Douglas Bleggi Interviews Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore talks with Northern Transmissions' Douglas bleggi

Since his split with wife and Sonic Youth co-founder, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore has kept plenty busy. After touring his 2011 solo record Demolished Thoughts, the band that comprised his tour threw down their acoustic instruments and picked up electric counterparts, becoming Chelsea Light Moving. The band was a project in practicing punk rock sensibilities, recording the album in one day, comprised of quickly composed one-off tracks built around freeform lyrical ideas and riffs. They then hit the road again playing small venues and travelling in a van. Shortly after, Moore then joined the black metal group Twilight and produced their final record, III – Beneath Trident’s Tomb.

Having now spent some time absorbing himself into projects where he could keep a lower profile, the time has come for Moore to once again become the forefront with his new record, The Best Day, his most Sonic Youth-esque solo effort since 1995’s Psychic Hearts. This time out he even has an indie superstar backing group. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley is in the fold along with My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe, and Nought guitarist James Sedwards. While the record features a few acoustic tracks that have become a staple of his recent solo work, the new band allows him to fill the electric band void left by Sonic Youth, albeit with a few new ticks and features not usually heard with SY.

When talking with Thurston for this interview, it was interesting hearing him go off on the subjects that interest him. At 56, it’d be difficult to hurl any accusations of jading at him aside from his desires for privacy and space, something that proved difficult on his Chelsea Light Moving Tour. He’s an artist that is still pursuing what interests him most and is still expressing himself in unique ways. During our Skype session, we talked about his new record, a performance with artist and No Wave legend James Narris, getting in touch with his feminine side, and getting starstruck by Robert Plant.

NT: You just played a show for MoMa Ps1’s NY Art Book Fair. How did that go?

TM: It was really cool. I played a guitar duo with James Narris. He’s a well-established painter in the world – he has a current exhibit up in Manhattan. He was also the original guitarist in the Contortions in 1976/77. He lived with Lydia Lunch, Pat Place, and James Chance. God, I think I saw him play with the Contortions at the X Magazine benefit, which was this significant No Wave night at the Millenium Film Archive or whatever it was called. For me to recall James back then would be kind of stretching it, but I do recall seiing him walking around the streets of New York. I always thought he was like a mean, scowling No Wave guy. As it turns out, he’s a pussy cat. He’s a English gentleman, he’s lived here since 1974. He makes beautiful color paintings that are all like these beautiful strokes that he does. He’s someone that I’ve been connected with the past few years. I did the soundtrack to this street photography film piece he did called Street.

Anyway, we’re friends and I was going to do something at the [MoMA PS1] Book Fair and I was thinking of things I could do since my band wasn’t readily available. And I thought I would ask James because we talked about jamming a guitar at his house so I figured why don’t we play something at this event. And he said “yes which was good news because he hasn’t played on stage since the 70s. So we got together at his place the day before and played without amplification really, and I was like “Don’t worry, this will be good.  I like what you’re playing and I can do anything with it.” He was sort of clawing at these fractured blues licks and sliding around on the neck, and I interweaved some more controlled feedback moves. So we played for a half hour and really went for it. It was really fun. It was kind of a wet night, but everything was all covered.

NT: Have you played out the songs from The Best Day yet? I know you recently premiered “Forevermore” with your guitarist, James Sedwards at a show.

TM: Yeah, living in London allows me to do shows around there and Europe a little easier, so all it takes really is just flying in Steven [Shelley] from New Jersey and all of a sudden, we’re ready to rock. I had booked some summer festival slots for myself earlier in the year, not really sure what I was going to do on them, but as it turned out the band sort of got together and was there which was very exciting, so we played this festival shows and it was great. Coming out on stage and feeling the audience’s attention to like, “Oh, Steve Shelley’s up there. Oh, Deb Googe just came out, from My Bloody Valentine.” All of a sudden there’s this interest in that it’s a real band with real songs.

NT: And what are the songs that you guys have been playing?

TM: Just playing the record. And there’s a couple of songs from Psychic Hearts, which is a record I did in ’95 that Steve plays on. And when I play with different musicians….Like I was playing with Chelsea Light Moving even, as a band, the musicians would be like, “Can we do some of those songs [from Psychic Hearts]? That was such a weird, minimal record that I did…

NT: True, but I feel Psychic Hearts is the most band-based solo record you’ve made up until this new one.

TM: They’re certainly more direct, and there’s a certain sense of fun in those songs too. So we do a couple of those and flesh the set out to a certain degree. But I need to write some new songs, and I want to. I wrote these songs last year not knowing what musicians would be playing them. They were written just for me, and then I brought in the second guitar and then Steve came on board, and Deb came on board. It’s a really good band.

NT: I feel like The Best Day is more like the proper followup to the The Eternal. Would you agree?

