“The Flesh and Bones of Your Fingers Against the Instrument”: A Conversation With Thurston Moore

The guitarist, songwriter and punk-rock public intellectual on his fiery yet reflective new album, the challenges of the avant-garde, the significance of Black Sabbath, the dynamic of Sonic Youth and much more.

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Credit: Laurent Orseau.

“I don’t generally have too much of an analytical approach to songwriting,” said the guitarist, singer and thinker Thurston Moore, 62, on the phone with TIDAL this fall. (It was the birthday of the late, great guitar-army composer Glenn Branca, an early mentor, he pointed out.) “I’m very trusting of the genuine power of the muse — sitting down and having something happen while playing in any which way, and allowing the language to be completely open and then refining and working towards a musical idea.

“And that kind of coalesces into a song,” he continued. “I try to find the balances between certain ideas and concepts.”

Balance, in fact, just might be the most crucial element of Moore’s success and enduring influence. For three decades in Sonic Youth, he and his bandmates — guitarist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley and bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon, now Moore’s ex-wife — pushed the lessons of the New York City art world up against rock comforts like hooky songcraft and gloriously loud electric guitars. His public persona followed suit during the heady ’90s when Sonic Youth’s American rock underground became commerce-ready alternative rock; Moore was a rock star and an alt-guitar hero given to skronking in noise experiments and side projects in basement clubs.

Both before and after Sonic Youth dissolved in 2011, much of his solo work as a rock bandleader has also espoused an inviting equilibrium. A fine case in point is his new album, By the Fire, featuring the durable lineup of Shelley or Jem Doulton on drums, James Sedwards on guitar, My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe on bass and a more recently recruited secret weapon in the electronic musician Jon Leidecker (Wobbly of the Northern California experimentalists Negativland). It’s a patient but satisfying record that should feed fans of Sonic Youth, with its stylish, long-form Downtown rock riding a motorik beat, or Moore’s outré solo settings, especially last year’s Spirit Counsel, a triple-CD collection of transcendental guitar music. But again, the charisma is in the common ground.

Friendly and generous in conversation, Moore, who lives in London, tends to answer questions and prompts at essay length, in the cultivated language of a critic. His artistic center of gravity is the punk rock that transformed his life as a Connecticut kid who eventually found his Mecca at CBGB; he refers to punk and its diaspora with a zeal and devotion that can remind one of certain old-school pop and R&B musicians who cut their teeth in midcentury modern jazz and hold anything and everything to its standards. The punk that materialized in the mid-’70s begat a prism or a worldview for Moore’s generation of creative dissidents, which plays into Sonic Life, the memoir-cum-cultural-history he’s been working on during quarantine time. He discussed that project, By the Fire and much more in the hour-long conversation below, edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I notice some aesthetic through lines that carry from Spirit Counsel to By the Fire, despite their being very different records. Can you take me from where you were with Spirit Counsel into the development of this new record?

Spirit Counsel was focused on constructing these very lengthy electric guitar compositions that were entirely instrumental, and then touring them for over a year and a half, which was a great sort of change from what I had been doing for most of my touring life. To go and play an hour-long piece as your set, an unbroken guitar piece with no singing, it was crazy fun and refreshing. And it was interesting checking out the audience listening, because I think a large proportion of the audience wasn’t fully aware of what we were presenting. You could tell after [an extended duration], this feeling of “Oh, this is not stopping, and this is something else entirely.” And the music would take on this character that could be quite challenging, sonically, in the room. It was really just a wonderful experience.

I knew that it wasn’t going to be something I was going to do for too long a period; I wanted to get back to writing more sort of traditional songs, at least in the tradition of how I write songs [laughs], in that format of two guitars, bass and drums and vocals, and then [applying that to] completely open, experimental concepts and ideas. That was the nature, certainly, of Sonic Youth, and it continues to be how I work with this group of musicians in London.

