The SPIN Interview: Thurston Moore
With a stripped-down solo album and an unlikely partnership with Starbucks, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore — the perpetually boyish elder of underground rock — embraces the new reality: "I don't care if it's Dunkin' Donuts, those guys are selling CDs."
Thurston Moore has got a lot on his plate: He writes and edits books (the latest, Punk House: Anarchist Interiors, comes out in October); he runs Ecstatic Peace! Records; he jams with countless ad hoc improv groups; and, oh yeah, he has played guitar and sung in Sonic Youth for nearly 25 years. The band — which also features drummer Steve Shelley, singer/guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and Moore’s wife, Kim Gordon, who sings and plays bass and guitar — has been hitting the festival circuit lately, performing their 1988 double album, Daydream Nation, in its entirety. Next year they’re putting out a compilation, Hits Are for Squares, through Starbucks, of all places, with celebs like Beck, Dave Eggers, and Michelle Williams picking their favorite SY tracks for the caffeinated masses.
But on this humid summer morning at his airy SoHo loft (now largely empty, since he, Kim, and their daughter, Coco, lit out for the leafy environs of Northhampton, Massachusetts, a few years ago), Moore, 49, is sifting through graphics he created for his upcoming second solo album, Trees Outside the Academy — photos lifted from old magazines, each paired with the lyrics to a different song. There’s Brian Eno in his mulleted glam phase, Allen Ginsberg sporting an Uncle Sam hat, ’70s rocker Suzi Quatro oozing blow-dried ennui. But there’s no way he’ll be able to afford the rights to every picture. “Maybe I should package it with the CD, but put NOT FOR SALE on it,” he says. “You’re buying the CD, and this is just a free thing that comes with it. I wonder if I could get away with that. There’s always some way of getting around these things.”
Both of your solo records are sweeter than a lot of your Sonic Youth stuff. Why is that?
Probably they’re more personally naked because I know that [the solo albums] are not a shared game. I don’t ever want people to say, “Oh, there’s Thurston singing his song with Sonic Youth.” And I don’t think people ever get that impression. I consciously, at some point in the ’80s, decided to put myself on the side of the stage, instead of in the middle. Because I never wanted to be the focal point. I tend to be the focal point anyway, because I’m, you know, whatever.
Speaking of nakedness, the backbone of Trees Outside the Academy is the acoustic guitar. I’m reminded of that old cliché that it’s not a real song unless you can play it on acoustic guitar.
I never thought about it that way.
Of course you didn’t. I’m talking to probably the person who least believes that in the entire world!
[Laughs] Yeah. On the last two or three Sonic Youth albums, the songs I brought in were generated on an acoustic guitar. Also, I would do a solo gig on acoustic guitar and get a good response. There I was with an acoustic guitar, but I was still tuning it to Sonic Youth-y tunings. At some point, I was like, “I’m gonna make an acoustic guitar album.” Everything was constructed on acoustic guitar, and then I decided to use a violin. I asked Samara Lubelski, who I had seen play throughout the years. I was thinking of different instrumentation, to bring in piano, horns, anything. But for the sake of economy, and the time I had to record, it basically came down to the core trio of me, Steve [Shelley], and Samara.
And you’ve got some arty guests.
But those people are just, like, people who live in my house. Christina Carter [from Texas psych rockers Charalambides] lives on my third floor. Andrew MacGregor, who records as Gown, was also living on my third floor. He recently relocated to Canada, and now John Moloney from Sunburned Hand of the Man lives there. We were recording at [Bisquiteen Studio in] J Mascis’ house, and J just happened to be around, so whenever I’d say, “This would sound really fucking good if there was a shredding lead right here,” I’d get on my cell phone and call downstairs. “J, you still there? Can you come listen? It would sound good if you were playing on this thing.” And he’d say, “Hey, maybe in a minute.” He’d come up, and while we were playing him the part, he’d already plugged everything in, and he’s sitting on the couch just kicked back, and as soon as the song starts, he starts killing on it. And John Agnello, the engineer, and I would just look at each other and say, “Okay, thanks, buddy, we’ve got it!” And then he’d go back downstairs and play guitar all day.
