Sonic Youth's 'girl in a band' is still making it up as she goes along.
Kim Gordon first came to us in the 1980s, as the female lynchpin in next-level noise punk band Sonic Youth. Fiercely independent and resolutely experimental, her belief in self-taught creativity would inspire generations to come. In 2011 Sonic Youth went on hiatus and Kim struck out with friend and fellow musician Bill Nace to form avant-garde duo Body/Head. Through improvised live performances and new record Coming Apart, Kim and Bill are exploring the sweet spot between practice and intuition, shaking up the staid rock game with a hypnotic new sound. As Body/Head, the pair have a unique ability to dance between different worlds but, as we found out during their recent London trip, there's an order to the dissonance.
Forty minutes into our interview, I mention to Kim Gordon that she’s an inspirational figure and ask her if she ever feels the weight of this fact. Her response, which can be charted somewhere on the spectrum between LOL and RME [roll my eyes, duh], sees her fix me with a cold stare that seems to say, ‘How am I supposed to answer that?’. But she politely indulges the question nonetheless.
“Would it be a difficult thing to live with?” she says. “Well it would be, I guess, if I believed it… I don’t know. I don’t really see it. Or I don’t really think about it. Journalists are always saying, ‘How does that make you feel?’ But I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to figure out what people are influenced by. People get influenced by a lot of things.”
We’re sitting in the drawing room of The Rookery, a plush little nest of a hotel tucked into the armpit of Farringdon, London, and Kim and Bill are both sunk deep in a brown leather sofa. The pair are quick to laugh, conspiratorial, and relaxed in each other’s company. Kim, who turned sixty this year, looks exactly like she does on every Sonic Youth sleeve and magazine photo you’ve seen of her: a half-lidded gaze and understated sense of style like cool itself melted down and recast. Beside her, Bill is a bundle of enthusiastic energy that lends his already boyish features a glow, a grin never far from his lips.
Days after our interview, Bust magazine publishes a dialogue between Kim and Bikini Kill/Le Tigre frontwoman and Riot Grrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna, where Kim admits that being asked to comment on her supposed iconic status “falls under the category of, ‘I don’t know how to respond.’” Had I known this beforehand, maybe I wouldn’t have asked the question. But I’m guessing I probably would.
Because even if Kim Gordon doesn’t believe she’s inspirational – given that thinking too much about how people revere ‘Kim Gordon’ probably makes it tough to actually be Kim Gordon – I know it to be the truth. It’s true for countless musicians and anti-musicians and singers and anti-singers who’ve picked up microphones and instruments to follow the example she set with Sonic Youth, or Free Kitten, or Harry Crews (her 1980s band with No Wave punk pioneer Lydia Lunch), or any of the other groups she’s been a part of the last three decades. It’s true for pretty much every woman I know who’s in any way familiar with her work. It’s true for pretty much all the men, too.
As interviewees, Kim and Bill are no open books, and it’s not hard to guess why. Sonic Youth, the group Kim founded with her husband Thurston Moore in 1981, went on hiatus in 2011, following the couple’s separation, an event that shocked the many fans who had idealised their relationship from afar. Following a candid interview with Elle magazine in April 2013 – where she revealed that Thurston’s infidelity had caused their split, and that she had survived a battle with breast cancer shortly afterwards – Kim has been understandably reluctant to discuss her private life in public.
“I find that when someone wants to write a profile about me, they don’t really want to talk about my work or anything,” Kim told Kathleen Hanna, in Bust. “They want to talk about my personal life.” But we are not here to discuss her personal life. Kim and Bill’s work is what fascinates us, what intrigues us.
This collaboration with Bill is Kim’s first release since Sonic Youth’s hiatus. And while her erstwhile bandmates have delivered albums that fit snugly within their template (Thurston’s Chelsea Light Moving consciously evoking the detuned chaos-roar of SY’s earliest days; Lee Ranaldo’s solo albums proving he was always the George Harrison of the group, in the best sense), Coming Apart – the debut album by Body/Head – is a genuinely startling record, with few precedents in either artist’s back catalogue.
