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Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore gazes over the rail on the Station to Station train as it speeds across the country. (Mara McKevitt)

Thurston Moore And Doug Aitken Talk Art, Music And 'Station To Station'

Sep 18, 2013

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From left: Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and multimedia artist Doug Aitken aboard the Station To Station train.

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Bob Boilen

There's a train rolling across the country right now that is part art salon, part circus, part recording studio. It's called Station to Station and it's the brainchild of artist Doug Aitken, a creative soul who knows no bounds. He's done projects in Africa's diamond mines and Jonestown, Guyana. One of his most popular installations was the "Song One" projection at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington, D.C., last year.

For Station to Station, Aitken and his team of visual artists, musicians and technicians are transforming train stations into "happenings." These events might begin by looking like a rock concert, but soon unveil a bunch of surprises: one night it might be two auctioneers wandering through the crowd, their cadence punctuated by another man cracking a whip; another night, a performance piece on roller skates, inspired by the work of the late graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg. Station to Station began in New York City and comes to a stop in Oakland on Sept. 28. I was aboard for a handful of days to witness a few of these happenings, including this performance of the Sonic Youth song "Schizophrenia," from Thurston Moore and drummer John Moloney (of Sunburned Hand of the Man).

The performance and recording session took place in the Moog Sound Lab, an old train-car-turned-modern recording studio. As we headed from Pittsburgh to Chicago, while crossing the Ohio's Sandusky Bay right around Toledo, Moore strapped on his guitar. The rhythms came not only from Moloney's drums, but also the rumbling of the train itself.

Later in the ride I had the chance to sit down with Thurston Moore and Doug Aitken. We talked about the nature of performance and public art and, of course, music — especially those rare, life-changing musical moments.

You can read the full interview below (edited for clarity), or listen with the link at the top of the page.


Bob Boilen: We've just left Pittsburgh. We're on a train that is about to pull into Chicago. This gorgeous car. I think it was made in 1948. Part of a monster art project called Station to Station, that's traveling the entire country, filled with artists, people who do fabrics, people who do music, people who do - just name it — architecture, and it's just a whirlwind, and we'll tell you more about that another time. But what I want to talk about now is that one of the most important things that seemed to revolve around Station to Station as it hits every city and in this train car: Music is being made. Music is important to you, Doug Aitken, as a - what is it that you love about what [Thurston Moore] does?

Doug Aitken: I think Thurston creates sonic landscapes, you know? And that's very much what Station to Station is about. It's about a space for empowerment. A space of empowerment for the creator. It's interesting: A minute or so ago, we were talking about this idea of the rhythm of the train. And as we're on this, there's a kind of ever-changing beat per minute - a kind of rhythm that you feel. And the idea of creating art while this is in motion for me is a really compelling one.

Boilen: And for you, [Thurston] you were making music the first day on the train - that was Sunday, heading from Pittsburgh to...

Thurston Moore: When we first got on here Sunday, we, John Moloney, who's with me here (he plays drums, and I play guitar), we jammed out with Ariel Pink and his crew. We just went for it. And it was kinda cool, because Ariel Pink comes from this West Coast, L.A. thing that I really like. It's sort of investigations into real heavy psychedelic, jam territory. Not like jam-band style, but really over-amped, head-rush psychedelia-kind of guitar playing. And a really sort of pronounced technique playing, too. More so than I have. I'm more idiosyncratic, I think. And so, I wasn't even aware exactly who was playing what. I just sort of plugged in a guitar and John sat down at the drums. And we have - we're definitely more [of a] East Coast sensibility. He's straight-up Boston. I'm straight-up New York. And we ... that Boston-New York rivalry, as intense as it may seem, we actually do love each other.

Boilen: If you could define that, what...

Moore: Well, I think [Ariel Pink] has more to do with [a] classicist kind of playing, you know what I'm saying? Like a classic kind of psychedelia. Whereas I think where we're coming from is possibly more idiosyncratic or unschooled. It was kind of heads-down, just sort of freak-out playing.

Boilen: Was it inspired at all by the motion of the train in any way, because at some point it was so loud you couldn't hear the train, but it started somewhere, right?

Moore: Well, yeah, it was inspired by the excitement of all being together and this enclosed space.

Boilen: Right.

