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For Thurston Moore, it’s ‘a symphony of chainsaws and broken pianos’

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 29, 2020

Sonic Youth is arguably the greatest rock guitar band of all time. The uncompromising avant-garde quartet recorded a plethora of mesmerizing guitar jams during its 30-year career.

Thurston Moore was half of the guitar tandem of the defunct band. Moore, 61, recently released “By the Fire,” his fourth solo album since the demise of Sonic Youth. The lanky innovator’s latest release is filled with layered, hypnotic guitar, which smacks of his former band.

Moore, who called from his London, England, flat, looks back at Sonic Youth’s Spokane debut a generation ago, which had a huge impact on the seminal band. The master of unusual guitar tunings also offers revealing details about his relationship with the late Kurt Cobain and touring with Neil Young.

Moore also discloses whether Sonic Youth will ever reunite.

How long have you lived in London?

I’ve lived here for eight years. I just voted by mail. I’m a U.S. citizen, and I pay taxes. I know that not everyone pays taxes. The working class evidently has to cover the billionaires. I love living here. I moved here after I got divorced (from Sonic Youth vocalist-bassist Kim Gordon) and moved in with my girlfriend (book publisher Eva Prinz). I work with musicians here and record under my own name.

The new album receives quite a boost from your bandmates, most notably by bassist Deb Googe.

I started playing with (guitarist) James Sedwards here, and he was friends with Deb. I always loved her band, My Bloody Valentine. To play with someone like her is a dream come true. I’m lucky and blessed to be her friend and be able to make music with her.

You’ve performed a couple of times in Spokane. What’s your most indelible memory?

I remember playing Spokane (in 1987) when we were opening up for the Beastie Boys. Sonic Youth had been touring quite a bit, and we garnered an audience that was really on our side as an experimental rock band. The Beastie Boys asked us to play a show with them in Spokane, and it was something I’ll never forget. The audience wanted to hear hip-hop and hardcore, and they were like, “Who the bleep are these old guys from New York playing this kind of discordant noisy rock music? We just want hip-hop and the chance to slam dance.”

I remember how sobering that was. We didn’t have our fans, our safety net, with us. I know that Sonic Youth’s music was not for everyone. Sonic Youth was a particular kind of band with a particular kind of appeal. It was interesting seeing how the Beastie Boys went over in Spokane and how we were unaccepted.

It wasn’t the last time an audience took exception to your music. I remember catching Sonic Youth opening for Neil Young in 1991 in Philadelphia. I’ll never forget when Neil Young fans saw some of your fans at the show, and the guy next to me said, “What are all the ‘London Calling’ people doing here?” After you finished a song and the audience booed Sonic Youth, you stepped to the microphone and said, “Oh, you like that one? Here’s another one that sounds just like it,” and you blasted into something so cacophonous.

(Laughs). Exactly! What was so cool about that tour was that Neil didn’t comply with expectations. He was never about comfortable agreement. He’s a radical. He might play the hits, but he plays them because they’re good songs. Sometimes he might not play the hits. He doesn’t play the game, and he’s a smart guy. He asked his manager who were the most radical, experimental groups out there. That’s who he wanted on the tour. We were on the short list and saw that Einsturzende Neubauten was on that list. Can you imagine that? But Neubauten declined. That would have been wonderful.

Then Social Distortion, who opened, wouldn’t have been on the bill, right?

Yes, and Social Distortion wasn’t on the whole tour. I gave a cassette tape of “Bleach” by Nirvana to Neil’s management. I told them that Nirvana would be a really good band for the tour. They liked Nirvana, but they went with Drivin’ N’ Cryin, who probably had high-powered management. It could have been Nirvana on that tour. It’s ironic since after Kurt died, Neil wrote a whole record (1994’s “Sleeps With Angels”) about it.

Cobain’s career was like a “Twilight Zone” episode since no matter how much he tried to muck up a song, it was so melodic and thus so accessible at its core.

It’s so true. Kurt’s sense of melody was so astute and so effective. Kurt always called what he did the B-word.

Right, the Beatles.

Yes. That is to be experimental yet melodic. It’s rare to meet a band that is able to inform and make experimental music that’s melodic. Sonic Youth toyed with that concept, but not to the extent of Nirvana. Nirvana was unique. Oasis thought they were as cool as Nirvana, but they weren’t. Oasis wrote some great songs. They put out one great album, but they didn’t have legs. Kurt wasn’t intending to be mainstream. He was not about the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Pearl Jam. He loved Daniel Johnston.

You can’t help but wonder how much the music world would have changed if Cobain was still alive.

You really do wonder. It really is heartbreaking. Kurt had a genuine interest in the margins of rock and roll. I got to know Kurt really well. We went out to see him at (Hoboken, New Jersey, club) Maxwell’s with (Dinosaur Jr.) J. Mascis. There were only about 40 people there. Kurt was really happy we were there. He was an amazing person.

What makes great art is a shred of reality. What Cobain wrote came from a real place.

Completely. He was a really smart kid who was always very open and curious. He understood the magic of subversive art in a conservative forum. The emotion in his voice was not something you can fake. It was there from his childhood. If Nirvana had any other singer, we wouldn’t be talking about them today. So many great bands came out of Washington.

I asked Chris Cornell about a decade ago if I could play Rick Rubin and have him front Sonic Youth. He said he would do it in a second and never pick up a guitar again. I told you about that just days before Cornell died, and you said it would never work since Sonic Youth was an art rock band and Cornell was a straight arrow.

Yeah, I doubt that would have worked. I remember Rick Rubin before he was a music mogul when he was a college kid (at NYU). He had just worked with the Beastie Boys and Slayer. I was hoping he would work with Sonic Youth, but would he want to work with a left-wing freako experimental band? He didn’t want to deal with the avant-garde anymore. I heard him talk about working with a rock band that was too idiosyncratic who would never comply with the mainstream music industry. That was Sonic Youth.

Will Sonic Youth ever reunite?

I doubt it very seriously. It would smack of becoming a brand, not a band. We couldn’t do a nostalgia trip. If it did happen, it would have to be so radical. It would have to be something like a symphony of chainsaws and broken pianos.

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