Both true polymaths – Kim also writes, paints, designs, makes films, acts and produces and Bill has been an integral figure in the Northampton and wider Boston free rock scenes, collaborating with different artists, creating artwork and popularising the now defunct avant-garde performance space The Schoolhouse. Kim and Bill utilise whatever medium is available to them to deliver a message.
“Instead of making criticism about popular culture, as a lot of artists do,” Kim said in that recent Elle interview, “I worked within it to do something.” Kim Gordon and Bill Nace may be the ultimate insider/outsiders and through their work they are able to bridge the many divides between what’s expected, and what’s actually possible. These are just some of the dichotomies in their oppositional world.
“It’s really all about control and submission — the whole idea of separation of the body and the head. It’s sort of an obvious thing that people don’t really talk about… When it comes to this kind of improv music, you’re listening and thinking with your body, and wanting to lose your self-consciousness. Like any good thing, you kind of go and just forget where you are.” Kim Gordon, Interview Magazine, 2013
Body/Head is, Kim explains, an entirely improvised collaboration. Debut album Coming Apart – featuring ten tracks that range in length from one minute and eight seconds, to the brilliant, overwhelming seventeen or so minutes of closer ‘Frontal’ – finds the duo purposefully lost in a conversation between their guitars, amps and FX pedals, stirring up a cloud of drone, feedback and speaker-hum that, while impossible to chart via traditional musical notation, proves powerful, disturbing, and emotionally erudite. Over these abstract, bruised and inchoate soundscapes, Kim freestyles blank verse under titles like ‘Murderess’, ‘Last Mistress’, ‘Can’t Help You’, ‘Ain’t’ and ‘Black’ – the last two referencing Nina Simone’s ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’ and ‘Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ – that suggest their bleak, noir-ish tenor.
“How did we get together? I put an ad on Craigslist,” grins Kim. “‘Wanted: Experimental Guitarist with Sweet Disposition.’”
In truth, the pair met through the musical community in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Kim and Thurston moved after the birth of their daughter Coco in 1994.
“There’s, like, five colleges nearby,” she says, of Northampton. “It’s not really ‘artsy’, but there’s a Creative Writing program at University of Massachusetts, a small poetry press, an experimental music scene… There’s a lot of culture around, it’s not really like living in a suburb.”
Ruddy-cheeked Bill has lived in Northampton for fifteen years, and previously played in subterranean groups with outlandish names like Vampire Belt and Ceylon Mange, as well as occasional sessions with Thurston and Kim. He said he grew up listening to “lots of Motown”, the backbone of his parents’ record collection, while his father was a devotee of Neil Diamond (“Which I never understood,” says Nace) who introduced his son to the joys of Creedence Clearwater Revival. “That was, like, the first thing we agreed on, musically,” he adds.
It took Bill a while to discover the underground music he would later make his life.
“I grew up in the suburbs on the outskirts of Philadelphia, so access was a big deal,” he explains. “There wasn’t a record store near us, and getting to the city was a bummer. But I had a sense that there was more out there than I was hearing or seeing. That was really inspiring, trying to figure out what that was, whether it was music, movies or art. Like, I’d kind of figure out what punk was supposed to sound like. But then I’d hear Television, and it would blow my mind. Growing up before the internet, that was a real influence. But I knew there was something mysterious out there. And there was the Princeton radio station we could pick up, which was a big thing. Proper college radio.”
His aunt took him to his first concert, a perhaps inauspicious choice.
“I fell asleep at it,” he laughs. “It was Fine Young Cannibals. She asked, ‘Do you wanna go?’ And I had never been to a concert, and for some reason I thought they were inherently violent. So I was kind of nervous. And totally confused! Everyone else was really excited, but I didn’t get it. And so I fell asleep. Later, I figured out places to see shows in Philadelphia.” Fifteen years ago, he migrated to Northampton. “It’s not that competitive,” he says, of the town. “It’s got a real nurturing scene.”
“We just liked playing together,” offers Kim. “And we liked to talk. We’d talk about things we had in common, like the TV show Friday Night Lights [a drama series following a high school American Football team in Texas], and the films of Catherine Breillat [Paris-based filmmaker and author whose bold explorations of sex in movies like Romance, 36 Fillette and 2007’s The Last Mistress saw her described by more prudish critics as a “porno auteuriste”]. I was reading a book about her movies, and thinking about her, and female sexuality and male control, and I came up with the name Body/Head. We said, ‘That’s a good name for a band. We should use that name.’”
