Thurston Part Five: Art/Noise and Radiophonic Addiction

Posted: January 21, 2015 in New Music and New Discoveries

Amazing how information connects up – the value of other views is that one simply doesn’t know what one has missed or forgotten at any point in time. Thus, as well as the two releases mentioned by John Moloney, other people have kindly pointed out items such as a split release from Thurston Moore, the Golden Calves Century Band and Dr. Gretchen’s Musical Weightlifting in 1999, Bark Haze (dang! Thank you Sergey Egorov! I felt a complete fool when I saw that!) plus his participation in the Velvet Monkeys (again…Doh!) Love it! This is how it should be – it’s how I learn, information added to information added to…Plus friends and charming new acquaintances surrounding and making it all good. All the best to John K here!

Thurston makes no secret that he’s a vast consumer of music – a lover of free jazz, patron of noise and experiment musics, that while retaining a foot in alternative rock he’s buried the other ankle-deep in improvisational terrain with jazz inflections. His patronage of events like Brighton’s always awesome Colour Out of Space Festival makes clear he’s plenty of time for these spaces now well-outside the mainstream. I also think it’s fair to say that usually a particular sound of interest has distracted Thurston for spells of two-three years at a time; his early time with the guitar symphonies, SY’s gothic phase in the mid-Eighties coinciding with his efforts with Lydia Lunch. SY and Thurston flirted with hip hop for a spell in the mid-Eighties and left a document in the form of “the Whitey Album” but his solo discography would abandon it unless a one-off live performance with Christian Marclay’s avant turntabilism and a collaboration with Beck – both in 2000 – count as a slight return. He referenced his eternal love of punk and hardcore via the Dim Stars project, by having Ian MacKaye join the band for the song “Youth Against Fascism” and with mid-Nineties SY covers of Youth Brigade’s hardcore anthemic “No Song II” (on the “TV Shit” collaboration with Boredoms’ Yamatsuka Eye and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis in 1994) and “Nic Fit” by DC Hardcore forerunners, the Untouchables (on 1992’s “Dirty”) – both song derived from Dischord Records’ releases – then returned to at least echoes of that scene with the much belated Chelsea Light Moving (2013.) 1998’s mixed media experiment “Root” saw Thurston pass recordings to a huge range of artists to reinterpret and remix with an art exhibition associated with it – remixes behind an arena SY and Thurston have had surprisingly little to do with despite it becoming a space-filling/gap-filling trend for many bands over the last two decades. He doesn’t go back to the world of substantial remixing projects though the occasional one-off track does exist here and there for other artists.

(Thurston Moore and Andy Pyne – January 2013 in Brighton, UK)

The mash-up combination of Christian Marclay, Thurston and Lee Ranaldo (2000) – an album named after an audience member’s shout of “fuck shit up!” that commences the hour long “Paix, Amour” – played live at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville on May 24, 1999. Siren warnings underlie what sounds like musicians warming themselves, limbering up for what they’ll soon unleash. It’s, of course, impossible to distinguish Thurston from Lee when they’re engaged in work of this nature – both mount such expansive arrays of well-honed tricks into the atmosphere that really it’s best just to settle and admire two masters at work. What’s intriguing is how Marclay’s stunts often blend so seamlessly into what the other two are doing, three individuals used to using instruments in ways that escape the normal palette. It’s often the more regular noises that therefore surprise on something this ‘out’ – layering trumpet fanfares on top of one another with that alarm bell tension as guitars chitter like monkeys or hoot elephant calls. The diversity of sonic creation is striking; catching moments where a particular sound catches the ear or binds fast to another element on display. What’s most on display is the musicians’ willingness to use restraint, to focus on a particular approach and run it down to the end of its usefulness within the context of the others’ efforts – noise, as in sheer deployment of volume and device is a sparsely used respite from more subtle interrogation of the instrument. The responsiveness to one another runs deep – without ever tipping over into something as crass as a song there are spells in which a mood predominates and all reinforce it whether that’s the gothic horror vibe soon after the half hour or the percussive shuffle-step driven by Marclay around the fifty minute mark. The nine minute closer “Pour Diane Allaire” even finds time for knowing wit as Marclay mixes in the opening guitar riff of Sonic Youth’s “The Wonder” from “Daydream Nation.” From that point the furling and unfurling of Marclay’s samples dominates with the guitars contributing something close to the sound of early record scratching to match the back-forth wind-rewind of certain samples. That remarkably blending of the turntable and the guitar gives way half way through to a cascade of feedback as another instrument ping-pongs a tone over the top. That sense of hot spurts jumping from the top of a lava flow persists for the remainder of the track, there’s no particular direction, just a pile-up of diverting sounds emerging from the boiled morass. The ragtime jazz troupe that opens up is another pleasant surprise to bubble to the surface before the well-timed end snatch of what I think is a Sinatra doing the final bars of “Love Me Tender.”

