A Fireside Chat with Thurston Moore
Fred Jung: How did you develop an interest in improvised music?
Thurston Moore: Improvised music as a genre, I was somewhat unaware of in the Eighties. I started playing music around '76,'77 in New York, when I moved there as a teenager, playing in punk rock bands. I moved there specifically to do that. I was eighteen and I was responding to underground music that was in New York, Television, Patti Smith, The Ramones, and stuff like that. Moving there and getting involved in that community, there is different facets of music that were interlinked with the punk rock scene, specifically the poetry scene that Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Richard Hell, certainly had a connection with, which sort of was connected to people like Allen Ginsberg. So it was much more of an exploded scene. There was a lot of different music going on. There was a lot of indigenous kind of ethnic music on the street and there was a lot of avant-garde jazz music that you would see peripherally as a teenager then. It wasn't until I met Kim (Gordon), my wife, who plays in Sonic Youth, and she grew up listening to jazz with her friends on the West Coast, John Coltrane, etc. I became interested in it through her. I started really listening to classic Sixties jazz, to Coltrane and Mingus and to Ornette, and became very immersed in it, especially the New York school of it, and reading Leroi Jones' writings on it. Black Music, I believe the book was. That really opened up my ears to people like Frank Lowe and Rashied Ali and Milford Graves and some of the more expanded playing ideas. The idea of improvisation in jazz was elemental. I never really thought about it. As far as the way I was approaching music myself, the idea of creating compositions with us getting together and playing free and making composition from ideas that were coming out of this free playing, I never thought it as belonging to any school of improvisation. I found out about a club called the Saint and this was a little club on the Lower East Side that was curated and run by John Zorn. I knew about John Zorn because he was around town and he was part of the scene of slightly older guys who still had facial hair, which in punk rock, you didn't have facial hair. You cut your hair. But these guys weren't punk rockers. They still had beards and stuff. I remember going to the Saint because it was a hangout of some sort and there were these musicians who were playing unorthodox music, really, their instruments were unorthodox and the way they were set up was not very typical either. They were playing music that seemed to come out of the language of jazz, as far as it being improvised music, but it was something wholly other. It was completely free improvisation. It was somewhat interesting to me, but I didn't pay attention to it. I didn't get a handle on it and I wasn't really that interested because the energy was so sublime. I was a little too young to hear it as anything of any importance to me. At some point, I discovered, just by the fact that there was a record store in Manhattan that sold only jazz records and it was an extension of this record store on St. Mark's Place called Sounds and they opened up a store on 9th Street, which was where they shuffled all their jazz stock and sold it really cheap. I started going there because I was looking just for some more records that were akin to Coltrane and Mingus. Within all these records were a lot of European records by people on independent labels such as Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and these were people I knew were sort of part of what was being presented at the Saint. I became curious about it and I picked up a couple of them because they were cheap enough. Nobody bought these records at all. There was no hip cache to them like there is now at all. It was pre-CD too. Especially Derek Bailey, they really made me curious in a way as to who these people were because their music was so open ended and all about these communications that they were dealing with each other and I didn't know how to look at it historically. One thing that really helped was a book that came out by John Litweiler called The Freedom Principle. He also wrote the Ornette Coleman bio. Litweiler's book really showed the historical correlation between the European improvisers and American avant-garde jazz, Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton, and the loft jazz that was going on in New York, primarily free jazz players, Milford Graves and what Archie Shepp was doing and the radical composition that Bill Dixon was doing. There was some commentary in there, especially by Brötzmann, where he said that one point at a young age, American jazz was very important to their development as far as players and their language, but at some point, they really broke away from it and developed and created their own identity outside of the genre of jazz as free improvisers, a whole other musical genre, to the point of it being this interesting geographic thing such as the ICP, people in Holland, the Instant Composers Pool. Their whole idea is spontaneous improvisation being played with the idea that you are creating spontaneous compositions, that they are compositions and it is not just jamming or free blowing. You actually have a sense of composing on the moment and also Derek Bailey saying things like how he didn't understand why everybody didn't respond to this music because it is more true to the actual nature of life, which is