Strange Places: Indie Art Project Encompassing Visual and Written Spheres…

June 30, 1989. Just a week into their first U.S. tour Nirvana lands in San Antonio, Texas, at a venue called Alfred’s. Every time I discuss what got me started writing the ‘I Found My Friends’ book I always come back to names that intrigued me back in February 2013 when I wrote a post about bands Nirvana shared stages with. Well, this show featured both Happy Dogs and the Swaziland White Band – both curious names that I wanted to learn more about. Ultimately I was lucky enough to hear from members of both bands and, in the former case, it was through the trust and support of Cynthia Bergen who arranged an interview with Jose Soria – former member of Happy Dogs and the subject of a film she was putting together called ‘Strange Places.’ It’s been intriguing learning of the creative collective Cynthia runs and wanting to know more I asked her if she might be willing to let me interview her for the blog…

For a start, we ran through what was coming from the team of which she’s a part – the sheer scale is kind of mind-boggling as is the diversity. “We’ve got a short horror film called ‘Delirium’ pending submission for film festivals…Then the feature film ‘Strange Places’ will complete production at the end of May 2015. There’s the ‘Underground Movement’ web series showcasing various artists, musicians and film-makers – plus the ‘No Sleep’ horror channel that director Isaac Rodriguez has got up and running. Around that there are two books on the way – firstly there’s the ‘Vintage Club Stories: Volume 1’ – that’s a short story collection for summer 2015. Next there’s ‘Dark Cloud’, we’re waiting to announce a release date there. I’m also a fire performer with ‘Nocturnal Sol’

Nocturnal Sol:

Cynthia: “I was a movie buff from a young age – I’ve a lot of memories of eating popcorn and watching movies with my family. Plus I started – fairly early in my teens – writing short stories, poetry, music and frequently going to the movies. So it is ironic that the interests I started off in my early youth would play a big factor in my life today. My first story, the one that actually started it all for my writing, was “Carolina Mansion”, which is still in progress. That was to be my first book and hopefully to be picked up by a publisher and production company. That would have satisfied me. My friend and editor at the time told me ‘I think we have something here,’ by which they meant a story that was worth telling and possibly a movie. But while writing ‘Carolina Mansion’ all of these other stories started popping up in my mind. The interesting thing is these stories were based on true events that I had experienced and vowed never to tell because I was ashamed. For example, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’, is a story about racism and the hatred endured when I was visiting my German friend in Houston. This story turned out to be my first short film ‘Storm Within the Veins’, which received an Honorable Mention Award’ at the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival held in Houston, Texas back in October 2012. Educators from a college took an interest in my work which led onto engagements speaking to students about both my writings and short films.”


I asked about the “Strange Places film too given its focus on an individual whose life and past experiences had brought me into contact with Cynthia via the topic of Nirvana.

Cynthia:  “A very good friend of mine, Jolene Blakely, introduced me to a couple; Jose Soria and Vicki Wyman.  Jose was a chef at The Friendly Spot’, a popular local ice house in Southtown, San Antonio.  Jolene’s work as a nurse has always given her a deep empathy for people and their personal experiences – Jolene would frequent ‘The Friendly Spot.’ Vicki would often be there waiting for Jose to finish work, they began to speak and ended up having so many conversations that Jolene gained a true understanding and feeling for the daily struggles the couple endured as black tar heroin users.   Jolene brought Jose and Vicki to my attention and, as a writer, I jumped at the opportunity to speak to them – whereupon I discover that they were a true goldmine of intriguing tales.  These first conversations evolved into a number of more formal interviews and eventually into a lengthier story based on the lifestyle their specific difficulty creates.  I have a section on my website called Hidden Artist where I decided to begin promoting Jose’s art work.  Meanwhile Jose began to list bands he’d performed with, plus those he’d hung out with across the years.  The list of bands…Wow…Nirvana, Happy Dogs, Faith No More, Joy of Pain-it just kept coming.  The couple really opened up about daily struggles alone with their 600.00 dollar a day drug use, and this is how Strange Places came about.  The name itself came from hearing the different areas of their bodies’ heroin addicts are forced to use when injecting their…Demons.  There are scenes in this movie that are going to leave you speechless.

Production-wise we started over a year ago but had to make some adjustments to the cast and crew, brought in some additional talent and just worked hard to ensure that everyone involved, shared the same vision.  The workload is pretty grueling at times but it’s become something to which everyone in the cast and crew (Aaron Martinez, Anthony Fountain, Jolene Blakely, Jesse Salazar III, Isaac Rodriguez, Gloria Bueno, Adam Alexander Ramirez) is devoted so we’re looking at completion date of June 2015.   My role…I think it’s all about the artist and the actors.  I see myself as a collector of creativity.  I’ve found my greatest happiness comes from discovering new talents and collaborating with them in new projects that give them exposure and that gives me the excitement I’m looking for.  I am also a member of ‘Geekdom’, its and organization that has all types of facilitators, people who can help-it’s all just there at your finger.”

Next I just enquired more broadly about what kept her going with what sounds like an incredible workload and so many creative directions. Cynthia started by pointing to the importance of a core.

Cynthia: “I run something called The Vintage Club – it started as an idea for something I was going to open with a friend, I owned the name for ten years but it never went ahead in that form…My motivation comes out in the word ‘Vintage’, from my love for original things – I saw it as a place for any form of music, art, creativity that had a story to tell, something deeper. So, the Vintage Club evolved into The Vintage Club Stories – a fuller idea, a new beginning for myself and hopefully a community with unlimited potential and unlimited expression for those who join us. It’s always been crucial to me, that there are artists, musicians, film makers – a family that believes in my work. What motivates me to continue is that drive for achievement and the will to express my life experiences in text. Positive feedback is always a plus!”


Delirium, Dir Isaac Rodriguez, Synopsis- While investigating a mysterious murder, detective David Freeman uncovers a long-buried secret that traps him in a world of terror. Available on No Sleep Channel Apr 6, 4015

Underground Movement, Dir Anthony Fountain- A series covering bands, artists, and filmmakers in San Antonio, TX, and surrounding areas.

No Sleep Channel, Dir Isaac Rodriguez – A web series of short horror films.

Vintage Club Club Stories:  Vol I, Writer Cynthia Bergen – A collection of Short Stories based on true events.

Dark Cloud (Book)Writer Cynthia Bergen – Classmate that I found out is fated to be incarcerated and later executed.  A story based on true events. Book coming in the fall.

You can find


Interview with Greg Prato Talking “Grunge is Dead”


A couple of books acted as role models and inspirations during the writing of “I Found My Friends” – one was England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage, the other was Greg Prato’s Grunge is Dead. Being a quizzical soul I decided to write to Greg and learn a bit more about his work, share some of mine with him and so forth – turns out he’s a charming fellow and was more than happy to tell all about Grunge is Dead and to permit me to share it with you. Please enjoy…

When was your first contact with the grunge scene, how did it come about?

Greg Prato: The first grunge band I fancied was Soundgarden, first via seeing the “Hands All Over” video on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, but I truly became a big-time admirer of the band after seeing them live in Brooklyn, NY in March 1990, on a bill that also featured Faith No More and Voivod (the latter of which headlined!). I then bought Mother Love Bone’s ‘Apple’ later in the year (after reading great things about it in Rip Magazine), followed by Alice in Chains’ ‘Facelift’ in spring 1991. From there, I discovered Nirvana and Pearl Jam just like the majority of other non-Washington folks did…

Similarly, at what point did you decide that the kind of epic work you must have put in to construct “Grunge is Dead” kick in…?

Greg: I felt very disappointed that seemingly as soon as Kurt Cobain died, rock music regressed to the largely unoriginal copycats that plagued rock music in the late ’80s (and that the very progressive way of thinking that Nirvana and Pearl Jam championed had regressed back to the groupie/rock star vibe of the Sunset Strip in the ’80s). This only seemed to get worse throughout the late ’90s and early 21st century (Creed, Kid Rock, etc.). While there were a few books written about grunge before ‘Grunge is Dead,’ many were either hard to follow chronologically or were written before main events took place (Cobain’s death, Soundgarden’s split, Layne Staley’s death, etc.). So, I set out to put together a definitive book that told the complete history of Seattle rock music, and interviewed as many people as possible.

What hooked you about grunge? I’ve noted you did a book on Blind Melon, quite a few on aspects of Seventies/Eighties music culture (and sports), is there a natural link with your other works?

Greg: I’m lucky that so far, all the books I have written, have been on subjects that I was a fan of, and wanted to read a book about and there wasn’t one. Since I’ve been a journalist since 1997, I felt it wouldn’t be that big of a stretch to make the jump to book writing, and it wasn’t bad at all! Certain rock n’ roll bands and sports teams have been a long-time interest of mine, so writing books about them seemed like the logical step.

Did the book get a reaction from the fan communities for grunge or for any specific bands like Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, etc.?

Greg: I’ve received a lot of great feedback from fans of all the grunge bands, and also the majority of user comments on such sites as Amazon. It makes me feel good to hear whenever someone fancies one of my books (as I put a lot of work into each project, and feel strongly about each subject I tackle).

Similarly, what was the diversity of reaction? I’m assuming almost entirely positive? Any fun responses or moments of madness…?

Greg: From what I recall (the book was originally released in 2009), there wasn’t many harsh criticisms about ‘Grunge is Dead,’ it was mostly positive. A few people may be a bit befuddled about the oral history set-up (it being comprised of quotes from the people I interviewed pertaining to specific subjects) and wanted there to be a narrative that I provided throughout – but that was exactly what I did NOT want to do with the book. I am not from Seattle and I was not lucky to have experienced the early shows of Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc., but I interviewed plenty of people who were there. Let the people who were actually there tell the true story…

Did you come to the project with your connections already fully formed? If not, how did you go about tracking people down?

Greg: The germ of the idea for the book started with a feature story I wrote for Classic Rock Magazine around 2004/2005, which focused on Soundgarden’s history. After doing several interviews for it (Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, Jack Endino, etc.), I realized I had a good start for a possible book on Soundgarden, but then realized why not go for the whole enchilada – GRUNGE!! From there, it was like a snowball rolling down a tall, snowy mountain – the more interviews I did, the more people recommended others I should speak to. I obeyed their requests!

Is there an interview you were particular proud to acquire and why…?

Greg: Without a doubt, Eddie Vedder. To the best of my knowledge, his interview for ‘Grunge is Dead’ is the only time he was willing to open up and recount Pearl Jam’s early history (he declined to do so for a Rolling Stone cover story around the same time) – years before he was interviewed for the book that Pearl Jam eventually did, ‘Pearl Jam Twenty.’ He was also kind enough to be interviewed for nearly 2 hours, willing to give thorough answers to all my questions. It remains one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever conducted (and having begun doing interviews in 1997 as a journalist, I’ve done hundreds over the years).

Similarly, what was the most revealing interview in your opinion?

Greg: I appreciated the openness and honesty of quite a few people, tops being Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and the Dwarves’ Blag Dahlia. I was not aware that Mark had a drug problem during the early ’90s, but was very open and honest about it (I even told him during the interview that I had no idea he had a drug problem in the early ’90s – I hadn’t read about it ever before in all the Mudhoney articles I had read over the years). And Blag was very funny and very witty – he had some great memories/stories and also some interesting theories that I had never thought of before until he explained them (including how he saw more similarities between Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses, rather than differences).

Was there anything you’d say was a shared characteristic, attitude, style, approach to life among the individuals you spoke to? I’m always curious what communities share that binds them…

Greg: There definitely seemed to be a strong sense of community between most of the grunge bands – quite a few people interviewed said that when you’d go from show to show during the mid to late ’80s, you’d see the same group of people there. But as the style of music became more popular in the early ’90s, that group was nowhere to be found anymore at local shows – replaced by strangers and out of town folks who flocked to Seattle.

Do you feel that grunge has been mischaracterized and misunderstood over the years?

Greg: There’s a misconception that grunge killed heavy metal in the ’90s. This is incorrect. While it did put an end to the majority of stinky hair metal bands (thank god!), plenty of metal bands continued to survive thrive post-‘Nevermind’ (Metallica, Faith No More, Pantera, White Zombie, Ministry, etc.).

You seemed to approach the structure of the book by speaking about wider aspects then homing in on particular bands who pushed the scene further – was there an intentional structure?

Greg: While there is certainly a focus on the better known grunge bands in the book, I wanted to also share the spotlight and focus on lesser-known but really great bands from the area/era, including the U-Men, Tad, Truly, Brad, etc.

For someone who hasn’t picked up the book, why does the oral history format make so much sense when trying to capture a real live experience such as the grunge scene? I think it was totally the right choice to make and a definitely inspiration to me.

Greg: I first discovered the oral history format by reading what has become one of my fav all-time books, ‘Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk,’ by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. As I mentioned earlier, I like the fact that the reader is getting the story “straight from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak, and not a bunch of thoughts/opinions by someone who wasn’t part of the scene (in fact, Soundgarden/Nirvana/Mudhoney producer Jack Endino offered up a very nice compliment that is posted on the book’s Amazon page – “I like this book. It lets the people who were actually here tell the story directly, without the author having any particular axe to grind”). As I’d like to consider myself somewhat knowledgable with the topic, I was able to ask the questions and shape a story (in chronological order) out of all the quotes.

