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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)

All the music that you’re into and that you create seems to stem from a similar impulse. Regardless of what external form it may take, there’s a similar attitude of raw, restless invention.

I have such admiration for musicians who are completely devoted to playing free music. There’s something very purist about it that I envy. I also used to envy early-’80s hardcore bands because there was a certain purity to their intention. When we would show up on tour in different towns across America with 14 detuned guitars, I felt a bit embarrassed because hardcore was all about a singular statement. When I asked Evan Parker about the advent of his playing with Derek Bailey, he said they were interested in free jazz, but they weren’t really interested in playing jazz. They were interested in the free aspect of it. Listening to ESP records, they were focused on these parts of the recordings that were slightly untogether, before things coalesced. Peter Brötzmann is a little snobby about the distinctions. He’d say that the U.K. scene is a bunch of chittering lightweights. He’s all about meat and potatoes, soul-searing improvisation that has a real connection to free jazz.

Once you started to dig into the music, did you quickly start to seek out live jazz?

Having the distinct privilege of living in New York City, where this music was still being played, was completely critical for my experiencing it. I started living at the Knitting Factory. I remember asking Sunny Murray to sign my ESP records. He would ask me to hold his joint while he signed one, he signed two, then he’d look up and say, “Is that it?” Kind of getting annoyed, like, “I’m not here to sign records, I’m here to smoke pot and play.” That was a huge moment for me, sitting there in an audience of 25 or 30 people and watching Sunny Murray, Byard Lancaster, and William Parker. It opened up so many possibilities in my consciousness about how to go forward as a musician.

You’d never crossed paths with any of these artists through just being on the scene with Sonic Youth or your work with Glenn Branca?


I remember stumbling into [John Zorn’s club] the Saint in the early ’80s when we were full of ourselves. It was a tiny room, and Zorn was shushing us while some guy was sitting on a chair plinking and plonking on a guitar. In retrospect I wish I had been sitting on the floor in front of him, because it was probably Derek Bailey or someone like that. But at the time I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I just chalked it up to the fact that it was New York City and there was all kinds of wild, strange music and art everywhere. I didn’t have time for the serious listening it entailed from the audience. It took me a while to get there.

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.