I mentioned “Root” earlier and I clearly recall its purchase. I was in Parrot Records, a now defunct record store under a student accommodation block on Sidney Street in Cambridge – the vacuum bag packaging tickled me pink, likewise it was the first time I’d really paid attention to that “No. X-of-Y” mark on a release. My reaction to it was essentially down to me rather than the release. It isn’t Thurston’s responsibility at all – I’d only just discovered SWANS that Christmas, I didn’t own anything rooted in electronica, I hadn’t yet glanced at Throbbing Gristle let alone Coil, I’d barely even begun exploring Thurston’s non-SY career – there was almost nothing my 19 year old self was likely to have in common with this release. I spent my time wishing he’d simply released the 25 solo guitar pieces with which the whole exercise originated so I might understand what all this sounded like prior to a blizzard of names I didn’t yet know getting their grubby mittens on it. The eclecticism of the result still turns me off today unfortunately; jump-cutting from sound to sound, style to style in a pastiche where some change too much for me to relate result-to-original artist while others change so little what’s the point? Remix records fall into territory where the corruption of the original, while intellectually a perfectly valid and worthy exercise, rarely inspires me the way a good first hearing does. In a way the absence of an original with which to compare should perhaps be a positive but unfortunately that nagging realisation that there was something unseen, unreleased, absent, simply sparked my completist urges and left me frustrated. It was, however, a very valid engagement between art and music, between solo artist and other participants. The packaging was an offbeat comment, the posting of slivers of sound out to potential remixers in vacuum bags with pieces specifically selected for one or t’other performer, it all added a whimsical note to the manufacture of the eventual artefact. Concealment of the original was certainly partly the point given the choice of name for the release. I can’t imagine Thurston’s discography impressing me the way it does without this relinquishing of command and control to others – the breaching of another line in order to experiment with his work and experience the result.

As a sidebar, Thurston has since contributed various remixes to others – listing them out there’s the following of which I’m aware; a remix of Yoko Ono’s “Rising” on a 1996 release, a 2001 remix of Prick Decay’s “Original Soundtrack for AutoeROTic”, a remix of Blur’s “Essex Dogs” released in 1998 on “Bustin’ and Dronin’,” an unusual tribute record called “Atom Kids Remix: 21 Century Boys and Girls” which features Thurston apparently remixing the entire “Atom Kids” album (not a release I’ve ever heard of) which apparently came out around 2002 though I can’t find confirmation of that, a remix for an artist called Ilios in 2000 of a track called “Ktuir”, a 2008 remix for Swiss noise artist Sudden Infant of the song “Somniphobia”, for Jazzkamer there’s a remix entitled “Freemix Norwave” (2001), Thurston Moore contributed to a remix for a gentleman called Jean-Jacques Birgé of a song called “Un Drame Musical Instantané” in 19999, a 2010 remix of Crystal Castles’ “Celestia”, a remix of “Hitokui Papaya” by Shonen Knife in 2005… Again, his willingness to engage with recording technology in this way, to investigate the potential it possesses and to lend his name to others’ creations is an indication of both his artistic and his supportive approach.

A more satisfying release – for me – than the hands-off remix project was the 21 minutes of “TM/MF” released a year later in 2000. Again, there was a wider conceit at work which rather tickled me. This time, Thurston improvised ten guitar works live while the artist Marco Fusinato prepared ten paintings each one to be created within the time limit of one of Thurston’s songs. As an active event it certainly has validity given the musical choice forces the artist to create with a clear and obvious limitation – as a participant it sounds rather fun. There’s an obvious question I still have regarding whether there was any other connection between the music and the paint – did the sound influence the artist, was it meant to, did he use it as a guide or was he too busy getting something – anything – down during the brief couple of minutes most of these tracks last? I’m also a fan of inlay booklets being an active and full element of an album rather than just a collection of lyrics, or credits, or legal blurb, or seemingly random images intended to look cool. In this case the booklet consists of twenty images – one of Thurston creating that track number, next to one of Marco painting to that track. It’s a great little booklet bringing me closer to the event, giving me a little more insight than the aural material alone provides – a further page lists Thurston’s times, then on the opposite page lists what item Marco used to apply the paint in that particular piece. In terms of Thurston’s work nothing lasts long enough or is developed enough to be anything more than a dashed sketch but the concept under which he’s working seems to push Thurston to jump approach on every single song. The sheer range of sounds yielded by the guitar gives an impression of its boundless potential at the same time as it mirrors many of the techniques he uses on other releases we’re discussing here. Track 1 is a minute of jabbed and muted strings walking back and forth along a rudimentary scale; 2 is all dry guitar slides as if cleaning the strings turned into frenzied fret masturbation; 3 is a relatively warm set of hacked chords that one could imagine him playing in a bedroom one morning for later tidying and pruning into something more; 4 combines bends and long neck slides whether with hand or instrument to create oscillating revving; 5 is frantically strummed like the tightly-clenched peak of a mid-Eighties SY solo; 6 trampolines up-and-down with noisy feedback cut down and the strings pulled or hit over and again; 7’s rubbery plucking seems to be a recording of him scrunching strings with one hand then picking or popping strings randomly near or against the pick-ups; 8 goes for simple hollow feedback tones as if the guitar was being passed back and forth slowly in front of the amp; 9 is a bit of muddled strumming showing a liking for switching speed or jumping to a different note at no notice; 10 is a guttural roar, a nice finish, just an amplifier spewing something akin to the afterburner on an F14 Tomcat. I’m sure it was a hoot watching this in the making – not so much fun on record but a worthy distraction and a brief but effective documentation of a moment in time.

