Thurston Moore on his new album, the old New York, and always resisting the mainstream

From London, Moore joins Document to discuss the future of music amidst clutter and uncertainty

You can’t roll a joint on a download, let’s put it that way,” says Thurston Moore with a laugh. Since the pandemic struck, Moore has been grappling with technology’s new role in live performance. While its long term impact remains to be seen, he remains confident in the music community’s ability to adjust to the times.

Moore’s newest record, By The Fire, balances massive guitar hooks and the avant-garde with the precision awarded by decades of splintering the electric guitar to pieces and screwing it back together again. With the support of bassist Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine), guitarist James Sewards (The Heat), electronics expert Jon Leidecker, and drummer Jem Doulton, Moore pushes the boundaries of composition, while keeping alive the demented, punked up indie rock of Sonic Youth’s later sound. The album starts with traditional rock rhythms on the opener, “Hashish,” and its successor “Cantaloupe,” that seamlessly blend into more somber and contemplative tracks. “Breath,” provides a multifaceted saga from it’s enduring intro that builds up to a bold and driving finale. The album’s centerpiece, “Locomotives,” fuses chaos with calm; its repetitive motifs churn like the wheels of a train leaving a station. The song is in no hurry to gain speed, but once it reaches full steam, the listener realizes that rather than riding as a passenger, they’re tied to the tracks with Moore’s full force barreling towards them. The record’s evolution culminates with a new-fashioned elation evoked by “They Believe in Love,” and the closing, “Venus.” While each song individually embodies a unique mode of expression, the commonality is Moore’s ability to push the guitar to its extreme in every direction. 

In addition to producing solo records, Moore has relocated to London and continued to release rare zines, records, and poetry in collaboration with his partner and book editor Eva Prinz. Moore joins Document to discuss the link between space and creativity, how COVID is changing the music industry, and the process behind his latest album. 

Avery Norman: Since the ’70s, you’ve joked about leaving New York for London to hang out with Public Image Ltd. You’ve been living in London for a handful of years now, how does it compare to the city that Sonic Youth was once synonymous with?

Thurston Moore: It is pretty ironic that I would have talked about wanting to move to London to hang out with Public Image Ltd because John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, is now an American citizen. He lives in Southern California and has become a vociferous supporter of Donald Trump, which I find unnerving and slightly hilarious.

I first came to London around83 and it was such a wild and magnificent city and sprawling city—so completely unlike New York, which had very well-defined parameters for people living in the community downtown. If you were a musician or artist, you knew what those parameters were—it was pretty much from 14th Street to Houston, anything else beyond those stomping grounds was like going to another state. I always considered New York City my home because I spent so much time there—I moved there when I was 18 or 19 years old. I saw New York City change quite a bit in those years but I always accepted the reality that New York City was always about change, and a lot of its historical curiosity is that it is always in flux. It’s so informed by Europe and the rest of the world in a way other cities in the US are not. It stands alone as an island, and I always found the diversity of the demographic to be what made New York so remarkable. It was never one thing. It was always everything. London’s a little bit like that too. 

“It’s in resistance to the expectations of the mainstream, which is a characteristic that has been in the music since the beginning of Sonic Youth.”

Avery: Do you think that living in England has affected your writing?

Thurston: I remember when Sonic Youth was supporting R.E.M. on a tour in the90s and we visited William Burroughs, who was living in Lawrence, Kansas. Bouroughs’ writing was so New York-centric. He had London years as well, where his writing was very London-centric. He would always write about being informed by the place he was in. We asked him if living in Lawrence allowed him to have more space to write—less distraction—he said “I can write anywhere, it doesn’t matter where I am.” I always liked that answer. I feel like whatever the creative impulse is, it can exist anywhere. 

Through the eight years I’ve been in London, it has really revealed itself through a personal lens. A book dealer in a secondhand book store once told me that London rebuilds itself personally to each person who comes here. It’s a really old city, unlike New York, which is barely over 200 years old. London is ten times older than that, so it has this history that emanates from underneath the streets. 

Avery: This new album balances experimentalism and accessibility. “Locomotives” and “Venus” recall last year’s Spirit Counsel, while for example, the opener “Hashish” sounds almost like a radio hit. Do all of these songs come to you at once, or do you use separate processes?

Thurston: They really do coexist in a way that I don’t draw too much distinction with. When I write songs, if I write a song like the first song on the record “Hashish” and the second song “Cantaloupe,” they are more sort of proper, kind of sonic punk rock songs, and they do have the accessibility as such. 

My favorite records are just great punk pop singles, either by the Ramones or by the Raincoats or the Slits. There are so many great songs from that genre of music that I always reference, but I always thought punk rock was essentially experimental music—and because the music was so radical to begin with, to be writing something that could actually be played on the radio was really cool. There’s something experimental about that, because the intention of punk was always to be set apart from the mainstream, so to write something that the mainstream might be informed by and utilize was part of the experiment. That’s the mindset I’m in when I write those songs, but at the same time, composing a piece like “Venus” or “Locomotives,” I’m thinking more in terms of wanting to get a little darker and a little deeper into ideas that really have no allegiance to any kind of mainstream acceptability at all… It’s in resistance to the expectations of the mainstream, which is a characteristic that has been in the music since the beginning of Sonic Youth. 

“I wanted this record to come out as soon as possible, because I really like the idea of putting out work that counteracts the nefarious noise that is clattering up the world from the politics of fighting against totalitarianism.”

Avery: Working as a musician during the pandemic, were these new songs written before COVID, or did quarantine allow you more time to flesh them out fully?

