Spirit Music: A Conversation With Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore
Thurston Moore talks with PopMatters about age, experience, musical partnerships, and new album Rock n Roll Consciousness.
Three decades with Sonic Youth and a discography totaling hundreds of band, solo, and collaborative releases are the facts of Thurston Moore’s standing as a rock 'n' roll lifer. His career as a musician is as exploratory as his approach to guitar rock is distinctive. So his influence on contemporaries and a generation that has grown up with his music is not so much a map to follow as it is an intangible, motivating spirit.
Now that the numbers are in on rock's waning commercial potential, a musical perspective like Moore's is arguably more valuable than ever. His place in rock history is not determined by chart hits or the context of entertainment designed to sell and repackage. His particular way of articulating what rock 'n' roll is, apart from those measures, continues with latest solo release Rock n Roll Consciousness.
The present tour features the album lineup of guitarist/singer Moore, fellow guitarist James Sedwards (Nought), bassist/singer Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine), and drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth). I ask Moore if the five songs that make up Rock n Roll Consciousness are continuing to develop in the band's recent live shows, as well as what other material the group is exploring in their set lists. "Yeah," he responds, "they have been certainly taking on completely new dimensions since we recorded them. We recorded them quite a while ago, like 2015... it's always the case that when you play songs live after a record comes out they further develop. They certainly become more expansive. They become something newer each time you play them or at least every ten times you play them, maybe."
Of the set lists for the live dates, he says "We're pretty much just playing the songs from Rock n Roll Consciousness and one song from The Best Day and a couple of songs from Psychic Hearts which is a record I did in 1995 with Steve Shelley and Tim Foljahn as a trio. That's about it. I mean, there are other songs from Best Day that we could do. There are some songs from Demolished Thoughts, songs from Trees Outside the Academy that we could look at, but we've been focusing on primarily playing the songs from Rock n Roll Consciousness."
Rock n Roll Consciousness is an album constructed to highlight each player's strengths, with precise performances in the service of songs that often sound like jams. Moore describes his process of composing the songs, saying, "Basically, I will come up with a song, primarily a song structure and show it to the other musicians -- Steve, James Edwards, Deb Googe -- and allow them to use their expertise as musicians to come up with parts. I don't write parts for other musicians; that's for sure. I could be of some directorial guidance, you know, my name is on the top of the marquee, I could [exercise] some power that way but I generally don’t, I don't think."
Moore explains that the band members' mutual awareness of one another contributes to the sense of trust and cohesion of the project. "The reason I'm playing with these guys is how they play and I trust them to come up to each one's personal brilliance. So that's how it is. We're not like a new band who, we just got together and we're in our early twenties and all discovering each other's abilities. We were all aware of each other's abilities through the last thirty years or so. It's a completely different dynamic than having a new band. We're kind of like a new, old band. I was thinking of actually calling this record We are the New Old. But Rock n Roll Consciousness won over."
For this group of veteran musicians, each equipped with a deep musical past and associated with other known bands/brands, there is the option to embrace the well of experience or to steer away from it. Moore says of their individual and collective experiences, "I think it completely benefits us as a band. I think there's no real replacement for experience. That's certainly what we generate as a group, is that we have this experience, both separate and together. That's not something that I could say about even the beginnings of Sonic Youth or maybe Deb would say about the beginnings of My Bloody Valentine. We went in there pretty young and pretty raw and lived that experience. That experience developed. So coming into a group like this, you have that benefit of what experience brings to a project like this. You embrace that, for sure."
Moore reflects on how matters of age and experience influenced his own beginnings in rock 'n' roll, saying "When I was younger, and when Sonic Youth was first starting, I was always sort of in awe of bands that had been around for a decade or so, who had that experience. You learn from it, you watch them. It's just part of sticking to it, in a way. A lot of musicians I know from twenty years ago, I don't even know where they are anymore. I mean, they don't really make themselves public as [being] musicians. Some do, some don't. I think I realized pretty early on that I wanted to be devotional to it and have it be something that would always be a day-one, you know? When I would hear about even a writer like William Burroughs writing his first novel in his forties or certain blues musicians whose music wasn't really heard outside their homes until they were well into their 50s or 60s, these kinds of things. That was always amazing to me, that it wasn't just a young man's game."