This merging of art and live event had to wait a while to reoccur. The 2013 release of “Comes Through in the Call Hold” was a further merging of Thurston’s interests – his most explicit engagement with lyricism as pure poetry. His partners for this release were Anne Waldman and Clark Coolidge and it all took place while on a summer writing program. Various combinations are attempted, each individual lends vocals on one track or another, Coolidge drums on all tracks with the exception of his own vocal turn, a piano is incorporated at one point. Strangely, amid the naked poetry, it’s quite an opportunity to appraise Thurston’s approach to rhythm given the relatively high fidelity of the environment and the sparse accompaniment. What makes his guitar work often sound so ‘foreign’ to conventional playing is that he doesn’t operate within the model of block-chording matched to a time signature with obvious stepped changes signposting equal obvious movements of chord position. What he does instead is more akin to soloing. Thurston strums continuously while making the switch with the result that the partial notes between positions are also captured – the slide is audible over and over again not due to sloppy technique but due to an avoidance of the time-obligated robot steps most rhythm playing involves. Thurston’s approach is a far more fluid entity and it’s understandable that he’s accused of ‘noise making’ given he rarely walks leadenly up-and-down scales – his approach is quite foreign to much of western guitar history. The way he slips from one location on the neck to another is supremely tactile – a conversational liquid in which notes, chords and any other form of contact with the instrument can be incorporated to create a sonic result. The avoidance of simple repetition – Sonic Youth songs often abandoned the verse/chorus/verse progression in favour of verses spliced via occasional bridging phrases – is a further trait, the tendency to move to a new sound or a new place rather than returning to a root takes place often. So, on the title track Thurston strums rolling lines of notes – a relatively comfy ceding of the foreground to Coolidge’s vocal. “Om Krim Kalyai Namah” continues this with Waldman on vocals while Thurston contributes jazzy strums and arpeggios that never stand still and rarely repeat. The release ends with a full half hour blow-out, “Turn Left at the Dog.” The full barrage of tactics is on display – I’m intrigued by how often Thurston is able to produce two layers of sound simultaneously – a second guitar or just incredible ability? The clock-speed and muscle memory he displays is remarkable – to make so many shifts, to incorporate so much ‘material’ while rarely letting a sound that seems undesirable or ‘wrong’…Time must slow down inside his mind to let him play this way.

Raymond Pettibon, Mike Watt and Thurston Moore live in 2013

While Thurston’s discography of collaborations is extensive, there isn’t quite such a wide variety of guest appearances. The most famous is, of course, R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” (1994) off the only album by them I could ever stomach (namely “Monster”), in 1999 he lent guitar-work to poetry by Steve Dalachinsky on a collection entitled “Incomplete Directions” though I’m not sure whether to more than just the song “In the Book of Ice #5” which also features Tom Surgal, band Truman’s Water had Thurston along for the song “Asleep Sneeze” in 1995, a track called “In My Room” (2005) by Hanin Elias, he showed up on two songs by Black Pig Liberation Front in 2000 (namely “Thurstoned” with Anton Price and DJ Low and “Static Nomad Wave; Codex 7” with David Coulter and Palix), a couple of match-ups with DJ Spooky a full decade apart – “Dialectical Transformation II Peace in Rwanda” from 1999’s “Subliminally Minded” EP plus “Known Unknowns” from DJ Spooky’s 2009 album “The Secret Song”…There’s also one appearance on a Lee Ranaldo solo album, providing second guitar to the song “Non-Site #3 on the superb album “Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson)” (1998). He’s also potentially on the SWANS compilation release “Body to Body, Job to Job” having performed a short stint with Michael Gira’s band as a second bassist at their earliest gigs in mid-1982. In 2010 he was roped in by Beck to cover Yanni’s “Santorini.”

