Unhurried as he is, Moore still seems to get a good deal done. A few days before we meet, I see him with his guitar ensemble – three guitars, drums, bass, no voice – playing two surging, multi-layered pieces that defy categorisation for an enraptured sit-down audience in London’s deep east. He got back from touring the night before we meet, but those seem to be the least of his travels.
A conversational byway about the Democratic nominations prompts him to recall a recent visit to Italy to play at “a kind of a left-wing journalistic event” where Naomi Klein spoke; among a bewildering confetti of names are those of bands he and his partner Eva Prinz have published as part of their niche art-book venture Ecstatic Peace!, which clearly takes time; he also teaches.
Ostensibly we are here to discuss his forthcoming appearances at the Melbourne Film Festival at an in-conversation event – which is something he’ll be able to knock out of the park, obviously – and at a screening of short films by 1940s Swedish experimental avant-gardist Maya Deren, to which he will be playing an improvised accompaniment. Intriguingly – and unlike the pianists who used to thunder away below the screens as silent movies unfolded – he doesn’t watch the films while he is playing.
“I find if I watch the films it becomes more predictable, or reactionary. By not reacting to the visuals in the film, it gives more chance of magical things happening.”
Moore had heard of Deren’s work long before he saw any. He knew she had shot voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, which intrigued him. “And when I finally did see Meshes of the Afternoon [one of the films screening at MIFF], I thought it was this really wonderful poetic film. There was a vision here that was really singular, really personal and also really exotic.”
Underground filmmaking titan Jonas Mekas “turned me on to her writing; I liked the idea she did quite a bit of writing.” He was also “super-intrigued” that she had released a recording of Haitian ritual music, which he eventually found in a second-hand record shop in London. What also super-intrigued him about Deren, as it does in anyone, was that she was content to make work without seeking any kind of recognition or commercial reward.
“I think that’s interesting. Because I’m a Leo, I’m a male, and for me there is always this exchange, right?” He gives an embarrassed little laugh. “I find that really educational.”
In 2016, when he had a residency at the Louvre presenting a monthly musical event – anything he wanted, within reason – in a theatre that had a very fine film screen, he saw the chance to work with Deren’s films. Stephen O’Malley, of experimental drone metal band Sunn O))), played with him. Everything was improvised.
“It sounded great with all of us creating this sound that was just huge. Then I did it again at a film festival in Ghent, playing improvised solo guitar.”
Some musical changes have chimed so exactly with the film edits that people watching the film supposed he was playing a piece he had composed to fit.
“But that’s all by chance. I think with some kind of knowledge of what those films are and having that in mind, it works. I never wanted it to be just jamming. I wanted it to get to this place of improvised music where it almost composes itself – or, as Allen Ginsberg said about improvised poetry, composes on the tongue.”
Whatever he does, Thurston Moore’s name will always be spoken in the same breath as that of Sonic Youth, the seminal US art-rock band he fronted with his wife, Kim Gordon, for 30 years. Sonic Youth split up after she discovered Moore’s affair with Prinz and, according to her 2015 autobiography Girl in a Band – which Moore has said he has not read – repeatedly broke his repeated promises to end the affair. Gordon and Moore’s ultimate break-up was very bitter and very public.
For fans it was heartbreaking, not only because it abruptly destroyed a widely loved band, but because the Moore-Gordon partnership as parents and performers was such an inspiring counterblast to the rock ‘n roll cliche of bad-boy destructiveness and misogyny.
Women – but not only women – rushed to take Gordon’s side and, embracing another popular cliche, revile the considerably younger Prinz as a home-wrecker. Meanwhile, Prinz had moved to London. Moore duly followed her. He has lived in London for seven years.
Moore has said he thinks the band would have come to a natural end anyway. Sonic Youth formed in 1981, reached a peak of popularity in the ’90s and played for the last time in 2011.
“I don’t wake up thinking there was anything left undone, as far as Sonic Youth is concerned,” he told New York magazine. “It really had a good story to tell, and I told it. I feel more excited moving on.”
Today he paints a blurry picture of success creeping up on him and then slipping away in increments too small to quantify; how he felt about it is hard to fathom.
I appreciate being able to walk down the street and not be pestered all the time.