TM: It’s an interesting perspective… The Eternal being a Sonic Youth record, I could never think of anything I do solo as being an extension of that because Sonic Youth is such a dynamic sum of the individuals. It’s a band that existed in such a major groupthink, that I don’t find that anything I do outside of that works on that level. And I don’t really want it to work on that level. I don’t really want to replicate that. That’s something that only exists through history because it only exists because it was people in their early 20s working together until they’re well into their 50s. That kind of history creates a band dynamic that could only exist because of that history of working together and progressing and developing. So I realize that’s something I don’t really feel I want to recapture or replicate. I feel like I don’t really need to do that again. I feel like that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So anything else I do primarily is just personal. So no, I don’t see it coming so much out of The Eternal so much, I see it more coming out of possible Trees Outside of the Academy into Demolished Thoughts and sort of racing through Chelsea Light Moving. And in a way it comes from creating a distance from anything, both solo work and Sonic Youth combined. Just having some contemplative time, being in London for a year and waiting for some kind of muse to take me to the next songwriting place. So that’s kind of what it was. So it sort of stands alone, but musically, the way I’m sort of writing songs with guitar, there’s some sort of relationship with some of the songwriting that was going on during The Eternal. At least on my end.

NT: Yeah, I mean there are things on this record that sound nothing at all like Sonic Youth, and others that are very much so. It’s interesting though to hear the more Sonic Youth-sounding ones interplay with the new musicians. For instance, the song “The Best Day” features a lead guitar by James Sedwards that is way more traditionalist rock and is unlike the kind of leading that you or Lee Ranaldo would ever do.

TM: That kind of guitar solo style of playing that James is very good at – that would never exist on a Sonic Youth record. There was no lead guitar in Sonic Youth. Lee and I had our playing styles. Lee would have – not so much lead guitar overdubs  — they were just guitar. They were more Lee guitar [laughs]. He was so idiosyncratic to his own amazing playing style which is unlike anybody else’s, whereas as James has reference to more traditional playing, which I like! Sonic Youth was always this hybrid of honoring tradition and completely going into radical territory, but we never got into anything that could exist on a Sonic Youth record, that could exist on say, a Ten Years After record. When I heard James play that lead I was like “Dude, that sounded straight off some classic rock record.” I loved it so much in which I felt like I was totally undervaluing him. I was like, “You should be playing lead on like every song, all the time” [laughs]. The next record could end up being the unleashing of James Sedwards.

NT: Some of the lyrics on this record are credited to Radieux Radio. Can you tell me about this person?

TM: A poet from London who lives in my neighborhood. I work a lot with different poets. I did was a 7-inch called “Detonation” that a small label in London put out called Blank Editions. I was just working together with Radieux Radio using this poem about this local activity that had happened in the early 70s in London with the Stoke Newington Eight. So Radieux Radio had this piece of writing, and I sort of jammed it into this riff I was working on. I t was all done on assignment almost – this guy wanted me to do a 7-inch. I really wasn’t doing anything, so I was figuring out what I was going to do. So it was my first foray in the studio. So I brought James in, and I brought this guy Steve Door in and had him drum on it. So that’s what got the fire started. And then I did a song on the other side called “Germs Burn” which is quite different than the one on [The Best Day]. I hate to say it, but I prefer the version of the 7-inch, only from the point of view of the vocals. The vocals really are great on the 7-inch. My least favorite vocal performance is on [the album version of] “Germs Burn” which is why I put it on the very end.

NT: You and Radieux Radio collaborated lyrically on a few songs on the album, some of which are completely written by Radieux that you sing. Did you collaborate lyrically like that with Kim Gordon?

TM: Sometimes. Mostly it was whoever was singing had written those lyrics. There were instances where someone would write lyrics for the other person to have to use.

NT: Can you give me an example?

TM: “The Ineffable Me.” I wrote those lyrics and I think Kim was struggling with lyrics on that song and I could see the struggle going on, so I wrote them as a takeoff of Steve Malkmus-writing. I was like, “I’m going to write some Malkmus-ian lyrics for you to sing” [laughs]. I thought that would be something she’d appreciate. I purposely put male-lines in there. I always liked that kind of shift. Like when I heard the Slits singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” They don’t change the genders. Sometimes when I write lyrics, I like to put myself in a more feminine state of mind, or I try to have the text as if it were written from a feminine perspective, or what I believe to be feminine. It will actively change the nature of the lyric, which I like and actually feel more comfortable with.  I feel like I can sort of cross-dress in lyrics a bit, which is kind of okay.

NT: That’s a thing I’ve always admired about Stephin Merritt’s lyrics, but it’s also something that will annoy me with covers of songs – when the performer decides to switch the pronouns. It always seems a little over thought.

TM: Yeah, like when they do it, it’s like…eh, I don’t know…

NT: Yeah, like Johnny Thunders’ cover of “Great Big Kiss.” He switches the pronouns and it kind of takes me out of it.

