Thurston Moore Interview – Sonic Fingerprints
Thurston Moore’s latest solo album, Rock N Roll Consciousness, is a work fuelled by the meditative effects that record collecting has had on the celebrated former Sonic Youth man and Jazzmaster-wielding noisenik’s psyche. Chris Parkin meets a pioneering artist who takes inspiration from the most eclectic of sources…
There are plenty of songs that obsess over records. Pet Shop Boys’ The Pop Kids, The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More, Adam Ant’s B-Side Baby… it’s a long list. There are also a bewildering number of albums inspired by the practice of meditation – Alice Coltrane’s sprawling back catalogue, for a start. But albums inspired by the meditative effect of record collecting? Not so much. Thurston Moore’s latest (fifth) album under his own name, Rock N Roll Consciousness, might just be the first.
The former Sonic Youth man still collects obsessively, hunting down records of a free-jazz persuasion and rare anthologies and journals of underground post-war poetry. This long-term habit, which started when Moore was still a pup and took off during punk, continues to inform most of what he does – from the sounds he conjures up to the Ecstatic Peace publishing imprint he runs. Moore was even invited to run poetry workshops at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School Of Disembodied Poetics – the name of an actual literary arts program; look it up on Google it if you don’t believe us – after they heard about his collection.
The school was set up in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado by Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He’s no longer with us, but Moore remains fascinated with him. Trungpa taught meditation to David Bowie and Alan Ginsberg (“Anyone who was Alan Ginsberg’s teacher is going to be pretty insane,” laughs Moore) and employed John Cage and William Burroughs as lecturers. Moore also enjoys Naropa’s spirit of humanitarian kindness. But he finds meditation – of which there is a lot at Naropa – just isn’t for him. Which got him thinking: “Where do I find my sense of connection between the physical and metaphysical, my sense of enlightenment, my sense of peace?”
Moore’s answer explains why record collectors are happy to spend so much time flicking through dusty boxes – and it also inspired the title of his new album. “It has to do with being among the documents, the second-hand records and books, that I have this vibrational, physical, tactile connection with,” he explains. “They have a history of other people’s imprints on them. I find that going to record stores and sifting through the bins – beyond the hunt and the consumerism of it, just sort of being there – is something I find meditational. I can spend inordinate amounts of time in these places. That’s where Rock N Roll Consciousness came from, as a title, at least.”
Moore, who’s still eternally boyish and full of articulate enthusiasm at 58, says that surrounding himself with literature and music did, at some unspecific point in his life, “become very cosmic; just the beauty and depth and profundity of what is happening in it”. He might not be singing paeans to his favourite Don Cherry and Glenn Branca albums on Rock N Roll Consciousness, but its five tracks are certainly a meditative listening experience, which taps into the ideas and energy contained in Moore’s vast collection.
Citing the influence of the drawn-out compositions performed by Germany’s avant-industrial collective Einstürzende Neubauten and Michael Gira’s mighty noise rockers Swans, Moore lets his trademark mix of chiming space rock and alt-rock noise – a sound he’s synonymous with after 30 years in Sonic Youth and four previous solo albums – play out hypnotically throughout the grooves of Rock N Roll Consciousness.
“It’s about a balance between the spirituality in rock ’n’ roll music, blues music and jazz music,” says Moore. “To me, that’s why that music is so galvanising – socially, anyway. I hear it in Michael Gira’s Swans, where he likes to lose himself and play simple blues refrains among this chaotic discord that comes in and out while he’s singing. I understand where he’s coming from. He’s channelling this feeling of being uplifted by music that seems to come up from the earth. I’ve always felt that’s what I want to do. It’s the intrigue, the mystery of the unknown; that feeling of transcendence.”
Despite Moore’s allusions to musical shamanism and avant-garde noise, Rock N Roll Consciousness is remarkably accessible. It’s warmly empathetic and recognisably a Thurston Moore album. But Moore’s experiments in allowing his songs to evolve and unfurl without definition are bolder than on his previous solo release, 2014’s The Best Day. There’s also a real sense of intimacy, thanks to some captivating lyrics about feminist mysticism from pseudonym-employing poet Radieux Radio and the surging, tight-knit sound of a group that Moore calls a “nice second act” after Sonic Youth.
This band, cobbled together shortly after Moore moved to London in 2013 and featuring gifted guitarist James Sedwards, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe and old Sonic Youth comrade and drummer Steve Shelley, will be around for a while yet.
