Thurston Moore really needs no introduction — if music in the last 30 years matters to you, you know who he is. What you may or may not know is that he’s kicking off a tour with his third solo album, Demolished Thoughts. And that he does narration for National Geographic. And has a teenage daughter. He also recently taught poetry a workshop at Buddhist-inspired Naropa University. His music follows the same discordant, searching speck of light that poetry, and his life, do — sense doesn’t seem to matter, especially if it stands in the way of authenticity and previously undiscovered meaning.
We’re thrilled to see more work pouring forth and we’ll be following his shows up and down the West Coast for the next couple of weeks. After shows this weekend in Seattle (Friday) and Portland (Saturday), Thurston will leave momentos at each respective Ace Hotel — signed vinyl, set lists and other ephemera. We’ll be picking a few people to come claim them. Post a story or picture about Thurston — past, present or future — here, and we’ll announce winners early next week.
We had a chance to talk to Thurston about his album, solo work, side hustles and what he’d rather be doing.
You’re touring with a new solo album — it looks like your first one was in 1995 and then it was, I think, over a decade until the next solo and then that was only four years ago.
Yeah, I was a little busy. Sonic Youth tends to be kind a juggernaut. Once it gets going…
How you find time for solo work, and when you put solo albums out, is it just about having enough songs or about you telling a kind of story?
Yeah, each of those records was sort of about wanting to document a more personal period of time and I wanted to do it as less of a democratic band thing. I wanted it to be something that I completely oversaw; it didn’t really have to be a collaboration so much. Even though I ultimately do collaborate with the other musicians on the solo record and whoever else works on it, but it’s all my call as far as what’s being produced. I don’t know, it’s just a matter of time. I don’t really think about it in any kind of careerist kind of way like I have a solo career that sort of exists. It has more to do with documenting personal ideas and that’s about it. At first, the record in 1995, it was so long ago, and it just was sort of an exercise. I wanted to do a record that was really stripped down and minimal than a lot of song concepts that exist before I introduce them to Sonic Youth when they become more worked on and people come up with their own parts. And I sort of liked the idea of having a record with that title. It sort of started with the title, that I wanted to do a record called Psychic Hearts and it sort of took off from there. There were some lyrics I was working on, and some writing.
The second album was 2007 and again that record was basically about wanting to do a record that was called Trees Outside the Academy. Again I came up with all this writing I was doing and wanting to build some sort of personal solo record. I mean this new record is probably the most intense record to this degree.
What do you mean by that?
Well, just the fact that I really wanted it to be this record that was focused on this one period of time for me and it was kind of dealing with sort of personal issues and stuff like that. It had a more removed feeling — I kind of hide things with more abstraction in the words, I guess. I don’t know. That was the feeling I was getting, I felt a little exposed in a way on this record. And it was also, just I didn’t really know what I was doing. I mean I basically sort of write all these songs and I’m not quite sure what I want to do. I was just going to do it myself in my living room. It was really gratuitous last summer running into Beck and talking to him about it and having him offer his services. It became what was…meant to be. I was really happy with what happened. It became less of a neurotic experience and more of a…I don’t know, he certainly gave it some kind of brightness.
Speaking of the sound of the album, there’s definitely some real discord in the tones, particularly on “Circulation” and some other tracks. You’ve also released a handful of noise albums and improv stuff — I was wondering what you think of even the idea of “experimental” or “discordant” — they rely on an assumption or a benchmark of normalcy in music that you really don’t seem to care much about anyways.
I think actually investigating more traditional forms is experimental for me. Because I never really played very much in any traditional way. Sonic Youth was always about being kind of a traditional band in some respects. The fact that the lineup was two guitars, bass and drums, which was very classic, and wanting to sort of experiment with that. I mean a lot of our experimentation I always felt more in song structure than it was with anything else. The idea of alternate tuned guitars or treated guitars is definitely experimental but it was also something to me that was open and easy to do. Anybody could do this. If they have enough imagination it could be pretty interesting. To me, the real progression for us is to really focus on doing different things with song structure so you don’t have so much traditional song structure that you would hear in a rock and roll song or pop song and taking elements of that and playing around with them and trying new things with that and seeing if some kind of magic will transpire. And that was always more interesting to me was being experimental. The noises and the alternate tunes were just more elements of that.
It seems like it obviously changed your experience — a lot of writing and performing and making an album — depending on who you’re working with, whether you’re with Sonic Youth or doing it on your own or with other collaborators…but what about when you’re touring? Like, when you tour with a solo album, how is the experience different?
It isn’t really. I didn’t really plan on doing too much with this record. I sort of wanted to put it out as a document and walk away from it. But Matador Records and certainly my manager were all about promotion, which I’m okay with, but I used these two women on the record — one playing harp, this woman, Mary Lattimore, and this woman Samara Lubelski, who’s violin — and they recorded with me. And I was basically going to go out as a trio with them and do it really stripped down. But it grew into something where I asked another guitar player and I asked a drummer to sort of play very lightly and I tried it out a couple times live and it became something I liked and it’s really kind of a fun group. So we’ve been playing around a little bit on the East Coast and we did some shows over in Europe — we did one in Paris, one in Brussels, one in London — and I really liked being with these people and so I’m only too happy to do these live shows right now. I don’t think I’m gonna do this for too much longer. You know, Sonic Youth is gonna start doing some stuff as soon as summer’s over. Basically, I just of sort of want of lock myself in an attic this summer in Paris and write small books of poetry.
