Thurston Moore on politics and cask beer

Posted on 26.10.2023

Hello and welcome to Ed #1 of ISSUES, a new digital pamphlet by Beak aimed at those whose curiosity transcends the world of hops. It’s pretty simple; on the last Friday of each month we’ll send you a free piece of editorial content covering art, nature, music, literature and food (okay, there might also be a bit of beer). We’ll see where it takes us but we’re thinking: interviews, recipes, poetry, thought-provoking cultural musings and much more.

Our first edition features an exclusive interview with Thurston Moore who earlier this month helped us to create a collaboration pale ale called Sonic Love. The iconic Sonic Youth frontman not only played a hand in shaping the beer but also contributed photography and a 1,000 word extract from his long-awaited memoir, Sonic Life (Faber & Faber), offering a rare and illuminating glimpse into the subversive world of 1970s New York punk and beyond. Enjoy.

BEAK: Firstly, thank you for your help creating our collaboration beer Sonic Love. Would you describe yourself as a craft beer fan?

THURSTON MOORE: I think I would. In America, craft beer saved beer from the swill it had been for so long. I distinctly remember in the 80s more craft breweries beginning to come through and attracting a whole new generation of beer enthusiasts. Drinking beer changed from something you just did because it was a mark of growing up, or was something your parents did, to something you could personally identify with as a part of your own culture. At that time, I was drawn to small breweries coming out of Texas who were making these really interesting small run beers and so we would request these beers on our riders on tour. Before this, it was all about ice cold Mexican-style lagers like Corona or Pacifico so you didn’t have to relegate yourself to drinking Miller High Life.

BEAK: I quite like Miller High Life – it’s the Champagne of beers.

TM: Well, it has its place!

BEAK: When did you first experience beer styles beyond those found in the US?

TM: I remember coming to Europe for the first time in the mid 80s and being introduced to German Pils and authentic Munich Helles and I was just like oh this is real beer. And then we started going to Belgium and drinking their traditional beers and that was just a whole other planet. Obviously, what really stood out for me coming to England was having pints of real ale in pubs. It was just as the Real Ale movement was starting to gain traction and each pint felt like a meal unto itself. I was amazed that you could drink three or more pints without suffering – it really felt like the way to go. In the States at the time, if you bought any kind of beer it was an instant headache because there were so many chemicals involved.

BEAK: I could talk about beer all day but we should really discuss your music career and new memoir Sonic Life (Faber & Faber) a significant portion of which is dedicated to the late 1970s and early 1980s…

TM: Our experiences as young adults have a profound impact on the rest of our lives, and this is particularly the case for musicians. I think this is why you see a lot of older musicians on social media reliving their youth by sharing old photos of when they were on fire. With most professions the focus is on progression – what happens when you are young is mostly just climbing the ladder – but in music most of the focus is on the immediate attention you get when you are very young, before other people inevitably come along and supplant you. So, when I was writing I was mostly interested in my early development and what led to Sonic Youth becoming a legacy act. In Sonic Life, you have to read almost three quarters of the book before you even get to the mid 1990s. I actually edited the book significantly to get it down to the doorstep it already is. Prior to this it was three times longer so I feel like I could do another book and completely focus on each record as a chapter.

BEAK: How did you find the process of writing such a tome?

TM: It came pretty naturally. I’ve written and published essays and poetry before, so I had some experience, but most importantly I was eager and excited to write it.

BEAK: Your publisher is Faber & Faber; did you feel the ghost of TS Eliot weighing on your shoulders?

TM: Of course. Faber was the only game in town as far as I was concerned; I really liked the idea of it being on a historically established imprint. I wanted the book to exist in that pantheon. I think there’s also something about Faber that gives the book a certain aesthetic that wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise. In terms of the format; at first, I was planning on writing it in a free, experimental, almost meta way. I like being free and experimental, obviously. But I also realised it could potentially be a very frustrating way of writing so decided to keep it chronological and be defined by the memories and events that stayed with me.

BEAK: One of the things that comes across in the book is how genuinely passionate you are about other people’s music, particularly the bands that inspired you as a young man…

TM: Music was always going to be the focus. I was never a drug addict or anything so couldn’t really get into the darkness that you see in so many other memoirs. I’ve led quite a benign and ordinary life.

BEAK: “Benign” doesn’t sound like the right word for your life…

TM: I guess there’s a bit of a paradox; I always felt like I was rather straight and conservative to some degree but my interests were subversive and the music itself was entirely subversive.

BEAK: I think Sonic Youth were unique in their ability to both spearhead and
transcend so many different music scenes from No Wave through to Grunge. You were clearly looked up to by bands in these genres and yet it sometimes felt like you were on the peripheries and not easily categorizable…

TM: We were anomalies in those scenes and yet garnered some kind of respect because of our attitude and how supportive we were of younger bands, which was always a thing. This wasn’t the case for a lot of associates we’d come up with through the 80s. There was always so much joyful energy in what was going on around us led by bands that had grown up watching us, from Nirvana through to Pavement. I certainly wanted to write more about the signifiers for Sonic Youth than Sonic Youth being a signifier. I also didn’t want to dedicate much of the book to sharing the different accolades and reviews we’d received throughout the years.

