For nearly three decades, Thurston Moore led the hugely influential Sonic Youth, the only “noise” band to ever appear on The Simpsons. His highly unorthodox guitar tunings and preparations (such as mutilating his instrument with various power tools to made squalling feedback onstage) helped create the very idea of alternative rock, and once Steve Shelley was solidified as the band’s drummer in the mid-’80s, they made mostly great (and always good) albums for the remainder of their career, which was put on indefinite hiatus after 2009’s The Eternal, following news of Moore’s separation from his iconic bandmate and wife Kim Gordon.
He’s since released the acoustic, Beck-produced Demolished Thoughts under his own name and a metal-edged eponymous album as Chelsea Light Moving with guitarist Keith Wood (Hush Arbors), multi-instrumentalist Samara Lubelski, and drummer John Moloney (Sunburned Hand of the Man). Last week, he released his fourth solo album, The Best Day, with Shelley returning on drums, James Sedwards on guitar, and My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe on bass. He spoke to SPIN about his current residency in London, Sonic Youth’s composition techniques and the underrated importance of lyrics.
How has living in London affected the way you make music?
Well, the musicians I have playing with me now are two residents of London. As far as any kind of intellectual effect, I’m sure your environment informs you somewhat. I mean, people say Sonic Youth was such a New York band, especially early on… [mimes reading a 1980s review] “All the clatter and clang of our guitars was emblematic about the streets of New York and where we lived…” There’s something to be said about that, certainly. It’s not like we were Einstürzende Neubauten bringing power drills onstage. Actually, Lee did sort of put a contact mic on a power drill early on in Sonic Youth. In a way, it was the most significant starting point for us, Lee playing the power drill in the middle of “The Burning Spear,” which is the first song that we ever put on record. We kind of said it all on the first song. [Laughs.] Everything after that was kind of refining that idea of being radical.
How did you compose the “power drill” sections in Sonic Youth songs?
Well, in Sonic Youth it was very rehearsed but with the idea that when you play it live, it was totally permitted to get expansive with it, without fucking everybody else up with what you’re doing. Somebody would bring in like, a structural idea and show it to the band, and the other members would create their own parts, which would subsequently change and become more of a group composition.
The other way was when nobody brought in anything except for their instruments and we were able to record the rehearsals. So if something would happen, the next time you come in — “What was that thing I was doing that was so badass?” — you could actually listen back to the recording. To me, the most interesting music Sonic Youth was doing was when no songs were brought in, it’s when we were just playing together. Because then we were actually talking about moving things around: “One of you do that and I’ll do this.” It was never really notated. Well, Lee would keep a notebook of what he was playing and use a music notation graph, and I think Kim would do the same thing, to some extent. And I would never do that. [Laughs.]
But that was cool, right? To have a controlled variable and then someone going off the grid.
On this new record, there’s a couple of songs where I was listening back to the actual takes we did, and would cut some parts that might’ve been too redundant or if the changes needed to come quicker. But when I rehearse now, with these guys, I’m never recording it. Sometimes I have this aversion to over-documentation. I do a lot of improvised music with people and I never think like, I’ve got to record every single piece of improvised music. I find it’s really of the moment and it belongs in that moment. I mean, who’s going to listen to those records?
“Recorded improvisation” is kind of a paradox.
The only way to hear what was going on in the ’60s or ’70s was the people who were really developing a lot of ideas in improvised music, like Derek Bailey or Evan Parker or John Stevens, all the English guys. Or Misha Mengelberg, John Zorn of course, the whole New York school. The only way to really hear what they were doing was on the records they were making on their own artist-run labels. Those things were really underground, and kind of made for each other. Countries would hear each other play: Italy would hear Belgium, Germany would hear Holland. They would listen to what each other was doing. But it was even more underground than new wave and punk rock at the time.
You’ve said that The Best Day is all about positivity. Were your other solo records created in a relatively negative state?
I don’t know why…I think the first reviews of that record said it had a very positive vibe to it. I don’t know about that, I don’t really see it as that positive a record. They’re kind of nascent songs, working out some things with no master plan, no ambition except trying some new guitar ideas out and calling up this guitar player in London who I liked, and then him saying we should call [My Bloody Valentine’s] Deb Googe, and then Steve Shelley calling and asking if I was interested in him, and of course I was. One thing led to another, it wasn’t really goal-oriented at all.