Moore: And barreling down the tracks. And then it's like, what else are you going to do? You have all these goodies at your disposal, like amplifiers and little Moog pedals — there's all this stuff. And we just plugged in and bugged out. It was definitely super free. And today, John and I actually, the two of us just plugged in, and [were a] little more conscientious about writing a song. And we wrote a song, and it was definitely inspired by the environment of being on this train and the visual rush of what was going on outdoors. The sounds that we're hearing from these trains - sounds that we adore. Like the rumbles that you're hearing now, the high pitches of the scree that's going by, the whistles. And that really sort of fit into what we were doing, particularly rhythmically what we were doing, because we were energized by it.

Boilen: Did you [Doug] grow up in the city at all?

Aitken: I grew up in Los Angeles, yeah.

Boilen: Because a lot of times when I hear the description [Moore] made, it could easily apply to opening your apartment window in the city where you can be inspired by the city hum that goes on day-to-day. That's the attraction to me, as an electronic musician, as a synth player. I've always been attracted to that hum that's ongoing in a city, and unconsciously remaking that sound in some way, shape or form, or making sound that fits on top of the sound that's always there. It's just never, ever quiet, right? Do you think there's any connection to the noise of the city and the sorts of music you like? And then, it'd probably be good to pick a tune you remember from early on in your life —maybe the first record that really changed you and your life?

Aitken: Yeah, records for me, they just arrived one day. It was really strange. I was really young, and it was hot, and it was summertime, and there's an asphalt street in front of our house. And I walked out there one day, and there were just records all the way down the street.

Boilen: What do you mean?

Aitken: Record albums, broken records, shattered records. Some of them were OK. And there was about, like, 20 or 30 records that someone had just thrown out of the window of a Camaro. And they were all over the place. And I just kind of walked out there, and I was this really, young, small kid...

Boilen: Age?

Aitken: 8 or 10. I just started picking them up and putting them in their sleeves, and taking them back to my house in my bedroom. And, you know, I had no brothers or sisters. I didn't know anything about...

Boilen: So some guy in a Camaro completely changed your life.

Aitken: Well, it was this kind of divine intervention. It just kind of landed there. And as I'm putting them back in, it's whatever, Led Zeppelin IV and Black Sabbath, and all these different kinds of albums I had no real access to.

Boilen: They could have sucked. I mean, they could have been really lousy records.

Aitken: Well, some of them were really lousy. But even the lousy ones, the album covers were fantastic. So, it was this kind of intervention. It was like the Red Cross dropped a package to save me, you know?

Boilen: That's a great project.

Aitken: Yeah, it was kind of like that. Then, I had these other kind of strange moments when I was a similar age, even younger. [Composer] Igor Stravinsky visited our neighbors next door, and my dad took me over to meet him. So, it's just all these weird encounters with music. And for me, it's just always been there. I've never really thought of it. It's just kind of there constantly, you're tuning into something else always.

Boilen: Think of one song in that pile of stuff from the Camaro, that you still hold onto, that you still adore, that you still think maybe changed you.

Aitken: Oh, that's a hard one. That could be embarrassing.

Boilen: That's good. Embarrassing's good.

Aitken: Well, you know...

Boilen: We all start somewhere.

Aitken: Yeah, it's true. You know, how could you get Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" out of your head? Moore: Man, I thought I had until now!

Aitken: That was definitely one of the albums I picked up.

Boilen: And would there be another if you had a second choice?

Aitken: "Planet Caravan" by Black Sabbath is such a delicate song from such a surprising place.

Moore: "Planet Caravan"? By Black Sabbath? I don't even know that. What record is that on?

Aitken: It's on Paranoid, I think.

Moore: Oh, it's on Paranoid? "Planet Caravan"?

Aitken: Yeah, it's a really atmospheric...

Moore: Oh, OK. I was into the cover of Paranoid. I was always into album covers before the albums themselves.

Boilen: I always bought my records by - well, not always, but mostly bought my records by cover.

Moore: Yeah. I mean, I was always attracted to records because they were these portals into these other worlds, obviously. And it was like, the individuals or the bands who were making the records, the more otherworldly they were, the more attractive that was to me. These kind of marginalized aliens in society, actually making art. They made something that was out there, to be accessed. In the early '70s, I was a young teen, and just seeing the first images I saw in Cream Magazine, of like, Iggy and the Stooges...

Boilen: Yeah.

Moore: And you know, spray-painted silver and walking on top of the hands of the audience? I was like, "Who's that? What does that sound like? I really want- I need to know what he sounds like." So, I mean, finding Raw Power, seeing that in the store, and seeing that record, Raw Power, it's like, "There he is." That great [photographer] Mick Rock photo of him staring into the void. And it's just like, "What is up with this guy?" I even took that record cover to the Iron Butterfly hairdresser that everybody went to in my town. And I said, "I want my hair cut like this." They're like, "Well, that's nothing. You can, you know- that's not a haircut." I was like, "Well, I don't care. I want my hair cut like this." And still, I walked out of there looking like [John] Travolta.

