- Photo: Vera Marmelo
- Thurston Moore
In the just-pre-Nirvana years and beyond, Sonic Youth defined the cutting-edge cool of underground DIY noise rock. Arising in 1980 from the Lower East Side's postpunk waste-scape, the quartet took inspiration not only from the early waves of punk, but also from the often-dissonant art music of contemporary avant-garde composers, adapting the latter's ideas to fit the format of a traditional four-piece rock band. Although the influential group split in 2011, founding guitarist-vocalist Thurston Moore was active as a solo artist and in other musical settings outside of Sonic Youth before the breakup and remains so now. He answered the questions below via email. In support of his newest solo release, Spirit Counsel, Moore will perform at Colony in Woodstock on December 2 at 7pm. Devin Brahja Waldman will open. Tickets are $22-$25. Colonywoodstock.com.
Spirit Counsel is described on your website as representing, among other things, "a period of reflection on spiritual matters." One might say your music has always had a spiritual element running through it, at times perhaps more pronounced than at other times. How did it evolve and what pulled you in that direction?
Writing and playing music has always been, for me personally, an engagement with spiritual life. So you are correct in the saying this is not such a new statement to make. But what distinguishes Spirit Counsel, as a collection of recent writing, is that I approached the presentation as a wordless sonic message of pure tonal/noise expression. The current demagogue "leaderships" of the USA, UK, Italy, Spain, and encroaching others have taken words and put them to the nefarious activity of despair, divisiveness, and degradation. I stripped out words and made the instruments the total sound. Picking up guitars and drums is not something I foresee these politicians having any wherewithal to co-opt.
You gravitated toward New York in 1976 because of the early punk scene there and were especially attracted to no wave, the noisier, more avant-garde, and less obviously "rock 'n' roll" tangent of the scene. What was it about the no wave bands that you found so compelling and inspiring?
I suppose I was always attracted to the subversive and the outlier. Seeing images of Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop, and cross-gender-signifying Wayne County and David Bowie resonated a thrill of "otherness" in me. I would see pictures many times before I would hear the actual music. I could only imagine what these artists would sound like and I would seek out the records, an adventurous exposition in the early 1970s. Luckily these records were discounted as they were very unpopular (mostly by the labels who deigned to release them, it seems). I would find surprises like Can's Ege Bamyasi or the first Stooges LP in the cut-out bins for 49 cents! And they were like strange friends who were far more interesting than the kids in school. I loved them, and when realizing there were others with this same experience collecting around places like CBGB, I ran there. Of course, we all loved Patti Smith, Blondie, Richard Hell, et al, but when Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Arto Lindsay, Rudolph Grey, and the other no wave musicians, who existed concurrently with the 1976 class of ground-zero punk rock, began performing with their bands [with whom] any traditional concept of virtuosity was replaced with a completely original vision and heart, I was struck, though not initially, by their elemental brilliance. When Sonic Youth came together, this was what each of our sensibilities were in tangent with.
It's been pointed out repeatedly how the music Sonic Youth made collectively and via its individual members has altered the course of contemporary music. Do you hear or detect the influence of your art in that of others? Do any especially humbling, flattering, or surprising examples of your music having resonated with other artists come to mind?
At some point in the late 1980s and certainly into the 1990s I would hear, or it would be brought to my attention, the playing of bands utilizing inspirations of Sonic Youth. Yes, flattering, but always it was via a prism of transferring our approach, where alternate tunings and non-traditional chordings are primary, through more standardized technique. Sometimes I'd be alerted that Radiohead would have a "Sonic Youth" part in a song, but it was always reigned in with "proper" finesse. I prefer bands who don't necessarily play by the rules. At all. There came a point where, in criticism, bands would have "Sonic Youth" parts which invariably meant noise and distortion, which I felt to be a simplifying of our output, but I understood.
You're well known as an obsessive music junkie and a ravenous record collector, and it made news across the blogs recently when you decided to sell off a large part of your collection. How hard was that? What are some of the records you let go of and what are some that you just couldn't part with? How does it feel to be on the other side of that? (Asking for a friend.)
I have always bought and sold records, for well over 30 years. The fact that I traded in about 300 LPs recently to World of Echo, a great, vinyl-only store in London, is a bit of a hype. It's due to us deciding to put an actual provenance on that particular trade-in, so the "news" got out. As it is, I've unloaded thousands of LPs, mostly through Feeding Tube records in Florence, Massachusetts. And through Jack Tielman's store in British Columbia, the Black Dot. I also plop records into the various Flashback stores in London. [Musicians] Mats Gustafsson, Jim O'Rourke, and I actually did a tour in Japan years back with records we made to trade with the amazing record stores there. We called our trio Discaholics Anonymous.
Given Spirit Counsel's themes of reflection, what do you most hope will be the hallmarks of your legacy as an artist and what do you most hope people in the future get from hearing your music when they discover it?
I don't consider legacy so much these days, as it only reflects ego and self-importance and, like money, it is essentially worthless. I want to think of the future where we can continue to fight and resist the negative energies that seek power and mechanisms of control over organic life. I want to further explore and exhibit expressions of wonder, joy, and collective consciousness where we care for every living thing. This is the only way to make music, as far as I can see.