What was your personal path to Rolling Stone and AllMusic and your other outlets? I can’t imagine it was an easy journey, you must have worked like a dog!

Greg: It wasn’t as hard as you’d think – both gigs were landed by either a simple phone call or email. It’s the same with any site or publication – they want to see some writing samples, they give you a tryout, and then if they like what they read, you can write on a regular basis.

Musically, what has been floating your boat most recently? Do you think there’s any visible new movements in rock music that might pierce mass consciousness?

Greg: I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the majority of mainstream rock is a big pile of steaming doo-doo. But like any era, there is going to be good music and stinky music. In fact, I’m sure as I’m typing this right now, there is a band just starting out (or is in the underground) that will sooner or later leave their mark, and offer up their own original sound/spin on rock n’ roll. The last bands that I really truly dug were Eagles of Death Metal and Death From Above 1979, but both are like, at least a decade old by now! Nowadays, I tend to listen to bands I’ve loved for years (as a matter of fact, as I type this answer, I am listening to Devo’s ‘Hardcore Devo Live!’ album on my headphones). Does this mean I’ve become an old fart?

Is there a band or scene that you’d love to settle down and write a volume on? S’ok if you want to keep your cards close to your chest!

Greg: Right before I started on these answers today, I took a break from proofreading my next book about a specific rock n’ roll era of yesteryear. I hope to have it out later in 2015, but I’d hate to spoil the surprise of announcing the subject matter at this moment. I’d suggest checking my Twitter page on which I regularly post my latest interviews for sites and info about upcoming books:

Also, feel free to check out my author page on Amazon, which lists all of my books:



Ten SWANS Records you Need to Hear

Young God: 10 early Swans records you need to hear

I was invited to contribute this to the Vinyl Factory (previously benefactors who permitted me to rave about the Pacific North West – essentially just yelling “SWANS are awesome!!!” at everyone in a foam-flecked and spitting mass of shiny-eyed, head-rushed devotion.

It’s not a ‘top ten’, it’s simply a declaration of ten Swans releases from the 1982-1998 period that I feel best represent the band in particular eras or that are particularly unique and rewarding. Certainly it’d be hard to ever claim Swans were a ‘nice’ band, their concerns were deeply metaphysical; flesh as an anchor forcing compromise and failure upon the soul and spirit, the voluntary subjugation of mind and soul beneath ideologies and social arrangements, the potential for oblivion as the only freedom, the eventual declarations of scorn upon those who ignored the band and blunt statements of the end of the project. Cheery stuff for a Wednesday but genuinely superlative and significant music.

Nerd Table IV — the Quest for Peace : Loving the Big Long Now Cover


Ah, the ever charming Mr Chad Channing his ready-set-go for adding his backing vocals to Nerd Table’s new release, this band always pulls out the surprises. Simple truth, it’s a real indication what dedication can do; the last time I spoke to Adam Casto of the band he was working sixty-five hours a week — kinda hours that make mincemeat of a person — but around it onwards with his music, with creating, with forging the links that make it such an interesting project. You might remember I popped up a link to their last full album “Chasing the Bronco” back in 2013 ( and if you didn’t check it do go seek it out; it features Aaron Burckhard, Dave Foster, Dale Crover and Cris from the Meat Puppets so for a pure Nirvana fan it’s a worthy purchase and for those who love killer punk with an acerbic edge it’s a damn listenable album anyways!

So what next? Well, I’m waiting for my copy of Nerd Table IV: the Quest for Peace to arrive from the U.S., a very well spent $5 U.S. dollars (it’s $4 for the MP3s, I mean, damn, that’s a really good price — I say take a chance!) from
In the meantime I decided if I wanted to learn more about Adam’s fanatical desire to perform with his heroes then I thought I should just ask the guy. So, if I might suggest, slap on the YouTube clip of Nerd Table’s take on “Big Long Now” and let the rampage begin…

I guess as I’ve worked away at this blog these past couple years what I’ve really noticed is how many people are out there creating and how the rewards for the vast majority are entirely spiritual — my hypothesis has been that the cash flows to tech firms, overarching organisations and rarely to individuals except in token cases. Basically the vast supply of ‘creations’ (literature, music, art, sculpture, dance) means the individual cost of any item is approaching zero unless there’s some additional cultural weight behind it; superstar status, topicality, whatever. The Nerd Table experience seems to head that way; (Adam) “We all have full time jobs — never made any money being in Nerd Table. I mean we have sold plenty of CDs and made money from gigs but overall we’re not in the plus column. Recording music is NOT cheap…Always been like that for us I suppose. Unless you’re a cover band/Mumford and Sons/Jam band/Cookie Cutter bullshit it’s hard to make any money.” The impact of needing to maintain a regular income in the midst of a capitalist economy where money is the defined medium of exchange for any commodity or essential of living is quite visible — it restricts the time available to create, focuses the time. (Adam) “We usually practice one time a week. The amount of shows we do depends on what is going on with the band. In 2012 we did 17 gigs. In 2013 we did 11. In 2014 only 4. We recorded the new EP this year and added a new bass player (David Lawler) to the fold in April. We have had the very talented Mike Flowers on drums since 2011 so I am very excited for the future. We write here and there.. no real schedule for that. We hope to record again soon with money earned from the new EP.” That perked my interest for sure; I often buy Michael Gira recordings that go toward funding his next recording sessions — expensive to do it right! The days of the $600 dollar Reciprocal Recording session are long past and anyways, spare cash isn’t exctly easy to come by either.

I would say when we first started it was just something to do…Most of the time our guitar player, Nick Nighbert, will come to practice with a verse and a chorus already written (like with “Bitch Eat Baloney All Day” on the IV release) and the band will add a break down or interlude. Other times our bass player will come up with riffs (like on “Fucking Nazi Bitch”.) We don’t really ‘jam’ out songs that much. My favorite thing about being in a band is putting out awesome material. I’m proud of our shit! I’m most proud of the two Nirvana covers.”

It’s hard not to come back to the Nirvana covers. I think all that matters to me is that things like this are done with respect and frankly I think the kinda blood that must have gone into building the friendships and relationships involved is awe-inspiring and admirable. Plus, to be honest, when I first listened I was expecting some garage band but was so surprised! Razor sharp edges, good production, a snotty edge I’d been missing for a while. I did wonder though where it all comes from…Turns out that Nerd Table has always centred on Nick and Adam which often meant bringing in other musicians and through fate, lucky chance, seizing on happy strokes of genius, it became a defining feature! (Adam) “With all the different band members and guests it adds plenty of spice so it never gets stale. I think that’s one of the cooler aspects of Nerd Table…Kind of a Nerdy snowball if you will. It all started with our song Tape of Me. I got Toshi Kasai to play guitar on that. He is really good friends with Dale (Crover) so that led to us flying to Hollywood to have them produce the Nut To Nut EP. Then I kind of went ape with guests on our 2012 album Chasing The Bronco. Nerd Table IV The Quest For Peace is like a concentrated extension of that. There was no master plan…There is one now but I am still working on it! In 2011, my buddy Mitch Holmquist was a huge reason why we were able to get set up with Aaron Burckhard. It would not have happened without him. Initially I was only planning on having Aaron play on an original song of ours called Noise of Earth (Part 4) but at the last minute without talking to the band about it I tacked on the Floyd the Barber cover. Aaron played along with the studio version of the track. We had already worked with Dale Crover on our Nut To Nut EP (2009) so it did not take much convincing to get him to sing on it. I first started talking to Chad Channing on MySpace in 2007. Slowly I built a rapport with him and seven years later he’s on our new EP! I still have plans to record with Dave Foster at some point too. I have actually spoken with him most out of any former member of Nirvana. He’s really a nice guy.”


It’s an ever more extensive catalogue — I confess I simply went ahead and bought up the lot because having listened to “Chasing the Bronco” I was definitely in the mood for a bigger hit of snarl. Just to compare notes I asked Adam what his favourite songs are and, behind the Nirvana work which clearly took some energy given who on earth would want to half-ass playing with ones heroes(?) he points to… (Adam) “A close second and third is Bitch Eat Baloney All Day (w Chad Channing and Paul Leary) and Bloody Tooth (w Rodleen Getsic and Toshi Kasai).” Yeah, I think he’s nailed it. I like it when someone can scream and hold it, where there’s control and viciousness coexisting. Fact is Adam has a great snarl and a way with a telling line; I’ve ended up chanting some nasty lines after a spin of Nerd Table.

(Adam) “I really do feel like I have grown as a song writer. I sing about social and political issues with out being boring or preachy. Lots of humor to go around because I don’t like when shit gets too serious. The one thing I have held on to since the beginning is that you got to ruffle some feathers or piss a few people off. If you can play your music at church or for your parents and they approve then its soft. I am sick of the safe route too many bands do that…As time went on there became more of a focus on tackling topics and trying to make points. There’s more of a focused message and style to what we do now.”

Think it’s called learning, growing…Getting better and more focused on what one loves doing.

Likewise one thing I feel I share very much with Adam and his endeavours is that while wanting to show respect to the things I love like Nirvana, I hate the idea of smothering them, trying to own them. I think inspiration, making something fresh and new with one’s influences is a very fine thing — I’m not sure there’s a higher praise than someone taking what one creates and feeling it deserves to be reborn and renewed. A big part of that is just showing respect and being honest, being real. (Adam) “I would say it’s a delicate balance of bugging without bugging too much. Being genuine has also helped greatly and I think the guys have picked up on that. I am not faking. Nirvana is by far my favorite band. There is a lot of luck involved too. A perfect storm.”

Couldn’t help but divert into Nirvana chatter given this is a gentleman who has devoted time and energy to truly getting to know members of the band; no passing fascination, ongoing decency. General thoughts of a musician on fellow musicians?

“Dale Crover is one of the most talented drummers on the planet. Nirvana was only a side project for him. What would have happened if it was his full time gig? If you consider his work on the Fecal Matter demo he is just as important as any other member besides Krist…Aaron Burckhard was the original drummer. He is a talented guy who I am sure would have approached the band a lot differently had he realized the magnitude. His style fit in with all the weird ass shit Kurt was playing…Dave Foster is the most difficult to judge. There’s a show on the internet from the Community World Theater with him on drums. He really kicks ass on that show. I would have loved to hear some other stuff to get a better sample size. I don’t think he gets a fair shake from articles and what not. You want to judge a guy on what you think you know or one bad incident that happened over 20 years ago. Not cool in my opinion…Danny Peters from Mudhoney was a nice wrinkle to the legacy. He did great on Sliver and the Motor Sports International Garage. I asked him several time to work with Nerd Table. He politely shot me down. Chad Channing a very creative guy. The supposed knock on him is not hitting the drums hard enough. I suppose if you mic him up and turn him up a bit it wouldn’t matter but what do I know. Even Grohl gave him props on writing a lot of Nevermind. Dave Grohl is right up there with Dale. He hits hard and has the chops to do those delicate back-up vocals. A legend in his own right. I really want to get him to do some Nerd Table stuff…”

Ambition! That’s what I like to see. I think Nerd Table have it. (Adam) “At one point I decided my goal is to become culturally relevant. I think I’ve achieved that goal.” Keep kicking it brother.

Here’s hoping a few of you feel like a hit of something new, inspired, collaborative, communal. It’s a beautiful thing.

Thurston Part Five: Art/Noise and Radiophonic Addiction

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.

Thurston Moore Part Four: Patterning the Explosion

As I mentioned, as the discography explodes it becomes harder to focus on the change that’s occurring within it – my rambling today is specifically about trying to pin down what Thurston’s journey has been after 1995.

To commence the exploration, as discussed, Thurston is primarily a collaborator, an individual who thrives on working with or as a foil to another. Initially, across the Eighties, those opportunities are confined by being part of an underground band needing to work day jobs right through until the release of “Daydream Nation” and therefore limited in terms of where and when they can work with others. The collaborations are, therefore, solidly rooted in New York City. No points for stating that those initial colleagues are parent to SY’s style, Glenn Branca, then Lydia Lunch who acts as the binding figure between the gothic end of the underground in the mid-Eighties back to late Seventies No Wave. Borbetomagus and Wharton Tiers are part of the cluster within that one city. The geographic boundary doesn’t change much across the early-to-mid Nineties – Richard Hell and William Parker are both New York-centred musicians. What follows is that as 22 solo releases in the thirteen years from 1982 to end of 1995 becomes 23 solo releases in the five years from 1996 to end of 2000, the range of collaboration expands hugely.

