THURSTON MOORE -- By Jay Ferguson (Originally published in Chart, #98 Aug 1998)
I hesitate to mention to Thurston Moore that I've actually met him once before.
It was in 1992, at the CMJ New Music Conference in New York. It was Sloan's first time playing NYC, and we'd just finished our set at CBGBs. I ducked over to the Knitting Factory to check out Royal Trux, and who, to my surprise, was standing in the doorway but... Thurston Moore.
Being a longtime Sonic Youth fan, I couldn't pass up the chance to say hello. I waited until after the show, but he was hanging out with friends and I didn't want to interrupt. So I passed the time by buying a Royal Trux t-shirt; asking some guy if he played guitar in The Original Sins; and, in the most embarrassing "trying-to-have-a-purpose-for-sticking-around" manoeuvre, I kept patting my pockets and searching the floor as if I'd lost my keys.
Finally, Thurston was sitting alone, so I nervously approached and said hello. I told him I was a big fan, and that our band was on DGC too, and asked where the best record stores are in NYC. He was friendly as we chatted for a few minutes about St. Johnny and Crystalised Movements, and he offered directions to Pier Platters in Hoboken, New Jersey.
I said thanks and left, slightly euphoric that, my first time in NYC, I was playing at CBGBs and meeting Thurston Moore. Six months prior, I was working at a record store and Sloan had never played outside of Halifax.
Five-and-a-half years later, in Toronto on the release of Sonic Youth's latest, A Thousand Leaves, Thurston is still friendly and I'm still nervous. Drummer Steve Shelly also hangs out to offer some insight...
Jay: I'm originally from Halifax, where few bands passed through while I was growing up... Except for regulars like April Wine...
Thurston: Yeah, April Wine... They were, like, that early '70s band that I used to read about in Beetle magazine. I always liked those early '70s Canadian rock bands, 'cause they always had this chunky, meaty sound.
Jay: Well, a lot of them were kind of chunky, meaty individuals.
Thurston: Yeah, yeah... Like BTO, but the music was always very SOLID.
Jay: I think maybe that was a western thing.
Thurston: Yeah, I don't know. I always like Beetle magazine though.
Jay: Beetle magazine? I don't even know that one.
Thurston: It was sort of the Canadian CREEM magazine from the early '70s. They would write about Roxy Music and Sparks... Stuff like that, the underlying other side of things. And they would feature all these Canadian bands like April Wine, The Ugly Ducklings... Chilliwack.
Jay: The reason I mention Halifax is because Sonic Youth actually came and played there in the early '80s, at the Nova Scotia College Of Art And Design (NSCAD). Do you have any memories of that?
Thurston: Yeah, the Nova Scotia College contacted us; it was really early on... They asked if we wanted to come up and do a symposium. I didn't really have any idea what that meant. I just thought we were going up to do a gig. I think Kim and Lee had more of an idea but they didn't really, sort of, translate it to me. They just figured I knew as well (laughs).
Anyways, the first thing we had to do was go to this class and sort of talk about ourselves... and then we were walking out, thinking "What are we doing?" There was no real agenda except go to this class. We just sat around and talked to some students. And then I made a flyer for the gig that night.
Jay: A friend of mind has one of those.
Thurston: Oh, wow... I just took it out of a film book... It was from some 80's horror movie...
[Just then, Steve Shelly pipes up: "Evil Dead?"]
Thurston: Evil Dead! It was a picture of this hand coming out of a grave and grabbing this woman like this. [Thurston illustrates by grabbing his throat with his hand, to much laughter.] And I wrote "Sonic Youth Live Halifax," et cetera. We hung them up all over the town and all over the university. There was a large feminist contingency there and they were just incensed.
Jay: Oh, really?
Thurston: Like, "Who are these people coming here and putting this obscene imagery all over the place?" And they tore 'em all down and spread the word to ban the show. At the same time, there was a huge hardcore gig in town. I think it was D.O.A. and like, 20 other bands. So the kids who were going to see something, they were gonna go to that. And the art students were sort of conflicted about going. So I'd say there was maybe eight people there.
Jay: I think it's one of those shows that about 150 people claim they saw but there was only... Well, eight people.
Thurston: We also, at the time, picked up a lot of stuff off the streets of Halifax and brought it to the gig. We did a lot of banging on garbage cans. A lot of clatter.
