Photo by Vera Marmelo
Thurston Moore Talks New Album 'By The Fire,' IDLES, Greta Thunberg & Reagan-Era Privilege
"There is a real social division, and I don't live amongst that anger so much," Thurston Moore remarks over the phone from his London home, referring to the piercing political discord that fuels the upcoming presidential election—not to mention much of 2020 itself. "I don't really believe that that is the majority of the country, let alone the world," he continues. "I think it's just the noisiest. And I say that as a noise musician."
The founding Sonic Youth guitarist, who released his seventh solo album By The Fire last week via The Daydream Library Series, is indeed not just a noise musician, but a leading pioneer of the art form, having gotten his start in the 1980s New York City no wave and experimental scenes alongside bandmates Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo. At that time, Moore remembers, artists had what he refers to as the "privilege" of "just making fun of and ignoring [politics]," and "protesting to some degree through hardcore bands and stuff." Today, nearly 40 years later, such immunity to current events hardly exists anymore; socioeconomic, political and racial tensions touch every facet of daily life—and it's all taking place in the backdrop of a global pandemic.
In response, Moore has unleashed By The Fire, a nine-track project that, as he puts it, "alludes to a lot of the heat that we see in the streets... But it's also essentially about the idea of communication. I wanted it to be about focusing on sitting around a fire and exchanging ideas and dialogue."
Musically, By The Fire, which features Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) and Sonic Youth's Shelley, reflects Moore's penchant for both pop-minded, college-rock cuts (opener "Hashish" and its follow-up "Cantaloupe") and lengthier instrumental musings ("Locomotives" and chaotic album closer "Venus").
Below, Moore dives deeper into the duel meaning of By The Fire (which he and the rest of the band recorded immediately prior to quarantine), how living abroad has affected his view of the States and how young people today—including his own daughter—give him hope for the future.
You’ve been living in London for almost a decade now. How has living abroad changed or affected your perspective of the U.S. in the last eight years?
I relocated here at a time when I thought the U.S.A. was in a place of having a bit of dignity as representation, let's put it that way, with the Obama Administration, the Obama-Biden Administration. And so, I don't think anybody at all foresaw the turn of events that happened in 2016, and it was a surprise to just everyone, especially here, living here.
But the fact that it happened at the same time when this country was dealing with this whole selling of Brexit, which was based on this idea of economics, but was sold through this fear of immigration. So, it had this nefarious subtext to it.
I think we just go through these cycles through history, that you can see, where totalitarianism comes to a head. And these fascistic aesthetics come into play, where divisiveness in the culture happens, and through the outpouring of subserving, where people who feather their own nest, as far as being this billionaire elite, and the real estate of the world, and this kind of control mechanisms.
So, in some ways, it's not surprising when you look at it historically, and thinking that, with some resilience and some resistance and with some activism, which we always have expressed, especially in youth culture, that we can bring it back into a situation that's more progressive and humanitarian-conscious. I think the big difference now, and that the pandemic, where we're all in this quarantine state and it's a global affair, that's a big difference, from when you can look at it, and history books, to some degree.
Because it points to a problem that we have that's more essential to the earth. It's about the health of the earth and how we're so much a part of nature, whether we like it or not. And that defines a lot of our existence.
I think a lot of what's going on with our social crisis is, of just the people who are on the margins, and have historically been on the margins, just through means of being oppressed, having to rise up and be angry. And, in support, so many people joining in with that fight, people who have the privilege of not being in a situation, to join in on that fight, as well.
It almost becomes secondary to the health of the planet. Because with the planet in a mode of destruction for the next 10 to 20 years, that will override any other situation. I mean, if you don't have a habitable world, it doesn't matter who you are. And so, that, to me, is something that's very significant and distinctive to what's going on right now. So when I see young people, particularly a very high-profile person like Greta Thunberg, really coming out and drawing as much cogent attention to this, it just does my heart good.
I saw an interview a few years ago with Naomi Klein, she's an essayist on politics, and focusing a lot on climate activism. And she said, when the U.S.A.'s really swung to this right-wing agenda that was exemplified by what the administration is now, she felt like a lot of people did, very, somewhat hopeless. And do you even deal with such inanity?
But then, to see somebody like this young girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who Naomi said, "I'd never even heard of two months prior, all of a sudden becoming such a force of critical information," that just made her feel good about prospects. And so, I feel the same way.
