Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore: ‘There are very few bands where people work together and live together’

The musician talks about his divorce from Kim Gordon, life in London and whether Sonic Youth have a future

• Listen to a stream of Thurston Moore’s new album, The Best Day

Beware small talk with Thurston Moore, the man who knows too much. When I meet the former Sonic Youth frontman for lunch in a noisy London restaurant, I politely ask how he’s finding life since he moved from Connecticut to Stoke Newington, north London last year. I begin to fear I will never get to ask a second question. His encyclopaedic response takes in the differences between US and UK punk; the gentrification of Lower Manhattan; the importance of Patti Smith (“the model for all of us”); the British “anxiety towards impropriety”; and the neglected counter-cultural history of his new neighbourhood.

“That history has been deleted, for the most part, from the streets of Stoke Newington,” he says. “It’s hidden behind all these young marrieds with prams in boutiques. You should know where you live. I find that to be a certain responsibility.”

Moore’s enthusiasm, pouring out of his strangely unlined face beneath a boyish shock of hair, makes him seem much younger than 56. He has an infectious let’s-do-the-show-right-here vibe that explains why he’s been able to work with everyone from Neil Young and Yoko Ono to REM and John Zorn. In the 1980s and 90s, some bands owed their record deals to Moore’s cheerleading. “He exuded this faith,” his former wife and bandmate Kim Gordon once said about the man she met in 1980. “He didn’t really worry about the future.”

He still doesn’t, even though the future is more uncertain than ever. In 2011, it was announced that he and Gordon were divorcing, which inevitably meant an indefinite hiatus for Sonic Youth. “The suspension of the band was enforced by our marriage dissolving,” he says. “There are very few bands where people work together and live together. Nothing about it was pretty. At all. It’s really intense and heavy on both sides.”

Sonic Youth, Amsterdam, 1986.
Thurston Moore, far left, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth, Amsterdam, 1986. Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

It feels strange discussing the split with Moore because I interviewed Gordon earlier this year, but it’s fruitless, not to mention grubby, to take sides. Other people’s marriages are a mystery. Gossip sites, however, thought differently, revealing the identity of Moore’s new girlfriend, book editor Eva Prinz, and blaming him for the divorce. When, in March, Moore confirmed in an interview that he’d begun seeing Prinz while still married, the website Jezebel confidently declared, “Thurston Moore Confirms He Is a Dick.”

Moore found the attention surprising (“I’m in an alternative experimental rock band, for God’s sake. Big fucking deal”) and unpleasant.

“Yeah, it’s embarrassing,” he says, wincing. “It’s humiliating. It affects people close to me in certain ways – my family, the woman I’m in love with. It can be really degrading and I try to be philosophical about it. As soon as I put the [laptop] lid down and walk out the door, it’s not there.”

While Moore’s fraught and folky, Beck-produced 2011 album Demolished Thoughts was recorded while his marriage was in peril (“a very intense record for me to do at that time”), his new one, The Best Day, is bigger, bolder and more outgoing and contains, he insists, no tidbits for the gossips: “I would never do that.”

The Best Day advertises its optimism with a cover shot of Moore’s mother, bathing in the sea with her dog, in Florida in 1940. He chose the image “because it conveyed a sense of peace and calm in a world where we don’t always have that. I’m in this place where it’s really welcoming and happy for me, and there’s a certain sound of pleasure on this record. So this photograph is so fitting for how I feel right now.”

The Thurston Moore Band features My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe on bass, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums and Moore’s Stoke Newington neighbour James Sedwards on guitar. Just a year ago, however, Moore was fronting a completely different band, Chelsea Light Moving, and insisting he’d keep the name. So what changed?”

“At the time I really desired anonymity without losing my desire to work in the public realm as a musician,” he says. “For a while it was kind of OK. I struggled through my personal issues while touring in the back of a van and playing every little basement that would accept us. I was just in a band. This wasn’t the Thurston Moore Show. But that wore thin after a while. And I was mentally …” – a rueful smile – “losing my shit. I needed to leave the United States, move to London, and contemplate what exactly I was going to do.”

As a teenager, Moore fantasised about running away to London, where the bands were younger. “I was the same age as Johnny Rotten and Viv Albertine and Sid Vicious and I was like, how come they’re not here? New York City was intellectuals, art-school graduates and poets.” But he thinks London would have been too large and diffuse for him then. A natural collaborator and connector, in love with the idea of community, he thrived in Lower Manhattan. “New York is a street-corner world,” he says. “It’s hard to be in a hermit state in New York.”

Sonic Youth grew out of a rowdy, close-knit world and became a keystone in New York’s music scene but Moore felt the band was running out of road after 30 years and 15 albums. “It probably sounded like Sonic Youth was making records for the sake of making records,” he says. “That bothered me a little bit because I felt each record was a very serious undertaking.”

Playing live became less fun too. “I felt that the audience had reached a place of complacency where we were decoded. That edge of wonder and surprise had all but disappeared. A lot of what we developed over the years has seeped its way into music culture. We weren’t the radical band any more; we were more of a radical reference point. I was getting a little bored with people getting bored with us.”

He insists there’s no “decree of finality” on Sonic Youth, but he’s not hankering for a reunion. “It defines me and it always will,” he says. “I would never want to replicate that. This band is something else. I always feel like I’m in a state of apprenticeship. I never feel like I’ve achieved something where I can actually get retrospective.”

So he doesn’t feel the weight of the past? He beams, his faith in the future undimmed. “No weight whatsoever.”

• The Best Day is released on 20 October on Matador Records


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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