We’ve Got A File On You: Thurston Moore
The Sonic Youth legend on Bernie Sanders, black metal, Steve Albini, 'Gilmore Girls,' & more
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Thurston Moore has done so much in his decades-spanning career that he can barely remember some of it. Performing with Sonic Youth on cult comedy classic The State’s network television premiere? Doesn’t remember it. What about when the band appeared on the Canadian kids show Yo Awesome Awesome? Nope. Providing the voice of Mark Twain for a documentary on P.T. Barnum? To him, it might as well have never happened.
Moore’s forgetfulness is understandable. The 62-year-old experimental rock legend has broken musical boundaries as part of Sonic Youth, in his extensive solo career (including his new album By The Fire, which is out Friday), and through myriad one-off projects with various fellow rock icons. He’s also impacted mainstream culture numerous times in a way that many of his contemporaries haven’t; after all, not many Jim O’Rourke collaborators have appeared on The Simpsons and Gilmore Girls.
Moore’s cultural ubiquitousness over the past 30 years is also representative of a time in which left-field rock artists could truly break through to a major stage, if only for the pop-cultural equivalent of a few minutes. I’m not sure there could be another band like Sonic Youth in 2020, and along with his bandmates, Moore and his shaggy mop is a true original whose DNA simply can’t be replicated.
Over two sprawling conversations amounting to two and a half hours of chatter, Moore and I strolled down memory lane to discuss the various odd intersections and side projects that have made up a part of his expansive career.
Raymond Pettibon’s Weatherman ’69 (1989)
THURSTON MOORE: At that time, Raymond wasn’t the blue chip artist he’d soon become — he was still part of the SST family. This film was an extension of his drawings, which were loaded with these countercultural takes that borrowed narratives from literature he liked, colliding with all the absurdity he was seeing around the punk rock scene. His scripts were great works of literature themselves, but he wanted to have his friends and non-actors act them. [Laughs] We’d just go over there and have fun, not knowing what he’d ever do with these things.
When we did Weatherman ’69, my mother and brother were visiting Kim and I in LA, because Kim’s parents lived there so the whole band would stay at the Gordon residence. My brother’s in the film fleetingly — he was just along for the ride. [Laughs] A lot of it is brilliant, and unwatchable — because you’re watching a bunch of goofball indie rockers staring off-camera reading words off of placards. It was all about recitation of Raymond’s text, and he wasn’t asking too much in terms of technique.
I haven’t looked at any of those films for ages, and I always wonder whether I’d be able to watch one of them again. I thought his best film was Sir Drone, which was his take on punk rock. It’s hysterical because it’s a small cast — Mike Kelley and Mike Watt in a band together, bickering about what punk’s aesthetic is. Raymond said he based it on his experience starting the band Panic with his brother Greg, which eventually became Black Flag. He said, “I named the band Black Flag, but I left the band because everyone just bickered.” [Laughs] So he made a movie about that, and it’s my favorite one.
Dim Stars (1992)
MOORE: I’d started taking ads out for my record label Ecstatic Peace in the Forced Exposure fanzine while I was putting out 7″ vinyl and cassettes. I created some fake band names to give the illusion that the label was very active, like Mirror/Dash and Dim Stars. After I put the ad out, people started asking about those records, so I started to create those bands. Mirror/Dash was Kim and I.
Richard Hell had just written a review of Goo in SPIN, and he came to visit us when we were recording in the studio, so I’d kept in touch with him. When I was putting Dim Stars together with Steve Shelley and Don Fleming, I was like, “Why don’t we get the guy who invented punk rock to be the lead singer?” I reached out to Richard, and he was game. We covered cool, lost, underground American punk rock singles that only record nerds know about — records that meant nothing to Richard, so I had to tell him about them. He took my word on it. [Laughs]
While we were in the studio, I suggested doing a version of what I consider one of the greatest songs of all time, which was Richard Hell And The Voidoids’ “You Gotta Lose.” Richard showed us how to play the song, and then we went into an eight-to-ten-minute jam in the middle of it. I decided to keep the song, so we put out a triple-7″ where the cover of “You Gotta Lose” ran over four sides.