“We kind of became a band before we decided we wanted to do anything,” chuckles Bill.
Their first recording was triggered when Kim’s friend Dennis Tyfus, a Belgian musician and artist who runs the Ultra Eczema record label, asked Kim to cover Peggy Lee’s jazz classic ‘Fever’.
“I asked Bill if he’d record it with me,” says Kim, “and that became the first thing we recorded together.”
The duo’s version swapped the original’s sultry sass for something altogether more disquieting, Kim murmuring the lyrics through a busted microphone over a needling whistle of feedback. They cut another couple of tracks for Tyfus, who pressed up a 7”, The Eyes, The Mouth/Night Of The Ocean, in February 2012, and played a brace of early shows at art galleries and similar happenings that Spring.
“We became a band on the road,” says Kim. “We were a band in name, but after playing so many improv gigs together, we really gelled.”
Improvisation is intrinsic to Body/Head. When they walk onstage to perform, Kim says, they have no real, coherent idea of the music they’re about to make.
“Maybe we have a strategy for starting one of the songs,” she explains. “But then it goes wherever it’s going to go. It’s just completely improvised. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And it’s incredibly nerve-wracking. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Then you have to try something different.”
“When you’re working alone, you’re making it all up by yourself. Whereas when you’re collaborating with just one other person, you’re playing off of each other back and forth. When I play with Bill, I don’t feel like I’m actively listening to him but I know what he’s doing; it’s kind of weird chemistry. The music between us creates this sort of body, almost projecting something that’s inside of it…” – Kim Gordon, Interview Magazine, 2013
For Body/Head, every performance is like a high-wire act without a net, like a musical trust game, each musician relying upon the other to catch them. For Kim, abandoning the more traditional verse/chorus song structures she explored with Sonic Youth helps her tap into hitherto unexplored creative spaces.
“[With improv], you can come up with ideas and sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily come up with if you were trying to make it fit a song structure. Like, if we consciously set out to write a song like ‘Frontal’, it would be impossible to get the same result. So these accidents happen, these happy accidents.”
But how conscious are they of what’s happening when they’re onstage?
“Depends on the night,” grins Bill. “Hopefully, not conscious, because I think that’s when a lot of the best stuff comes out. But some nights are harder than others, to get to that place.”
“If the sound at the venue isn’t good, then that’s a distraction,” says Kim. “It can make things seem limited and banal, or it can seem really magical and cool.”
And what about the audience? Does their reaction affect the flow?
“I don’t look at the audience,” says Bill.
“I try not to,” says Kim. “I do sometimes, but I try not to, because I don’t want to have to worry about what kind of a time they’re having. I mean, if everything’s going well, you’re on this ride, and you’re taking the audience with you, somewhere, but you don’t know where it’s going.”
“Even if they hate it,” laughs Bill.
When performing live, Body/Head play with a film projected at them, a hypnotic, beautiful and faintly menacing series of vignettes that capture actor James Ransone and Gordon’s niece in scenes from an indeterminate relationship, the film flickering through a handful of frames, holding the actors in expressive slow-motion.
“It gives people something to do,” says Kim, of the movies, “so you’re not worried that they’re having a good time. I think it relaxes people. In part, it’s to establish that the music is more soundtrack-esque, that we’re playing episodes, rather than songs, per se. Do you respond to the images, while you’re performing? “I try not to,” she says, “because I’m always afraid that’s gonna make it corny.”
The film is the work of Richard Kern, a master of transgressive art and cinema who rose to prominence in the New York underground of the 1970s and 1980s, and who remains a mainstay in Sonic Youth’s wider cultural sphere. The group’s ability to pass through the worlds of avant rock and modern art without ever seeming like dilettantes has always been a key facet of their appeal, and no one in the band exemplified this as thoroughly as Kim.
