Thurston Moore is America’s Coolest Expat

The Sonic Youth frontman praises Solange's 2017 album and says he's considered moving back to the States from England.

Credit: Phil Sharp

By his own account, Thurston Moore is just sort of figuring this whole music thing out.

“I still feel like I’m getting through some sort of apprenticeship,” he says from his home in London. “I don’t really feel that old or that it’s been that long.”

As the frontman of seminal alternative rock band Sonic Youth, the 58-year-old musician helped create and define the sound of ’90s rock (alongside his good friends in Nirvana, whom he refers to simply as Kurt, Krist, and Dave). Rolling Stone declared Moore one of the greatest guitarists of all time in 2004; eight years later, he tied with his own Sonic Youth bandmate, Lee Ranaldo, for the the No. 1 spot on Spin’s list.

But lists be damned. Sonic Youth was New York rock ’n’ roll cool before Julian Casablancas and his Strokes compatriots had even graduated elementary school. Founded by Moore and bassist Kim Gordon in 1981, the foursome gave themselves a proper Manhattan musical education by attending Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs poetry readings and watching New Wave bands tear up the legendary (if now extinct) punk club CBGB’s. Their bizarre guitar tunings and oddball approach to rock song structures landed them easily and comfortably into the city’s already thriving art rock and no wave scenes. But Sonic Youth was not long for the New York underground, and by 1996, they were Lollapalooza headliners.

When I reach Moore, he’s more in the mood to talk about the pre-Lollapalooza days. He reminisces briefly about recording Goo, the band’s first album for major label Geffen that is now regarded as a modern classic. While recording the album at Greene St. Recording in SoHo, Moore spent some quality time with Public Enemy, who were recording Fear of a Black Planet just down the hall. (This close proximity explains Chuck D’s guest appearance on “Kool Thing,” the first single from Goo.) Troubled by hip-hop’s love of cornball rock – as evidenced by Aerosmith and Run DMC’s collaboration on the “Walk This Way” remix – Moore decided to pick Public Enemy’s brain about alternative rock.

Or rather, he asked them why hip-hop artists weren’t more eager to work with intellectual bands like The Birthday Party, The Fall, and Gang of Four.

“I remember their response was, ‘We already got our intellectual thing. It’s not really that interesting to look for it elsewhere at this point,’ ” he says. “And I totally understood that.”

Moore dwells on R&B and hip-hop – Public Enemy and otherwise – for a while throughout the interview, praising Solange’s 2016 opus A Seat at the Table for its ability to balance the avant-garde with “this really genuine supernatural soul vibe that has as much to do with tradition as anything.” He muses on hip-hop’s ability to experiment in the mainstream – as opposed to how rock’s most experimental moments typically originate and remain in the underground. He counts Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” among the protest songs that resonate most with him; Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” also makes the list. (This sentiment follows close on the heels of some fervent praise for Bernie Sanders.)

In fact, Moore is anything but apolitical. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the ongoing dumpster fire of his presidency, Moore has found himself increasingly torn between his American identity, current ex-pat status, and passionate desire to be an activist and a citizen of the planet. He characterizes the Trump administration as “straight-up misogynist, straight-up racist,” and says that his positioning as the father of a 23-year-old daughter has put him in “protection mode.” It’s even made him contemplate returning to the States.

“I have this conflicted feeling about how I want to return to America and be a voice in the street and continue trying to raise the noise level against this poisonous situation,” he says. “I want to go and help my country that I love because I feel it’s being represented by this horrible misogyny. It bums me out.”

It’s also made him rethink where art and music at large may head in the future. He’s not one to parrot the obtuse line that Trump will make punk great again, but he’s hopeful the mainstream might get a little less Brave New World-esque. As he sees it, it’s harder to find reasons to be amused by death when the new healthcare plan will likely kill you first.

“Do we really need more Justin Bieber?” he asks with a friendly laugh. “No offense to Justin Bieber, but he represents a certain kind of vapidity in the record industry. Do we really need this entertainment anymore? I don’t think so. It’s time to get a little more charged with some educated responses.”

He has formulated his own educated response in the form of his new solo record, Rock N Roll Consciousness. The melodies and guitarwork are the alt-rock mastery we’ve come to expect from Moore, and the lyrics are decidedly “pro-hope, pro-faith, pro-new ideas, and being proud of the honor of opposition.” In trying to stay positive, he scrapped a few songs that focused on the rise of nationalism and kept anti-gun anthem “Cease Fire” off the final tracklist. Five solo albums in, Moore still finds having his name on the cover bizarre, but he’s coming to terms with it. 

“I think of it as a band name,” he says. “It’s a weird name anyway.”

Thurston Moore plays at 9 p.m., Friday, May 12, at The Chapel. $20; thechapelsf.com

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