Thurston Moore :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Thurston Moore scarcely needs an introduction, nor do we need a specific reason to want to chat with the 62-year-old artist. That’s the benefit of speaking with someone of his stature: there’s so much history available to explore. His years as a member of Sonic Youth. His efforts to elevate the work of artists and writers that he loves through his label and publishing imprint Ecstatic Peace. Various solo recordings that have ranged from melodic rock to pure noise. The many live and studio collaborations that have found him working with Yoko Ono, John Zorn, Jandek, Borbetomagus, and dozens of other pivotal figures of the avant garde. 

There is, though, a hook for this particular chat: the release of By The Fire, a new studio effort by the Thurston Moore Group. Recorded in London, the album is all radiant heat and kaleidoscopic arrangements that allow the guitars of Moore and James Sedwards to join together in oozing consort and tickling friction. The two men are aided or challenged by a sturdy rhythm section (bassist Deb Googe and drummers Steve Shelley and Jem Doulton) and some electronic intrusions from the ensemble’s newest member, Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly). Shooting through their mass of sound are lyrics, written by Moore or transgender poet Radieux Radio, that are rich with poetic detail and reveal a deep craving for experience and human connection. 

We spent some time on the phone with Moore, calling from his home in London, about By The Fire, his current collaborators and so much more. It was a wide-ranging, discursive, and thorough conversation that has been condensed and edited for clarity. | r ham

Aquarium Drunkard: How have you been faring in this strange time? Are you staying as busy as ever? 

Thurston Moore: I’ve been staying busy recording and writing songs and writing some texts. I’ve been working on a lot of text, writing about the ‘70s. The only weird thing is not traveling and touring because that’s what I do for work. I’ve been doing it since the early ‘80s, and all of the sudden, it’s like having forced time off. It’s a bit of a mixed blessing. I do enjoy staying in one place. I’ve been having fantasies for a number of years of being in some sort of retirement mode and working on my own. But as Mike Watt always says, “When you’re not playing, you’re paying.” 

I’m making the best of it. I have a lot of work to do that necessitates staying in one place. I’m putting together this manuscript about being in music and being a young person in the ‘70s and how I entered into working in bands. It’s kind of curious because I remember every detail of it, but once Sonic Youth becomes an entity—as soon as we get in the van and crisscross the country and start touring the world for 30 years, it becomes an overwhelming history. I’m not so interested in writing about that. I’m interested in writing about what leads to that. When you’re at that age of being 18, 19, 20, and how it formulates what you want to do with your life. 

AD: Thinking of the fact that you spent all those years with Sonic Youth and that your current band has been a going concern for a few years now—you are obviously comfortable jumping into the fray and improvising with other artists, but you also thrive in these situations where you have a regular band and trusted collaborators. Do you lean one way or the other, or are you happy to work both sides of the aisle?

Thurston Moore: They both have their value, and I could say with a modicum of truth that they both have equal value. Having a constant band, there’s a certain level of trust and feeling a sense of confidence in each other’s abilities. The difference between having a band for the last 10 years, such as the group I have in London, and the 30 years with Sonic Youth is that I have no interest in replicating the experience of what Sonic Youth was. A lot of that was a situation where a band comes together and you grow up together and create this unit that is really a sum of its parts. That’s an amazing experience that I don’t feel like I need to do again. Now, I can work in any which way I want, which is more about me calling the shots. Being the boss even though I’m so anti-authoritarian that I don’t want to be that person. [laughs

For me, to play in the genre of free improvisation, that’s always informed a lot of compositional ideas. Things happen that wouldn’t normally happen just sitting alone on the couch with the guitar. So it’s definitely a bit of an exchange between playing free improvised music and composing songs. I’m completely enamored by musicians who devote their lives entirely to free improvisation. I certainly have equal interest in both worlds. 

AD: You’ve been in London for a while now. Has that relocation affected your songwriting in any way? 

Thurston Moore: I always think that environment affects songwriting. That was something that was talked about us in those first years of Sonic Youth. “Here’s the sound of New York City. You can hear the noise of the populace and the streets.” That wasn’t really our intention, but I could not disagree with it. Living hand to mouth in New York, especially at that time when it was a city left to its own devices and with no economic stability. That kind of energy was in the music. It was in the music of Lydia Lunch and Glenn Branca. But when we first started criss crossing the U.S.A. and got connected with California and started recording with SST and being part of Black Flag’s world… that was very important to us. We had this kinship in California. We decamped in London pretty early on when Paul Smith had Blast First Records. They brought us over and holed us up in the basement of Rough Trade. The city became very critical to us, and that always remained. 