Coming out of [the Spirit Counsel experience], I realized that the next record I made, I wanted it to be somewhat informed by that, because a lot of Spirit Counsel was bringing to a head a lot of what I gleaned from being in New York City in the late ’70s, early ’80s and playing with instrumental guitar composers, like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. A lot of the language of those two gentlemen went into early Sonic Youth, particularly because Lee [Ranaldo] and I had played with both of them. I wanted to have it be a bit of a tribute to them, but also contemporary and not slavishly historical. I wanted to do that and then move forward, and I felt like By the Fire was this idea of moving forward where I can have this coexisting pastiche of influences.

The By the Fire lineup of Steve Shelley, Jon Leidecker (a.k.a. Wobbly), Moore, James Sedwards and Deb Googe (from left). Credit: Jacqueline Schlossman.

While you’ve mentioned Chatham and Branca, what do you think of the designation “composer” rather than “songwriter” for yourself? Because so many of your heroes have called themselves composers.

[laughs] Those classifications don’t mean so much to me. “Composer” denotes a more serious intention than “songwriter” — I guess. It has less to do with the pop world and more to do with the academic music world. I haven’t much concern about either sobriquet [laughs].

I found myself writing 60-minute-long guitar instrumentals. … But I never really thought of it as composition as opposed to song. I could refer to them in either which way, so I guess it’s kind of in defiance of any kind of genre thing. It didn’t feel like writing that music had a different value, one that was distinct from writing a sonic-nugget song. The first two songs on this record, “Hashish” and “Cantaloupe,” are like that; they sort of state their case. And I knew I couldn’t just step away from writing those kinds of songs. It wouldn’t be very true to my own desire.

In “Cantaloupe” I definitely hear a Stooges influence, but it also brings to mind a band I don’t think I’ve heard you talk about too much, Black Sabbath. How did you respond to that generation of early metal and proto-metal and blues-rock? You would have been in junior high when that stuff was hitting, and it’s great guitar music.

I have a brother who’s five years older than I am, and I remember him bringing Black Sabbath’s first record home in the early ’70s and thinking how awesome it sounded coming out of his bedroom. Black Sabbath, in ’74 or ’75, we called it “downer music” [laughs]. I don’t remember using “heavy metal” that much at that time. The term was more “hard rock.” So Sabbath were always there and significant.

When punk rock happened, by ’76 or ’77, all of the records that you would have owned at my age — such as a Sabbath record or a Pink Floyd record or a Led Zeppelin record, Bad Company, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Allman Brothers Band — all of those records got kind of put into the basement. And they were supplanted by the Ramones and the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith and Blondie and Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It was a completely new world, a new identity of music that was an option for youth culture, and it was very marginalized. But I certainly chose it, and I bought into the whole division away from any previous generation.

So that [older] music was relegated to a Peaches crate in a moldy basement at my mother’s house. And I remember, around ’78, ’79, going to visit my mother, an hour and a half outside of New York City, in a little town that she still lives in, in Connecticut, and going down to the basement for whatever reason, and there was that Peaches record crate. I looked at it and I could see that triple Yessongs LP, and the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters. And I paused, and I kind of shuddered a little bit, because I had so erased them from my consciousness. They truly were lost dinosaur relics. I walked away from that music, big time. Living in New York and playing with the musicians I was playing with, nobody referenced that music. And if you did, it was a real insult.

So it was curious, the reappraisal of that music that started happening around ’82, ’83. And it started happening in the hardcore scene. Black Flag started growing their hair long and talking about Sabbath. And this became kind of radical, because most of these young kids who were into hardcore at the time, they were so young that the first record they would have known would have been the first Dead Kennedys album or something. They didn’t have that [’70s mainstream rock] history to even consider. So they started in punk, they started in hardcore. But Greg Ginn in Black Flag, he’s [roughly] my age, so he started bringing in this idea of an expansive kind of songwriting outside of the punk and hardcore format. That was really great; that was really interesting.

There was an article in the Village Voice by a rock journalist, and [the author] made a comment about such a thing: He said it’s interesting in the mid-’80s that the two bands that seem to be great signifiers for alternative music, underground American music, are the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath. I thought that was interesting, because the new bands that were coming up in the mid-’80s that I was responding to were bands like Dinosaur ... Dinosaur Jr. — these young guys who were kind of getting away from the purity of hardcore, and not really having the time to get into the weird complexities of experimental art rock. [They were] doing their own music that was referencing some of the long, killer, shredding guitar solos that Tony Iommi would execute in Black Sabbath, or Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin, and [Dinosaur Jr.’s] J Mascis was starting to do that. I remember that being a radical thing, hearing somebody like that play like that. It was pretty audacious.

