Thurston Moore (11.01.07)

Posted on July 28, 2008


Indie godfather hides out with Northampton elite

Someone stole Thurston Moore’s laptop a few weeks ago, but hes not looking too hard for the culprit. “In the days after I lost it, ” he says in his trademark quizzical baritone, “It was like this enlightening period where I would just go places and see everyone on their own laptops, stressing about getting no signal or whatever, I just had no worries life that. It was great.”

“So I canceled all my email addresses and just said ‘it’s over.’ People got things done before there was ever an internet, right?”

Moore might be on to something. A new nation of email deprived bands? It’s not on his agenda, but it wouldn’t be the first time that he led a generation into unpopular territory. Moore’s built one of the most prolific and pioneering careers in music out of years of avoiding paradigms. His record label, Ecstatic Peace, is one year into a distro deal with Universal that’s launching unlikely acts like Magik Markers and Awesome Color into high profile press exposure, despite those bands’ short histories of blatantly inaccessible albums. He’s capped the deal off with a new solo album that leans heavily on (surprise!) acoustic guitar. It could be time to unplug and follow him through the brambles into the low tech wilderness.

Moore and wife Kim Gordon split from Sonic Youth’s hometown of New York City in 1999 for the crunchy, tree-lined streets of Northampton, Mass. with their daughter, Coco. Always seeking out new influences, they quickly became entrenched in the budding new art and music scene there.

“I had no idea it was so vibrant before I got there,” he says. “But all of a sudden, there we were with people like Matt Valentine, Erica Elder, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Believers, all these people doing amazing stuff. A lot of it centers around the Hampshire College scene, and it was great because they were all taking cues from free improv and were like really well-versed in Sonic Youth and SST Records and all the things we had been into.”

Moore met Northampton resident Andrew Kesin while working on a video project and eventually invited him onboard with his bedroom record label that he’d been using to release friends’ music since 1981 (the first release was a spoken word tape by Lydia Lunch and Michael Gira). Through the label and an outgoing attitude toward local shows, Moore immersed himself in what was going on in the galleries, music halls and basements of Western Massachusetts.

“It was like a paradise of hip musicians, man,” he says. “It’s like a utopian scene and it’s a lot more interesting than New York now. It’s like when we were starting out and everyone was just living in New York because it was cheap.” Joining in at coffee shops and basement shows (almost never club shows) at places like Montague Bookmill, Hampshire College’s Red Barn, the original Flywheel, PACE and The Eagle’s Nest, Moore can be seen lugging his own gear down crooked steps and tripping himself up in webs of cables. He’s performed violent noise with Prurient and quiet solo acoustic sets, and he always watches the rest of the bands.

“I saw this band from Cleveland called Emeralds in the basement of this record store in Northampton called Time Machine,” he says of one night. “They play this quiet synthesizer music that’s really not that weird, but in the context of all these noise kids, it was just the best thing. Glorious. As good as anything I’d see at Madison Square Garden.”

In that respect, Moore’s aesthetic hasn’t changed much and in fact falls right in line with punk movements, underground hip-hop, avant-garde and bebop musicians of the ‘40s, all of which valued playing in small rooms under the mainstream radar where crowds still interacted with musicians. And it isn’t just the woodsy Western Mass. venues filling that role for him — Moore has also made his way to friends’ shows at the cozy Abbey Lounge in Cambridge, Mass. and the basement vinyl haven Twisted Village in Harvard Square. Both rooms bring to mind the ad-hoc, dingy vibe of Moore’s early days in New York.

“You know, you could go see The Who at the Garden or whatever, which was still awesome,” he says. “But people doing that wouldn’t have the time for this other stuff, which is going to CBGB’s, this tiny place, and sticking it out down there with these incredible bands and an incredible community. To me, that was where the real rock ‘n’ roll experience was.”

“Now there are Sunburned and Magik Markers, just really wild cats, and they don’t make money what they’re doing. They’re just doing it and they’re doing it around the world, touring in the cheapest way possible. These are the people who are inspiring to me.”

Last year, some of that inspiration met with opportunity to move his new discoveries onto a national stage. Ecstatic Peace signed a deal with Universal that essentially pumps Ecstatic Peace releases through Universal’s indie distribution chain (Fontana). The deal also provides an option to bump certain acts up into a direct joint venture release, where Universal would provide mainstream distro and marketing muscle. So far, Be Your Own Pet is the only band that has released anything through the joint venture, but the whole Ecstatic family has benefited from the deal.

Moore and Kesin have been able to move acts like Wooden Wand, MV+EE, Tall Firs and Boston sludge rockers Black Helicopter into wider markets than any of them previously had the muscle for. Kesin, who handles more of the number-crunching sides of the business (and who still maintains an email address), says that the deal has already paid off in more ways than one.

