When thinking of a title for his new album, Sonic Youth founding guitarist Thurston Moore recalled a scene in Julien Temple’s documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, in which some of Strummer’s 101ers bandmates shared stories by a crackling campfire about the singer’s early days, before he fronted the Clash.
“That's ancient communication right there on the most human level,” Moore says from his London home. “People gathered around and shared stories around a campfire, like passing the peace pipe, as it were. Like Native Americans sharing stories by passing the talking stick.”
Moore says that when he dubbed his seventh album By the Fire, which drops on September 25 on the Daydream Library Series imprint, he was also thinking a lot about communication, with people being sequestered and isolated from each other because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“Yet we're able to sort of utilize technology to talk, and so in a way, digital technology is kind of a contemporary campfire for us,” Moore says. “It was kind of referencing that to some degree, and also just sort of thinking about what's been happening in the streets of the USA. People just being really on fire, in complete anger, in opposition to being repulsed by this kind of indignity that's going on in the White House. And also, on the streets, where people were just kind of marginalized by society, being brutalized by the police force. These things are very much now and very much real. And the fact that smoking fires are rising up from the streets, it kind of made me consider that as a very conscious reference when I was thinking about this record and titling it as such.”
When sequencing tracks for By the Fire, which was completed the third week in March, he wanted the record to reflect what people are dealing with both globally and collectively.
“That was kind of what defined my narrative for the record,” Moore says, “and I sequenced it in a way that it felt like a story for me.”
The seventeen-minute song “Locomotives,” which feels like a suite of sorts with different sections, was the seed for the album. The song, which Moore says has a dark, experimental vibe to it, was in the vein of what he’d been doing over the past year and a half, writing and playing really long, extrapolated guitar compositions, three of which ended up on 2019’s three-album set, Spirit Counsel.
While “Locomotives” acted as an entry point of sorts for By the Fire, Moore also wanted to get back into more economical songwriting. He had originally planned to release “Locomotives” and “Venus” with “Hashish” and “Cantaloupe,” both of which Moore calls “straight-up sonic rock tunes that were truly economic songs, nugget style." He also had some other tracks that he’d recorded, as well as the song “Breath,” which was recorded with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly during the making of 2017's Rock n Roll Consciousness, but Moore thought the eleven-minute cut was too unwieldy.
When assembling By the Fire, which includes My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe, Jon Leidecker. aka Wobbly of Negativland, on electronics, guitarist James Sedwards and Shelley Jem Doulton alternating on drums, Moore says he was thinking about the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street, which included material from the Sticky Fingers recording sessions and other sessions.
“I was kinda-sorta thinking in that mode,” Moore says, “and collaging these pieces together to create one unified statement.”
Moore says he wanted to release By the Fire as soon as possible — while “people are looking for some exchange and debate and dialogue more than ever.”
For Moore, releasing albums has always been a political move.
“It's like you're engaging with society,” Moore says. “It's a social engagement. It's an exchanger. You’re putting something out to be procured, so you have to have some responsibility about that, even if it’s still cute songs or love songs or whatever. But it's like you're kind of being public, and it's being social. It's essentially political. It’s a political move.
“For me, I wanted to be part of that politic of something that was about progress and progressive ideas, in opposition to and in resistance to this kind of encroaching totalitarianism that's been happening for the last four years. For me, it's completely political. It’s not so much anti; it’s more just kind of pro sonic democracy.”
While Moore moved from Massachusetts to London, where he has lived since 2013, he says if ever relocated to the States, he’d consider moving to Colorado.
"I would live around that area in a second if it came to this point where I relocated back to the USA in any capacity," Moore says.
For nearly a decade, Moore has been coming to Naropa University in Boulder to teach at the Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a program founded by poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974.
Moore, who first moved to New York’s Lower East Side in 1976 when he was eighteen, saw Ginsberg a few times at CBGB, sometimes opening for Patti Smith, Television and others. One year at Naropa, Moore says he talked about the recording career of Ginsberg, while another year he discussed William Burroughs’s recording career. In another session, Moore talked about the connection between CBGB and the poetry community.
“For me, it was just like there was not enough time to really get it into it," he says. "And I could only really just introduce it. And that was it — your four days are done.”
After seeing Moore's library of underground poetry documents at his home in the early 2000s, Waldman asked him to teach at Naropa. He started collecting documents during the ’80s, when he started forming a relationship with the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in downtown Manhattan, which is where Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and others developed the punk scene. By the late ’80s and into the ’90s, Moore says, he had a clearer understanding of that connection between the punks and the Beats.
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“I always knew it existed, and I was in that neighborhood all the time,” Moore says. “But I was just so preoccupied with the band and Sonic Youth and playing with different musicians, and you would be at CBGB, and Allen Ginsberg would come in and jump on stage and play his harmonium. And you would see Anne Waldman around. I just sort of took it for granted that there was this connection, that there were all these poets working in and around the Poetry Project. And it was a kind of an older, pre-punk school of people who were around since the ’60s.”
“And so it was a curious connection, but it was also a part of the underground family. I mean, punk rock has a lot to do with coming out of the Beat culture to begin with. I think there was one time when I got really interested in collecting a lot of the mimeographed underground poetry publications that came out of that scene.”
While Naropa is a Buddhist-inspired university, Moore says you don't have to be a practitioner of Buddhist philosophy to attend the school or teach there.
“It gives a vibe that's very beatific and pacifist and intelligent and progressive,” Moore says. “And all those things are not very well represented right now in the USA as far as leadership goes.”