organized, yet completely improvised. I thought those were fascinating insights to what they were doing. It really opened it up. It wasn't until I saw Derek come to town and play a duo with Paul Motian and I saw the level of years and years of sophistication that was going into what he was doing and how pure and how simple it was and how affecting it was and that really sort of blew my mind. I started really getting involved. This is all sort of late Eighties. I just really got involved with tracking it. The whole thing about independent, underground punk rock music that I was involved with had to do with a whole do it yourself esthetic, outside of and below the radar of the mainstream with a network of people who were creating their own labels and distribution, which we were very proud of. Then I saw that this had been going on at an even more grassroots level with the global free improvisation scene, artists creating their own labels and who were buying these records? Maybe a few academics and radicals like John Zorn, but it wasn't a big music at all. It was catering to each other musically. To me, they were creating documents to communicate with each other, these records, which they would all sort of send to each other to hear. According to Evan Parker, they would listen to records on ESP, which was a small label out of New York that concentrated on avant-garde jazz playing and there was a lot of extended and experimental reed playing and all kinds of instrumental playing on those records that was pretty far out. He said that what they were really interested in were those moments that were at the beginnings and ends of songs, where the players were really sort of creating these little sounds, these spiky sounds. He said that that was what he and Derek really concentrated on and they wanted to create a whole music out of that, that kind of tension and release. They pretty much got to that territory on the first couple of sessions and everything is an extension of that to this day of a lot of what they're doing. It is kind of a wild musical world they have created.
FJ: And your improvising?
TM: For me, as an improviser, I realized that a lot of ways that bands like us were working was improvising and creating compositions as such and leaving the compositions open for improvisation to still exist on a performance level. To see that there was an actual school of players that dealt primarily with improvised music, I really didn't get that until later in the Eighties and it was fascinating to me. So I became really involved with it and started playing out with some of these players to the point where I have become very connected with them to some degree. It was interesting to see a lot of younger people in the Nineties go towards that music and discover anew, even though it had around since the mid-Sixties, especially through the advent of CDs, where they were reissuing a lot of these records, which were very scarce. That was really interesting to me, the whole sort of embrace of experimental art music, be it improvised acoustic music such as Brötzmann and Derek and Evan or improvised noise music that was really happening with such radical groups like Nurse With Wound or Japanese noise musicians like Merbow. There was a correlation between all those kind of free music activities. That was really gratifying for us as a band because all through the Eighties, there was a certain purest sensibilities about underground rock music and we were sort of staunch improvisers, bringing many guitars with us that were all tuned in a real idiosyncratic way and I always felt a little like we were looked upon as a novelty act by a lot of people when we should have been more pure. I think the success of the underground with a band like Nirvana, who started to replace the mainstream, cornball heavy metal like Guns N' Roses or whatever, led a lot of people in the underground away from that and went into embracing music that could not really be corrupted by the mainstream (laughing). It became hip to like avant-garde music. I remember for the longest time, we were considered an artsy band, which was in a way, a denigration. You really don't know how to play.
FJ: At this point, are you comfortable as an improviser?
TM: Yeah, but it has taken many years. I have always felt good and sort of unworthy in a way. A lot of classic improvisers are very studied in traditional playing and have sort of broken away from it, but they are very schooled in harmonic interplay and the fact that I just taught myself, in my own way of how to play guitar, I'm more of an action player in a way. If I start playing with improvisers who have sort of a jazz study behind them, they will go into harmonic interplay and it's sort of like that is a complete other challenge for me. I wouldn't be able to get involved with them as such. But I became liberated from that in a way by knowing how to use my instrument and my own sensibility with it to interact in a way that is sensitive to that. I think I have really grown to where right now, I feel like I can play with anybody, which is a pretty good feeling. It is weird because I have been in the position where I have played with the heaviest cats in that scene. I have played a couple of gigs with Cecil Taylor and Milford Graves and Peter Brötzmann. A lot of it was years back, a few years back and I feel like I have to get back in touch with playing with these guys again because now I feel more ready, whereas before, I was more tiptoeing along with these guys. These guys are masters.
