On first listen, Thurston Moore’s new solo album, Rock n Roll Consciousness, has all the sonic hallmarks that fans have come to expect from the ex-Sonic Youth guitarist over more than 30 years of recording. There is Moore’s famously unhurried tenor, his dynamic guitar with its alternately brooding valleys and freaked-out peaks, and his trademark urban-poet lyricism. One song, “Smoke of Dreams,” even offers a paean to New York, the city that nurtured Sonic Youth in the late 1970s and ‘80s and helped transform the foursome from art-world rejects into globe-trotting post-punk darlings.
Look a little closer and you can see the subtle but significant evolutions in Moore’s life and music. He’s based in London now, having split from his longtime wife, the ex-Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. His relatively new band—with Deb Googe on bass, James Sedwards on guitar and Sonic Youth mainstay Steve Shelley on drums—is at once lither and sturdier than it was on Moore’s 2014 solo outing, The Best Day. But most of all, Moore seems to be creating music with more precision and purpose than he has in years, with themes of mindfulness, femininity (thanks to lyrics by the London-based poet Radieux Radio), and transcendence coursing through the five sauntering songs on Rock n Roll Consciousness.
Moore, 58, visited the Paste Studio recently to talk about Rock n Roll Consciousness, his relationship with mysticism and poetry, the sad decline of art you can hold in your hands, and how the legacy of Sonic Youth seeps into the music he makes now.
: Your new solo record, Rock n Roll Consciousness, was recorded with the band that you’ve been playing with for a few years now. Is this the music you would have produced anyway with whatever musicians you had in the studio, or is this the product of these four musicians specifically?
Moore: I suppose that as far as songwriting goes, I think maybe I would have written these songs regardless of who I was playing with, but I was thinking about who they were when I was writing those songs, so it’s a little bit hard to answer. I knew that the guitar player in my group, James Sedwards, I wanted him to sort of express himself in a way that I know he can, which is amazingly. I was thinking about that in some of the songs, like, “This section would be really cool with James’s lead guitar on it.” The first record we did a few years ago, called The Best Day, that was not in my mind at all. In fact, I didn’t realize what the group would be until we actually started day one of that first session.
Is this like what your process was in Sonic Youth, where you would bring a song structure to the group and have those guys fill it out with their idiosyncrasies?
Moore: With Sonic Youth it was a different experience, because we all came up together since we were in our early 20s, and we were together for, like, 25-plus years. The relationship was really based on having this really democratic forum where we would all work together. Regardless of who brought what into a session, it became a group composition, and it was credited as such and it always would be. I would never be so presumptuous to say, “I’m writing the lyricism of Steve Shelley’s drum playing,” and he’s certainly not saying, “Well I helped on those lyrics you’re singing.” These conversations never really arose so much. I think maybe I might have had those feelings about that at some point in the ‘90s. I was like, wait a minute, I feel like maybe I should get maybe a little more of a share because I wrote these lyrics or these structures or whatever.
“Sonic Youth was a forum for all of us to bring something into. No matter what you brought into it, no matter how alpha I was bringing stuff in or whatever, it didn’t really matter. It was all about it existing in that context. Whereas in this group, I’m basically putting my name on the marquee.”
So Sonic Youth wasn’t exactly a democracy…
Moore: That group was a forum for all of us to bring something into. No matter what you brought into it, no matter how alpha I was bringing stuff in or whatever, it didn’t really matter. It was all about it existing in that context. Whereas in this group, I’m basically putting my name on the marquee. I have chosen [my bandmates] to be in my solo group for their expertise. I know they’re going to play something really amazing and they’re going to come up with their own musicality. That’s why I want to work with them, but I’m going to take all the songwriting credit. That relationship is a bit of a conflict there. I remember I read this interview with David Bowie where he was just saying, “It’s my record,” you know? You see interviews with some of the musicians on his records saying, “I wrote that riff. That’s my song.” It may very well be, but it was in the employ of this vision. I’m not so hard-lined as that, it’s just I feel like I want to be in more of a four-piece gang in a way. I like the idea of a group. I wish I could have a group name besides Thurston Moore Group.
is the name on the record—you could just put “group” at the end.
Moore: I actually was going to. I did a record called Chelsea Light Moving. It originally was Thurston Moore, and the record was called Chelsea Light Moving. At that time I was like, maybe I’ll just use that as a band name. That’s a really good band name,” as opposed to just a record title.