Thurston: All of the songs were written before COVID and recorded from 2019 into early 2020. As we got into the quarantine months, I started thinking about how this record should come out and what it should look like, and that aesthetic certainly was defined by COVID. I think this record would be a different record if it was business as usual. The records I make are all fairly experimental, even in the context of independent music, but they have a profile just because of the history of Sonic Youth and my name. 

I wanted this record to come out as soon as possible, because I really like the idea of putting out work that counteracts the nefarious noise that is clattering up the world from the politics of fighting against totalitarianism. I thought it was important to immediately put out a record that had an alternative narrative to that. I sequenced it where it went from this kind of rock-and-roll joyous thing, into more introspective songs, and then into these darker more experimental songs, and then this piece of music called “Venus,” which is unfolding into this new hopefulness. That was the story I wanted to tell on the record, and I wanted to tell it now. It was completely defined in that sense, by the COVID crisis that everybody in the world is dealing with; I wanted to sort of have it be in dialogue, counter to what I thought was anxiety in the air, and have it be more of a beatific record.

Avery: You recently performed for Rolling Stone’s In My Room series at your rehearsal space. Do you think that these songs can truly be conveyed digitally through a livestream, or will most of us in the US have to wait for clubs and theatres to reopen in order to fully experience the live versions?

Thurston: I’m not sure what’s going to happen if we are prohibited from playing live. I think we’ll adjust through technology, people will probably have huge concert screens in their homes going through incredible stereo systems so they have this kind of experience. I think in a way nobody really wants to go that route, they’d rather return to the social dynamic of going to a gig. Right now we are just testing the waters a bit, with a wish that the virus dissipates and we can all come together again. I do not think it’s a replacement for the live experience at all. I’m usually playing in clubs, and a lot of venues are independently owned and most independent bands play in independent clubs. That relationship is really critical, we support each other. So for me, it’s a question of how do we continue supporting the venues that have supported us. 

Technology is not independent. Some of the platforms are, but technology itself is completely corporate owned. It is not ever going to be completely independent. So that relationship will vanish if we don’t find ways of returning to it. I do think that regardless of the politics of it all, we will, as a community, adjust. I was talking to somebody who works in publishing yesterday, and this person was saying how the book industry is doing really well, and that was interesting to hear because the physicality of reading a book, or putting on a record, is something you can’t replace. You can download it, you could stream it, but it’s not the same thing because you’re just getting this information as a numerical to the digital spectrum. But to actually hold something and feel it, smell it… You can’t roll a joint on a download, let’s put it that way. [laughs]

Avery: I’d have to agree. Much of the main focus of this album is on the guitar-work and instrumentation, though of course not to the extent of Spirit Counsel. However, the lyrics were written in collaboration with Radieux Radio. Could you talk about that partnership, or is it a secret you’re unable to reveal?

Thurston: Of course. Radieux Radio is a writer in London. I’ve collaborated with Radieux on my record Rock N Roll Consciousness and the record before that, The Best Day. There’s such a community here of writers and poets that I connected with in the same way that I connected with writers and poets in New York City. To work with different writers with lyrics, I thought it would be very interesting at first to sing the lyrics of somebody else’s words. The first time I did it was when Radieux Radio had these words for a song called “Detanation,” which was on the The Best Day record, and I thought it was really cool. I started thinking, why can’t lyrics sort of co-exist with the music of the guitars and the drums and the bass and whatever? You collaborate with the other musicians in a way where you’re sort of trading lines with them, so I thought well why can’t I collaborate on the lyrical end of it? 

Avery: That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. How have you been able to balance writing and recording music with the tracking down of rare zines, records, and poetry for Ecstatic Peace Library releases?

Thurston: [laughs] There’s not enough time in the day. I’ve learned to get really zen about it. If you’re doing things that you really love, and that feed into the vocation that you’ve always wanted, which is just to work in the whole world of creative impulse and be interdisciplinary and make music and write and publish and anything that has to do with that world. To me it’s so gracious because anything you do is cool. This whole time period during the summer of COVID I’ve just been putting pen to paper and writing about music through my own personal lens of history. Talking about the ’70s and the ’80s, the formation of Sonic Youth, the constellation of people that were around in the music and the art world, and then environmental and kind of emotional world around that, and talking a lot about the documents that inspired not only myself but the community of people I was involved with. I got really into that and I have this really extensive manuscript, which is titled Sonic Life that I’ll someday unleash. 

Avery: That sounds amazing, I’m looking forward to eventually reading it. In addition to uncovering these histories, do you have time to listen to emerging artists? Are there any brand new bands that have really excited you recently?

Thurston: There are some bands in London that I think are great. When I was going out to see music, I would generally go see really experimental music, free jazz and free improvisation and noise music, and less band oriented rock and roll music. I feel like I’ve decoded that to such a degree that it very rarely excites me. I’d rather go see a classical music concert because I learn things from it that I wouldn’t learn from just seeing a rock band. I did go see bands if they were friends of mine. Last time I went to see a band called The Ex, an anarcho punk band from Holland that has been associated with Sonic Youth since the ’80’s, in London and the opening band was called Big Joanie and they were fantastic. It was three girls playing what was self described as Afro-punk and they were so good that we asked them if we could put their record out because they had nothing out. It’s called Sistahs, they are sort of like The Ramones meet The Shangri-Las. They are very primal, very feminist and political, and there’s a whole scene around bands like that in London that I like. There’s a band called Trash Kit. Rachel Aggs, the singer and guitar player in that band, has been doing some solo music recently that is just astounding.