As we talk more about age and time in music and entertainment, Moore again frames the issue as not so much about the young versus the aged but about being new as opposed to being experienced. In his view, one key to staying active is to stay aware of one's position along that scale. I ask if being the New Old could then be a subversive act in a popular culture landscape fixated with youth. He says, "That's what it is. To me it's like, nothing can replicate a young band who are just beginning, and making mistakes and being really raw, almost like a deer wobbling on its legs onstage, and falling down and getting up. That's only real that one time. You can't really replicate that. You can pretend you're that, I guess, but you can't really replicate that. You really are only new once. You can renew in different ways.
"You know I could go out and write a chainsaw symphony and have it be something that's new," he continues. "But I've still kind of been around for a while, and so in a way, it's like it's a trade-off. You're either, new and fascinating as a raw thing, or you're kind of like, well-experienced and know what you're doing as somebody who's grown and grown up with it. I like both things. There are so many great bands that are just starting out, more so than ever, when I see what's going on out there. But the spotlight in the industry on youth culture is basically this high-entertainment stuff like Justin Bieber, which I just sort of see that as television culture. I don't think of it as interesting rock 'n' roll music. It's entertainment. I don't have any problem with it. It doesn't really float my boat."
As an alternative to that sort of entertainment culture, Moore points out essential characteristics of certain longtime artists that have remained relevant regardless of age. "For me, people of my age or older, who are in their 60s and 70s, in a way I find, they were radicals in the '60s. So Neil Young and Yoko Ono, who were doing radical music and art in the '60s and '70s, are still doing it. That's really amazing to me. Sonic Youth had a song that I wrote lyrics for called 'Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style'. It was kind of based on this theory, as it were. [laughs]
"In a way," he continues, "the older that the radical punk rockers got, they still remained radical. [Emerging] bands were New Wave, which wasn't radical. But there's always an underground that's really interesting, that has no ambitions towards being in the charts or being top of the pops or being famous by industry standards. They just kind of want to be. They just want to be artists, be musicians; they embrace the poverty that comes with that decision. It's not about becoming rich and famous or following in the footsteps of somebody like Justin Bieber. I'm sure there are people who want to do that. God bless them. From my interest and perspective, there are so many great bands that are not about seeking fame and fortune. They're just seeking to make good music and good art."
Rock n Roll Consciousness is conspicuously crafted around concepts of love, positive energy, and sacredness, which are emphasized in the lyrical content and the promotional materials. Yet despite the overt way the album functions as a statement on these attributes, Moore says he's not overly concerned with guiding expectations for how an album should be received. He explains, "I don't really put too much credence in how people interpret records as documents because they're at once very personal but at the same time they're very public. So there's this kind of balance between those two that I've come to realize is okay, so I don't take criticism too personally unless it's mean-spirited for the sake of being cutting. I don't really have time for that.
"But I'm always interested in what journalists have to say because I came up in music journalism. When I was a teenager in the '70s, it was the rock writers who were working as the rock performers. So you had people like Patti Smith and Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs writing about music in the same way that musicians were actually playing the music. It was a really nice relationship, and I still think there are a lot of writers who have that relationship with music. They write in the same vocabulary as musicians who are playing it. It's a shared critique of life. In that sense, when I write songs or make a record, I mean at this point I really think about it as being involved in this legacy of rock 'n' roll music that I always thought of as really spirit music."
