Sitting “By The Fire” – In Conversation with Thurston Moore

Sitting “By The Fire” – In Conversation with Thurston Moore

Certain people have the power to send us back to our teenage years. Sonic Youth were, and are, one of the most important bands in rock’s history; they have written a good segment of it, in their thirty years long career. I grew up with their music in my ears and in my heart, and I bought Thurston Moore’s first solo record, Psychic Hearts, right after it came out in 1995.

Thurston, as it becomes clear during the interview, is a quiet, reflective person, as well as a 360-degree inspired and inspiring soul. His current music maintains an incredibly high level of musical writing, also retaining a miraculous poetic novelty. His new album By the Fire was released on September 25; our conversation, however, is balanced between past, present, and future.

Hello Thurston, have you been busy, lately?

Yes. Well, busy staying at home and concentrating on writing, on words and music, and that has been good. I am enjoying the “forced” solitary life.

It sounds like paradise for people like us; writing and composing is the best way to occupy our time…

Yeah, it has been a good time to do that and focus on it, you know… Part of the musician’s job is travelling, which is usually quite a distraction, and I find it very difficult to actually compose or spend any focused time writing… I never really learned how to discipline myself in that sense.

I think you touched the subject in one of your songs, “Dirty Boots,” where you describe the struggle of touring…

Yeah. You know, I have been doing it for so long, since 1980. It is nothing new. However, I really appreciate this calm time for what is worth. I would hope it could be in better circumstances, where it is not enforced by a virus indiscriminately attacking everybody. You know, I think it’s good to make good out of something inherently terrible. I think this is bringing people into places of contemplation. It certainly allows the natural world to breathe a little more.

I think it balanced people, in such a way that they realized what is really important, and what isn’t.

I would hope so. And it seems to be going that way. There is a very interesting kind of community dialogue and debate happening through technology. Since everybody is self-sequestrated at home, they really run to the salvation of talking to each other, by any means necessary. All of this by using the technology we have, the platforms on social media; not only utilizing those platforms but vitalizing those platforms. It is really interesting seeing this happening… Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and all these programs for communication: let’s make sure they are for the people, and not some tool for spreading hate speech, or a prohibited space for anybody. It’s a very interesting time.

I am very, very glad you are touching this subject, since some of my questions are more related to culture than anything else. I just hope you’ll be happy to answer those.

Yeah, sure. I think everybody is getting engaged in what is happening at the moment, culturally, in a joint society. We are really joint together, even through technology, in such a way that is really kind of a new dynamic. I am really happy to see this, and I am really curious on how it will develop in the next couple of years… but most of all, on the long vision: I mean, how it will develop in two decades from now. But that’s a bit of a crystal ball thing. I think the next months will be interesting, especially for the USA, where I come from, with such a contentious new nomination for another governance. It’s so critical. It’s so extremely critical right now. In one way I feel I’m glad I am not going to be there, because it is such a sick place; it has become very toxic in the USA.

My first question is just related to what you just said, and hopefully it will give you a very wide and ample way to answer. One Sonic Youth song from 1983 declares, “Fragmentation is the rule”; another one from 1985 is called “Society is a hole.” Has society changed for the better since then, from the point of view of a musician such as yourself?

Well, you know, the title “Society is a hole” was a mishearing from another band lyric, initially. I had misheard a Black Flag song called “Rise above,” which is a fantastic song about personal politics. The lyrics were “Society is arms of control.” I always misheard that at the time when I listened to the song, thinking that Henry Rollins was singing “Society is a fucking hole.” When I saw the real lyrics I was like, “…Oh!”; and then I took off the explicit “fucking” and I turned them into “Society is a hole” because I wanted to make it more of an abstraction of what Black Flag were saying. I was trying to apply, maybe, a different image to the meaning of a lyric like that. So, when I wrote “Society is a hole,” it was more about bringing awareness to the feeling of being alien to the expectations and standards of society, and wanting to work with the outside of it, not so much disparaging it, but knowing that you can create your own community of people who have a shared ideology. And I found that a lot in the music of our community in downtown New Your City at the time, where there was a lot of dialogue and a lot of debate. There was a lot the idea of acceptance and tolerance.