FJ: That interest extends to other members of Sonic Youth as well.
TM: We all became, I had a real pronounced interest in it. Just living in downtown New York, you are very aware of everything. Lee (Ranaldo) is interested in playing with any musician that works on inspiration. He doesn't really think about playing with a player from the free improvisational genre, he just plays anybody. To him, it is like painting. I am much more historical minding about it all. Yeah, it is kind of cool in a way. It has been really interesting on both sides, interesting for musicians who are coming up in a rock underground and I think it is really interesting for these guys, who have been playing since the mid-Sixties. People like Han Bennink, who was a young guy playing with Eric Dolphy in his last years. For these guys, it is great seeing all these young musicians coming to them and wanting to interact with them. I don't think they ever foresaw that being a situation that would ever happen and is a new success to their music, I think they are very gracious for in a way.
FJ: People assume your interest is disingenuous and gimmicky, but contrary to popular belief, from the testaments of various improvisers you have collaborated with, you have a reverence for the music and are a student of its process.
TM: Yeah, it is not a passing interest. To me, it's been a real experiential music. People who devote themselves to playing free improvised music as a vocation, I have such admiration for. It's not a high profile genre of music. It's a very modest income for these people, but they're devoted to their work and what they do as musicians. I'm interested in creativity. I don't validate one thing more than the other as far as writing a bubble gum pop song or writing an improvised symphony by the Globe Unity Orchestra. To me, I can't really be judgmental about the value of either. I don't see any sense in having to collaborate the two ideas because that sort of does become a gimmicky, novelty thing and I don't really have any desire to clash genres. When I feel like I am playing in a free improvised music context, I don't feel like I am bringing punk rock or rock and roll or noise music into it. I feel like I am just bringing myself into it as a creative player, adhering to the context that I am in, specifically, which musicians that I am playing with. That's really interesting to me because I will play with Han Bennink and members of the Ex, who are much more European rock musicians who respond a lot to different avant-garde music and politically charged contexts as well. So I take all these things into consideration and I try to be as communal with it and respectful of everybody and creating a unified sound. I do study the philosophies of that music a lot. I like it. I think it is very positive and has a very human quality to it that I think is real enlightening. I find it to be very spiritual music. It can also be a drag. I've seen a lot of improvised music concerts that are a lot of grandstanding and there is a lot of narcissism going on and I recognize that immediately. That's why I think some players are generally acknowledged more than other players because a lot of it has to do with the personalities involved.
FJ: Why is this music important?
TM: I think it brings a certain kind of heightened spiritual energy from both player and listener. It is a shared positive intellectual experience, which I find to be really healing. It is all about sharing and to me, that is its main principal result. I just think it is more about having a good time.
FJ: What is your association with the BYG label and the Actuel series?
