Thurston Moore Is the Patron Saint of Music Nerds
We spoke with the Sonic Youth founder about Norwegian black metal, Henry Rollins' tape collection, and Bernie Sanders.
Thurston Moore is the patron saint of music nerds. His very being screams it, and his entire life's work confirms it. Whether you know him for his work in seminal 90s noise rock icons Sonic Youth, for his prodigious solo output, or for his seemingly never-ending collaborations with everyone from Richard Hell to Yoko Ono (not to mention his stint in black metal supergroup Twilight), Moore has spent over 30 years pushing boundaries, experimenting with sounds, and generally consuming every bit of recorded material he can clap his ears on.
His tall, lanky form, tousled hair, and calm, owlish expression give him the aura of a pleasantly surprised child who's just wandered into the living room on Christmas morning and discovered a gargantuan Merzbow boxset tucked under the tree. Moore also gives the impression of someone who carefully considers each word he says before he says it, but still manages to keep up a near-constant patter once you've asked him a question he likes.
When I met him, he was holding court in a soundproofed room downstairs at the new Sonos flagship store in Soho, flanked by a display of rare old cassette tapes he'd contributed to the store's decor. The whole idea behind the Sonos shop is to allow listeners to envelop themselves within walls of self-selected sound—a music obsessive's dream, and probably a big part of why they'd asked Moore to swing by for the opening. They knew who they were dealing with, and he seemed happy to oblige.
We sat down beneath his wall of cassettes (including a rare Oneohtrix Point Never demo and a few black metal tapes he couldn't identify due to the wonky angle) to chat about his latest project, the upcoming American release of Mayhem co-founder Necrobutcher's Death Archives book via Moore's Ecstatic Peace Library. He brought me a copy (it looks beautiful, by the way) and we also talked a lot about black metal, and noise, and politics. We had just started talking about how much we both love Lita Ford when the clock ran out and he was swept away to carry on being the center of attention—but for that quick half hour, we were just two music nerds geeking out about blastbeats and cassette tapes.
Noisey: How did you come to be involved with the North American release of Necrobutcher's Death Archives book?
Thurston Moore: I had heard that Jorn [Necrobutcher] had written his memoir using all of his very first photographs and all the stuff he has under his bed, so I was very curious about it. I couldn't find the book anywhere, but when I was in Norway, I found one copy at some CD store way up north; it was the only copy I saw in the entire country. I really wanted to read it, so my publishing partner and I were like, "Let's do this book." Then I thought, God only knows what he's writing, what if it's completely horrible nationalist type of stuff? I don't want to be a part of that, so [when] we called the publisher up, she was this wonderful woman working in Norway, she was like, "Yeah they'd love you to do this, and he would love nothing more than to have another musician put his book out besides him."
So we got the English translation rights and it read so well —it was unpretentious, down to earth, demythologizing the whole thing with the band, the suicides, the killings and the church burnings, which puts it kind of in this place that takes away the scandal of it. Basically, the story is about this band having this idea and going out and playing in front of nobody for two years until all this scandal started happening—then people were like, "Who is this messed up band?" and then they kind of became figureheads of black metal. The book is fascinating; it's published in England, and we'll have American distribution on it probably after the new year.
On paper, it looks pretty surprising that the dude from Sonic Youth is putting out a book about one of the most notorious black metal bands of all time. Did Necrobutcher ever express any consternation about having you do this?
No, he's totally not that "who's more metal than who" kind of guy; he's all about if you're genuine to what you want. All these guys listen to New Wave anyway; they listen to The Pretenders! I don't think they just listen to their own thing. Euronymous—the [Mayhem] guitar player who started the band and who helped run Helvete, the record store which defined the black metal character in a way—his whole thing was German electronic music.
I remember reading a story about the first time he picked up Varg Vikerness from the bus station and Euronymous was just blazing this crazy hard German techno, and it totally threw Varg's mind.