“We’ve offered a lot of the bands a level of exposure and awareness that I don’t think they had previously experienced,” he says. People grabbing records across the country who’ve never even heard of the bands also see the Ecstatic Peace label as a sort of instant taste indicator. “We’ve provided x factor opportunities for each of them that have come from the label and Thurston’s deep network of friends, fans, and peers,” Kesin says.

After a year of feeling it out, the two decided to release a solo record that Moore recorded this year at J. Mascis’s studio in Amherst, a short drive from Moore’s house. Trees Outside the Academy was released in September and, as Kesin says, its release marked a triumph for the label’s business. “I felt comfortable enough with our label at that point to release Thurston’s record without using any of Universal’s extra muscle,” he says. “I felt it was worth feeding the independent distribution chain that has worked hard for some of the more challenging releases.”

Trees Outside the Academy ended up being noteworthy to the rest of the world for its immersion in earthy tones, bright acoustic guitar melodies and the honest approach to writing peaceful rock songs. Dissonant chords permeate every inch of the record, but they find a new meditative calmness and connection with nostalgic melodies that Sonic Youth has only hinted at on several records in the past.

But if the release of Academy and the big-time Be Your Own Pet deal seem like bittersweet progress for fans of the intimate label, they’d be overlooking the rest of Moore’s recent additions to the collection. This year, Ecstatic put out six other LPs and CDs, along with a few cassette-only releases — most recently from Treetops and Sunburned Hand of the Man — on limited runs of 100 each (all of which Moore dupes himself). You could say it’s a throwback way to run a label except that’s how Ecstatic Peace has always done it, harking back to Moore’s old practice of placing a boom box onstage before Sonic Youth shows to play demos given to them on tour. Embracing the cassette is almost like holding onto simpler times. Those clunky plastic cases passing from hand to hand, the indeterminate lead time suspense before the music begins and the clumsy operation of fast forward and rewind buttons bring a physicality and malleability to the recorded music that’s hard to find elsewhere. Vinyl, maybe, but no one ever sat in their bedroom and recorded themselves playing guitar over a used LP. The tape and its solitary, make-your-own nature is maybe the quintessential symbol of artists getting by outside of the establishment.

Which is why it’s interesting that, on Moore’s stop through NYC on tour in October, he played a free show at the Apple store in SoHo. Past the Genius Bar and up the escalators, audience members had filed into a wide auditorium about 50 seats wide and 10 rows deep, a PowerPoint slide of Trees Outside the Academy hovering on the wall behind the stage, right above drummer Steve Shelley’s head. “Let’s all turn our iPhones off before we start the show,” Moore said to audience. “Or maybe it would be better if you all just passed them up here for now.” Moore had a full band on hand, including old friend and ex-Come guitarist Chris Brokaw (his autograph graces one of the Sonic Youth t-shirts on the cover of Washing Machine), and performed most of the songs from the new album, answering requests from off the mic and blanking on others he only knew from Brokaw’s guitar riffs. At one point, a mic cable came loose from one of the drum mics and Moore looked at it in mock shock. “Can’t you just Bluetooth it or whatever?”

But by the end of the show, watching Moore and band maintain a sense of spontaneity and self-awareness while still doing justice to the pensive songs in the middle of that weird, futurist technology mart was very telling about this project’s relationship with the brave new world of the music business. It’s a begrudging acceptance, but Moore has this effortless ability to adapt, still looking audience members in the eye, still treating that one-on-one connection as the highest priority.

It comes as no surprise that he remains unimpressed with the internet. “I don’t get a thrill from music existing on the internet,” he says later. “With these mp3s, the information is there, but so what? There’s a lot about the music that’s been flushed down the toilet with this stuff. I do like getting online and going to noise communities to find out who’s got new cassettes out to collect and to see who I’ve got to get in touch with to go get them. Because that’s still important. I don’t see anything replacing the visceral thrill of buying a record album from someone.”

Maybe it’s idealist. Maybe you could fearfully imagine yourself growing old in your parents’ basement hopelessly waiting for people to call and ask to order you back catalog, and maybe you wouldn’t be off base. MySpace and the internet have ushered in a new era of DIY power and business, but at what cost? Is individuality what it used to be? Are the millions sitting online spending hours and hours researching their networks doing it at the cost of working on themselves and their art?

Moore is quick to offer advice for musicians getting on their feet in the middle of the age of internet marketing and promotion. “To me,” he says, “the best thing you can do is just make a record, go do what you do and just document yourself. Getting it into people’s hands is secondary. You know, make them available, but don’t oversell it. If what you’re doing is interesting to people, they will find it themselves and love it and pass it on. Just look at Jandek and Daniel Johnston.”

It may not happen every day, but Ecstatic Peace and others are proof that there are people out there looking for new music in a quiet, slow-moving and patient way. Following Moore’s advice, it’s artists’ job to keep recording while he continues finding bands no one’s heard of and copying their tapes at home.

Just don’t expect anything in your inbox from him.

[Originally Appeared in Northeast Performer 12.07]