Interview: Thurston Moore on Yoko Ono, Maintaining Hope + Getting Re-Radicalized by His Own Daughter
I discovered Sonic Youth in a really strange way. Growing up, my mom was really into The Carpenters, and would make us listen to their Greatest Hits record in the car every morning as she drove us to school. When she passed away, I was 16 and obsessed with music. So, before her death, she sat me down next to her hospice bed and asked if I would make a playlist for us to share at her funeral. She laid out five songs that she wanted me to include, and told me I could pick the rest. So, when I got home that night, I sat for ten minutes as I downloaded The Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’ on LimeWire. Two months later, after hearing America’s ‘Sister Golden Hair’ play over the speakers, something else came on.
At first, I was mortified; I felt like I had messed up the one thing my mom had asked me to do properly. Then, I heard Thurston Moore sing the first line of that Carpenters song.
When I got home, I spent an hour searching the internet to figure out who I heard on that cover. When I finally figured out it was Sonic Youth, I went back to LimeWire and downloaded their full discography. (Sorry).
Almost 15 years later, and I still get the same feeling when I hear Moore’s music. It’s not something I can describe easily; it’s just an easiness, an optimism, a shot of faith that I desperately needed sitting at my mom’s funeral, and that I found once again needing by the time I heard By The Fire. Recorded and released in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sonic Youth legend’s latest solo album is an exercise in idealism, an offering of trust that things will improve.
When I spoke to him in his apartment in London, he told me that exploring those feelings was a conscious part of his process – that for him, resistance isn’t always about cynicism or critique; that revolution comes from sharing hope.
I’m listening to your new album right now… Wanna tell me about it?
Of course, yeah. The record consists of three different sessions that I have recorded in the last year or so, and the idea this year was that I definitely wanted to put a record out because it’s what I do: put out records. Last year, I released a triple CD box set, which was only three pieces of music, three very long guitar instrumental compositions called Spirit Counsel. And it’s basically the same core group of myself, Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine on bass, James Sedwards on guitar, drummer Jem Doulton, and electronics player Jon Leidecker, who also records under the name Wobbly; we toured Spirit Counsel for over a year and a half, which was really amazing.
In what ways?
Because there were no vocals and I had no microphones on stage, and I didn’t need monitors; to play one hour-long piece was really freeing, and just this great liberation. And it was really interesting to see the reaction from the audience, realizing that we weren’t playing a song-based set like just about everybody else does. But coming out of that, I realized that I wanted to do a record that incorporated some of these ideas of longform radical guitar music and just more traditional sonic rock tunes.
When did you start actually writing and recording the music?
I did a few different sessions. I mean, one of the songs came from a session I did for a record called Rock n Roll Consciousness, that came out two years ago. I left it off of that record because it was too heavy. So, I had that, and then I had these three songs ‘Hashish,’ ‘Cantaloupe’ and ‘Siren’ that I had done here in London. Then, I had some songs I had recorded in a session I did in Paris awhile back. So, I was just trying to figure out how to put a record together that I thought was succinct and had a narrative that I felt was worth hearing. It wasn’t really until the whole 2020 situation where we had this global, shared crisis of having to isolate from each other to dissipate this virus…it really defined how I wanted this record to be. I called it By The Fire because I felt like, basically, communication was our salvation and was a key to how we were going to progress as disparate societies. That transparency of technology allowed us to see what was going on in our daily lives and the world.
Right, it gave us a global perspective while we were home alone.
It’s like this kind of international campfire, and I wanted that to be the focus of the record. Then, I sequenced the music to have a bit of an emotional arc, where it starts with this kind of fun and hopeful and joyous kind of sonic pop music, then moves into more contemplative places, then darker, experimental worlds. The last song, ‘Venus,’ is completely instrumental, and it was a process piece, with the guitars moving slowly through the nature of the instrument while becoming more and more sick with information. It goes off into these clouds of melodies that, for me, sounded as if they had some kind of hope and mystery to them.
With the pandemic and the current political climate, do you think that the songs took on a greater sense of urgency than you might’ve thought when you were writing?