I never really knew what to think about London until I moved here. A bookseller here told me that London reveals itself personally to everybody that lives here. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I don’t see a future where I’m living in another place. I’m in my early sixties when people start thinking about where you want to hang your hat. I’m thinking like Iggy, living in Coconut Grove, Florida, where he’s like, “I’m moving to paradise. I’ll go on tour and I can make some records, but I’m gonna be living in paradise because that’s what I deserve.” 

AD: On the new Thurston Moore Group album, you are working again with the poet Radieux Radio, who wrote most of the lyrics for the record. How did you come to get connected with them and work with them so closely? 

Thurston Moore: There’s a poetry scene in London that I’m connected to. There’s a few poets here that I work with and have published and have been published with. Radieux was somebody on the scene very early on. I like writing lyrics, but I found that to work collaboratively with a lyric writer is sort of the same as working collaboratively with musicians. I didn’t do it so purposefully. I was working on a slew of songs and I thought, “I’m really focused on wanting to get this music together.” 

AD: What is the creative relationship with Radieux like? Are you working really closely with them on the lyrics? Are you leaving things as is and adapting them to fit the song and your vocal style? 

Thurston Moore: They can be slightly modified, or sometimes radically modified. Sometimes it’s collaborative where I add some of my own lines. Sometimes it’s a challenge, like just too many marbles in the mouth. You minimize the text. Sometimes that will actually change the text into something else. I like doing that kind of work. All those years of writing lyrics for Sonic Youth, it was really interesting to see what worked and what didn’t and how you would edit yourself. I remember recording with Richard Hell on this project called Dim Stars, and he had so many lyrics. He’s really cramming a lot of words into one line. I said, “Richard, it would sound a lot better if you got rid of about half that line, so you can really hit the rhythm.” But that wasn’t his thing. 

AD: How did you approach the vocals on this record? I’m thinking of the moments on “Cantaloupe” where on a line like, “White gardenias in your eyes,” you really hold out that last “s” for a long stretch. 

Thurston Moore: I don’t really have an answer for that. I have a limited range as a vocalist and it took me a long time to figure out how to home in on what the root note or key is. I would compensate by shouting, which was maybe being informed by hardcore. Just barking the lyrics. But then I realized that wasn’t really genuine to what I was feeling. I really wanted to be more of a melodic singer. It took many years for me to find that, to some degree. For the most part, I sort of know where not to go. 

I enjoy singing, although I gotta say, I did this record last year called Spirit Counsel, which was three extended instrumental compositions, and it was wonderful touring and not having a microphone on stage, let alone a monitor for vocals. It was liberating to focus on music that was instrumental. But the people involved with promoting and distributing that record asked, “Is your next record going to have vocals?” And I felt like, “No, no, I’m done with it. I’m really happy doing this now.” But I knew right away like, “Oh, people actually enjoy that aspect of the songs.” So I knew I’d have to return to it. 

AD: I’m glad you brought up Spirit Counsel because that was the introduction of a new member of the Thurston Moore Group: Jon Leidecker. How did he end up in the fold? 

Thurston Moore: I was involved with this project—pianist Tania Chen was playing with David Toop and Steve Beresford, who are two musicians that I’ve been playing with over the years. And Tania asked me if I would be part of this project, and she brought in her friend from San Francisco, Jon Leidecker. He played electronics where he was processing a lot of the signals from the guitars of myself and David and the piano. I thought he was really interesting as an electronic musician. I liked his ideas and we really got on. When I was touring this instrumental music in the U.S., I asked Jon to come along as the support act. Then he followed us to Europe and there was one show that was a bit of a festival that he wasn’t booked for. He’d heard us play those pieces so many times and had so much to say about them, so he set up on stage and became like our Brian Eno. And it was great. It was so uplifting and moved the piece into another place. I just looked at him after the set and was like, “Where have you been all my life?” He’s very sensitive to being the obtrusive electronics player. Sometimes I have to ask him like, “Just unleash it man, go.” Sometimes he does and he’ll throw out a couple of grenades of electronic noise, and it can be really great and shattering. 

AD: Your longtime bandmate Steve Shelley has been working to release a lot of material from the Sonic Youth archives through Bandcamp over the past few months. Is it pretty exciting to have all this material available for mass consumption? 

Thurston Moore: I think the work Steve has been doing is completely incredible. There’s such a massive archive of material that’s available, from recordings that we made on tour where we had the facilitation of recording equipment and the whole era that’s more spurious. You get material coming in from tape traders. Just recently a motherlode of material came through because traders have been sending offers of music they have. I’m so happy that he’s doing it because I don’t think I would have the wherewithal to do this. 

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