Interview: Thurston Moore

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“Murray St.” is one of the cross streets where the World Trade Center once stood. It also happens to be the same street where Sonic Youth still has their practice space and Echo Canyon recording studio. I had a chance to talk with Thurston Moore about Sonic Youths’ latest album and it’s place in the bands’ ongoing trilogy about the history of Manhattan, and of the groups’ experience curating the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival last spring.

You named your last album “Murray St.” after the street where your studio was located. Naming the album and the themes all so closely related to that, does it bother you guys knowing that you’re gonna have to talk about this?
Thurston Moore: Well I think we would have to talk about it regardless. We called it “Murray St.” because we felt while working down there at the time; I mean we were the only sort of people down there for quite a while, working. People who work nine to five jobs were completely shut out. There was no work force going on, but the fact that we had a recording studio, a rehearsal studio, we were just a band that kind of worked on our own accord anyway. We were able to sort of get our work done there, and it just happened to be that ‘there’ was that environment, that neighborhood. It was a really conflicted emotional scene for us, because we had to make this decision: Do we want to work here? Or should we go to Memphis, Tennessee and rock one of those studios? In a way, we really felt a desire to sort of reclaim our place, and our neighborhood and stuff.. We already had songs written for the most part, lyrically and musically before September 11th. So none of the music was making any indication or response to it. I think after we started really recording, which was pretty much about a month after September 11th, when we could get back in there, I think we were somewhat affected by our surroundings, mentally and emotionally, and that’s possible that’s a vibe your hearing. We felt that this is a really intensified period for us working here in this neighborhood and we felt very close to it. We sorta went with the idea of calling the record that, pretty much because it was such a weird title for us. I mean usually the titles of our records are a little more our own literary kind of wild ass stuff. But this was so specific to like, one thing. That was really unorthodox in a way.

It seems like this album is straight up a little bit more somber?
Yeah, it possibly is. I think we’ve always been kind of somber, (laughing) even when we’re just blasting! I think there’s always been this sort of sad song vibe with us, but yeah, I know what you mean. I think it probably has more of a thoughtful center, because of the situation we were all in. But we certainly were aware of, let’s not make it a concept record about us recording at ‘ground zero’ or something. That’s certainly not something we wanted to do.

So it wasn’t a concept album?
No, I don’t think so. It’s thematic at best, but no it wasn’t set up as a concept record.

Your friend Byron Coley says the album’s an “operetta”.
Yeah well he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He says it’s an operetta, yeah, it’s part two in a trilogy about the history of lower Manhattan and it’s culture. That’s one way of looking at it. ‘NYC Ghosts and Flowers was sort of about the hip itchy ways, the artists and the people. This record is more about the environment the architecture and the urban landscape. What’s the next record gonna be about?

Can you even imagine about what that might pertain?
I don’t know if we have to. . . I guess we should make another record someday. (laughing)

That’d be good for the trilogy?
But it would be great to like, leave em’ hanging. (laughing) You know, we’ve been working on this third part of this trilogy for years and years. That would be kind of hip.

How long have you known Jim (O’Rourke)?
I met him in the nineties at some point. I was aware of him just because I kept reading about him. He was doing weird music with different people and I kept seeing his name, and for some reason I had the impression that he was this kind of elder British-improviser-gentleman. You know, beard stroking kind of heavy glass frame wearing improviser guy with a pipe, you know. I played this experimental music festival in Atlanta, sometime in the late nineties. It was the first Table of The Elements festival, and I had a trio. I was curious where Jim O’Rourke was, I knew he had to be one of these gentleman around here. He turned out to be this one kid who I thought was being this sort of pesky backstage kid.┬áHe was wearing this oversized suit and he was just this floppy haired kind of dude. He was just sort of walking around and he came up and introduced himself to me. (laughing) It was Jim O’Rourke! I was like, ‘You’re Jim O’Rourke?’ Because he looked like this. . .he was kind of like a stuffed animal. So I thought he was really sort of striking in the fact that he was so young. We sort of kept in contact a little bit and he had called me to play music with the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. The music director was John Cage, and after he died this Japanese flux composer took over. Jim was sort of performing music with him, doing Cage pieces etc. and had asked me to do some prepared guitar music on these pieces. Then Jim just came to our studio one day and we started freaking out, and we recorded one of those SYR records. Which was really ridiculous, because Jim is this really fantastic mixing engineer, he’s renowned as a mixing engineer. For some reason I didn’t even take that into consideration when we recorded this music with him at the time. I mixed it, and I am not, by any stretch of the imagination a renowned mixing engineer. (laughing) In fact, if anything I sort of put on headphones and listen to hardcore seven-inch compilations while mixing. I mixed this record in the most insane way, and then we put it out, and he was like ‘Wow that’s cool you put that out’ then I realized, yeah, what did you think of the mix? I said that to him some years later, I was like, ‘You must of thought we were kinda crazy the way we made that record sound. Because he has such a specific way of doing things, yeah he’s wild. And then he just started playing; we asked him to sort of mix our last record because we had recorded it poorly and we needed some help.

