Life & Culture

Thurston Moore’s Guide to Musical Improvisation

The former Sonic Youth guitarist talks harnessing his restless creative streak

  • TextTom Connick

Thurston Moore spins a hundred plates at once. At 59, the Sonic Youth icon and bonafide guitar hero boasts more credits than an animated blockbuster’s CGI team – from co-writes and side-projects, to solo albums and improv work, his name’s appeared alongside Yoko Ono and R.E.M., on Gossip Girl soundtracks and anti-fascism concert line-ups, and as part of black metal groups and free-jazz ensembles, often at the same time. More recently, he played a role in the reunion of cult experimental group This Heat, shortly after assembling a band of his own, which features My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and guitar-wizard-for-hire James Sedwards.

Sitting down amongst the eau de sweat of 100 Club’s dingy basement, Thurston is here to play a Fred Perry Subculture Live show with that same band – the pragmatically named The Thurston Moore Group. Now settled in London after a move in the early half of the decade, he’s found yet more projects to delve into amongst the capital city’s hustle and bustle, due in no small part Cafe OTO – Dalston’s experimental music wonderland, which Thurston half-jokingly calls his “local”.

“It’s the music that I’m most interested in,” he says of OTO’s left-field line-ups. On any given week you might find a drone act vying for space with a jazz quartet, or a tape-loop wizard opening for a throat singer – “kind of marginalised, experimental music,” is Thurston’s summation.

“When I first moved here I didn’t really have a group together and I was interacting more with musicians from the free improvisation scene,” he reveals. “They’re people that I’ve always really admired, and been interested in engaging with.” It’s through that scene that he met Charles Hayward – drummer of This Heat, and sole collaborator on Thurston’s latest release, an afternoon of barbed improv put to tape, titled simply Improvisations and out December 8, 2017, on Care In The Community. “A lot of free improvisation, I think, works best in a live context, Thurston admits. “It’s really ‘in the moment’, and when you put it into a studio context, it becomes something else. It’s a different relationship between the players, and I am really interested in that – I’m curious, but it’s always a challenge. That certainly happened at this session. It was a whole new ball-game – but I think it turned out okay!”

Below, Thurston digs into that still-growing mental encylopaedia of musicianship, and shares some of what he’s learned after six decades as a creative sponge, at the helm of ‘anything goes’ guitar wizardry.

1. Go with the flow

“I’m not a high-technique player, and I never really took music courses, or theory courses, or whatever. I just learned how to play from the bottom up, and create my own idea; my own reality with my guitar. So I was able to employ that in free improvisation. It’s always a learning exercise for me. But I like composition, too. I like writing songs, I like rock and roll, I like hardcore, I like noise! [laughs] I like this stuff, and to me you should be able to do whatever you want to do. I never want to feel like I’m slumming it in somebody else’s chosen genre of practice. I just play what I want to play… but I would never call myself a jazz musician. I guess I would call myself a rock musician… but even then, I can’t even play Smoke On The Water all the way through!”

2. Don’t have an ego

“I’ve always been really interested in free improvisation, just from discovering it via my interest in jazz music in the 80s and 90s. I think when I was younger, I thought it was just old, beardy men playing plinky-plonky sounds, you know? It just seemed like old guys in cable-knit sweaters, stroking their chins. But I got very intrigued by a lot of the intention [of improv]; the idea of the music having more to do with the human condition. As far as improvisation is concerned, you can’t really plan your next turn around a corner. I liked those surprises, and the idea that it was all about getting rid of the hierarchies and playing where all the musicians are equal: ‘If you can’t hear anybody else, you’re playing too loud’, that kind of thing. I liked the political aspects of it, and I was very interested in the idea of the music being about each player creating their own personalised world of expression.”

3. Try new things

“As far as anything that has a semblance of punk-rock, or traditional rock and roll, I don’t feel like there’s too much more there that I can really glean from. I’ve very much decoded it – I don’t find myself wanting to actually go and see punk-rock bands, or even rock and roll bands. I’m more interested in seeing something else, so I’ll just see music that is outside of my sphere of practice a lot of times. Music from different parts of the world – in a way I find it to be like an endless well of inspiration, and intrigue, and information. That gives me more inspiration and ideas to feed into my own songwriting.”

4. Be sure of your own voice

“I’ll always have the same vocabulary, which comes from guitar-playing and songwriting that was developed through the years of Sonic Youth. I’m not going to radically change from that, and I don’t really want to, because I feel like that’s ‘my sound’ – that’s how I play. I try not to repeat too much. But I also like knowing, when I buy records by certain artists, that there’s these tropes and motifs that they have that I like. When I buy a Neil Young record I want to hear what I like about Neil Young... and he’s always not giving me that! [laughs]”