I really feel, for the most part, the people that I come across are desirous of living in harmony, and wanting to have some more non-hierarchical socialized way of living, where everybody has equal value when it comes to healthcare. I rarely come across somebody who is so deluded by the fact that maybe it would be better off if we just allowed ourselves to be told what to do by this authority of this billionaire class. I don't really know people like this, but I know they're out there, because I see them on social media, screaming and yelling "Trump."
There is a real social division, and I don't live amongst that anger so much. But I certainly do see it. And I'm not quite sure, I don't really believe that that is the majority of the country, let alone the world. I think it's just the noisiest. And I say that as a noise musician who really focuses on noise. I can't compete with that sort of thing.
"A noise musician who can’t compete with noise." Well, there you go. Would you say that you generally consider yourself an optimist?
Yeah. I consider myself a musician and an artist who realizes that it's very important to be socially engaged in your work. And if your work is about the exchange of pleasure as information, I think there's something very political about that. I consider that to be a responsibility. So when I put together a record like this, at a time like this, I'm very aware.
And I'm very activist conscious when I call a record By The Fire, where it alludes to, certainly a lot of the heat that we see in the streets, in the contemporary streets of fires being lit through it, through anger. But it's also essentially about the idea of communication. I wanted it to be about focusing on sitting around a fire and exchanging ideas and dialogue.
It's funny you say that, because I was curious if By The Fire had any allusions to, say, Roosevelt’s famous Fireside Chats.
Sun Ra had a record called A Fireside Chat With Lucifer, which I always thought was really intriguing. But I think in a way, it was just, "What an interesting title."
I mean, if there's anybody who was a prophet of peace and understanding, it was Sun Ra. To call a record, A Fireside Chat With Lucifer, in a way it was him wanting to come to terms with everybody having a voice, and realizing that, right?
I realized there's a dynamic of voices in our culture, obviously. But for me, it's just, the activism measure is to keep promoting the voices that you find are to the health of humanity, especially to the health of the earth. People ask me if I'm voting for the Democrat ticket of Biden and Kamala Harris, and I say, "Yes, I am."
It's not so much about Biden being versus Trump. It's more about me being versus Trump. And it's more wanting to bring these voices that I find really, really important in contemporary society, voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, these women who have these really political intellects, that are all about the welfare of everybody, regardless of the hierarchy in this society.
It’s progressive socialism, for want of a better genre term. But I find that to be these great voices for the welfare of the country that I was born and raised in. And so, I find at least a vote for the Democratic ticket allows them to have a voice at that table, more so than not.
I mean, that seems to be the promise, and a lot of it has proved the empowerment that Bernie Sanders has enforced in the last decade. I think the Democratic ticket recognizes that voice, and is very wary of it, because it's demonized as being, well, too left of centrist. But at the same time, I think at least it's going to have a welcoming into the government and its future policies, hopefully. I can only be hopeful.
I think anything less than that is without hope. So I see what's going on right now. And as far as the two-party system, when I look at the Republican Party, and how it's been hijacked, I don't see a grain of hope there. I see nothing.
It’s funny that you bring up both Bernie and AOC. Are you aware of the “Socialist Youth” T-shirt design that has Bernie and AOC drawn to mirror Sonic Youth’s Goo cover? It’s one of the best things I bought this year.
I do remember that. I was really happy to see that.
Had you planned to begin recording a record in March of this year, or thereabouts? Even if a pandemic hadn’t happened?
Yeah. Well, I knew that I wanted to put a record out this year, even before the pandemic became a reality. But when it did become a situation, it was just global, galvanized situation that we all dealt with.
Once I seriously focused on what the aesthetic of the record was, and how I would sequence it, I wanted to have the story on the record be more in tune to what was contemporaneous. So I sequenced it thus. I mean, all the material was recorded before anything happened.
But the record itself was put together while we were in quarantine. So, the material, I just organized it in a way where I wanted it to come out of the gate with these more joyous, short, sharp, rough, sonic rock and roll tunes. And then it moves into more contemplative material.
Then it would go into some darker spaces. And then it had this deliverance at the end—this long instrumental piece called "Venus," which was just this pattern-based guitar piece that opened up into this sound of deliverance, and with hope. And I wanted it to go out the door that way.
