INTERVIEW: Thurston Moore | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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As alternative icons go, they don’t come much bigger than Thurston Moore. As the founder of and guitarist in Sonic Youth his name was synonymous with challenges to mainstream rock and helped to define a generation with the band’s experimental, no wave sound. Now departed from Sonic Youth, Moore has worked as a solo artist and under the name Chelsea Light Movement. Last year with the Thurston Moore Band – which featured James Sedwards of Noughts, Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth’s own drummer Steve Shelley – he released his latest record The Best Day, a collection of songs marked by their positivity and Moore’s passion for genre-bending experimentalism.

Next month Moore travels to The Cluny as part of a UK tour, and I caught up with him to talk about the new record, forming the latest incarnation of the Thurston Moore Band, his thoughts on black metal and much more.

You’re the guitarist in one of the biggest cult rock bands in the world and yet, when you’re coming up here, you’re playing a pretty small venue. I’m just wondering why you’ve chosen to play these smaller venues because I’m sure you could fill out much larger ones if you wanted to!

Well, I don’t know, I’ll play anywhere! I’ll play a doughnut shop if you’ll let me play in there! I like smaller venues in a way because there’s something to be said about intimacy. I work with a booking agency and I trust their choices as well so there’s a little bit of professional distance and I don’t personally choose the venues. I have no idea what the size of the venue is that we’re talking about!

Well, before when you were here you played at the Cumberland Arms which is tiny! But now you’re playing The Cluny which is a bit bigger but even though in my head I think it’s one of the larger venues outside of the Academy and Arena, it’s still pretty small!

Yeah, I’m taking baby steps! I think right now, with what I’m doing, with a solo band, I don’t think it has the same cache as when Sonic Youth went out. I think it’s very unusual when someone goes out and does solo work where they attain the same status, it’s just the way it is.

Sonic Youth was the sum of the democratic kind of thing, each person in that band added to what that form was. So, for each of us to go out solo, it’s a different vibe. I think psychologically a lot of people are just like, you know, “we’ll only see members of Sonic Youth if they’re playing in Sonic Youth” [Laughs] Which, you know, I kind of understand that. I wonder about those guys from Oasis, you know when they have their, um, High Flying Birds and their, uh, what’s the other one? What’s the other one’s band called?

Oh, um, Beady Eye!

Yes, Beady Eye, Beady Eye!

I don’t think Beady Eye even exist anymore!

[Laughs] Well, you know, I think those guys probably go out thinking, like, “our band is just as good, it’s gonna be just as incredible as Oasis” and, well, maybe it is but psychologically it’s not for the people out there. You know, they’re just putting up with you! [Laughs] Sometimes I feel like that’s what’s going on, like, “oh you know he’s doing this now and we’ll wait him out until he gets Sonic Youth back together again and then we’ll come see him!” Sometimes I get that feeling and I don’t know how true it is, but it is true! [Laughs]

Aww, that’s a bit grim! I think you can afford to give yourself a bit more credit than that! I’m pretty sure people would come out to see you if you played bigger venues; you’ve sold out this one!

Hmm, I guess Johnny Marr deals with this too, because everyone always thinks of Johnny Marr in the context of The Smiths. But then, he’s got his own solo thing and it’s like, well, that’s all fine and he’s making some good music and some good records but The Smiths is where the power is in a way. I think Morrissey transcends it. A few people transcend it themselves as solo artists outside of the band that made them but there’s only very few and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my own situation. But this band is, for me, essentially so strong right now and I feel so good with it, playing with Steve and Deb and James. I like the fact that it’s kind of hands across the water with the UK and USA, that’s kind of…. happening.

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“I think it’s very unusual when someone goes out and does solo work where they attain the same status, it’s just the way it is”

How did you, James, Steve and Deb get together originally then to form the band as it is now then?

