries in the New York No Wave/Noise scene from whence they emerged some thirty-odd years ago. While the likes of Swans subsequently re-emerged, rejuvenated and intensified, Sonic Youth maintained their position at the head of that vanguard until the collapse of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage in 2012. The details of that have been well-documented elsewhere but it’s undeniably an issue, a very present issue yet one which Moore himself brings up. “Are Sonic Youth on hiatus? There’s nothing official,” he 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, but it doesn’t have to continue.”
There’s a distinct sadness to witness such a crucial, iconoclastic band implode in such a manner. Yet, irrespective of the breakdown of Moore and Gordon’s relationship, had Sonic Youth – as a musical entity – run its course? The band’s final few albums certainly adhered to their patented gush of free-associating images, atonal guitars and concussed vocals but the advanced lexicon of noise, which the band had honed and developed since their conception, appeared to have peaked. Every Sonic Youth album was just that: another Sonic Youth record, as if the band were eternally caught in a moment from which they could never escape. The addition of Jim O’Rourke and, latterly, Pavement’s Mark Ibold, served to only briefly re-energise the band. By the time of 2009’s The Eternal, Sonic Youth were an increasingly introverted-sounding proposition, which is an assertion Moore agrees with.
“Just with that last record, 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 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. But 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! And you can only do that for so long… and you know, of course, my personal life decisions changed with the band and one thing led to another but Sonic Youth is sacred to me, I would never want to say I was through with it or tired with it. I didn’t think there could be too much more to gain from it in terms of getting more popular. 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. It didn’t help – let’s put it that way.”
Moore left the United States to move to London in early 2013. His presence in the city is unmistakeable: a towering, hooded, eternally-boyish faced figure checking out – and occasionally playing with – innumerable bands across the city. Moore has effortlessly calibrated himself with living in the UK, a smoothness he attributes to his years poring over imported music papers and devouring post-punk sides of the late 1970s. “The first Scritti Politti release [Skank Bloc Bologna] was genius and that kind of aesthetic was what it was all about,” he reflects. “That’s all I wanted music to be like – as good as that Skank Bloc Bologna seven inch! Nowadays, 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 [Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys], 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 and I can only imagine what that was like.”
"Sonic Youth is sacred to me, I would never want to say I was through with it" – Thurston Moore
Sonic Youth’s eventual ascent into the experimental jet set of the 1990s was perhaps inevitable considering their unique, open-ended record deal with Geffen and their anointment by the nascent grunge scene as trailblazers for the alternative rock world's acceptance by the mainstream. Yet Moore always felt peripheral to this paradigm shift despite his band’s crucial role in opening the parameters. “We never had any success that brought anything, there was no hit single, there was no record that was a hit record for us,” he admits. “Our records had critical acclaim but it was never something that we had to repeat for an adoring audience. 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 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 commodification of grunge. Much to the displeasure of our record label and our management! They asked ‘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.”
One of the most invigorating aspects of Sonic Youth was the band’s ever-present zeal for new found sounds. This fervour is still very much part of Moore’s make-up; whether it’s a jazz and poetry slam in Chicago or an improv gig in some minuscule pub, he speaks with unbridled brio of this constant search for a ‘vibe,’ a search which inadvertently led him to current guitarist, James Sedwards who subsequently brought My Bloody Valentine’s bassist Debbie Googe into Moore’s new set-up. Completed by long-term Sonic Youth powerhouse drummer Steve Shelley, the band is quite startling in terms of individual talent but, as Moore assures, one not inclined towards democracy. “There’s no question about who’s calling the shots in my new band. In Sonic Youth, I might have been the forefigure 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.”
“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 and 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! For this new band, 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. Steve offered his services, which was really exciting for me as he had spent a few years playing this longer, motorik sound with Michael Rother.”
The Best Day was recorded in London during the past year and, despite the difficulties within Moore’s personal life, the album is unerringly upbeat, referencing Stoke Newington activists and poets, replete with a quite beautiful picture of Moore’s mother on the cover. The man seems galvanised by his new geography, a new career in a new town. So, has this been reflected in the new band?
“Well, once Steve arrived from the US, the band 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 get down to preparing some material for the band, and take it to other places. This potential that exists is super exciting for me, but I want to take it away from more standard ground. I don't mind that it’s fairly safe… but I also want to jump off the map.”