Interview by Katherine Yeske Taylor
A towering figure of alternative rock as guitarist and vocalist for Sonic Youth from 1981 to 2011, Thurston Moore began an equally innovative solo career in 1996 with Psychic Hearts. Released September 25th, his sixth solo album, By the Fire, is an often searing and intensely esoteric batch of songs that prove Moore is still inspired and nowhere near mellowing. We spoke to him recently from London, where he’s lived for almost eight years.
What themes are you trying to get across with this new album?
This record is about wanting to reference that ancient communication of people sitting around a fire, sharing stories, passing the peace pipe, as it were. But at the same time, it’s in reference to the anxiousness we have in our social society now, globally, as we’re dealing with such lunacy that has taken over the streams of power and raging against it because it’s becoming so infuriating that fires are created. But I wanted it to be about positivity and hope and this kind of liberation, looking at fire as liberation more than anything.
I’m always thinking optimistically when I’m writing, even when there’s aspects of negativity or nihilism or darkness. I like the energy of dark and dour music but I’m not a dark and dour person, so I don’t lull myself into making that kind of music. The record definitely has more of an upbeat quality to it than [2019’s Spirit Counsel], which was three CDs of 60-minute instrumentals. That was a little different. Even those were positive in vibe, I guess. But I haven’t really had a record out, with proper songs, in a while. It was time to do that.
Your songwriting is so distinctive. What’s your process?
I always feel like I’ve found a certain vocabulary in songwriting that’s really personal. It’s completely inspired by things that I always was enchanted by, but I was never a very schooled guitar player, or even in a lot of aspects of songwriting. I created my own way of working with what I liked. I certainly have some understanding of traditional songwriting, and I glean what works and what doesn’t work or what I find is interesting or what I find redundant through the last 40 years. So yeah, songwriting for me is this interesting work because it is work. I find that I have to sit down with a guitar and start playing, and then when ideas start happening, I work on trying to figure out how to notate them, because I don’t do traditional notation. So I’ll record them by any means necessary, which is basically either something as vintage as a cassette recorder, or my iPhone or a laptop. Something really simple. I don’t have any sophisticated recording gear, except a little digital recorder that I recently got.
When [things] shifted over to completely digital technology with ProTools, I mean forget about it. There was no way I was going to learn that curve. Working with any kind of technology doesn’t really resonate with me. I never felt inspired by it. It’s interesting to a certain extent, but I’m not a gearhead. To me, songwriting is just making musical ideas manifest. I learned how to play guitar just so I could do that. I originally wanted to be a drummer, but I couldn’t really figure out coordination. I had an older brother who brought an electric guitar to our house when we were younger, and I thought that was the coolest thing, and I started making any kind of noise on it. He showed me how to make a barre chord.
It was interesting because I came of age right in the mid-to-late ‘70s. I was born in 1958, so I was 20 in 1978: that was a time when all of the sudden, you had bands like the Ramones playing music that was primarily focused on the barre chord. And it was so great. I was like, “Well, I can do that, too — and I really want to do that.” I started writing songs that I had the fantasy of sending to the Ramones, whatever that means. Like, what would I do? “The Ramones, at Sire Records: here’s some songs for you!” Like they really needed songs! I wrote a song called “I Don’t Have to Mow the Lawn No More.” I think it was, “I don’t have to mow the lawn no more or pick my socks up off the floor.” Something like that. That was my beginning and end of copying anybody.
How did you take those influences and create something of your own that was distinctive?
For me, I was interested in these two things that were happening: things that were just completely extreme in the context of rock music, like Teenage Jesus [and the Jerks] or Suicide, and then things that were really adhering to those romantic notion of purest rock language, which was like the Dead Boys or Flamin’ Groovies. It was like wanting to do both things at once and try and create a unified take on that. I can articulate that now, but I certainly wasn’t articulating that in any intellectual away when I was 20 years old. I was just doing something.
Did you always know that you’d end up having a career in music?
I knew that it’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t think of it in any sense as a career. The idea of “career” seemed like a very adult proposition. I was living in New York in the ‘70s; I moved there and started sleeping bagging it with some of the musicians from ‘77 onwards. I finally got my own place in 1978 and just barely came up with the $105 rent. It was on 13th Street between [Avenues] A and B.
That area wasn’t so safe then!
No, not quite. Everybody lived hand-to-mouth. You didn’t think about a [music] career. You didn’t have that sense of, “I don’t have that much time left, I’m no spring chicken, I’m not that young anymore.” You always thought of yourself as having a million years ahead of you. There was no anxiety about wasting time. I just remember being inspired by seeing bands like DNA and the Bush Tetras. I would study it, then I would apply it to what I was doing. I was playing with some musicians in New York who came out of Rhode Island School of Design. They were like the next class after the Talking Heads crew. In fact, my first day job was as a shipping clerk in a basement on 52nd Street, and I took over for Chris Frantz, the drummer of Talking Heads. He left because his band was becoming more active. I got word from the drummer in our band at the time, who knew them, that Chris Frantz had left his job and there was a vacancy. So I went up there and I got the job. I don’t know Chris. I knew his brother Roddy because I also did some work with him, scraping ceilings. It was dreadful. I had some weird jobs. I remember selling fruit at a fruit stand.
Good thing Sonic Youth became so successful!
To me, that was the greatest success, was to not have to work a day job. And that didn’t really happen until the very end of the ‘80s into the ‘90s when we signed to Geffen Records and all of the sudden Nirvana allowed us to not have to wash dishes or anything. We were together, as a group, working for a decade before that happened. The tours we did all through the ‘80s, whether it was across the USA or over in Europe and the UK, they were hand-to-mouth. I mean, if you came home breaking even, that was pretty good. And then the day-to-day of not having maybe enough money to have a sandwich. You live like that a lot when you’re in a band. I would see people drop off in different bands, like, “Forget about it, this is ridiculous — this lifestyle sucks.” But to a lot of other people it was like, “This is an incredible lifestyle.” I mean, you’re traveling the world and you’re interacting with all kinds of different artists and you’re sharing something. It’s a really remarkable situation. But it’s traded off with the poverty of it, of sleeping in record store basements with cat pee on the bed. That’s a reality for a lot of bands. The bands that are able to elevate above that and start doing well, it’s few and far between. And usually, if it does happen, it happens in a very spurious way. Or it doesn’t hold. There’s very few bands I know who have reached a modicum of success and maintained it.
After the ‘90s, Sonic Youth had a profile where we actually had tour buses and were catered to with a road crew. I don’t live that lifestyle anymore. I don’t really feel like it is necessary, when it comes to the actual work that you have to do as a songwriter. To me, I don’t really desire that. And I don’t regret not having it in my life, to tell you the truth. In fact, I like playing more personal spaces. Playing in front of 200,000 people with a huge barricade in front of you, it’s cool, it’s kind of fun, it’s kind of ridiculous, it’s kind of great. But it’s not the only thing. And it’s certainly not the best thing.
But now you’re at the point where you can release music on your own terms, so that must feel good.
I’m really super excited and really psyched for this record to come out. I always feel the excitement of making a record. I think if I ever felt like I was phoning it in, it would be pretty depressing. I don’t foresee myself ever being in that situation because I would just refute it. I wouldn’t do it unless I really feel inspired and intrigued and really in love with it.