TM: As a record archivist, there was a young French guy who was working at Charly, which is a big European distributor of different titles and the guy who ran Charly, not this guy, but the guy who ran Charly was one of the partners in BYG in the late Sixties. He had started Charly as a distribution house and I think a lot of the jazz artists who recorded at that time, the ones that I talked to, it was a sort of time when everybody was in the sense of grow your hair, get high, and play music and fight the system and make records that are for the people. It was a very heady time and they all did that. There was these three guys in France who created BYG to be a label that would release records from a lot of ex-patriot free jazz musicians who were over in France and they did. One of them sort of held onto the masters and he is the guy who started Charly. The guy working there said that they had all these master and they had heard I was knowledgeable about the BYG label called the Actuel series. He said that they were going to put them out and he wanted to know if I would do liner notes. I asked what they were putting out and they said that they were only putting out the popular titles, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, and stuff like that. I said that that was ridiculous because what is interesting about that label is that it documented a lot of players that would be looked on as secondary, people like Frank Wright and Alan Silva and they made incredible records on that series. Alan Silva did a triple album of this huge, free symphonic jazz piece on that label that at the time was going for three hundred dollars to any collector that could find it. I wanted to do a record that samples all the records or at least a good amount of the records, but it was going to have to be a four-CD set because a lot of those records are full sides of music that are unbroken. It got to the point where I could do a three-CD set. I just did a lot of research. I found out about a lot of the sessions. I talked to people that were involved and I did it in collaboration with Byron Coley, who was a friend of mine that is a complete historian of that music as well. So together, we really dug in and they gave us like two hundred bucks (laughing) and a couple of CDs. We had a little problem with it because none of these artists got paid at the time and you are putting out these records now and I am sure you are not going to pay them again. A lot of it has to do with the fact that nobody has representation anywhere. I talked to Alan Silva about it and a lot of them were very uptight about it. I know Sunny Murray was livid. I said, "Look, if we don't do this, they will do it themselves and it is just going to be shoddy. It is going to be crap. All I want to do is people to have the literature of what was going on," and we even put in the liner notes about the relationships that exist unprofessionally. We sort of hint at it. We don't harp on it, but it is there in the liner notes. We put together a really nice package. We got together with the original photographers from the sessions and got work from them that was never seen and we made a really nice package out of it. I think they released a lot of the single CDs. They have certainly licensed a lot of them to different labels here and there. That wasn't our concern. Our concern was to do something that was respectful. It was a difficult situation because I know a lot of the artists felt like it shouldn't happen to begin with.
FJ: You are a noted record collector.
TM: I have been. I don't really sort of get involved with it anymore because I have covered a lot of the territory that I want to cover. I have a few things that I would really love to have, but I am not so veracious as I once was for a couple of reasons. I sort of tapped out on it and the records that I would go for now are just beyond me price wise and availability wise. I have to sell records. I have to figure out how to do that right now. I have always collected records. That was sort of my thing. I have always been that way. I like them. I like music. I am in the record business. I make them. I collect them. I sell them. I buy them and I trade them. The whole free improvised music thing was such a great thing to get into for me because I really like sort of collecting serious, eccentric records and the free improvised music scene as far as it existing on record was just fantastic. There were various obscure records that were on different artist's labels and they were almost finite in their existence. The BYG thing was a case and point. There were a certain number of BYG records and they were hard to get and so it took years to get that complete file. There was one that never came out and only existed as a test pressing, so you had to go to the more subterranean collecting kind of realms. The labels that existed for free improvised music in the early Seventies are really great to collect. I collect literature too, so there is a lot of activity there. There are certain realms of literature that I archive and collect and am active with.
FJ: And you are realistic about the fiscal advances of the music.
TM: Oh, yeah, nobody ever got rich off of free improvised music (laughing). I remember Steve Malkmus said something. He is in this band called Pavement, who are really a popular underground rock band and there is this other group in England called The Fall, but they were an underground UK group and the singer of The Fall was complaining about how Steve Malkmus' group Pavement was ripping them off sound wise. I remember Steve saying, "Ripping them off? What does that mean, that I am getting rich sounding like them?" (Laughing) Nobody gets rich doing this. You don't do it for the money. Although if I am going to get asked to play an improvised music festival in Europe, to me, I am not going to fly over there just to do something for free. It takes too much time and I have a family life. For me or improvisers like Ikue Mori, I think if you are going to fly to Europe and play the gig and come back, you have to play for the flight and hotel and at least give us a thousand dollars for the show. That is sort of the going rate for something like that, but that is only because I can ask for something like that. I think most improvise musicians working solely in improvised music who don't have much of a profile are only too happy to go play anywhere, anytime for gas money.
FJ: I can reasonable testify to your commitment to the music because not only have you played with the Peter Brötzmanns and Cecil Taylors, but also regional folk heroes like Nels Cline and Wally Shoup.
