Q Magazine

Thurston Moore – 'I Was Like: That is Beautiful, Who in God's Name is That? And You Could Only Fantasize About What That Sounds Like, You Know?'

The Sonic Youth frontman takes us on a journey through New York, No Wave, and what it’s like being the boy in a band

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Source: Courtesy of Vera Marmelo
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For 30 years, Sonic Youth were a band like no other. Emerging from the vibrant chaos of New York’s No Wave scene in 1981, they were at once the coolest and most awkward rock band on the planet. Jointly fronted by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (the couple also married in 1984) they released no fewer than 16 albums in a 30-year career, that, despite at times coming close to something like mainstream success, remained defiantly uncompromising throughout, in both attitude and musical invention.

Several of those albums – most notably the four-year triptych of Daydream Nation (1988), Goo (1990) and Dirty (1992) – are now regarded as classics, and songs like “Teen Age Riot”, “Kool Thing” and “Sugar Kane” remain staples of indie discos today.

Sonic Youth ended amidst the messy breakup of Moore and Gordon’s marriage in 2011 – a subject she addressed in uncompromising detail four years later in her autobiography, Girl in a Band. Moore, it has to be said, does not emerge from that account particularly well.

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And now, it seems, it’s Thurston’s turn to tell his story. But not, perhaps, in the manner that many might have anticipated. Sonic Life: A Memoir, released on October 24, is Thurston Moore’s attempt to make sense of his, for want of a better phrase, sonic journey – from discovering the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” as a five year old in Bethel, Connecticut (“The lead singer’s voice had the air of a boy smoking a cigarette with one hand while banging a tambourine in the other, an insolent distance to his delivery, a vision of being at once boss and bored… Everything about these subversive vibrations suggested to me a new world; they were changing not only my here and now but my vision of what the future might hold for me. I decided to someday, somehow, be in a band like the Kingsmen”) to Sonic Youth’s anarchic inception in the furnace of New York’s burgeoning 1970s punk scene, massive cult success in the 90s, and eventual split in 2011.

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Sonic Life is not, as some might be hoping, a response to Girl in a Band: the acrimonious end of his marriage to Gordon is not mentioned until the very end, and even then is afforded just two pages. What it is, is a compelling, fascinating, and beautifully written glimpse into the mind of a boy, young man, and adult for whom noise – often angry and off-kilter, but also haunting and melodic – would not only be an escape, but also a destination in its own right. It is a music fan’s book, written by a fan of music.

Days before our conversation, Thurston, now living in London, posted a note on his social media feeds that he was having to cancel a planned US book tour due to a “health condition.” On Zoom at least, he looks bright and well, still sporting that trademark mop of sandy hair and speaking from his study lined with books, and with a couple of beat-up looking guitars slung nonchalantly against a wall behind him.

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How are you Thurston? I saw your social media post, I hope it’s nothing too serious?

Hey Dominic, I'm doing okay, I think. Well, I'm still alive, right? I have a heart issue called an atrial fibrillation that sort of prohibits me from flying and so I have to take care of it. It's pretty serious and I need to have a lot of scans and tests. But there's a high success rate for dealing with it, and so I'm just laying low you know? I’ve got beta blocker meds running through my system and I’m ok but, yeah, I had to cancel any touring. I'll still do some events around London and UK, but I won't get on a plane.

That’s a shame – you must have been looking forward to getting back to New York.

Yeah it is, I really wanted to make it work with all the independent booksellers out there, because they're so supportive. So I find that to be the biggest drag – like all the work that went into preparing for this tour. But I'll get over there at some point I’m sure.

So first off, I want to say congratulations on Sonic Life. It's a great read, and in some ways not the kind of book I expected it to be. It's at once more personal about what makes you tick, and less personal about some of the more public episodes in your life. Does that make sense?

Thank you, I appreciate that. And yeah, I understand what you mean. I think there's some aspects of the book that are probably more muted than people thought they were going to read – specifically about my personal life and my marriage, which I just decided I didn't want to write about. I mean, my decision was just based on the simple fact I don't really want to write about something I don't enjoy writing about.