“[In the book Girls Like Us] Joni Mitchell really decided to go off and have an adventure on her own, which was mostly a thing that guys did. She didn’t choose to settle down and have a family and have that sort of lifestyle, which was pretty unusual. I grew up really wanting to be in Laurel Canyon. I lived in this sort of boring, middle-class part of LA. It was all so glamorous to me up there.” – Kim Gordon, Rookie, 2012
Kim Gordon flits effortlessly between loosely connected worlds. Whether she’s making work as a fine artist, as a designer (Kim founded X-Girl streetwear – little sister to the Beastie Boys-affiliated X-Large – in the early ’90s with high-profile ambassadors like friend Sofia Coppola and currently produces a capsule collection for premium fashion brand Surface To Air), as a style icon (she’s one of the faces of the current Yves Saint Laurent campaign), as a curator, producer and mentor (helping popularise the work of people like Chloe Sevigny, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes and many more), as a cultural critic, as a filmmaker or actress, her free agency between these spheres has always been impressive and, dare I say it, not a little inspirational.
But Kim says she finds the art world “hard to manoeuvre”.
“I always did art,” she adds, “and I wanted to work as an artist, to make art. But the whole ‘getting-into-the-art-world’ thing didn’t seem accessible to me. It’s always been intimidating.”
Raised mostly in California, Kim spent a year studying in Canada, at Toronto’s York University, where she played in a “crazy noise group” as part of a school art project. Dissatisfied at York, Kim enrolled at Los Angeles’ esteemed Otis College of Art and Design, and later followed friend and fellow Otis student Michael Gira – who subsequently formed infamous noise group Swans – to New York.
“Not everybody in LA felt they needed to be in New York,” Kim remembers. “There were people who didn’t move to New York, like [artists] Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw. But most people did. I did. I was attracted to the history of the art world there.”
At the dawn of the 1980s, New York was at the centre of a creative storm.
“It was so right-in-your-face, so claustrophobic,” she says. “LA’s like a big sprawl, and the eye of the media wasn’t so much on the art scene there, so there were a lot more odd and idiosyncratic things that happened there. Whereas New York’s actually a lot more formal, where people are very much aware of what everyone’s doing.”
The art scene Kim witnessed in New York scarcely resembled the world she thought she would be entering.
“It was all about having ‘finished objects’, and putting forth this attitude that you knew what you were doing, whether you really did or not,” she says. “It wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be, more conceptual works and performances.”
What Kim did find, when she came to New York, was the tail-end of No Wave, the dissonant, auto-destructive and arty music scene that had sparked into life in the wake of the mid-’70s punk movement.
“There was a community there, in this musical world,” she says, of artists like Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca and Christian Marclay, whose music was experimental, conceptual, and breath-taking. “That whole ‘backroom of Max’s Kansas City’ thing was over, it wasn’t a glamorous Warhol-type thing,” she laughs. “But there was this small scene, centred around venues like Tier 3, A Space, even CBGBs.”
Underground rock was a testosterone-heavy realm, a quality that fascinated Kim and which she appraised in a 1980 essay she penned for Real Life magazine titled ‘Males Bonding And Trash Drugs’ about Rhys Chatham and his musicians, and in particular their pre-gig ritual of getting high off the fumes from an aerosol deodorant called ‘Locker Room’. Kim traversed this male-dominated world as bassist and vocalist with Sonic Youth, founded with Moore and Ranaldo in 1981.
Kim now admits a moment of anxiety as her career path sent her tracking across America in a dodgy bus surrounded by amplifiers, away from the fine art world she’d earlier aimed for.
“I reached a point early on where I realised that if I was a musician, and I was more recognised for that, that people wouldn’t take my art seriously,” she says. “And maybe, as a musician, you appeal to a wider audience than a painter, but we weren’t thinking about that in Sonic Youth, at least not when we started. There wasn’t much of an audience for us at the start, and not much support in the media.”
“I was making work about popular culture from the outside and in a way I felt like after Andy Warhol the next step was to work within popular culture – but, of course, we were actually a subculture… We didn’t have any kind of ambitions to be mainstream musicians. If anything, we just thought about getting a gig at CBGBs or putting a record out. It was just a dialogue and those were the exciting things – music, fine art, downtown. Things like that.” – Kim Gordon, Mono.Kultur, 2013
Within a few years, both an audience and firm media support would materialise for Sonic Youth, and although her duties often left little time to spend on her painting, when Kim returned her focus to the canvas several years back, her work enjoyed attention and respect. A case in point: Kim’s main reason to be in London right now is to attend the opening of The Show is Over, a new exhibition at London’s Gagosian Gallery with an iconoclastic, apocalyptic theme. ‘This exhibition is about abstraction and the end of painting, often proposed but never concluded,’ writes the catalogue. The list of names included in the group show reads like a who’s who of twentieth century contemporary art, from Warhol to Richard Prince, Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstain to William De Kooning, Gerhard Richter to Cy Twombley. Among such company hang two works by Kim Gordon herself.