Oh yeah, for sure. Anybody putting out music, visual art or cinema at this point in time…it’s even more political than ever, just because it’s an exchange and an engagement with the social world. And at a time when there’s so much clutter and noise in the air from the political spectrum, I wanted to sort of counter that with something more conscientious, you know? Evocative storytelling. But I think a lot of work, whether you’re a musician or a visual artist or a filmmaker, the shared environment that we have socially always has the energy to transform, especially if it’s very personal. For me, I felt like this music was intrinsically personal, and that’s always been the case for me.
But it has a different context now.
It definitely took on a very distinct energy and meaning just by coexisting in this situation; and it was very interesting to me to just see and hear that happen. It’s just kind of brought to mind how ineffable creative impulse is, and how it can transform and change, and come into service in these situations. I was really happy that this record was coming out at the same time as say, Public Enemy’s new record, or Bob Mould, who’s a friend. Even Lana Del Rey has some new work out, and I admire her stuff quite a bit. I would think all of these artists feel like their work sort of garners a new resonance, just because of this shared situation. It’s hard to articulate this kind of shared anxiety, but we have at least another few months before we can feel like we can possibly move forward, or just stay in this kind of world of disturbance.
Do you feel optimistic at all?
I feel extremely connected to a sense of hope, but I guess I always have. And to put out work that has some sense of virtue, that states a case for maybe a more benign feeling…because there’s just such a high level of animosity in the culture right now, it is, in it’s own way, a kind of resistance. Making music historically has always been in reaction and resistance to a lot of what’s going on in society. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the late ’60s as a child, and seeing that counterculture going up against the increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, which was actually a misnomer, because it was hardly a Vietnamese war. It was more of a USA war in Vietnam. But that, to me, was completely striking as a child, knowing that youth culture was so galvanized. And it wasn’t all of youth culture, it was a specific demographic of youth culture that realized that war was an industry completely counter to the human condition and the welfare of anyone who was part of society. So, even at a young age, I think people who experienced that saw it as being completely informative and inspirational.
Then you came up in the aftermath of punk…
Yes, I experienced that again in the early ’80s when Ronald Reagan was elected to encourage more of an economic solvency in America. Just seeing the rise of suburban-centered punk rock bands that were calling themselves hardcore bands, we were hearing the voices of people like Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins coming out of DC. I was living in New York playing in an art rock (Sonic Youth), but that was just beginning; and seeing how much of the art world was also making commentary about what was going on and pushing back against it, and seeing the work of David Wojnarowicz or Karen Finley – that was extremely important. So, there’s these histories that are, in a way, these kinds of cycles where you’re pushing up against these agendas of the billionaire class. Then you have some social progressive consciousness come in and sort of balance the day a bit, certainly through the late Obama years; but then, it’s a hard turn into what we are experiencing now. I think the thing that defines it more now, away from some of those other historical periods, is the fact that we’re seriously looking at a crisis of the health of the planet. There’s always been this movement towards pro-ecology and consciousness, but we’re actually witnessing and experiencing the effects of degradation in the climate.
Right. And also, talking about the ’60s and then punk, hardcore and art rock, information within each circle was readily available, but not on a mainstream level. You got your information from zines that your friend in DC mailed to LA, whereas now with social media, it’s right in front of your face. You literally have to bury your head in the sand to be able to ignore what’s happening.
Exactly. I mean the Internet is sort of a universal zine library. But I think it’s very apparent that it’s really very factioned in algorithms to the point where I don’t think that the Proud Boys in the street who are supporting this complete agenda of bigotry in the US are looking at the same information I’m looking at.
They can’t be [laughs]! I know when I share information that it’s basically people saying, ‘Right on, right on, right on.’ But then you also have these bots that are saying shit like, “Stick to music loser. What do you know?'” and sending links to images of, like, Joe Biden doing something devious. It’s really puerile, and it’s completely violent sometimes. So, it’s kind of like “Oh my God, how are we actually having a dialogue here? We’re really not, right?” But also, in the ’60s and ’70s on television news programs, there would sometimes be panel shows where you would have diverse voices. Seeing Allen Ginsberg on certain shows where there would be right-wing pundits was always really incredible, and I don’t really see that in the online world. In the counterculture world of underground newspapers in the ’60s, those newspapers shared newsstand space with Time and Newsweek, and there were more conservative news organizations.