TM: Yeah, yeah, I have a quartet with Wally. To me, Wally Shoup was somebody, who to me was as fascinating as they got because he was this saxophone improviser who had like a few cassettes out. He came out of Alabama and he was residing in Seattle and he had a few cassettes on this little label. He did this one hand painted album, the cover was hand painted and he did like a hundred of it. I would see his name. I found one of his cassettes in a record store in Seattle and it was improvised saxophone playing and it was quite good. To me, somebody like that on the fringe of the musical community is much more fascinating and curious to me in a way. They are playing such radical kind of music. It is great being in a band like Sonic Youth, where we can go to Seattle and play in front of a couple thousand people and all these agents are saying, "Can our band open up for you?" and everybody is vying to get on the bill and we're saying, "There's this guy, Wally Shoup, who lives in Seattle and we would like him to play." (Laughing) The promoters like, "Who?" We get a hold of Wally Shoup and he puts together a trio and he plays. The audience, who are basically a bunch of kids waiting to see something else, sees this guy come out with a saxophone and just play free improvised music with a percussionist and a bassist and it is forward, propulsive playing. It is energy music. It is something that they are not hearing or seeing at the clubs that they are going to and it is good. There is a quality to it that is obviously recognizable and generally, when this happens, almost always, because we do this a lot, the audience response is, "cool." They respond to it and give a big welcome to it. The only place it doesn't happen successfully is London. I don't know why. People who come to see a band like us in London, do not want to see improvised jazz music. They throw things at it or they boo it off stage. Only in London, they are not into mixing it up there at all.
FJ: Favorite records?
TM: Wow, I guess it would have to be Derek Bailey, there is a Derek Bailey record, I hate to say this, I don't even have it. It is his first record, but I have a CD-R of it. I had somebody burn me a copy of it. I only know one person who has this record. It is the first Derek Bailey record and it is on a little label out of England called Nondo. It was sold only by mail order in England in the Sixties. It was recorded on a cassette player somewhere in the back of a pub (laughing) while Derek was playing. I always heard that this was Derek Bailey's first record and I had never heard it until recently. It is great. It is just great. It is just sparkling improvised guitar music, harmonics and note play, and these cluster chords that he does and the way he moves forward with his playing, it is just fantastic. I had always heard this record was cassette recording kind of quality, but musically, it is all there. It is unfortunate that nobody can hear this record. It's his first record and it is so cool. That is one of my favorites and that is one of my biggest want items, to get an actual copy of that record. What else? Arthur Doyle's first record called Alabama Feeling, which he put out on his own label in the early Seventies. He was a compatriot of Milford's. That record is fantastic. Certainly, the Patty Waters record where she does a full side version of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," which is on ESP. She is playing at the Vision Festival this year and I can't believe I am not going to be around for the Vision Festival in New York. The last record she did was standards and it wasn't that interesting to me. I don't know where she is at. Where she was at then was very interesting. I would be curious as to see what she is going to do. That Alan Silva orchestral record on BYG called Seasons, the three-LP set. There is Machine Gun. That's totally great. There is actually an amazing 10-inch that Mats Gustafsson released on his own little label in Sweden. It is this little label he runs with this museum in Sweden and he put out a 10-inch of the Peter Brötzmann Trio, which was from 1967. It was Brötzmann, Peter Kowald on bass, and Sven-Åke Johansson on drums (Usable past). It's real early for those guys. It's like '67 as a trio and it is amazing. It is on this label called Ofof Bright. It is the first thing they did and the picture on the cover are these guys and they are like twenty years old, young German cats and they look completely amazing. The record is great. It is as good as it gets as far as the real meat and potatoes, Central European, savage playing. It is a great trio record.
FJ: When will Sonic Youth return to the studio to cut another album?
TM: We're going to start writing and possibly recording this August in New York. In June, we will tour a bit with this band called Wilco. We're going to play the Bonnaroo Festival down in Tennessee, which is kind of interesting. It is kind of a jam band oriented festival that is a demographic that I have always thought more open ended musicians such as Loren MazzaCane and improvisers could really be a part of. I think a lot of the audience that goes to see jam band music via Phish would really dig a lot of what is going on in the free improvised music scene. To me, that is a demographic for free improvisers.