In conversation: Thurston Moore and Zhang Shouwang

Sonic Youth and Carsick Cars members chat ahead of Concrete and Grass

Zhang Shouwang and Thurston Moore
Ten years ago, Sonic Youth played their first and only shows in Beijing and Shanghai. Slated to open for them at those concerts were Carsick Cars, a young, newly emerging noise-rock trio whose sound was indebted to the music of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley.

But shortly before the shows went ahead, Carsick Cars were told by the authorities that they would not be taking part. 'That was a real bummer,' says Moore ten years on. 'It was a bit of a power move.'

Now, the promoters for those Sonic Youth in China shows - Split Works - are bringing Moore back to Shanghai for their Concrete and Grass Festival, and putting Carsick Cars on the bill too. Moreover, Carsick Cars will be appearing with their original line-up for the first time in nearly six years (guitarist/singer Zhang Shouwang has played with a number of different musicians under the name since 2011). And they'll be performing their first album - a nostalgic echo of sorts of Sonic Youth appearing here on their Don't Look Back: Daydream Nation tour.

With so much history bound up in Carsick Cars' appearance at Concrete and Grass, and given the impact Sonic Youth's performances here had on the Chinese music scene, we brought Zhang and Moore together (over Skype) for a chat ahead of the festival.

ZSW: The shows you played here before, you were really the first very important foreign indie band to play here and that was really important for the music scene here. People travelled from all over China to see you play. And since then a lot of international bands have played here, but that was really the first show of its kind.
TM: That was such an amazing moment for us. We were really excited to be there and we were led to believe 'oh if you go and play China, the people who'll come see you will be the expats from the USA and England and abroad and there's not too many young Chinese people who'll come see you', and it was just the opposite - it was mostly young local Chinese enthusiasts for experimental rock music and they were so enthralled. For us, it was like, wow - this is what we were wishing for. We just felt so good about those shows.

I don't know how much it's changed since then for rock bands coming... I still don't understand why they didn't have you play - they should've stopped us from playing! But I'm really excited to be coming back. I'm just curious if it's a different vibe in China now.

ZSW: Well definitely a lot of things are different from ten years ago. Lee Ranaldo came back and played a couple of years ago. Did he tell you much about it?
TM: Yeah he didn't say a huge amount about it other than that it was just great to be back there, but he didn't really mention anything in terms of how it felt, as a different social environment or anything like this. My memory of being in China was it's not like I felt like I was in some strange world, I just felt like I was in the world. It's such a huge part of this planet and I just felt like it was this really wonderful complexity of ideas and people, but I didn't feel like I was in North Korea or anything like that.

I just felt like, well, there's a certain system here that is very historical and it's dealing with the progressive ideologies of any person as we get further and further into this century, it's a difficult process always with systems of control. But it's like that everywhere. It's certainly like that in America right now where it's just like these situations are coming up where the country is completely divided on how it should identify itself and how it should reference itself.

But I don't feel like I go over there with any kind of political commentary. It's more about me wanting to communicate and share this idea of art, the feeling of liberated expression.

Carsick Cars
Carsick Cars in 2007 (courtesy of Maybe Mars)

ZSW: Yeah, well talking about the music scene right now, after you guys played in 2007 there was a real explosion of young bands in the music scene and there was a club called D-22 opened by Michael Pettis and there was really like a CBGB thing, with lots of young, different bands coming up together and playing there. So it's certainly very different from ten years ago.
TM: Are there any good second-hand record stores?

ZSW: Oh yeah! I guess when you were here before there weren't any, but now people are starting to collect vinyls.
TM: Cool, take me out - that's one of the real pleasures I get out of touring is going to second-hand record stores. So yeah, hook me up!

There was one store we went to in Beijing and they had some experimental CDs. Because before we'd played there there had been some more underground experimental music acts who'd played there, like Elliott Sharp had played there. And I was obviously very curious about the underground harsh noise scene.

ZSW: Like Torturing Nurse in Shanghai.
TM: Yeah there was that sort of infamous exchange where I was asking about Torturing Nurse playing and they said something like 'oh we don't play with pop bands', haha.

[Editor's note: Junky from Torturing Nurse has since disputed the idea that he refused to play with Sonic Youth.]

