For the past five summers, former Sonic Youth singer-guitarist Thurston Moore has taught a writing workshop at Boulder, Colorado’s Naropa University. The school is fully accredited, but it notably teaches Buddhist principles along with its academics, and one is the idea of mental awareness or, in Buddhist terms, consciousness. Although Moore is disinterested in religious coaching (“I feel too old for that,” the 58-year-old says), he found himself questioning his sense of connection to the universe in recent years and then had a revelation. “I realized my consciousness is in rock & roll music,” he says. “It’s the connection I feel when I’m in second-hand record stores and bookstores. I always have a moment of visceral contemplation there. It’s really vibrational.”
That insight led Moore to title his recently released solo album, Rock n Roll Consciousness. “Rock & roll to me is everything,” he says, speaking matter-of-factly. “It’s a fairly open title to an aesthetic. I see it as a way of life, as sort of an intellectual liberalism of being in the world. It’s not just T. Rex.”
Similarly, the album’s music is free-flowing: five loose, jammy rockers that last anywhere between six and 12 minutes. Moore recorded it with the same lineup as his last solo outing, 2014’s punchy The Best Day – Nought guitarist James Sedwards, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley – and the new songs echo the moody, almost improvisational feel of late-Eighties Sonic Youth LPs like Sister and Daydream Nation. And he still sings of ghost dances and New York City, on “Smoke of Dreams,” as he did in his previous band, despite the fact he now lives in London. Interestingly, the album was produced by a man better known for pop music, Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay), and half of its feminist lyrics were written by transgender poet Radio Radieux.
It’s a curious reflection of Moore’s consciousness. He recently discussed how it came to be with Rolling Stone.
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Why didn’t you title the record “music consciousness”? Why rock & roll?
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum first opened, Sonic Youth got a guided tour. And the guide was a young person who gave us the prepared spiel, saying, “‘Rock & roll’ comes from an early African-American lexicon meaning ‘having sex.'” And I was like, “You have to be kidding me.” So I broke away from the group. Then I started thinking about it, like, “Well, I guess it is about that.” Sex is nature, and nature is everything, and then rock & roll is everything. Maybe she was onto something. But it was really funny, because she had to memorize it from a textbook.
You recently did an interview with The Guardian where you picked five records that shaped you, and one is Solange’s A Seat at the Table. You said, “Rock’s not experimental in the mainstream these days, maybe because it comes from a place of privilege. R&B really is.” Why do you say that?
I don’t think of rock & roll as experimental. It’s always worked as an underpinning to the mainstream. I think the only times we had any kind of experimental rock & roll action in the mainstream was in the hippie era with Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix making noise. In the early Seventies, record companies were turning more corporate, so they commodified and homogenized rock, and punk rock started in reaction to that. With punk, it was really uncool to be part of the mainstream; there was no ambition toward being in the mainstream. Even with the success of Nevermind in ’92.
Sonic Youth was in the studio recording Goo when Public Enemy was recording Fear of a Black Planet at the same place, and I was talking to those guys about how I thought it was interesting how hip-hop had this headstrong ambition to make waves in the mainstream, whereas punk rock didn’t have any such desires. Rock & roll existed as a voice of a fairly privileged culture of middle-class white youth; hip-hop was the voice of a historically disenfranchised culture.
Right. And this year we have Tupac in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who is inarguably more “rock & roll” than Yes and Journey, who also got in.
Yeah, Tupac is total punk. He’s rock & roll, radical revolution. I agree.
But then you have people like Gene Simmons who says rap shouldn’t be in the Rock Hall and is proclaiming that “rock is dead.” Has rock lost its edge?
My perspective is that you won’t see any of the real radical rock & roll that’s happening on the charts, even though a lot of it is happening. You see the aspects of it that get filtered through a band like Radiohead or records by Solange or even Beyoncé, and a lot of hip-hop. They have aspects that are completely forward-thinking and progressive and really radicalized but with an interesting relationship that honors tradition. I don’t really hear that happening at all in what’s classified as mainstream rock & roll. Or at least it’s rare. Sonic Youth was never a chart band. I think our name is more well known than our work, to tell the truth.