There’s still a core during this spell. Loren Connors, Don Fleming, Christian Marclay and Tom Surgal – they’re all consistent performers within the New York artistic community. The latter is also Thurston’s most consistent collaborator in this late-Nineties phase, performing on four releases between 1995 and 1998 with a further collaboration in 2000 plus a performance with Surgal’s unit White Out released in 2009. This reinforces the sense of a musician in transition, exploring a new scene in familiar and known local company with forays out into the beyond. There’s also a physical logic to it – it costs money to tour, it costs money to travel and therefore multiple collaborations across a lengthy time period are more likely if musicians live in close proximity, a fair rule of thumb. There are two shifts, however. Firstly, the geography of collaboration expands to encompass the U.S. with musicians such as William Winant (California), Phil X. Milstein (Boston), Wally Shoup (Seattle), Nels Cline (California.) From the inauguration of Thurston’s ‘out’ phase on 1994’s “Shamballa” to the end of 2000, of 24 groups/individuals on releases with Thurston, 8 are NYC-based, 7 from further afield within the U.S. What’s potentially more surprising is the burgeoning work with artists from further afield; sure Yoshimi of the Boredoms is playing in Kim Gordon’s Free Kitten at the time but then there’s the addition of William Parker, Derek Bailey andAlex Ward’s XIII Ghosts plus Dylan Nyoukis’ Prick Decay all from Britain, then Italy’s (Cristiano) Deison, Walter Prati and Marco Fusinato, plus France’s Jean-Marc Montera and finally a very significant figure in Mats Gustafsson of Sweden.

After the year 2000 this globe-trotting aesthetic takes over completely with the New York root now something revisited but no longer solidly attached. The lengthy relationship between Gustafsson and Moore has been the most solid of the past decade and a half encompassing some eleven releases in various guides (named, Weapons of Ass Destruction, The Thing, Original Silence) but we’ll come to that. Surrounding that core has been a fairly even split between new U.S. comrades such as the Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano duo, Bill Nace, John Moloney; old comrades such as various Sonic Youth members, Beck Hansen, Loren Connors; then one-off release with non-U.S. residents such as My Cat is an Alien (Italy), Gabriel Ferrandini, Pedro Sousa and Margarida Garcia, the New Blockaders…

The scale of unit in which Thurston works remains a curiosity to me. In his best-known ‘day job’, he was part of a four-piece and he starts off in massed guitar ranks under Branca. Yet his collaborative explorations outside of SY tend to remain focused on duos and trios – even a four piece isn’t that common though there’s a big exception in the form of the Original Silence tour where the Weapons of Ass Destruction trio paired up with Terrie Ex (ex of The Ex a glorious Dutch outfit), Massimo Pupillo (ex of Italian experimental group Zu) and Paal Nilssen-Love (a Norwegian-born performer.) As a live experience it was awesome, on disc it’s kinda cluttered – but then I don’t like much orchestral classical music either so I’m not best placed to comment. One consideration behind this fidelity to smaller units is simply cost. The big band era of jazz ended primarily because the money required to transport, set up and adequately compensate musicians was too great to make touring economical. It wasn’t possible to flex ticket prices sufficiently in relation to the scale of the musical unit performing therefore large ensembles tended to need alternative sources of funding other than ticket-buying audiences. The same went for recorded performances; a label wanted to play flat fees and percentages not wages or salaries per individual – the result? Smaller units become fashionable because they make economic sense with that imposed model. The ultimate end result is the solo artist who can buy the music in on a one-off basis via producers or session musicians – it isn’t just flexibility, it’s cost-effective too, hence why hip hop is the music of modern neocapitalism far more than the Rolling Stones ever was. As Thurston emerges from the rock idiom it’s not unreasonable that he’s used to the norm of three or four piece bands – despite the occasional number-busting no wave exercise like Mars’ “Don Gavanti” opera (check it on the Atavistic label if you ever get a chance.) Entering cash-strapped avant-garde jazz also serves to keep the units small-scale. Would it be interesting to hear Thurston test his mettle against vast orchestras of individuals? Maybe. Either way, in terms of his activities so far, Thurston has primarily been a man who’s collaborative works are with units of traditional rock band size – not unusual.

(Thurston Moore and Andy Moor – May 2013)

So, having tackled the sideshow of geographical reach and the non-show of unit scale, where next? The primary shift differentiating Thurston’s work in the rock-focused era prior to 1995 versus the succeeding twenty years (now over half Thurston’s time in music) is the shift in instrumental accompaniment. Only a limited amount of the work post-1995 involved fellow guitarists as the primary partner. The main continuation was the drummer. Thurston has worked with a succession of individuals in that role across the discography – Steve Shelley, William Winant, William Hooker, Tom Surgal, Toshi Makihara, Chris Corsano – and drums remain the most common accompaniment to Thurston’s solo work, it was even the predominant partner as Thurston found his feet as a live improviser. Very clearly, however, this is rarely the 4/4 beat approach at work. Thurston thoroughly escaped the tyranny of the beat (a phrase I stole from a Mute label compilation about a decade ago and that has always stuck with me as a beautiful expression of the cage formed by rhythm-uber alles.) It comes with its own challenges – a beat permits other players to rest easy knowing that there’s another instrument creating the progress or motion in a piece, all they need to do is illustrate over the top of it. But there’s a machine-like monotony to music set to the omnipresent beat – do you not get enough of it day-by-day? Listening to performances in which drums deviate from their traditional status as show-off metronome and become percussive sound generators, free agents, are quite enthralling for a time – if the players are able to incorporate the full range of possibilities present with a physical kit. Thurston seemed to desire a partner in his desire to derail the core instrumental line-up of rock ‘n’ roll both for it’s comforting familiarity as well as the perversity of dragging it onto fresh soil. There’s a similarity also in the instrumental technique of Thurston’s early improvisation to the work of a drummer – famous images from the Eighties of SY scraping or beating guitars come to mind at once. This was still the core of his tactics in the mid-Nineties so there was a dissolute harmony in working alongside an instrument being put to similar forms of percussive misuse.

From there Thurston began offering his guitar to other possible line-ups. In the mid-to-late Nineties the possibilities of electronica were being touted as the ‘next big thing’ with superstar DJs and celebrity remixers all the rage. No one was immune even if the result was very different indeed. 1996’s “Electricity vs. Insects” 7” commences a spell in which electronic effects play a relatively prominent role as a partner on recordings. This was the first real work in this realm since JG Thirwell’s manipulations back in 1987. Phil X. Milstein’s tape work features on a 1997 release (the Cramps referencing “Songs We Taught the Lord Vol.2”), then the Walter Prati-featuring works “The Promise” (1999) and “Opus” (2001) emerge, with “Root” (1998) and the Christian Marclay/Lee Ranaldo performance “Fuck Shit Up” (recorded live in 1999 and released in 2000) fitting into the gaps along with the split 7” releases with Deison (1999.) That means that every year from 1996 to 2001, at least one of Thurston’s three to six releases a year made substantial use of electronic effects – that’s a substantial presence within the discography. It doesn’t last, however. After that year, despite releasing vastly more material, the majority has been with more traditional instrumentalists as opposed to electronic manipulators. The experiment certainly made sense and was embraced with a certain gusto – “Root” was a fairly high profile release at the time with Thurston turning over his creations to a range of alumni for their manipulation. It also makes sense why it wasn’t necessarily a stellar move; ultimately Thurston had already converted his guitar from a traditional combination of sounds into a fairly unlimited sound generator with the entire loop between his hands and the amp output brought into play and with a vast range of physical and electronic effects deployed between those two points to warp the results. With Thurston’s guitar, essentially, already an electronic device creating noise, there was little electronica could bring that he wasn’t already. Similarly, the rhythm-based results of a majority (not all) electronic music of the modern era had little in common with the direction Thurston was taking. Finally, there’s a point regarding the nature of collaboration most satisfying to Thurston. On The Promise and Opus electronics were a third player in a trio, not the second in a duo; the same goes for the performance with Christian Marclay; Thurston wasn’t present in studio with Deison or with the guests on “Root.” Thurston’s discography has grown fat on live collaborations in the context of which far more interplay, exchange, response and counter takes place when the players aren’t hunched over wiring let alone a laptop. 2014 did see Pedro Sousa contribute electronics (as well as saxophone) to the “Live at ZDB” release of an October 2012 performance – likewise the earlier flurry of activity with noise scene artists like Aaron Dilloway (2006) and experimental/industrial stalwarts like Commissar Hjuler (2009-2010) or the New Blockaders (2007) mean electronics have never disappeared entirely from his line-ups. He’s a willing joiner in most situations.

(As a side-bar, it’s very visible that laptop artists are increasingly aware that live performance is both aural and visual – something they, crucially, lack. While a guitar, drums, sax allows a link between the sound being experienced and the motion and emotion of the person performing – a human connection between performer and those present – that link is crippled when the visual is gone. That’s why most laptop artists are confined to dances – where the audience provides the shared experience and physicality – as support to vocalists or other performers who can provide the human face and focus, or by deploying a battery of filmed visuals or on stage performance. The finest laptop artist I’ve witnessed is Leyland Kirby. As V/VM he supported Sonic Youth at a show where I still fondly recall animal masked friends of his tossing lettuce and cheese slices at the crowds, attacking one another dressed as animals and generally clowning as if this was a deranged pantomime (I kissed a pantomime horse in return for which they passed the CD someone had thrown into the space between stage and audience – the horse got it for me.) Over a decade later, as the Caretaker, I watched him take the same approach by first performing karaoke to a soft rock classic then rolling off the stage and through the audience, then setting the laptop going and simply sitting on the stage to watch the video diary along with us. I found it totally engaging, one of the best films I’ve seen accompany any onstage performance given it was blatantly personal and came with a personal message written on screen at the start, as well as absolutely showing how alienating the laptop ‘performer’ is from any recognisable human form of performance as an bringing together of observed and observer.)

To discuss and contrast two forms in which electronics can be witnessed in Thurston’s oeuvre, on December 4, 1996 Thurston shared the stage with Phil X. Milstein who might be better classified as a surrealist with an interest in dreams, sound poetry, experimental collages than a traditional musician. The resulting performance is remarkable for the way that Milstein provides the layer of chattering sounds that would normally be provided by an inattentive and disrespectful audience, it’s curious to contemplate my annoyance if faced with ‘conversational audience participation’ on a lo-fi bootleg versus how intrigued I am by the voices and mutterings Milstein entangles into the performance. Given the ubiquity of spoken word samples on the work of bands like Mogwai or Godspeed You Black Emperor (who received ample comparisons to SY’s work) around the time of this performance, it’s curious how little role such shenanigans have played in Thurston’s work. It emphasises that his interest lies in the world of sound creation and musical collaboration, not in the construction or orchestration of structured recordings, the arrangement of sound files on or over other work – he’s not someone desperate to work as an omnipotent music producer. That’s a commentary on his motivation as an explorer of sound – he’s put together bands, brought together collaborators, but seems to feel no desire to boss or manage them in furtherance of a restricted vision of his own dictatorial conception. Maybe that’s where my only real criticism of this release lies – ultimately Thurston does his own thing as a guitarist, while Milstein is off following his own muse. There’s not really any meeting of minds or sounds taking place – swap Thurston out and stick in Slash playing cod-rock moves of the old school and it’d work just as well; strip out Milstein and drop a record by Negativland and it’d rumble along comfortably. The challenge is perhaps one of format; on vinyl there’s no indication of where/when a gambit by one or t’other musician is a reaction to or compliment to the other’s thought process – you can’t see it. That’s a regular pause with an awful lot of improvisational music – one always wonders what is lost when the entire visual component of watching musicians at work is sliced away. The judgment instead must fall on whether the result is interesting as a sonic experience and it has to be said it is worth a listen, re-listen, flip, repeat. Voices submerge, other instruments crack Thurston’s surges, recorded sound is divebombed with guitar explosions while paused fingers are made to run by strafing fire from Milstein’s own guitar. The only point at which the sound placement (or at least the way the record has been cut) seems particularly precise comes at the close of Side B where the final sample states “…Turns the air conditioning OFF,” at which point the record ends. A neat last touch but a long time to wait to be sure deliberateness played any part here.

“The Promise” (1999) has always been a release I’ve felt ambivalent about but marks a crossing point in which the period of electronics peaks and the saxophone, likewise, becomes prominent. Thurston permits the other instruments to screen his contributions, he relegates himself to the background – ultimately letting Evan Parker lead the ensemble. Mea culpa – I’m not necessarily a lover of the saxophone, this undoubtedly influences my feelings here. Track 6, “Children” is the one that most stands out for me – Evan’s see-sawing constancy, the blanket background provided by Walter Prati’s rumbling thumbed bass, Thurston’s occasional interjections with soft runs of notes – it all combines to a satisfying close on track 7, “All Children” with cut up spoken word gradually buried as initial spikes become molten guitar and electronic slag. It’s the physicality of the playing – being able to hear the hand slides at one point – detectable human motion behind the otherwise unidentifiable wall of sound that at times is permitted to simply continue undisturbed, noise as peace. The final thirty seconds pulse like a stylus hitting the end of a song. Chopping a release like this up into passages does create manageable and digestible chunks, while also making it hard not to feel the artificiality of the format given the sounds and activities on display are so similar across the release. There’s something of the gypsy jazz approach to Thurston’s tightly tweeted up-down stroked notes – of course he ladles on the disharmony, the disconnection between notes even as he pulls fairly conventional hammers and trills. Five minutes in “Is” Thurston’s guitar sounds like bones rolled in a closed fist. It’s a release that feels more worthy of live presence – that one would benefit from watching the interaction between the three individuals to see clearly how they exchange ideas. It’s also rare for Thurston to resort to overt noise on “The Promise”, his noises are restrained, tactfully deployed – the gradually relaxed or released strings swooning behind “Our Future” is a case in point. These subdued murmurings feel like a polite chat between people wanting to negotiate a direction rather than anyone wanting to lead. “Opus” (2001) left me similarly uncertain but again that’s more down to my own limited appetite for saxophones.