It was hard enough writing about stuff like my father's death when I was a teenager. I didn’t want to write about my adult life in as far as personal relationships, even though, you know, we're public figures to some extent. I don’t really agree that my private life needs to be made public, so I decided not to go there.

I know that'll be kind of surprising to some people. But I just wanted it to be about the positivity of the experience of being in a band. I wasn't really keen on getting into too much self-analysis. That wasn't the book I wanted to write.

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Source: Courtesy of Naomi Peterson Photography. Photography by Chris Petersen Images

It’s definitely a book about being in a band. And if you’re a bit reticent about your personal life, one of the things that amazed me was the meticulous detail you've gone into about gigs you played when you were first starting out and there were just a handful of people in the audience. Were you keeping diaries at the time?

I was not keeping diaries! I mean, a lot of the details are mostly around those first couple of years when we started actually playing gigs and we were getting some kind of responses, and those are always the ones you remember.

So yeah, I remember more about what happened in the first two or three years of Sonic Youth's existence than I would say I do all through the nineties. By the nineties we were a high-profile group, but a lot of it was also very repetitive. So it's like: album, tour, album tour, album tour, and I felt it would be quite redundant to just keep talking about each album, each tour like that. I wanted to look at more of what the development was, and all the signifiers and all the documents that inspired and intrigued not only me but the community I was engaged with. To write about how these things actually came together.

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I feel like the result is almost as much as about the music that you love as it is about the music that you made? There’s so much about all the artists that affected you in the late seventies and early eighties, all those weird and obscure bands you saw in places like CBGB, that created what you did musically yourself.

Yeah for sure. You know, it’s fans notes, basically. A celebration of this world of marginalized literature and music that to me was more exciting than anything else. I'm kind of a failed journalist anyway. I always wanted to be a music writer when I was a young cat, and in the book I talk about how I gave equal value to the music writers of the mid-seventies, as to the subjects they were writing about. So Lester Bangs was as important to me a voice as Iggy Pop or Lou Reed were. And Patti Smith of course. When she made her first record, “Hey Joe”, my interest in that at the time as a 16-year-old was like: what does a rock writer sound like on a record?

Patti was a byline in so many music journals, like Rolling Stone or Creem, and she wrote in her own incredible way, this all lowercase, stream of consciousness music writing, and as a young guy it read as some kind of incredible new literature coming out.

Patti Smith was a huge inspiration for you as a teenager?

Certainly she was. “Hey Joe” starts out with a spoken word. She's talking, and then of course she sings as well. So you knew you're being introduced to somebody significant and it’s those kind of moments I really wanted to write about more than I wanted to write about my own life, or stuff like: “and then I discovered this incredible chord,” you know? I wanted to talk about what led me to discovering that chord.

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Actually, talking of chord nerdery... One thing that’s always puzzled me is that Sonic Youth famously used all kinds of alternative tunings on the guitars – but in those early gigs when you were flat broke and only had one guitar each, did you have to spend ages between songs re-tuning to get the right sound?

Actually, early on everything was always playing in standard tuning. Playing with [first band] the Coachmen, which was like this art rock band that I was the youngest member of, our template was the Modern Lovers or Television or Talking Heads, and I never really thought those bands were doing anything out of the ordinary as far as tuning goes.

And then the first Sonic Youth record is still in traditional standard tuning for the most part. I think it's really when Lee [Ranaldo] got into the band that we started talking about doing different things with the guitars. And a lot of it was defined by the guitars we had – they were really cheap, funky guitars. They didn't sound that good, particularly as standard tuning guitars, but they sounded great when you would stick a drumstick behind the 12th fret and just start hammering at it or doing something else with it. That sounded really cool. It sounded much cooler than just the same old, same old.

But it really wasn't until I saw [experimental punk composer] Glenn Branca play with his six-guitar ensemble that I heard something like what I wanted to hear guitars do… and I realized that a lot of it had to do with the guitars being tuned to something else. I had never really considered it before, or that when the Velvet Underground created their droning guitar sound that it was actually using different tunings or that Keith Richards was using alternate blues guitar tuning. Until that point I never really thought about tunings at all.