“It’s amazing company,” she emphasises. “Quite amazing. Some of my favourite artists – Mike Kelley, Lucio Fontana – are in the exhibition. And the ‘Blue’ painting is next to work by one of my very favourite artists, Yves Klein. His series of burned colour paintings mean a lot to me.”
Of Kim’s pieces – ‘Wreath Painting, Northampton (Blue)’ and ‘Wreath Painting, Northampton (Silver)’ a pair of canvases upon which have been sprayed violent jets of blue and silver enamel, with the ghostly negative-space outline of a now-absent wreath at its centre – the catalogue writes: ‘A spirit of negation is evident in the anarchic actions that fuelled the urban Punk movement, epitomised by… Kim Gordon’s evanescent wreaths.’
So, is there a connection between theses canvasses – all abstract, violent beauty and wild improvised form – and the abstract, violent beauty of Body/Head’s improvised Coming Apart?
“They’re kind of different,” says Kim. “I mean, I guess you could look at dissonant guitar music as ‘nihilistic’. But there’s all this emotion in the music, which is really not the same as the wreath paintings, which deal specifically with painting formalism. They’re nihilistic, in terms of painting as a formal thing. Body/Head is more intuitive. I see music and painting as different kinds of expression.”
And what about the person behind the work? Is the Kim Gordon we find on canvas the same Kim Gordon we hear on record or see in her work as a designer? In which medium does she feel most at home?
“I don’t know… I don’t feel comfortable doing any of it. But what motivates me is if I have an idea that I want to get out there, then I become less self-conscious about my ability as a writer, or someone who plays music. I mean, for me, playing music is also very physical, so I like that. I always wanted to be a dancer, I like to move around. But nothing comes really easy.”
In addition to the Gagosian show, in September 2013 Kim curated Design Office with Kim Gordon – Since 1980, a retrospective of her work at White Columns in New York, a gallery where she had her first solo exhibition, also titled Design Office, in 1981. Along with news of a recently signed book deal with Faber (a memoir due for 2014), and a cameo spot on Lena Dunham’s epochal HBO series Girls, Kim seems to be going through a kind of a renaissance.
“With the book, I’m just writing in bits, about different moments, and then maybe going back and filling things in more,” she says. “I mean, I haven’t gotten very far. Have I read any autobiographies in preparation? No. I really don’t wanna read any, just because I don’t wanna be influenced. I could read up and prepare, but I don’t wanna get discouraged. I’d rather not know, and just dive into it.”
Kim’s world may be full of dichotomies but through her work she manages to resolve a lot of the opposing themes. Kim and Bill might be something of an odd couple but it’s their passion, ambition and DIY approach – their willingness to pour themselves fully into anything they create – that, perhaps, draws people in. For Body/Head fans, there’s an unspoken order to the cacophony of the creative output. Do they sense it too?
“I mostly play in improv-type bands,” says Nace, “So this is definitely a lot more ‘song’-orientated than anything I’ve done before. They’re not songs, per se, but it has more of a foot in conventional song-writing than my previous work, which is something I really like about it.”
A waitress brings over a pot of tea and jug of water to soothe away the jet-lag and flu symptoms both are suffering from. As she sups at her teacup, Kim adds, “Together, it kind of all makes more sense than I thought it would. Like, even though I’m working in different mediums, there are threads there. It sounds like there isn’t, but when you see it all together, it all makes sense.”
Stevie Chick is a music journalist and author who has penned subcultural books Spray Paint The Walls: The Story Of Black Flag (PM Press, 2011) and Psychic Confusion: Sonic Youth (Omnibus, 2009).
Body/Head’s 2015 tour dates are available at bodyheadmusic.com.
This story first appeared in Huck 42 – The Improv Issue.