Ultimately it is this phrase "spirit music" that sums up the album Moore has made as well as the tradition that influenced it. Rock n Roll Consciousness, he says, "is all about looking at rock 'n' roll as spirit music in the way that it was founded with gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and early rock 'n' roll and then becoming more involved with artful exercises where you had people coming into a more academic idea of art rock. That was really fascinating for me, coming up.
Surely, a band like Television or Patti Smith Group in the '70s, they were really interested in creating transcendent spirit music. But they were very well-educated musicians bringing in artful ideas. Whereas somebody like Richard Hell or even somebody like John Lydon or Joe Strummer or the women in the Slits and the Raincoats, these bands were all so significant, I think, in the '70s, who were all about making music that was about being really spirited yet actually artful, almost nerdy or egg-heady, you know? I've always liked that aspect of rock 'n' roll music, that's what informs me more than anything, I think -- trying to have that balance between traditional ideas and unorthodox ideas."
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I note that the selection of Paul Epworth, a writer and producer of many high-profile pop records, to record the album might be one example of balancing traditional ideas with unorthodox ideas. "Well, it certainly worked that way," he says. "I mean the only reason Paul Epworth came into the process is because Mark Stewart from The Pop Group hipped me to him. I didn't know anything about him. But I found out soon enough. His pedigree as a pop producer for such successful acts as Adele isn't really what sold me. What sold me was how he ran his studio, and what his studio was, in this cathedral in North London. He was very welcoming, and I felt like I could trust his expertise as a studio producer and his coterie of engineers, the equipment he had.
"But I didn't really care about his pedigree," he notes, "I mean I respect it and appreciate it, but it's not why I wanted to work with him. I wanted to work with him because he had the best studio I've ever been in. [laughs] He was great to work with. He was really conscientious. He's a drummer, so he really made sure Steve's drums were always sounding to the best of their ability as far as his studio was concerned. He was always focused on how they were being mic'd, how the mics were placed -- that's really important and he made sure that if you push a button, it's going to work. That's important, too. That's not a reality at a lot of the studios."
Though Epworth is a top-shelf producer, Moore says that he generally prioritizes his rapport with collaborators over the sound of the recording and that Epworth fit that criterion as well. "I'm not so much a sound enthusiast where I know what I'm talking about when it comes to gear. But primarily I'm more entrusting of, who the person is that is dealing with it. I knew right away that Paul Epworth knew what he was working with. You know, when he shows me these two analog consoles that he has in his studio, and what their history is with the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, that's all I need to know, really."
"But the intricacies of it I'm not really that interested in," he says. "I've never been a gearhead. I don't haunt music stores like most musicians I know do. I don't mind it, but it doesn't entrance me as much as maybe people think it does [laughs]. So even when I did Demolished Thoughts working with Beck it was because I felt working with Beck would be interesting just by dint of our personalities together as opposed to any technical aspects of it. Because we knew each other for so many years and then he mentioned that he was doing recordings in his studio in his house in California. I had some idea of making a solo record, and that's how Demolished Thoughts began. But it was almost like happenstance, having a discussion with somebody who you were friendly with for a number of years who was really very involved with a lot of technicalities of recording, certainly more so than I was.
"So I knew Beck had those kinds of ears," he continues, "and so I realized that I could trust him. If I went into his studio, he was really going to be listening. And he did. More so than Paul Epworth, I let him actually give his flavor to that record. I kind of wanted that. I had known Beck for a long time and I really liked his aesthetic and when I did Demolished Thoughts I was like, 'I want you do to whatever you want to do with this recording. With the way it sounds.' Of course I had to thumbs up/thumbs down a couple of things but for the most part I wanted it to be Beck's production. With Rock n Roll Consciousness it was more collaborative because ourselves and Paul Epworth and certainly with the mixing that was done with Randall Dunn in Seattle."
The Rock n Roll Consciousness tour will continue with autumn dates in Japan and the United States. The tour line-up is being promoted as the Thurston Moore Experience and the Thurston Moore Group -- echoes of Moore's observations about experience and collaboration.