Or you could call the album Thurston Moore.
Moore: Sonic Youth went through that, too. At some point I wanted to really change the name. When we were recording a record called Washing Machine, there was this idea that we bandied about like, let’s call the band Washing Machine. Let’s just, like, stop Sonic Youth and call it Washing Machine, and that’ll be our next record. At that time we kind of seriously considered this, I think. We were going out on this impending tour supporting R.E.M. in some places in the USA. We said, “Can you list us as Washing Machine?” and they were just like, “No, if you wanna play the gigs you’re playing them as Sonic Youth. You can’t play them as Washing Machine.” I was like, “But we’re the same people. We’re playing the same music.”
Thurston Moore performing with Sonic Youth in 2003.
Do you find now that these many years later, even as you make your solo albums, that there’s an expectation of what a Thurston Moore record sounds like?
Moore: I realize that I have a certain language that I use, and I am not trying to create some wholly other new thing just to reinvent or whatever. I like having this ongoing, identifiable sound, or whatever I have, or whatever anybody has. I go to certain records by all different artists, knowing that I appreciate what they do, and I want to hear what they do all the time. Sometimes they think they can change it up and it can be really surprising and wonderful, and sometimes it’s really frustrating, because I like so much what they do, and it’s like, no, no, no, don’t wear that cloak of some other genre.
It seems a balance that a lot of bands need to strike is that they don’t want to get hit for sounding the same, but they don’t want to get hit for moving too far out of their zone.
Moore: To me, I feel like I’m always sort of defined by whatever contemporary experience I’m living in, so it’s like, that’s always going to be there. The record I write now is hardly the record I would have written 10 years ago, and it’s not going to be the record I write in 10 years. I trust the actuality of the moment to be the flavor of the record. I like genres that have a community sound, like, “Oh, reggae, it all sounds the same.” But it’s like, “Well, I like that.” I like that there’s this shared idea of what these musical aspects are in reggae, or in hardcore, or in black metal. I like knowing that these genres have these shared communities of sounds and everybody sort of agrees on certain tropes. Maybe Sonic Youth didn’t really have that so much, because we were sort of taking from so many different places, and all these traditional places, and all of these unorthodox places as well, and trying to create all these different collaborations with the experimental and the traditional.
In terms of environments, you’re still closely associated with New York of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Sonic Youth were at their peak. But now you’re based in London. Now that you have a certain remove, have you given up on New York being what it was to you in the ‘80s and what it could be for young people now?
Watch Thurston Moore’s video for “Smoke of Dreams”:
Moore: I would never disparage the city for its contemporary makeup that it has. It is quite different from what I experienced in the ‘70s into the ‘80s. It certainly has become a more moneyed city. It’s become a city that, in a way, is safer, due to real-estate demanding a more moneyed, social culture. There’s pros and cons to what that is. It was a lot of street life, a lot of street crime, a lot of desperation in the inner city in the ‘70s. Do I miss that? I don’t know. I have a romantic retrospect on it, because it’s wholly poverty, as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the streets with no money and writing poetry and sort of just being bards to the beatific visions of the urban poet. Yeah, that was a great time to be and I think in a way that aesthetic still exists for a lot of young artists, but they don’t really necessitate the city anymore because we’re so interconnected. The utopia of the internet keeps us in a place where we don’t have to leave the confines of wherever we live and still share, and I like that.
The other thing about the internet is that there are so many different sub-groups, so many specific sounds targeted to specific people, that it’s easy to like what you like and not venture too far outside of it. Does that have the larger effect of stripping rock music of its ability to be this revolutionary force if it’s compartmentalized so cleanly to various audiences?
Moore: Well, I mean, it certainly is more factionalized. You are in this bubble on the internet for things like music, art, entertainment, as well as other dialogues—political dialogue, you know. It’s easy to see how insidious it is and how it can be balanced and possibly rectified by continuing to work in the physical world. When bands ask me, “What did you guys do? What should we do? We have all these songs,” I say, “Well, just keep putting them out there in the digital realm and on your social media and on the Soundclouds of the world—but make something. Make something that is vibratory, that you can touch, that you created in the physical world, and don’t do it for money. You have to use money to do it, but you don’t have to use that much money.” There’s lots of economic means of making things, whether it be a cassette or a stapled book or whatever you do. These things are really elemental, and you can gift them, and by gifting them it’s like you’re passing something on and it’s through touch, it’s through all the senses of the human animal. That is a really good place to start. Do that. I don’t really ever see digital media overtaking it. I can see it being a dominant force of communication, as it already is. But I also see the library of extensions of the physical self existing—the book, the magazine, the record, the CD, whatever it is. Anything you can touch, you can smell, you can taste, you can lick.
