100% Kool Thing: An Audience With Kim Gordon

Clash sits down with an icon of the avant-garde...

Kim Gordon picks up the phone.

“Hello, Kim?” I say. Then, as a way to break the ice: “It’s always nice to speak to another Kim – there aren’t that many of us.”

There’s a pause.

“Just some really famous ones…” she retorts. She’s right, of course – and she’s one of them, although you doubt she’d include herself in the list. Fame is not something that powers this woman, nor is it a phenomenon she seems to identify with, despite a list of famous friends as long as all your arms and legs combined.

A lot has changed in the last few years for Kim Gordon. A lot of things have come to pass that weren’t in the plan. Not that she’s historically been much of a planner. If her memoir, published last year, is anything to go by, life has been a ship that she hasn’t wittingly steered; more a string of incidents sculpted in part by her resourceful yet instinctive reactions to them. But change has been vital in the making of Kim Gordon.

As a child, she moved because her father’s job in academia took them somewhere – Los Angeles, Hawaii, Hong Kong – or because she wasn’t happy with a situation and followed her gut. Like the time she realised she’d made a mistake trailing friend Willie Winant to art college in Toronto and promptly transferred herself back to LA and the Otis Art Institute. A move, not so incidentally, she credits with changing her life: one detour among many with similar effect, the sagacious observer might say.

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When we look back, it’s easy to see life with a narrative structure. In the same way in which history is presented, there’s a clear element of cause and effect through Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band as she tackles articulating her own story. This is at odds with the way most of us experience life as we go through it, with myriad choices open at any one time, none of us knowing what comes next.

But there’s also a slackness to Kim’s book – structure, sense of time and place, and trains of thought all shift and meander to varying degrees throughout, illuminating aspects of Kim’s personality and reflecting her magnetic complexity.

A megalith of rock to many, she’s clearly driven, but a planner? The only plan she ever seems to have at least half-formed was to go to New York. Lured by its bohemian siren song as an aspiring artist, it’s the place where she met Thurston Moore; no other place, she says, has ever made her feel more at home. Sonic Youth’s final gig on 14 November 2011 at the SWU Music and Arts Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, ceremonially marked the end of an era for Gordon. Much has been written about the dissolution of both band and Kim’s marriage to Moore. But if fans, the band, even Gordon herself found it traumatic, it was never a full stop. A dash or semicolon, perhaps – a signifier of the next chapter; a signpost for change.

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You can almost feel the space of the theatre…

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Kim had obligations already lined up to follow that historic final set, which was stippled with compositions from throughout Sonic Youth’s 30-year tenure as icons in rock’s (lower case) hall of fame. ‘Teen Age Riot’ from their fifth studio album, 1988’s ‘Daydream Nation’, was the track they said goodbye with. But gigs with friend, experimental musician Bill Nace, would follow – plus she also had an art show in Berlin to prepare for, and a daughter she wanted to see through her senior year.

It’s her work with Bill Nace that’s the impetus for our conversation today, five years on from her Sonic Youth curtain call. The improvisational project, called Body/Head, sees Gordon and Nace come together with their guitars to create their distinctive sound.

“The shows are really important; that’s where we make the music,” chuckles Kim. She finishes a lot of her sentences with a laugh, but it’s just one way she punctuates her rhotic Californian diction. She also pauses frequently, which draws out her unhurried Valley Girl-cum-surfer drawl-style delivery even further.

It’s live where Body/Head really makes sense and, on March 24th 2014 at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, everything came together to produce a landmark set, culminating in a live album, ‘No Waves’, out now.

“It just sounded really good, so we decided to put out the whole show,” says Kim. “The festival took place in a really beautiful theatre [the Bijou Theatre]. You can almost feel the space of the theatre.”

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Their first album, ‘Coming Apart’, was recorded in a studio, allowing Gordon and Nace to shape it more than they’re able to live. Kim reveals that they have plans to work together again in the studio on another record and hints that they might use acoustic guitars next time around – but she won’t, or can’t, say for sure.