Aitken: You get to choose your songs, Thurston. I just get stuck with the box that landed on my street.

Moore: The first song on Raw Power was "Search and Destroy."

Boilen: Yeah, unforgettable.

Moore: And like, whereas a singer comes out and says, "I'm a streetwalking cheetah / with a heart full of napalm / on the runaway sun of the nuclear A-bomb. I'm the world's forgotten boy..."

Boilen: You're listening.

Moore: I was just like, "Oh, my god."

Boilen: We were riding this train from D.C. to Pittsburgh, and this train has strips of LEDs that change and alter with sound and with ... what other things? It's certainly motion, and there are all sorts of colors. And the colors were falling on the leaves and the mountains, and it was so beautiful. And I imagined this like a lone camper out in the woods, you know, getting away from civilization. And here, all of a sudden, this thing, this beautiful light and color falls all over the trees. And when you were telling your story about the Camaro, like, it reminded me of my imaginary camper. Like, something just out of nowhere comes and changes you. And I think that's sort of something that you do. I saw last night a couple that had to be 83 or 84, listening to No Age. And I thought, "Wow." I mean, you come to something, you don't know what it is, and something, hopefully something, happens and changes you, affects you, sends you down some path.

Aitken: Well, I think the word you just used, "happening," we should really talk about.

Boilen: OK.

Aitken: You know, Station to Station is a series of happenings that go across the landscape. What is a happening? A happening is a moment in time. A moment in time that is not choreographed, where you don't know precisely what's going on. Where there are aspects of different layers of culture. There might be music. There might be something that's moving image-based, or something that is performative, or something else that's even edible. You know? And I think we're looking at creating these moments that allow all these aspects of culture to come together and create friction. To create friction for that period in time, and you're part of it. And you're inside it. You're not a voyeur.

Boilen: When you say you're not a voyeur, are you thinking, like, as a person who goes to a concert and they watch, and passively do this thing, or maybe they clap, but not much more than that? But when, for example, when the moment came when two auctioneers came out, and started doing something completely ... I mean, it's hard to say I've ever heard anything like that before. I've heard an auctioneer, but I've never heard one who had a very gospel-y voice, and one who had a different kind of rhythm. And then the whip guy! There was a man with a whip who created rhythms that worked alongside and punctuated the auctioneering. And all of a sudden, it wasn't passive at all. Even though we're still watching as an audience, it was so much more engaging. And I trust anybody who's never seen anything like that, it just changes you. It's also in the middle of ... you're no longer staring at the stage, it's happening around you. These auctioneers came from behind you with flashlights in their faces, and it's a surprise.

Aitken: Yeah, it's really what we're after with this project. This project, as we sit here on this train, moving through rural Illinois, we're going to a destination. But that's not the end. We'll keep changing, and keep changing. Thurston and John are here now. They'll be playing tomorrow night, and then they're moving onto something else. And we'll be joined by Mavis Staples tomorrow night. And so it's those kind of juxtapositions for me that I find so beautiful, you know? And so it's this idea that we don't need these categories, or these classifications. We're all at the same table. It's a wood table and we're talking, man. These conversations range from cinema to literature to art to music and anything else, whatever you've got, you know? And I think this project is [about] looking at a space that has maybe less borders and less classification. I think the structure on the project is really about the sense of nomadicism, the sense of constant change.

Boilen: I keep hearing that word nomadic, and I still have not connected it in the way I always think of a nomadic culture or tribe. Help me with that word.

Aitken: Well, I think that Station to Station is a nomadic project not only in a literal sense, as it's traveling by train from place to place. Some of these places are New York City or Los Angeles, but some of these places are rather off-the-grid places. But, at the same time, we really believe in this idea that it's a platform to be shared, and that different people are coming on board, being part of the happenings. And I'm sitting here with Thurston, and Thurston's music, I grew up listening to and loving. At the same time, we're sharing this project with [producer] Giorgio Moroder in the southwest desert. And Giorgio's going to turn the train that we're on right now into a recording device, and he wants to make a landscape recording, a kind of composition out of the sound of the landscape around him, and the train's motion. So radically different approaches. Giorgio is 72 and he came to me with this idea, and he's probably never had an option to do something like this. And that sense of empowerment, that sense of artistic empowerment for me is really what I believe in, and what I hope can be what comes out of this. That idea of sharing, and also, at the same time, bringing the viewer into a sense of true exchange. Not simply watching.