(Thurston Moore, Ikue Mori and Okkyung Lee in April 2009)

That’s a difficult of course because the saxophone is probably the most prominent fresh accompaniment Thurston has welcomed completely into the fold. Sure, there was no wave sax on Lydia Lunch’s “In Limbo” but it was an expected part of the full band session in 1982, it’s only on “Barefoot in the Head” recorded six years later that Thurston links up for a sax(x2)/guitar duel. Perhaps it turned him off the instrument, made him nervous – it was his first attempt to enter the free jazz improvisation arena after all – but despite the burgeoning activity in the Nineties it’s not until 1999, over a decade later, that the instrument reappears in Thurston’s discography. While “The Promise”, a collaboration with saxophonist William Parker and multi-instrumentalist Walter Prati, was apparently recorded and realised all in that year there was actually a second recording – the “Hurricane Floyd” live set with Wally Shoup and percussionist Toshi Makihara – that same year though not released until 2000. Both collaborations have sequels – 2001’s “Opus” with Prati adding cello to the mix while Giancarlo Schiaffini introduces a trombone for apparently the only time in Thurston’s catalogue; 2003’s release of “Live at Tonic”, a 2002 performance with Shoup, plus Paul Flaherty on tenor and alto sax and percussion by Chris Corsano. From 1999 onward the sax is a regular instrumental foil to his guitar work; Mats Gustafsson makes his inaugural appearance on a release with Thurston in 2000 and there are sax-featuring releases in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. That’s a big shift but perhaps inevitable when swimming in the jazz field. A discovery on eBay the other night that intrigues me, however, is a 1998 release, “III”, by an outfit called The Grassy Knoll. Thurston apparently contributes guitar to three songs by this full-on jazz outfit – I’d like to know more about it but it still presents a shift in the instrumental sound field against which Thurston matches his guitar, one taking place at the end of the Nineties.

The “Hurricane Floyd” release (2000) came with a top-notch back-story. Recorded on September 16, 1999 at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the titular hurricane blew itself out overheard somewhere. The track marked “Altar Boy, Church Basement” is of particular interest – it’s essentially an early solo acoustic version of “Turquoise Boy” from the 2006 Sonic Youth album “Rather Ripped.” Seeing how fully formed it was so many years prior to its use in the full band context makes one wonder about the roots and origins of many SY pieces. Here it has a close-micked clarity that is truly enviable – the recording quality across this whole release is of stellar quality. “Retribution of Sorts”, the final piece is gorgeous, a keening midnight saxophone meets Thurston’s steel-drum high notes in something that, for a couple minutes is full sentences before it reverts to conversational point/response or talking over one another. The drumming from Toshi Makihara is actually, in my view, one of the most enjoyable pieces of the release. Throughout he seems comfortable pausing, making his interventions precise and effective, his choices – 13.50 into the track he begins working the cymbals over as a perfect complement to Thurston’s gradually building train-motion and Wally Shoup’s controlled angles. As ever these things at some point have to resolve in a blow-out but the gently walking out end minute is a nice touch. Off to review by starting with the back-end of a record but the acoustic break before resuming does help appreciation of the last piece – even on an improv record the positioning of pieces can make a regal difference. The opening minutes of the first track is effective; the drums keep it together with moves that make me think of someone spinning a drum-stick in their hand but somehow hitting a dozen beats in the same movement. Initially the guitar and sax make exchanges – one instrument then the other with only mild overlaps. Then they slide in beneath one another though pauses seem well-nodded from one to other – 4.45 in or so a switch of vibe and mood. Often where the guitar/sax come closest to merging is in the blue notes of the finales – otherwise skronk and screech can be world’s apart. Track two is more effective in that respect, background rustling – a truly unusual product of the percussionist’s art, cable noise, brevity of breath…Shifty commencement taking a full seven minutes to crash down into volume competition.

The “Live at Tonic” (2003) release caught a four man line-up on the night of September 14, 2002 – again, Wally Shoup was involved, this time with Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano, a regular duo at the time. The result is two sax deep with Thurston really submerged into a cataclysm of squalling honks, thumps, clatter and hoots. He reacts by creating a base-layer, a series of longer tones and drones that take a while to really notice – it’s like how bassists are always underestimated because the undercoat is never as brilliant as the gloss – but the gloss wouldn’t shine so flawlessly without it. I’m at a crucial disadvantage here in that I must confess to simply not really liking the saxophone as an instrument – how can I truly appreciate a recording that foregrounds an instrument that creates a sound that often curdles my ears in too high a dosage? No, that’s unfair, I simply prefer it when used with more subtlety; 14.45 into the second track (second set) the band, for the first time, quietens down. Thurston curbs metal hums in a wash across the backdrop, each saxophone drops in note runs that can actually be appreciated because they’re not consumed in a rush of sound, the drums dash and scatter across the soundfield – the next few minutes are the first time the instruments have separated, have become distinct voices as opposed to monolith blast. Then the one-upmanship recommences, a gradual rise in volume as one player outdoes the other and ups the ante which, unfortunately, tends to mean doing more, making more sound, when those past three minutes of discretion were far finer demonstrations of skill. That’s where I’d distinguish my bias; I like noise releases that allow my ears to catch a sound and follow it – to be taken a journey even in the most dense thicket of volume – I dislike hyperactivity where there’s no settling long enough to catch or appreciate. I can enjoy the sound of a bus engine throbbing while hating the chattering of an impolite crowd.

The “Flaherty/Nace/Moore” release of was another opportunity to study Thurston in saxophone company. Flaherty’s playing tends toward short yolts and yanked knots of sound, the presence of a second guitarist offering a more steady background. First track “Sex” is short, stubby, anxious…Jeez, feels familiar somehow. The saxophone rubs up against grinding metal for what is essentially an introductory track. The sense of instruments going in opposite directions is palpable; the saxophone rises as the guitar is torn slowly down the gears or vice versa. It’s a nice contest. “Drugs” commences with a gentler ringing of bell tones, a softer tone, before the saxophone once against spurts and whirlwinds over the top – by nine/ten minutes in the piece has disintegrated into strafing runs of guitar tone over a spluttering rhythm with ‘squirrel in fear and pain’ sax. Ugh. By twelve minutes in there’s an angle grider tone set against someone gasping for breath then back to the squeaking. At fifteen minutes the guitar is bobbly, bubbling against the crack of the second guitar – the sax is reduced to cine-tones. It’s a f***ing cacophony. It might seem strange in the context of this discussion to criticise something on that basis – what am I lacking? What’s my complaint? It’s hard to define…It’s the sense of noise to no end – the saxophone essentially. The sax has a conversational tone, a motion based on breathing, that the hand-motion required with a guitar just can’t keep up with. The problem is that there’s so little differentiation in the basic sound of the saxophone once the idea of playing a tune or melody has been abandoned and there’s so much movement in the sound that it’s a deluge of near identical moments with no direction longer than seconds. We’re into the terrain where something is more fun to play than to listen to. But then, just my tastes. I can’t complain.

(Thurston Moore, Joe McPhee and Bill Nace live in 2012)

A truly random excursion was Thurston’s contribution to My Cat is an Alien’s “From the Earth to the Spheres” split CD series (2004.) “American Coffin” consisted of Thurston working with a piano for some 10 minutes before he becomes far more comfortable manipulating the recording equipment. Simple truth is that, like with his guitar work, there’s a knowledge of the instrument at work in order to achieve the result – it isn’t a complete novice at work, his progress along the keyboard is too smooth, his combining of notes too seamless to be random – for the minute from 5.40 he displays a sudden burst of quick fingers that indicate he’s hiding a certain skill. What he seems to be doing is simplifying his performing style to evade the clichés of standard technique. In that respect there’s a definite similarity with his earliest guitar work in that notes are hammered over and over until they become an effective rhythm or mantra – then a switch takes place whether in tempo, rhythm, note while other characteristics are retained. Still, I’d have to say it’s a horrendous listening experience. The background microphone rumble is a neat feature but listening to high pitched piano tones pinging at one’s skull gets pretty unendurable after five minutes let alone ten. Ultimately there isn’t sufficient deviation in the sound – that brief burst around 5.40 of note-runs reoccurs around 8 minutes in with les surprise, every now and again he moves to focus on the low notes creating decaying clouds over which he sparks a few notes but always he reverts back to the jabbing of keys as the base from which he deviates, that stability is somewhat dull. The move into a second piece has a certain interest a drum machine moves in with a shifty rhythm, then a range of samples (perhaps just a radio?) starts to fire off keyboard tones, repetitive dance music, burping beats, all somewhere inside the continuous dulled tone of feedback. It’s a fair point being made, that the acceptance of noise as part of the everyday arsenal of electronic-based music makes a mockery of the resistance to its presence in guitar-based music. There’s a point being made about the death of rock and roll, the ‘American Coffin’ of the title, as the desire to keep repeating the same ‘authentic’ old moves led to an unwillingness to expand the palette or move onto new vistas in mainstream rock. The result was the handing of the baton to hip hop, R n’ B, dance – where a visible appetite existed. A sample – the final four minutes of the piece – were torn from here and inserted into the “Trees Outside the Academy” release. It’s certainly possible to note that the piano is a rare presence in Thurston’s discography in general – in some ways there’s been a settling into a set of standard partnership; drums, sax, guitar, various noisenik activities – line drawn.

Thurston Moore ‘Solo’ Part Three: Breathing Out in Studio

To Thurston’s credit, even with a catalogue this wide, he’s completely avoided that most ignominious musical horror; the genre exercise. There’s nothing in Thurston’s catalogue straying toward Axl Rose yelling “give it some reggae!” on the Guns n’ Roses live album and the band, oh what a surprise, being able to do a passable white boy reggae rhythm, or Snoop Dogg’s half-hearted conversion to Snoop Lion. Thurston has stepped very clearly into areas only when he has an established reason for being there. The biggest diversions are both inside the last ten years; the run of acoustic albums was well-trailed by the increasing presence of gentler rhythms and melodies on SY records – interlocked with the logical shift to semi-acoustic wintry sounding releases under his own name – making the run of solo acoustic albums perfectly comprehensible. The establishment of some kind of narrative plays an underrated role in most human endeavour, there’s a satisfaction in seeing where something has come from as well as a legitimacy and credibility derived from something that doesn’t just appear like a classroom exercise or a bored afternoon diversion. Thurston’s moonlighting with Twilight in 2014 stands as the sole example of Thurston stepping out of his ‘regular’ terrain but frankly by 2014 he’s blown so many barriers that involvement in an entity that involves a shifting cast of playing and guest stars makes total sense.

Back in 1995 though, all this was still to come. SY-esque rock was still the focus when Thurston tag-teamed a release with Loren Mazzacane Connors as part of the ‘Instress’ series on Road Cone, a Portland Oregon label. Thurston’s contribution was a track with the conversational title “Just Tell Her That I Really Like Her. The title itself is a bit of a Thurston trait actually as we’ll see with “Please Just Leave Me” and with his “Sensitive/Lethal“ release later in this piece. The track was basically a “Psychic Hearts” outtake with the unit assembled for that release presence; Tim Foljahn contributing guitar and Steve Shelley on drums – it ended up as a bonus track on the 2006 vinyl reissue of that ‘solo’ album. It sounds very much akin to that album’s results – both guitars thudding away to make up for the absence of bass or interlocking to weave pretty patterns of notes. The Loren Connors side is actually less typical of the musician in question. The echo-hazed guitar and cloudy production preferences are in place from square one but the four parts of “Deirdre of the Sorrows” feature significantly rocking qualities – the first two tracks are quite a howl before things settle into the mournful regularity of a Loren Connors tale on part three and finish with a piece somewhere between his acoustic work and his electric era – a clean guitar unpinned by a purring rhythm matching it step for step. I adore Loren Connors’ work so the prospect of more from these two together naturally intrigued me.