Yeah, and he talks about that in the book, how on the Deathcrush EP, they open it up with this "Sylvester Anfang" intro piece and how that was something they commissioned it [from German experimental musician Conrad Schnitzler]. Schnitzler had never even heard of them— it was just these kids who were like,"Can we use something of yours for our record?" He complied, and sent it to them, and they just put it at the beginning of their record. It was completely incongruous, but at the same time it lends this kind of weirdo edge to the record, because it starts with this Conrad Schnitzler piece.
The media tends to treat your interest in black metal as this bizarre thing, but I am curious: How did you get into it in the first place?
I was sort of into it from the beginning. When I first heard Burzum, it was such an interesting record; at the time, I didn't know anything [about black metal], so to me it was like, "What is this?!" and then you got the record, and it sounded so cool—it was so minimalist and devoid of emotion. In that respect, it seemed really artful and then you start hearing other things, like the killings, and then you start thinking, "What the hell is going on?" You'd hear Mayhem or Abruptum or something, and it was the strangest outsider music. The fact that they were making claims like "We aren't interested in music," it was beyond the Sex Pistols saying, "We aren't into music, we're into chaos," these bands were just saying, "We don't want to be confused with music, we don't want to make records, because people will think we're musicians." They had absolutely no interest in becoming a part of the music industry and it became this super cult thing, so I just thought that was really fascinating—that decision just to be completely removed from that world where you don't even interact with it. It was very rare that you would see other black metal bands on bills that didn't have other black metal bands I think one of the first black metal bands I ever saw from Norway was Satyricon; it was at a festival in Oslo and I couldn't believe they were playing. It was the most ridiculous array of bands, and they were all walking around in face paint, and they were all really friendly and jolly.
I just think there's a thing about being true to what you're doing. I met [Gorgoroth frontman] Gaahl around the same time as I got this book last year; we were playing in Bergen, and there was this black metal festival going on for the weekend. Right after we played, I met Gaahl, which I didn't expect ,but he turned out to be amazing. He was exhibiting his paintings in the next room; the room was locked because it was after hours, but he got a key and gave me a personal tour of his paintings.
What was that like?
It was great! All of his paintings were these amazing and sort of strange still lifes of transgender youths. They were incredible paintings, and none of them for sale. It was amazing being in Bergen at this festival; they were typically elitist, like "We will only sell three hundred tickets," but I also got to see Taake on stage, and they were great. Sometimes you'll go look for their cassettes or LPs and you have to answer the question there, like "Why do you want to buy this? [laughs].
[Gesturing at the wall of tapes above us in the Sonos listening room] Do you have any gems up here?
There's some harsh noise cassettes, there's John Duncan, who's old school, Some of these are completely obscure; if anybody who's really into this scene would come in here they would be kind of surprised.
Where do you buy them?
I started getting into buying cassettes in the 80s, especially with the 80s industrial scene in England with Throbbing Gristle and all that. I wasn't really going for it, and I didn't have that much coin anyways, until the late 80s and early 90s when I [started going] to Japan. Rhere was this huge Japanese noise cassette scene that was happening and I really got into it; I have a massive Japanese noise set collection. Then there were these cassette labels out of England doing underground noise things, and I started getting those, and those people started writing to me like, "Have you heard about American Tapes?" Which was John Olson from Wolf Eyes before he was in Wolf Eyes And I said, "American Tapes? That's a horrible name, that's so generic," but then I looked it up and started communicating with John Olson, and his first tapes were crazy, because they were covered in crushed glass and bolted shut—there was no way you could listen to it unless you had a toolbox.
So of a sudden there became this whole American underground cassette scene, and I started getting into it—not only making my own cassettes, but just getting into that whole scene. It became so active for the whole beginning of the 2000s, and now the original scene of that has kind of grown up, and I don't know where everybody is or if they're still doing it, and now there's this whole other constituency there, so I made an attempt to archive it as best as I could. You can't get everything, and there were a lot of duff things that I didn't need, but there were certain cassette labels and imprints that you needed everything that they released. A lot of guys coming out of Michigan—the whole psychedelic underground, Wolf Eyes, Hair Police—each of those guys had their own imprint. For the American Tapes catalog, you'd have to be really on it every day, like as soon as he'd announce something, you'd have to Paypal.