Boilen: And the imagery that's played behind your music, Thurston, was extraordinary. And I love what music does to visuals, and what visuals do to the music.

Moore: There's a lot of chance interplay there, and there's a certain beauty in that.

Boilen: Did it affect how you played?

Moore: If it did, it was very subconsciously in effect. No, I wasn't looking at the screen and taking cues from it.

Boilen: Have you ever tried to do that?

Moore: Well, when you score a film, you have to do that. But, no, I like to do performances where I'll have visuals behind [us]. Sonic Youth did that quite a bit in [its] touring, where we had a lot of visuals behind us. And sometimes they were very random. We would just go out that day before a concert and we would film locally what was happening, and then we would broadcast that behind us. Or we would do things where we would have cameras that were facing the audience, and the audience was staring back at themselves as we were playing, and so there was all that kind of activity. And things happen. Magic happens, where people come up to you afterwards, and [say], "That was so cool, like when the train was coming through the tunnel and you were holding that really long note." I mean, I had no idea the train was coming through the tunnel. It was wonderful that that happened.

Boilen: Well, I think, and as an audience, you can't help but connect those things. Whether you are changed by what's happening behind you or not, from the perspective of someone just out there watching and hearing, they both make each element better and more powerful. And I love music and visuals, and these visuals are unbelievable.

Moore: It creates the whole sort of third-mind concept, [like] when William [S.] Burroughs talked about working with [performance artist] Brion Gysin. And certainly the investigations that [composer] John Cage did with [choreographer] Merce Cunningham, where [Cunningham] was like, "Do not listen to Cage's music. Do not respond to it. Do the dance that I've choreographed. He's going to do this piece." And it's all within this ... the structure is time. And so these two things happen, they can happen separately, but they're happening together now. And the interplay is random, but it creates this wholly other kind of experience.

Boilen: Because we can't help but try to make sense of them.

Moore: Yeah, that's the beginning of [the] modern interdisciplinary kind of collaborative work.

Aitken: Well, and also the idea of [being] time-based. [I think] you just pulled out that word when you were discussing it. Just this idea that this project is really based on a sequence of moments. These moments are volatile moments. And although I've been working on this for years, I have no idea what's really going to happen tomorrow night. I know there's a marching band from South Chicago that's playing Sun Ra. You know?

Boilen: Is that true? Oh, my God.

Aitken: I know there's the Black Monks in Mississippi the [artist] Theaster Gates organized. We know Thurston and John will be there, and Mavis Staples. You know, we know there are other elements also. But at the same time, this project is also tapping into architecture and visual artists. At the same time, you could go to this happening, and ignore all the music and climb inside a nomadic sculpture made by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, into the soft space, and just fall into this glowing, orange, soft space. Or you could be inside an art installation by the artist Ernst Fischer, where there's a smoke machine, and a white yurt tent, with a disco ball.

Boilen: My favorite, my personal favorite.

Aitken: That's because you like beds, I heard. Climb into this bed, and do whatever you do. It's an installation with that manifesto: You do what you want. So I think it's been interesting. And this project is really an artist-driven project. Everyone I've talked to about it has made it their own, has taken it and claimed it. We're on this train right now, we're going down these tracks and there's a drawing machine made by the artist [artist] Olafur Eliasson. This is a machine that he created from a studio in Berlin, which is literally taking the motion momentum of this train to create circular drawings with a ball of ink. And he's mapping the country as we're moving, and this will be his artwork that we can share and see, and we can see this strange cartography generated out of this Industrial Revolution train. And it's those things, both the quiet and the loud, both the soft and the volatile moments of this that have been exceptional.

Boilen: You [Doug] did a piece called "Song One," which is beautiful projections of a film, I saw at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The music was The Flamingos, was it?

Aitken: "I Only Have Eyes For You."

Boilen: "I Only Have Eyes For You," one of the most beautiful songs on the planet earth. I went and saw it multiple times, and I love watching, like, 11 year olds and 72 year olds enjoying the same piece at the same time. To have somebody who is very, very young and very, very old together - there was something, I loved so much about that. So I love the welcoming nature of what your art did there at the Hirshhorn. And both of you have a very, I think an abrasive side to you, which is not as welcoming. Like the marching band welcomed me the other night to the opening of Station to Station in New York and in Pittsburgh. And then came No Age, which is a band that we might all love, but we have to admit that not everybody's going to love. And No Age would be happy that everybody doesn't love that sound, right? That's part of what makes them make the sound they do. And I just want to talk for a minute about, either public art or making music and how you relate to the audience. What do you want to happen to people you make music to, you make art for? What do you want them to walk away from when they see and encounter your work?

