Art rock-pioneer Thurston Moore has just released his rapturously-received new solo album, ‘By The Fire’, which NME’s review hailed as containing some of his “boldest and most invigorating work to date”. Despite being released under his own name, it’s a collaborative effort that continues his creatively fecund partnership with his band that includes his old group Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe.
We caught up with Thurston for a quick chat about his new record, trying to inject positivity and escapism into turbulent world, and how he used quarantine as an opportunity to write a quasi-memoir called ‘Sonic Life’.
Hello Thurston! What was the battleplan going into ‘By The Fire’?
“Last year, I put out a ‘Spirit Counsel’ triple CD set featuring one extended instrumental composition per disc. I toured that for a year and half. There was no microphone onstage and I wasn’t singing. While I wanted to continue that, I was missing more proper rock music – those pop-rock nuggets. So I was trying to figure out how to do both things. I decided to write a response that dealt with ‘Spirit Counsel’, particularly the instrumental ‘Venus’ – the last song on the album – which I figured would be my final say with that period of writing, before it was time to get back on the microphone. I started writing other songs that would be a balance between the ‘Spirit Counsel’ material and the more proper pop stuff I could do.”
You started making the album pre-COVID and completed in lockdown. What effect did the pandemic have on it?
“When I was sequencing the record, it was right when lockdown was happening, and it allowed me to be more contemplative of what I wanted to present. I think it would have been a different record if it was more business as usual. I wanted the record to come out of the gate with a real happiness, and then be a bit more serious as it went along, and have this deliverance at the end with ‘Venus’. I feel the enforced isolation has given this record its vibe but it also meant I wanted it to be something with a sense of hopefulness and liberation as well.”
Reviews have definitely latched on to the record’s feelings of positivity, love and escapism – is that because we’re all craving that?
“Yeah – and I think that’s perfectly valid. We’re all in the same boat and still don’t know how this is going to develop and it’s all a bit unwieldy. Looking at the records coming out at the same time as mine, I see Public Enemy’s album [‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down‘] – which is a very activist record. That’s important and I would hope there are more direct-action voices like Chuck D. But at the same time, there should be work in resistance to all the negativity that’s being enacted in the media and on the political stage.”
“To have resistance by creating work that has a sense of creative impulse, joy, and is against divisiveness. It’s about recognising and dignifying the marginalised on the planet right now. And understanding that migration is a very natural occurrence – to not demonise it as something that is a threat. There is a nihilism that goes on in the highest levels – whether it’s the Brexiteering Boris Johnsons or the racist dog-whistling of Donald Trump. None of this spelt out clearly on the record, but just calling it ‘By The Fire’ is about communication. There’s a duplicity in that title.”
So it’s stealthily political then?
“The title was taken from me seeing Julien Temple’s’ film Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, where he had musicians who knew Joe when he was in The 101ers sitting round a campfire talking about the Joe Strummer they knew before he joined the punk rock brigade. I thought that was a moving and wonderful vision. And then [I was] equating it with people having the courage and urge to go out into the streets physically while there’s a pandemic going on, to raise their voices against oppression – to the point where they’re so angry that there are fires erupting in the street. I wanted to get that across in the title alone.”
What do you think that hardcore fans expect from your sound?
“I think my styles transition into each other fairly organically. If I give any distinction to anything, it’s whether I play in the context of free improvisation or in composition. But even in the history of Sonic Youth, the idea of incorporating methods of free improvisation into a composed piece have always been at play. I like to work in both genres, but I’m careful not to get tripped up – without being fully-focussed on one genre, you can be a little junior sometimes, and so it’s a bit of a high-wire act. The idea in free improvisation music that there are no leaders and there’s no hierarchy in players is something I find alluring – I bring those ideas into the democracy of my band.”
Have you always been that way in bands?
“I never tell the players in my group what to play, just as I never told anybody in Sonic Youth what to play. When I’d bring a song to Sonic Youth, I could never tell them what to play – I’d only make suggestions. Having my name on the marquee [as a solo artist], I should say: ‘This is exactly what I want, do it – or I’ll get somebody else who can’. But I don’t – I never want to be in a situation where I am anything more than somebody who suggests things.”
You’re someone who never stops touring. What’s it been like having to take an enforced break from the road?
“I’ve been embracing it. It’s allowed me to focus on a project I’ve considered for a number of years, which is writing about my history of coming to New York City as a teenager and finding my footing as a musician. I wanted to write about the process of that and what was informing, not only myself, but community of people I was involved with. In this last couple of months, I was able to put pen to paper and write about this world of inspiration.”
Would you call it a memoir?
“It’s not only just ‘Well here’s my life story’, as I wanted to get away from the ego of it and talk about the information – so when you first see a picture of Iggy and the Stooges in 1973 in a magazine, why did it have such an effect on you? Why did that photograph of something that was so subversive in the music scene appeal to somebody from a safe and protected middle-class lifestyle? I wanted to write about being in the milieu of the CBGBs explosion, and essay what was happening in the flurry of those years – especially between ‘77 and ‘79 – when this incredible seismic shift happened in underground culture. I’ve been focussing on putting this manuscript together that I’ll hopefully publish in a year’s time. I’m calling it Sonic Life – for want of a better title!”
‘By The Fire’ is out now. Stay tuned for an upcoming Thurston-starring edition of our longstanding weekly Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! feature, where the 62-year-old is quizzed on his eventful life.