By Philip Runco.
Thurston Moore has just arrived in the Twin Cities, where on the opposite side of the Mississippi River from his Minneapolis hotel, he’ll play the first gig of a tour for the umpteenth time in his 37-year musical career. Understandably, he’s not exactly jittery about this. The forefather of American alternative rock is just “hanging out,” “setting up,” “doing our thing.” Same old, same old.
There are hardly any cobwebs to clear. Eight years have passed since the release of Sonic Youth‘s 15th and final album The Eternal, and in the wake of that dissolution, the singer-guitarist hasn’t slowed down much. In 2011, he made an acoustic-heavy solo record with Beck, followed by two more electric, eclectic, and propulsive outings with what’s turned into his new band of sorts: My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe, Nøught guitarist James Sedwards, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. (There have also been other, lower-profile releases, of course – live recordings, improvisational sessions, various collaborations. After all, this is a musician whose web of endeavors outside of Sonic Youth recently inspired an oral history dedicated to documenting it.)
The first of Moore’s records with the aforementioned “new-old” quartet, 2014’s The Best Day, captured a band playing together for essentially the first time. In contrast, this April’s Rock n Roll Consciousness is the product of a more polished outfit, its five songs methodically sprawling over 42 minutes of euphoric peaks and distorted, serrated valleys. Tellingly, while its scattershot predecessor was recorded in several studios around London, Rock n Roll Consciousness came together under one roof: hotshot producer Paul Epworth’s converted church studios in Crouch End.
The English city is where Moore has called home – or some version of it – for six years. It’s where he lives with his girlfriend, and as he explains, it’s where this band came together, like all bands ostensibly, by chance.
How’s life in London? Have your grown accustomed the English lifestyle?
Well, I speak the language – kind of. [Laughs] No, I’m still a U.S. citizen. I don’t have a different passport or anything like that. Living in the England was mostly predicated upon my girlfriend living there and then moving in with her.
It’s an interesting series of events. She moved into an area of London called South Hillingdon, which was where Sonic Youth first went to England. Back then, I would sort of hangout and stay with people there. I remember staying with Richard Boon, who ran New Hormones records, which put out the first Buzzcocks 7″ Spiral Scratch. It was always just an incredible time. But that area of North London was really wild and a bit “dodgy,” as they say. You had to be careful in the streets. I would catch the bus into Central London, visit the record stores, and then come to back to this place that felt like the end of the earth. If someone had told me, “In about 25 years time, you’ll be living here,” I would have thought it was science fiction.
When my girlfriend Eva said, “I found a place in South Hillingdon,” I got very worried. I said, “As a single woman, maybe you shouldn’t be living there because it’s crazy.” But when I flew over, I saw that what I had known in the ’80s had disappeared. It was all moneyed, young, married couples with what they call prams – the baby carriages. They had replaced the addicts and drug dealers on the streets. It got gentrified; let’s put it that way. I didn’t recognize it.
So, I started living there, and it just so happened that one of the people living in this series of flats was James Sedwards, the guitar player, who I’ve become friends with and who was a Sonic Youth enthusiast amongst other things. We had a lot of shared interests. At the time, I had started writing songs, and I really wanted to use him because he was obviously really great. It was his idea to call Deb Googe, because he was friends with her from My Bloody Valentine. I had known that band for many years, as well, but I never really talked with Deb that much. I was always kind of commiserating with Kevin Shields and, to some extent, Bilinda [Butcher], but I didn’t know Deb very well. So, anyway, we called her up. And then Steve Shelley came in, and we were a quartet. That was the trajectory of it; it wasn’t really premeditated or planned. It was just the vagaries of life taking you into this situation that defines your decision.
Subsequently, it’s just been so cool playing as a quartet with these guys. It’s really developed into something over the past few years. This is the third time we’ve come to the U.S.A. We’ve only made two albums, though. Nobody’s been in a real hurry. We’re not, like, a new-new band; we’re a new-old band. [Laughs] We’re not a bunch of young guys getting together, waving our arms in the air, and saying, “Look at us!” Everyone knows who we are: two guys from Sonic Youth, the bass player from My Bloody Valentine, and this other London guy. At first, I think people thought maybe it was just some kind of new dalliance of mine and that the next thing would just be something else, but it’s kind of consistent. We’ve realized that we enjoyed being in a group together, so we’ve been doing it.
When I wrote these songs for Rock n Roll Consciousness, I really wanted to focus on the group and make sure that James’ guitar playing got featured and that Deb and Steve’s rhythm connection was also featured above all. The first record was kind of a mélange of the group and some solo things I did by myself. We didn’t even really exist as a group until we went into the studio and rolled tape. Since then, we’ve toured quite a bit, and we were well seasoned coming into the studio to do Rock n Roll Consciousness. We’re just really in a groove.
Answering your question about what it’s like to be in London, you know, it’s like half the band is British, so I have a foot in both London and the U.S.A. But I feel like I don’t really have an allegiance to any sort of nationalist identity. I’ve been in a band since my early 20s, and being in a band, you travel so much that you feel like you don’t really belong to one place. Maybe you have a house or residence somewhere that’s sort of your touch pad, but that’s it. That’s how it’s been for most of my life. I never really feel like I belong anywhere except somewhere in the world. I can live anywhere.
