Thurston Moore has been mixing his new album, Rock N Roll Consciousness, at Seattle's Avast! Recording Co. with the estimable engineer/producer Randall Dunn at the controls. They worked together from January 6-10, putting the finishing touches on the seven songs that will compose the former Sonic Youth guitarist/vocalist's fifth proper solo full-length. I had the good fortune to interview Moore, one of the most influential rock guitarists of the last quarter century, at Avast! just after he and Dunn had completed work on this LP. Moore—who lives in London now—wanted to keep the queries centered on his new music, but we also touched on how it was to work with Dunn and British producer Paul Epworth, Moore's theories about recording, his new-ish band members, his favorite Seattle record stores, and why Lou Reed and Neil Young are "forever gold."
The Stranger: This new band isn't Chelsea Light Moving, is it?
Thurston Moore: No. Chelsea Light Moving doesn't exist anymore. It was a one-off project. When I moved to London a few years ago, I decided to put together a solo band of sorts. Chelsea Light Moving was a transitional band, knowing that I was going to be moving, I just wanted to stay busy. I had done a record with Beck at his studio called Demolished Thoughts, and I toured that quite a bit with acoustic guitar and violin, harp and a drummer. And at the end of that run, which was a solid year or so of playing that record, I really wanted to do some electric-guitar stuff. I just started doing it and changed the group up a bit. The violinist became a bassist and the harpist disappeared and the drummer put down the mallets and picked up sticks. The other guitarist, Keith Wood, also picked up an electric guitar. We started doing heavier noise-rock songs, a bunch of songs recorded very quickly. We put it out as Chelsea Light Moving. It was supposed to be some anonymous group. Matador put it out and I actually did a lot of gigs with that group for about a year. We were doing it knowing that I was going to take off.
I didn't have any concrete plans except that I was going to do something with different musicians. Being in London, I met this guitar player named James Sedwards, who I really liked. I talked to him about playing with me and we started doing duo stuff with some songs that I was writing. Then Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine joined us on bass, because My Bloody Valentine had stopped touring for a bit. So it was the three of us and I asked Steve Shelley if he wanted to continue playing with me. We'd taken a break from playing for a couple of years—not just with Sonic Youth but with some other projects I was doing. So that's how that band came to be and we did this record called The Best Day (Matador, 2014). we toured that quite a bit, too. I was writing a lot of songs during the last year that were more geared toward this band. The Best Day, I didn't know who it was going to be. When that band got together, I didn't hear what it sounded like until we went to the studio in England and rolled tape and made that record.
But this record that I'm doing here [Rock N Roll Consciousness], it's all about what this band sounds like. It's much more expansive. The guitar player [Sedwards] has a lot more room to freak out, because he's a really great lead guitarist. I let him whip out some leads. There's long songs where he's able to do that. It's sort of a more mature statement, I guess, from this group.
We recorded in England at a place called the Church in this area in London called Crouch End. I went there because, after talking to Mark Stewart of the Pop Group, he said he'd just recorded an album at the Church with Paul Epworth. I don't know who these people are. I found out Paul Epworth is like British producer of the year at award shows. He's done Adele and Florence & the Machine and all this big, super-pop stuff. I said, "That doesn't sound right." But Mark said he's really into more experimental music. He came up in Bristol and that's why he likes the Pop Group. Mark said "You should call him up." So I called him and he was super nice. "I know Sonic Youth's stuff and would love to do something with you if we can work it out."
So I went to his studio, which is probably the best studio I've ever been in. It's got this old Pink Floyd board and this old Rolling Stones board and they're ganked together. Everybody's worked at this studio, from Adele to Bob Dylan. I knew I had to get the work done, so I recorded nine songs in four days. I rampaged.
Is that fast for you?
I'm pretty fast. It was really fast for them. I think they're used to people coming in and burning time with whatever record-company budgets they have. I had no time or budget, so I went in there and went to town. That was early summer [of 2015].
