Discussing the work of Alice Coltrane and whether indie rock has a future...

Thurston Moore's 'Spirit Counsel' is a collection of three extended compositions recorded between 2018-19. This collection represents a period of reflection on spiritual matters, collective musical friendships, and a time and space universally, without words or languages to distract from meditation.

Ahead of his only UK show at The White Hotel in Salford, Clash speaks to Thurston Moore about the often overlooked women musicians of yore that inspired and inspirited 'Spirit Counsel', his time in Sonic Youth, and the fate of indie rock in 2019.

“The music is within your head, your soul, your spirit, and this is all I did when I sat at the piano. I just go within.” – Alice Coltrane.

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Can you tell me a bit about your new CD box set, 'Spirit Counsel', and how the idea came into fruition?

I was asked to present an evening at The Barbican in the springtime of 2018, after having performed there a few times through the years (with Beck, The Can Project, This Is Not This Heat and others). I had an idea to compose music for twelve 12-string guitars.

Chris Sharp - the music programme director at the Barbican - was seemingly delighted by this proposal, so I locked myself in the Ecstatic Peace Library office for a few months and wrote two arrangements for two one hour pieces: one for twelve acoustic 12-string guitars and another for twelve electric guitars.

It was an amazing time, gathering musicians from around London, some who were high technique players, and others who never really touched a 12-string guitar before, ranging from David Toop to Rachel Aggs of Trash Kit to James McCartney and Susan Stenger from Band of Susans. It was quite the dynamic.

I had always wanted to focus on working more in extended guitar compositions, at least working with parameters outside of the traditional rock and pop time formats of three to six minutes. Both Barbican pieces were an hour long. This led to wanting my core London group of James Sedwards, Deb Googe and myself move away from the more standardized song world and into presenting gigs where we'd play longer pieces, eschewing vocals and focusing on guitar / percussion interplay and compositional experimentation.

I composed the two pieces 'Alice Moki Jayne' and '8 Spring St', recorded them and decided they were to be the next release, hence 'Spirit Counsel'. The 12-string electric piece from the Barbican was added as the recording fared up fairly well to present and seemed a reasonable companion to the studio pieces because it exhibited an approach that dealt more with the noise properties of an electric 12-string en masse.

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'Spirit Counsel' is littered with nods to various female avant-garde musicians of the past. Too many women of their ilk often live in the shadows of their male contemporaries, or get written out of history completely. Is that why you decided to go with this theme?

I find it is of significant importance to respond to the imbalance of power in one's chosen industry or vocation. Whether it’s gender, race or faith.

All through the years of Sonic Youth and forward this has always been a cogent regard in presentation. On tours, in publishing, in releasing records, in collaborations of any kind it is always a situation where my preference is to work with people historically marginalized and under-represented. Personally, I prefer this dynamic, and do not perceive it as any measure of tokenism because creative ability is of equal value regardless of any one person's persuasion. 

When composing 'Alice Moki Jayne' I came across a slight guitar motif that reminded me of music I heard in the devotional songs of Alice Coltrane.

I was talking with Vivian Goldman, Neneh Cherry, her daughter Naima, and Eva, my partner in Ecstatic Peace Library (and life!) and learned that Alice was friendly with Neneh's mother Moki Cherry (an artist I always admired) and Jayne Cortez - a poet who expressed remarkable work that was alive with resistance and artful grace. Initially, the plan was to just dedicate the piece to these three artists, who I was not alone in considering undeniably visionary, eventually titling the piece in their honour. 

Of course, their profiles are hardly that of their celebrated male partners (John Coltrane, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman) but that wasn't the reason I wanted to promote their names as such. Although it does provoke the conversation of how artists who are historically disenfranchised - even amongst their own cultures - express themselves without having to appeal to the (primarily white) male-dominated structures of the "business".

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I’m not the biggest jazz fan but I really love the spiritual elements in Alice’s work. How would you describe Alice Coltrane’s music, and what impact has she made on your own musical endeavours?