Richard is very charming, argumentative, and impossible, but I love the guy. When we do connect, we connect. He’s unlike anyone else I know. He really got off on doing that session, because he wasn’t really doing too much at the time other than writing. We ended up doing a gig at the Ritz in New York as part of a benefit for the Village Voice that Sonic Youth played. It was Dim Stars’ one and only gig, and it was pretty good. We ended up putting out an entire album, which got a bit of traction in recent years after Kurt Vile covered “The Monkey.”
Sonic Youth On The Late Show With David Letterman (1992)
MOORE: Let’s put it this way: We weren’t looking to become a TV rock band. [Laughs] But we were getting a lot of critical attention at the time, and lo and behold Letterman’s music supervisors asked us to play. You’re not gonna say “no,” obviously, unless you’re an anarchist punk band — which we weren’t. It was always scary to be on Letterman because if anyone was booted due to time, the first would be the musical act. You’d do all this work, and then they’d go, “Sorry!” I don’t think that ever happened to Sonic Youth on any TV show — I’d remember it, because it’s such a brutal thing to happen.
We did “100%,” and we decided to have some fun with it. We located an oversized baseball bat as a prop, and Lee Ranaldo started using it as a slide for his guitar. It looked completely ridiculous, like The Flintstones. Every so often [when we typically played “100%” live], Lee and I would put our guitar necks together to make a massive amount of noise — so we had to do that on national TV. I went over to Lee and possibly overdid it. I pushed against his guitar to such a degree that he fell backwards and I was on top of him — and then it went to commercial. When it came back, Letterman was slightly confused, and he was asking Paul Schaffer, “Are they okay?” He thought we were pissed off at each other.
MOORE: Don Was was the music supervisor for the movie, which was about the Beatles performing cover songs in Germany before they got their chops. He cherry-picked me out of the alternative rock scene that was really popping. I got Don Fleming on board because we were so tight and he was a great guitarist. They got Bill Berry and Dave Grohl, and they got Greg Dulli to sing the songs.
I knew most of them, but I didn’t know Greg so much. The only interaction I had with him was when Don Fleming’s band Gumball that he had with Kramer was playing at the Pyramid Club supporting the Afghan Whigs. Don asked if he could borrow the band’s guitar amp, which you typically don’t want to do while you’re on tour — but the Afghan Whigs begrudgingly said yes. So while Don was playing, he backed up into the amp and fell right near the staircase that led downstairs. I was sitting down there, and all of the sudden the amp they lent him came bouncing down the stairs and fell with a smack in front of me and the band.
It was all good a few years later, though. For me, Backbeat was a crash course in playing straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. I was never in a band that did that, so I had to learn these songs, which are all variations on a theme — hard to keep straight. [Laughs] We’d roll into the studio and play speedcore versions of these songs, and Don [Was] was constantly telling us to take it down a notch. It was fun, because it was being paid for by a movie studio. They gave us rooms at the Chateau Marmont. Each of us had a car to drive around in. Krist Novoselic was hanging around, so we were with him too.
Then they had the first MTV Movie Awards, and we all regrouped to perform at it. We were playing on a stage that was open grills on the bottom, so these lights could shine through them. It was a total Hollywood thing with all these movie star people there. I decided to make it a little more interesting, so during one of the songs I jumped on Greg and started strangling him with my guitar cord while he was singing, and then I jammed the rental guitar I was playing into one of the grills beneath the stage. That was not a good idea, because it got stuck, and when we tried to pull it out, we snapped the neck of the guitar. I shredded Greg’s leg, too, so he was on a crutch for a while.
But it didn’t matter, because we were at the Chateau Marmont and we were having fun. When we got to the hotel, my original room wasn’t ready, so they gave me a room that hadn’t been taken yet. It was one of the suites that was half of the floor, and I was like, “This is bigger than anything I’ve ever lived in, this is ridiculous.”
So that’s where we hung out that night — not just the band, everyone that was available in Los Angeles. All of Smashing Pumpkins, all of R.E.M., Courtney Love, Sharon Osbourne, Quentin Tarantino and his gang. Room service was constantly being buzzed. I had an 8AM flight, so at 4AM I went into the bedroom and locked the door to get some sleep. I woke up in the morning and there were scattered bodies all over. Those were my Hollywood days.