I've been sitting on [this record]. I wanted to mix it somewhere but I wasn't sold on the idea of mixing it in England at the Church. For me, recording in a studio is all about getting good recorded sounds, especially drum sounds. If you can get a really good drum sound, you're on your way. I thought it would be extravagant to mix [at the Church]. I wanted to look for something not only more economical but also more aesthetically toward the music it was. I thought about Randall [Dunn], because I like his work with Sunn O))) and Earth. I was reading an interview with Randall in The Wire magazine [plot twist: I conducted that interview] and I thought, "Oh yeah, I should call Randall."
I had only met him once previous, so I didn't know Randall that well. I found his email and asked him if he'd be interested and to my good fortune, he was! So we found time here in January [to mix the record]. I'd been planning for the last couple months to come to Seattle. Flew over during the holidays to visit my mother in Florida and do some family stuff. Then right after New Year's I flew here.
When I come to Seattle, it's usually to play shows and I always find time to do the things I like to do, which is basically record- and book-shopping.
Have you been able to do that?
I haven't done anything. I've been locked in the studio. It drove me crazy. I can't go to any of my favorite record or book stores. I have to wait till I come back here to do it.[Moore flew out of Seattle at 5 am Monday.]
I like Bop Street, Sonic Boom, and Half Price Books. [laughs] I'm more into buying books than records these days. I have so many records that it has to be something really, really necessary to file into my record collection these days. I don't go and buy a hundred records like I would in the '80s or '90s. I don't have any space for it.
How big is your collection now?
It's pretty big. I've been buying records since I was a teenager and I'm in my mid 50s; I never stopped. I would get rid of stuff a lot. Every 10 years I would weed through my collection. About six or seven years ago, I sold of a lot of records. My life was a little more transient. I can't have all these records weighing me down. I just keep things I'm really seriously interested in an archival way. I have nothing but respect for records as documents of our culture. It's not like I feel I can live without 'em. I probably could. I could get into this Buddhist state of mind where I don't need anything. But for me they're reflective signifiers of what I like about being alive. [laughs] So that's it, you know?
I feel you strongly on that.
It's the same thing with books. I have more books than I can probably read in my lifetime. But they're edifying.
How has your experience been mixing this record at Avast! with Randall?
We're done. We're cleaning stuff up right now. We did seven songs out of nine that I recorded. I was prepared to do six, but luckily we got seven done—which will be the entire record. The other ones I can mix at a later date. They're less critical.
What Randall told me when I first contacted him was "I like to work fast." That's fucking perfect. Just hearing the sounds on the records that I like that he's done, I could tell we had the same work ethic. Power through, get things done, not belabor things unnecessarily. It's a really streamlined method I concur with. It's been fast and furious and completely pleasurable.
No. The best situation was having tracks recorded in a studio such as the Church that were so meticulous. That's where the pay-off was, working there. When you record analog and then go into ProTools with these analog files, you really have to make sure everything is completely notated. So any engineer who gets these files through Dropbox or something and open up this huge, multi-gigabyte file and you put it in that program and look at it, it has to be meticulous. It's not always that way. A lot of studios will send you something that's chaos or confusing or you have to ask what exactly is going on here with this with overdubs, etc.? The Church's files, according to Randall, were super easy to deal with, which expedited our work. That was fortuitous.
So, we worked fast, did like two songs a day. I really like [Randall's] process. I've never worked with him before. I really like watching engineers work—they all have their own idiosyncratic way of listening and putting things into place. For the first couple of days I kept quiet. Then I was able to communicate with him more about how things were working. We have so much mutual interest in things. We know a lot of the same people, we've had a lot of the same experiences over the last few years, crossed paths with a lot of the same people. We know a lot of the references we're talking about.
Can you discuss what the new music's like?
The title of the album is Rock N Roll Consciousness. That's kind of what the vibe of the record is. It deals with a lot of feelings about emotional life and perspectives of... I don't know how to explain it. There's a song called "Ceasefire." There's a song called "Exalted." [laughs]
Which is about you?
