Review: 12 Things We Learned During Thurston Moore At The Barbican

Art & Culture

It's not about the tea chests any more

The first time I saw Thurston Moore's seminal Sonic Youth was more than 30 years ago. They had a tea chest to put their guitars in, the disdained instruments, a means to an end, were seemingly picking them out at random. They did a whole song that was just them creating feedback and noise over Madonna's Live To Tell. It was amazing. There’s no tea chests at Thurston Moore’s latest venture, Galaxies 12×12, which features Moore and some current collaborators, a My Bloody Valentine here, a former Flying Lizard there, performing two sections both penned by him, for 12 string acoustic, in the first part, and then electric guitars. 

He's still cool

I was at a party in New York once, for the Paper magazine, Thurston was there, with Kim Gordon in about 1990. As soon as the DJ dropped some hip hop, the pair got up and started dancing, the first on to the floor. Nearly 30 years later, and I’m still supremely impressed at how cool this was. A few years later, Nirvana signed to Geffen because of Sonic Youth. And he’s still got it, even as he lopes on to stage following in the wake of his 12-strong, 12-string guitar orchestra.

He still has impeccable taste

Galaxies was inspired by poetry penned by jazz space cadet Sun Ra. I’ve got a fair few Arkestra records, I’ve seen the out-there sci-fi film, Space Is The Place, but wasn’t even aware of poetry and prose. Thurston knows it. Similarly, with David Toop, Deb Goodge et al, his current on-stage partners, he’s surrounded himself with people who have impressive credentials. Graphics and film on a giant screen on the night, interspersed with footage of the ensemble, is provided by Radio Radieux. He knows. 

It's very grown up

There’s a no smartphone sign. Everyone respects it – no-one is snapping. This is amazing. (And it’s also why I’ve not sent any pictures in with this review.) There are some serious musos here. Not your usual gig crowd, some properly grown up Wire readers and modern classical types. A few rows behind us, a bit of chat during the acoustic session seems to massively annoy the bloke near us. He turns round to give them his best, withering, STFU look. It works. Although that was taking things a bit far mate. 

It's all about the numbers

It's not just the 12×12, 12 guitarists, playing 12 strings. Moore has a compatriot on stage, appearing to hold up a book to the band cum orchestra, with numbers on it. For a while my head starts spinning as I think about the numbers. I hate even numbers. 12×12 is too even. Luckily there are six on one side of the stage, five on the other, two at the front, backs to the audience. Because of the camera set-up, at points you can see the book numbers being held up. All thee numbers, indicating when they should change. I think about the chaos, the order, odd versus even, earth versus sky, acoustic versus electric.

It's not just noodling

A mate had seen Moore, now a resident of Stoke Newington, a while back at Cafe Oto. He was onstage with Mike Watt, former Minutemen frontman and another of his heroes. “And then they just ended up messing around on stage for ages,” he told me. “It was so boring, I left before the end.”
This however, especially the second, electric halfway of the show, was far from dull.

Acoustic guitars aren't all bad

A lot of people have an entirely rational fear of acoustic guitars, driven mostly by the fact that any idiot can pick up one of the things and just start playing it. God, acoustic guitar players are annoying. Part of the reason I avoid festivals at all costs is to avoid incessant acoustic guitar playing, you Beatles and Wonderwall divs. This is different though. At times during the the first half, it approaches the kind of sound that Sonic Youth and Moore were associated with, where noise and harmony kind of fuse into one, like Schizophrenia, say, off Sister. This is a good thing. 

It's still about the screwdrivers

Thurston’s always loved hitting a guitar with a screwdriver as part of his ongoing assault on the instrument during his years of experimentalism. And the second half of the show, the electric section entitled Sky, all 12 players, Moore himself included, at the front, his back to the audience, leading his carefully selected troupe, have screwdrivers jammed into their guitars.

You don't have to play guitar to play guitar

Moore has always known how to eke the most from his instrument. You don’t jut need to strum. Use a chopstick. Use a screwdriver. Whack the guitar. Cover the sound hole. Strum up and down the fretboard. Hit the pick ups. And other guitar terminology I probably don’t fully understand. 

He's not playing the fucking hit

Since the rather unfortunate break-up of Sonic Youth, still sorely missed, at least Moore, credited with the split in the band as he separated from fellow band founder Kim Gordon, leaving her for another woman (he’s said he’s mystified by this, incidentally, although he doesn’t come out of Gordon’s book. The Girl In A Band, well at all), hasn’t traded on his status as some kind of post punk, No Wave, art punk and grunge overlord, touring the hits, living on his past. Galaxies is the latest in a flurry of activity. 

There will be feedback

You just knew it would end in feedback. If I was a betting man, I’d have had a fiver on the evening’s proceedings ending with Thurston and co all leaning their guitars against their amps and summoning up the feedback gods. And thus it ever was – although there was some additional material afterwards too. It’s good to know that some things never change. If anyone knows how best to draw the sound out of his guitar (and others) then it’s Moore. And he’s allowed to do it. 

12 guitars are better than one

Like you needed someone to tell you that one.

Lead image: Radieux Radio

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