Hi Octane (1994)
MOORE: Zoe Cassavetes and Sofia Coppola decided to have a show where they could focus on counterculture stuff they like — cool things in their world. Punk rock, Richard Prince, weird sports stuff possibly. I’m surprised the show has never been properly released, because it was really fun. I knew Sofia for a number of years because, when she was just a young girl in LA, she was dating Steve McDonald from Redd Kross. Her and Zoe asked me if I’d do an interview segment where I’d choose people to interview, and I said, “Sure, why not?”
In their New York scene, they were hanging out with Donovan’s son, Donovan Leitch Jr. They had a band that was playing at Don Hill’s, which I never went to but had always heard was a good spot — I was just so busy with the band, and I was a dad. I wasn’t going to clubs much. So Donovan’s band created a song for my segment, which was called “Thurston’s Alley” because the space Kim and I were living in at the time was near an alleyway named Jones Alley. So we set up a couple of chairs in that alley and filmed there.
I interviewed Sylvia Miles, Liv Tyler, and Johnny Ramone. All of the interviews were broadcast except the one with Liv. For me to sit down and talk to Johnny Ramone was interesting. I had issues with him because of his politics, but it was a civil situation. Sylvia Miles was just hilarious. [Does New Yorker voice] “Oh my God, this alley smells. Why are we doing this?” Liv was really sweet, her acting career was just taking off at the time. I still run into Sofia sometimes, but it’s become a rare occasion. Zoe I haven’t seen so much of since, although she made a film that I really liked.
Space Ghost Coast To Coast (1996)
MOORE: I was a fan of that show. It was weird and incredible. I knew that Sonny Sharrock did the guitar music that plays at the top of the show, and at that point I was really engaged in learning about the free jazz scene he was a part of. I first went to see him at the old Knitting Factory in NYC in the ’90s. The place was packed, so I was stuck standing in the stairway near the chill-out room backstage, Sharrock comes downstairs trying to hoist this amplifier, so I go, “Can I give you a hand with that?” I pick it up and follow him out on stage and plug it in for him, and I’m staring at the audience and spy one spot where I can fit my body in, so I do that. My face was two feet away from Sonny’s fingers. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.
For Space Ghost, we went to the Magic Shop studio in downtown Manhattan — Dave Grohl featured it on Sonic Highways. They gave me questions and they’d have Space Ghost answer them afterwards. They also asked me if I would do a cover of the Sharrock piece [that appears on the show], so we recorded it. I figured that they’d show us performing, but they threw away almost my entire interview. When it aired, Space Ghost asked me a question, I say maybe one word, and then he goes, “I think we’re gonna listen to Sonny Sharrock for the rest of the show.” For the rest of the show, it was Sharrock playing. In retrospect, it was fantastic, but at the time I was like, “Hey, wait a minute!” It was absurd and perverse, but wonderful. My version of the song got released on the Space Ghost soundtrack they released, so I was happy about that.
The Simpsons (1996)
MOORE: This got more of an audience for Sonic Youth than anything we did in our entire career. I’d met Matt Groening a couple of times, and he was friendly with Byron Coley, who’s one of my best friends. Matt was a very chill, nice guy. Sonic Youth didn’t have any lines on the show at first, if I remember correctly. We were like, “We’re not really interested — we can’t say anything.” But Matt made a phone call from up above and was like, “Sonic Youth needs to say stuff.” We were still marginal compared to the other bands that appeared on the show, and we would remain so — we were always marginal, because we were too experimental. Afterwards, we each got a bomber jacket with all these Simpsons patches on it, which I still have. It’s buried deep in storage.
I don’t know who came up with the idea of Sonic Youth covering the theme song, which was an interesting thing to do. We knew Danny Elfman, who composed the theme song — him and Kim were boyfriend-girlfriend in the ’70s, so we’d visit him at his house. He’s a nice guy. We covered the theme song in this lunatic way, and they played it at the end of the episode. It exists on one of the official Simpsons CDs, which is kind of wild. For a few years, if anyone knew anything about Sonic Youth, it was that we were a band on The Simpsons. It was our biggest claim to fame in the mainstream world.
