A cool interview with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on the recent release of his new book, "No Wave"
BYT: Some BYT readers may be surprised to know this, but you are someone who is no stranger to the book world. And as a lifelong mix tape and mix cd obsessive, I can’t thank you enough for the book “Mix Tape.”
BYT: In general, how do you feel about book readings and music lectures––have you done this sort of thing before?
Thurston: A few things like this, not too much. I’m really more into publishing books and getting books out. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always been into books as much as I’ve been into recorded media–records and cassettes; I’m not into cds so much. And I’ve always loved books––I was brought up in a household of books.
But the mix tape book…that was something I didn’t really conceive of. It was an editor/friend of mine who was working at Rizzoli (NY-based publishing company) at the time, she works at Abrams (the company that published the Moore/Coley no wave book) now and I still work with her. She had this idea of doing a book on mix tape culture and she had asked me to sort of take this project and do something with it. And I just personalized it. I basically just went through my rolodex and contacted friends I knew, people who were musicians and artists and whatnot–people I knew that would have mixtapes. And they were very interested in the visual aspect of mixtape culture which I am as well. But it was a can of worms––I mean, where do you go with something like that? We decided it would be this thing where they’re like love letters…
BYT: Your introduction to the book definitely spells that out. It was really interesting to read about how back in the 80s, you would travel around in the Sonic Youth van and fans would give you guys mix tapes to listen to…
Thurston: Yeah, and that still happens to some degree…sometimes people will make you a cd-r of something but it’s not as prevalent anymore. Since it’s so easy to record, it seems like people just want to give you their band. Like, “Here’s something new I’m working on, let me know what you think of it.” You get hundreds of these things.
BYT: And actually, I do have a cd-r for you…
Thurston: Okay (laughing).
BYT: It’s not a band I’m in though. I’m just a huge post-punk nerd/obsessive and I love making mixes. I thought you might like some of the songs on here…(hands cd to Thurston)
Thurston: Cool. (looking over tracklisting) Yeah, I know some of this stuff. Grauzone! Cool. Thanks.
BYT: So getting back to the interview proper here, I was curious to know how the collaboration between you and Byron worked in a practical way on the no wave book. Obviously you’re a writer and then Byron is this big-time established writer with close to 30 years experience of writing about alternative and independent music…
Thurston: Byron did all the work. I was kind of like the figurehead. He and I have known each other since ’80 at least…and at some point, we started talking about wanting to do something in regards to no wave as a historical moment. And so, we’d always talk about doing some type of book. When I sort of got involved with some editors at big publishing companies like Rizzoli and subsequently Abrams, it became more of a reality where we could actually do it on a level that made sense. We could actually get some photo fees to pay the photographers.
An editor at Abrams had done this really nice book on the history of CBGB. It just went through the history of the bands that had played there, had all these great photographs and some commentary from different musicians. We had heard from a friend at Abrams that the same editor was going to do another book and it was going to be on no wave. And we were like: “You’ve got to be kidding us. Who is this person? We need to talk to her immediately.” And so we set-up a meeting and kind of did some prep work about what we thought a book on no wave should be.
And we wanted to keep it really strict to what we knew no wave was–bands that were defining that term at the time–rather than get into the broader aspects of it, which is anybody who was sort of influenced by it or referencing it. It wasn’t about reference and it wasn’t about influence. It was about the bands that were actually it and part of the scene at the time period.
But Byron did all the work. I was on tour. And while I was touring, Byron was interviewing almost everybody on our list. I did a few interviews, but very few…
BYT: Who in particular did you talk to?
Thurston: I talked to Diego Cortez (ed note: Cortez was an artist, filmmaker, co-founder of the Mudd Club and manager of the band Beirut Slump). There’s certain people that I really wanted to talk to who I felt were very significant to the story. And certainly it was Diego Cortez and certainly it was Brian Eno. And that was really difficult because Brian Eno is not readily available as an interviewee.
BYT: Well, he’s been Chris Martin’s bitch lately (laughs)…
Thurston: Has he? (laughs) I don’t know about that. Who’s Chris Martin?
BYT: The Coldplay guy. Eno produced their new album.
Thurston: Oh yeah? I haven’t heard it yet—is it good?
BYT: Well, it’s…it’s Coldplay.
