12 November 2014



All photography by Eleonora C. Collini

Is there any alternative-rock band out there that doesn’t owe it all to Sonic Youth? Are the words legendary, groundbreaking, phenomenal enough to describe the music Thurston Moore has been constantly making for the past three decades? Now more than ever, keeping up with the amount of goodies he has been releasing both as solo projects and collaborations since Sonic Youth tragically went on hiatus in late 2011 is almost impossible, even for a hardcore fan like me.

Among other things, this year he released an album with black metal supergroup Twilight, put out the two-track cassette Sun Gift Earth (from the series The Blank Tapes on Blanked Editions), recorded Full Bleed with Chelsea Light Moving bandmate John Moloney, and played countless of shows with fellow experimental musicians at Café Oto, in his newly adopted hometown London. And as if writing outstanding music wasn’t enough, Moore also runs the art/culture press Ecstatic Peace Library and the underground-poetry publishing house Flowers & Cream as well as being a poet himself.

I hung out with him to discuss his new solo record, The Best Day, for which he recruited guitarist James Sedwards (Nøught, Guapo, Chrome Hoof), bassist Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) and ex-Sonic Youth bandmate Steve Shelley. We met up in a lovely flower shop, recently converted into a café, in Stoke Newington, where he now lives. Moore is jetlagged from his recent US tour, but in a good spirit and extremely willing to talk. He hasn’t seen any physical copies of the new record yet, so it is with excitement that we both look at how the artwork has turned out. “This is my mother with her dog Brownie”, he proudly tells me pointing at the beautiful woman in the black and white photo on the cover. At the time of the interview his mother doesn’t know that those old pictures were used for the album artwork yet, though she heard some rumours, promptly denied by her son not to spoil the surprise before she receives an actual copy of the record. “I found this photograph in her house when I was going into production. I had different ideas, but when I saw it I realised straightaway that was going to be the cover.”

Now in her 80ies, Moore’s mother had a tough life, losing her husband (Moore’s father) in the early ‘70s and then struggling with money, so in a way this is an homage to her beauty and sadness, and to her life full of dark clouds, but sunshine as well. “I was looking at that photograph, seeing my mother in a state of pure happiness, and thought that was a good thing to show. It felt so right to me that I really wanted to share that feeling we all wish for and can believe in. I was just following this idea Yoko Ono told me when I was working with her. She thinks that if you don’t feel like being confrontational on the street there is another way to be activist, by just expressing the names of the things that are good as opposed to the things that are bad, pretending that these don’t exist. So I was doing an exercise about naming anything but just the goodness of it, and by doing that I wanted to draw the positive energy from it.”

Moore describes The Best Day as being a balance between his "signature thrashing electric guitars" and "blissful 12-string acoustic ballads." Originally, he was thinking about something more expansive with double percussions, keyboards, and, having worked with violinist Samara Lubelski on the last three solo records, he was considering strings this time too, but then opted for the more traditional lineup of two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. “I felt that there was something honorable but also direct about it, and being the situation I had most played music in, it was also the most comfortable for me”, he specifies.

The new album has generally got positive reviews, but Moore is slightly annoyed by the fact that some people seem to consider this just another classic guitar-rock, post-punk thing, implying that doesn’t represent a step forward from what his solo career has been. “It is not about trying to change, it is about doing what you do to your best ability”, he comments. “To break things up a bit I did a record with acoustic guitar and strings. Also this is considered my fourth or fifth album, if you include Chelsea Light Moving, but it is actually my fortieth or something! There are all these records of free improvising noise music I have done with people like Mats Gustafsson or John Zorn, which in spite of having my name on it are not seen as part of my solo work for some reason.” We both agree that the defining factor might have been that those experimental records weren’t released on Matador or any other proper label, meaning they didn’t receive the same promotional campaign Psychic Hearts or Chelsea Light Moving had. “I read reviews where The Best Day was considered the first album since Demolished Thoughts, but I think there have been five since then”, he continues. “Nobody talks about them, but they are there for fans of difficult music or anyone else who wants to listen to them.”