If you remember, Mark Arm from Mudhoney used to say as his motto, back in the nineties, “Isolation and inbreeding.” [Thurston laughs] So, what you meant is that the art community is growing more aware of the lies that the mainstream media are trying to force into our systems, while the rest of society is somehow turning crueler?

I think everybody understands that mainstream media is basically a system of controlled data information. It’s not art. I think in art and music, poetry, writing there is some news report. And I think there is information and news in the process that goes through the creative impulses. And that is inevitably alternative to the agendas of mainstream media: there is a right-wing agenda, a left-wing agenda, there are some more “balanced” agendas… but there is always an agenda. Because it’s always dealing with money. News media, mainstream media deals with money, and it has been influenced by advertising. So it creates a situation where you always have to sort of being in debate with it, you always have to question it. Whereas I find a lot of information is more personal and possibly more genuine to the human condition coming from the resonance that you get from different disciplines of art, being music or poetry. It’s interesting seeing how these things work together in our society; take the demonization of art and culture through governance, you know. So, if you have a Republican governance of the USA as reflected through the prism of Donald Trump’s administration, you know art and music are just considered a threat to their well-being; “well-being” meaning just an envisioning of economic status.

You described one of your previous works, Rock n Roll Consciousness, as a spiritual journey. So, what you said about art being demonized, could it be also extended to the whole concept of spirituality?

Well, if you think about spirituality in the sense of something practiced through religion or religious belief, a thing that is going on is that there is a lot of sacrilege and sacrilegious activity. Like a very unpopular president cursing demonstrators, so that he can hold an upside-down Bible in front of the church he is never been to. Things like these are just so obvious, you know. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that it is sacrilegious because I don’t think there is any understanding of what is sacrilegious in certain people’s lifestyle. I mean, what I can see is manifesting through spirituality is that sort of ineffable essence of nature that everybody has at birth. You are kind of a Buddha, you are kind of a blessed person. Nobody is born to go to war, let’s put it that way. And that, to me, is a misunderstanding of what is in nature. It’s like the whole thing about the demonization of immigration and crossing borders. Throughout the history of mankind, the mankind has always moved around the globe seeking holistic places to live in.

I mean, look at us! I come from Italy, you come from the US, and now we are both Londoners!

Yeah! To me, I love travelling the world, and I love moving through regions where I see new cultures through… which I don’t think it ever necessitates creating any kind of officious borders to keep people in or outside of these regions. I think these regions should be free to fluctuate and move, and the fact that these regions have their historical inflexions of language, and farming, and culinary, the way they look and their colors and tones, and sounds… That is something so wonderful to see while your shift through the world. You don’t want to see that marginalized. You don’t want everybody being the same; you want everybody to be different and diverse, and I love this! You don’t need any borders to install ties. The thing with contemporary migration, anyway, is that it has to do with people trying to escape from this industry of war, and to me that’s where the problem is. The problem isn’t migration; the problem is war. You can’t talk to a tree about migration: a tree has a spore that crosses borders and plants itself—that is not a crime, that is true life.

Is your last work By the Fire reflecting any of the views you just expressed regarding the current historical moment?

Thurston Moore – By The Fire (Daylight Library,2020) Photo: Thurston Moore/Facebook

“By the Fire”… That title has a lot to do with the last months, with people being in a lockdown and the pandemic, and how people have gathered around with the idealization of technology to constantly keep in dialogue with each other; to me it was kind of this modern world sitting around the campfire. But at the same time, it also denounced what was happening in the streets: people rising up in opposition of such oppression, actually setting fires in the street, so just to draw attention to their anger. So, I like to have this reference being about a balance between the two things. The title really drew, originally, from when I was watching a documentary on Joe Strummer from the Clash. There was a film made by Julien Temple [Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007) – Ed.], that was very great. He interviews a lot of Joe Strummer’s old friends who he had a band with, before he saw the Sex Pistols and he connected with Bernie Rhodes and Mick Jones, creating this sort of savage political voice marks. He was kind of a rockabilly or a hippie boy initially; he was in this straight rock and roll group called The 101’ers. The film starts with interviews to his friends (who he kind of left to become a punk rocker—but they still loved him; they understood what his mission was). So, in the film, Julien Temple situates these people at night time around an open, blazing campfire, and they tell their stories. I really liked that. In the record before Rock n Roll Consciousness, a record called The Best Day, there is a song called “Speak to the wild,” and that’s when I start mentioning, “We will meet around the fire.” That was the first record after I moved to London, By the fire being my fourth one, but the third proper songs collection. I did this triple box set last year, called Spirit Counsel. It was all long instrumental compositions.