“It’s evolving; it has a life of its own,” she says. “It’s basically my main music project, I guess. I did do that solo single [‘Murdered Out’] and I might work some more with that producer [Justin Raisen], but I don’t know if it will ever be a live touring thing.”

Where Body/Head is arguably her most dissonant project to date, the solo single, she says, is her most accessible. “But that still has dissonance in it and noise, and it’s kind of ‘rarrr’. Some people make great conventional music. That’s just not me at all. You know, if I can do it on my terms I’ll do it, but as far as making an actual song…” she tails off. “But, um, you know, I’m not interested in… I have a lot of interests.”

Inspired by a mutual love of French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, Gordon and Nace named the band after a phrase they found in a book about her films.

“A lot of the movies have to do with control and sexual relationships – and your body wanting one thing but your head saying no,” she explains. “So we were just like: ‘That’s a great name, let’s make a band’.”

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Some people make great conventional music. That’s just not me at all.

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For Gordon, the chance to experiment and improvise was liberating – and a contrast to the experience of spending 30 years in a successful, democratic rock band.

“When we started playing music together, it was so fun and it was just this kind of great, freeing [feeling]: to play music and not really think about what it’s going to be or have to promote it. I just figured it’s so experimental, no one’s going to be interested,” she splutters. “It was just so much, you know, play music and not think about anything else.”

It’s not surprising the project means so much to her – as well as it being so suited to her exploratory nature, it must have provided a welcome outlet for her after everything she’d been through. A sort of primal therapy.

I tell Kim that the day before listening to the album I’d actually seen a short film – called Manoman – exploring the subject of primal therapy, and that the two have parallels, not least in Kim’s vocals, which feel like an outpouring of raw emotion. This begs the question: how much of Body/Head is self-expression and how far is it just experimentation with sound?

“It’s kind of both,” she says. “People don’t usually hear that many vocals in improv music to begin with. It was just really pure emotion, and visceral instinct guiding it.”

The short film reference isn’t oblique. Not only is Body/Head inspired by film, it sounds like a Lynchian film score. Gordon and Nace also make use of film in performance, slowed down and played behind them on stage.

“It’s in such slow motion, it almost doesn’t look like anything is happening. It’s almost like a tableau,” she says. “We started out with this film, Coming Apart, which is where the title of our record came from, and which was a film that Rip Torn did very early [in his career]. It all takes place in this apartment of his. He has a hidden camera and these women come in and out, and throughout the film he’s gradually having a nervous breakdown – but they don’t know that they’re being photographed. So, that’s actually a great one because [we run it] in such slow motion, it’s really abstractive as a movie and it almost feels like you’re in somebody’s living room – it’s the right scale and everything.”

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It’s like being a painter; having a palette.

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Kim Gordon has previous when it comes to mixing her music with movies – Sonic Youth scored two films, 2010 French drama Simon Werner a Disparu, and 1987 American road movie, Made In USA.

Film is clearly important to her, so would she want to go the way of other musicians – like Cliff Martinez, Clint Mansell, Atticus Ross, former Oingo Boingo singer and one-time boyfriend Danny Elfman – and go further down the film scoring path?

“I like doing it but it depends on the director and how much freedom you have,” she says. “I did one on my own recently for a film that I don’t know what happened to.”

She laughs. What was the film? “It was a James Franco film. It was problematic, I think.”

She doesn’t elaborate. She does, however, admit to still being keen to explore the things she first set out to explore at the start. One of those preoccupations is dissonance.

“Well,” she begins. There’s a long pause. “It’s like being a painter; having a palette. I don’t like to reduce it to visual terms, it sounds corny. But it’s like another layer. [Dissonance] is a good contrast to melody and it lends itself to extremes that we actually don’t really hear in music that much. In commercial [music], you know? Or indie rock, or whatever you want to call it.”

It seems paradoxical that someone with so many interests and diverse enterprises to her name – she’s an artist, a writer, a musician with countless side projects, a fashion designer, yada yada yada – and a person for whom change has been something she’s flourished because of her whole life, would want to be exploring the same things today as when she started.

