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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)

What had to change about your thinking for you to embrace the music?

[Guitarist] Rudolph Grey was really significant. I knew him primarily from his being associated with Glenn Branca and Mars and the whole No Wave scene, which I knew had a distinct connection to free jazz through James Chance. Rudolph’s trio with Arthur Doyle and Beaver Harris was possibly the very first time that I saw true free jazz happening. I remember seeing a Human Arts Ensemble gig at [artist] Arleen Schloss’ loft in the ’70s, but it just seemed alien to me. It was a joyful, incredible experience, but my perspective was that it was happening in a void. I didn’t know where it was coming from; I didn’t know anything about the AACM, and hardly anything about Sun Ra. When I would go to somebody’s apartment in the ’70s and they were Sun Ra freaks, I was very curious because the records were so independent and artist-driven, but I didn’t know how to process the music. When I became engaged with it, it was concurrent with a lot of people my age and younger realizing that it was a radical music that was as interesting if not more interesting than the music that we created in our own space. There was this demographic of downtown musicians coming out of the ’70s: John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Ned Rothenberg, and all these people who were half a generation older than me.

When did you start to integrate yourself into that scene as a player?

My first foray into playing free improvised guitar music live was when John Zorn did a company night of sorts at the Knitting Factory. He wanted me to play with Cyro Baptista. It was funny because I had started recording avant-garde jazz musicians for my label [Ecstatic Peace!]. I initially did a record with Frank Lowe, and then I did a record with William Hooker. It was at the same time that Zorn was getting into hardcore and calling it “fast music”—as if it was an art music, or he was transcending it into a concept. I would laugh at that, but he would laugh at me putting out avant-garde jazz records. He would say, “You’re 20 years too late.” The first time John and I played duo was when we were both supposed to play at this benefit for MoMA PS1, so we said, “Why don’t we just play together?” And we really connected.

Were there live experiences that stand out as particularly intimidating?


I played with Cecil Taylor at the Cooler [in 1997] and I remember having a little anxiety about it. I had played with Peter Brötzmann just prior to that and mentioned it to him, and he said, “Don’t worry about it—he’s not going to listen to you. Just play whatever you want to play and he’s going to play whatever he wants to play, and it’ll be okay. It’ll be Dada at worst.” But he was wrong. It was initiated by me and [drummer] Tom Surgal doing a drum-and-guitar thing in this noisy, drone feedback kind of world, and Cecil came out ululating with his mouth. He threw a small cymbal inside of the baby grand, and before he sat down he reached into the piano and plucked the root note of everything that was happening on stage soundwise. He was completely listening. That was a huge moment.

How did those experiences feed back into your work with Sonic Youth?

Playing free improvised music at the Knitting Factory and the Cooler, things were happening that I thought would be interesting to put into a compositional place, and vice versa. I like the relationship between free improvisation and intentional composition, and that relationship became more pronounced the more I got involved with it. I think it can be heard in the Sonic Youth recordings going into the ’90s and early 2000s, where there were more extrapolations happening. I chalked it up in part to age. As we were getting into our thirties, forties, and fifties, there were certain aspects of the avant-garde and free improvisation that were at a level of sophisticated regard that wasn’t available to us in our younger days. I think we were already overwhelmed with what we wanted to do when we were younger. It’s not like we were seeking inspiration. Later it was like recognizing someone in the room for the first time who had always been there.


By incorporating aspects of free jazz and experimental music, you became a gateway into those genres for a lot of listeners.

I was really interested in the late-’90s, early-2000s noise underground scene, people playing basement shows with music that didn’t really define itself from any previous genre, be it free jazz, free improvisation, experimental rock, or industrial noise. It was its own thing. Sonic Youth had already existed for a good decade or so before that, and I know that we were a bit of a jump-off point for a lot of it. I would read interviews with Nate Young from Wolf Eyes early on, and he would say, “I started out listening to Sonic Youth, and then…” There was always this “and then.” That was where I felt like we had finally made a mark that was significant to me personally. I became very engaged with that community, and it felt like a truly free music that was completely contemporary to what was happening in our group. In a way that alleviated whatever concerns I had about working in a relationship with that history of free jazz.

It sounds like you suffered a bit from imposter syndrome when playing with veteran improvisers.

When I would meet people like Brötzmann or Evan Parker or even Derek Bailey, I always felt like this junior player coming in, regardless of the profile my band had. They knew that I was in a band that was being critically talked about, but that meant nothing to them. In fact, it was something to be bemused about at best. The agenda of celebrity was looked down upon in a lot of free improvisation circles because there was always this ideology of equal value.


Those collaborations are never about you adjusting to fit into a jazz context, though. It seems more like finding an intriguing middle ground.

When I play with musicians who are devoted primarily to free improvisation, it allows me to get into a space where I can investigate playing quietly, because I think that’s such an essential part of free improvisation history. But for those players, it becomes an opportunity for them to play louder. The expectation in collaborating with me is that it will be turning everything up to 10. But that’s not what I want to do, so it’s a bit of a clash of wills when we get together.

Conflict like that can yield interesting results, though.

The times that I played with Peter, I felt there was a bit of a wall. He was doing his thing and sometimes he would challenge you as opposed to wanting to interplay with you. He would enforce a lyrical passage when you’re obviously going the opposite direction, which is fine. After years of playing with different free improvisers, all the different personalities and different aesthetics that are shared and debated in the music, I realized that the key is patience. I really learned that with Zorn. I love John, but he has a slightly imperious and obstinate approach. That’s the kindest word I can use. You have to be on your toes with people like him, but I really like that and I’ve learned to deal with it. The interplay will be successful if you just allow it to define itself and not force anything. In so much free music I could see road blocks being put up by players trying to attempt something without it being completely organic. It’s always a challenge, but it’s always rewarding.


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.