Thurston Moore has recorded a lot of music. Most obviously – and prominently – there is his work with Sonic Youth, a three decade partnership that drove from the left field to the mainstream, and then back again. Alongside this, though, lies a somewhat haphazard catalogue of limited releases, a plethora of CD-Rs, small vinyl pressings, and box after box of cassettes.
Writer Nick Soulsby attempts to catalogue these in new tome in Thurston Moore: We Find A New Language, and the guitarist clearly appreciates the walk down memory lane. “There are certain voices in that book who I didn’t know who they were!” he exclaims. “I’m a cypher in that book. Which is really kind of cool, in a way, because I think the book allows all these different people through the last 20 plus years who would not normally have a forum to tell their story”.
“There were all these stories of these really arcane and remote underground labels telling their story about why they started their label and what they were up to at the time and what it meant to them to receive a track from me to put in their compilations they were doing. So, in a way, it’s hardly a story of me,” he asserts. “My picture is on the cover and my name is really big on the book but I’m just sort of being passed around. And it’s kind of hip that the stories are all about other people. Again, I’m nothing but a cypher”.
It’s slightly dis-arming to hear Thurston Moore describe himself as a ‘cypher’ - after all, he was one quarter of Sonic Youth, and remains an impassioned voice in forward-thinking guitar music. Now located in London, 2015’s ‘The Best Day’ marked the emergence of a new group, with the guitarist joined by drummer Steve Shelley, bassist Debbie Googe, and fellow six-stringer James Sedwards.
“I was always interested in being in a group,” Thurston muses. “When I was younger it was all about the gang, the group, that had a bit of a name. So I never really thought about myself early on as somebody who had ambition to being a ‘solo artist’, I wanted to be part of some kind of guitar army – like MC5 or The Stooges.”
Followed by a vast series of international shows, ‘The Best Day’ seemed to meld the group together, sparking fresh ideas in the process. New album ‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ is the result – out now, it’s a wonderful return, one that yearns towards the spiritual in its pursuit of The New. “Well, I certainly wanted this recording to focus on this group, as opposed to just myself as a songwriter,” he explains. “The first record we did… we had just gotten together as a group the day that we started recording, with no sense of what our future was going to be.”
“Then we started touring a bit and after two or three years we realised that we were a really solid group, and I knew that the next record had to be focussed on the group, and more referential to who we are as a live band. And so when I was writing the songs I was very aware of wanting each member of the band to have more room to voice themselves.”
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‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ is a contradictory beast. Featuring just five songs, each track bulges outwith the ‘song’ format, with billowing noise giving way to fresh chapters of electric innovation. “I had no concerns about time,” he recalls. “The song had to define its own time, but I certainly don’t like the idea of a song taking up any time that it shouldn’t be taking up – I don’t want to waste time.”
“I was inspired by lengthy pieces that I find and love in bands right now – from The Melvins to Swans, these kind of bands – who just put out records where every track is 15, 16 minutes. Even a lot of metal bands – more of the avant garde metal bands, like in the black metal scene or whatever. There’s no concern for time constraints – when the song is over, it’s over. And I like that. You don’t feel any anxiety about what constitutes a traditional song. But I like short songs. I’ve written my fair amount of short little songs too, just not for this record – this record is all about more open, expansive listening.”
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I had no concerns about time...
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It’s certainly open. ‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ seems to look up towards the expanses of the universe, an undulating, ever-evolving experience, a viscous of fresh ideas. It’s telling that amid an increasingly stale environment for guitar-based music – how many of Sonic Youth’s peers now perform anniversary tours? - that Thurston Moore remains almost entirely fixated on the future.
“I never really thought of myself primarily as a guitar player,” he explains. “At first. I like the guitar because it allowed me to make noise but I was never wanting to be a guitar player in the sense that I would listen to Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, or even punk rock… if it was Johnny Ramone or Steve Jones, I was more interested in Viv Albertine’s guitar-playing which sounded like somebody who had picked it up that morning and make music. And it could have been any instrument.”
“I never really cared about learning guitar. And I still haven’t really gotten that involved with it – I can work my way around a standard tuning guitar, and do some things, but it’s never been much of an ambition of mine or a concern of mine. Even to this day I can’t really play a traditional song all the way through. I know certain chords.”
