The Demolition Man: Thurston Moore Interviewed
, July 5th, 2011 07:37
Thurston Moore's Demolished Thoughts is one of The Quietus's albums of 2011 so far. Here, John Doran talks to the Sonic Youth man about working with Beck and his trepidation about using the acoustic guitar
There are any number of plausible reasons why Demolished Thoughts is Thurston Moore's most satisfying solo album to date. It is certainly his most personal album and it is demonstrably unusual for him to sing quite so frankly about his personal life, especially in terms of uncertainty regarding his long term relationship to Kim Gordon. One would normally expect his musings to come through a least one or two filters of ironic detachment and perhaps to be about international terrorism, modern art, cornball TV culture, cult films, serial killers, beatnik writers and pop and rock stars of the 1970s, rather than anything as tangible as the terrain of his own emotional life. It is definitely his most mellow album to date. Certainly you could say that all of his solo work has been heading inexorably in this direction for some time. Back in 1995 he released Psychic Hearts, which to a certain extent, seemed to be an exercise in wish fulfilment; allowing him to use the kind of lo fi sound on an album that he couldn't impose on the then relatively big Sonic Youth. The spiky and stripped back sound harked back to an earlier 'Youth of the No Wave and Post Punk years. But the album he released in 2007 on his own Ecstatic Peace label, Trees Outside The Academy, showcased a stripped back sound of a different kind. The song 'Honest James' specifically, revealed Moore's burgeoning interest in the acoustic guitar and a more 'unplugged' feel.
This brief experimentation was taken to its logical conclusion this year with Demolished Thoughts which was released on Sonic Youth's post Geffen indie label, Matador. The album, one of my most played this year, feels very straight forward, with a clutch of recognizably Moore composed numbers based round chiming, acoustic guitar patterns which are backed by violin and harp, as well as understated percussion. But on multiple plays the album throws up further hidden depths courtesy of a careful, sympathetic, playful production by Beck Hansen, applying lessons learned from his own Sea Change and Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM.
I meet Thurston Moore after a particularly successful gig at London's Union Chapel, where he followed a revelatory set by English folk guitarist, Michael Chapman. He is in ebullient mood (hopefully suggesting that things are now happier for him) and seems like he would be happy to talk all night even though people from the Pentecostal building are closing it down and locking it up all around us.
There's a very amusing anecdote on the press sheet that comes with Demolished Thoughts about you meeting Beck when he threw an Alsatian at you during a BBQ. How did you actually meet him?
Thurston Moore: I met Beck after hearing 'Loser', which he did as a 12" before it became this zeitgeist hit on the radio. I was in an independent record store in LA while they were playing it and I was like, 'Who is this?' And when they told me, I was sure I'd heard the name somewhere before. I was staying with Mike D from the Beastie Boys and I played it for him. He was like [very excited] 'What is this?!' I told him it was some kid called Beck - but it was a mystery to us. And then I was in another record store in Los Angeles and I saw a flyer with his name on it for a back yard show. I went over there and he was pretty cool. He kind of jumped around and played acoustic guitar. He was this young wild child with long hair. He was pretty cool. I introduced myself to him. The next thing that happened was someone from Geffen [Sonic Youth's then record label] said, 'We're signing this kid called Beck.' When I said I knew who he was they said, 'Cool. We want to have him come over to New York and play on MTV and have you interview him.' That was when I really met him.
He was a very eccentric young lad and in his own way very amusing. He told me he wanted to do this tribute to his grandfather, Al Hansen. Now I knew who Al Hansen was. He was a very interesting Fluxus artist.
Was he a peer of Yoko Ono's?
