Art-rock luminary, noise shaman, publisher, punk-poet, pioneer, world’s greatest guitarist…just how do you surmise the man and the myth that is Thurston Moore? BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to the “patron saint of music nerds” to discuss his new record Rock n Roll Consciousness, his stint working for a subversive poetry sect in Colorado, digging into Krautrock catalogues and tour plans for down under in 2017.
After three decades fronting Sonic Youth Thurston Moore is recreating himself in the UK. He has formed a tight musical bond with a settled line-up of musicians he has been working with since 2014’s acclaimed record The Best Day featuring Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) on bass, James Sedwards (Nought, Chrome Hoof) on guitar and fellow Sonic Youth member Steve Shelley on drums. A more collaborative approach to writing and recording has culminated a more band oriented solo album for Moore.
Produced by the acclaimed Paul Epworth (Adele, U2, Coldplay) at The Church Studios in London, the record symbolises Moore’s unflinching dedication to interrogating the possibilities of his sounds. It marks a tantalising new direction for the 58 year old, who seems to have lost none of his youthful enthusiasm.
Where in the world are you today?
I’m in my flat in London it’s early morning here. Well actually it’s 10am so not early just regular morning I guess.
Well it’s early for a musician.
(Laughs) Yeah I guess you’re right there.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to your new album Rock n Roll Consciousness this week and really enjoyed it. What was special about this record that sets it apart from the many works you have made before?
I do these records every couple of years that are sort of proper songwriter records, you know? Between them some of my other records are more free improvised music or noise music, cassette and CD-Rs or whatever. I’m always sort of engaged with doing all sorts of different musical things but as far as really sitting down and writing songs for this group that I’ve formed here in England it’s definitely more of a higher profile. I prioritise it because there are a lot more people invested in it which I enjoy. The last record I did before Rock n Roll Consciousness was called The Best Day from three or four years ago and that’s right when I had moved here. I’d been here for a couple of years playing with different musicians around town and I decided that I wanted to start writing songs and put some sort of group together.
James Sedwards was a guitarist that I really like and we were playing together just as a duo playing instrumentally and then I started adding lyrics and singing. Steve Shelley joined us on drums and Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine came on as a bass player and then we were a group. We didn’t really record at first. We had never really heard ourselves until we were in the studio and listened back to the first song from The Best Day. Some of the songs on that record were some solo acoustic guitar pieces that I had already recorded and so the record was really a bit of a pastiche in that sense. It was when we hit the road and started touring around and playing the record that we realised we were a ‘real’ group now and wanted to stick together.
So when I did this record I really wanted to focus on the band as opposed to me primarily as a songwriter. So I wrote these songs thinking about how I wanted James Sedwards’ guitar to be liberated, Steve and Deb to really breathe on this one and have time to get their feet wet. I didn’t put any restrictions on the time it took. I felt as though these songs could go on as long as it takes for this band to sound at their fullest and best.
You recorded this album with Paul Epworth who has been hugely successful in producing a lot of massive pop artists. As someone who has come to represent an independent, DIY attitude to your records, how did having him involved change the recording process?
We recorded at a studio called The Church here in London which is this beautiful old cathedral and the interior is just massive. It had these beautiful analogue control boards that had been used to record Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and all those kinds of things. Paul has become really well known for being the one that helped arrange and co-arrange and co-write Adele’s first records and those kind of things that are sort of out of my league. But I just really loved this idea of doing this album called Rock n Roll Consciousness in a church. He was great to work with and he was really attentive and he made sure that we had this highly functioning space. We recorded nine songs, five of which are on the record. Then I mixed it in Seattle, Washington. I took the tapes, flew them up to Seattle and worked with Randall Dunn. He’s a sound engineer who I know who’s worked with Sun O))) and Earth and all these weird experimental doom stoner bands.
It was something I felt I had a little more of affinity with than some of the music that was coming out of the Church like Florence and the Machine which is all fine but I didn’t really want my record mixed with that aesthetic. I liked the idea of joining forces with my history given I don’t really have any history in London and see how those things would sound when they were connected. I wasn’t really calculating any of this at the time but in retrospect it created this recording out of very different distinctions. I wanted each song to really stand alone and not be too much in reference to any song before or after it.
So I’m really excited by it. We have established this group and we’re going to go out and keep playing and we’re not going to go waving our arms about in the air to get attention as we’ve already dealt with that in a way. From most of us being in high profile groups like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth I feel like we have this privilege of going in having gone through the wars together to be in a group together that can just work accordingly and just be serious about good records, good songs, good gigs. I think on our first tour for The Best Day it was seemingly some new dalliance or more of a transition to the next thing. Like people thought maybe he’s going to come out and juggle chainsaws through an amplifier or something. I’ve realised that I can still do a lot of different gigs in a lot of different ways, whether they be noise gigs, free improv gigs, acoustic gigs or whatever.
There is a definitely a defined sound on this record that follows on well from The Best Day. Did working with the same musicians help to carve out a new direction or style that maybe you couldn’t achieve from changing things up all the time?
We certainly got our group sound together after a couple of years of touring and when I realised what kind of players I was really playing with. I mean I knew Steve Shelley’s abilities but to hear him playing with Deb Googe was something else entirely. James Sedward’s is such a high technique guitar player that I knew that when I was writing new songs they had to allow this group to really breathe. I needed songs that would liberate James as a lead guitarist and give time for Deb and Steve to really get their feet wet. So there were no limitations obviously on writing songs that were following restrictions on songwriting like for playing on radio or TV. I was open to the idea of just writing one long forty minute song (laughs). Which I still want to do – maybe on the next one.
