Anyone at all who has been following Thurston Moore’s career with even a casual level of attention will know by now that he’s not one to go the easy route. When his former band, the much-loved Sonic Youth, signed to Geffen and started to break some mainstream ground with the decidedly un-mainstream albums Goo (1990) and Dirty (‘92), they responded with the gloriously lo-fi but anti-commercial Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star in ‘94.
That’s a microcosm of Moore. The man will make a point of not repeating himself, of making sequels to popular albums such a Daydream Nation. Because he’s done that, he wants to do something new.
Taken out of a band environment, where a number of distinct voices have a say, and Moore has been enjoying the freedom that a solo career affords to the fullest. For his latest release, the three-CD Spirit Counsel, he’s billing the project as the Thurston Moore Group; he’s currently joined by bassist Deb Googe, guitarist James Sedwards, electronic wiz Jon Leidecker, and fellow Sonic Youth alumn Steve Shelley. But still, it’s clear that this is Moore’s baby.
It’s a huge baby though. Each disc features just one song, with two of the three (“Alice Moki Jayne” and “Galaxies”) clocking in around the hour mark. The other one — disc 2’s “8 Spring Street” is half an hour long. It’s a challenging undertaking for the listener, but also a thrill. The epic instrumental songs aren’t “noise” — there are traditional song structures in there. Melodies, if not a standard verse-chorus-verse thing. So you can lay back and let it wash over you if you want, but the more studious fans of Moore can also sit and soak it all in like a geek-sponge.
If it’s an ambitious experience for the listener, think about the musicians involved. Moore says that they’re performing it pretty much as recorded, with little room for improvisation.
“We play the music, at least two of the three CDs live,” he says. “It’s interesting because I was a little bit concerned about playing a 60-minute piece of music as part of a set, not for myself but for the other musicians thinking they have to play the same piece of music every evening. But in a way it’s like playing the same songs every evening, they’re just incorporated into a longer piece of music. I think about the pieces as being a kind of galvanized collection of song ideas put into a unified song piece. I think of it as a song. It’s 60 minutes and you think of it as a piece or composition. But the lexicon is neither here nor there. It’s what you can do with a song structurally is where the experimentation comes in, more so than anything. So in a way, it’s an extension of ‘How do you consider what’s a song?’”
That said, Moore has been pleased with the reaction he’s been getting from crowds so far.
“It’s interesting playing on festival bills where nine out of the 10 bands are playing more traditional song sets, which I have done for most of my professional life,” he says. “To come out and play one 60-minute piece, it’s really curious to see the response from the audience. It’s generally been very positive. I did really get into the space of wanting to write extended electric guitar compositions, which is something that I always thought was incorporated into the sound that I did solo and with Sonic Youth anyway — there’s always been a lot of expansion going on. It’s not entirely a new idea — it’s the kind of music I played in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
Moore and his group have been performing the music from this album (Triple album? Box set?) through 2019 and, while they don’t veer away from the song as recorded, there has been a natural evolution.
“There’s not much improvisation involved as a whole, but there are certainly sections of both pieces where improvisation comes into play. But I think of it as fairly minor in regards to the whole composition,” Moore says. “I say that, and then I find myself getting lost in like 20 minutes of feedback improvisation on any given night during specific parts of the pieces. But I don’t really think of it as dealing with free improvisation so much, I guess because the incorporation of free improvisation into the composition is something that was really investigated and to some extent accomplished over the years with Sonic Youth. Now when it happens, it feels like it’s established. I don’t feel like it’s such a new idea. A lot of the record for me is expressing certain classic tropes that I’ve been dealing with for a long time, during this Western music making. I feel like this CD box set was about putting it all out there. All this inspiration that I’ve been dealing with for the last four years. In a way I’ve been able to clear the decks so I can really move forward from it without complete divorcing myself from my language or musical DNA.”
At the point in his career, Moore has a freedom that is rare. His fans know him, they’re comfortable with his sense of musical adventure and they’ll join him for the ride, wherever it takes them. That’s not something the musician takes for granted.
“I was really surprised when I put it out that it got as much publicity as it got, and the journals that deal primarily with the more traditional aspects of independent music,” he says. “The first week it was out, it charted in the independent charts in the U.K., which was fleeting but really surprising and I thought that was nice, that people listened to it. I had a lot of confidence in it, so I don’t really have any anxiety about its critical reception. I appreciate anybody who listens to what I’m doing. I know so many musicians that I think are wonderful and most of them are pretty young and doing interesting things, and they ask me questions like, ‘How can I get people to notice what I’m doing.’ To me it’s all like, just make records. Whatever money you have, make a cassette or a CD. Whatever you want to do. But just make it, make this physical product. Don’t think of it as something that you’re going to use as a competitive product in the marketplace. Use it as a gift. Give it to people and have it be out there. Do not think about money, whatever you do.”
This week, Moore and his group will bring Spirit Counsel to Zebulon, one of his favorite venues in the Los Angeles area.
“I like playing there a lot,” he says. “Zebulon is our joint. There’s a good hangout scene in the back there if the weather’s OK, and sometimes in L.A. the weather’s OK. The way we play the record now is quite different to the way we played it a month ago. We all leave the stage very energized and uplifted. I think there’s enough nihilist energy on the planet right now that I don’t need to add to it.”
Never a truer word spoken.
Thurston Moore Group play at 8 p.m. on Sunday, December 15 at Zebulon.