I always felt that your music was an amalgam of several influences like the Velvet Underground, the total freedom of expression that came from punk rock, the avant-garde scene. I actually bought a record from your record shop [that being Live at the Stadium by Perception – AN] which was a free jazz concert, by this totally unknown band, and I was completely catapulted into a new world. Which influence has been the strongest on you, and which one is the one you also care the most about?

Wow! [He laughs] The music that’s most interesting to most musicians, I think, is the first inspiration they have in their youth, which defines them forever. So, I will have to say, it will always be the initial love affair I had hearing about music that was more on the margins of contemporary rock music in the late sixties or early seventies. Seeing photographs of people like Captain Beefheart or Iggy Pop (you know, Iggy Pop straight painted silver on the top of an audience). I felt like at the time, you couldn’t really hear it: you had to find it. So, when I would find the documents, they were usually very inexpensive, because nobody would buy these things. They were very unpopular, so the record companies would get rid of them, and you would find them in the trashy corners of the record stores, and they were very cheap.

Photo Source/Credits: Neil Thomson ‘Copyright 2019-2020 Neil Thomson’ printed with permission of Daydream Library’

You don’t want to know how much I struggled in getting my first copy of Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth back in the days, when I still lived in South Italy. I had to ask a friend of mine who travelled to Rome to get me that record, which is one of the very few that are still really sentimental to me.

Wow. When we would play in Italy before the Internet era, I would open up the phone book in each town while on tour, and I would look for the page that said “Dischi.” Then I would get a map from the front desk of the hotel, and then I would spend an hour finding out where each of these places were, and then I would go out and I would walk looking for those places. Some of them would be closed, or they would just be horrible, as they had nothing in them. And then, all of a sudden, you would find somebody who had really cool underground records. You would find records by Demetrios Stratos and Area, and so on…

Wow! You really surprised me there! I wasn’t expecting you knowing him!

That was really amazing in those days. I would also look for Italian punk rock and hardcore records. You know, usually when you have a day off in Italia, it would be like a Sunday: everything is closed then!

That is absolutely correct! I am so glad that you are aware of what was going on in Italy on the underground level. My eyes have always been focused on what was going on in the US and the UK, to be fair, but I admit that we had a very alive underground scene; especially during the progressive music era we had quite a few interesting bands. Now going back to us: when I still lived in Italy, I remember reading a great number of articles saying that Sonic Youth’s music was the perfect soundtrack to describe New York. Do you think that was true? And do you think that living in London inspired you in a different way?

I think Sonic Youth was very much a New York band. The difference between Sonic Youth and other New York bands is that we realized that we needed to leave New York in order to survive. That was really important to us. There was a bit of trailblazing going on, because Lee Ronaldo was already playing in Glenn Branca’s group, and he had to travel across Europe, and he had all these stories about the places where he played… So he was able to keep all these contacts from touring with Glenn Branca. We played in all these places, like Odyssea 2000, where Glenn had played, in front of like 20 people…

I know that for a reason: in the live record Sonic Death, at the end of certain tracks, you can hear some people clapping, and you can tell that in the room there were like 12, maximum 20 people. That exhilarated me: when I listened to that I felt so privileged!

[We both laugh]

I go to Italy all the time, you know? And I need to go there as soon as they let me travel. I have relatives living in Molise (my brother’s wife’s family comes from there), and I like to spend time on the mountains with them, near Campobasso.

I was born in Sardinia. I think there is a sense of seclusion in certain areas of the South, that you won’t find in more “European” cities like Milan, or Turin.

Oh, I love Sardinia! My dream is someday just to live in Italy and have a record store and a bookstore that would sell second hand items, and have some cats, and just sit there and write…

If you need some advice about buying properties in Italy, let me know!

I will indeed! You know, my girlfriend and I are always talking about living in Italy. She has written a lot of lyrics on some of my records under the name “Radio Radieux.” There are two songs in this new record that are all about Italia. There is one called “Dreamers Work,” and it’s about Tintoretto. We travelled through the whole of Italy, going to every single church to study all the paintings by Tintoretto, and the song “Dreamers Work” is about that.

