Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore's new solo album "The Best Day" officially hits stores this week. On his current tour — which brings him and his new band to the Ballroom at the Outer Space Thursday night — Moore has been enjoying the lack of expectations from fans.
"Not everybody knows exactly what I'm up to, but I think word's getting out that there's this record, and that there's this lineup that's kind of interesting," he says. "Nobody knows the songs or anything, so it's kind of cool playing these gigs to a fairly unsuspecting audience."
Sonic Youth formed in 1981, tested the limits of experimental art rock, became wildly influential, and went on indefinite hiatus in 2011 when Moore and his wife/bandmate Kim Gordon separated.
Moore's new band includes his former Sonic Youth bandmate, drummer Steve Shelley, bassist Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine, and guitarist James Sedwards, a guitar virtuoso who just happened to be living in the London flat below Moore.
Moore had heard Sedwards giving guitar lessons throughout the day, and had been told by friends about what a great a player he was.
"That didn't really intrigue me so much," he says. "There are lots of great guitarists out there. He's one of those guys who really knows everything about guitars and is completely fascinated with every aspect of electric guitar, which I have sort of a particular interest in, but I don't have an obsession with. The guitar for me is a means to an end. I don't really like going to guitar stores so much, like some of these guitar freaks do. They spend all day just staring at guitars. For me, it's like, I got one… it works. It's like buying a new lawn mower or something."
Upon striking up a conversation with Sedwards in a stairwell of their building, he learned that his musical tastes were far more eclectic than his traditional playing style suggested (his favorite band was the Fall, for one), and a collaboration was born.
That being said, the band's debut album, "The Best Day" is fairly straightforward, at times reminiscent of Sonic Youth's more commercial efforts. It was an uncalculated affair, just a matter of getting some new songs down on tape and seeing what happened. But the future of the band holds the promise of deep experimentation.
"This record is fairly unradical," says Moore. "They're pretty plaintive songs, in a way. It was kind of taking it one step at a time. It wasn't super ambitious; it was just wanting to accomplish something with songwriting. Right now, I want to make it more radicalized as far as the ideas of what can be a song."
Before Sonic Youth, in 1980, Moore had worked with avant-garde guitarist/composer Glenn Branca who would push the limits of how guitars were used as instruments. On one occasion, Branca had six guitars in his group, each guitar tuned to just a single note. He'd then conduct the ensemble as if it were one large guitar, with one player in charge of each "string." That's the kind of extreme idea influencing the direction Moore wants to take the band next.
"In Sonic Youth, both Lee [Ranaldo] and I were fairly non-traditional in our playing," he says. "To play with someone who's a little more orthodox in their playing, it's interesting to me, especially because of his interest in the unorthodox world that I come from. I like that. It allows me to experiment more, and I'm looking forward to doing that."
"The Best Day" has been referred to as a "positive record" in the press, and while Thurston agrees that it's more positive than negative, he doesn't consider that to be a defining characteristic of the album. As with most works of art, it contains a healthy mix of emotions.
"You have your good days and your bad days," he says. "I think the record was made on a good day. 'The Best Day' was mostly about the album cover, which is a picture of my mom. Just looking at that image, I thought, 'That must've been the best day.' To be young and with your dog in a lake, your photo being taken by this person who's in love with you… That picture was probably taken during World War II. It wasn't like it was utopia. Yet in that environment that was really personal, it was utopia. I looked at that as something that was good to share, so I chose to share that as opposed to anything nihilistic or negative."
Moore has, however, always been drawn to negative music, dating back to his comfortable rural Connecticut upbringing in the early '70s.
"I'm hardly a nihilist, but I am attracted to it," he says. "Even when I was younger, I was attracted to the darker margins of rock 'n' roll. I was very intrigued by things like the Stooges, which seemed like a sort of a dark place at the time, as opposed to what was really hip in the music world, which was going back to the country escapism of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Joni Mitchell. I don't know why that was. It wasn't because I was in some kind of situation that reflected that. I don't know why things that were subversive appealed to me."
Back then, Moore's father taught at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and his mother was a secretary there. He and his friends would call the school's radio station, WXCI, requesting obscure records he was curious about from reading rock 'n' roll magazines like "Creem," "Circus" and "Hit Parader."
"I'd ask them to play, like, a track by Nico, or Roxy Music, or Eno or the Dictators, or the Velvet Underground, or something," he says. "The DJ at the station would be so excited that there was some kid out there in Bethel, Connecticut asking for this weirdo music."
Moore's brief stint as a WCSU student in 1976 coincided with his discovery of New York clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City, the draw of which proved more lucrative than his WestConn education. In his brief time there, he had a stint writing music stories for the school newspaper, "The Echo."
"I knew that I wanted to run away to New York City and be in a rock 'n' roll band, but I figured I'd just tell people I wanted to be a journalist," he recalls. "I started writing for the school paper and I kind of got into a little bit of trouble. They asked me to review a concert by Nick Seeger, who was related to Pete Seeger. He was playing in the coffee shop. I had my leather jacket that said 'The Ramones' on the back, and there was this guy playing acoustic guitar and banjo, and he was wearing these kind of wooden, Dutch shoes. I was just like, so bored, that I filed my review and the only thing I talked about were his shoes. How does he get around with these shoes? Does he drive his car with these shoes? Did he steal them from the little boy who put his finger in the dike? They printed it and people liked it. They thought it was funny, but then in the next issue of the paper, Nick Seeger wrote a scathing letter saying, 'How dare you send such an unprofessional journalist to my concert.' He was incensed that I ignored the music and wrote this descriptive analysis of his shoes."
Moore was somewhat sobered by the fact that he could so affect the subject of his writing. Soon after he reviewed a John Cale concert at CBGB and his editor "corrected" the spelling to say "John Cage." Moore was not pleased (though he now finds the error amusing). Seeing that Moore was going to cause a stir, they suggested he write about sports instead. Knowing absolutely nothing about sports, he quit "The Echo" soon after and the frequency of his visits to New York for underground shows only increased.
"I would either take the train from Brewster or from Danbury/Bethel," he says. "That movie 'The Ice Storm' was really shocking to me because I related to that whole thing of being stuck on the train in the middle of the ice storm on the way back to Connecticut from New York. I also had a Volkswagen Beetle at the time, so I would drive back and forth — sometimes four times a week — and I just drove that car into the ground. If there was a blizzard going on, I would just go around the wooden fences they would put up in front of the Saw Mill Parkway because you weren't allowed to drive on it. I would just go around them and creep along at 10 miles an hour. Sometimes I'd just have to stop and spend the night, in the blizzard as it was happening, on the Saw Mill Parkway. Just to see the Dead Boys or something."
THE THURSTON MOORE BAND will perform on Thursday, Oct. 23, at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden. Prana-Bindu and Broken Water open. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. Information: theouterspace.net, manicproductions.org.