As a co-founder of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore has been called a godfather of alternative rock and a leading art-rock exponent.
With that band and in numerous other projects before, during and since their dissolution in 2011, his music has ranged from beautiful sonic experiments to punishing noise that tests his audience’s endurance.
And the night before we talk, a little less radically, he’s a classic rock fan – Thurston was at the O2 in London watching Alice Cooper, supported by The Stranglers and MC50.
‘It was fantastic,’ he raves. ‘I’m a huge Alice Cooper enthusiast from way back in the early ’70s. His first records were really important to me.’
Unsurprisingly, the capital’s live sheds are not Moore’s natural musical habitat: ‘I don’t really go to arena gigs, it takes a lot to get me to one of those places. The only other time I went there was to see Ennio Morricone’s farewell concert, and the other was Black Sabbath’s final tour, so you know, it takes a lot!’
But this weekend he brings his band to The Wedgewood Rooms as part of his tour for his new boxset album, the two-and-a-half-hour, three-track Spirit Counsel.
‘That’s more my kind of space. I don’t think I’ve been there before, which is a little risky to say when I’ve been playing these spaces for years, so it can be easy to forget where I’ve been…’
The album has been well received and although entirely instrumental, has been described as being at the more accessible end of his output.
The lead-off track Alice Moki Jayne, which is dedicated to jazz musician Alice Coltrane, artist Moki Cherry, and activist-poet Jayne Cortez, will form the main body of the show, according to Thurston.
‘When I was first writing Alice Moki Jayne, the first guitar figure in the piece, it reminded me of a motif in one of Alice Coltrane’s devotional songs, records which she recorded in ashrams. Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s label, did a triple LP of all that music, and it’s a great record.
‘It kind of referenced that and reminded me of it and I decided at first to dedicate the piece of music to her, as the influence was there.
‘Afterwards I was talking with some other people and we realised Alice’s relationship to Moki Cherry, they knew each other, and Moki Cherry was significant to me as the mother of Neneh Cherry, and her daughter Naima Karlsson, who I worked with.
‘Then there was talk of how Jayne Cortez was also in a friendship with these two. These three women were all real visionaries in their own way.
‘Cortez’s work as a poet was always really intriguing to me. She was really a resistance poet, talking about African-American existence in the USA and what that meant as an African-American woman, and her work was really profound in that sense.
‘And then there’s the fact that these three were partners to high-profile men in the industry of music,’ jazz players John Coltrane, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman respectively, ‘an industry historically governed by a male structure. I wanted this piece to be about the friendship rather than any socio-political statement, but that’s inherently there, it’s an interesting thing to look at.
‘We have been performing that piece for some time. When we recorded it, we were already doing a bit of a European tour where we were playing it, and it got to the point where it was ready to record, so by the time we had a show in Brussels, we recorded it there at a studio/performance space we had a kinship with.
‘We recorded it in one afternoon and that was it.
‘That piece can go anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and then we’ll play 8 Spring Street, and then maybe if we have time, throw some surprises in.’
The latter started as Thurston’s homage to avant-garde composer, and his early mentor, Glenn Branca, who died last year.
It is named after the place he first met the musician.
‘Glenn and (photographer and musician) Barbara Ess were a couple, they lived there. I actually knew Barbara before I knew Glenn – he was a little difficult to get close to, but I was certainly aware of his presence and his music.
‘He had these bands called The Theoretical Girls and The Static, this is all late-’70s in downtown New York.
‘It was a really small scene, and that scene is glorified now to some extent, but everyone knew who everybody was – it was a neighbourhood scene.
‘And there was this distinction between this East Village, wilder world sort of governed by Lydia Lunch, and then there was this Soho art gallery scene that had more to do with Glenn’s world.
‘But they really co-existed and were all considered part of this No Wave scene.’
No Wave was a short-lived avant-garde scene that reacted against the era’s dominant rock cliches.
‘I was really intrigued by what Glenn was doing after his second band The Static, when he started doing music under his own name and doing this instrumental guitar music.
‘He was doing these expanded pieces, and they were really raging, it was really punk rock, they were loud, they were aggressive, but they were also extremely musical, and I was curious to get involved with it.
‘I was just getting friendly with (future Sonic Youth co-founder) Lee Ranaldo at the time, and he was in a band called The Flux. Then he left them and I had just finished with a band called The Coachmen. We were into each other’s bands, and then I saw that he was playing with Glenn.
‘When I answered a wanted ad for a guitar player, I went to 8 Spring Street, which wasn’t far from where I was living,
‘It was this kind of street that was prototypical late-’70s downtown New York, art-rock, punk-rock – you could live for $50 a month – it was in that world.’
Thurston used one of Branca’s own recordings as the jumping off point fro 8 Spring Street.
‘It’s a bit of a homage, there as a piece of his early on under his own name, released on a label called 99, and it was called Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar.
‘I was always really enamoured with that piece because it was so minimal, it was this two-note figure, that would sort of loop into these ever-growing places, and I thought that was a really elegant piece.
‘I kind of wanted to cover it at one point, but instead of covering it, I took that two-note figure and flipped it into an ascending motif instead of into his descending, which is a little darker.
‘I took it from there and moved it more into territory that was more my own, and I decided to call it that because of the little reference at the beginning.
‘Glenn and I didn’t really connect so much for about a decade when Sonic Youth’s profile became more prominent, just for reasons of day-to-day reality.
‘But I did reconnect with him when I was working on a book about the No Wave scene with Byron Coley, and we really sat down and had some long talks.
‘Then he asked me to play with him a few times in his ensemble, once at the ATP Festival, here in England.