Well James lives in the same area of London as I live in. I’ve been living here over two years now and I was living in a tiny little flat right up above him and I could hear him playing guitar. I met him in the hallway and we had some tea and we started talking about music, because he was really familiar with my band. In fact, I’d met him when he was fifteen years old when he’d snuck backstage at Reading Festival in 1991 when we played there with Hole and Babes In Toyland and Nirvana. He’s a distinguished gentleman right now.

His favourite guitarist by far is Jimmy Page. Which is fine. You can’t deny Jimmy Page but I probably would never have been interested in playing with someone whose favourite guitarist was Jimmy Page! But his favourite groups were The Fall, Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca and things like this, no wave stuff and weird avant-garde stuff. So he had this really interesting, all over the place kind of thing going on with him and his guitar […] I called him because I liked him and I thought he played really well and he was really polite and he would make me tea. There’s something to be said about that! When somebody makes you tea, that means a lot. I realised that living here. That was the first thing I realised about British society; if you make someone tea then that’s a very spiritual gesture in a way and I always remembered that about him. So I called him! And I showed him some of the songs I was working on and we played duo together here and there.

Steve Shelley was playing and he heard us and he said “well if you want me to play drums I would because I like what you’re doing,” so I said “I will, but you’re kinda far away.” And then James came up with the idea of calling Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine. I was a little scared to do that. I knew Deb a little bit from playing with them over the years, I mean, we played with them in ‘85 or something in Glasgow. But I was never really buddy-buddy with her or anything but we called her and she came over. We talked and we drank a bottle of wine and she said that she was totally into it. So since she didn’t have anything else going on… Deb Googe was in the band! And so, I figured we should start playing.

The first time I heard the band play as a four-piece was when we recorded some of a song and listened back to it. The way Steve locked in with Deb was just completely, shockingly amazing. Beautiful. And then I had James play a couple of lead guitar things on some of the songs and I realised I was completely underusing him as a guitarist, he was just playing in unison with me. So now I’m writing songs where I’m thinking more along the lines of who the musicians are, because that really wasn’t the case with the first record, The Best Day, last October. They were kind of written not having any idea who’s gonna play, I was just sitting on my couch making songs up. Which is what I’m doing now! [Laughs] But at least I know who the other players will be, it kind of makes a big difference.

Yeah, that kind of relates to something I was going to ask you actually, it was about how you changed your name from Chelsea Light Movement to Thurston Moore Band and I wondered if the addition of the other band members have an impact on that?

Well I don’t know, I just felt like I needed to start using my name. But I don’t really like using my name, there’s a certain ego conflict with that. I don’t really like it having to be my name but I always liked the idea that a band was kinda like a gang anyway, sort of like… In Sonic Youth we were like a gang and we would come into town and tear things up. Actually, even pretty early on I felt that way; we had this confidence, it would just be so shocking for people sometimes. I think that kind of changed a bit once we became a little more high-profile and people kind of decoded what we were up to.

I was wondering about the new album actually, and I was thinking that it’s more positive than some of your other works. I wonder where some of that positivity came from.

Oh! I mean, I’ve always been a positive person! I like investigating and dealing with the darker aspects of the human condition and I’ve always been interested in that. I think the idea of the subversive in art and music has always been somewhat intriguing to me and I always felt that was a place where I felt inspired to work in. And why, I don’t know!

I didn’t really have a childhood that was impoverished or anything like that, there certainly wasn’t any cruelty in my childhood. There might have been sadness and grief of a parent dying but I don’t think there was anything that should have led me to wanting to conspire with punk rock or no wave or black metal or whatever. But I accept it for why I enjoy it and I actually find that it kind of has a reflection of reality. And, to me, I find that music can create this spiritual joy and it’s something I’ve always been going toward. The more I try and define it and as I get older the more interesting it becomes to me.

Coming out of a divorce and also having the reality of having this true love and a romance in my life, that was really joyous. So I felt that I needed to be true to that and sort of express that. I’d rather express that than express feelings of remorse or regret. So I decided to focus on and cultivate that which is joyful in my life. I felt that was a really important thing to share. That’s what led me to calling the album The Best Day, because I found this picture of my parents when they were young and courting, just snuggling underneath a tree by a lake and I was like, “that must have been the best day of their lives.” I wanted that to be what I was focusing on intellectually, just to give it power. So, I’m continuing to do that.