And what about the title Rock n Roll Consciousness? You said you had that title in mind already which made the idea of recording in a church all the more appealing?
Well I’ve been teaching at a summer writing workshop for the last five years. It was a very “Buddha-centric” poetry school at Naropa University in Colorado and the summer writing workshop was founded by the poets Alan Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974 called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The faculty there was amazing it’s always been like William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Diane Di Prima and Gregory Corso through all the years. Anne Waldman asked me to be involved there some years ago after seeing I was involved in publishing poetry because I was an archivist of underground publications from the sixties.
When I was teaching there I would invariably read different Buddhist texts that were lying around and there was always that idea of consciousness. Dharma consciousness, Karma Consciousness, Buddha consciousness and I kept thinking where do I find my consciousness? Where do I find that relationship between the physical and the metaphysical and I realised that I do find it when I’m in the process of songwriting and playing this music and working within this umbrella of ‘rock and roll’ music. So I just came up with that title knowing that it was a fairly amusing title but definitely true to how I felt and so I held onto it and it really has defined a lot of what this record has become.
Do you think immersing yourself in that kind of world with all the poetry and having to focus on it so much – did that also go on to inform the lyrical content of the new songs as well?
Yeah it always has because I’ve always been involved in the poetry scenes and looking at what poetry is as opposed to lyric writing. Just how it looks on the page, the architecture of the lines and how rhyme isn’t necessarily as important so all these things come into play when I’m writing lyrics. A lot of it comes from poems I already had. And some of it come from a poet and friend of mine Radieux Radio who wrote some lyrics on The Best Day record as well. Three of the five songs on this album use lyrics from Radieux Radio but I didn’t base my selections on who wrote what it was just what sounded best as the sequence of the record.
You’ve talked a lot about the recording process for this record but have you gone about paying any of it live yet?
Some of the songs were in the live set that we were playing before the record came out. But since recording we’ve been playing just about every song which is something we’re really going to get happening in the next few weeks after the album comes out.
Was there anything you might have constructed on the recording and then found yourself wondering “how are we going to recreate this on stage?”
There are some songs like that just can’t be replicated on stage because of some tape edits but those songs don’t exist on the record. One of them is about twelve minutes long which I took off the record. Not because it was too long but it was just a beast of a piece and it definitely wasn’t conducive to playing live. I actually don’t mind that so much, having songs that are recorded and that there is their sole existence. I think a lot of musicians create things in the studio that aren’t necessarily made for live performance. But when I’m writing songs I usually think about it as a living song that can be played live and I don’t really think about snipping away at edits. I think the studio as a tool is really interesting. I don’t really have a studio but I do think about records made by bands like Can for example, German Krautrock bands. A lot of those bands that were coming out Cologne in particular were using the studio as a real element of the song craft which is really interesting. I Iove that but I don’t really do it so much myself.
There was definitely a really interesting vibe on the song Cusp. The drums for example are very steady and mechanical and quite fast but the song doesn’t feel fast it just floats along somehow. It was a really unique approach that I couldn’t think of hearing before except maybe something deep in the Can catalogue.
That song really came together almost immediately. I had the idea of the kind of guitars I wanted to write which was kind of like the sounds of My Bloody Valentine meeting Sonic Youth but when I bought it to the studio I didn’t really say that. I didn’t want to give anyone any ideas. What really made it happen though was when Steve showed us this drum concept and then immediately everyone started playing their parts without me telling them anything. Steve just came up with that rhythm and when I heard it played back I was like “That is very cool. Don’t forget that. It’s something we need to develop.”
A lot of what’s going on for me having a group as a songwriter is having musicians like that who are so elemental to the song creating their own vocabularies and language and that’s why they’re in the group. He’s not just like some drummer for hire just waiting for me to give him notation to play. That’s his input, that’s his creativity and so when he came up with that drum part I was like “Steve Shelley gets the gold medal of the day” (laughs).
Is anything going to come of these ‘beasts’ of songs that didn’t make it onto the record? Are they ever likely to see the light of day? I’m kind of intrigued by them now after talking to you.
Yeah of course there was the song Cease Fire that’s not on the record which I released anyway last month. It’s a bit of an anti-gun protest song and was a little too “direct-action” to be on this record. There’s another song called Mx Liberty that is getting released on the day of the record for people who pre-order it. And that long beast of a song it’s called Breath. I have a lot of unreleased songs from every session I ever did. Definitely a few albums worth. To me making a record is kind of like writing a book or making a film. You work a lot with editing and the vibe and feel to get something that works on its own accord as opposed to a catalogue of all the work you’ve done. There’s always a place for a notorious B-side though (laughs).
Finally what’s the plan for the rest of the year? Some touring on the cards I guess?
Hopefully we’ll be heading down under ASAP. We’re heading out as soon as the record comes out on April 28. We’ve got a show at Rough Trade East, the record store here in London. And then the following week we go to the west coast of the USA and do little run down that strip and a show in Austin and New York City. Then we come back and do a UK run and some European dates. I know that we’re looking at doing some shows in Japan so that allows us to get to Australia a little easier. So it’s all blossoming. It’s all on the cusp.