What Thurston has indulged in several times, from 1994 onward, is in the orchestration of other musicians into pseudo-bands put together for specific events or actions. In early 1994 he brought together various people for a couple days straight recording. The line-up included Don Fleming and Dave Grohl and took place for the film “Backbeat” – a Beatles’ related excursion. This wouldn’t be his only dive into cinema-related collaborations, the film “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) featured Thurston with a line-up called Wylde Rattz alongside Mike Watt, Mark Arm, Steve Shelley, Don Fleming, Jim Dunbar and Ron Asheton of the Stooges who play a cover of “TV Eye” on the soundtrack with Ewan McGregor on vocals strangely enough. It’s not the only time Thurston has collaborated with a Stooge – in 2014 he covered Gun Club’s “Nobody’s City” in the company of Iggy Pop and Nick Cave for “Axels & Sockets: the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project.”

Note made of the Wylde Rattz, of Dim Stars, it’s worth seeing how many full-named bands Thurston pursued outside of Sonic Youth (Twilight don’t count, they were a band before Thurston’s participation.) While treating such entities under a piece on Thurston Moore it’s worth mentioning that they are a breed apart from Thurston’s solo discography – there’s a point to applying a concocted name to one’s output rather than just one’s own given name and those of one’s collaborators. In a sea of so many collaborations it would indeed seem strange if the christening of certain entities was an entirely meaningless gesture. The Dim Stars line-up required a name given its line-up was a combination of three noteworthy acts; Richard Hell (and sometimes Robert Quine) of mid-Seventies New York punk fame, plus Thurston and Steve of Eighties-onward New York alternative fame, plus Don Fleming of Eighties New York rock fame – a full band’s worth of people, playing in a traditional band format, with no clear hierarchy of participants, required a band name to define them as an entity. Dim Stars, as a name, seems deliberately chosen as a description of the nature of indie fame; at this point of time these were all musicians who might be namechecked and referenced in commentary on scenes, eras, genres, other musicians’ records – at the same time as not selling overly many records themselves. The ‘Backbeat Band’, again, was an entity in which, despite Thurston’s guiding role as the man who brought them together, the ample participation of others and the resulting group product required acknowledgement. The song-form product is what differentiates these projects from the majority of Thurston’s collaborations, it’s a different form of group work as compared to studio or live improvisation.

The close relationship with Don Fleming continued throughout the decade with Thurston bringing Don in for the Backbeat project (1994), for a single in 1997 (Thurston Moore & Don Fleming “Sputnik”) for the Wylde Rattz (1998) and for the Foot improvisations (1998-1999.) Only the recent series of collaborations with Mats Gustafsson from 2000 to the present day exceeds the relationship with Don – with the only other contender to arise being John Moloney who’s relationship with Thurston now spans from a first one-off cameo on “Trees Outside the Academy” in 2007, through a chunkier flurry of work from 2012 onward with another release due in early 2015. These three relationships, together, span the whole of Thurston’s career as a solo entity. Don Fleming’s presence seems to anchor Thurston in ‘rock band’ territory until the Foot swansong shows the new direction to which Thurston was now committed. The work with Mats aligned Thurston firmly to the Avant Garde portion of the jazz scene for the next decade, while John seems capable of spanning both improvisational formats and more formal group recordings on Thurston’s trio of recent song-based releases plus the Chelsea Light Moving kick-off.

Giving a full name to non-song-based releases seems a rarer phenomenon. There’s Foot in 1998, then the flurry of Diskaholics Anonymous Trio releases in 2001 and 2006. The resurrection of the name on record, however, didn’t imply a revival of the band – the “Live in Japan” record was recorded in Japan in 2002 while the “Weapons of Ass Destruction” release was a recording of a concert at Ystads Teater, Sweden on October 6. 2002. The name in the case of Foot seems to have been representative of how Thurston and Don tended to work together – using their actual names was the exception. In the case of the DAT, Thurston has been open about the releases being a commemoration of the record-buying habits of his little gathering of friends and that it all came about while on a trip to Japan. There’s a touch of the Three Amigos to it really – a tongue in cheek and jokey (and blokey) approach, heck, the second release is named after a series of porn films. The band then morphs into, or is resurrected in the form of, Original Silence – with other members of Mats’ group, the Thing, for a 2005 tour commemorated by a recording of a show on September 30, 2005 in Reggio Emilia in Italy (the First Original Silence, 2007) then a further release a year later of a show on September 28 at Brancaleone, Rome (the Second Original Silence, 2008.) In a way it’s fair to refer to Thurston as a participant in Original Silence while being clear that the concept was not his, the band originated with Mats with Thurston acting as part of the supporting cast.

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