In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.
The mixer: Fronting a highly acclaimed experimental art-rock band for 30 years has its creative perks. Just ask Thurston Moore, who after leading Sonic Youth for three decades isn’t just allowed to step brazenly outside of the musical box; he’s more or less expected to by fans and critics alike. That said, perhaps the most surprising thing about Moore’s latest solo effort, The Best Day, is how comparatively straightforward and even relaxed it is in spots. Recorded with longtime Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe on bass, the record is marked by a certain restraint that’s been absent from much of Moore’s past work, all while retaining its slightly experimental lean. To coincide with the record’s release, The A.V. Club asked Moore to pull together a list of songs that make up the soundtrack to his best day.
The A.V. Club: That’s a pretty fitting start.
Thurston Moore: Yeah, and it’s a pretty heavy song for me. I think when I first heard Transformer, the one Bowie produced for Lou Reed, what was it, 1972, 1973 or whatever? I was a pretty young dude at the time. I remember there was a certain pathos to that song that was jarring but kind of touching in a way. The significant line in that song, and I think Lou Reed has even mentioned it, is “Just a perfect day / You made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else / Someone good.” That’s so Lou Reed in a way, finding this moment of escape from the horror of the real world. But it was done in such an artful and sort of self-aggrandizing way it seems like he was having fun with it. I think he had a sense of humor about his own darkness, and for me that was very influential.
AVC: It’s easy to see how Sonic Youth might have gleaned something from the way he found romanticism in things that were dark or seedy.
TM: Possibly, yeah. To me, it’s sort of a blueprint record for good urban pop.
TM: DJs used to play this one a lot. It’s a quote/unquote “northern soul” favorite. I just think it’s one of those songs where the singer’s voice is so exquisite in terms of true American soul music. The song just has this bliss to it. The communication between her and the person she’s singing it to—it’s a love song, you know? Everything about her phrasing and her voice here is exemplary for a mid-’60s soul classic.
AVC: You talk fondly of it being a love song. Were those types of songs catching your attention when you were writing and recording The Best Day?
TM: Yeah. This song is one that I’ve heard through the years, but I actually went out and looked for it and bought it in the past year. So it was very concurrent with when I was making this record, definitely.
TM: It’s by this band called The Beatles? [Laughs.]
AVC: Jog my memory.
TM: It’s on the Beatles For Sale record. Super early. You need Beatles everyday, but I chose this song because I was actually thinking of covering it as a B-side for this record. Then I realized that no one really does B-sides anymore. It was just an idea I had in case we needed extra tracks. I haven’t done it yet, but I’d still like to.
AVC: Why early Beatles instead of something from the later era? Is there something about this song that lent itself to being a good cover?
TM: I just found this song had this sort of quality that a lot of Beatles songs have. They’d give this edge to the typical pop format that was happening at the time. The Beatles had this sort of style of singing between Lennon and McCartney where they could take a simplistic melody and give it a certain pathos. They’d throw a question mark in there a little bit. That was something that set them apart from the other sort of beach groups in the ’60s, in a way. The lyrics would just be these “moon in June” kind of lyrics, but they’d transcend that in the way they emoted it.
AVC: The subtleties they threw into their songs made all the difference.
TM: Yeah. I reference that in a way on this record. People ask, “What’s different about this record?” Nothing’s different. It’s actually really classic, just two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. I had this idea where it could be really different with strings, horns, keyboards, and other orchestrations. But there’s something I really like about classic or purist musical ideas or traditions. The Beatles are really significant in that respect.
TM: I was really affected by this song when I first heard it as a young kid back in 1973. Bloodshot was a great record, and I remember hearing that it was on red vinyl. I think I still have my original copy. I took it in the back yard, someone threw it in the air, and I shot it with a BB gun.
AVC: That sounds like fun.
TM: There’s a hole in it from the BB, but it still plays quite great. That song, and really that whole record, meant a lot to me. I just thought that song was a good, sexy love song. They wrote a lot of songs like that. By the time their next record came out, I was just old enough to be able to go see them. Their next record was called Hotline. It had a gimmicky cover, a die-cut record sleeve with a telephone on it. That had some good songs on it too, but it wasn’t as zeitgeisty as Bloodshot. When I went to see them, they played mostly the Hotline record, but I was really excited to see them. They opened for Peter Frampton at the New Haven Coliseum in Connecticut. I was so excited when they came out. Magic Dick [Richard Salwitz] came out, and after the first song Peter Wolf said, “All right! We’re gonna play ’em all tonight!” And I was like, “Man, this is great! I’m gonna hear all these songs off of Bloodshot. It’s gonna be like Live: Full House.” After 35 minutes they were like “Thank you,” and they were gone to make way for Frampton. It was kind of sobering to me. I really believed Peter Wolf when he said they were going to play them all.