It's not about me at all. Nothing's about me. I try not to sing about me so much. I don't like 'me' records. When I write lyrics, I try to avoid the "me" or "I" word. I try to de-ego-ize the lyrical content of songs. They're just poems. A lot of the work I do is working with that community. I teach poetry every summer at Naropa University at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. I've been doing that for five years now. That's something I'm as involved with as I am with music. If anything, I wouldn't bemoan my life turning into anything that's just dealing with literature and playing music just for my own enjoyment instead of having to do it professionally.
Most of the money these days is in literature, right? Especially poetry.
[laughs] I don't know if there's revenue anywhere in the arts, unless you're in the super-entertainment business. Nobody [in my band] does it for coin. I don't think about money when I'm doing anything like that.
You must be fairly comfortable, though...
Weeellll, you know, Sonic Youth was always marginal in that situation. Everybody knows who we are but it's not like we have any Gold records. It's not like our records are flying off the shelves. We're just a name that means something to different people. We never had [substantial] monetary success.
Didn't Goo at least sell in the six figures?
No. Maybe you would know more than I would on that. But that was probably the most comfortable we ever were, in the early '90s. That got us through the '90s.
Daydream Nation is a canonical record now. It's going to reach Gold status in 2024.
[laughs] We'll see.
Can you talk about the music on Rock N Roll Consciousness?
It's sweeping. A lot of the tracks are from six to 11 minutes long. It makes no qualms about going out there and having its time. They're very focused on Fender Jazzmaster interplay. There's a lot of guitar playing on the record, dealing with repetition of alternative-tuned ideas. Sedwards is playing in the same tuning I am, for the most part. Working with him has been really interesting. He plays primarily in standard tuning, so for me to give him a Jazzmaster and use this tuning I wanted to use, he was really up for it. He was a huge enthusiast of what Sonic Youth had done through the years. He's into all the reference points that that band would've had, be it Glenn Branca, the Fall, or the Raincoats, Ron Asheton. That's how we connected.
He's much more of a high-technique player than I am. I'm still really reckless. I've sort of settled into that. [laughs] I'm never gonna take a guitar lesson. He teaches guitar. I could never teach guitar. He's much younger than I am, so it's been kind of cool.
The sound of the record is heavy on the instrumentation. Deb's bass is incredible. When Deb and Steve play together, it's like two pit bulls locking jaws. I knew that right away on the first record we did. But it's something that developed to the point where I started writing songs knowing that them as a rhythm section was going to be ferocious. It really breathes on this new record.
Did you write all the songs?
Was there any improvisation or was it all tightly composed?
I would show the song ideas to the band in the studio and we'd go through 'em a few times and start tracking 'em. There's lot of moments, especially with James [Moore says he calls him "Shredwards"; of course], where he would bust out some lead guitar playing that was improvised in the moment. We kept almost all of his first takes on that stuff. There are very few overdubs, which is something I appreciate. I don't like hearing records that sound like they're so fine-tuned with overdubbing.
[Moore says there's no release date nor artwork nor label lined up for Rock N Roll Consciousness, but hints that it may come out on Matador.]
It's weird when people say, I just write these singer-songwriter records. That's not true. I do about 30 noise cassettes and CD-Rs every year and then I do one sort of songs record and that's the one everybody looks at critically. To me, it's all an equal playing field. They inform each other. But I can understand the accessibility of composition as opposed to doing a noise record with Merzbow. I don't care so much how it's distinguished but...
Will fans of Sonic Youth's '80s SST catalog like this record?
Yes. They'll love this record. Whatever Sonic Youth sound is on this record, it's gonna be very apparent. It's just the way I write. I don't change my writing from one project to the other. Not that Sonic Youth is a project so much, but the way a Sonic Youth song would come about is bringing some song in and everyone having their way with it. It would become this group experience, which was great. But that's less the case with this band. I am the Great Decider. Which I don't really feel like I need to be because everyone comes up with their own thing. It's rare that I say, "That's too bombastic" or "That's too long." Everything that Deb, Steve, or James has come up with has 99 percent been perfect for me. I'm pretty liberal and lenient in those situations. I need to be in a band like that. I don't want to have to notate and dictate what people play. I need to play with musicians who are going to have their own voice that they'll bring to the composition I bring in.