Alice Coltrane obviously related to the spiritual questing of John Coltrane's music, partly because she joined his band after they had been married for some time. Her work always displayed a belief in divinity, which obviously transcended certain shackles of Earth-bound degradation, I imagine.

Having said that, there’s very little that can alleviate the continuing history of violent racism perpetrated by too much of American society. I have always been attracted to music that goes beyond that of human interactions, and deals with the ineffable presence of Holy Spirit because it resonates with my own beliefs and feelings of metaphysicality.

Your solo music has become increasingly experimental over time, as you’ve often dabbled in genres outside the indie rock canon. How do you feel about the world of indie rock now? Do you think there’s a place for it still, or are there far more interesting things going on?

Indie rock can be whatever it wants to be. The agenda is not about money or fame or the trappings of popular music, but it has always played with blurring those lines in ways that can be incredibly exciting or rather dull.

I keep meeting young musicians in new bands who are fully processing 1980s and 1990s indie rock as a rite of passage. We did the same thing, I suppose, with the music that pre-dated our era(s). Nowadays, musicians tend to have a rather high vocabulary of technique, whereas I recall the best bands during my time in Sonic Youth not knowing how to, or caring to, play any semblance of a traditional approach.

How aware are you of your influence on noise/indie rock and subsequent movements that followed? Looking back on your time in Sonic Youth now, how do you feel about it all?

It's a major part of my young life; something I helped create and establish and it will always be completely part of my DNA. It was not intended to be a force beyond it's own cognizance of wanting to be the band I would like to experience as a fan. Because I am a fan. I always will be.

I don't listen to my own music - Sonic Youth or otherwise. I listen to other’s music. It's a lifetime of conversation, like birds.

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You're vocal about political issues - peace, justice and keeping populist paranoia in check seems to be your manifesto. Currently, it feels like the world is going backwards. Do you think it'll ever get better?

It's going to get better because Boris Johnson is going to be sitting in a prison cell with Donald Trump driving him crazy with insane babble and then Trump will smother himself with a soiled mattress.

That sounds like a really good dream you wake up from and then get sad about it not being real. I suppose it’s a good time for absorbing culture. What are you currently reading and listening to? 

Absolutely. At the moment I’m reading books by music writer Benjamin Piekut. The first being Experimentalism Otherwise, which surveys the aspects of 1960s avant-garde music and looks at the question of what constitutes "experimental" music in regards to academia, politics, and The Stooges. He also has a book detailing the history of the British band Henry Cow that I will read next.

One of my band members, Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly), has passed me a book by the writer Richard Powers titled The Overstory which deals the life of our planet, it's nature, and how we need to be extremely diligent in saving it from the warlords of greed. It’s done in a very poetic and forceful way.

Every night we've been listening to this amazing drum duo from Nottingham called RATTLE because they’re on the road with us. They have a stark yet deep trance percussion vibe that is both holistic and rocking. As for my favourite writers, they would be: Amiri Baraka, Alice Notley, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Raworth, June Jordan, Stewart Lee.

You’re currently taking 'Spirit Counsel' on tour, landing in Salford on November 10th. What can we expect from your live shows?

We are on the road NOW!!! It's great - I have a lovely group joining me: James Sedwards (guitar), Deb Googe (bass) Jem Doulton and Steve Shelley (drums - they take turns during the tour, coming and going and replacing each other), Jon Leidecker aka Wobbly (electronics) and the most amazing Eva on everything (camaraderie, organisation, good vibes, true love) and our sound engineer Bentley Anderson.

I've toured for so many years I've figured out how to just love the charity of travel, even when it's backbreaking and tiresome.

What's next for Thurston Moore?

There’s a new album late spring 2020, and I’ll be rocking the fuck out of the festivals across UK and Europe!!

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'Spirit Counsel' is out now. Catch Thurston Moore at The White Hotel, Salford on November 10th.

Words: Hayley Scott

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