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How big an influence was Glenn Branca?

Oh god I saw Branca and then I was just like: he's accomplishing this by doing something else with the guitars. He had six guitars, and there's six strings on each guitar and so he had one guitar that was all high E strings and the next guitar was all low E strings and then everything in between, and the result was like one huge chord, one huge guitar out of the six guitars, like multiples of the guitars! And I was like, that's, you know, f***ing brilliant. Because it sounds insane. And it immediately led me into wanting to do that.

And then Kim comes in and we realized also that we wanted to be a little more immediate and punk rock with it and having fun with it as opposed to being really overly compositionally serious with the work. So that was the distinction between us and somebody like Glenn Branca. We wanted to be a rock and roll band.

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In the zone at the Tibetan Freedom Concert on Randall’s Island, New York City, summer of 1997
Source: Courtesy of Ebet Roberts.

One of the other things I thought was really interesting is that your first gig was a Rick Wakeman show… which sounds mad, but it kind of makes sense in a way, because something I always figured about Sonic Youth was that you had that punk rock Ramones thing, but then you've also got this amazing musicianship going on and it's a kind of melding of the two, right? So it's not just, here’s three chords now start a band, there’s something more sophisticated going on as well.

Well we certainly got into not being afraid of doing longer compositions, which was kind of going up against punk rock. But at that point in time anything was valid as long as it seemed genuine. For me personally it was a conflict between being like hyper-economical and also being really flowery. So the people who were really into Hardcore would look at Sonic Youth as an art rock band because we were sort of flowery. But when we would bring more thrash elements into our music, I think the dyed-in-the-wool art rockers would put their hands over their ears a little bit. So I realized that was an interesting conflict for Sonic Youth to have as an identity. But I understand what you're saying. Our musicality was based on our own vocabulary.

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So did you all learn as you went along? You write in Sonic Life how you only lasted one guitar lesson and even as a kid was much more interested in the noises the guitar could make than anything else.

Well Lee certainly knew how to play his way around a guitar in a very traditional way. He could play a Grateful Dead song if he wanted to, because he learned how to play guitar in such a way. And I never did. I learned basic rudiments and I figured I could at least play a Ramones song, or I know how to play a bar chord, so I could play “Louie Louie” or something.

And Kim just learned from the ground up. I think it was based on her abilities as a visual artist, just the realization of the guitar patterns – and so she memorized those patterns. But as far as saying, “can you play this chord or this specific note?” it would be like, no. That's not how she was thinking at all and I hardly could think that way. If I was told to play, say, a G major, I'd be like, “I'm sorry, why don't you play it, and then I'll find it by ear?” That’s kind of how we worked. But the saving grace of all that was that there was never any judgment of technique.

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Source: Courtesy of Tom Bessoir
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Which is back to a punk thing, right? Anyone can play guitar.

That was what we enjoyed about that whole world of punk rock: technique was not really a virtue, it was more a sense that anything could be something. That made for a lot of the most interesting music, made by people who did not know how to play in a traditional sense. So that's why when you hear an album by the Slits, you know, Viv Albertine learned the guitar from just staring at other people's hands, and she created her own world with it and that's what you're hearing on the record. It's brilliant in its naivety, and that's what makes that record so unusual and charming and astounding. It's an experimental record, without ever having to call itself experimental, because it's just genuine as to who they are as people.

Viv Albertine once said that when she joined the Slits, all she had to go on was that she'd seen the Sex Pistols twice and had a picture of Patti Smith, and that was it.

That's perfect! And in some ways it’s also amazing because a lot of my interest in radical music was, early on, seeing a picture of Iggy Pop in a magazine. It was a tiny little item and there's this gentleman with no shirt on standing on the hands of the audience and pointing to the back of the room with a dog collar on, and I was like: that is beautiful, who in God's name is that? And you could only fantasize about what that sounds like, you know?

