CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Thurston Moore: Into the Out World

The rock guitar experimentalist recounts his passion for—and gradual participation in—the community of free improvisers

Thurston Moore (photo: Vera Marmelo)
Thurston Moore (photo: Vera Marmelo)

As Thurston Moore stepped onto the narrow stage at Philadelphia’s Boot & Saddle last December, it wasn’t exactly clear how many people in the audience knew what they were in for. A large percentage of the crowd was likely most familiar with Moore from his three-decade tenure with the influential avant-rock band Sonic Youth, which came to a close in 2011 after the dissolution of his marriage to co-founder Kim Gordon. Those who’d paid closer attention to the guitarist’s extracurricular activities over the years may have known that his solo excursions often tended toward the noisy and abstract—ear-punishing maelstroms conjured alone or in collaboration with the likes of Mats Gustafsson, Elliott Sharp, William Hooker, or Evan Parker.

For this performance, though, something else entirely was planned. The set consisted solely of a pair of extended compositions from Moore’s latest album, Spirit Counsel. Stretching from 30 minutes to over an hour in length, each of the box set’s trio of disc-length pieces was penned in dedication to a formative influence from the more avant-garde side of the guitarist’s musical obsessions.

“Alice Moki Jayne,” the longest and most mesmerizing of the three, is named for Alice Coltrane, Moki Cherry, and Jayne Cortez—all artists in their own right who were often overshadowed by their iconic jazz husbands (John Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman). “8 Spring Street” is a hypnotic solo outing that pays tribute to composer Glenn Branca, whose guitar orchestras provided Moore with some of his earliest gigs in New York City. The final track, “Galaxies (Sky),” revisits the roar of those ensembles with twelve 12-string electric guitars, though the piece itself was inspired by a poem written by Sun Ra.

If Moore’s recent audiences have been surprised when confronted by an hour-long, slowly evolving composition harking back to the heyday of minimalism as much as contemporary rock, he’s used to that sort of reception by now. “I think that the unexpected is kind of expected at this point,” he admitted a few weeks earlier, seated on a couch in the lobby of a Brooklyn hotel. “People have realized that my music is not always going to be what they expect or desire, so I don’t worry about it so much. When I initially started playing free improvised and noise music in the early ’90s, there would be Sonic Youth fans coming to the gigs and hearing something completely arcane to their sensibilities. It was kinda cool, but I could tell that’s not what they were paying their money for.”

The various extremes of Moore’s eclectic sensibilities have long since bled into one another to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to extract his roots in the punk and No Wave scene that he discovered upon his arrival in late-’70s New York from the free jazz or experimental noise influences that he discovered and absorbed later. With his mind attuned to some of those formative figures on Spirit Counselwhich, while inspired by adventurous jazz artists, certainly doesn’t aim for a jazz approach in any way—I met with him to discuss the impact of jazz on his life and music.

JazzTimes: How did you start to get into jazz?

THURSTON MOORE: A lot of it was spearheaded by reading Amiri Baraka’s books from the ’60s, Black Music primarily. Blues People as well, but Black Music was really an epiphany for me. I remember flying back from Los Angeles after a Sonic Youth tour in the mid-’80s, reading Black Music and putting these names together: Sunny Murray, Byard Lancaster and all these players. I was becoming immediately besotted by it and I suddenly needed to hear everything. Before that I’d just been interested in jazz history through it being referenced by people that I admired: [critic] Byron Coley or [bassist] Mike Watt from the Minutemen, or reading an interview with Tom Verlaine [of Television] where he mentioned Albert Ayler’s live records from the Village Vanguard. That made me curious, but I didn’t know the music.

So your entry points were already leaning toward the avant-garde.

Yeah, but when I started researching jazz, I wanted to know everything. It was an obscure history for me, so I started at the beginning and went from Lester Young into modal jazz into Miles, into Coltrane. Reading John Litweiler’s book The Freedom Principle was big. That got me wanting to hear what was happening in free jazz, which had fascinating correlations to what I was interested in with electric rock music. Especially the economics of it, the artist-run labels or the small labels like ESP-Disk’. There was always that conflict between the artists documenting themselves versus possibly being exploited by a record label run by some strange lawyer dude. But whatever those conflicts were, those artists were being documented in the ’60s to our good fortune.

Each of those labels seemed to represent a different school, similar in intent but with a completely different character. That also reflects the punk scene that you were coming out of.

The CBGB/Max’s Kansas City scene was for all intents and purposes an experimental music scene. No Wave didn’t happen after punk, it happened at the same time and in the same spaces. The high-concept Ramones and No Wave bands like DNA existed concurrently in the mid-’70s. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks would play on the same bill as the Patti Smith Group. So seeing the distinctions between the different cultures of free improvisation became really fascinating. The recordings that were being made by these artist-run labels—Derek [Bailey] and Evan [Parker]’s Incus, Ictus in Italy, FMP coming out of Berlin, BVHaast out of the Netherlands, [John] Zorn’s Parachute label here—each had distinctions from each other culturally. Those records were not in the marketplace for any commercial agenda. Prior to the [rise] of digital communication, they were a way to show what you were doing in dialogue with everything else that was going on. I’m always more interested in hearing collaborations between different cultures. What was fascinating to me about the music was how there were no borders to it, but you could still distinguish each player from his environment. The connection between them creates a sort of third mind.

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That idea of a “third mind” emerging from the collision of different musical cultures seems foundational to what you’ve done in and out of Sonic Youth.

The discipline is to not copy. Sonic Youth was guilty of that a few times, and those are the least interesting aspects of the band for me. I can hear when we were wanting to be something that we were not. When drum ’n’ bass was new and exciting, Geffen Records [urged us] to do a drum ’n’ bass mix of “Kool Thing.” I was really interested in the early techno records coming out of the Chain Reaction label in Cologne, these minimalist gestures of rhythmic-based electronic music. But to incorporate that into what Sonic Youth was doing at that time would have just been a dalliance. There were some other bands—I won’t name names—that were kinship bands to us that did do that. And it was really corny. Don’t do that. Don’t be the old lady in the miniskirt.

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.