On the last track, “Thurston at 13,” you say, “Listen to the sound / Here’s something for your ears to taste.” Even then, 36 years ago, you’re experimenting.
“Here’s the sound of a rubber band.” But you don’t hear anything, because there is no sound! There I am in Bethel, Connecticut, in my bedroom — I don’t have any friends, but I do have a tape recorder!
And then you say, “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
Yeah, I guess that does kind of say it all. Maybe that was my ultimate statement — at 13. [Laughs]
You’ve been playing loud electric music for over 25 years. Maybe you’re picking up acoustic guitar because your ears are ringing?
Not so much because my ears are ringing, but maybe because it’s as extreme as doing the very loud thing. And doing it with similar intent: The idea of making really quiet music became something really radical. I like that it’s considered extreme to play acoustic guitar.
Some might say you’re mellowing. You’re coming up on 50. How long can you rock?
I don’t know, I’m playing with Yoko Ono, and she’s well past 70 and she rocks. Neil Young still rocks. We wrote a song a couple albums ago called “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” which is all about how the radical young rock people of the old days were, like, Yoko Ono and Neil Young — and the radical rock people of these days are…Yoko Ono and Neil Young. It’s certainly not John Mayer and Avril Lavigne. Those people don’t rock. If that’s the young generation in the culture, then fuck it. So, in a way, the radicalized rock culture of the past is the radicalized rock culture of now. And the radicalized youth culture of now, at least in the mainstream — it’s so commercialized. In the underground, it’s not ageist. In the underground, the old guys are cool. I like the fact that the older we get, the more we can rock.
Your 1988 album Daydream Nation — which you’ve recently been playing in concert in its entirety — was a big statement. Even the title is a political, cultural statement. And here you are, these marginalized artists, saying these things.
Yeah, it was statement-oriented, but we didn’t think, “This is gonna blow minds.” We knew that it was a pretty audacious record to put out at the time. But we didn’t realize what the feedback was gonna be. And I don’t think we ever did, until the [Village Voice] Pazz & Jop Poll put it at No. 2, below Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions. All of a sudden, it became real to us — that people were appreciating the record in a way that was beyond our expectations. That was as big as it could ever get for us.
What’s it like to now play stuff you may have completely forgotten? Are you amazed at what you came up with, or aghast at how primitive you were?
Both. I mean, listening to the [Daydream Nation] master tapes, I was amazed at how crude my guitar takes were. Especially “Rain King,” which I had to decode — like, “What the fuck tuning was that and where were my fingers on the guitar?” Because it sounded like I was playing rotten guitar strings on a piece of wood. And then it would break into this kind of hard-rock riff. But it was just so spastic all through the song. And “The Sprawl” and ” ‘Cross the Breeze” were two songs that we hadn’t really played since those days. I had to really listen closely to them to figure out what the tunings were. It was just really weird, finding old notations in scrapbooks and on pieces of paper, like these ancient texts. It sounds great, but when you listen to just one element of it, like my guitar, it sounds like I don’t know how to play, like I’m playing with gloves on. I would never accept a guitar take like that today. And it sounds crappy, too, the way it’s recorded.
You mentioned earlier that you try to move on, artistically. But isn’t playing Daydream Nation live rather nostalgic?
I didn’t really want to do it at first. It took a lot of influence for me to do it. I thought it would be taking up too much time from us doing something new and progressive. And I really don’t like the idea, kind of like the Beatlemania thing. I had more anxiety and apprehension about learning the old songs, which was kind of a chore. But then I started getting really into figuring them out, and where I was as a guitar player and as a band person in 1988, in that scene. And it was kind of inspiring, and it brought back this groundedness in this music existing at a point when we didn’t have any responsibilities, like parenthood — we were really on the loose. We were just trying to get out of the dishwashing business, and maybe be able to stay in the van all the time and pay bills that way, if we could. There’s a certain glory in that innocence, and that feeling was there when we were reconstructing this music again.