It wasn’t long in coming. 1997 brought “MMMR” – a collaboration consisting of Loren Mazzacane Connors, Thurston, Jean-Marc Montera and Lee Ranaldo. Jean-Marc is an intriguing fellow in his own right – founder of an experimental music organisation (GRIM – Groupe de recherche et d’improvisation musicales) in the late Seventies in the city of Marseilles. It’s worth considering the extent to which Thurston, for a time, was gathering teachers (Loren Connors born 1949, Glenn Branca born 1948, Evan Parker born 1944, Wally Shoup born 1944, Richard Hell born 1949, William Hooker born 1946) from the generation one step above his own to initiate him into the field in which he was seeking to perform. I guess a touch of hero worship can’t be ruled out either – getting on vinyl with one’s heroes and inspirations is any record-collecting fan-boy’s dream, more power to the man’s elbow! Again, it’s surprising how tight the peak of this tendency is, it stretches from “Shamballa” in 1994 with William Hooker, to the first team-up with Wally Shoup in 2000 after which it becomes hard to spot a new elder entering Thurston’s on vinyl orbit. A generational shift takes place once Thurston’s apprenticeship passes. The album itself, an all-guitar affair, is hard to disentangle, I’d be lying if I said I was clear which was Thurston’s guitar. Track two on the album brings him in to join Jean-Marc and Loren for a patient ten minutes in which humming sound-fields surge and flex beneath what sounds like Loren’s tactic of long-held notes and brief clustered phrases. Only at the halfway mark does the track begin to open beyond that ‘front / back’ formation and for the final two minutes someone other than Loren tears a far noisier hole in the piece. The twenty minute collaboration with Lee Ranaldo now involved sees each guitar chipping in phrases – brief sounds – as if finishing one another’s sentences at a press conference. It’s an effective approach of course because one can appreciate the sheer variety of what they produce. A ‘Loren toned guitar’ pings decaying notes in the blend; a scraped, crunched guitar becomes a consistent backdrop; stray notes from another as strings are mutilated and the recognisable notes vanish before they ever become something as stereotypically DONE as a riff; a final guitar shakes down electricity.

A chunk of the same sessions emerged on the Loren Connors record “A Possible Dawn” (1998) – primarily a solo release ending with a thirty minute long collaboration between Loren, Thurston and Jean-Marc. And then an exercise in patience ensued – 2011 saw the emergence of “Les Anges du Peche” consisting of the final unreleased portion of that session. The liner notes, from Philippe Robert who ran Numero Zero Audio which arranged the recording sessions, explain that the session was set up following contact during Sonic Youth’s Washing Tour when it reached France and hit Marseille. It sounds like it took a few months to arrange financing to allow recording to go ahead with the result being three days recording in New York at the Echo Canyon studios. The liner quotes Lee Ranaldo dropping in after attending “David Bowie’s fiftieth birthday party,” which Bowie staged on January 9, 1997 (the day after his birthday.) Side A of the release is one of the most rock-orientated of Thurston’s outings – essentially reads like the instrumental breaks in Eighties-era Sonic Youth, like an expanded coda to the “Washing Machine” album’s “The Diamond Sea.” Gently knocked wood plays against dreamy strums and an underlying bass throb in an extended opening gambit. The tapping swells to encompass the shiver of strings shaken to live, wayward guitar lines spiral slowly though the heart in gentle tunefulness, swiped strings creak…Then the guitars crank up a notch, all players rise to the new volume level, two guitars hold a steady backline over which the third solos until calm descends and we return to distant expanding clouds of amp rumble, sparks hitting the ground, shimmering jangled wire. There’s a heavenly unison throughout with all three guitarists matching each other’s moves to create moments, for example, where all guitars flutter on the high notes. This contributes to the effective tailing off in the outro as guitars slow, soften, fade. Of course, it does sound exactly like what I imagine Sonic Youth jammed on all the time for the preceding decade and a half but when something sounds so familiar and so good there’s no reason to dismiss it. Side B meanwhile commences with a honking, scronking set of cranked up crack and glitter from the various musicians – short sounds predominate with each musician punctuating the others’ contributions. How to describe it? One guitar might ping strings steadily, while another is strummed frantically with strings bridged or muted in some way and the third guitarist lets the amp hum or smacks or jabs at the strings. There’s not really forward motion, one combination of sound simply replaces another – one guitarist scalps his guitar, the sound of repetitive tapped bone pouring out the speaker, another seems snapped off leaving only the high notes to sound like pebbles ground together, the last echoes metallically like a struck oil drum. Again, it’s a very different approach to the majority of efforts visible at this stage – a nasty, noisy and disorganised one, but still one built round a common conceptualisation and intent that hangs it together. Toward the end something approximating the strained sound of a sampled gypsy violin comes through, awkward scrapes tailing away – it’s a sound I’ve not heard explored elsewhere on this trek through the discography and I admit I’d love to hear more of it.

2013 until the Loren Connors and Thurston would team up for another release. “The Only Way to Go is Straight Through” combines a performance on July 14, 2012 at a NYC venue called The Stone with an October 17 performance at a Brooklyn venue called Public Assembly. I’m presuming, given each side is only just over twenty minutes, that these are more like extracts from the performances but I can’t tell. There’s a sense of each letting the other lead for a performance – Side A kicks straight into what I’d describe, in a kneejerk way, as ‘Thurston territory’ with power and force to the fore, while Side B is more ethereal and feels like ‘Loren soil’.

Before deviating into the sum of Loren/Thurston collaborations I mentioned studio work, however, let me return to it. 1993 led off with Thurston’s first release of his experimental studio work on a single. It’s then a gap to 1996 when we suddenly encounter two further studio excursions (and the Nels Cline “Pillow Wand” collaboration in the background.) Thurston’s improvisational work has remained a predominantly live entity at this point even if it was increasingly being documented. A quality diversion to commence with is the “Piece for Yvonne Rainer” (initially a cassette in 1996 – I only have the 1998 CD) composed with the Boredoms’ Yoshimi and Mark Ibold from Pavement. A closer tie is that both individuals were members of Free Kitten at the time alongside Kim Gordon; it gives the impression Thurston roped them in sometime around the recording of the “Punks Suing Punks” EP that outfit released in 1996 which features a song apparently name-checking Thurston and Kim’s daughter Coco. Jesus…Frankly, your tolerance for this release will depend on how amusing you find the idea of people twanging away on Jews Harps for minutes on end. Actually, being fair, stay calm – the variety of pings and boings extracted is surprisingly high and the clarity of the recording makes it a remarkably listenable experience at high volume. Hearing Thurston, Yoshimi, Mark (and I suspect Kim’s voice at one point) chatting on in the background and either commenting on their dining arrangements or on their ability to persevere with the instrument gives this a domestic edge which appeals. Think of it as the sound of genuinely creative people who don’t just make music, don’t just make sound when the cameras are on them or there’s a few thousand quid of performance fees on offer – they’re playing or thinking about playing all the time. Hearing them actively trying to uncover new ways to extract sound from the instrument is intriguing…But, in fairness, I think it is the only record of Jews’ Harp I need in my collection. It cuts at about ten minutes in, a couple of quick shreds of random rock n’ roll then straight into the far more interesting guitar instrumental. The choice on track one is to par the guitar down to the sound of sheet metal. Raps and rumbles emanate from one guitar while another is simply left to hum. It’s a sound I’m attracted to – somewhere between dark ambience and traffic sounds building and decaying. It’s more like a collage of ideas. After six minutes or so that first idea cuts rapidly and another effort, similar in style, commences. The throb of electric from one amp is far more prominent but it’s a relaxing ebb and sway, the second guitar mimics it with a deeper tone until eventually overwhelming that early ambience. Just the addition of volume to the existing cycle adds fresh overtones and detail – the guitar starts to sound like a warning klaxon with occasional interventions by a human agent marked by sudden slaps. The track plays with electric tones for its duration. Track two dispenses with the Jews’ Harp and over the gravelly sound of an ex-Soviet conveyor belt there’s some detuned hacked chords that sound like the advance of the Terminator or some part of Coil’s unused soundtrack for the film “Hellraiser.” That breaks two minutes in to be replaced by a prepared guitar offering a sound close to some kinda Eastern chimes, quite a somnolent, plumb sound, that also falls away after a couple minutes in favour of “Confusion is Sex” era menace. By five minutes in there’s the gentlest plucking at the guitar heads – by six and a half minutes it’s shattering peals of guitar, like running a buzzsaw against metal – and then on it goes again to some fuzzed up fast chopping for ten minutes combining that absence of motion in which everything is shifting and moving so nothing is leaving the boundaries of the screen. Twenty minutes; hotel room desultory hung-over tentativeness – a neat contrast to what has come before. There’s something skeletal here, hearing the bones of Thurston’s work has he tries to find new combinations of notes and guitar neck motion.

That same year saw one piece that has always left me uncertain what to think – “Please Just Leave Me (My Paul Desmond).” The CD I possess states on the disc “You can take everything there, it’s cool, I don’t care. Yeh, I need room. I’m sick of all those fucking records man – just take ‘em. Yeh, you know, but if you can please just leave me my Paul Desmond.” (Actually it says “my my Paul Desmond” – minor quibble.) the Paul Desmond in question being a jazz saxophonist and one-time member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. That title reference is one of the first overt jazz references in Thurston’s oeuvre and, moreover, a statement of intent requesting the removal of the music of which he’s tired, to permit him the space for something new with only this solitary jazz marker still present. It’s a single thirty-one minute long track apparently involving at least one guitar left to feedback against an amp, or on a table-top, at extreme volume then tampered with. Taps, raps, strikes to strings or guitar body, they all drag the track away from its centre which consists of the always indelibly difference whine of pure feedback. Listening to it casually, a lot of the detail passes me by. Focusing on it with greater determination it’s far easier to identify the experiment being undertaken with tactics deployed to interrupt and interfere with the nature of the roar created, to make it bend, rise, cease suddenly, resume or give way entirely to the tactile thuds and thumps against the material of the guitar. It’s an intriguing piece simply because it so clearly demonstrates some of Thurston’s actual tactics for extracting sound from an instrument. Enjoyment of this document depends on your willingness to tolerate piercing extended amplifier whine and to focus on the interventions Thurston makes throughout the duration of the recording. The glory of the record is in the gestures, both large and small, that serve to derail the combination of instrument, amp and electric – it requires a pleasure in the diversity of brief moments he can haul out from the guitar. There’s no overall flow or direction to the recording, it has a kinship to certain of John Wiese’s noise recordings which might bombard a listener with 30+ minute-long tracks each showcasing one particular effect dredged from whatever source. In this case the unifier is the desire of Thurston’s guitar to return to either zero or one – noise or silence – while Thurston tips it in various directions amid that range and ultimately changes the qualitative nature of what the guitar creates. Having achieved so much in the early stages of the session it’s a disappointment when Thurston resorts to actually plucking the guitar strings for a few minutes around the fifteen minute mark – it isn’t conventional strumming but so much had been demonstrated without any need to make that standard connection. The diversion into what sounds like a casually sampled lounge jazz piece playing on a turned down record player is a neat ending, it’s background quality emphasised by the sound of Thurston engaging someone in conversation in the background as it plays. This gentle (and rather dull) jazz does outstay its welcome – the contrast with the preceding twenty-eight minutes is pointed but, more significantly, it’s a riposte to those who would claim Thurston’s noise-making was intolerable, I’d say it’s this overlong four minutes of xylophone, polite brushed drums and unobtrusive guitar is the intolerable bit.

It’s almost unbelievable that Thurston’s dedication to collaboration and the challenges brought by cooperation/contest with others means it’s a full decade before the next fully solo full-length release. Well…OK, by full length we mean the 30 minute long “Flipped Out Bride” release of 2006 issued on Blossoming Noise. By this point in time, Thurston has become well known for his patronage and support of other artists whether through contributing songs to splits, inviting them on tour, joining in as a contributor, or simply buying tonnes of music and talking about it wherever possible. I’ve spoken before – and it’s been well-noted elsewhere – that Kurt Cobain’s main joy in fame 1991-1993 came from supporting others in the scene; well, that model was bequeathed to him by Thurston and the Sonic Youth crew who continued with it through to the present day. This release on Blossoming Noise bequeathed Thurston’s ‘alternative mainstream’ cachet to a label of significance at the noisier, industrial end of the scale – one regularly featuring artists like Aube, Merzbow, Genesis P-Orridge’s outfit Thee Majesty, KK Null, Sudden Infant, John Wiese. The noise scene was well-ensconced by that point and it’s hard to distinguish whether Thurston’s willingness to add a more high-profile recording (a studio solo release rather than just an archived live cast-off) brought more than money to one of the hubs of the scene. As for the release itself, the title track consists of an elongated rather gnarled zap of electric which throbs in various ways for a full quarter of an hour. It doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, it shares a surprising amount with “Please Just Leave Me” from ten years before in i’s fixation on what can be coaxed from the guitar when strictly limiting the degree of interference with its natural inclination – without resorting to something as ‘done’ as actually playing the thing. At twelve minutes in the raps that ping the strings against the guitar body are a direct throwback as well as being the most extensive and overt manipulation to occur. The issue is that it’s such a diversion from the initial direction, it’s as if Thurston got bored or lacked the will to continue restraining himself – that he still pulls neat stretched metal tones from the instrument is fine, but in a piece that had relied so firmly on a particular approach it’s a shame to lose the focus. By fourteen minutes the singular direction re-establishes itself at a higher tone with a undercurrent of mangling persisting behind, beneath, below to take us through to the sixteen minute cut mark. Track two, “O Sweet Lanolin”, builds a beat rapped out fairly constantly in the background while a second guitar is struck, bowed, sliced, hacked at. The rumbling beat palm-thumped into the guitar sometimes forms a breathing space before Thurston’s fresh attacks, a place of retreat but also a creeping warning – shark fin piercing the water. At four minutes in the song switches and a hum of electric intervenes before the combination of pounding and scraped interventions resumes. For all the reputation of Sonic Youth (and Thurston and Lee specifically) as the archetype string-scraping guitarists, it’s amazing in Thurston’s solo discography that it’s rare that he releases a piece in which the scrape of one object across the guitar is audible – usually it’s disguised by effects boxes and heavy distortion so hearing it relatively naked is a fresh hearing for a familiar sound. At six minutes the song becomes almost an instrumental interlude for 1983’s “Confusion is Sex” LP, a harking back to the ground out sound of that early era. Time and again this song pulls back to the beat prior to a next direction – heard as a suite of ideas built around a central theme it’s surprisingly effective and becomes easier to appreciate the movement between ideas as something more than just really dang loud whimsy. It’s also a deeply effective way to create momentum for a solo guitar track. In the absence of rhythm section or song structure a solo guitar can often become trapped – either hovering motionless or pouring out momentary inclinations to the extent that it feels similarly immobile. Here, Thurston uses the motif to mark beginnings and ends, to transition to-and-from ideas, to bind things that don’t have much more than source musician/source instrument in common to a simple structure. By the close of the track one feels one has had a Chinese banquet of small dishes wrapped into twelve minutes.