All of us in this band are not new. Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine have been playing side by side since about 1984. James Sedwards has been around since at least the late '80s. We've done the dues-paying. We're not looking for attention. For us it's all about the gift at this point—making something we feel really happy with and getting it out there.
The way people process new records these days is so different than it used to be. I have to think about it like two pieces of vinyl inside of a gatefold jacket with artwork. That's what I feel is the artifact I'm making. If it exists in a digital medium, which it will, I don't care. I don't have any passion for it. If that's how anyone wants to listen to it, that's fine. But my intention is to create this object that serves as a sounding tool of pleasure and disruption... maybe. [laughs]
You've been playing rock for damn near 40 years. Do you feel like you've exhausted everything you can do in this style or are there still new possibilities?
No. I don't ever feel exhausted by it. Sometimes I feel like I need to take a break from it. But I don't mind having a certain vocabulary with it and using it. I like hearing bands that have a distinctive sound continue to do what they do. Like, I don't want to hear Steve Malkmus make a noise record or a piano record. I want to hear Steve Malkmus write songs, because he writes great songs. Oh cool, Lou Barlow's written some more cool songs, you know? I don't feel like it necessarily hits a wall. There's a continuum there that's really interesting when people grow older and continue to do songs. You can talk about Lou Reed and Neil Young making album after album after album—some of 'em are great and some are not so happening. Neil will go electric, go acoustic, go electric, write a concept album about something no one wants to hear about. Great. The dude wrote"Cinnamon Girl." as long as he wrote "Cinnamon Girl," he's gold forever. Lou Reed wrote "Walk on the Wild Side"; he's gold forever.
I'm very conscientious about doing records. I really have to make the best record I can. The only time I wrote a bunch of songs quickly and threw them out there was with Chelsea Light Moving, and I didn't put my name on it. The reason I didn't because I felt it was a really instant kind of record. I knew it was this transitional thing. I still liked it, but it was like a punk record for me.
It's one of the favorite things I've heard by you, post-Sonic Youth.
That's cool. [laughs] I have nothing but good feelings about it. I'm not trying to underplay it, but it was a different kind of thing for me. I like to do records with my name on them where I get my feet wet and hands dirty doing it.
When we tour, I call it Thurston Moore Band so people don't think I'm coming out with a chainsaw and putting it through an amp. They know it's a band playing songs.
Have you heard any new bands lately that have really impressed you?
There's a band from Sweden who I really liked when we played with them called Rome Is Not a Town. I don't go out and see bands much anymore. When I'm on tour and we play festivals, the bands that were great were bands that have been around forever, like Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans, and Babes in Toyland. The last couple of Sunn O))) gigs were really great.
I find myself more interested in what's going on with improvised music now. It might just be my age. I find that music to be more exciting because it's more mysterious. Whereas with a lot of bands playing songs, I'll think they're good but I can totally see what they're up to so fast, because I know how rock bands are.
As soon as I get back to London, I'm playing in a duo with Steve Noble, this drummer who's been around quite a while. He's a compatriot of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker and all these guys. And I play with this clarinetist Alex Ward. I love doing those gigs, but it drives my booking agent crazy. "Why are you playing these basement gigs for no money?! And now I have to book you and the promoter's saying, 'Why should I pay you?'" Because it's a band. It gets a little problematic, but there's nothing I can do about it unless I come up with some kind of DJ name. [laughs] There are worse problems to have.
How was it working with Mats Gustafsson?
Always a blast. When I say "blast," I mean that literally. We love playing together and we've been trying to do more duo stuff. He's busier than I am. He has three for four projects at any given time. He's always playing around Europe. I'm into winding down as much as I can and doing less touring and focusing on writing. As much as I love playing live, I want to take a couple of years where I don't do so much of that.