[The J. Geils Band released two albums between Bloodshot and Hotline, Ladies Invited and Nightmares… And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle. —ed.]
AVC: That’s kind of a big promise to live up to when you’re the opening act and you’ve only got 40 minutes.
TM: Well I had no idea. It was one of my first rock concerts, if not my very first one. But I never lost my love for J. Geils.
AVC: That’s a band that always sounds like it has fun with what it does. Even on a track like “Love Stinks,” it’s still feel-good music.
TM: They were genuinely real rock ’n’ rollers. Everything they did dripped with real R&B rock. But I picked “Give It To Me” out of all of their other songs because it’s got this reggae vibe to it. I liked those early white-boy bands trying to tackle reggae.
TM: It’s a 20-minute track, so I don’t know if that disqualifies it because that’s almost the side of a tape. They recorded it live in Cologne, Germany, in 1975. In terms of a best day or perfect day, this track is great for meditating to the cosmos. It’s Terry Riley investigating his own interest in Indian music, and Don Cherry, who was traveling around Europe at the time, investigating the music of the world in his own way. Funk, jazz, everything. And they met and did a piece together in concert called “Descending Moonshine Dervishes.” It’s only just recently become available for people to hear through the wonders of YouTube. It’s probably been bootlegged here and there to some degree, but I think it’s a great piece.
When I was recording this record, Steve Shelley was playing drums. He was listening to this and was like, “Yeah, I know this.” I said, “If this is what you’re into, then we’re gonna be in a very good place making this record.” It was exactly the kind of vibe that I wanted, even if there was a lot of rock ’n’ roll songwriting going on. That song very much has sort of a best day vibe to it.
AVC: Speaking of 20-minute songs, you open The Best Day with a couple of lengthy, expansive tunes.
TM: Well, at this point I just feel like, “I’m going to do whatever.” There are no real parameters or questions of “Will this fit on the album?” Nobody buys albums. It’s just going to be a digital record. It’s easier to figure things out when it comes to sequencing. It’s like, “Where am I going to put this 10-minute song? I’ll put it second because it works there.” Done. I don’t think I would have done that 10 years ago.
TM: This is the original Blank Generation EP version. Not the album version, but the Ork Records EP version. “I could live with you in another world.” I just find that to be a great song about embracing alienation. But it also has this humor about it. The thing about that song is that lyrically it’s about pining, wanting to be with someone knowing that there are so many forces in the real world working against you.
AVC: But there’s something hopeful or sweet about the idea of keeping the dream alive.
TM: Yeah, exactly. It’s a drawn-out song. He’s losing it in a very James Brown-ian sort of way, but he’s an intellectual poet just getting by with no money in the Lower East Side in 1974, which is kind of what I ran toward at the time.
TM: This group is an offshoot of this band called The Contortions. They were sort of this preeminent no-wave band in the ’70s in New York City led by James Chance. But then he started doing this more funk-centric thing called James White And The Blacks, which was a pretty audacious name for a little twerpy white guy from [Milwaukee]. He was just fully immersed in being the illest of jazz players in New York City, and he was. James White And The Blacks was him and this great guitarist named Jody Harris, Pat Place from The Contortions playing slide guitar, this great bass player named George Scott III who died in the early ’80s, and Donny Christensen on drums.
“Stained Sheets” is a song he wrote with Lydia Lunch. It is this super-dirty, jazzy, funky no-wave riff that they just sort of lay into. It’s basically this phone call between James Chance and Lydia. She’s moaning into the phone, kind of like she’s this wounded pussycat in the vocal booth on the floor. And he’s responding to her, saying things like [Assumes domineering voice.] “Who is this, and what do you want?” It’s this wonderful no-wave love/hate song, because hate is love in no wave.
AVC: How did you stumble across that?
TM: I remember Lydia putting that song on a mixtape for Henry Rollins in the ’80s. When she was having fun with Henry when they first met, I remember him playing it for me. I just thought, “What a wonderful song to put on a mixtape for somebody.” Now I put it on any mixtape I make for somebody.
AVC: That’s your go-to mixtape song? Something to throw a wrench into things?
TM: Definitely. Absolutely.