Thurston: I saw them on Jon Stewart and it was kind of interesting. They kind of had this avant-garde guitar section and then they went into this kind of Paul McCartney and the Wings section and then into this singer-songwriter coda.
BYT: That’s kind of where they’re at these days.
Thurston: (getting back to the subject of Byron) So yeah, he transcribed everything himself as well and he gave me all the transcriptions. And what I did was I parsed the transcriptions and Byron wrote the bed of the essay. Then I sort of finagled with it and added some things and edited it a little bit. And then we had a certain idea about putting this book together where it was just an essay and then having some interview stuff sort of next to photos…just sort of explaining the trajectory of the history. And what I did was took large parts of the interviews and made them part of the story. So it was this oral history interspersed with the essays, so it created this longer form.
BYT: One thing that distinguishes your book from the Marc Masters book on No Wave is that, because you guys were there, you were able to inject that subjective point-of-view into the writing. And that actually leads me to my next question: Prior to working on the book, how well did you remember the no wave time period? You were in a band called The Coachmen at the time…
Thurston: I remember it pretty distinctly. But at the time, when it was sort of advertising itself to some degree in whatever media there was, which was basically a couple journals that were around—there was one called New York Rocker (ed note: this is the publication that Byron Coley wrote for at the time), and you would read about it in some international papers like maybe the NME, or Sounds or Melody Maker…they might have mentioned something about Lydia Lunch or The Contortions or whatever…but for the most part, nobody above 14th Street in Manhattan sort of knew what was going on with this stuff. But it did create a real sort of buzz on the downtown scene about these incorrigibles playing this music that was unlistenable (laugh). And so it was very intriguing in that respect.
The thing with me is…I remember Lydia (Lunch) and James (Chance) and all these people in my neighborhood. And they were like me–they were teenagers that moved to New York to sort of play punk rock. But they were starting these bands and kind of outfitting themselves in ways that were really audacious–whereas I was a bit sort of…maybe cautious or something? I mean, if you wore like a skinny lapel jacket and some cheap pants and shirts—that’s as far as I could take it. But these guys were like shaving their hair really weird and wearing bones and stuff. It had a real sort of extremist aesthetic to it that was very black and white and really sort of wild.
And they also sort of connected with this celebration of punk rock in a way–they were friends with The Dead Boys and they were friends with Suicide. And I remember reading an interview with Joey Ramone where he said his favorite bands were Suicide and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. And that was right when this happened. That was such a validation for me.
BYT: You even have a photo in the book of Debbie Harry and James Chance together…
Thurston: Yeah. Debbie and Chris Stein kind of like…they were into what these guys were doing. And you know, James was like…shockingly good even though he was insane. The way he was playing saxophone and singing–it was just really audacious. And a band like mine, The Coachmen, we were just a downtown sort of art-school band. But we weren’t doing anything really sort of like…we weren’t trying to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It didn’t make you run out of the room or something like that. People either loved it (no wave) or hated it and the people that loved it were their friends. So there was a certain dirty glamour that was around these people in a way.
And another thing, I could never afford to go out and see bands. And if I could, I wasn’t going to see people my own age. Probably if I had connected with any of them and they had asked me to play in any of these bands, it would have been a different story entirely. But…I’m scared to think of what that would have been like. My life wouldn’t have taken any of the turns it took…I probably wouldn’t have done this book.
BYT: The photographs in the book tell their own story. One of the things that struck me was the no wave movement was this anti-star kind of thing but the photographers almost seem to see these people as stars, judging by the way the photos were shot. And I thought that was an interesting dichotomy…
Thurston: Yeah. The photographers were shooting anything and everything on the scene. They knew their meat and potatoes were getting shots of The Ramones and Patti Smith and Television and Blondie. But there were all these bands playing in the sort of secondary tertiary realm of the scene. The photographers were shooting them too because they had film in their camera and they were going to CBGB’s on a Tuesday night…and then Mars would be playing.
People would go there just to hang out. In those days, a lot of the time you went to these clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s not so much just to see a band. You would go because there was a social scene there. And the no wave bands sort of took advantage of that–they just got gigs. But not all that much–it wasn’t like they were taking over the scene or anything like that. There was just this activity going on with all kinds of different bands playing. But these (no wave) bands kind of all knew each other and got some coverage in the New York Rocker and the SoHo Weekly News. They would be writing about these bands and they were “no wave.” It’s kind of interesting where the term came from.