The Best Day was produced by engineer Dan Cox at London Fields’ Urchin Studios, which Moore discovered through his New York friend James Sclavunos, the drummer on Sonic Youth’s second record and now in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Knowing that he was living in London, one day Sclavunos called Moore asking him to partake in the recording of a tribute album to mutual friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce (The Gun Club). “He wanted me to play guitar on a couple of songs Iggy Pop and Nick Cave were in, which I was of course up for”, Moore recalls. “But then I went into the studio and basically it was just me and James, no Iggy and no Nick there…. I wasn’t expecting anything else, but it was funny they were promoting the record as featuring Iggy Pop and Thurston More. Anyway, I worked in that studio and found it a modest yet functional place, so when I was considering recording in London I immediately thought of it. I felt that I didn’t need to do much research and could just trust that place.”

Moore doesn’t usually like the feeling of “being locked up in a room” when recording, but he really enjoyed his experience at Urchin Studios and the comfort of living only twenty minutes away. “Generally speaking, I think that from an audio point of view the studios in London are more professional than in the States, but that might probably be my exotic perspective, because some English musicians told me they actually think that of American studios and engineers, so my opinion probably just has to do with the grass being greener on the other side.”

The Best Day was preceded by a booklet of lyrics presented at New York Art Book Fair last month. It was done by Brad O’Sullivan of Smokeproof Press in Boulder, Colorado, which is associated with Naropa University (a school founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974), where Moore teaches a poetry workshop every summer. He wanted the booklet to exist in a way the lyrics could just be lyrics. “By being lyrics they probably have a rhyming schemes, because rhyme really works with music and attracts the ears, but as a poet I really don’t see it”, he points out. “It was quite interesting doing this book as it is a book of lyrics, but looks like a book of poems.”

In fact there are three songs on the new record (“Vocabularies”, “Tape” and “Detonation”) whose lyrics are poems written by a friend of Moore’s. “It was an experiment, because originally those were instrumental tracks, but then I just went to the microphone and found a place for my friend’s poems. I hardly did any rewriting, maybe a couple of chop-offs.” This technique is not new to him as he had done something similar before with his own poetry for both Sonic Youth and his solo material, where he would just try to fit his poems in whatever album he was working on, first by putting them right on top of a song and see how they would serve the music, and then modifying them a little if necessary. “Sometimes I would also get into a cut-out technique where I would take lines from three or four poems, melting them together, and that would become the lyrics of a song. “

Moore is really interested in the distinction between lyrics, poetry and music, and that constitutes one of the main topics he teaches during his poetry workshop at Naropa University. “For me the status of what poetry is as a form and its relationship to his own history has a certain honour, and I like to look at it separately from those rock 'n' roll lyrics people see as poetry, like for instance Bob Dylan’s”, he reveals. “I read this interesting piece where a journalist remembers seeing the lyrics of “Blonde on Blonde” on Esquire magazine in the ‘60s and thinking that was just ok for poetry. In my opinion those lyrics were written as lyrics as they don’t have the quality of what I find in contemporary poetry, which comes out of poetry as a vocation. Dylan is just a guy with some rambling lines without a distinctive metering that reflects poetry as history, but his records are just genius because of the way he works with lyrics and the way his vocabulary opens up with the music.”

Despite admitting that they certainly have a poetic quality, he never sees his or anybody else’s lyrics as poems. “Lyrics have a more malleable state as they are supposed to work within the context of music and interact with the music, so in a way they become more abstracted from the page, with the music supporting that”, he explains. “On the contrary poems have a nature of being alone, they are a sort of diary of solitude, though collaborative poetry also exists. And there is language poetry too, which deals with stripping down any kind of emotional or confessional quality out of the lines, becoming this visual, linguistic thing that is really interesting to me and can work for lyrical ideas too.”