When he moved to New York from Connecticut in 1976, punk was in its early dawn. Much of the city was a dangerous, grimy ruin where it was not only possible to live on nothing, but a point of political pride. What were his expectations then?
“Well, I was young so you live from one day to the next,” he says. “My expectation then was to maybe someday play at CBGB’s on a weekend evening. If I could accomplish that I’d be done, I could retire. There are always these kinds of steps you accomplish and then they wouldn’t be as glorified as you thought they would be. You know, doing a record in a 24-track studio, after thinking ‘wouldn’t that be amazing’ because we were always working in these little cheap eight-track studios. Then that eventually happens – and it’s no better or worse than anything else.”
In the mid-’80s, the band came to Britain, where a promoter said his vision was that they might be as big as The Birthday Party.
“At the time, he might as well have said ‘as big as the Rolling Stones’,” says Moore, laughing. “The Birthday Party were the essence of what a popular radical band can be. And we did get to that kind of profile, but it became something else because the times had changed. In the ’90s, we were playing much bigger places than the Birthday Party had been, but I hadn’t really thought about the fact we had passed our mark.”
There were annoying moments when people wanted to take his picture in restaurants just as he was forking something into his mouth, but the annoyance seems to have been minor. Equally, he didn’t miss it when it receded. “I appreciate being able to walk down the street and not be pestered all the time.”
The internet has flattened that parabola of rock stardom, of course; a teenager can come across Sonic Youth on YouTube without having any idea who they were. For that young music fan, Daydream Nation (1988) may as well have been released yesterday; the history that led to the point of its creation, the connections between artists, the sense of a particular scene or of its fans as a distinct tribe recede into the mists of cyberspace.
“But in the ’70s you were sort of at the mercy of what was being offered by the industry,” Moore says. “So I think being able to do research and find things: that’s utopian in a way.”
He knows all about the blurring of those tribal boundaries. His daughter Coco, who is 25 and lives in Brooklyn, did an online double-take when she discovered that a band she had found on her own, Big Joanie, had also been discovered by her father and was supporting the Thurston Moore Band in London that night. Moore laughs as he remembers seeing her “WTF?” on his Instagram feed.
“I was thinking ‘oh, you poor thing; you can’t even discover a band without your parents waving from behind saying ‘hi dear! It’s us!’ I felt so sorry for her, being the child of indie-rock parents.”
Does this mean music is played out as a vehicle for rebellion? Not at all, Moore insists.
Inevitably, the conversation meanders into the valley of despond where Trump, Brexit and the climate crisis wave us down.
“There are always factions in rock music – hip-hop and R&B and punk rock and noise rock – that offer a voice to anyone who feels marginalised in a conservative society,” he says. “It’s in a different mould right now just because of everyone having access to everything. But I do think it’s as valuable as it’s ever been.”
There is no unpicking his music from his politics, certainly; at the end of the gig with his guitar ensemble he promises to “see you on the streets” when President Trump visits London and urges anyone who has the opportunity to “milkshake the f— out of him”.
Inevitably, the conversation meanders into the valley of despond where Trump, Brexit and the climate crisis wave us down. He puzzles over the fact that the Woodstock generation threw up Trump and is now apparently voting for him.
“There are a lot of conservative values, people of our age. I am really curious about how they came to have these really childish takes on, like, nationalism or proper behaviour or being racist or sexist,” he says. “The Brexit literature comes through my mailbox with a smiling Nigel Farage looking kind of sophisticated and reassuring and saying ‘we need to take care of ourselves; we will make sure these people don’t bother you’. It’s really demeaning.”
A beggar does the rounds of the pub where we sit. She was living on these streets, he says, when he first moved here.
“She’s still hanging in there, for years and years and years – often in a complete and utter state of disrepair but always somewhat functioning,” he says. “I think about that existence. How does she get through her days?”
He turns with a smile as Eva Prinz, who has been sitting at another table with drummer Steve Shelly, raises her hand to show he has to go in five minutes. Twenty minutes later he stands up. Then we start talking about French film director Jacques Audiard and he sits down again. There is a sense he could easily talk for another couple of hours, all on a half-pint of Guinness in the middle of the afternoon. It really does feel like being a student again.
Thurston Moore Plays Maya Deren is at the Astor Theatre, August 2; Thurston Moore: Ecstatic Soundtrack is at the Plenary 3, MCEC, August 3. miff.com.au
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.