I really worked closely with the people who do the distribution and the manufacturing, all of whom were dealing with this sudden shock to their work days, and wondering where their revenue was going to come from, and how they could continue to operate. Summertime is traditionally a time when a lot of the record industry just goes on vacation. So everybody was on staycation mode. And I was like, "Oh, actually, I'll take advantage of that. You're home and you're working, right? So let's get the guts around this."
[By The Fire is] coming out this month, which is really great. It's coming out on the same day as this other community of records that I'm really happy being part of: Public Enemy's new record [What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down] that they're putting out on their old label, Def Jam. And my old friend, Bob Mould, has a record [Blue Hearts] coming out.
There's a local band in London that is really, it's a real strong voice for a lot of people here, called IDLES.
Oh yeah. Sure.
And they have a record also. So, these things are all happening on that day. I just feel, if there's anything I really love about being in a band and playing music through the years, it’s the power of the community. And I've always loved collaborations. I always loved compilation albums. I was always drawn to being on compilation albums earlier, when Sonic Youth was first starting. I was just, if anybody asked us to be on a compilation, I was like, "Yes, of course, of course." The first record I was ever on was a compilation record that Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess put together in downtown New York, of all these different artists, doing one-minute pieces.
That was the first time I was ever invited [to collaborate], was when they asked me to be on that. And that was just at the very beginning of when Sonic Youth was forming. I don't even know if we had that name yet.
Speaking of New York, earlier in the year, New York City was especially suffering from high coronavirus cases and deaths. I wonder what that brought up for you, just as somebody who has such a connection to that city?
Right. I think it's such a—more so than just about any other city I can think of—it's the most street-social city. When I was living there, nobody really had a car. You could actually walk from one end of the island to the other, and during the day, without a problem. I think it's, what is it, 12 miles long and three miles wide? It's all up into the sky, in a way.
The fact that it has such a huge population, and it was so condensed, that everybody's on the street and all the time. And everybody was in each other's way, in each other's face. You learned social responsibility from living in that city. It was gloriously multi-ethnic. And even though there was neighborhood divisions of ethnicities that had been defined from when people first came over from Europe and Asia and such, but they were soft lines, for the most part. And it was all about merging traffic. And I think that, to me, was a model for the world.
It’s the true essence of nature, where migration is so essential to nature. It was like, at the heart of nature, it's always about migration, and the plant life and animal life. With people, it's the same thing. And so, I think the situation where borders start going up, and it tries to stop the migratory nature of people, whatever the causes are, whether it's from climate, or where it's from seeking higher water, or trying to find salvation from war or violence. Or the impossibility of a life, in certain situations. And to prohibit that, through any border or law of movement, for me, it's like, it actually goes against the actual truth of nature.
That's where the problem is. It has nothing to do with anything else. Or anything else becomes, it just becomes bigotry. So I always saw New York City as this great experiment in coexistence from the end of the century. And I loved living there in the '70s, before real estate became more monied, and it allowed everybody to live in poverty, and still create, and be free.
That, and the creative impulse was still available, without having to pay exorbitant rents, but that's really neither here nor there. I mean, the city continues to be this great social city. And to see it have to deal with a situation where everybody has to stay away from each other, it's disheartening, to say the least.
I can only hope that that will fade away, and we don't have a follow-up, a virus coming through. Nobody has a crystal ball on this, that I can see. So, I take value from seeing people be of service to each other.
I have a 26-year-old daughter who lives in Bed-Stuy, and she is very activist, and she goes out daily and helps be of service to people who are living in the margins, or young women who are incarcerated and don't have any funding to deal with their plight, or people who are so marginalized, trans people of color who are just completely ignored by so many of the services of the city, and are at odds with the prejudices of the culture. She's out there helping in that regard. And so, it does my heart good. It makes me a proud daddy.
But she's not the only one. And there's just so many people, she's just in her mid-20s, and there's so many people at that age who are out there doing that. When I was in my mid-20s, we didn't really have such a crisis as this. We had Ronald Reagan who was like, he was really creating an economic division, and especially in the city. [But] it was something that we could actually have the privilege of somewhat just making fun of and ignoring, and protesting to some degree, through hardcore bands and stuff.
What people in their mid-20s are experiencing now, it's such a far cry from what I remember. And it's just, their lifestyles of having digital media, where there's this Internet connectivity of the open library. That's a huge paradigm shift from the reality that I experienced.
I love it. I think it's just completely exhausting. I'm really glad to be alive and witness this kind of world, and just thinking about what it will be in the next couple of decades.