“I play a lot of improvised music with this whole scene of free improvisation and I find that’s where any kind of skills and technique as a guitar player will really become more developed. More so than in playing songs I’ve written. I create guitar music for the songs but it becomes very stabilised. Whereas in free improvisation I’m able to go more into an investigation and find that… by playing in that context more and more I develop more as a real guitarist.”
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I never really cared about learning guitar.
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‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ isn’t just a display of guitar pyrotechnics and group interplay, however; lyrically, it reaches towards the sublime, with Thurston Moore’s lyrics continually dwelling on the spiritual, even down to the title itself. “I think it had a lot to do with where I find myself finding some kinda connection to the universe,” he says. “I would read about these Buddhist texts about karmic consciousness and Dharma consciousness and Buddha consciousness, where through meditation you would draw a relationship between the physical and the metaphysical world.”
“I was thinking to myself ‘where do I find that place?’ I can only really find it when I’m in the process of playing music, and writing and composing it or performing it. Or even being around it as a witness. Or even being amongst the documents of it, like surrounded by used or second-hand books or records. That’s where I find my connection to any kind of sense of transcendence.”
“I came up with that title - ‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ - it was a bit of a funny title. I realise that consciousness implies a certain religious experience, or spiritual experience, but rock ‘n’ roll as music is a complete spiritual experience. It all comes out of this spirit music of gospel and jazz. So I stuck with that title.”
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As luck would have it, the record was constructed in a church – Paul Epworth’s London studio, also named The Church. “As soon as I saw that studio, and I met Paul, and he showed me the place, I knew immediately that I needed to record the album here. And so we figured it out,” he explains.
“I spent about a week there, just heads down, morning to evening, getting that work done and bringing in the songs to the group. Some of which we already knew, and some which we learned in the studio. And some which I was finalising in the studio, and then showing to the group. Finishing up lyric-writing and everything, y’know, we really blasted through. But it was such a wonderful experience working in that studio with Paul and his engineer.”
The sessions were so productive, in fact, that the group ended up with almost double the material than was needed. “I had recorded about nine songs, and I was trying to flop them all on the record – more or less – and I kept thinking that less material was better because it was quite an investment for any listener to get involved with. And I just kept thinking about sequencing, and how to bring these sounds together, and it just came down to those five songs, and I thought each song was fairly distinct from each other. And that, to me, felt right.”
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I wanted the record to be specifically about this idea of spirituality and being beatific...
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“I wanted the record to be specifically about this idea of spirituality and being beatific. So I took off more of the harder-edged stuff so the record could be more focussed on beauty, I think.”
Beauty is fast becoming one of the world’s most endangered commodities. In closing, the conversation turns to politics, to the rise of Trump in Thurston Moore’s homeland and the chaos surrounding Brexit in his adopted UK.
“I have an eight year old daughter and the fact that the USA is now being represented by somebody who has the language of a rapist leading the country… I find it so reprehensible that it’s almost beyond reality,” he gasps. “I don’t know how to deal with it, because there’s so many smokescreens being set up right now. But it enrages me, and I don’t really like to be enraged. I’m very anti-confrontational.”
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I’m all about being in complete opposition...
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“I do know that I want to be out on the streets with everybody, having my voice joining in. And I do want to make music that’s pertinent to contemporary situations – whether that’s joy or malaise. This record I wanted to be pointedly uplifting and beatific, and to be politically about joy. Which is something that’s hard to diffuse. So there was a reason behind that.”
“I think every artist has the responsibility to be the voice of conscience in this situation where dark energy that’s permeating the planet. It’s really dangerous. I think America is really in trouble – it’s completely been taken over by this poisonous ideology of separatism and it’s bringing copious brutality to the rest of the world. Certainly, and potentially, it will.”
“I’m all about being in complete opposition, and I think there’s honour in opposition. In music and the arts, one of the most honourable things, I think is to be in opposition to forces of ill will.”
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'Rock N Roll Consciousness' is out now.
For tickets to the latest Thurston Moore shows click HERE.