Returning to the oft-made association of Sonic Youth’s erstwhile denizens and noise, it remains noticeable how rarely Thurston crossed into the scene. The 2000s saw a significant outpouring of recordings belonging to that realm, a huge array of takes and variations owing more or less to SY’s kicked open doors while another entirely span of noise evolved out of Dylan Carlson’s Earth and more metal inclined interests. Certainly the influence of Thurston’s parent band introduced many listeners of the punk/alternative/indie field to the idea that music could be a far more factitious, fragmented and wild thing than the fairly stable forms of the (then) underground allowed. SY also patronised and promoted bands from these far out places by taking them on tour and referencing them…But Thurston’s solo work rarely coincides with such outfits. A 7” with John Wiese and a cassette performance with Aaron Dilloway – still of Wolf Eyes at that time – emerged in 2004 and 2006 respectively…That’s about it. That slim line of distinction between a noise artist and an improvising free jazz artist might seem imaginary but given Thurston’s well-testified enjoyment of many of their works it’s curious that he didn’t play more with the key figures who made up ‘noise’ as a scene rather than a sound.

Still, the depth of commitment is clear; Thurston worked with two major figures, contributed to a label then openly penned praise of the scene – on top of his interview statements. 2008’s “Sensitive/Lethal” shared not only its solo nature with “Please Just Leave Me” from 1996, but also the presence of another of Thurston’s inlay addresses to an unknown person. It’s an open hymn of praise to the then ascendant noise scene; “why don’t you come over to my house babe and help me alphabeticize my noise tapes. There’s only one we’ll really play and that’s the Haters/Merzbow banned production cassette. It is theee quintessential. And then basement jam and then wine and then marijuana and then the continuous heaven. Blessed are the noise musicians for they shall go down in history. Way, way down.” A back-handed compliment memorialising the deliberately marginal scene Thurston was a patron of – the release even came out on Carlos Giffoni’s “No Fun Productions”, one of the freshest labels in the scene. The release, however, has a difficult nature. The first track puts a noise guitar solo against a monotonous, leaden guitar rhythm. The idea in itself has an intellectual credibility, the same instrument letting lose in two completely different ways and placed alongside one another as if ignorant of the other’s existence. The challenge is that the latter rhythm annihilates any ability to observe the progression or intrigue of the noise guitar, while itself being utterly uninteresting. The constant shifting directions make it impossible to settle into any kind of mantra-like listening experience, there’s nothing meditational, but also nothing to focus on. In some ways achieving such an alienating sound is impressive but it doesn’t mean it’s an experiment that has any need to be played twice. Track 2’s crepuscular sea shanty rises and falls like an automated machine, a relentless cycle of creaks and shudders, metal on metal – listening carefully, however, there’s a second guitar playing something akin to a blue trumpet wailing in the background, the occasional throb or moan of electric. This second layer rises up over the automata, subtly layering the sound field so for a long time it goes unnoticed…And then it’s all over. Done. The final track, I’d be hard pressed to lend it a name, presses a descending high tone over the eruptions of a pummelled guitar chopping in and out…And then a simpler track arises, the bleating high pitch over a crackling, scraped and clattering guitar assault ultimately resolved as both instruments dissolve into brutal sine-tones dancing around one another, possible the nearest the release has come to a duet as well as an echo of “Pleasure Just Leave Me” and it’s similar decision to dance at those high pitches. The whole release seems to focus on this desire to use a second track over the first while maintaining minimum linkage between them – like a full album of anti-collaborations.

“Built for Loving” (2008) is primarily built on short pieces – a relatively effective way to appreciate the tones and sounds Thurston can rip out of a guitar. There’s a kinship with Lee Ranaldo’s infamous 1987 release “From Here To Infinity” LP (I once heard tell that the large etching on Side B was intended to deliberately destroy your record player needle – I don’t know the truth of that) which consisted of brief experimental noise loops. There’s that feeling that this is a simply excerpts from a much larger library of tests Thurston has built up over the years – no proof but it would seem odd if these pieces were recorded solely for this release. There’s a compilation feel to the blend of brief song fragments that seem to be sketches for a late-era (re: mellowed out) SY album, the basement tape hardcore group effort at one point, then the different versions of torn out noise. The porn film interludes don’t really lend much to proceedings – they’re neither integrated sufficiently to provide a backdrop to anything music, nor warped or deranged enough to be intriguing in and of themselves. The brevity of the pieces is to their benefit and that isn’t a criticism. While live improvisation with a collaborator permits someone else to lead, to make decisions, while one rests and gathers one’s own muse, a solo setting puts a lot of weight on a single individual which has a consequence with individuals either tempted to over-perform (too much happening) or to coast (too little.) A brief solo piece allows a set arc or destination, allows a sound to be explored, shuffled, prodded and then halted as it reaches its end. Here, in vinyl format, it’s possible to hear even the longest tracks as discreet events, as suites. The release certainly highlights the difference between Thurston ‘playing’ versus Thurston quite clearly evading any such action. Side B’s final five minute piece, “Sex Addict”, are the most satisfying with the use of silence and space surrounding each emerging sound – whether submarine sonar pips, or the dry stutter that runs through most of the track, it’s an idea taken for a ride. Similarly, side A’s conclusion, “Los Angeles”, inhabit a particular type of noise for a period of time then depart. What’s the difference between purposeful noise and noise? I think it’s a sense of remaining with a recognisable sound without twisting it so far it becomes something different, yet continuing to see how that one sound can be tweaked and driven within its boundaries…And knowing when there’s nothing more to dredge from it. Side A track “Hell” heads too much that way for me; the sound has reached its limit within the first thirty seconds, it’s essentially a beat made on a vocoder – it does one thing, nothing more, all you can do is move it faster, slower like a microwave tone telling you it’s done. I guess it’s also fair to mention that the release sits alongside a long-running porn-thread in Thurston’s work starting with the angelic visage of Traci Lords on the 1990 12” “Disappearer” single, continuing with the “Weapons of Ass Destruction” collaboration and onto this one release. Then again, it’s not unique to SY – the band’s interest in America’s trash culture is well-documented, Madonna’s entire shtick continues to the present day in the pop world – it’s all representative of America’s yin-yang relation to commercial sexuality and the female body in general but let’s not go into that here.

A crucial concluding point here is how rare these true solo efforts are and that there’s a clear trajectory within them. Thurston’s discography, runs to some 127 releases yet ultimately the only completely solo releases of the Nineties are the “Sulphur” 7” in 1993 then “Please Just Leave Me” in 1996 with the partial diversion of “Piece for Yvonne Rainer.” After that there’s a silence for some ten years – Thurston devotes himself to a ten year spell in which his discography only features collaborative works. It emphasises the sense of a musician both seeking to learn from others and also enjoying the musical pleasure of communion and community. The paucity of solo work makes it easy to suggest that 2006 onward is a significant divergence. There are actually three strands at that point. Firstly there’s the continuation of his electric guitar work via “Flipped Out Bride” (2006), “Sensitive/Lethal” (2008) and “Built for Loving” (2008.) Secondly, he deviates significantly in terms of his regular instrumentation into a number of solo acoustic explorations consisting of “Suicide Notes for Acoustic Guitar” (2010), “Solo Acoustic Volume 5” (2011) and “12 String Meditations for Jack Rose” (2011) – prior to that the most visible acoustic pieces involving Thurston had been 1994’s “Winner’s Blues” kicking off SY’s “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” then a piece called “Altar Boy, Church Basement” on the “Hurricane Floyd” release of 2000. The use of an acoustic in a guitarist’s vocabulary would barely raise mention except Thurston’s reputation and discography is built so solidly on electrics that the sudden emergence in just those two years makes as big a point as SY’s attempt to shake off the mainstream/alternative/grunge hangover in 1993-1994 does; it’s a deliberate wrong-footing of audience expectations and a documenting of an aspect of his work that’s either been unseen or has taken this long to gain confidence or is simply ringing the changes while coinciding with his more mellow approach around this time. There’s also a far smaller thread of solo releases that pointedly emerged on cassette; “Free/Love” (2006), “Black Weeds-White Death” (2007), “Blindfold” (2008), then a true oddity, the “Voice Studies: Love Song as a Lion/Lonely Charm” cassette of 2011. Thurston acted as editor for the book “Mix Tape: the Art of Cassette Culture” published in 2005 which posited the cassette mixtape (and the more current cassette underground) as a form of folk art and lo-fi communicator among scenes and musicians without the money to press vinyl or CD – it seems no coincidence that he should suddenly add his weight to the cassette scene just as even cassettes gave way to downloads as the cheapest medium for new bands to share. Thus, the break back to solo improvisation combined with two further breaks in Thurston’s output – one instrumental, the other related to the medium used.

For me, these truly solo releases allow an opportunity to study Thurston’s technique in isolation, without distraction. It’s his omnivorousness as a guitarist that has always made him hard to peg to a specific sound while clearly marking his work. While not underrating the deeper complexities of their abilities, someone like Derek Bailey, or Loren Connors, has a signature based on the guitar deployed with a particular instrumental technique. Thurston roots his style in the use of the guitar as a channel, not for the motion of his hands, but for the sounds that can be created from it – this includes incorporating and manipulating sound produced by the amplifier (and by amplification) into a complete loop dissolving the boundaries between player-instrument-equipment. At times he’s merely tempering or unleashing the sounds a chosen combination of amp and effect is producing – a gateway, a limiter, an accelerant. That’s the key aspect of the ‘Thurston Moore guitar sound’; he doesn’t slave the guitar to a technical expression of fast finger-work, nor to a vast interest in the playing of traditional chords and notes. That isn’t to say he isn’t in control but his confidence is clear in how he’ll acquiesce to a momentary impulse – tapping, muting, plucking, strumming, rapping, punching – and see how the instrument reacts. He then decides whether the result is something that should be cut off at once, or permitted to proceed, or repeated for further study and investigation. At times he’s effectively ‘unplaying’, evading anything as practised as soloing or as posed as rhythm. Thurston Moore, in his more out-there ventures, is willing to surrender to the instrument; a unique and very intriguing characteristic of his playing. The flipside to that is his usually quite choppy and savage mastery when he does choose to play nice – even on acoustic he hacks out chords and very audibly strikes the guitar strings in what a more mannered guitarist would think of as an uncultured style. He evades traditional technique through constancy, his core tactic is to have one hand strumming without any allegiance to a traditional time signature with deviations created via a shift in position or combination on the guitar neck or a change in tempo. The result is a more liquid progression rather than the ‘blocks’ from which most guitar music is formed. It’s like continuous soloing and it’s what marries Thurston’s improvisational approach to his alternative rock chops.

Thurston Moore’s Solo Work Part 2: The Big Rock Era and Emergence


…But not yet. The early Nineties are dominated by Sonic Youth’s major label adventure during which they solidify a reputation as the best boosters any struggling musician in the music scene could wish for, hoist Nirvana to the top of the tree, generally run themselves ragged and come as close to recording a straight forward alternative rock record as they can. All of which postpones Thurston’s solo work near completely. The “Barefoot in the Head” recording doesn’t come out until 1990 while “Stinkfist and the Crumb” again disguises how bare of alternative works this period is. 1989 through 1991 there are no new Thurston Moore solo releases of which I’m aware. 1992-1993 sees two singles with his wife and bandmate Kim Gordon; a cover with Epic Soundtracks of Bob Dylan’s “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” on a promo 12” (an effectively dirty cover with Thurston’s vocals treated and musical accompaniment that’s as reverential as SY’s “Into the Groove(y)” – there’s even room for some Iggy Pop style whooping at the end); then the more substantial but still indie rock orientated Mirror/Dash single (a very likeable bit of work incidentally.) In the background there’s the Dim Stars project with Steve Shelley, Don Fleming and punk legend Richard Hell, again, a pretty likeable and decent punk rock project yielding a five song EP in 1991, then a full album in 1992 (plus a CD promo featuring one song from the album backed with one track from the EP.) It’s all great guitar playing, all good rock side-project fodder…But not really what we’re looking for.

