Thurston Moore And The Giant Boombox
Cassettes are smack in the middle of a resurgence right now, with tapes populating the racks at Urban Outfitters and Cassette Store Day entering its fourth year of existence — but, for young Thurston Moore, they were a kind of underground collector’s item. And, for an even younger Thurston Moore, they were kind of a nuisance — he worked in a cassette factory as a teen.
Moore is out with his new solo album, Rock N Roll Consciousness, today (Friday, April 28), so TIDAL dug into the vaults and uncovered this exclusive video featuring Moore in conversation with Norwegian noise/experimental artist Lasse Marhaug to celebrate. The talk took place in 2014 in Oslo at the All Ears Festival for Improvised Music and was shot at NyMusikk.
The interview — which spans the joys of self-taping, Moore’s affinity for underground cassettes and Sonic Youth memories — works well when played in concert with the new record. Although it contains just five songs, the album is a sprawling exploration of love and other mysteries that engulfs the listener in a Dorothy’s tornado of sound. It’s grounding, and illuminating, to listen to Moore chat about both the mundane physicality and experimental nature of cassette culture as a prelude to the storm.
You can watch the whole video below, but here are just a few highlights to dig into before you press “play” on Moore’s newest audio masterpiece.
On working at a tape factory… “When I was a teenager — seventeen years old in the ‘70s — I worked at a factory that manufactured cassette tapes. It was called Columbia Magnetic in Bethel, Connecticut. … I had no romance with cassette tapes at that time because they were just sort of part of the audio world. … It was a horrible job, sweeping floors in the middle of the night.”
On very early recordings… “When I was a thirteen-year-old kid I used to spend a lot of time recording things on cassette, like a RadioShack cassette recorder. … I held on to those recordings and I actually put some of them on this solo record I did in the early 2000s called Trees Outside the Academy. There was a track on it called ‘Thurston at Thirteen,’ which was basically these recordings I made on cassette tape as a thirteen-year-old. For no reason; it was there in the household…I was making sounds on it and doing descriptive recordings where I was like, ‘Here’s the sound of a penny falling on the table,’ and I would do it. ‘Here’s the sound of a pencil being thrown against the window,’ and I would do it.”
On a really big boombox… “I remember on tour — our first couple of tours that Sonic Youth would do in a van crisscrossing the USA or Europe — everybody would bring a few cassettes, mixtapes of what they wanted to listen to on tour. … That was always fun and then people you would meet on tour would gift you a cassette with a mixtape and that was always cool. … Or a band would give you their forthcoming record. …
“We had a van that the cassette player, it finally had its day and it just broke and we were just getting ready for tour again and we knew that there was no cassette player in the van. So I was entrusted to get a cassette player for the van that was portable. So I was given access to a couple of hundred dollars, of which I was supposedly going to spend sixty dollars to buy a cool little portable cassette player. And this was at the advent of LL Cool J’s Radio and hip-hop was taking on this new edge with Def Jam and I was just like, ‘I’m gonna go get the biggest boombox that I can buy in New York City.’ But I didn’t want to tell the band that because I would have been shot down. But I knew I was going to do it anyway.
“I went to this place on Delancey Street, which is where all the hip-hop kids would go to buy their boomboxes, and I went into this place and I just looked around for the largest boombox, which was a Conion and it was on the top shelf. It was monstrous. It was the size of a building. And I said, ‘I want to buy that,’ and I spent the entire Sonic Youth tour money.
“So we met the next morning at 6 a.m. at the studio to load the van up and I come walking down the street with this huge thing. And they were just like, ‘You can’t be serious. I can’t believe you just bought this cassette player boombox.’ And I said, ‘No, it sounds great; it’s going to be wonderful.’
“But then it was a little sort of embarrassing because it didn’t fit anywhere in the van, so we kind of jammed it between the two seats in the front, but it was still even bigger than a seat itself. I still have it. It has all these stickers on it from Black Flag and Saccharine Trust and Minutemen — our whole tour with stickered on this boombox.”
On playing tapes onstage… “Pretty early on, around ’83, ’84 — when we first started playing out around 1980 — our guitars were tuned to these unorthodox tunings. So we would have to spend this inordinate amount of time between songs tuning the guitars to the next piece of music, which I guess to some people in the audience is somewhat amusing. But, for most people, it was very annoying. … So I thought maybe it would be better to play music for the audience while we were doing this.
“So at first it became this thing where I would play hits of the day, which would be the newest Pat Benatar song or something like this. It just sounded great blasting through an amplifier because it was distorted. … So it became this whole other thing and I started refining it more and doing different things. I was playing, I think, ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by the Stooges between songs. Or at least right before we started our own version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’
“Our third album was called Bad Moon Rising and we wanted to replicate what we were doing live with that. So that whole record is seamless as far as the sequence goes; there’s no stops between the songs. … You actually hear that recording of the Stooges, which I don’t know how we got away with actually releasing that. We never got permission for it, but in those days, that didn’t seem to be too much of a concern.”
On experimentation… “When Sonic Youth first started, Lee Renaldo was doing stuff with reel-to-reels at the time. Doing sort of tape experimental stuff that way. And on the first sort of proper Sonic Youth record, which was Confusion is Sex… there’s a piece of music on there called ‘Lee Is Free,’ which is sort of this tape music that he had brought in from doing these reel-to-reel experiments at the time. I very rarely see people utilizing reel-to-reels now in any experimental way, and I just think, as sound-emitters, they’re just so great-sounding.”
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