You made this record with Paul Epworth, who is known for his pop hits. How did you connect with him?
I was doing an interview with [the Pop Group’s] Mark Stewart, and he told me his band had just finished a new record with Paul. It was surprising to me, because I just knew him from Adele and Florence and the Machine. I gave him a call, and he invited me to his studio, which is a huge church in Crouch End [London]. He’d outfitted it beautifully with two analog control boards; one is a Pink Floyd board, and the other is the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue board. All very appealing. And everyone works in the playing room; there’s no sequestering the engineers in a mixing room. It was all really interesting. Then we found out we had the same birthday; we’re both Leos on the cusp of Cancer, so we went for it.
How was it working with him?
He’s a very hands-on producer. He has a reputation of working with arrangements and writing, and that was worrisome to me. I don’t need help with those things. We discussed that, and ultimately he was really on it with making sure whatever sounds were happening were happening in the best way. As soon as I started doing playbacks, I realized it was a good deal.
The songs on this album are looser, longer and jammier than The Best Day. Why is that?
I wanted this record to be more focused on who the group is. The Best Day was the first time the group had come together. I wasn’t quite sure what the band’s future would be at that point. With this one, we were focused on who the group was, since we’d been touring together for the past two, three years. As soon as I realized that it’s a totally functioning group, I was like, “The next record will showcase who these musicians are.”
What is it about this band that works?
Steve has been playing with me since the mid-Eighties, and Deb is someone who’s been playing as long as Sonic Youth have. All three of us have been at it for some time, and we’ve been in bands that have achieved some acclaimed profile for a number of years, mostly in the Nineties. None of us feel like we need to replicate some earlier glory. We just wanted to continue playing as musicians who are well into their late fifties. We don’t feel like we need to enter the new-band sweepstakes.
I’m just hoping that anybody interested in what I’m doing musically would see that this is an actual working group, as opposed to my latest transitional flirtation with music. Like, “What’s next? He’s going to come out and do a chainsaw symphony?” For me, it’s wonderful knowing I have this group that I can bring songs into, and I know it will be completely wonderful. I don’t need to tell them what to play. I certainly never did that in Sonic Youth.
What did you do in Sonic Youth?
I would bring in song structures knowing that Steve, Lee and Kim would listen and create their own parts and modify a song into a group composition. With this group, I’m not looking for group composition. I’m looking for them to come up with their own parts to service the song structure, and my name’s going to be on top of it, as opposed to a group name. And I’ll take full songwriting credit, so it’s a different relationship.
You’ve hit a certain groove with your guitar player, James Sedwards, on Rock n Roll Consciousness. How is it working with him compared to Lee Ranaldo?
In Sonic Youth, Lee could be said to have been the lead guitarist. But we never really had traditional lead-guitar stylings in that band; he was more of a “Lee” guitarist. But he was a higher-technique player than I ever was. He’d played in different bands from an early age and had more traditional techniques, whereas I was starting from day one when Sonic Youth started. He could play much more sophisticatedly than I could.
In this band, James Sedwards is a guitar freak. I never really had been in a band where there was a player who could play in that traditional mode but still have a reference to the weirdo world of our music. His favorite guitar players are, like, Jimmy Page and Lydia Lunch, and his favorite bands are, like, the Fall and Pink Floyd, so he’s fantastic. I really wanted him to have some moments on this record. The first song on the record, “Exalted,” has a section where I cued him and he played on it live, and it was just phenomenal. It’s not an overdub. There’s probably only one overdub on there.
Radio Radieux wrote the lyrics to that one. What do you like about her writing?
I recorded nine songs in the studio, and three of the ones on the album have lyrics by Radio Radieux, who is a beautiful poet. And the lyrics are all sort of feminist, mysticism lyrics, which I really embraced. I love singing lyrics in collaboration with another writer, and I like writing lyrics for other people if I can. I would do that in Sonic Youth sometimes.
