The Sonic Youth guitar hero discusses his new album and reflects on a magical time of history and invention that was the late-’70s downtown New York City music scene.
It's not easy to maintain a 40-year career in the underground, let alone one that's remained both highly influential and continuously creative, innovative, and satisfying. Yet Thurston Moore is back with a formidable new album, Rock n Roll Consciousness. Within his many years in Sonic Youth and beyond, Thurston has used the roots of rock 'n' roll in a way that bends the light into a kaleidoscopic mixture of post-punk awareness, psychedelia, noise, and composition.
Rock n Roll Consciousness touches upon styles that have been prevalent throughout Thurston's career. The album's opening track, “Exalted," cooks up a delicious stew of guitars that touch upon '70s rock and skronky free noise, matched by a groove that would easily fit within a Sonic Youth record (no surprise, as Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley is back behind the kit). “Cusp" plays out in a long jam that brings to mind the sprawling sections of Sonic Youth's seminal Daydream Nation.
“Aphrodite" recalls the edgy, angular “no wave"-influenced sound of the early '80s. Moore's been working with the same group of musicians since his 2014 solo album, The Best Day. Besides Moore and Shelley on drums, the quartet includes English guitarist James Sedwards on lead guitar and the rock-solid Debbie Googe, longtime bassist for the legendary My Bloody Valentine.
“You should interview James [Sedwards]—he's the real guitar player. I'm just the composer!" was Thurston's opening remark during our in-person conversation backstage at the Constellation Room in Santa Ana, California. Moore was open and candid, looking deeply at his rock roots and the musical journey he's embarked on since moving to New York City smack dab in the middle of the late-'70s punk scene. Sedwards, a phenomenally tasteful, brilliant guitarist in his own right, sat in and provided crucial information regarding the band's recording process and gear.
I hear a lot of '70s rock influences on the new album, in a really good way.
James Sedwards: [Laughs.] There can't be a bad way.
It's a West Coast-sounding, groovy kind of lead guitar style, especially. Do you ever think about that aspect of it, or am I way off base?
Sedwards: I didn't, no. It was certainly not thought out. The material was recorded and developed so fast, there wasn't much time to consider it a great deal.
Moore: I don't think there was purposeful reference to '70s guitar leads. I'm not speaking for James, but it's not like we reference that kind of playing the way, say, Black Crowes would reference it or something. Nothing against the Black Crowes, they're very tasteful in their referential playing. It just happens in the moment.
I'd never really seen James play, until he played with me. When I wanted to start developing a band, I asked James if he wanted to be involved with the beginning of it. Which was just two guitars playing instrumentally with some compositions I had. Just knowing through our discussions what he was interested in, which ran the whole gamut of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks to Led Zeppelin.
That, to me, showed we're really in the same ballpark. So, I showed him some of my rudimentary minimalist chord structures and the only real challenge was putting your brain in this place where the playing is not standard tuning. Which he picked up immediately because he had a realization of what those tunings were, through his interest in Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, My Bloody Valentine, and Velvet Underground.
When we did The Best Day, the first album with those first songs, I realized as we recorded it and right afterwards that I didn't really tap into James' technique as a lead guitar player so much. I knew it was there. I think it was during the sessions, I said, “I'm going to start playing the lead on one of these songs," and then I realized, “Oh."
Secret weapon. I knew that the next songwriting bout, I would want to make room for that kind of expression as far as James is concerned. Because I certainly don't play with that technique. I never have. It's not that I wouldn't want to. I just never got studious with it. Generally, I like that it's completely unorthodox from my playing as far as how I approach it, lead-wise. My leads are usually free-noise based.
“I wanted to take the guitar sounds I really liked but do something else with them so they were this raging thing that was almost an artful heavy-metal thing, without the corniness of heavy metal." —Thurston Moore
I was listening to Gábor Szabó last night and drew some comparison to your leads.
Moore: My leads? Maybe some picking concepts could be considered Gábor-style. I mean, he's incredible, of course. When I think of the dexterity of Gábor Szabó, I think James could come close. He's much more studious with his version of the guitar.
Are you using the same tuning for everything on the new songs?
Moore: It's sort of a defined way, the economy of the band. Right now, one guitar each is pretty much what we can afford to be playing. Which kind of doesn't mean anything. When Sonic Youth started, we didn't even think about that. We just kept playing different tunings that required different guitars. At the beginning of Sonic Youth, it was like those guitars were defining the songs that were being written on these guitars, which have certain characteristics. We would lose the guitar, it would break or get ripped off or whatever, then the song would not be the same because that guitar didn't exist anymore. I really like that.
We had enough money and we'd go out and have 16 guitars stuffed in a van in some cases. I feel like I've already done that. At some point, it came to a situation where the guitars became more …. they're better guitars. It was around the time of Sister where we were getting into black Jazzmasters. Even at that time, Jazzmasters didn't have the value they'd have in later days. There weren't many people on the Jazzmaster tip. It was a jazz guitar. The only people I remember at the time …. Tom Verlaine was the model for the Jazzmaster.