Jay: I want to jump ahead here and ask you about Psychic Hearts [Thurston's solo double-album from 1995]. I find when people in bands make solo records, it's often because they're frustrated within the confines of their own band. I'm wondering why you felt you had to make Psychic Hearts, as I find that the songs on it are not really outside the Sonic Youth mold.
Thurston: That was around the time where I had written a lot of songs. It was around the time of Experimental, Jet Set, Trash And No Star and some songs I'd introduced into Sonic Youth, but there was a bunch of them. In a way, I thought it wasn't the best way to employ Sonic Youth's time. Our band works best as the four of us just group-composing, as opposed to one of us bringing in set song ideas...
Jay: So was it more about getting them out of the way, basically?
Thurston: Yeah, it was more just about documenting them in a way that wouldn't take up Sonic Youth's time, y'know, as opposed to being a group effort. Also, I wanted to hear the songs in the way that I had written them, which was, in a way, very basic. So all I wanted to have was drums and another guitar pretty much playing what I wrote on guitar, and I was just going to sing.
Jay: Regarding the three EPs that came out on your own SYR label prior to your latest record on DGC: Is the reason for creating your own label now - and I don't mean for this to be pessimistic - foreshadowing and setting yourselves up for a time when maybe you no longer see yourselves with Geffen/DGC?
Thurston: No, I don't think it's foreshadowing. It's more of an experiment, to see if we can release records without having to do it with DGC... We knew we could do it, because Steve was already doing Smells Like Records anyways, so he already had a relationship with distributors and retail, and we just plugged into what he had.
Steve: We wanted to put the records out quickly. We were recording all this material and one day we talked about it [being] great to start putting this stuff out randomly as we're making A Thousand Leaves. We thought, let's make CD EPs with a 12" version and immediately we knew that there would be four or five problems with Geffen doing that, because they can't do things fast. They can't do things without hype and just slip stuff out there; they're not interested in doing vinyl unless it's for a really big record. So we were thinking of just putting them out in a modest manner and doing it ourselves.
Jay: Is Ecstatic Peace [Thurston's own personal record imprint] still operating these days?
Thurston: Yeah, to some degree... Whenever I can afford to do something, I do it. A lot of projects I put on the table at Forced Exposure [writer Byron Coley's magazine/label] and whenever he can find time within his workload to get things produced, they come out. But it takes a painstakingly long time. At the same time, I never do releases to try and make or break some contemporary band. It's basically a vanity project for me. I hardly do any promotion. I'll put ads in a fanzine here and there because I like making them as a design thing. I don't really care about "Oh I really have to sell these things."
I also have this thing in the works, an imprint on Sire Records called Key. We're going to be re-releasing lost classics of avant-garde music. The first one is going to be Black Woman by Sonny Sharrock, which is this pretty heavy, early '70s recording that's really impossible to locate. Then a new trio record by Henry Kaiser. Some unreleased Sun Ra stuff. Things of that nature, that we would never be able to do on the scale of Ecstatic Peace.
Jay: Is there going to be a video for a single from A Thousand Leaves?
Thurston: Yeah, we just did a video for "Sunday," with this young director named Harmony Korine. He did a film called Gummo from last year and he also wrote the screenplay for Kids, directed by Larry Clark. He's this local New York guy who we've known since he was really young, because we did a video for "Sugarcane," off of Dirty.
Jay: Is that the one with the models on the runway?
Thurston: Yeah, and all the young people in there were contacted through a mutual friend of ours. They were just this gang of young people like Chloe Sevigny, Harmony Korine and a bunch of others who later appeared as performers in the film Kids. They were just these young kids hanging out in New York. Sort of this first new generation of young, creative kids who were on the loose... Especially Harmony, who was this wild, wild kid.
Jay: Are you guys in the video at all?
Thurston: Very, very minimally. It's mostly imagistic and it's all based on the idea that Harmony had: Saturated and slow-moving print and film colour, and it concentrates on Macaulay Culkin.
Jay: Is Macaulay Culkin in the video?!
Thurston: Yeah [laughs].
Jay: How's he lookin' these days? How old is he now?
Thurston: Seventeen. He's still a young kid. It was Harmony's idea to have him in the video. When we asked him, Harmony had never really done a video before. He did one for Daniel Johnston that nobody ever saw, which supposedly involves him filming this kid having an epileptic fit on his Grandmother's floor. MTV saw it and said that they wouldn't show this in a million years [laughs]. So that was his only experience! [laughs]
Steve: So we said, "Here's the director for us!"
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