What made you say yes?
Well, it was partly Barry Hogan, who promotes [the festivals] All Tomorrow’s Parties. He started doing an event called “Don’t Look Back” in London. He had the Stooges do Fun House. He really wanted us to do Daydream Nation, and I was balking. But I do work with Barry — I curated a few of his ATPs — and we decided to do it. It seemed like it could be fun, if we didn’t do too many of them. As soon as we did the London one, though, our European booking agent told us, “If you come over in the summer, I can get you some festival gigs,” which is always how you make a little money in the summer, to get you through your year. And he said, “Some of these festivals found out that you’re doing Daydream Nation in London. And they’ll give you an extra few thousand bucks if you do Daydream Nation.” And we were like, “Well, we don’t really want to do it at a festival.” Because a festival audience is a bunch of drunken people coming out and hearing these truncated sets by these bands, one after the other, and there’s no soundcheck. Usually, it’s on the precipice of being a disaster. Something like Daydream Nation might not work in a setting like that. But we did some festivals; our first show was in Barcelona, and it worked. I feel conflicted, because this is not us now; this is us doing this thing. But then we come out for an encore and do a large chunk of new material, from Rather Ripped, and all of a sudden, it’s pogo city.
There’s this trend of bands playing their whole album — even Queensrÿche is doing Operation: Mindcrime and its sequel. Why is this happening now?
It seems like it’s a trend, but there’s a lot of history that’s gone by since, say, 1980 — there’s almost 30 years there. It’s a way of people appreciating that trajectory of the music scene. In a way, it’s more interesting than a reunion tour. The Pixies reunion was a real success, and Dinosaur Jr. seems like a big success, and both those bands play as good as they ever did. Mission of Burma blew my mind when they came back. But a band like us never did break up. Which was to our own [detriment]. What would have happened if we did break up after Daydream Nation — or even after Dirty — and had gotten back together two years ago? You wouldn’t be interviewing me here. You’d be interviewing me at the Chateau Marmont as I’m waiting for my limousine. We probably would have made so much money. That was our biggest career faux pas: not breaking up.
I see a parallel between Sonic Youth and — forgive me — the Grateful Dead. It’s a similar thing, where you could just go on playing forever, to a large, loyal audience who like new stuff and are up for a lot of improvisation.
I’ve always felt a certain reverence for the Grateful Dead scene. But we didn’t have the countercultural mass that the Grateful Dead had. When counterculture in the ’60s happened, all the major media went to it. You know, Time, Life — everybody featured it and said to the youth of the world, “Look what’s over here, this could be you, this could be your own world.” And people flocked to it. I think with our scene, coming out of a nihilist ’70s rock thing, the record labels were already sort of corporatized. It wasn’t like an independent-label game anymore. ‘Cause all those labels in the ’60s, they were kind of independent label ventures anyway. By the ’70s, it wasn’t like that. There was also no way that the media was going to point to it and say “Here is the new youth culture.” It was more like, “Here is this really weird marginal thing happening: punk rock.” Punk did become as influential as hippie culture, but at the time, it was really kept at bay.
One thing you seem to share with your old-school punk peers Ian Mackaye and Steve Albini and Mike Watt is a real work ethic. Do you see younger bands today with that same drive, or was that a product of the ’80s underground?
I think we all influenced each other that way, but I always wondered if that work ethic would have been necessary if we had been able to cash in. None of us get rich off what we’re doing. The original do-it-yourself model of punk rock — make your own record, your own fanzine — really made an impression, and as a teenager, it was much cooler than the all-expenses-paid rock-star trip, which, in a way, made us like a gang. To me, that stuff is not too dissimilar from songwriting. Of all the people you mentioned, I would think Albini makes the most revenue because his [production] work is more industry-based, but I certainly have the desire not to work. To me, making records and making books is its own creative measure. But I would certainly love something to happen that brings a windfall, so all I would have to do is designate others to do the work. I would love that, but I don’t foresee it happening.
