Thurston Moore: Beneficent Energy

Music Features Thurston Moore
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Thurston Moore almost called his third solo album Detonation, after a song about ’70s UK political activism, but then he came across an old photo of his mother that cast the whole project in a new light. The black-and-white snapshot, taken in the 1940s and now aged to a sepia tone, shows Moore’s mother Eleanor and her dog Brownie at a lake somewhere in Florida. They’re swimming in a lake and have stopped to strike an almost comical pose for the camera, wielded by the man who would become Eleanor’s husband.

“I thought they had this really beneficent vibe to them,” Moore says. “I had been wondering how to present this record, and my first inclination had been to go dark and focus on some of the underlying anger in these songs. But then I saw these photos and thought maybe it’s a good idea, especially with so much bad energy going on all over the globe, to go with something that’s happy and blissful.” The album title—The Best Day—soon followed, as did a title track.

It’s a curious cover, striking in its cheeriness and its sense of commemoration. Rarely has Moore presented something so starkly—and, some might say, conventionally—personal in his large catalog of music, which encompasses more than 15 albums with veteran New York noise-rock act Sonic Youth and innumerable one-offs with Yoko Ono, Nels Clines, Mike Watt, no wave artists Lydia Lunch and Glenn Branca, and Twilight (a black metal supergroup featuring members of Nachtmystium). In addition to a new solo album, Moore is also releasing Full Bleed, an improvisational distortion album with John Moloney (slated for release next year via Northern Spy Records), and A Remarkable Grey Horse, a poetry chapbook coauthored by Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc and Owls.

These new songs bristle and pulse with beneficent energy, whether it’s the otherworldly lust of “Forevermore” or the anti-authority anthem “Speak to the Wild.” Even would-be title track “Detonation” celebrates certain aspects of radical activism. “I was looking at the people involved in the activism of the early 1970s, and they were poets and artists who were politicized by the Vietnam War,” Moore says. “They were labeled anarchists and thrown in prison. I don’t think I could ever find myself in that kind of commitment where it might endanger my livelihood. So I became fascinated by these artists who put their lives on the line.”

Moore himself has always seemed more upbeat than angry. Sonic Youth may have come out of the New York punk scene, but their music was driven not by political or social angst but by the raw creative impulse. They made music that was, at heart, about the act of making music, an ethos that informs all of his projects. Moore is a frequent and promiscuous collaborator, as though mapping friendships with art, and The Best Day documents the alchemy between several musicians. When Moore recently moved to the UK after nearly 40 years in New York City, he discovered that one of his neighbors, a guy named James Edwards, was a guitar player and teacher, so the two started jamming and eventually performing together. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley saw one of their shows and ask to join the loosely defined group. Eventually they added My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe on bass. Together, they wrote the music during extended jams and noise-making sessions.

One of the first songs to come out of the group was “Forevermore,” one of the weirdest songs Moore has recorded in ages. Over a tense minor-key drone-groove, he sings a series of “these heavy gothic statements, really grandiose with religious overtones, like ‘You draw a circle around the holy fortress.’” At first Moore wondered if he could get away with a song so flagrantly over-the-top, but soon discovered it worked as a love song, pitched somewhere between wispy ‘60s Britfolk and Hammer Horror. Think Fairport Convention soundtracking The Wicker Man. “There’s definitely a bit of Christopher Lee whispering into the young maiden’s ear.”

Moore wrote “Forevermore” and most of the other songs on The Best Day himself, but three of the new songs were adapted from poems by a friend of his, a transgender poet named Radioux Radio. “I asked if she had anything I could use for these songs, which were just instrumentals at the time,” he explains. “And I just crammed these poems into the music, and they worked.” Those are some of the most adventurous tracks on The Best Day: “Detonation,” a short burst of pop punk; “Tape,” an almost pastoral folk tune; and a spectral acoustic number with one of Moore’s best vocal performances. “I had to change the titles” of the last two, he says. “She called them ‘Vocabularies of Dominance’ and ‘Tape Magnetique,’ and I felt I needed to take a little weight off of them.”

This close collaboration may be the secret to Moore’s professional longevity; he is not only a 40-year veteran of the music business, but is still revered as a postpunk hero, a foundational figure in indie rock. Despite his celebrity, he remains, by his own admission, “a huge fan boy. I’m still a mad record collector and book collector. The walls are caving in with all the ephemera and documents and stuff. I’ve always been a huge enthusiast of other people’s work. I find it very inspiring. So I always want to collaborate with people that I’m interested in. It’s not just older people, like Neil Young or Yoko Ono. It’s younger people who impress me as well. To meet them is super exciting.”

In other words, Moore has not grown jaded or distant with time; the scene that produced him may have dissipated, but he remains as busy and as relevant as ever. Still, sometimes he fantasizes about giving it all up. “I’ve always wanted to lock away all the amps and guitar, move to some pied-à-terre in Paris, and just be a writer. Publish books of prose and poetry for about 10 years. It’s something I fantasize about and flirt with, but it’s not going to happen.” Writing is ultimately too solitary a pursuit for someone as gregariously creative as Moore.