BYT: Nobody really knows for sure supposedly…
Thurston: Well, it’s sort of credited to an interview that Lydia did with Roy Trackin at SoHo Weekly News where she said “We’re not new wave, we’re no wave.” I don’t remember reading that. I do remember seeing the words no wave spray-painted on the front of CBGB’s 2nd Ave Theatre which was sort of like this short-lived theatre in ’77. And that used to be The Anderson Theatre where the Yardbirds played and where that famous recording (“Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page” from 1971) came from. And it was a big theatre. I remember going to see Patti Smith there and a couple other things. And then fire marshals closed it and somebody spray-painted no wave on the front. And I was like “Wow. What a great thing to spray-paint.”
Thurston: And that was right about the time when I started hearing the term being prescribed to these bands. Because they weren’t new wave–they were part of the new wave scene and they were part of the punk scene but they were neither. They were so…they weren’t playing any sort of traditional aspects of rock music. Punk came out of traditionalism, you know, it was like garage rock. This was not.
BYT: One of the defining characteristics of the no wave scene was that you had so many different artistic disciplines converging. Filmmakers, poets, graphic designers, etc. and yet, it really seems like just about everyone you hear about—no matter what particular interest someone had beforehand—eventually formed a band or got involved in the music side of things. What do you think that says about music as an artistic and emotional outlet as opposed to other forms of expression?
Thurston: Well, I think…just the fact that the burgeoning punk rock scene in New York with Patti and Television, certainly Talking Heads, even Blondie…these are people that kind of…they were part of this lineage of avant-garde creativity. Punk rock was not like just a street rock thing coming out of the New York Dolls even though the New York Dolls were very important as a band to that scene. It had to do with the Warhol scene. And I think in ’76, ’77 and ’78 a lot of people from art schools and people who wanted to be artists came to New York and the energy was in the music scene. The energy was at CBGB’s. The energy was at Max’s. And it was with these bands where that action was happening. So everyone would just play in bands. Even people like Jim Jarmusch, he wanted to make films but he was playing in bands. Glenn Branca was into theatre–he wanted to do radical theatre, but he saw…at that age, when you’re like 20 or 21 years old, this instantaneous reward comes from being in a band and actually playing. It’s unbeatable. And at that time, the fact that you could do it and do it so fast…
BYT: I also wanted to ask you about the recent Teenage Jesus & the Jerks reunion show at the Knitting Factory in NYC where you played bass—what was that like for you?
Thurston: To me that was like…I was telling Mike Watt (from The Minutemen and fiREHOSE), well you know, you playing with The Stooges is like you playing with the one band you never thought you’d ever play with and then all of a sudden you are. It’s like…surreal. And me playing bass with Teenage Jesus, is sort of…that’s my Stooges (laughs). I can’t think of any band from history that I would want to join… but I think Teenage Jesus & the Jerks would be first (laugh).
BYT: OK, last question—I saw a band last week at the Velvet Lounge called True Womanhood. They looked like kids. The members couldn’t be much older than 17 or 18 or something…
Thurston: Yeah, I know them.
BYT: You know them?
Thurston: I’ve got their sticker. (laughs)
BYT: Well, their music isn’t no wave but they have some weird, atonal leanings that reminded me of what some of the original no wave bands did. So I talked to them after the show and sure enough, they tell me they are into Mars and some of those bands. I just can’t get my head around the fact that you have kids listening to this stuff and being influenced by it today (laugh). It’s pretty awesome. Do you hear many young bands today showcasing the no wave influences?
Thurston: Oh yeah. So many young bands are able to reference no wave thanks to the documents that exist. And why wouldn’t they? You know, the thing is…people always talk about how anti-musical it is or how extreme it is…there’s some amazing songs from the canon of no wave that Mars has done.
BYT: Such as “Helen Forsdale.”
Thurston: “Helen Forsdale!” We’ll probably play that at the presentation so people can hear how good some of these songs are.
BYT: Thanks very much for your time Thurston. I really appreciate it.
Thurston: Yeah man. Thanks for this! (holds up mix cd)
SOURCE: Brightest Young Things