TM: Yes. He was part of that scene. George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Dick Higgins and other individuals who were using this Fluxus principle in their work. And I said to him, 'Why don't we do a Fluxus interview on MTV? So I'll ask you a question but instead of answering it verbally why don't you take off your shoe and throw across the studio?' And he was like, 'Ok.' Immediately he understood that it was better [to throw the shoe than to answer verbally] as far as theatre or performance goes. You can see this interview on You Tube. Parts of it exist on You Tube at least. And so we sort of stayed connected. And he became a pop star. We would play shows with him. Well, in America he became a pop star but over here not so much. I remember we did a tour with him in the 1990s across Europe where he was opening for us. So we travelled together and got to know each other. So that was about it. He would always come and see us play and he was always a very critical listener, something that I recognized in him. He got a connection to it. We stayed friendly through the years. Sometimes when I was in LA I'd hook up with him or if he was in New York. But when I saw him last summer I was just travelling through LA with Kim [Gordon] and my daughter. We had dinner with him and I was telling him what I was up to, which was that I had a clutch of songs which I wanted to record and I really wanted to do a raw take on it. I was going to do it in my living room with a tape and my guitar. You know, I thought maybe I'd have Samara Lubelski play some violin on it because I'd played with her before on previous records. And there was also this thing I had in mind of employing this harpist who I'd seen play before with Kurt Vile and she was called Mary Lattimore. But they were just ideas, I hadn't really done anything yet, I just had a demo of a couple of songs.
He said, 'Well, you know I have a studio in my house, next to my kitchen, and if you ever want to come and record there you can. I'm pretty much staying close to home.' He did this whole other record there with Charlotte Gainsbourg. He wrote and orchestrated this album there with Charlotte. I checked it out and the studio looked really great. I just asked him, 'How about I come out here and you produce a record.' And he was like, 'OK. I would love to do that.' I just threw caution to the wind because I really had no idea what it would entail. So I flew out to Los Angeles, which is a completely extreme environment to where I'm living.
He was so... his ability to speak to the violinist and a harpist in musical terms was really sophisticated and he kind of reminded me of what you would think an eccentric West Coast producer would be like. He was wearing a sweater vest with a tie and house slippers and would be walking in and out of the room and you wouldn't be sure if he was listening or not. He would come into the room and he would have all these ideas about what was going on. He would be like, 'Play it slower. I mean really slower.' 'Why don't you try using this guitar instead?' and hand you a pre-war guitar. But he would always be listening and getting some kind of personal sense of what was going on. And I let him have his way with it because I didn't really have any strong production ideas for it at all other than just documenting the songs. I flew out the violinist and the harpist and that's when he really went to town. He really put them through their motions. He had notated ideas that he wanted them to play. I'd be like, 'Oh, that's good, I like that - let's move on.' But he'd be like, 'Well, no. Can you please arppegiate what you just did up an octave. And then, 'Play heavier on the strings.' And then, 'Play lighter on the strings.' And then while you were doing it, you'd be thinking, 'Well, he's not even in the room... is he even listening?!' But he'd be in another room... hearing. And then he'd just walk in eating a carrot stick carrying an acoustic guitar and he'd be picking something out. Or he'd hit a talk back button, 'Can you just employ this melody line here in that part there... I'd be curious to hear it.' And it would be fantastic.
He certainly had vision for this recording. And I wasn't really sure if I wanted it to be mixed with him - generally people would take it to a professional mixer... well, not 'professional' but someone else that you already have history with. But he had put so many personal ideas into the recording that I ended up really wanting him to mix the record. And what I realised was that he was already mixing the record anyway. While we were in one room recording one track he was in this other room with a mix engineer that he liked just sitting at a console with pro tools doing mixes. I started listening to what they were doing and I was like, 'Oh this is great.' Except for one thing - I could really hear the fader buttons going on and off on tracks. I said, 'Maybe that sound isn't supposed to be there...' He said, 'No, I like that... that's Sgt. Pepper style. I want to hear the machine coming in and out. It adds a certain kind of physicality to the recording.' And I was like, 'You know what? I like that too.' And I do like those kind of Pink Floyd records where you hear the moves on the tape being edited. So that really excited me. And that was the kind of aesthetic he was using.
It's certainly a very sun dappled, bright and optimistic record. Very gently psychedelic. But even though it's got all this stuff going on deep in the mix this is certainly the most naked record that you've done.
Did you have any trepidation about letting your acoustic guitar work stand out in the forefront so much?
TM: To some extent, because I don't really have the traditional dexterity that people expect acoustic guitar players to have. But I also had some kind of confidence in the fact that from the get go, it was going to be... unorthodox! [laughs] I mean, I felt that I could play well enough... I didn't really have any qualms about exposing myself as a player. I was a little sort of... I did have some sort of trepidation with the lyrics that I was writing because they were very personal. I kept them somewhat coded in a way but they were all dealing with personal crisis feelings and I didn't know really how naked I wanted to go with that. So I realised that they had the propensity to be fairly kind of diaristic of some kind of disturbance going on in the world, whatever may be going on and that this might be a bit of a bummer for people. But then I thought, well, if it is, it is.