And fantasizing about that sound took you to New York just as punk was really blowing up. One of the real strengths of the book is the really vivid picture you paint of the city in the late 70s and 80s – incredibly vital and creative, but also incredibly dangerous. Do you think that there's something about a collision of place and time that creates magic? So the fact that it was such a s***hole at that time actually meant that lots of young creative people could live there cheaply, and that created a scene?

Well, I mean, there's certainly a lot of geographical factors too, such as being a port city, and that's where you land when you come over from London or Paris or Berlin. New York always had its history of being the first or last place many people would end up. The city was incredibly vibrant in that regard, but also the fact that economically it had bottomed out in the early to mid-70s to such a degree meant that you could live on pennies per day – and that was obviously attractive to people wanting to make art and music.

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Do you think there's a danger of almost over-romanticizing that early punk and No Wave scene? I mean, I've read that CBGB, which is obviously such an important place, was in reality pretty horrible inside.

Well, I hear that a lot. It's like, well, it was actually a terrible, stinky, hellhole of a place. I never really thought about it that way. To me it was like it was a slightly broken room. It was an old saloon from the turn of the century that was somehow still standing and surrounded by flop houses for homeless people, and entering it was like entering into a witch's house, with wooden doors that were falling off their hinges and stuff, and it was just… it was really unlike anything else around it.

It was probably the last vestige of that kind of lifestyle, the last time that the city had a so-called scene around music. Before that in the 60s there were different kinds of rock bands bouncing around downtown in Greenwich Village but you never really heard too much about a scene, except for maybe the Dylan folk scene around the Gaslight. But as far as a rock scene goes, the most pertinent band would be the Velvet Underground – and there was no scene around the Velvet Underground besides Andy Warhol's Factory. There wasn't some kind of rock scene where there was a bunch of different bands doing all kinds of interesting music with the Velvet Underground being central players. The Velvet Underground were the only game in town.

And then [in the mid-70s] the Ramones start playing and Blondie’s playing, and people start recognizing each other as they're all kind of new and young on the scene. And that was really exciting.

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Source: MEGA

Was it difficult not to get lost in nostalgia researching the book? As we get older it’s all-too-easy to dwell on past glories, but if you’re writing your autobiography, so much more so, I’d guess? There’s a lovely line in Sonic Life where you write: “Being a 23-year-old guitarist alive in New York City, having found love and intellectual communion with Kim, sharing our dog and cat, it was, in and of itself, perfection, whether I knew it then or not.” Was there ever a moment at the time where you thought, yes, this is what it’s all about… or were you always looking onto the next thing?

I think what I was trying to say in a line like that, was that I didn't really have the intellectual capacity at the time to really realize what was beneficial in my life and what was not. I think I was just trying to point to that. I mean it's a very retrospective line, but it's embracing it, while also kind of realizing that maybe there’s truth in the adage “youth is wasted on the young”. You know, you wish sometimes you could have appreciated more of what you were in the midst of at the time.

But back then I was probably a self-involved brat. God, when I see interviews with myself from that time period I am a brat, I don't recognize myself, I’m like, how did anybody put up with me?

I guess everybody sort of feels that way in some sense when they see themselves in their early and mid 20s. I’m in my mid 60s now. So I think maybe I’m a little bit wiser and with some kind of sense of decorum but, yeah, that's what I was alluding to, that back then I didn't. I was still a boy, you know?

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Source: Courtesy of Steve Gullick

Was that part of the reason for writing the book? So by revisiting these things, you could appreciate them properly in retrospect?

Yeah exactly, because I'm writing as who I am now, about who I was then. And I'm also writing about the other people in my life, about how I knew them then, as opposed to having any commentary about how I feel about them in any contemporary way – whether that’s Lee or Steve [Shelley] or Kim.

It's all about wanting to acknowledge the memory of that time. I wanted to deal with the memories and how they were. There was a certain innocence to Sonic Youth that you can only look at in retrospect, that possibly If you could relive your life over again, it would be probably be a different story. And none of us can do that.

Except in science fiction.

You’re right, except in science fiction! You know, I was seriously thinking my next book might be science fiction. I was thinking of writing a no-wave ghost story. Watch this space.


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