That sounds pretty good. I might call you up for an invitation.
Definitely. I was watching a Woody Allen movie and it was so lighthearted, but I was like “Oh my god, this movie is freaking me out!” It was like a study into dissociative behavior. I think I’m becoming the Woody Allen of the noise scene.
I think that’s definitely possible. You said it first, though…. I’m curious about the last track on Trees Outside the Academy — “Thurston at 13” — it was an old tape you found in your mom’s house of yourself acting.
Well, I had a little cassette tape recorder in the early ’70s, and if I remember correctly, I was just in my room making recordings and I have a distinct memory of doing it when I was 13 years old, of announcing the sound event and then creating it and moving onto something else within my view. It would be a coin, then it would be a pencil. And it’s just sort of being…somewhat kind of, I don’t know if I was trying to be comedic about it or not, but I certainly was putting myself into this pretend play place that I had yet to outgrow and so the fact that that tape existed for so many years and then I came across it and I was listening to it… There’s a lot more on it, I only used a little bit of a it. There’s some where I’m really torturing my sister when she’s playing in her room and throwing things at her and lots of yelling and screaming going on there, but I didn’t want to overdo it.
You’ve also been narrating some National Geographic Channel series — one is “World’s Toughest Prisons,” which is a series about life in prison — I’m curious how that came about and how you feel about it.
The producers of that show had done a documentary about the straight edge movement across America, not so much the straight edge movement that originated in Washington D.C. with bands like Minor Threat in the early ’80s, even though that’s the genesis of the term, it was more about people who claimed that philosophy of straight edge as an alternative to their own youth culture. And a lot of it became very strict in a fascistic sort of way where you don’t drink or smoke, etc., etc., and then sort of incriminating anybody around them who did and it became a very controversial genre to be part of and it existed in different forms around America in different cities. And so this production crew did a documentary on it and they asked me to narrate it and the reason they asked me to narrate it was because the person who was doing the music for it was Brendan Canty who played in the band Fugazi with Ian MacKaye who was originally in Minor Threat, so there was a connection there. And I know Brendan and I think maybe they had heard that I had actually narrated a few other things through the years, pretty much below the radar stuff and I got this phone call and I did that. And then the same production people about a year later said “Oh, we’re doing this series about the worst prisons in America, like the hardest core, maximum security prisons in America and we were wondering if you’d read that since Brendan’s also doing the scoring for that.” And I said sure. I mean, in a way, I like doing it. It’s a really easy gig. I’ve always sort of like doing recitation in front of a microphone, like doing radio DJing and stuff like that. And I find it easy to read out loud. I’ve always been a huge reader, writer, etc., anything like that has always been big in my life since I was a kid and I think they realized that I was pretty much on the mark all the time. I didn’t take up too much of their day — I would go in there and I would do it and I would do it right for the most part and be out of there in 2 or 3 hours. And the paycheck is pretty good. It’s a pretty easy coin in a way. I can see why a lot of people have that as a gig if they can get it because it pays the bills. I wish I could get some more work like that… My interest in prison, inner-prison life is very minimal, so I kind of have to put myself in a place where I’m reading it with some interest. And I do. And so it’s fascinating.
What’s some of the stuff that you’ve done under the radar that made Brendan approach you?
I definitely will do any kind of narration stuff. I would like to do more. I like people who do television commercial kind of reading. That’s a great gig for those musicians like me who don’t really make that much revenue from what we do. But I’m very involved with the poetry world. I just did a teaching gig where I was teaching poetry at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado for their summer writing workshop and that’s something maybe people don’t know too much about. But that’s a whole world of literature that I’ve I’ve been interested in ever since I lived in New York in ‘77 and it revolves around the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York where Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg kind of established a lot of activity over there and subsequently this university in Naropa which they found in 1974 with some Buddhist teachers. Really interesting place and I was asked a few times by Anne Waldman who oversees the university to come there and do something, either a lecture or a class. So, this summer I flew out there and I did a week-long class and that was just for me was what I would really like to do more of is teaching poetry workshops. That’s probably where you’ll find me when I’m 64.
Thurston at 64.
Yeah. I guess I’ll sort of play music. I always have. I don’t really see why not. But I always feel like I’m coming out of some kind of apprenticeship with it. We never really sort of had any sort of grand success that we just sort of maintain. It’s always been more sort of… It’s kind of a blessing and a curse with something like that. But I wouldn’t know. I mean, we just never really had any gold records or anything like that.
Music is much more performative in a way and poetry is really just a real a private negotiation with language and so there isn’t really a benchmark of success there. You’re just doing your thing.
It’s true, which is fine with me. I’m kind of getting into this place where I just…where my life isn’t so dictated by the force of money. But it is, because, you know, it has to be — especially being a father of a teenage daughter and I just want to make sure she’s safe, and money brings security. I find it more appealing to have a devotional life like that that has less to do with money as a successful standard in a way, even though I like to have money because I use money to do other things such as make records on my label or make books and stuff like that…
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