I had this conversation about that Village Voice article with Lee at a Sonic Youth rehearsal, and he said, “Well, I agree with the Velvet Underground part, but I wouldn’t agree with this Black Sabbath part.” Au contraire! [laughs] [My response went something like,] “I’m totally throwing some of these Sabbath moves into some of the things I’m doing, these little half-steps on the fretboard.” It’s kind of like that Sabbath rhythm. I don’t think he really grew up listening to Black Sabbath. He was more of a singer-songwriter guy, listening to Grateful Dead records and then getting introduced to punk rock and experimental guitar music. I don’t think hard rock, heavy metal records were too much in his world. He certainly knew about them.

For me they were important. I was really into “hard rock” early on. I desperately searched for Fun House by the Stooges. It was very difficult to find at the time. And I had the first [Stooges] album because it was in all the cutout bins in all the Woolworths across the country for 49 cents. And that record had a bit of a strange kind of monotone to it. It didn’t sound like “hard rock”; it just sounded weird. ... But it sounded kinda great. There was a very sort of strange flatness to it.

Sonic Youth in Amsterdam, 1986: Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Kim Gordon (from left). Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns.

I remember reading something you’d written in which you talked about how the No Wave bands were concurrent with New York punk. It wasn’t this idea of one directly following the other, which is the common history that you can absorb in about a million documentaries and books, but this idea that they existed in different circles in New York at the same time. What other fallacies, let’s say, can you think of that have been repeated ad nauseam about underground music? Are there any that have been applied to Sonic Youth in particular?

Well, certainly that we were financially comfortable. When we first went over to play in England, the first review we got [said we were] trust-fund babies slumming it in experimental music. Which was aggravating, because we were basically living off of onions and peanut butter and trying to maintain sanity having dishwashing jobs.

That was kind of infuriating, and something I didn’t feel it was necessary to disprove, because why should anybody’s economic status define their creative impulse anyway? So, yeah, that was a good Sonic Youth fallacy, that we were rich kids. We came from middle-class families, so there was a safety net in our middle-class families. We weren’t tossed aside; we weren’t runaways. A lot of the community in the Downtown New York scene were people who had such desperation. They had no recourse of family.

Moving back toward the new work, I keep reading these doomsday reports about the electric guitar industry and the diminishing cultural impact of that instrument — millennials don’t care about guitar heroism, the smartphone is the creative vessel of these times and all that. But you remain dedicated to the sonics of that instrument and the technology that was refined in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You’re able to find new possibilities in it. Can you talk about that — how we’ve seen the culture shift from guitar worship to it being this secondary character?

I don’t know if I actually see guitar bands being marginalized to any real extent. I just think they coexist with whatever the contemporary music-making dynamic is, with electronic dance music, electronic music in general, music made outside of the realm of traditional [rock instrumentation].

I don’t really have any desire to go anywhere else, as far as instrument exploration. It’s the ideas and the concepts that are most important to me, and what I use to accomplish them is the electric guitar, which came into my grasp early. I wanted to be a drummer when I was younger, but I just didn’t have the coordination between hand and foot. The guitar seemed rather unwieldy and scary to me. My brother was playing it, and he became quite a high-technique player, and I just started playing it and finding out how to play it. Besides just hearing their recordings, to see musicians [at work] was as important to me, to go to live concerts. I gleaned inspiration from the physicality of the music, and seeing the fingers against the strings and the strings against the wood, and that connectivity to the amplifier.

And I’m not much of a pedal fan, let alone a pedal geek. … I like pedals, don’t get me wrong. ... But I don’t really use them that much. I use a couple of distortion pedals and what have you. But the last thing I want to hear on a recording or in a band is the sound of a pedal. There are some bands that have become so pedal-conscious that when I listen to the records I feel like I’m hearing a pedal display. I want to hear, I want to feel, the flesh and bones of your fingers against the instrument.