“I think there was a sense that The Best Day was just another transitional moment for me. Like, ‘maybe he’ll come out next time juggling amplified chainsaws. What’s he going to do next?’ I can see how it could have looked like a dalliance, but I didn’t want it to be seen as that, because I knew right away that this is a strong entity.”
Anyone who saw one of Moore and Sedwards’ earliest shows together, in the basement of London’s Flashback Records shop in 2014, will know what he’s talking about. Probably to the horror of record buyers in the shop at the time, Moore let his music take over – as he did so often with Sonic Youth – and attacked the racks of records with his guitar, while Sedwards built a spacey cacophony behind him.
This act of record-shop vandalism doesn’t mark a change in his love of vinyl, though. Now that Moore is the master of his own destiny, with his own name on the front of the album and on gig posters, it means he can do even more record shopping.
“It’s about a balance between the spirituality in rock ’n’ roll music, blues music and jazz music. to me, that’s why that music is so galvanising – socially, anyway”
“The other day, I was rehearsing for The Can Project,” says Moore, about the band he put together for a recent tribute to the Krautrock legends at London’s Barbican.
“I was asked to put together and direct this octet, with Steve Shelley on drums. I took it very seriously and for three days, we rehearsed diligently. At the end of the second day, Steve looked up and was like: ‘I’ve never seen Thurston want to rehearse before, he usually wants to fuck off to the record store’. ‘But Steve, I’m trying to take my job seriously!’ In Sonic Youth, I was always like, ‘rehearsal, shmersel – let’s go to the record store’.”
Now Moore’s free to indulge his habit as and when. Since moving to Stoke Newington in 2013, he has been unearthing treasure troves of underground post-war poetry. Artist-run journals, “mimeo staple-stabbed publications from the 60s and 70s” and collections from counter-culture archivist Barry Miles’ 60s bookshop, Indica. But records still dominate his life.
On arrival in north-east London, Moore immersed himself in the free improvisational scene around London’s Café OTO venue and he’s toured all over the UK, stopping at small venues and even smaller record shops.
So what are Moore’s tips for seeking out his favoured free-jazz and avant-garde records?
“Just hit the wall,” he laughs. “I told [Swedish free-jazz saxophonist and collaborator] Mats Gustafsson that. He’s an unbridled free-jazz collector. We would go into stores when we first did this Japanese tour together years ago and he was so ravenous, he would immediately start ploughing through the bins.
“But I had this thing where, before going to the bins, I would scan the walls. That’s usually where the proprietor puts the ‘heavy’ items. I would be pulling them off the wall and Mats would see what I had and start crying. You have to hit the walls.”
And if that fails? “A lot of records I like are actually underneath the bins. I’m really into looking in spoken-word boxes and I have this thing about collecting contemporary poetry records. But they’re generally under the bins Real backbreakers.”
In his meditative record-shopping daze, Moore can cope with the discomfort. And anyway, there’s magic to be harnessed. Moore’s theory about records containing energy, ideas and historical imprints recalls Alfred Watkins’ original idea of ley lines. Like the important historical meaning in Neolithic structures and the avenues and roads that link them together, lines – and stories – can be theoretically drawn between records and books.
“I had this thing where, before going to the bins, I would scan the walls. That’s usually where the proprietor puts the ‘heavy’ items”
It’s the reason why so many musicians and artists surround themselves with inspiring artefacts. Elton John has his collection of photography (and hip-hop) and, as Moore points out, David Bowie had a giant haul of books.
“He said one of the saddest things in his life was that he wouldn’t be able to process every book in his library,” recalls Moore. “So after he died, I was like, ‘Where’s his library? That’s the book I want to see: a bibliography of David Bowie’s library. Man, I’d be really curious. Supposedly, he kept it in a separate location, which makes it even more enchanting. Like, where is that? Where did he go to be around his books?”
Slightly envious of Bowie, Moore says his own collection would be much bigger if he could afford it. Compelled to collect and archive from a young age – not yet understanding the Zen-like purpose of his actions – buying records and books has affected Moore’s life in many ways.
“People always used to ask me, ‘How come you weren’t a typical New York loft-dwelling junkie?’. Well, I was New York and I was loft-dwelling, but I wasn’t a junkie, because why spend money on dope when you can spend it on records?”
And we have to agree. Just say no… Records are much better for you.