Did Jim officially join the band during ‘NYC Ghosts and Flowers?
He was just sorta mixing the record and he started laying down some bass and synthesizer parts here and there, which we encouraged because he made it sound better! We hadn’t been playing bass for awhile so it was ‘Alright, welcome back bass frequencies’! We had been doing this triple guitar/kick drum kinda vibe for like a few years. He’s a great bass player, that’s his first instrument, so he was able to play bass on songs that we couldn’t even figure out how to play bass on because the songs were so fucking weird. He really could sort of hear how a bass line would work on certain things. A really very sophisticated kinda ear, so that was fantastic. We were going out on the road and we asked him to go on the road with us to actually play bass and synthesizer. And he did that whole tour with us. When we started writing these songs last year for this record, we asked him to be involved with the process, so there you go. There was never any talk of ‘You are now officially a member of Sonic Youth’. I think he always sees himself as like the fifth Beatle, kinda ‘Brian Eno’. He’s kinda ‘Brian Eno meets Handsome Dick Manatoba. A fusion.

With Jim in place how did the recording process of “Murray St.” go, granted the situation New York City was in?
It was going great! You know, right up to that day. (9/11) We were recording, I had come back up to Western Mass. where Kim and I live about three hours North. I got out of the city, because Kim and Jim were flying on September 11th to go to Paris to play a Kim, Jim Ikue and DJ Olive quartet gig. We had just gotten started, when it happened. And then after that happened it was really horrible because Jim was right in the middle of it, and it was just completely fucked. And so I got Kim and Jim to come up here, along with like, three other families who lived in the area who needed to get out of there. And they all sorta camped out here for about a month. And Jim just sorta lived in my basement here for about a month in a state of, like, you know, complete shock.

So none of the songs on the record were inspired by September 11th?
The only song on that record that maybe came out of contemplation about the whole thing, is the song called ‘Rain On Tin’, where I really just wrote those lyrics afterwards. They’re written more about the fact that we were all sort of gathered up here for awhile, all these different families up here. It was written more from that kind of perspective, less about anything else. It was somewhat abstracted from being specific about September 11th. It was just about people getting together and help each other kind of thing. Those lyrics were more so coming out of the event. I don’t think there’s any other song on the record that has that sort of connotation.”

“Disconnection notice” has a really kind of ‘Shit, this happened feel’ to it?
It’s funny how that works, but that song was written actually before that, and the lyrics were more so about. . .it was kind of responding to the fact of how children are expected to perform by a certain society’s standards. So, that’s what that song’s about, you know with the knowledge of how we all have different ways of how we learn growing up, and we’re not all made from one kind of plan. And the fact that schools have a standardized way of dealing with children across the board, I always found that ‘not right’. So I’m sort of anti-standardization to some extent, although I certainly understand why it’s in place.”

Is Coco home schooled then?
She’s not home schooled, she goes to a school up here in Western Mass, that’s part of the all-female college. This is sort of a women’s community here. So we sort of live off the Campus, it’s where Sylvia Platt used to bum around. It’s all goddess’ here. It’s like a heavy feminist riot girl vibe, but she’s not gonna go to that school next year. She’s gonna go to a school that is much less to do with standard schooling principles. It’s this school that’s about twenty five minutes away, so it’s gonna be radical, I’m gonna have to drive her to the school. It’s this school that’s based on responsive learning, which I really like. It’s all about having school be a learning process that’s also like, joyful. Which is a radical concept!!”

Did they hassle you and Kim for being Rock n’ Roll types?
They don’t even know who we are. I think some teachers might have the idea that we might have met Eddie Vedder or Neil Young or something, but other than that they don’t really know what’s going on.

How was it from your experience curating the first U.S. incarnation of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival?
Well, not having to wait in line was really good. (laughing) But, curating it was a year and a half of a lot of hair pulling, but at the same time; when it finally came down to it, I was really sort of thinking like ‘This is either gonna be a complete disaster, or it’s gonna turn out to be remarkable.’ And it turned out to be remarkable. There were no problems from the organizational point of view. Although I think some people think there might have been. The interesting thing about it after playing so many festivals; there were no real kinda profile of managers or labels or agents trying to position their bands. It was just bands just showing up and playing, and playing really well. From Cecil Taylor, to Sleater Kinney, to Merzbow. Everybody sorta came out and just completely kicked out the jams! It was consistently good, and so I was really gassed after that and I felt really great about it. Everybody was so into it, so I would do it again in a hot minute.