But I have a couple of compilations of really outsider music from China. Do Carsick Cars have a new record?

ZSW: Not anything especially new. Our last record was two years ago and the drummer from The Clean and Sonic Boom produced it.
TM: Really? That's totally cool. We just played with Sonic Boom at some festival last fall and he was great. I hadn't seen him play in years. He lives in Portugal now...

ZSW: Oh yeah. That seems like a really cool place to be.
TM: Well there could be worse places. I mean, I sometimes think about it too. I've been living in London for about seven years now.

ZSW: How's life there?
TM: It's good, it's so active. It reminds me a little of New York in the '80s - it's really active with experimental music and cinema and the arts scene is always interesting. And I live very close to the foci of experimental music, this club called Cafe OTO...

ZSW: Ah, I've always wanted to go there, but it's always full. Shenggy - the old drummer from my other band White - lives just around the corner. Actually I think she's seen you in the street sometimes. But I was talking with John Cale before and he was talking about life in Europe, and also Alan Vega was in Paris and now you're in London. Why do you think so many important musicians have ended up moving there?
TM: I just think that in a way it's more welcoming to the kind of music that people like us make. The music is not exactly geared for easily accessible programming. We're not that kind of pop artist, not that there's anything wrong with that, but the kind of music that these gentlemen make is more challenging and I feel there are more opportunities coming outside of England and into Europe. In America, there's this great interest there, but it's really spread across the country.

There's this feeling of being taken for granted in the place that you were raised in. I think at some point Sonic Youth became very decoded by a lot of people so I didn't feel like there was that fascination any more with audiences, it kind of plateaued. People would come and they would go like, 'oh yeah, I recognise this', whereas before it was always, 'oh my god what is this? This is so strange,' you know? And I always enjoyed that but I felt like it was dissipating more, which was understandable because a lot of these ideas and this information was becoming more diffused through time because like you said, coming into Beijing, having people who wanted to start bands too, that's really beautiful and amazing but in a way you're not the only one any more.

I mean in America I just didn't feel like there that was much happening any more. Although that's not really why I moved to England - I moved to England for personal reasons because that's where my girlfriend was living and I wanted to be with her - but it was following your heart and then things started happening. So I meet this guitar player James Sedwards, reconnect with Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine. And then Steve Shelley is touring with Lee and he says he would like to play with me. And all of a sudden I have this group, but it wasn't really premeditated or anything.

The Thurston Moore Group

It was this really fortuitous thing and now I have this really awesome group of people to work with and make music with. And there's not this sense of, oh we have to grow together, because we already kind of grew up, haha. There's no competition or strange feelings of positioning or anything - we've already kind of been through the wars a little bit.

ZSW: So what's the difference playing with your own band and with Sonic Youth touring-wise?
TM: With Sonic Youth we got together at such an early age - I was just barely 22 years-old or something. We were going on the road and doing tours with Swans in front of zero people. All I know is we spent like 30 years together, growing together as brothers and sisters at will and then it ended but I feel like we made so much music that I don't feel like there was anything left unsaid. I guess we could've always done that chainsaw symphony that we talked about, but...

I think starting a band in your fifties with people who are also around your age, it's a different experience. You don't think about how you're going to be young forever because you're not young any more. It's just different.

Plus it's my group, it's my name on it, so I call the shots in terms of what's happening with how things look and sound. But I don't write music Deb Googe or James Sedwards or Steve Shelley - I write songs and then the reason that they're in the group is because I know that they'll come out with these great ideas on bass and guitar and drums. I certainly don't dictate what they play.

ZSW: Do you play solo shows in London often?
TM: Yeah I'm quite involved with the improvisation scene there. There's a scene that's really devoted to free improvisation and to experimental music; there's players who have come out of the '60s and '70s who are still really active and playing such as John Russell and Maggie Nicols and they're just continually incredible and I've always been really fascinated with that genre of music, free improvisation, and this kind of developing language that's shared between the players. The idea of playing music where there's no ego, it's all non-hierarchical and it's these shared concepts of everybody listening and responding and if you can't hear another player you're playing too loud and this idea of the magic of free improvisation and the idea of composing in real time, composing on the tongue... I've always been really in wonder of that music.