Talking Head On The E! True Hollywood Story: Karen Carpenter (1997)
MOORE: I have a vague memory of doing this, but I don’t recall it so much. Karen Carpenter was something we were connected with because of “Tunic (For Karen Carpenter),” as well as the If I Had A Hammer compilation. Like The Simpsons, a lot of people know us for our Carpenters cover more than anything else. It got talked about in Juno, where the guy puts the record on and the girl says we suck. I remember watching that movie with Coco, and she looked over at me with shock and a slight smile when that scene happened. “How do you process that, Dad?” I forcibly laughed.
Wylde Ratttz (1998)
MOORE: Todd Haynes had done a video for Sonic Youth’s “Disappear.” We remained in touch with him, and when he was doing Velvet Goldmine, the music supervisor Jim Dunbar flew out Steve Shelley to jam out some Stooges tracks to be used in the film. Steve came back and we were listening to him play along with Ron Asheton’s guitar, and I was like, “Dude, this is insane.” One thing led to another, and they needed a band to play Stooges songs for the film. Don Fleming came in to play, I’m in there, Steve’s in there, Mike Watt’s playing bass because we all love him. We did it at Sear Sound, where Sonic Youth had recorded Sister. Ron flew in from Michigan, and we played these songs. For me, it was an astounding session to sit across from Ron as he showed me how to play these songs. He gave me a crash course in why the Stooges sound so great, which is one of the most valuable things I’ve gotten.
Then, we got notice from the studio that they wanted us to record more music, so we all started writing together as a band. We called ourselves Wylde Ratttz as a reference to Mick Ronson, whose band before he joined Bowie was called the Rattz. It was a glam nod. We did hours and hours of recording, and they used very little of it, as it happens. We decided to put it out during lockdown because a platform like Bandcamp allows it to be released in a way that appeases everybody — and a percentage of the proceeds go to a foundation that was set up by the Asheton family.
Sonic Youth Narduwar Interview (2002)
STEREOGUM: This is your second interview with Narduwar. The first was in 1991, and you and Lee messed with him a bit during the interview,
MOORE: The first one was after a gig in Vancouver, an outdoor gig with Beastie Boys and L7. I believe it was supposed to be with House Of Pain too, but people who worked with them had an altercation with Beastie Boys so they were asked to leave — I think some fists flew. Narduwar approached us in the parking lot, and he was very prototypical Narduwar, but we didn’t know who he was. We were doing interviews here and there, and here comes this kid who’s extremely hyper and asking questions that were extremely researched. He was extremely entertaining, but kind of like a cartoon character.
We were having fun with him and laughing, but he had a very rare 7″ that he wanted to show to us because he knew I was a record collector. He was being so crazed that Lee decided to mess with him, ran off with it, and pretended to snap it in half. Then he did, because it was such an outrageous thing to do. Narduwar was visibly upset! Then we were called off to soundcheck and we didn’t think anything about it. But it became an infamous interview, where Sonic Youth were abusive to the infamous Narduwar. I felt kind of bad about it, but sometimes people are asking for interactions, and that’s what happened.
The second interview was more civil. He brought something out of his magic bag to show us again, and Lee pretended to destroy it again — but he didn’t, he was just teasing Narduwar and making him relive the nightmare. I’d always cross paths with Narduwar every few years at SXSW or something, and I’d run up to him and he’d say, “Let me interview you!” And then I’d just run down the street, because I didn’t have the time. It stood out amidst all the notorious Narduwar interviews, which I was proud of. It’s polarizing. “How could you be that way to Narduwar?” But we’re cool.
STEREOGUM: During the 2002 interview, Jim O’Rourke is sitting behind you guys expressionless.
MOORE: I’m not sure how aware Jim was of Narduwar. I think he was just bemused, at best. Just another day with Sonic Youth.
Gilmore Girls (2006)
MOORE: My daughter Coco was really into the show — me, Kim, and her watched it and liked it. I’m not sure how we connected with the Gilmore Girls people. I think they wanted to use a song of ours. Whatever happened, we met Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, who was doing Family Guy too. We went out to dinner with them, and they invited us to visit the set with Coco. They were really nice, and I liked the show — I thought it was really well-made.