I didn’t write with these musicians in mind, I was just writing in my bedroom, looking out the window with a guitar. I think the next recordings will have a different energy to them. I don’t know if I was writing with any sense of positivity, I’m not quite sure where that came from. The last record I did was this project called Chelsea Light Moving and I didn’t find any of that negative. It was more balls to the wall, with raw recording done in two days.
It was darker-sounding, maybe more metallic than anything you’ve ever done.
The Chelsea Light Moving record? Yeah.
At this point that longtime fans don’t see anything weird about a refrain like “That’s why I love her forevermore” having ominous chords behind it.
Yeah! That song [“Forevermore”] was so heavy. It deals with this repetitive minimalism. Musically, it has so much weight to it as a heavy drone, so I started writing [lyrics] to it with, like, gothic tones. And I never really write like that, so that was on purpose. It’s not like, “because your eyes are blue, your hair is black and I see your smile.” It’s like, “because you draw a circle around the holy fortress.” That’s sort of inspired by living in England, with this vibe of English romanticism. But I wasn’t really thinking about that, it just sort of happened. As far as writing a love song, I feel like I’ve done that over the years in Sonic Youth. Do you ever listen back to a Sonic Youth record and go, “Wow, that was a really happy album?” Well, when I was in my 20s doing records, there was something very innocent about it.
I see what I was influenced by at the time, what I was reading or who I was hanging out with. I can certainly see these periods of hanging out with Michael Gira of the Swans and Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave, and then hanging out with Mudhoney and Nirvana, and then the Pavement and Royal Trux era. I see the social milleu that Sonic Youth goes through and how that informs what we do, and that’s sort of interesting to me in retrospect. So there’s happiness and frivolity in there. We were never afraid to put in humor that had maybe not a very long shelf life or was purposely obscure.
Sometimes I’ll read an analysis of Sonic Youth where the lyrics are wrong? A guy wrote a book about Daydream Nation, one of those 33 1/3 books, and he was critiquing the lyrics and getting them wrong. And you’re not supposed to get those wrong, he could’ve asked us! We’ll give you the right lyrics. He was like, critiquing lyrics that nobody wrote. Of course, we always hear lyrics wrong. I think it first happened on the first record, in “The Burning Spear,” there’s a line “I love the speed, I trust the fear.” And somebody wrote in one of the first reviews how it was all about taking drugs and drinking, like, “I love to take speed and drink all the beer” or something. Misinterpretation is part of being in a band.
I think people pay a lot less attention to your lyrical identity than your sound.
Lyrics were never a throwaway [in Sonic Youth], they were always as primary as the music. It’s interesting when I see lyric books by people who are acclaimed lyricists, be it Nick Cave or Robert Smith. Jarvis Cocker just put a lyric book out. Or Lou Reed. They read okay but they’re lyrics, and they exist in context with the music, so taken apart from the music, they can falter a little bit. I got really interested in writing alone without the music element being part of it — pages and pages of poetry that are all about the line and rhythmic aspect of it on the page, all these elements where music didn’t factor in. It was really inspiring like, “Well, maybe I don’t need to be making music.”
Was Chelsea Light Moving a one-time thing?
I didn’t know what it was at the time; it was just an extension of [2011’s] Demolished Thoughts, with the same musicians, only going electric with it. We had to deep-six the harp because it was too big and too expensive.
Do you feel comfortable settling into a solo identity?
“Chelsea Light Moving” was just a name on the record. I took my name out of it because I wanted to take a break from being Mr. Solo Guy. I wasn’t doing any press and my personal life was so upended and that was the only focus. So I figured I’m just gonna be in this band and we’re gonna get into this van and play every basement across America. But it was just a transitional thing between solo records.
How do you feel about The Eternal being a possible endpoint to Sonic Youth?
I think it completely works as a possible endpoint. I’m trying to remember if, while recording, it was like, “This will be the final Sonic Youth record.” I don’t think that was fully realized in my mind, but there was certainly the idea that it could be, knowing what I was going through.
I think Rather Ripped has a greater sense of finality, like imagine if “Or” was the last song on the last Sonic Youth album: “What comes first / The music? Or the words?”
Yeah. I mean, just the fact it was called The Eternal. I think it was as strong a record as we ever made. There was never a moment where we felt like where we phoning it in. There were a lot of transitional records, but I never felt like we made a record just because we had to make a record.