BEAK: Have you been looking at reviews of the book?

TM: I always read reviews, sometimes to the detriment of my sleep. That said, I’ve pretty much learned how to process criticism to some degree. The reviews are just beginning to come through and they’ve all been good.

BEAK: Now the book’s finished, what does a typical day look like for Thurston

TM: I’m spending a lot of time promoting the book and have a UK book tour lined up, including an event at the South Bank Centre with Stewart Lee. You should totally do a Stewart Lee lager by the way. We were neighbours in Stoke Newington for a long time and he loves a good pint. But we’ve left the neighbourhood now because the landlord needed the place back – we got 60 days’ notice after ten years of being there. We’ve found a place near Hammersmith, which is the first place I ever visited in London when we played at Riverside Studios with Glenn Branca.

BEAK: You’ve lived in London for close to a decade now. Is the honeymoon period beginning to wane?

TM: I love it; I think London is one of the greatest cities, it’s really unlike any other
international major city be it Paris, Berlin or New York. I like that it is so deep an outpost for culture including music, art and literature – people actually read here and take writing seriously, which is a big draw for me. I think English cities more generally, like Manchester, offer this rich ongoing history and I can always trust what’s going on culturally.

BEAK: How do you feel about the US right now?

TM: Psychologically, it’s dealing with the horror of being a country that has completely lost the point of its own idea i.e. that of being a place where people can go for opportunity. Violence has always existed in the country in the form an underlying racism but now it has been energised by Trump politics. It isn’t anything new, it’s just become more transparent and is being weaponised. It’s frightening. When I go to visit my 29 year old daughter and invite her to go see a movie she’ll say she feels uncomfortable going to a cinema because of guns. It’s completely and utterly unfortunate for a country that was once emblematic of the ideals of freedom and acceptance. It’s all very dispiriting. I could go and live there again
fairly easily but that’s partly because I have the safety and comfort of being a middle class white man so that to me is a conflict of personal guilt. At this point in time, it’s what you’d call a ‘dumpster fire’ but UK politics has its own issues with people like Starmer bringing in the same ideology as the Conservatives.

BEAK: You once did a collaboration song with Bernie Sanders; I take it we won’t be seeing a Thurston Moore x Keir Starmer collab song anytime soon?

TM: No, I don’t think so ha. The only reason I supported a politician previously was because he was up against somebody as nefarious as Donald Trump.

BEAK: I did think there was one key bit missing from your book: your first interaction with Oasis during the Britpop years…

TM: I met Noel and Liam in the early years of Oasis when we were on the same bill for various radio festivals along with other new upstarts like No Doubt or whoever. But at that point we were already somewhat established so we were kind of old timers. I remember watching them soundcheck and thinking yeah they sound alright. To me they sounded like a straight down the middle pop rock band. I could kind of see the appeal as it was easy listening and kind of sexy. I was sitting with Butch Vig in my dressing room and Liam and Noel came in looking for Butch to congratulate him on producing Neverminded by Nirvana. Butch said jokingly “yeah yeah that record’s okay but you should really check out Sonic Youth” knowing full well that we were not at all his kind of music. I think they knew he was
taking the piss and Noel later did an interview on MTV complaining that music shouldn’t be clever and that musicians should not be playing guitars with drumsticks and dustbins. As a side note; I don’t ever remember rolling dustbins on top of guitars but it’s not a bad idea! Anyhow, I later took that MTV recording and used it in a remix of a Blur song that I did for a limited edition Japanese release. The rest of Blur didn’t want me to be involved but Graham Coxon did so I took the bass player’s bass line out of the song and replaced it with feedback and Noel’s commentary.

BEAK: Our Zoom call is about to time-out, so here’s some quick fire questions!
Favourite SY song:

TM: Theresa’s Sound World

BEAK: London pub or NYC dive bar:

TM: London Pub

BEAK: Ice cold American lager or cask bitter:

TM: Cask bitter

BEAK: Surprising musical taste:

TM: British folk

BEAK: Guitar idol:

TM: Viv Albertine from The Slits

BEAK: What are you reading:

TM: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

BEAK: Favourite restaurant:

TM: Quo Vadis in Soho

Interview conducted by Danny Tapper. A special thank you to Faber & Faber for all their support.

Photo credit: ‘In the zone at the Tibetan Freedom Concert on Randall’s Island, New York City, summer of 1997, sharing the stage with A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Biz Markie, Radiohead, U2, Patti Smith, and others.’ Courtesy of Ebet Roberts.

Looking for the freshest, best-value and most convenient way to get your Beak fix?
Join our monthly beer subscription club, Beak Social Club. For £45, you’ll get 12 brewery-fresh cans; first dibs on limited edition releases; 10% off all merchandise and invites to exclusive events across the UK. What’s more, you can cancel anytime. You deserve it!