As it was going off the air, they had an idea where all their favorite bands would be oddball musicians playing in the town square. They asked us if we would do it, but they didn’t want the whole band on the back of a truck or anything, so it was just me, Kim, and Coco as a family along with Sparks. Coco was in seventh heaven being on the set and getting to be on camera, but she was also embarrassed about being on national TV and going back to school. She didn’t want to have that type of notoriety the other kids had, so having “special” parents and being on this “special” show was a conflict at that age. She wore an army jacket in reference to Freaks And Geeks, another show we really liked, where the girl from that show was always wearing an army jacket. We played “What A Waste.”
For me, the biggest thrill was meeting Ron and Russell Mael. Kimono My House was crucial to my teenage development. I couldn’t play Sparks at home because Coco and Kim would be like, “Turn that off!” [Laughs] They were super friendly, and I connected with them in subsequent years. I played “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” with them a few years ago in London. I think our appearance on the show surprised people, but we were domestic and watching these smart, domestic shows. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is fantastic too. Her show before that, Bunheads, had a main character named Coco.
STEREOGUM: Did you watch the Gilmore Girls Netflix episodes?
MOORE: No. At that point, my life had radically changed. It was nostalgic to think about, but I don’t really have a television set or watch TV anymore. It’s been 10 years since I’ve had that sort of situation where I settle down and watch TV. I watch things on my laptop sometimes.
Thurston Moore And Jemina Pearl – “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” (2008)
MOORE: I was helping Be Your Own Pet put out their album at the time. She’s a great person and an amazing singer. I knew the creator of Gossip Girl — Sonic Youth played on one of those episodes. Jemina was staying in our house in Northampton, Massachusetts while doing press, and we did that song. I played bass, and Jemina sang it. We also did a feedback version of “Out On The Streets” by the Shangri-Las, which she sang while I just played screaming feedback, which was really cool. It’s never been heard, but someday. [Laughs]
Hard Time (2009)
MOORE: National Geographic contacted me because they heard me narrate a few other things that were on TV. To tell you the truth, I think they reached out because the producers came out of the DC scene, and [Fugazi’s Brendan Canty] was doing the music, and my name came out. It’s good work. I like doing voiceover work. It’s good revenue if you can get it, and it’s a competitive field. We whipped through these episodes, and the producers loved that. They were more used to people belaboring these things. Reading these narratives of horrendous situations was an anomaly for me, but I enjoyed it. I’d love to have a job reading audiobooks for people. I’m available for voiceovers, if anyone needs me. [Laughs]
Thurston Moore Vs. Steve Albini (2011)
MOORE: I have a good relationship with Steve — it’s never been stressed. We’ve known each other since the early ’80s. He’s an infamous, opinionated, and outspoken individual, and an intelligent and stubborn kind of person. I recognized that immediately. But there’s never animosity. We’ve always been friendly. In fact, I just wished him a happy birthday on his birthday this year. We’re old friends. We don’t hang out all the time, but we’re old acquaintances. I’ve always completely respected Steve.
A lot of the things he says and presents, I’m not completely on board with. When he was talking about the systemic rip-off that corporate labels were to independent bands signing to majors, it had a lot of logic to it. The contracts were old bluesman contracts where they’d get these bands to give their work away. It’s a bad scene.
My argument to that was that it kind of made the independent band look stupid. If you’re gonna get into a relationship with anybody on a corporate level, you need to read everything and make sure your negotiations are in your benefit, legally. And if you don’t, you’re being kind of stupid getting aligned with people like this. These bands are being ripped off, but they don’t need to be ripped off. The bands have the option to negotiate in their favor — and if it’s not compatible, they don’t have to sign it. Don’t blame the bands for falling into that trap. You have to look out for yourself — it’s all about self-responsibility.
Playing On Twilight’s III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb (2014)
MOORE: The guy who did their mastering called me and said, “The guys were wondering if you’d play guitar on the new Twilight sessions.” I was like, “Hell yeah!” They flew me out, put me in a basement, and went to the studio with these guys for a few days. They were interesting and smart. I keep in touch with all of them.
