Thurston Moore: Sonic Elder

Photo By: Vera Marmelo
Photo By: Vera Marmelo

If you asked a teenage Thurston Moore if he thought he’d end up a demigod in the eyes of scores of punk fans, he likely would have said you were dreaming. As a kid in Connecticut, Moore’s musical sensibilities were shaped by listening to the work of visionaries like The Clash and Generation X. He would later be regarded as a visionary himself, securing a spot on the list of the most influential guitarists of the last 40 years. His work spans a vast array of rock sub-genres, from his experimental tunings in noise rock band Sonic Youth, to his sparse, hypnotic playing on his solo records, to his recent forays into black metal with the band Caught on Tape.

Videos by American Songwriter

Moore began writing songs in his early teens after hearing albums by artists like The Ramones and Patti Smith. “I bought those records when they were first coming out [in the mid-’70s],” he says. “They appealed to me because I figured these were songwriters who were not typical songwriters in the professional medium of James Taylor or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or even Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. I liked all the things that were considered to be the vanguard of songwriting from a place that didn’t necessitate having some kind of music theory skill level.”

He learned to play guitar on an instrument he shared with his older brother, Gene, an arrangement Gene was not a fan of; the older Moore would lock his guitar case in an effort to keep his younger brother from playing it, but Thurston would pick the locks and play anyway. “I would plug my brother’s electric guitar into my father’s stereo, which was on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. I would wire it into it and it sounded really messed up and distorted. I thought it sounded like the Anarchy In The UK 7”.”

During those jam sessions in the kitchen, Moore fleshed out a few tracks for some of his idols. “I really liked writing songs thinking that I was writing them to send to these bands, like, ‘Here’s a song I wrote for the Sex Pistols,’ or ‘Here’s one for the Ramones.’ I wrote a song for the Ramones in 1976 called ‘I Don’t Wanna Mow The Lawn No More.’ Real suburban issues I was having.”

Moore soon graduated from the kitchen sessions and got his own guitar. “One day my brother gave me a Fender Stratocaster that he had bought really cheap from some gray market situation. I think it was stolen,” he recalls. “When I moved to New York in the spring of ’77, I got my first apartment and it was stolen out of that apartment. So it continued on this journey from thief to thief.”

Shortly after moving to New York, Moore formed a band with a few art-school types, but that fell apart pretty quickly. He then met Kim Gordon, with whom he formed Sonic Youth in 1981, and the two became major players in New York’s noise rock scene, a scene that initially failed to gain traction with the critics.

But, nearly a decade later, Sonic Youth would see their influence extend the world over.

“When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was first heard by those of us who knew Nirvana, we thought it was a really good song in the context of the underground of American music that we were all involved with, never thinking that it was going to become an anthem for the world,” Moore says. “You can go anywhere in the world and everybody knows what this song is. Everybody knows that singer, everybody knows that songwriter… I think a lot of it has to do with how that song was performed and the voice that was actually singing that song and how it reaches peoples’ hearts. That’s the really important aspect of songwriting, who the performer is.”

And he’s right – had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not featured Kurt Cobain’s ulcerous vocal, it wouldn’t have carried the venomous bite it does. “If that song was coming from any other band from that generation of bands, I’m not quite sure it would have the same effect. It had a lot to do with the execution and that touch.”

Moore has also seen the effect a strong performance has on his own work. “There’s been some lesser material that I would consider lesser material in my history of songwriting that was elevated because of the way it was performed, and all of a sudden it sounded much better than anybody would have thought,” he says. “Even Billie Holiday came from a culture where an African-American blues singer didn’t have the availability to her of the top-tier songs that were being published because of her race. She had this kind of tertiary of published songs, almost the dregs of songs, and she made those songs special just by her own performance because she elevated material that was not the top-drawer material. That, to me, is fascinating and interesting.”

Despite his focus on the performance, Moore has always been aware of the importance of strong songwriting, in and of itself. During his time in Sonic Youth, that often meant working on compositions as a group instead of bringing a finished product to his bandmates.

“When I was writing songs for Sonic Youth, I always knew that they were going to get modified by each of the other members, who were going to come up with their own parts regardless if the song was something I wanted to exist in a specific way. I realized that the form of Sonic Youth was about being a collaboration. I would bring in a song idea I had written on guitar and each of the other three would not only come up with their own different parts, but they would re-mod the song into something other than what it originally was, which was fine. I always liked that process.

“I always thought Sonic Youth’s songs were most interesting when they were brought in by another member. It was always just the songs coming together from the organic playing and improvising that would go on in a rehearsal situation, talking about what was being heard or listening back to the tape of what was being played, and taking these parts and running them into other parts and creating song ideas that were really experimental in structure. I always thought the real experimental tag that Sonic Youth had was in song structure as opposed to anything else.”

Now that Sonic Youth seems to have seen its final days (the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2011 after Moore and Gordon divorced) and Moore has shifted his focus to other musical pursuits, most of the collaborating he once enjoyed has gone away. He now writes most of his songs independently, though he does give his backing band freedom to create their own parts.

He says his approach to songwriting has changed a bit, too, as he has learned to slow down and let the songs come naturally. “I kind of let things gestate. But I kind of like that in a way, creating this period of distance from the muse, in a sense. Then when you actually physically get into it, it comes rushing out from different corners and the songs start happening. All these inspirations and ideas that you’ve been thinking about become real. That’s how I’ve been writing songs for the most part.”

“I’m really into writing songs that go outside and deal with length in total disregard to being radio-friendly,” he continues. “I find that it’s more personally successful for me to write more elaborate songs. It might also deal with my state of mind right now, but I’ve been wanting to do things that are even more challenging in the songwriting department than I’ve had any history of doing. I usually start with creating song ideas on a guitar and then I think about where lyrics could be placed or how they could interact with the guitar composition. I generally never have lyrics at the ready and then think about building music around those lyrics. I practice with poetry writing which is something I’m very involved with.”

These days, Moore spends a lot of time writing poetry, even teaching summer workshops in the arts at Naropa University. “I like lyrics because they have a certain nature to them in that they don’t have to have the consideration of what poetry is, as poetry on a page, even though they deal with the same schemes of rhyme and meter. They need to be an interaction with the music. Sometimes, I like taking a poetry piece and jamming it into the music. I’ve done that with Sonic Youth a few times. It sounds more like a stream-of-consciousness lyrical idea with the music, but it’s basically just the recitation of a poem, sometimes sung. That’s something that was an inspiration coming out of songwriters like Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine from Television. Writers who come out of a literary tradition, certainly coming out of Bob Dylan, which has a lot of association with poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Anne Waldman.

“I feel like that’s where all my energy is right now, wanting to write songs. I’ve been preparing a manuscript of all my song lyrics in association with a lot of published poetry I’ve done throughout the years and writing about the relationship between those two things. I’m thinking about publishing something in that respect.”

That doesn’t mean that he enjoys listening back to his catalogue; in fact, he avoids it as much as he can. “I never really go back and listen to my records unless I really have to. It freaks me out a little bit, like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I was allowing that off-key singing to be immortalized.’ It’s pretty scary.”

Leave a Reply

Daily Discovery: Callaghan, “Crazy Beautiful Life”