I think the next record will be a little more extrapolated and a little more experimental as far as songwriting goes, but I don’t know… We’re yet to do it! [Laughs] We’ll find out when we go into the studio in May, which is right around the time when we’re playing in Newcastle but we’re coming back to London to record. It’s exciting. When we play in Newcastle hopefully we’ll have some of these new songs on board. Because we’ve been playing the songs forever and ever, well, the past year! We’ve played a lot of shows but again, no one is really sure what I’m up to. I think that they’re getting to know that there’s this band that’s solid and playing the same songs every night is kind of meditational. With this band, it’s like taking a breath, we go out there and do this thing. It’s extremely rarely that we walk off stage and think “that wasn’t so happening.” So, it’s a really good natured band, I think. We’re like good dogs who do bad things!

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“I think the next record will be a little more extrapolated and a little more experimental as far as songwriting goes”

Ah, it’s the guy from the Liverpool Echo trying to talk to me; are you anti-Liverpool?

No, I’m not anti-Liverpool! Why would I be anti-Liverpool? [Laughs]

I don’t know, maybe you’re a football fan!

I can’t be anti-Liverpool, my dad supports them! It’s like support by association!

Oh, really? [Laughs] Deb supports Man United. It gets me into a lot of pub fights but I have to sort of, well, I have to support Deb. A lot of people thought I supported Arsenal because I lived in Stoke Newington. At first I didn’t think that was a bad idea because it was Johnny Rotten’s team, so it made sense to me. But then Deb came into the picture and she’s like, [puts on deep voice] “you’re Man United son.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] She officially told you who you supported then!

Deb rules the band! I will share that knowledge with you; it’s Deb’s band, we’re just kind of making do! Deb Googe is my hero, for sure!

Can I ask one more question, just one more before the Echo steals you away?

Yeah, go on, okay!

Cool, I was just thinking that you played on the record by [black metal band] Twilight not so long ago but not so long after the release of The Best Day your label quoted you as saying that “black metal is for pussies!” I wondered if that was weird at all?

Yeah, the timing was really good on that! [Laughs] Well, the reason I said that was because it was the press release for this record called Caught On Tape, which was basically me and John Maloney playing drums. It was a record of us just hammering out this noisy black metal noise music, so I had to write this press release.

You know, for me, the idea of giving black metal any kind of honorific was ridiculous because it was music that didn’t even think of itself as music. It was so elitist and it had these problematic references to fascist tendencies. So I only liked black metal for the way it sounded, because sometimes it was like it was referencing nothing even though it had this relationship to noise music and experimental music; it just didn’t care. It certainly didn’t appreciate any such reference and I kind of liked the bloody-mindedness of it.

I really became enamoured with a lot of the sort of more confused recordings of black metal, I felt like I was becoming very academic with it. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to have to give it any honorific and those people who devote themselves to black metal with kind of corpse paint and, you know, dressing up in [laughs] in kind of like comic book costumes, I thought it was great and wonderful but… I liked the idea that it was a sexless music, which was kind of neutering in a way. It certainly was anti-human, embracing some kind of dehumanised feeling of utter, sort of, vacancy that was so extreme.

So, I thought the nicest thing I could actually say about it was that it was music made for pussies. [Laughs] Which means nothing! If it means anything, it’s meant as a compliment, because what could be more beautiful as far as I’m concerned! But a lot of dunderheads, a lot of cementheads were very angry at it!

I think they probably took it the wrong way and thought you meant something other than the beauty of the female form!

Exactly! It was separating those who recognised beauty and those who were just doomed! [Laughs]

Thurston Moore Band play at The Cluny, Newcastle on Wednesday 20th May. The Best Day is out now.

Cover photograph: Phil Sharp

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