It sounds exhausting.
Well, Henry Rollins has taken it upon himself to find everything [John Olson's] ever released [with American Tapes]. I think Olson stopped around a thousand [releases]. There was a time where people were Ebaying American Tapes and they were going for astronomical prices, and you just started having collectors from Japan throwing down hundred dollars for a cassette. Then we realized that Rollins was one of the high bidders all the time, and then we found out he took it upon himself to do that, to be the custodian of Olson's tapes, because he genuinely thought it was this great American underground sound art being made and he thinks it needs to be in a place where it will be protected. So Henry Rollins' man cave in Los Angeles is where he keeps the tape library. He's hardcore. I remember tape-trading with him in the 80s; he was into finding every live tape of The Birthday Party, every Misfits tape. I had one Black Flag live recording from this outdoor gig they did at PollyWog Park that Dan Graham had recorded before anyone was really doing that kind of thing, and I remember telling Henry I had a copy of that gig. He was like, "That's the one Black Flag thing I don't have I really need," so that was a big trade.
Why are you still so into the physical format in 2016? You put out books, you love tapes, you love records.
Because they're vibratory; you can touch them. To me, it's all about the smell. I always say listening to the records at this point of my life is probably the least interesting thing, because I kind of know what that is to such a degree, and I'm certainly interested in it, but what actually thrills me about it is the actual physicality of it—looking at it, touching it, seeing it, smelling everything about that, and then I might even play it [laughs].
The idea of what you're going to hear is the most common element; that's what digital offers you. We all share that, we can hear it, so it's just that content—the audio content is what is available, the visual content is available too, but the whole factory content? No. And the touch content as well; you can dowload words, but you can't download a book, per se.
You live in London now, right? What is it like over there now?
Well, it's mental because of Brexit. Like everybody else in London, I was completely shocked that morning, like, "Oh my god it passed? Then you realize you were in this progressive bubble, but it was a bit of a wake up call, like if you really want to go up against this idea of selling something based on xenophobia, then you really have to raise a storm. You can't just say, "Not everybody is going to vote for that, it's backwards thinking. The cheeseheads can't rule the earth, that's not going to happen"— and then it happens in such a significant country as England, and it just shocks you. And if you look at what's going on in America right now, it's like, really?
I know you're a big Bernie guy—you did that Feel It in Your Guts seven-inch collaboration with his campaign that's described as "a twelve-string acoustic piece laced with excerpts from Bernie Sanders' speeches, touching on topics like the worship of money, economic inequality, social justice, and the need for basic human rights for all people." I thought that was really interesting to see from such a high-profile musician.
Well, for me, what he was presenting I didn't really foresee it as something that was going to become so dominant where he could become President of the United States, but it was fun. To me, it was being able to sort of bring that much progressive idealism to the table, because he garnered so much energy from it. I thought it was so positive and really magnificent, it was intelligent and intellectual, and he was really articulate, so it was like, why not support that? He's aligned himself with the DNC and I'm not a Bernie or bust person, but I think he's a really good politician at a time where we really need a good politician. He's the only real voice we have in that respect.
What're you reading right now?
I read three or four books at a time, I'm reading the new Lita Ford book, Living Like a Runaway. She's my guitar hero. I saw the Runaways in 1979 at CBGBs, and I was just like, "She's the greatest guitarist I've ever seen!" People always used to say "Oh, she just plays just like Richie Blackmore," and I remember at that show, someone yelled that at her from the audience, "You sound like Richie Blackmore," and she was just like "Thanks!" [laughs].
Kim Kelly is following the freezing moon on Twitter.