But an interesting mix of paradoxes is Kim Gordon all over. “I’m not really good with change but I also don’t like stillness either,” she says.

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She likes dissonance and she likes melody, she’s an overachiever dogged by self-doubt, she’s a universally adored rock icon troubled by a sense that she doesn’t fit. Reading her book, you also notice she’s struck by beauty and simultaneously repelled by it – conventional notions of what constitutes beauty anyway. She thrives on uncertainty but is drawn to the security of place, and she loves and hates those places in equal measure.

Throughout Girl In A Band, there are contradictory references to almost all the places she’s lived – her first experience of LA is the lack of anything indigenous: “I’ve always felt there’s something genetically instilled and inbred in Californians – that California is a place of death, a place people are drawn to because they don’t realise deep down they’re actually afraid of what they want”. And yet it’s also a place she felt homesick for; the LA canyons were glamorous to her – in the hills, she says, you could imagine you were anywhere in the world. New York, once a place she adored, is now a place she no longer feels comfortable, while Massachusetts, where she lived until recently, was always a compromise.

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I’m not really good with change but I also don’t like stillness either…

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That Sonic Youth continued for 30 years is also one of those paradoxes. When she says she doesn’t like change but she also doesn’t like stillness, Sonic Youth is the embodiment of that. They grew from strength to strength over the years, emboldened and boosted by the band’s varied side projects, fresh approaches and new ways of looking at things.

Gordon says none of them expected it to last as long as it did. “I think it lasted because we really liked the music we were making together, for the most part,” she says. “We were kind of committed to being together. It’s like a relationship or something. You have to actually want to do it.” She laughs again.

Switching from medium to medium as she does within her assorted projects, I ask if she ever feels limited by the medium she’s working in, or by expectations that are placed on her, and whether those are reasons she feels the compulsion to explore so many avenues. She thinks hard before committing to a no.

“I don’t feel limited by the medium, but I always perform better if I can lower people’s expectations,” she chuckles. “I guess it would be the opposite of bolstering your product!”

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What she says next tells you everything you need to know about Kim Gordon: “I’m kind of interested in what happens on stage when you’re improvising and – this happens a lot in art-making – you have moments when you’re sort of failing, or there’s an awkward silence, or you don’t know how to start the next song or the next part. Or you feel like something isn’t working. But you just sort of plough on with it, then something good comes out of it. I kind of like that.”

Trying, experimenting, maybe failing and then creating something of the fall out – Kim’s done that all her life it seems.

At the suggestion she flourishes in the face of flux, she kind of baulks. “It was really hard and traumatic,” she says of the Thurston/Sonic Youth split. “Now, I feel more free, and so I can kind of do what I want, which is good.”

“Presumably the book was…?” I hesitate. I don’t want to say the word because I know she’ll hate the word: “…cathartic?”

She indulges me: “I guess.” She pauses. “I don’t know; it was more like having an electric nervous system. Which I still have.” That laugh again.

So why did she write it? “I was at a very contemplative point in my life, trying to figure out how I got to where I was,” she says. For Kim, writing was the only way to properly explore that. But it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been approached to do it.

“People started asking me,” she explains. “I think after Patti [Smith’s] book they were curious – you know, what’s the next thing? Patti’s success was, in a way, a big surprise. It didn’t occur to me to actually make a book, so I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been approached by somebody. And, quite frankly, I didn’t really know how I was going to make a living. Sonic Youth was my main source of income.”

It’s easy to think that in her seventh decade and back in LA, the place where she grew up, Kim Gordon has come full circle. But she was born in the state of New York – a suggestion, perhaps, that Los Angeles isn’t the place she’ll end up settling, corporeally or cerebrally. There’s more change ahead yet for the extraordinary Kim Gordon – that’s something she can count on.

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Words: Kim Taylor-Foster
Photography: Olivia Bee
Fashion: Sean Knight

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