And then it was the zines, right?
Right, you had fanzines, which were coming out of the more politicized end of punk rock. We were basically sharing information amongst each other and radicalizing and politicizing a whole youth culture. And I just don’t see how there’s much of an open debate going on anymore, which I think feeds into this really hard division that we’re seeing with this neo-conservative Republican party that had pretty much hijacked the government. So, it’ll be curious to me to see how that changes. I keep hearing through the years from people who are really spiritually conscious that we’re going through a dark period that was foreseen for some time – that it’s a bit of a Kali Yuga period, and it’s going to get darker before there’s a new bright light. I’m getting a little tired of waiting for this bright light to break through, and I still don’t know if Biden is going to be that. I can only hope his election leads to it.
Right. But we’re also in this kind of dire situation where so many people who don’t actually like Biden have voted for him, because it feels like the only option.
As long as socially progressive voices like Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley are being allowed at the table and the governance, I’m going to cast my vote that way. That’s really all there is to it. So, to me, that’s the empowerment I’m looking for. We do what we can do. The hard line of just saying that we need to dismantle the two-party system and have a revolution – I agree with revolution, but I don’t think ignoring the situation at hand is going to be in anybody’s favor. There are ways of working sensibly within an ingrained system that can still support revolutionary thinking. I’ve been living in London for eight years. When I left the USA to live here, Obama was still president, and I just felt like regardless of whatever conflicts I might have with whatever policies his administration was implementing, I still felt like we were working towards the conscientious welfare of the country.
With Obama, I was voting for him because of what you said – even though there were policies I disagreed with, I felt an overall sense that we were working towards a positive future. But with the last election and this election, it’s just kind of a bummer. Like, I don’t want to vote for a candidate because I have to, because they’re a means to a better end rather than total destruction, you know?
Yeah. It’s also a curious situation in the last few months, because there’s this discussion about how somebody like Biden, who’s pretty much an octogenarian at this point, who has a history of being a white male coming out of post-WWII sensibilities, is actually growing intellectually as a person. The main thing was being able to unseat this fucking crime boss. But I would hope that conversation continues, because we need to talk about this untouchable, privileged culture that people by now have grown up with. That’s really important. There’s this really anxious matrix that we’re all sharing right now. I loved when Yoko Ono said, ‘Let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about these benign, good, angelic parts of our lives. Let’s just put that out there. Let’s talk about peace.’ That’s Yoko’s thing, her politics: keep giving energy to that which is good. And that’s what an artist should do. So, I really take that to heart.
But we’re in this space where people are not feeling positive, they’re not feeling hopeful, and there’s a collective anxiety that you can feel in all of the art that’s coming out, like you mentioned. So, in a moment like this, when people are feeling particularly down, I wonder: is an artist supposed to go the Yoko route and make art that makes people feel hopeful? Or are they supposed to make art that expresses our own collective fear?
I’m not quite sure what’s being put out there in the art world right now, because I think at the end of these four years of this neo-con government and coming into the beginning of 2020 when all of this started, it’s just like, how insane is this? This global situation of being in lockdown. Even just the terminology of “lockdown” – it’s a prison term! So, I was actually very curious about what we would see in cinema and in visual arts. Have you seen much that defines this time period? I feel like I would have seen more work with some kind of energy of chaos or some kind of uplifting feeling; and a lot of the music I’ve heard just hasn’t really addressed the situation at all. In a lot of ways, I actually think it’s wanting to ignore it to believe it will go away, so we will just continue to do our work. It’s almost like it’s fearful of it, as opposed to exploring it on a deeper level.