The first inkling of what is to come emerges with a 1993 7” single on Table of Elements featuring “Starfield Wild”, an extrapolation from, or sketch for, the Sonic Youth song “Starfield Road” – a pretty awesome rocker – and the “Earth/Amp” experimental piece on the B-Side. Again, what he’s displaying is his mastery of improvisational rock guitar, of using every aspect of the instrument to create sound but mainly focusing on feedback and volume to create impact.

“Klangfarbenmelodie and the Colorist Strikes Primitiv” (1995) was my introduction to Thurston Moore at his most out there – a school trip to London in about 1996 brought it into my possession. Examining it now, what allowed me to access the music therein was that it’s ultimately so close to an extended Sonic Youth solo, a more naked example of what Thurston was doing with his main outfit. The sparseness of the live sound, the absence of any major production gloss or polish, pointed back to pre-major label Sonic Youth with its lengthy strumming – the guitar-work is no more alien than some of the work on “Bad Moon Rising.” In a way that’s what’s clearest here is that Thurston is having to revert to earlier habits and approaches to the guitar in order to undergo the relearning necessary to perform in the improvisational sphere. The briefer second track on the release – “Phase II” – is a step forward, less a barrage of guitar, more an open and parched plain but ultimately it reverts back to strumming.

A year further on and Thurston performed with William Winant and Tom Surgal at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville on May 17, 1996, released as “Piece for Jetsun Dolma.” Thurston’s range of tactics has expanded – the record makes more use of pauses and silences, a surprisingly rare thing in any mainstream/alternative record where pausing for breath is an exceptional event except where a track ends. What dominates in terms of vibe is, almost inevitably, percussion. Two drummers create a hell of a lot of sound and motion and Thurston has definitely evolved once more, his playing tends to keep pace with the activities of his colleagues and he’s brought his guitar back to its basic nature as a percussive unit – a guitar sound built on spikes and strikes rather than on runs of notes. He also exhibits an interest in simply not playing at points; there’s a lot of use made of the power connection to the guitar, tugging at it and manoeuvring the cable to deliver jolts of pure electricity, jabbing it in/out of the socket to yield sharp peaks of static – in the company of tumbling drums it’s a really effective way to rise above the clatter while creating a striking sound. Often he lets the guitar hum, almost as a way to permit breaks in activity, the drums often fall away and the moving static fills the space until the next direction is chosen and approached. It’s visible that with an hour to spare Thurston is uncomfortable sticking to one approach or one methodology, instead the record reveals a wealth of approaches tried for size, worn briefly, then discarded – it’s the musical equivalent of an indecisive pre-date night teen wardrobe experience. It makes it hard to describe a style, or to label the performance in any singular way; Thurston’s hyperactivity is mostly what’s on display. Of course, given the full bag of tricks he has to play with – everything from swelling vibrations tapped out through the guitar body, to glass rattling sounds, to scrunched strings, to yanked notes – it’s no surprise that in this early spell he still wants to throw everything at the wall.

1997 brought the “Lost to the City/Noise to Nowhere” release offering another chance to inspect Thurston in the company of Surgal and Winant. The guitar is a foregrounded presence by comparison to “Piece for Jetsun Dolma.” It reads more as an out-of-control noise solo in many ways with a fairly sustained array of rubbed and scraped strings fed through whatever battery of effects Thurston has present. Striking strings as they’re warped beyond their usual limits to create bell like sounds and chimes is so familiar from Thurston’s work with SY that it’s too easy to forget that it was probably him who made it a valid approach for other avant-guitarists – he’s allowed to use it. The performance wraps together vestigial ideas that on another day, intended for future development and not as a live experience in one place and time, would fill moments and peg together the components of numerous songs. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t hear in a avant-rock song, it’s simply that we’re listening to dozens of ideas for sound-generation strung together in an album length chain of momentary impulses or longer explorations. The brief eight minutes of “Noise to Nowhere” is a very effectively subdued piece conducted solo – or as near as dammit. Gusts of static hover, swell and deepen. In the background a series of near-electric cracks and pops presumably delivered by gentle work against the outer casings of a drum set, or an assorted selection of well miced percussive gadgetry, provide a neatly scrappy presence – like hail stones tapping against a house as clouds pass over. There’s a temptation, just in the final brief minute or so, to relinquish the restraint held over the piece but it never comes and it’s all the better for it. Sound is simply coaxed into the air, shifts and falls once more. The release leads to the question of whether one prefers the more frenetic and splutteringly active Thurston or the controlled and patient conjurer of ghosts present on the second track.

Thurston teamed with Tom Surgal yet again for 1998’s “Not Me” which came backed with a track called “Lydia’s Moth” (I’ll be intrigued to learn someday if this is a reference of some kind to Madame Lunch…) There’s no crowd noise on the first track, no sense of wider location though I’m presuming it was captured at the same time as track two which is punctuated with coughs, stray conversation and a single burst of applause somewhere in the middle of the effort – an unusual crowd, either totally silent or unable to avoid interrupting. The two players trace and follow one another all around the first track – it’s explicit at three minutes in where Tom’s drum work reduces to a simple thud with Thurston’s matching time. Later each instrument skitters, patters and squeaks – again, seeming to match one another’s interest in light and brief sounds. Bursts of louder volume and longer duration are greeted with accompanying drum rolls and sustained patterns until at ten minutes in the guitar falls away to the hum of electric with occasional drum-work marking a gentle descent to conclusion. “Lydia’s Moth”, again, treads similar territory. Single plucked notes with no obvious tonal relationship are fired and allowed to fall onto a bedrock of cymbal work. The notes become pairs – usually quite piercing, usually a fair distance apart on the scale – then eventually slow runs develop, cycles of notes rising, pausing, then descending once more. Tom maintains a constantly active backdrop to this sometimes chilly recording – the black and white only artwork with its austere picture of British Sixties’ model Twiggy on the front then a blankly staring alt-teen on the back contributes to that bleached out air – the high tones make me think of icy mornings. Thurston is genuinely playing here – constructing combinations of notes, building several passages and developments to the piece and never masking the string sound with overdriven effects. The purity of the playing matches the packaging neatly for this curt 21 minutes.

In the background, a further fertile collaboration was occuring with Nels Cline (most famous for his time in Wilco but very much a man with feet in the jazz camp.) Jumping ahead, I’d like to highlight one release as possibly my favourite Thurston solo catalogue entry. January 2001’s performance at Easthampton Town Hall and the subsequent release thereof benefitted the Flywheel Community Arts Space ( – phew, thank God it was properly documented in such superb sound quality, it’s a contender for one of my favourite live releases in the Thurston Moore catalogue (“Live at Easthampton Town Hall.”) The two guitarists, Thurston and Nels Cline, align themselves with the sound of Zeena Parkins’ electric harp, the release is a series of high tones and chimes layered over her shimmering sustained field of sound. It’s that coherence and cohesion between the noises produced by the three participants that makes it so satisfying, there’s a unified direction achieved throughout. While one guitar predominantly contributes solitary notes or clusters thereof, the other embarks on strummed runs that give the whole a song-like feeling. That willingness to pluck repeating, then shifting, riffs over the bell-like core of the piece gives the piece a real density lacking from a lot of the guitar/drum duo releases – plus it doesn’t rest solely on one player to propel the piece forward. It also gives the wilder flurries something to push against – there’s less a feeling of randomness, more a sense of a guitar player selecting ways in which to harry and shove at the relative static contentment of his associates. The links to a traditional rock performance seep in so by twenty minutes in there’s a solid rhythm guitar kicking at a steady pace over rumbles and bird squawks eased from the other two instrumentalists. This ebbs and the next tide of crackles, wails and scrapes washes in. There’s a conversational style, sometimes no one says anything for surprisingly lengthy periods – then one player will fire off a sound and the others will respond, or talk over one another. There’s something like a warped gypsy jazz going on – runs of notes, little solos, reduced to electronically-dosed blooping. Some beautifully spectral slide work from about the 43 minute mark pleases me infinitely. This whole release isn’t a million miles from some of the wilder work of the instrumental post-rock bands who had their brief peak in the lead-up to the millennium.

Perhaps it helps that Nels Cline has both past form with Thurston and has his own experience of operating in the jazz realm and the rock world too. Watching Nels throttle the life out of a guitar during his stint as Wilco’s guitarist a couple years back (2011? Thank you for letting me come with you Charlie Tee and for giving me the spare ticket!!) was awe-inspiring – watching him seesaw to his own internal urges was what kept me in the room. The guy bears a passing resemblance to Thurston, like his more muscular and stocky brother or something, and it was so visible how much he was putting into the instrument – the physical effort involved in choking, bending, stretching the guitar mirrored by his own physical contortions. In that performance his noise diversions worked well over a solid rhythmic backing – a traditional rock set-up given fresh accents and ad-libs which kept the randomness in a box. It’s easy to criticise these kinds of instrumental rock treatments for the limited moves available – loud bit, quiet bit, fast bit, slow bit, hum or strum, note or not – but that’s a critique of the nature of sound not of this style of music; ultimately there are only so many approaches to sound available in this world. There’s a fair critique to be made, however, that the recordings produced of performances such as Easthampton lose a vast quantity of the sweat and toil that went into them as live spectacles. Watching these two guys hack a myriad of sounds out of their instruments in a live environment where the sound surrounds and enfolds the listener and where the eyes can constantly draw physical associations between the motion and movement of a guitarist and the emerging sounds is a very different prospect to hearing it float out of a stereo.

(Thurston Moore and Nels Cline – live in 2011)

The “In-Store” performance by Thurston and Nels at the Rhino store on Westwood Boulevard in LA on December 30, 1996 sounds like a wicked note on which to end a year (side-bar: Nirvana played there in 1989. The footage is online if you want a sense of the store as a physical space before listening to this performance by Thurston n’ Nels.) One niggle is that they’ve gone to the trouble of identifying four ‘songs’ or title-worthy performances that took place during the in-store…But I’m damned if I can pick the bones out of it. There’s a fairly standard rock approach to performing with another guitarist often present here – one guitar lays down the backing rhythm, in this case more often a soundfield provided by roaring noise, while the other plays stunt guitar over the top, whacking in contrasting peaks and spikes. These were among the most effects-driven releases in the solo catalogue – an apology at this point that I’m not better at parsing out the different sounds created by different boxes of treats. Nels (my assumption) contributes the finger-picked patterns also present at the Easthampton performance as a contrast to Thurston’s straight forward rock hammers and trills. For a Sonic Youth fan, or an alternative rock fan in general, the recordings with Nels Cline form possibly the best introduction to Thurston’s more esoteric interests and diversions. It also leads one to stress the similarities between the two players with Nels perhaps having a more traditional guitar style but operating equally happily in Thurston’s more disjointed stomping ground. But still, what we’re listening to is an avant-rock guitarist working only just beyond that terrain – on all these releases there’s a lot of retreating to comfortable modes and repetitions. Total command isn’t yet established.

(Thurston Moore and Nels Cline – THE in-store video)

That same statement is true of the studio document – “Pillow Wand” – created by these two gentleman at New Zone Studio on that same day in 1996. It explains why the “Where the Hell is Tommy Hall?” piece incorporates elements of the “Tommy Hall Dragnet” piece from earlier/later that same day – Tommy Hall, incidentally, being a founder member of the 13th Floor Elevators and a player of the electric jug…No clue I admit whether the piece is intended as an actual musical interpretation of his instrument or playing style. While still an exercise in experimental guitar, it’s safe to refer to these five pieces – all circa 10-15 minutes in length – with reference to song-craft. The opener, “Burnt Klubgirl Lid Tone”, as an echoing feel, a gentleness, with plenty of space for a vocal or backing rhythm to peg it together into a non-traditional rock song, something along the lines of the song “Move Away” from the Demonlover OST. The “Blues for Helen Burns” continues this introspective vibe, perhaps more tentatively, it deviates several times until settling into the overlapping walking guitar lines that suggest a direct channelling of Sonic Youth’s work in the “Washing Machine”/”A Thousand Leaves” era. The “Tommy Hall Dragnet” pulls the album out of its established mode in favour of a circular rubbery sounding backing played against a slicing high-pitch shiver of guitar – the stuttering ambience is a real contrast to the open spaces permitted earlier. “We Love Our Blood” is the highlight for me, solemn wintry guitar notes descending over the cracks and snaps of a rickety ranch porch – breaking into a fuller composition at about four minutes in, a cycle in minor keys over an echoing guitar solo. Finisher “I Inhale You” walks very similar terrain, there’s something country-tinged in the jangling guitar backing over which Thurston picks complimentary notes – it’s akin to Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” in its endlessness, a seemingly static backing in which details are constantly shifting and moving on as sloppiness or deliberate changes impact the overall form and send it elsewhere. There’s a similarity too versus “Tommy Hall Dragnet”, another clearing of the throat where constant sound replaces the manners of the other three compositions. This is deeply picky but I wish the soft strums of the final few minutes of “I Inhale You” replaced the noise diversion that tears apart the whispered threat of “We Love Our Blood” – it’d make it a perfect composition. Still, a small quibble with what is an accomplished studio collaboration between two very well-matched guitarists.