Are you still a buyer of music?
Moore: That’s all I do. I find my meditation in going into primarily secondhand stores. I’m all about vintage. If it’s going to be new, just keep it in the digital media. I’m all about being in that zone where you have the history, and the history of the artifacts and the archives just kind of palpitating…
We’re sitting in one right now, here at the Paste Studio.
Moore: With all these live recordings around us.
This is actual tape. You could burn this in a fire and it would be gone.
Moore: Even if you burn it, it becomes smoke, it becomes part of the atmosphere. I find that all of these documents are really sort of spiritual documents, and I find solace in it. I find intrigue in it; I find inspiration in it. I’ll spend enormous amounts of time in these places and either by myself or with likeminded compatriots, it’s just being there. Those are your friends. They’re your cards, and you’re giving around tickets to each other. I like that activity. It’s fairly old-fashioned, too, but I like old-fashioned. I like old. I’m gonna call the record, We Are the New Old. That’s a working title. I went for Rock n Roll Consciousness, because it just, I don’t know why. It felt right to me.
About that, you’ve been teaching a poetry workshop at Naropa University in Colorado, which was founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. So consciousness is probably a concept that’s on your mind these days.
Moore: [Trungpa] was the teacher for Allen Ginsberg as far as his Buddhist practice was concerned. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded the summer writing workshop in 1974, and it is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I became aware of it when my fascination with the history of underground poetry production came into play as I got older into my 40s. I was always interested in literature and always interested in marginalized literature and beat literature and its relationship to what I liked in music, you know, the relationship between literature and music from Bob Dylan, to Patti Smith, to most of punk rock and more of art rock and intellectual rock. The literary was key as an element, and that was something that led me into investigating post-war poetry that was kind of lost from the shelves. Eventually I started teaching there. I wasn’t really wanting to have it become something that became my thing. I wasn’t looking for authority like a teacher in the realm of religious thought, but I liked a lot of what I was reading, and the word “consciousness” is always bandied about there.
“What people find in meditation I find in blaring feedback from an amplifier. Where is that meditation coming from? It’s devotional. I really love it. It’s really spiritual. I see rock ‘n’ roll as being, historically, coming from the voice of the people of the earth. It comes from gospel, it comes from church, it comes from this kind of spiritual mindedness.”
So what does that word mean to you now?
Moore: Consciousness, the whole idea of mindfulness through meditation. You see the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in the sense of universality, which has all these great concepts of kindness and sharing. It’s really a complete and benign opposition to what we see in the political agendas that we’re sort of being ensnared by, about greed and the devaluation of women and those who are at a loss from poverty and war. I like these concepts and the idea of consciousness, and I was like, well where do I find that, through what meditation? I don’t really feel like I want to get into the practice of meditation so much, but I do get something from it in some other sense. I said, “I guess what people find in meditation I find in blaring feedback from an amplifier.” Where is that meditation coming from? It’s devotional. I really love it. It’s really spiritual. I see rock ‘n’ roll as being, historically, coming from the voice of the people of the earth. It comes from gospel, it comes from church, it comes from this kind of spiritual mindedness. Then it becomes really interesting when it is sort of treated academically. You have people like John Cage coming out of academy, going like, how can we liberate this idea of music being so stuck in academy? Let’s take that out of there and focus on these other things that can open it up. Which he did so magnificently. Rock ‘n’ roll does it, too. It’s this chain-breaking kind of idea of music. That’s where I was like, oh, it’s rock ‘n’ roll consciousness.” Rock ‘n’ roll being anything and everything. It’s not just Chuck Berry—God bless Chuck Berry—but it’s everything. It is gospel, it is hip-hop, it is R&B, it is everything. It’s jazz, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and I like the idea of what that is. That was the grandiosity of that title.