STEREOGUM: You said you still keep in touch with the guys in Twilight. Do you still talk to Blake Judd?
MOORE: No, hardly at all. I think he’s always trying to get his life together. I don’t know where he’s at these days. I know he released some of the [Twilight] sessions on cassette that were unreleased a few years ago. That’s the last I heard from him. I think he’s a tough cookie for a lot of people in that scene to deal with — but it attracts a lot of people who have difficult lives. It’s part of that music’s call, and it brings them together. Some of them find salvation in the community, some just run into walls. If you’re devoted to the black metal world, you run into a lot of dark corners, it seems. I’m not interested in that, I’m more of a positive mental attitude sort of guy. I’m more of a Bad Brains guy than a black metal guy.
STEREOGUM: A year after Twilight released the album you contributed to, you said that black metal was “made by pussies of the lowest order.”
MOORE: My issue with black metal was that it was absurd music. And I like absurdity in music. But this music was ultra-absurd, and the fact that a lot of the bands that initially came out of the Norwegian scene were so cultist and elitist that they didn’t want to make records because they didn’t want people to confuse what they did with music. [Laughs] I thought that was a step further than the Sex Pistols saying, “We’re not into music — we’re into chaos.” We don’t play music — it’s something else! Well, what is it? [Does weird metal voice] “Ahh, it’s black metal, it’s elite, we don’t associate with anybody unless it’s black metal.” [Laughs] I was like, “Okay! That’s a weird enough scene to look at.”
It’s problematic as any other scene, in which people use it to further sensibilities that are suspect, like primordial bigotry — I have no time for that shit. But I was interested in the sounds of it. The deeper cuts sounded like confused noise, and it sounded great — this Death Row kind of music. The sonic qualities were really affecting, and I was employing that into some of the guitar playing I was doing around the time.
And I’d talk about it sometimes, and a lot of people in black metal thought the guy from Sonic Youth was talking about them, and some people were annoyed by it. “Well, fuck that alternative rock band guy. What does he know?” But I think some of them were into it, as well. I didn’t want to tout the whole thing of black metal being sinister, evil, and horrible, so I said, “Black metal is basically played by a bunch of pussies.” [Laughs] I said it kind of endearingly, and it got printed. There was a cuteness to these people degrading Xerox images and wearing corpse paint. It was funny. A lot of the practitioners of the music that I met were sweet people — like pussy cats. So I wanted to [say] that as a laugh, and a lot of the people in the scene were really infuriated. It was so stupid.
My interest in a lot of black metal music, culturally and consumer-wise, leveled off. I feel like I decoded and exhausted what I enjoyed about it — but I always keep an eye on it. If I’m in a situation where someone is a black metal enthusiast and they’re putting a record on, I will stick around when most people would go fleeing out of the room. It’s a genre that’s not for everyone, but I totally dig it, and it’s very inspirational. When I do songwriting, there’s ideas that I’ve gleaned from really immersing myself in listening to so much of that music, from its time of inception onwards. I’ve gotten friendly with a lot of the major players, like Necrobutcher from Mayhem. I helped put out the English edition of his book The Death Archives.
Thurston Moore And Bernie Sanders – “Feel It In Your Guts” (2016)
MOORE: When Bernie was first campaigning for the Presidency in 2016, there was quite a grassroots effort to push him forward — and I’ve always been on the side of Bernie Standers. He’s the ideal for the USA, as far as somebody holding office and creating a really progressive administration, which I find completely necessary in the country right now. I would do anything that I could for Bernie Sanders within reason, and Joyful Noise asked if I would send them something to put a Bernie Sanders oratory over. I sent them some things, and they used that for a Flexidisc where the proceeds went to help the campaign.
I continue to believe that Bernie Sanders is the best choice for President. I will vote Democrat because I think we will, at least, be more of an open door to the progressive values of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and this new generation of people who come out of the school of Bernie Sanders’ ideology. That’s what the country really could excel with.
By The Fire is out 9/25 via the Daydream Library. Pre-order it here.