Photo Source/Credits: Neil Thomson ‘Copyright 2019-2020 Neil Thomson’ printed with permission of Daydream Library’

Let’s talk about your songwriting. John Lennon often described his work as one fundamental unit: what he did with The Beatles and after The Beatles were one thing to him. Listening to Rock n Roll Consciousness and the singles from By the Fire, I felt the same way about you and your songwriting.

There’s a lot of songwriting vocabulary that I have been using since Sonic Youth day one. A lot of times I write a song, people say, “It sounds like a Sonic Youth song!” Well, there’s a reason for that! [He laughs] I think the only difference is just that the most interesting Sonic Youth songs are the ones that had no single writer. It was like when things would happen as a group, and they would have been developed as a group composition. Every single song by Sonic Youth was always credited to all four musicians, and we made sure of that. That was very important to us. I think it’s obvious which songs were more connected to me, or Lee, or Kim. Steve Shelley never wrote, like, a song; but Steve Shelley was a songwriter as much as everybody, because he was writing his lyrics. His lyrics are his drums! When I would bring a song into Sonic Youth, I would never tell anybody what to play. I might have suggested something, but I would never say, “This is what you play, Kim”; or, “This is what you play, Steve.” I would bring the structure in, and then say something like, “We start from here,” but that was it. Whereas, as I play solo with a group like I have in London, it’s a little different. In a way I am truly the leader; I’m the boss and I can say, “You play this”; “That sounds good”; and I give the thumbs up to everybody. And that’s very different from what used to happen with the Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth was a democracy in the true sense of the word. The thing is, I don’t really want to have a group like that anymore. I want to be in a group now where I have a controlling interest. [He laughs] And, you know, it’s not about ego.

It’s about musical direction, at the end of the day. I am very surprised about what you are saying. Songs like “The Diamond Sea” always felt to me like, “OK; that is Thurston’s song.” But now you are telling me that everything with the Sonic Youth was a collegial, democratic sort of effort. Some of your songs with the Sonic Youth are really personal. You really surprised me for the twelfth time, since we started talking.

[We both laugh]

Many times it has been raised by musicians that the grunge movement was fictional, something more or less orchestrated by the press. Do you feel the same way about the alternative scene in the eighties, when Sonic Youth were signed by SST, or was there a sincere sense of community, between bands like yourselves, the Hüsker Dü, the Black Flag, and the Screaming Trees?

Well, we were all just in our twenties at that time, and we were up to listening to each other. We were very aware about what everybody else was doing: when Redd Kross, or Saccharine Trust, or Black Flag, or Hüsker dü, or the Minutemen, when these bands put out some music we would listen very closely. We were paying close attention to each other, and learning from each other. For us, New York City had a very dramatic scene. I really wanted to connect with the other side of America, however. And to connect to SST, it was to connect with California. I wanted to create a band that had one foot in California, one foot in New York and, on the bigger picture, one foot in the USA and another foot in Europe. That was really how I envisioned our band progressing, rather than being just a New York band. But New York was very central; New York was the heart of Sonic Youth. Only in the nineties, there was some sort of revisionist history in regards of what led up to Nirvana, when they exploded on the scene. People wanted to know what led up to that. And, you know, Nirvana came out from listening to bands like us, and Black Flag and everything around. So, when that became such a huge Nova to people, it kind of validated the work that had been happening in the eighties on the underground scene. I don’t think there was any notion about bands recording for SST or labels like that, in the eighties. And, that we needed to become famous or rich. [He laughs] Those two things were not goals at all; people who were celebrities in the music industry—we thought that was embarrassing.

The album Ciccone Youth was a very good statement in these regards, I think. It was a great way to say, “We don’t care about what happens in those rooms, where you decide who is going to go on the top 10. We’re going to do our thing.”

It was also the situation of being in a culture which was primarily young, sort of white intellectuals with a very privileged kind of situation in their country, making radical music, and the necessitation of desiring to be wealthy was turned against you. That sort of expectation was coming from your parents: to become a success.