What Beck did, and he referenced this, because he knew what was going on. He gave it a lot of colour. And just by colouring it as such, it gave it a certain light and positivity, even though there's this line of sadness that goes through it. And because of this I felt good about it. I just made it more approachable for me personally. Especially playing it live, I'm able to focus on the musicians playing because they're such a delight to play with. So there's a certain delight to it even though there's a morose issue going on.
I'd never seen Michael Chapman before but his set really blew me away and I'm aware of people like John Fahey and Martin Carthy. Now even though what you're currently doing doesn't sound exactly the same, I was wondering if they were a spiritual influence?
TM: They certainly are an influence. The spirit of the playing is certainly something I find relevant to my own approach. And a lot of it just has to do with the fact that they are these brilliant musicians and they each have their own voice but they remain somewhat marginalized in music culture. I mean, they're established and they're well regarded by critical listeners but the general music buyer on the street is not readily going to know who Michael Chapman is, let alone John Fahey. So I certainly relate to them on that level because in the terms of pop celebrity and heirachy, it means absolutely nothing to them. There is no ambition towards any of that and I find that very encouraging and there's a certain camaradarie there. But as far as their music and coming out of a folk and blues tradition - because most of them do and that was their inspiration - I'm more interested in just sort of the structures of the music. Especially Michael Chapman because he does these expanded pieces of music so there are these long lines within the structure which has nothing to do with creating an accessible single for radio. It's about playing live. It's not about the market place at all. That's always been an inspiration and an influence. They have made a choice to work in a different realm and I've always had ambitions to be regarded in that light than in say... the same light as Oasis. [laughs]
How are things shaping up for the SST gig with Rollins and Dinosaur Jr?
TH M: Ah! I think Rollins has been doing this spoken word tour since he turned 50-years old, you know, just talking about his life. That one show that we're doing together though is a benefit that J [Mascis] has put together for the families of children with autism and that will be a curious evening as we're going to play and then Rollins is going to go on and I haven't seen Rollins in many, many years.
And talking of Dinosaur Jr, isn't Demolished Thoughts also the name of a side project you have with J Mascis and Andrew WK?
TH M: Yeah. Well, it started out as the name of a band, which was a cover band which played music by bands from a certain period of American hardcore. From between 1980 - 1983. Specifically what was going on in the Dischord scene in DC and the SST scene with Black Flag. It was done specifically for the intention of doing a show at the SXSW festival in Austin Texas which I'd been asked to play. And I really didn't feel like going to do what I'd done before there which was either to play improvised music with other musicians or play solo acoustic guitar. Both of which are fine - people will pretty much accept you whatever you do down there as long as you play in a genuine way. But I just didn't want to do that. It was at the back of my mind that I'd love to cover all those songs and I knew that Mascis knew all those songs. The drummer who played with us, Alison who comes from Michigan, also knew all that material. We were huge, fervent fans of the music. We really identified with the music at the time. We passed the music round and learned it. J already knew it. It was etched into his brain. And all I had to do was sing - which was all I wanted to do. We had some other musicians like Don Flemming and Andrew WK who was supposed to be playing bass but he showed up at the wrong time. So we got the drummer from Fucked Up to play bass for us. It was amazing. We did a couple of shows. We needed a name for the band and one of the songs we were covering by The Faith had this lyric which was written by Alec Makay who must have been 14 or 15 when he wrote it. And I just thought, 'What a great couplet, Demolished Thoughts.' We played a couple of gigs and then we broke up.
Was Jim O'Rourke the catalyst for Murray Street and Sonic Nurse?
TM: He was kind of a catalyst for those records... only because he brought in a new voice into the group which at the time was really... shocking. Because we were in this place where we could never have imagined someone else coming into our group and actually sort of working within just how strange the group is. Both Kim and I are kind of coming out of a place where we taught ourselves. We're just not traditional players but Lee and Steve have a much more... uh... they have chops! Jim came in and he was able to be this creative balance between these two aspects to the band. He's someone who has a very intensified musical language. He's a great, great player but at the same time he understood the wildness that Kim and I had. He could be a really great bridge [between these aspects] and it really excited us. It did influence the song writing. We wanted him to get involved with that process, so sure, there were some catalytic elements to his involvement with those records.