I’ve pulled out just these two consistent collaborations from the discography while thoroughly acknowledging that what is visible on releases represents perhaps only a fraction of the live work that was occurring in this spell. It seemed a way to focus conversation. This’ll get increasingly difficult over the following few days – essentially as the discography explodes and the records are hurled into the world it gets harder to tease threads…Let’s see how I do huh?

New Year, New Indulgence – the Solo Discography of Thurston Moore Part One

And a happy New Year to one and all! Totally self-indulgent desire to rampage through my own record collection and use the blog as an excuse to think about some of it in more detail; I’d like to dissect the discography of Thurston Moore.

My first Sonic Youth release was an SST greatest hits in 1998 called “Screaming Fields of Sonic Love” (still an awesome title.) A copy of the “Dirty Boots” EP followed and I was hooked forever more; an open statement of allegiance – I agree with the critical hype and think Sonic Youth are the most significant rock band of the last thirty years bar none. My engagement with their work became a full scale fetish which led me into collecting solo material by each band member. Alas, the sheer scale became so gargantuan (and so pricey) I had to halt the forward motion – despite retaining great affection for Steve Shelley’s Two Dollar Guitar outfit, for Lee Ranaldo’s solo works (“Dirty Windows” and “Amarillo Ramp” being key recommendations), for Kim Gordon’s work as Harry Crews in 1989 or Free Kitten on and off ever since. I persisted with Thurston’s work in a far more devoted fashion and this is a ramble through his non-Sonic Youth outings which I’ll refer to, as convenient shorthand, as his solo career.

Combining a variety of online sources (and still feeling fairly positive my list is incomplete), I count 127 non-Sonic Youth releases by Thurston Moore either under his own name, with various co-credited collaborators, or under band guises. Very few of those releases are singles and I refuse to count single track contributions to compilations either; it’s an immense body of work allowing one to track the development of his style and approach across those years. You’ll see on the table below – and accepting that I may be missing or misdating a few releases given how much Thurston has blurted out into the world – that there’s a definite trend in Thurston’s release schedule. Prior to 2006, the most he puts out in a single year is six releases in 1995, six in 1997 and six in 2000. Those years emphasise a trend, however, as in 1995 four of those releases are briefer seven inch single tracks, in 1997 only one is, by 2000 none of them are. I’m stretching some by including the “Cindy” and “Ono Soul” singles of 1995 as full Thurston releases but in that first decade and a half of his career the paucity of non-Sonic Youth releases is very clear. Of course, by that I mean his release rate is comparable to a typical musician.

Increasingly after 1995 Thurston’s releases are made up of LP length live recordings and LP length studio compositions. A related but distinct trend, however, is his increasing devotion to creating documentation of those events. While the nature of his releases started to change from 1995, the release schedule only truly explodes in 2006. There’s definitely pent-up activity at first; he released nothing in 2005, an exceptional year, then the dam busts wide open. There are nine Thurston Moore releases in 2006 – he’s at ten in 2007 – by 2008 he hits a peak of twelve. Then suddenly there’s a dip encompassing 2009-2011. Without prying a knife around in the details it’s fair to say that much was going on in Thurston’s personal life and therefore his professional life given the crossover between the two. The result is clear in his release schedule; just two in 2009, the lowest tally since 1993-1994. That steps up rapidly to Thurston’s ‘new normal’ with five releases in 2010, seven in 2011 – a breath drawn in 2012 with only four – then back to a maniacal peak of twelve in 2013, eight in 2014 and 2015 already promises a planned split single on the Fuzz Club label and a further live collaboration with John Moloney. That’s an incredible rate of activity; Thurston has released 70 recordings in just eight years – in the rock domain the only peers I can think of are Psychic TV’s attempt to release a record of their semi-improvisational concert ‘happenings’ every month or the manic live releases of someone like Yellow Swans.

Where did it all start?

Quietly is the inappropriate and amusing answer. Thurston is very honest that he arrived in his first band, the Coachmen, essentially unable to play a note of guitar – the 1988 release “Failure to Thrive” collected early demos on friend Mike Watt’s label New Alliance but isn’t much of a guide to his ensuing path in music. The only other visible evidence of Thurston’s pre-1982 endeavours consist of a 50 second rip called “The Fucking Youth of Today” released in 1981 on an LP for a magazine called ‘Just Another Asshole’ (run by Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess), March 1982’s first Sonic Youth EP on Branca’s label, plus Sonic Youth’s first ever performance in June 1981 at an event Thurston curated called ‘Noise Fest’:
(Sonic Youth’s First Performance)

His participation – under strict structural guidance – in the early guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca are the true commencement of Thurston’s music. The early Branca releases on which Thurston features consist of a 1982 release of the musical accompaniment to a dance performance called ‘Bad Smells’, two live guitar symphonies released in 1983 and recorded in July 1981 and January 1983 respectively (Symphony 1 and 3), then a further May 1982 performance emerging a decade later on Atavistic as Symphony 2 (God I love this label!) Glenn Branca’s website suggests (as of September 2, 2014) that there’s going to finally be an MP3 release of Symphony 4 “Physics” which has always been a blatant gap in his recorded repertoire. I believe that it was during the European touring of no.4 in 1983 that the Sonic Youth crew and Branca parted company. Sonic Youth basically piggybacked their own first European tour onto his symphony tour – something he was apparently none too happy about. The cut-off point between the two bands is pretty blatant; January 1983 Lee Ranaldo and Thurston are both part of Symphony 3, February 1983 Sonic Youth release their first proper album “Confusion is Sex” – the line is drawn and Branca is history.

(Glenn Branca Symphony No.2 Excerpt from YouTube)

The Lydia Lunch collaborations commence during this same period with the November 1982 recording for the “In Limbo” EP (1984) on which Thurston is credited for composing the music on four efforts. While it’s rare that Thurston composes music for others outside of SY, the release doesn’t tell us much about his capabilities as a band leader and Thurston sticks to bass guitar throughout. The songs all stay true to Lydia’s then dominant gothic vibe – how ‘composed’ the songs are is a matter of debate, they’re looser than his work for Sonic Youth but by no means ad-libbed jams ( With no intention for this to sound like criticism his playing very much sounds like a man learning an instrument – he provides a solid, stable bedding for the other musicians to romp around on. It’s akin to his early Sonic Youth playing where the sound n’ fury was a case of volume masking poor equipment and limited technique – of course, the restrictions of that early work became a leitmotif of the band’s work, I’m a genuine believer that the best art is usually a result of artists reacting to limitations with imagination where easy answers, cash solutions, bought answers usually produces lazy, rote results.

(Lydia Lunch performing with Thurston in 2013)

It’s nearly two years before Lydia lends her high profile (and distinctive talent) to the July 1984 recording of Death Valley ’69; Sonic Youth’s first hit and first real classic. Thurston is later able to repay her profile-raising support in the 1987-1989 period when Sonic Youth have risen to the top of the underground. In May 1987 Thurston records one song with Lydia and Clint Ruin (a JG Thirwell pseudonym), “The Crumb”, which emerges on a 1988 single and a later 1989 CD compilation. Around that same time (or perhaps on the same occasion) he adds contributions to two songs on Lydia’s “Honeymoon in Red.” “The Crumb” shows how far Thurston has come – aspects of it are close to the chaotic experimentation of the Ciccone Youth project (1986-1988) or of Sonic Youth’s Master Dik EP (1987) with drums foregrounded, unusual cuts and shifts between sections, Moore’s vocals deliberately dramatized, plus studio effects provided by Clint Ruin. The song shows Thurston’s openness to playing with sound, a willingness to be used as raw material. It’s also the first time, on a non-SY release, in a non-live setting that he’s really given himself over to something approaching noise as opposed to well-structured songs. The two songs on “Honeymoon in Red” are “So Your Heart” – another trio with Lydia and Clint Ruin – and “Three Kings” where, in both cases his work was added during remixing of Lydia’s 1982 recordings with the Birthday Party. “So Your Heart” is a beautiful phantom tune, echoing guitar, no drums or rhythm marking time, a mist hanging behind the voice. Meanwhile on “Three Kings” Thurston’s “sonic holocaust guitar” (as credited) doesn’t cut in until around the two-and-a-half minute mark. While “The Crumb” said more about SY’s then side-project entertainments, it’s here on “Three Kings” that it’s absolutely visible that Thurston’s own musical voice has solidified – he sounds like ‘him’. Firstly, the expert whipping of feedback and effects from the guitar is unmistakable, secondly there’s an inkling of what would become SY’s ever-more-prevalent working method in which a song would consist of the solid rhythm section, a strong lead guitar line to the fore, then one guitar designated to provide effects and emphases often lower in the mix.

In his earliest days there are no surprises yet; it’s clear that Thurston’s milieu remains the New York No Wave set of which Sonic Youth are seen as inheritors and bearers of the legacy. It’s also very visible how central Sonic Youth is to his creative identity. Essentially his non-Sonic Youth endeavours for the entirety of the Eighties and on into the Nineties consists of 1981-1983’s Glenn Branca gigs, then the three releases with Lydia Lunch breaking evenly between the one effort in 1982 then the three songs of 1987. There’s one offcut performed with SY buddies as ‘Lucky Sperms’ but that’s it…So far undeviated. While Thurston’s SY identity is set by then, June 1988’s session with two-thirds of Borbetomagus is the first real indication of where he might be bound.

Sonic Youth’s reputation as quintessential noiseniks does them a sore disservice. It underrates their true talent which was the weaving and controlling of unconventional sounds to enhance songs that drew directly on standard pop and rock approaches; they were a deviation not a repudiation of rock music just as punk was a reforging not an extermination. In a way its quaint how unwelcoming the mainstream was given it’s now commonplace for pop and dance hits to consist of structured static and spitting wires. Borbetomagus, at their rawest, are far better claimants to the ‘lords of noise’ title than Sonic Yout were with two saxophones shrieking for all they’re worth and near drowning out the guitar. The “Barefoot in the Head” collaboration with Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich would be the next big step for Thurston’s solo efforts and actually his comrades are surprisingly restrained during this session. “All Doors Look Alike” seems to be about clearing cowards from the room before they really get going. It’s a really atmospheric record, controlled breathing turning the saxophones into a series of jabs, thrusts, underpinning tones. Thurston chips in a combination of rubbed jangling strings and thumped necks which can sometimes make him seem quite backward in terms of his experimental urges – he may sound like rock guitar God Thurston Moore, but he isn’t the man leading this ensemble or making its most telling connections. It’s actually really understandable; while a rock band might deviate from plan on stage, devolve into lengthy jams, record endless noodling, there’s usually a core of bass/drums, perhaps a time signature, almost always a place to come back to or someone ‘holding the line’ while the others thrash it out – plus while they might spin out for a while the bulk of what they do is defined song forms, structures they’re taught, practice, drill and learn by heart. This isn’t true of an improvisational unit. There’s a level of action and reaction when working in a collaboration of this nature – of making sound not for the heck of it but because it fits or works with or against other members of the unit. Similarly, the absence of conventional timing and rhythm means having to find new ways to provide momentum and progress within a song, a new way to create a logical beginning and end. Thurston can do the rock guitar stage moves and he’s become one of the most talented manipulators of a guitar in the world at that time…Here he’s attempting to learn an entirely new language.

For those completists among you (and anyone who can tell me what I’ve missed! Message me on – I’d welcome the updates!) here’s the complete table of 127 releases in the Thurston Moore solo discography.

Thurston Moore_Page_1

Thurston Moore_Page_2

Thurston Moore_Page_3

Thurston Moore_Page_4

As a PS John Moloney very kindly got in touch and pointed out that I’m missing two releases he’s aware of (that further support the weight of his collaborative relationship with Thurston – as an aside I always feel weird using first name for people I’ve never been closer to than sharing space in the crowd as Byron Coley reads on a small stage, but calling people ‘Moore’ feels like being in that school again…) Firstly, The Peeper “Time Machine” from 2008 – and, secondly, a February 2012 outing for the Sunburned Hand of Man entitled “The Tingle of Casual Danger” –

As a PPS Would you believe me if I said this just started as a way to take a break from working away on a Nirvana book? I Found My Friends is out in March so if anyone reading this would be willing to share the link with friends I’d be honoured and delighted:

Beyond Nirvana: 10 Under the Radar Records of the North West Grunge Era Worthy of your Ears

Beyond Nirvana: 10 essential under-the-radar grunge records from the Seattle era

This is a piece I was invited to contribute recently by Anton and the kind people of the Vinyl Factory. As I say at the start, it would have been so easy just to list a batch of well known hits but…I think there’s so much music was pouring out of the region and so much that has been glossed over and erased from all but the deepest musicological explorations. These are ten I picked out – there are plenty of others worth a look – with a desire to provide ten contrasting sides of the State of Washington music scene. hope you enjoy and hope my verbal histrionics don’t distract too much from the quality of the releases I’m discussing.

Thanks to the crew at Soul Jazz for passing this request onto me – damn it was fun. Whittling anything down to ten is quite the exercise…