As far as any other aspect of music making that is not that but it’s using electronic media, I certainly don’t have any issue with it. In fact, I find some of the greatest recordings, and some of the greatest musical ideas, are [executed] through the use of electronic media. Jon Leidecker, who plays electronics on this new record of mine, that’s primarily his work; he’s an “electronic musician.” But I love that, because that’s where his focus is, and how it interacts with what we’re doing playing these, dare I say, more organic instruments. It creates fascinating possibilities.

I don’t foresee the electric guitar becoming vanquished in the culture … at all. It’s certainly not the central instrumentation that it once was. With the record industry selling more electronic dance music than guitar-oriented music the last decade, I would hear about [the guitar’s footprint getting smaller], but I never really felt like it was a competitive measure. That was just sort of a shift in the industry and the culture that it caters to, which is consumerist music culture. But I never got a sense that it was “taking over.”

While we’re on organic musicianship, how do you think your abilities as a free improviser have grown over the years?

I have such admiration for musicians who devote their entire vocation to being free improvisers — and that’s who they are, and they practice that language whenever they can, either solo or with other people. I became fascinated with the culture of free improvisation at a point where I started playing with different musicians from that scene, from the free-jazz drummer William Hooker to the free-improvising saxophonist John Zorn. And then moving to London, getting involved with the community here that I’ve always been completely enchanted by — like John Russell, and Steve Noble, and Maggie Nicols.

Moore and William Hooker improvise at the NYC club Wetlands Preserve in 1991. Credit: Steve Eichner/Getty Images.

These people had histories that extend well before punk rock, playing this music that was way more on the margins than punk rock ever was — way more radical and experimental ... and completely and utterly disinterested in commercial acceptance. So that alone drew me to the music itself, because it was devoted to its own sort of musical environment, regardless of any kind of overground acceptance. I really first discovered it by watching people like Derek Bailey play when he would come to New York. Just this kind of consideration of creating a freely improvised composition in real time, and this kind of acknowledgment of other players, and this heightened kind of listening experience, critical listening, thinking about economy. Also, there was no hierarchy when free improvisers play together; everybody had equal value at all times ... kind of this socialist idea. All these aspects I thought were musically really fascinating.

To play in that realm is extremely challenging. ... You need to get to this place of trusting your own instinct but having a real sense of responsibility for your interaction. It’s completely political music. So I began looking to find places where I could play with some of these musicians, and sometimes it was really magical and great and sometimes I found it to be rather a bit of a struggle. Which it should never be. It should always be within your skill set, without any fanfare. So it’s one of the most important learning experiences I’ve had working in music, to work with free improvisers, and it really allowed new inspirations to come into composition.

And I realize that I could very well be looked at by a lot of that community as a No Wave, experimental noise rocker slumming it in their world. And God forbid I never wanted to be seen as that, so I try to be sensitive to that. I don’t think I’m regarded that way at all, from what I can gather. I think a lot of the players recognize at least my sincerity.

When you began recording in the rock-band format again as a solo artist this past decade, what was your relationship like with the ensemble language you had built with Sonic Youth? When did you want to tap into that rapport? Did you want to avoid it?

When I got together with these musicians in London — James Sedwards and Deb Googe, and that’s pretty much the nucleus of what’s been happening in the last seven, eight years — a lot of it had to do with moving forward from the experiences that we’d had, particularly Deb and myself. Deb had spent as much time with My Bloody Valentine as I had with Sonic Youth. And there was this understanding that what we experienced in those long runs with those bands had a lot to do with growth. The dynamic structure progressed as it did for both of those bands, in their own distinct ways.

We realized, coming together to play music, that we didn’t feel it necessary to replicate or try to re-engage with that kind of dynamic again, because it’s something that only happens when you are in that trajectory of the experience for all those years. So that relationship would be impossible to recreate. And if it were possible I wouldn’t want to, because I wouldn’t want to go through whatever learning trials and tribulations that were incurred during that whole period of 30 years with Sonic Youth. All I can do is be really happy about it, and have a lot of personal integrity and honor with it, which I have.