‘Then when I was starting up my own group here, with James Sedwards and myself, and we were asked to play with Glenn. He was doing a solo concert in Paris, so we hung out in Paris and it was great. We went out afterwards and palled around and it was really nice. I didn’t see him again after that.
‘I’m friendly with his wife, Reg Bloor, and she right now is taking his music and doing a Glenn Branca ensemble – they did their first concerts in New York, just a couple of nights ago, so it’s great she’s doing that.’
Although Thurston now lives in London with his partner Eva Prinz, he still has strong ties to New York, the city he called home for decades.
‘I have a 25-year-old daughter who lives in Brooklyn, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, and I have nieces and their families in New York.
‘So when I go back I go back to connect with them, or when I’m playing, and my mother lives nearby in Connecticut, so I’m never gone so long that it’s a memory.’
And of course, there’s the venue which looms large in the history of underground music in New York during the late 1970s and ’80s: CBGBs.
Credited as the original breeding ground for punk it closed in 2006. With early shows by Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Ramones and more, it had assumed legendary status long before legal battles over rent forced its closure.
‘CBGBs is now a John Varvatos fashionista store, to his credit he’s kept the integrity of the CBGB awning so it still looks the same, but with his name on it. He took up all the floorboards and made it a bit more safe to walk on,’ Thurston laughs.
‘CBGBs was this really sort of decrepit bar from the turn of the century, the fact that it was the place all this activity took place, was just happenstance, it could have been anywhere - but that was the place (Television’s) Richard Hell, Richard Loyd and Tom Verlaine walked into.’
Thurston laughs off the idea that the place was ever full of cartoon punks though, as some might now imagine it.
‘The audience was never full of safety-pinned punks or anything like that. It was kind of weirdo bearded folkies and artists and then there was a Hell’s Angels club down the street, so it was a bit of a Hell’s Angel watering hole as well. You’d have these brutal bikers in there and then these wimpy art types who kind of co-existed in this place.’
As well as the new boxset, the Thurston Moore Band has recorded three new seven-inch singles to come out alongside it, including a cover of New Order’s Leave Me Alone.
Thurston has had the band together now since 2014’s The Best Day album. The line-up includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe, guitarist James Sedwards and electronic artist Jon Leidecker of cult act Negativland.
‘We’ve done two proper song records and this and a few other things now.
‘James was living in a building in Stoke Newington that I was staying in where my girlfriend Eva was living, and she introduced us.
‘He was a Sonic Youth freak, so he was a bit flabbergasted I was staying above him, and we just connected.
‘I was thinking about formulating a group, so I called James right away. We started performing music I was writing in duo. He’s such a high technique guitar player, whereas my style is kind of self-taught, but he was super-ok with retuning and detuning his guitar and playing these figures.
'So I had this amazing guitarist with me – anything I threw at him, he would decode within seconds. It’s not like it was any kind of Einstein theory, but it was really nice for me,
‘It was his idea to bring Deb Googe into the band as he was friendly with her. I knew her from way back in the day – Sonic Youth and mbv would do things together, but I wasn’t close mates with her, I knew Kevin (Shields, mbv’s enigmatic guitarist) a bit more.
‘I thought that was a good idea. He called her and we all got together, drank lots of wine and decided to start a group. That’s a proper way to start a rock’n’roll band!
‘Steve was always willing to play, and I really wanted him to play.
‘It’s slightly problematic as he lives in the USA, the Great Satan! So sometimes it’s easier for me to use a musician that’s from London, there’s so many great drummers here.
‘I use Jem Doulton quite a bit because he’s really great, he’s somebody who’s played with James in different contexts.
‘He was the one who was touring with us when we recorded Alice Moki Jayne, so it was just happenstance that he was on the recording.
‘Sometimes you can’t really control who’s going to be in the group at any time. Both Steve and Jem are equally great in the group, but they’re also very different – it’s good that way.
‘They sometimes switch-hit on tour, and we can make that shift from one night to the next, and yeah, it keeps us on our toes.
‘And then we have this electronics player, Jon Leidecker with us from San Francisco who plays with Negativland, they’ve been on SST and they’re this radical culture-jamming noise-electronic duo.’
Of course, it’s impossible to look at Thurston’s work without the legacy of Sonic Youth, the band he started with Ranaldo and his ex-wife Kim Gordon, looming large.
Unless you’re Thurston himself…
'I don’t really ponder it so much, it’s always interesting to see as the years go by how it’s processed, and I think it was of its own value to stop when it did so there could be that analysis of the body of work that existed from 1980 to 2004.
And I think that final recording, (2009 album) The Eternal was a good, proper recording for us to do.
'I didn’t feel like there were things left unwritten or unsaid in that group. I feel pretty satisfied with the catalogue of work that we created.
‘It was a group that came up when all of its members were pretty young and stayed together until they were a bit longer in the tooth – and there was always this democracy which you don’t recreate later in life.
‘I would never find myself making those baby steps again, that’s not something I need to be doing.
‘I’m interested in being the one who kind of calls the shots – I feel fine with that. I’m not interested in starting a band the way Sonic Youth started – that doesn’t make sense to me now.
‘I feel like the music I’m doing now is working in the same language, just using different people.’
And he acknowledges that the band’s name now exists in some areas more as a brand than an actual musical entity.
‘I see a lot of Sonic Youth T-shirts on people and I sometimes want to go up to them and ask them: “What’s your favourite Sonic Youth record?” And they probably wouldn’t know who I am and they won’t have any of the records.
‘But it doesn’t really matter – that’s part of it – that name is what it is, and I feel really intimately about it because I came up with the damn thing!
’But when I see it emblazoned in different places, I’m proud of it. It’s not something I ponder daily, though.’
THURSTON MOORE GROUP
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Sunday, October 20