I mean, I love America, but right now, it’s just so weird living outside of it and experiencing this contemporary kind of poisoned system and how it’s being represented to the rest of the world, knowing that so much of America isn’t that. It’s really humiliating and weirdly embarrassing and at the same time kind of shocking in a way that’s changing what America is to the rest of the world. After eight years of having sophisticated representation, there’s the most heinous representation we’ve ever had. Those extremes are fascinating and infuriating.
In discussing Rock n Roll Consciousness, you’ve expressed a broader understanding of the term “rock n roll.” You’ve said it’s about more than genre and or any one band. Define what rock n roll means to you.
When I was 19 or 20 years old, there was this really concerted effort by Patti Smith to dignify rock n roll by extolling its virtue as a true voice of youth culture and really sort of calling it Poetry with a capital P and Art with a capital A. At the time, that was really important for me. And that thinking kind of had its effect with the advent of punk rock and the intellectual discourse in underground music.
I feel grateful to have experienced that at such an age. It really affected me in a way where now that I’m old and getting closer to 60, I’ve started thinking about how rock n roll is presented in the culture. It’s usually presented as this bit of cheesy entertainment of youth – like, you know, Justin Beiber. It’s this sort of pretend entertainment and dance music. That’s not a problem – I believe in the politics of joy and dancing – but I just wanted to focus on the value of rock n roll as something to be devoted to. I wanted to give some divinity to it.
To me, rock n roll is all about its genesis as a spirit music. It comes out spirituals, it comes out of blues, it comes out of jazz, it comes out of gospel. What I’m interested in is that essence being utilized artfully… hence “art rock.” [Laughs] I’m really interested in art rock. I guess I could have called the record Art Rock Consciousness. [Laughs]
But I like rock n roll. It’s this traditional legacy playing with unorthodox ideas. That’s always what Sonic Youth was about. In a way, it’s avant-garde rock n roll that honors rock n roll as a people’s music that doesn’t have any ambitions towards money or wealth. It’s just about embracing the voice of the people. If that means that it’s about living in poverty, then it’s a holy poverty.
A lot of it has to do with the ideal of beat poetry, which was a philosophy I was really attracted to. That’s what I wanted to focus on by calling this record Rock n Roll Consciousness: the relationship between rock n roll as a real spirit music and something that can be dealt with academically, as well. It’s about the relationship between the traditional and the unorthodox. I realize, mostly in retrospective, that’s what’s been happening all along – since my early 20s and with Sonic Youth and how that band progressed. But I don’t think there was any analysis of it, personally, at the time. It was just what was going on. Now, I can look at it, and go, “Oh, that’s what it is.”
There’s also maybe a little bit of humor involved in calling it Rock n Roll Consciousness. It’s a bit of a loaded title. When I was doing an interview with Iggy [Pop] for Rough Trade two months ago, before the record came out, he asked me what the record was going to be called, and when I told him, he just did a double take. [Laughs] He was like, “I’ve never heard that one before! That’s a hell of a title.” I was like, “Well, if I can get a good response out of Iggy Pop, who’s sort of heard it all, it must be OK.”
Speaking of poetry, a few songs on this record feature lyrics from Radio Radieux.
Radio Radieux is a poet, artist, filmmaker, and friend in London. There’s a whole scene there in London that’s really interesting. A lot of what goes on around North London is amazing these days. There are some many young and experimental avant-garde bands and writers. It reminds me of what I recall in the early ’80s around New York or DC or Philly. It’s that kind of vibe.
It’s still a really expensive city, though. I don’t understand how any of them can live in the city these days. But it’s massive, and there are always these little corners where people can move in. It’s a little bit like Berlin. Berlin is even more heady in a way, but I find Berlin to be more of an island or disconnected from the rest of the universe, whereas London seems to be very aware of the rest of the world. It also informs a lot of the rest of the world constantly. The work that goes on there is really radical.
What makes you want to give voice to her words?
A lot of it was out of necessity. We were working on the music so fast, and I was focusing primarily on the music. Then, I sort of go through notebooks or try to come up with lyrical concepts and ideas. For some songs, I’m successful. But I had a lot of songs that I really needed to work with, and Radieux was hanging around us, and Radieux had done some songs with me on The Best Day. We were talking a lot at about sibyls, which are these images of goddesses in old Italian art that were all about empowering new energy to disenfranchise cultures. I thought that was really curious from a contemporary perspective.
So, the lyrics she wrote were these kind of ultra-feminist mystic lyrics. I was like, “I don’t know if I can sing these, but they’re so beautiful and kind of cool, and I like the idea of how it creates this trans-language in a way.” Sometimes, I’ll use someone else’s lyrics like that and eventually replace them with lyrics that I write, but that didn’t happen this time. Those lyrics really worked for the most part. We recorded, like, nine songs, and only five are on the record, but it just so happens that three or four of them have lyrics written or co-written by Radieux.
I’ve always been into bands because they’re collaborations. Having my name on the front of the record is a little misleading. I’m not writing the drum parts for Steve Shelley. I’m certainly not writing Deb Googe’s bass parts. I’m not writing James Sedwards’ lead guitar, either. There’s a reason I have them in the band: I want that expertise. It’s an employment in a way. I entrust them to be as great as they are.