So, the rap against Starbucks is that it has made New York more generic. And you guys, up until recently, were quintessentially New York. How did you get involved with them?
The only reason I thought it would be a good idea is, the record companies aren’t doing anything [to get] our records out beyond where they already are. Chains like Tower started going under, and record companies have no working relationship with independent retailers, who we already have a history with. So, if I could get a CD into Starbucks — I kind of liked the absurdity of Sonic Youth coexisting with the mainstream like that. I don’t care if it’s Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, those guys are selling CDs. But a lot of people have this [hang-up]: “Oh, they’re corporate.” But what do you think [Geffen parent] Universal Music is? That it isn’t a corporate enterprise? And we’ve been involved with them for years. People pick and choose who’s more evil than who in the global economy.
You consulted on Gus Van Sant’s film Last Days and advised Michael Pitt, who delivered a spot-on impersonation of your friend Kurt Cobain. Did working on the film help sew up some things for you?
Well, Kurt’s hardly the only person I’ve known through the years who’s gone by the wayside. I do find it almost hard to believe that he was even there, because it was such a short period of time. His ascendancy was so quick — all of a sudden everybody knew this person that we knew. And then all of a sudden it was over. It’s funny you mention it, because I actually just received this. [He digs through his hard drive and locates a Charles Peterson photograph of Cobain backstage with Kim Gordon.] I was looking at this the other day. He had a really deep soul. And even though he was just another one of the gang, everyone knew that he had just something a little extra going on.
Just look at his face — he’s really paying attention to Kim.
He respected her a lot. And he really adored her. I knew Kurt, but it wasn’t that intimate a relationship. I mean, we spent a lot of time together when we were on tour and we kept connected, but I think [his death] was a lot more emotional for her. My thing with Kurt was a couple of goofy guys jumping around with each other, whereas they had something deeper. I remember having to make that phone call to Kim. She was doing a photo shoot or something. And she was pregnant, and it was heavy — it was very, very heavy. I just remember going out and walking around…going to [Manhattan record and video store] Kim’s Underground on Bleecker Street in a daze. Two or three hours after I got the call, the guy behind the counter at Kim’s got on the phone, and I could hear him saying, “Are you kidding me?” I could hear him getting the information. And it was just like, I gotta get out of here. And there was nowhere I could go.
You have a famously great marriage, which is virtually unheard of for a rock star, particularly when the spouse is also a bandmate. What’s your secret?
There’s no secret. We’ve never sold each other out on anything. I can easily follow the allure of wanting to go out and be with the boys, and play industrial noise and smoke pot and drink, but nothing replaces the reality of our relationship. I can’t trade that for anything. I can’t think of how or where I’d be without Kim’s influence. And we’re like any couple that’s been together for close to 30 years. There’s a genuine psychophysical connection. Sometimes I feel things happening in me, and I know that something’s going on with her. When you’re married and you have that kind of connection, you become really spiritually, psychologically connected. We grew up together, in a way.
You’re also a father to 13-year-old Coco. How do you juggle all of that?
Well the husband/father thing is primary. And it gets problematic, because I get asked to do a lot [outside the band]: “Will you play with me at the Hook?” “Can you fly to this little experimental music festival in Europe and play with these guys?” And it’s these guys that I would love to spend the weekend playing with — “Yeah, I’ll do it!” And before I know it, every weekend for two months is me bouncing around — and that’s not cool. I’m not a traveling salesman. I can’t do this, I’m not a single man. So in the last couple years, I’ve really put the kibosh on that, because I saw it really interfering with my home relationship. I’m not gonna walk away from that just to play noise with a bunch of dudes in Belgium.