That was a very democratic concern, that band [Sonic Youth]. I don’t really feel like I want that again. I don’t need to be in a band where all the members are democratic, unless it is a free-improvisation ensemble [laughs]. I want a group of musicians who have the ability to create their own ideas against the songs I have. So I take all the credit, but I’m not writing Deb Googe’s bass lines; I’m not writing James Sedwards’ lead guitar lines, God forbid. … I’m having them play with me because I know that they can deliver what they do to the best of their ability, and that’s that relationship. And it’s understood.

I’d never had that experience before, working with Sonic Youth. This is a new thing for me, in a way. But again, I don’t think I would ever want to start a band and take it from day one and we all play together and create this organic kind of entity. When Sonic Youth started, we had no idea where we were going to go with it. It would shift once in a while, and it just kept pressing forward. There was a realization, I think, very early on, that it wasn’t a situation that was necessarily goal-oriented; it was all about the journey.

Ranaldo and Moore cross axes while performing Sonic Youth’s landmark work Daydream Nation in the U.K. in 2007. Credit: Marc Broussely/Redferns.

Tell me about this book project you’re working on, to be titled Sonic Life, I believe.

It’s a manuscript I’ve been working on since the beginning of March, when we first started having to sequester ourselves, knowing that I wasn’t going to have to tour and travel, which is always a distraction to any kind of extensive writing.

It’s a sort of essay primarily about the documents that inform and intrigue someone to dedicate themselves to the vocation of being a musician or an artist. So I talk about, specifically, a recording like the first Patti Smith seven-inch, with “Hey Joe” backed with “Piss Factory,” that came out in ’74. ... It was really a sort of arcane record, and the fact that it was made by a music journalist and a poet that you knew from her byline in different magazines and newspapers in the early ’70s...

I was enamored by the [music] journalism of the early to mid-’70s; the writers, like Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith, their voices were as significant to me as the musicians they were writing about. So for [Smith] to make a record was a bit of a crossover that was really curious. And to hear that record in the context of what was going on in the music culture of the time, which was all about grandiosity ... hearing this seven-inch in 1974 was unlike anything else out there. It was raw, it was minimal, it was a recitation that led into this scratchy guitar by this guy Tom Verlaine, who you had heard about because he was written about in the very first article ever written about Television, which was by Patti Smith. The picture of that band was astounding because they all had short hair; no band had short hair. ... Long hair was the flag of the counterculture, so to see the band with short hair was completely and utterly radical.

It’s just the aesthetic of that record I wanted to really discuss at length — those talismans, those documents that started happening right around that time for people my age who it resonated with. We were not the popular majority. And so you felt rather selective in that sense, and rather kind of elite in that sort of poverty of it [laughs]. I wanted to get deep into how these records started chronologically defining this culture that you found yourself immersed in. Because it followed soon with the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. But most music histories I read, they reference these things but basically they just leapfrog over them, because it’s a presupposition that we understand how important those records were. Well, maybe we do, but I want to personalize it a little bit more about how it led me from one document to the other.

How do you feel about Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation being your canonical record — as in, if someone were to write a history of Western pop in 200 years, they’d probably mention that recording as the example of your contribution. It’s an interesting question to pose to someone who writes cultural history himself.

Most of the recordings and the literature I focus on when I’m writing about this history, they’re generally, for the most part, initial statements. Daydream Nation is a record that’s a culmination of a decade’s progression for this band. And in a way it was certainly our first record that had more mainstream visibility. And so that sort of differentiates it. I find it curious in the context of most documents like that, because usually the first records are these really important records. Not always — certainly not in the early ’60s, when bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were doing lots of covers, and then they found their voice as songwriters three or four albums in. By the ’70s it was all about that first major doc.

For Daydream Nation, we found ourselves open to this idea of writing longer songs and being able to fit them on a double album because it had already been validated by what had happened at SST Records, which was the label we were on at that point, with the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, who had done those double albums in the same year [1984]. And we were completely referencing those — “OK, now we’re gonna do the same thing but we’re gonna be the East Coast voice of that.”

That was definitely the idea at that point, to do something that had that same level of excitement and energy that those double albums put into the U.S.A. underground music culture. That was really important for us. So we wanted to have our time. Ironically, by the time the record came out, we didn’t issue it on SST [laughs]. But that’s a whole other story [laughs].

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