A fan of self-published poetry pamphlets, Moore often reads his poems to an audience, which for him is more about expressing the words on the page, how they exist as lines with a specific rhythm and meter, always shying away from imagining a musical accompaniment for them. “It’s funny as when I am involved with poets that work exclusively as poets, they are actually really interested in me bringing my guitar to accompany their poems, but I don’t like that and to me they are missing the purity of their poems.” Of course there are exceptions, especially for poets that work more with orality, producing a sort of spoken poetry, like for instance early Patti Smith. “When she was coming into the poetry scene of New York she found her strength in just being on the microphone. Her first books, Seventh Heaven or Kodak, were collections of exquisite, simple poems, but in a way they needed to jump off the page like she eventually did, and that is where she found her energy as a writer.”

Two songs on The Best Day, “Detonation” (which first came out as a 7-inch last February) and “Grace Lake”, are dedicated to the memory of the Angry Brigade, the East London-based anarchist group from the ‘70s responsible for several bombings (no injuries), and more specifically, to Anna Mendelssohn, the Angry Brigadier and poet who was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison for those bombings. “In her poems, Anne always paraphrases the dictum that poetry is news, which is activism because it’s being engaged with the social world. Even if it’s just confessional love for poetry, it’s still some kind of expression and a dialogue that has an inherence to political action”, he says of Mendelssohn’s poetic works.

Moore believes that like any kind of literature lyrics can also be news, but at the same time music itself is an abstract thing and can’t be a catalyst for a change. “It can only be an expression of either a change or a desire for a change, offering some sort of artful way of dealing with the imbalance of power or any kind of system, but though I have a lot of respect for it and used to be for instance into early-‘80s hardcore bands, I don’t have any interest in writing that way, as personally I don’t find that is my articulation. I prefer working with language primarily as a linguistic exercise, and having that be the magic and the reference to an emotional world that can be shared.”

Punk rock was Moore’s first music love and in a way Sonic Youth were a punk band to me, not so much musically, but for the esthetic message they were giving, especially at the beginning of their career. So I ask him if he thinks punk still exists today, and he feels that as a creative culture, not just in music but also in the art world, it will always exist. “It was such a catalytic time for anybody who was at an age in 1977. I was 19 and I don’t know if punk rock would have meant so much to me if I had been 29 or something. For people that were older when punk happened, it was just something to be bemused by. How could have it had any credence after the wonders of the ‘60s with Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd or Janice Joplin? It was also a type of music suspecting traditional techniques, a sort of embracement of nihilism that could possibly be unpleasant for people who were teenagers in the ‘60s.”

In Moore's opinion as much as it was a defining element for that generation, when punk rock was first happening, it didn’t seem to be sweeping the world, but was more a movement for a selected field, and it wasn’t until mass media culture started commercialising it and modifying it to new wave that it became a huge phenomenon. “Even Madonna, who was living the East Village at the same time as me, was using punk iconography in her work, though I think neither she was considering herself a punk nor she was doing that consciously. Punk esthetic is so broad that it’s not easy to define, as on one level it’s purist and on the other it’s completely experimental. You had the straight energy of New York Dolls and The Clash, and then you had Throbbing Gristle and other more experimental bands.” One of the aspects of punk rock that got Moore most interested in was the complete devoid of any resemblance to traditional rock and roll. “But at the same time you had Patti Smith, who was the voice of punk but was playing rock 'n' roll in rock bars with her band, and who transcended the tradition but was also celebrating it, because her favourite bands were The Rolling Stones and The Doors”, he carries on. “And then again you had bands like Suicide with Alan Vega, who was coming from ground zero with noise music. It was a completely open arena, and either you wanted to be part of it or you were repulsed by it. And I didn’t think twice, I knew right away that was where I wanted to be. “

The Best Day is out now on Matador Records

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