Moore: There's no desire to be purposely subversive. Even though there's a certain pleasure principle in subversive-ness. I think it has a lot more to do - it's always been wanting to do or be or express something that you as the audience would want to see. Like when I would go see bands, it's like, "OK, I want to do what I want to hear and see. I want to be that person that's doing this."

Boilen: And what would that be?

Moore: All the clues that I got at a young age from things that I saw ... I mean it might have been the clues that came out of the mainstream, but mostly it was the underpinnings of the mainstream. So, it was people like Captain Beefheart and The Stooges, or Sun Ra, or things that were more in the avant-garde tradition. Those were more curious, or more interesting, and [they] seem more surprising to me, and in some sense [are] more intellectual, and intriguing in that respect. So I wanted to be part of that. And then, moving to New York and wanting to be in this lineage of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, with [poets] Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and Gregory Corso, and that was, to me, that was the place to be. And I just wanted to be involved with that. Those were the models in a way, and those models existed really modestly. Everybody talks about The Stooges and how significant a band that is...

Boilen: They sold no records.

Moore: They sold, like, 13 records. So, that in itself was sort of really inspiring.

Boilen: And for you [Doug]?

Aitken: Well, I guess I don't really think too much about that. You know, I think for me, I make my work out of necessity. You know, there's an idea that's with me, in me - it has to be exorcised in a way. I have to kind of see it through, a lot of times. It's strange to talk about [Station to Station's] process, because for me, it's like a tree and you often have many branches that are moving. And you go out on one limb and try to take that idea as far as it can go, and at a certain point, the idea has taken you. You're on the journey. And the project is pushing you to make decisions and to make it develop further and be more unique. When you talk about "Song One" at the Hirshhorn, that project was very much like it. It was a very singular idea. It was this idea that we'll take this one perfect pop song from the '20s, and we'll make it and remake it and remake it. And eventually make this film where it passes from person to person through a nighttime city. And it becomes something that is just moving through the air. Someone waiting for a public bus is whispering the lyrics. Someone on a cell phone is just talking at the cadence of the song. So it becomes this kind of life force, this kind of landscape. And I think in making that work, for example, there's a certain point where I would just wake up at 4 in the morning and there was this necessity that we had to shoot that scene that day. We needed to find an older woman to sing this in a parking lot, you know? I'd wake up, and I'd just drive around and I'd find someone who could do this, and we'd bring them later in the day to the parking lot where we knew we needed to shoot in, and make it, and that worked.

Boilen: I saw you, Doug, last night at the end of the show. The Kansas City Marching Cobras were in their ecstatic moment, and you were, too. You looked 13 — I'm just saying. But you were an audience member at that point. Do you care what people walk away with? I mean, there are two places. One is, you do this thing because you have to do it, because you're driven to do it. But in the end...

Aitken: Well, a project like Station to Station isn't just a project I feel like I'm driven to do. I feel like there's a necessity for it. And the necessity is beyond any kind of idea or personal vision that I have. The necessity is that, we live in a society that's moving, that's changing. And the creativity within it is changing. And in a lot of ways, I feel like the kind of containers that are holding different sectors of the arts are becoming obsolete. And I think this project was looking to experiment and maybe make a different kind of platform, a different kind of blueprint for how voices can be heard and things can exist. And the idea that Thurston is making this music while he's feeling the rhythms of the tracks, that's one thing. But another radically different thing is working with a young artist like Kit Casanova in Minneapolis, who hasn't shown that much [work] at all. But to me, she's making wonderful work. And if we can use this project to put a spotlight on what she's doing, and elevate it, and create a larger collective conversation, a discussion amongst all of us, to me, that's interesting, and then that becomes a necessity. I think there's a lot of capitalism surrounding music and film, art, literature - all these kinds of aspects. And I'd like to see it open up, and I'd like to see the voices of the makers being heard in a more dynamic way. So that's my hope for this project.

Boilen: Awesome. One song you'd go out on?

Aitken: Well, I'd have to say, "I Only Have Eyes For You" is a pretty good one.

Boilen: Classic. Fabulous.

Moore: I'm obsessed with "Planet Caravan" by Black Sabbath. I'm obsessed with learning the song.

Boilen: I'll play them simultaneous, and we'll see what happens.

Aitken: You need to. It's a very slow, dreamy song.

Boilen: Awesome.

Aitken: Yeah, it's completely counter-intuitive for them.

Boilen: Thank you, both.

Aitken: No, thank you.

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