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A Fireside Chat with Thurston Moore

By Published: November 29, 2003

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.

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