At some point in the '90s I started getting involved in playing in New York with people from William Hooker to John Zorn to Charles Gayle, but in England it was a scene that I thought was really remarkable and it was really communicating with the rest of the world - with scenes in Italy, in Germany, in Holland. So living in England I knew some of these people already like Evan Parker and I started playing gigs with the local free improvisers and it's great. It's always very active and if I'm not playing, I'm going out to hear it all the time.

It's the kind of music that I like to sort of go and witness because I learn from it. I don't really go and see rock bands so much, unless there's like something that's highly touted as 'you have to see this' or it's friends of mine. I find myself thinking 'oh I kind of get this immediately' and sometimes it's that situation of it being the old Sonic Youth guy in the room and there's people shouting at me. And I just want to sit there and listen instead of having like 'hey man, what are you doing here? I first saw you play in...' you know? So I don't want that at all.

By going to the improvisation stuff, they don't care who I am. It's not about any kind of celebrated stance in that world and I appreciate that. And I've been accepted in it. It could easily have been something where they thought I was just some noise-rocker having a dalliance with free improvisation and slumming around, but I think the people devoted to that scene realise that I'm actually very respectful and serious about it - and I play my own way. Maybe I should just dedicate myself to doing that from now on.

ZSW: Yourself and Lee are still incredibly active. What keeps you going?
TM: Well you know what Mike Watt says: 'if you're not playin' you're payin'", haha. I think sometimes about retiring and living in like a pied-à-terre in Paris and just you know becoming a poet for the rest of my life, haha.

ZSW: Would you consider going back to New York? How do you feel about it since you left?
TM: Well New York is my home, I kind of grew up there. I moved there in '77 and I was 19-years-old and I lived there all through the end of the '70s and all through the '80s and then I moved to western Massachusetts for about ten years and our daughter grew up there and went to school there. But I was always retaining a place in New York City because it wasn't that far away.

New York I feel like I know it to such an extent that when I go there, it's like it's some huge apartment for me. But it's completely changed because like most of the cities in America and in Europe, by the end of the '90s they were all very financed and monied and that was the idea because they were the focus of the economy for a lot of countries. So New York was largely destitute when I moved there; it was choked from any funding and it was a cheap place to live and it was the last period when artists could move into that city and create art for very little. But it changed. All the real estate freaks came in and changed it.

It doesn't really allow for young people to come in and live for nothing and make art any more, but at this time you don't need to do that because we're all connected through the world of the internet so people can do work on the top of a mountain in the same way they can do work in the streets of New York City so it doesn't really matter.

But I think a lot of cities have this kind of vibrational history and you feel it when you go into the cities. I miss that when I'm not in a city. I sometimes think I could live in the woods somewhere, but I really miss the action of a city even if I'm staying indoors, as long as I know it's out there - the city is my preferred wilderness in a way.

Do you live in the city proper or do you live outside of it?

ZSW: Yeah inside the city, always. I was born in Beijing and grew up here. But I think if you moved to the woods, would it stop you doing crazy noise shows and like playing around with the guitar?
TM: No, I don't know if it would effect me as far as wanting to play noise music or not. I don't know if the city really has that much effect on me as far as the kind of sounds I make, but possibly it does. It's usually just being inspired by other musicians. I feel like that's the main information as oppose to the environment of the city. I don't know if it would change if I lived in a shack in the woods... I play lots of mellow, sensitive music too!

Do you think Carsick Cars would ever do an acoustic record?

ZSW: Umm, maybe. I really love your acoustic album, it's great. Yeah probably we will at some point, we'll see. You know, the first shows we ever played outside of China were with you guys in Europe, in Vienna. And we didn't have any manager or anyone to take care of us and nobody spoke any English, we just got handed a bunch of papers and we had to find the right train and things. But it was a hugely important show for us. How does it feel knowing that your music has spread out and influenced people in China, somewhere so far away from where you're living?
TM: I would just like to see more of China, that's all. When we were there ten years ago we did some touristy things like walking along the Wall and things like this, but I would love to see more of China - just getting on a train and just doing it. I remember being in Beijing and going to where all the art galleries were and looking at all the work which I thought was really fascinating. But yeah, I would love to see more of the country. And of course I'd love to see you guys again.