Lyrically, it turned this record into something that was all about new, springing-forward life, and embracing these mystic oracles in the face of this contemporary reality of political hate speech. That wasn’t the idea originally, but since the record is coming out in 2017, I feel like, “Oh, good call. This feels right lyrically.” So the record is bookended by “Exalted” and “Aphrodite,” both with lyrics by Radio Radieux. That last song leads into the next wealth of material.
You recorded other songs at these sessions. What are those like?
I released a song previously called “Cease Fire” for free on the Internet in March, so I took it off the album. And I have some edgier, more direct protest songs. I stripped them out of the record because they were upsetting what I thought was the true energy of the record, which to me felt beatific.
Are you still going to put those out, or are you shelving them?
There’s another song called “Mx. Liberty”; “Mx.” is, like, transgender. I made that available to anybody who preordered the record. You get it as a seven-inch. There are a few other nuggets that I will probably disperse through the summer. Who knows what kind of summer we’re going to have, but it’s definitely going to be a summer in extreme opposition to the war pigs.
You’ve played with Steve Shelley since 1985. What is it about the two of you as musicians that endures together?
We have ESP. It comes from the two of us playing together since the Eighties, having this way of responding to each other that goes beyond talking. I never have to ask him, “Where is the one?” because he’s an impeccable timekeeper. He’s also a guy who’s so immersed, in love with rock & roll, R&B music history and culture – all he does is read about it. He recently came over to play in this octet I put together to play the music of Can, and the next morning he took the train up to Liverpool to do Beatles investigation, which he’s done before. He just thrives on music history. He’s true rock & roll consciousness.
It’s that way for all of us in the group. It’s all-encompassing and obsessive. It’s just all we think about and do: life, love and rock & roll, all day, every day. I think most bands would be that way. Otherwise, you’re poseurs. “You pose, you lose,” as they say in the hardcore scene.
Do you feel less restrained as a solo songwriter than when you were with Sonic Youth?
No. Whatever vocabulary I have as a songwriter is pretty much the same. I never wrote songs thinking, “Well, this is inappropriate for Sonic Youth.” I would just write songs and it would turn into a Sonic Youth song. I’d grown up with Sonic Youth, but this group isn’t so much about growing together. It’s a different psychology.
Also, we don’t live together. Sonic Youth lived together, certainly in the case of me and Kim. And with Steve and Lee, the four of us were always together. We went through all these growing-pain battles together, and we survived them and surpassed them in a way that so many bands could not. I could always see why certain bands broke up, because it was hard to live together sometimes. And there were always these territorial and proprietary concerns in bands.
Are you comfortable now saying Sonic Youth have officially broken up? In the past you’ve said, “Not really.”
There was never any official statement, but we’re not … we’re not together. No, there was any official statement, but I think for obvious reasons, it’s dysfunctional.
I ask since you’ve left it open in the past, which indicated you had hope for the future.
The last record we did was called The Eternal. When that record came out – without thinking it would be the last Sonic Youth record – I thought it worked as the last Sonic Youth record, especially with that title. It’s almost like a lazy-eight sign of infinity. Like, “Here you go. This is going to last forever.” I mean, I’ve had “Sonic life” tattooed on my arm since 1985, so I feel it’s there until the grave for me.
How has the dust settled since Kim’s book came out? Have you read it?
No, but I heard about it. I’ve seen certain things, and I’ve been told a lot. But no. I asked her publishers for an advance copy at the time, and they wouldn’t send me one. So I was like, “OK.” I know what the story is. I don’t feel the need to discuss my private world and my marriage publicly. Let’s put it that way. I like the idea of talking about Sonic Youth and talking about the band and punk music and experience, and sometimes, those two things get intermingled, especially when there are relationships involved. It becomes part of the story, but I don’t think I would ever tell that story.
I would like to tell the story of the band as a music enterprise, and just the ideas and experience of music-making. If I’m to pen a book, it would certainly be biographical with Sonic Youth, but I would have to write it without working in any salient personal stuff. I don’t feel a need to do that.
Now that you’ve done these records, do you feel then that you’ve moved on, musically?
Oh, yeah. I don’t wake up thinking there was anything left undone, as far as Sonic Youth is concerned. It really had a good story to tell, and I told it. I feel more excited moving on.