TM: I’ve been thinking about Johnny Thunders lately because I used to see him a lot in the 70s. He also did a cover of [singing] “Do You Love Me?” They [Johnny Thunders’ band the Heartbreakers] always did such a great, trashy version of that. Maybe I should break out a Heartbreakers cover or something like that [for the tour].

NT: You should. I don’t think anyone would expect it really.

TM: I mean those are my real New York roots. I used to see Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers a lot. I was thinking about that recently, it’d be really good.

NT: It was always cool hearing Sonic Youth do covers because you guys had such a unique filter. Something like “Hot Wire My Heart” for instance maintained the original’s punkiness but still felt very much at home on Sister.

TM: Yeah, I like that one. Yeah, It was also just sort of letting you know the band was having some fun, like when we did “Bubblegum” a little earlier.

NT: I feel like with Chelsea Light Moving, it was a bit more a punky exercise than a proper Thurston Moore record.

TM: It was a really quick outcome of the wind down of the Demolished Thoughts tour. It was still John Moloney, and it was still Samara Lubleski, and it was still Keith Wood. But it was switching to electric guitars, violin to bass, and brushes to sticks. And I knew that I was going to move my home base from New York to London, so in the interim it was like, “Let’s just do something quick and fast with this.” Again, I didn’t feel like it had the same intention of the other solo records, like a new book of songs. It was more like these quick pieces that had these sort of Dada lyrics taken from various sources, like reading titles off of book spines and making lyrics out of them. These kind of exercises, making these fast and hard songs, and just recording them in one day and then just booking these little tours here and there, and just travelling in a van and playing in all these different basements.  And it was fun being in this kind of band, but it was also a little difficult for me because I had no sort of protection from…a lot of…lets just put it this way: a lot of zanies that have immediate access to getting up in my grill [laughs].

NT: Is avoiding people like that usually difficult?

TM: In a way it was a little hard to get a way from that. It’s only two or three at a time in every city, but it’s just enough to really wear you down where you can’t talk to your friends.

It’s not that bad, but it was just like…to me, it’s a little hard to be going from day-to-day touring in a van and being anonymous. Because you can’t be anonymous because of whatever profile Sonic Youth has given me. Maybe I was naïve in thinking that I could get through a couple weeks of touring playing in these tiny punker clubs, with my punker band Chelsea Light Moving [laughs]. I always say that the first people who want to talk to you are the last people you want to be talking to. I see friends or other people and they understand the respective of propriety of space. But there’s always some real wack-a-doos that want to just get up in your face. And there’s the onslaught of the iPhone camera. Which is like, what are you gonna do about that?

NT: Yeah, I mean now, everyone wants a photo.

TM: For me, you get into a situation where it’s like a photo session. It’s like 50 people want to have a photo and that’s like an hour of activity of posing for photographs while the rest of your band is out having a delicious lunch somewhere. And they don’t understand your gripe about it like, “Oh, you should be happy that people are interested in what you’re doing.” And it’s like “Dude…”

And you know, it’s a wonderful complaint to have, where people are digging what you’re doing. But it basically I feel like I need to focus on what I’m doing on the presentation with music and the band and sometimes it’s hard to do…but that’s just the way it is. It’s so minor for me because when I think of friends of mine who are super successful in music, be it somebody like Beck or Dave Grohl, or whoever. These guys really can’t go away from their dressing room into the real world. They have to leave through the back door, get into their car service and go to the safety of their hotel, and maybe if they’re lucky, they could go out to a book store or record store some time in the afternoon. But it gets tougher. I’m not sure if that’s something I want in my life to any more degree than I have it. I mean I have it pretty good. I can go out generally and everything will be okay. At least once a day, somebody will say something, and it’s usually always very kind, so it’s not so much an issue. But I can’t imagine not having the freedom to just be able to go to the Strand bookstore and just spend a few hours there or something.

NT: Well as you mentioned with Beck or Dave Grohl – I mean, can’t picture them doing anything normal ever. I just feel they are so recognizable at this point.

TM: I saw Robert Plant the other day on the Bowery and it was indoors somewhere and I was doing an interview, and he was in the lobby of the hotel. And in a way, I felt my brain sort of freezing, like I can’t continue saying what I was saying because there was this person who is such an iconic presence in the room, that all I can so is shut down a little bit. You know, and of course I didn’t get up and go like, “Hey man, let me take a selfie with you,” because I’m sure he gets that quite a fucking bit. And he also just had this look on his face like, “I’m here, because I know I’m safe here and nobody better come up to me.” But at the same time, I had that feeling where you sort of react to somebody that means a lot to you for what they’ve done, even though I know that he’s just a guy, who is no different than the other guy in the room as far as him just being a person.

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