The “You must become somebody with music” idea. You were not interested with that. And the thing is that while the music you wrote was incredible, and you were also beautifully idealistic in your approach, I found criminal that the media ignored so much inspiration, so much beauty. I think that kids need to be exposed to beautiful music, and the fact that for a good decade there was no mediatic sensitivity, there was no chance really for kids to get to know bands like yours is, again, criminal.

Well… They had Mötley Crüe.

[We both laugh]

Oh please, don’t let me sound judgmental when I’m interviewing you!

In a sense it was interesting when we recorded in the same studio as Public Enemy, and I had this conversation with them. We were coming from a culture where we didn’t really want to show off any resemblance of wealth, because it was rather embarrassing, and it was the expectation that your parents had towards success, and success equals money. While, in the hip hop culture, it was music that was coming from a culture that was marginalized and really kept in an oppressed situation, where to make money was really difficult. So, I think that the hip hop culture was a celebration of wealth, the celebration of making money, wearing golden chains and flashing dollar bills and stuff like that. It was really radical and really political. It was like, “We are taking this: we deserve this. Not only we need this, but we are owed this. This country owes us.” And seeing that was very interesting, because it was the difference between hip hop and punk rock, but hip hop and punk rock have been partners in being contemporary political music in the last 30 years.

Of course, you collaborated with Chuck D in the Goo album.

He sings on “Kool thing,” yeah.

I remember you wearing a Roland Kirk T-shirt on the “Dirty Boots” EP’s sleeve, back in the nineties. How and when did you connect to jazz music originally? Was it something that came from your childhood, or did it come later on?

We never had jazz in our household; I never listened to it. My father was a classical piano player, and I had an older brother who brought rock around to the house. Since the late sixties, those were the two musical genres in our house; I didn’t know anything about listening to jazz until sometime in the mid-eighties. I knew about it because it was getting referenced by people like Tom Verlaine, who would talk about how that would have been important to Television, or James Chance, who would talk about how it would have been important to the Contortions, and I would see that always referenced by people like the Black Flag and Saccharine Trust and Minutemen, and others of these bands. I had a friend who really knew all about jazz and I started becoming very interested in it, because I simply wanted to know! So, I started from the beginning. I started reading every single history book on jazz, and listening to the records. Things like Duke Ellington, and then Archie Shepp, and then Sun Ra, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I just became completely immersed in the history of music and realized that that was probably the most profound music coming out of the diaspora of North American culture. So, yeah, I became a jazz freak!

You have two pages on Facebook, and I follow both. You post a lot of jazz works coming from the “Impulse!” record label; I absolutely adore everything that label did.

Yeah of course, that’s amazing. And the fact that a lot of the music was artist run! There were lots of artist labels, like Sun Ra: he had his own artist label way, way before the whole celebration of punk rock and independent labels. Jazz music has a huge history of being completely independent music, way before punk started waving, “Hey, look at us, we’re independent.” Come on! Jazz music is the true music that references independency and liberty and art at the highest level. I’ve found it interesting because I know that I can never be a jazz musician; you have to study, you have to spend years devoting yourself to learn the templates and structure of jazz. I don’t want to do that; it’s not really part of my interest. I like playing improvised music, free improvised music that comes out of jazz, as a music that focuses on improvisation.

Definitely, if you allow me to say that, you got the spirit of it. I mean, while you were talking, I was thinking about the song “Hits of Sunshine” in the A Thousand Leaves album.  That struck me as a very jazz influenced song. It has a recurring melody in it, and then in the middle you have this stream of consciousness. Just beautiful. Jazz can influence us as musicians without us absorbing the technicality of it.

Yes, it is very influential in the sense of the colors and tones, and the nature of the music, without playing difficult jazz chording. It is extremely influential.

Well Thurston, thank you for your time, and sorry I kept you this long!

No worries; I really enjoyed talking to you! Cheers! Ciao ciao.

Elias Fiore

Fotografie di Neil Thomson (per gentile concessione della Daydream Library e Goodfellas)

Il cinque maggio: “Un cantico che forse non morrà”

Il cinque maggio: “Un cantico che forse non morrà”

“Ei fu…” 5 maggio: tale data, già nota a molti per la sua risonanza, quest’anno assume una connotazione più sostanziosa, in quanto segna ben duecento anni dalla scomparsa di Napoleone Bonaparte. Proclamato imperatore dei francesi nel 1804 da parte del Senato e...