Artists who have always been political are engaging with the political nature of what we’re going through right now; whereas a lot of pop artists, and musicians especially, are afraid to engage with politics. They don’t want to alienate their fanbase, but also right now, there’s such a huge discussion around performativity, and I think people are really overly cautious to a point where they’re not saying anything at all, because they’re worried that it’s going to come off as performative. That becomes a bit dangerous, when artists feel like they can’t speak about something that’s affecting their daily lives.
I agree. Like I said before, I always think of putting music out into the public – that social exchange – is intrinsically political. And by that respect, there’s a responsibility to have a real personal value being extended, and not have it just be dialed in, you know? But I think that to actually respond to such a level of degradation and lunacy feels like it kind of demoralizes your own work. For me, and the way I felt, I just really wanted to create something that was completely counter to it as a work that does not address it. All it does is it wants to be a model of something that has a consciousness that is completely in opposition to it. And so, I mean, that’s the resilience or the resistance.
Even putting all of the politics aside, the COVID pandemic has made for an incredibly difficult environment. Thinking about the music industry, where your vocation, as you put it, is making and performing music, and you’re not able to do a large part of your job. But it’s a strange dichotomy, because I think part of the creative impulse is isolation. But collaboration is also such a huge part of creating, and not being able to collaborate, not being able to perform – it makes it feel like you’re doing it in a vacuum.
Yeah. It’s a completely social vocation. And for most musicians, their livelihood is touring and traveling and working. It’s pretty much understood that anybody with physical record sales or even digital record sales, it barely buys a newspaper. But, you know, it’s still part of getting your voice out there. But then to actually present it in a social arena where people come and buy a ticket and hear you play, that’s honorable work. That’s the work that’s been taken away from us. And so, how do you continue to work?
I never underestimate the intelligence of our community. I do think we’re going to adjust – we have to. And if we can return to some situation where we can actually interact again, it won’t be the same – but there will be a rebuild. And God only knows, but the musicians I’ve talked to – everybody is just trying to find some way of dealing with this. When I see something like Bandcamp allowing musicians to take full revenue on their Bandcamp Fridays – it’s a nice gesture, and I think there could be more of that in other aspects of the industry. So, maybe that will happen. But, like everyone else, I’m just trying to figure these things out as they happen in real time.
Since you can’t tour or perform, really, have you been working less?
Well, I’ve just been focused completely on writing. I’ve been working on a really long extended manuscript about being in New York in the ’70s and what really defined a lot of what I decided my vocation was going to be, even at that young age. And then moving toward the ’80s and the formation of Sonic Youth – just really talking in detail about the whole system of shared intrigue and inspirations.
Do you think that exists anymore? Those shared interests and the scenes that led to the formation of Sonic Youth? You’re in the thick of it right now, going back and sort of rethinking and reliving those moments. Do you think that sort of environment is still around?
Certainly not, at least not in that particular way. But I think it’s like New York itself, which has always been an environment that’s in flux and its history is always one of transitions. So, talking about how New York City was environmentally, politically, socially and culturally in the mid-’70s and early ’80s and how a lot of those aspects start shifting into the more muddied ’80s has been a curious retrospect for me. And how it exists now? Well, it’s a paradigm shift. I mean, this whole year is a complete paradigm shift. I don’t think we’ll ever really get back to a place that we once had. It’s going to be a rebuild. And with some things, we’ll go back to some kind of normalization, but most things won’t. And again, for me, I can only think of how to put some kind of benign spin on it. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true to a lot of people’s perception. It is to mine.
Right, everyone has to have their own reaction.
I’ve talked to people about the politics of pleasure and the politics of joy at a time when those things are being fairly demonized and ostracized. Because usually when you talk about the politics of pleasure, it’s reflective of self-interest. But someone like my daughter, Coco…it’s just really wonderful to see a 26-year-old woman doing what she’s doing as an artist who comes out of a fairly privileged background, you know, and in the intellectual environment that she grew up in, working in activist spaces trying to uplift voices for the disenfranchised. I learned from it, from watching her on social media. It radicalizes me in a way that I’m really only too happy to accept.