Kim Gordon Talks Giving Up Rock, Being a “Strong Woman,” and Appearing on Girls

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 3 2013 12:30 PM

Kim Gordon on Giving Up Rock, Being a “Strong Woman,” and Appearing on Girls

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Kim Gordon

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs

Kim Gordon’s new band, Body/Head, is occasionally reminiscent of her iconic past work in Sonic Youth. But at other times, the new project sounds like a wholly different proposition: By doing away with drums entirely, and pushing drones and improvised chants forward in the mix, her new duo with experimental guitarist Bill Nace is more textured than the average Sonic Youth song-based album—and can be even noisier than some of her former band’s more avant-garde performances.

After a series of limited-edition vinyl pressings, the pair is putting out a double-album-sized release, Coming Apart, this month, with Matador Records. In early August, I met both Gordon and Nace for breakfast in New York, to talk about the new project—and a variety of other topics, including the influence of John Coltrane and Catherine Breillat and Gordon’s appearance on an upcoming episode of Girls.

Slate: Bill, you used to play in a duo with Thurston Moore. How did you and Kim decide to start playing together?

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Gordon: Bill used to work at the local art theater.

Slate: This was in Northampton, Mass.?

Gordon: And I remember Thurston started playing with him. Well, we played together.

Nace: We were doing trio shows.

Gordon: Northampton’s a very … experimental music scene.

Nace: Then we just played in [Kim’s] basement, as a duo, a couple times.

Gordon: I started playing in the basement and recording stuff on cassette.

Slate: Starting in…

Gordon: A couple years ago, I guess. Two and a half years ago.

Slate: When did you know it was a band, a project, as opposed to a one-off?

Nace: Right away, the first second.

Gordon: Yeah, as soon as we had a name.

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Slate: Who’s the “Body” and who’s the “Head”? Or is that fluid?

Gordon: Maybe it relates to the audience.

Slate: Speaking of audience perception, was there a desire to work in some opposite direction from Sonic Youth?

Nace: I don’t know that we were working hard to get away from anything.  Kim’s the one person—of course it’s gonna have elements of that, ’cause Kim’s in it.

Gordon: I might even be using a tuning that I used in Sonic Youth. But as soon as you don’t have drums, everything sounds different.

Slate: Is that arena-ready rock pulse pretty much over for you? No matter who you’re playing with?

Gordon: I don’t have any desire to do something that sounds explicitly rock. Like I don’t have a burning need to be a rock musician. I feel like I’ve taken that as far as I can take it, for me. As far as I can take it. But you know we might do more songs or covers or things. A hip-hop record. Yeah, I don’t know …

Nace: I think it’s more about doing what we want to hear. And what’s interesting to us. It’s not a reaction against something, or not wanting to sound like something. I feel like if you go into playing music with that kind of stuff in mind, you just immediately, real quick, ruin it. Or it has a hard time kind of existing under the weight of all that stuff.

Gordon: I think of it as a kind of modern music. Genres and things like that are really broken down now. There are bluesy aspects [to the record]. And jazz elements. And some of the songs follow, like, traditional kind of Coltrane, Meditations-era …

Slate: The noisy Coltrane.

Gordon: Yeah, with a theme, and then how it gets reconstructed or something. Maybe that’s more apparent live than on this record.

Slate: I think it’s apparent. Motifs like the one at the end of “Frontal,” which also appear much earlier on, register as callbacks in that way.

To your point about genres breaking down: What does that do to audiences? Are they able to leave the Sonic Youth legacy to one side, and get into the new music?

Nace: The more recent ones, they seem to. The first ones…

Gordon: They were less prepared.

Slate: How did this new double-album wind up on Matador Records, Sonic Youth’s label, as opposed to one of the small, avant-garde imprints that released your earlier material?

Gordon: Well, we recorded this double album, and we knew we wanted to put it out on something other than Bill’s label. On something slightly bigger.

Nace: Way bigger.

Gordon: And I guess I wanted to give Matador the first option, the first offer, as a courtesy. Not really thinking they’d put it out.

Slate: Well, not everything has to go No. 1 on Billboard.

Gordon: Yeah, maybe they thought it needed to balance out the Queens of the Stone Age. The other end of the spectrum. … I doubt Matador would be putting the record out if it didn’t have that [Sonic Youth] context. It’s a burden—it’s a curse and a blessing.

Slate: Bill, though you’re well known to an underground audience, this record has to be really different experience.

Nace: I mean, I don’t think of it as “where I want to be.” It’s just a thing that happens. All the other stuff is pretty much the same. Get on stage with Kim and…

Gordon: He has to answer a lot of gender questions. [Both laugh.] There was one interview we did in, ah, Switzerland, that was particularly funny because they really only wanted to interview me. So one question was, “Well, this is a gender question.” And Bill said, “But I’m a gender!”

Slate: Not to be super predictable, but here’s another question in that genre. Listening to the new record, Kim, I was thinking of how some of your past vocal turns balanced a sense of the speaker’s vulnerability with a sense of her simultaneous cool. But some of the new tracks seem less coy about pain. A line like “I feel weak and stupid,” doesn’t have as much mystery maybe. I take it that’s very much intentional.

Gordon: Yeah. Well … people have such a weird idea about what it’s like to be a strong woman or something like that.

Slate: What kind of weird idea do they have?

Gordon: I don’t know what it is. It’s an image of me as a strong woman. Or just an idea of a strong anyone. What does that mean? Usually it means, actually, the ability to make yourself vulnerable in some way, or open yourself up to all kinds of feelings that you know, as opposed to … shutting yourself off to them.

I was trying to just be like any person. I think a lot of women feel like that. At times everyone feels like that. The music is very soundtrack-ish to me. And influenced by Catherine Breillat.

Slate: Oh, really?

Gordon: That’s where the name of the track “Last Mistress” comes from. [Breillat’s 2007 film Une Vieille Maîtresse was released in America as The Last Mistress.]

She wanted to go to Paris and go to film school. But they wouldn’t let her in, as a woman. So she wrote this book thinking, Well, Robbe-Grillet wrote a book that turned into a movie. And I thought: How does this girl who came out of a super-strict Catholic school upbringing in the provinces of France somewhere develop that level of sophistication? That Robbe-Grillet was her role model? [Laughs.] She must have gone to the avant-garde Catholic school, or something. But that was kind of interesting, that she that it started as a book, but as a way to make a movie.

Slate: Have you been working on visual art lately? Do you have the time?

Gordon: There’s some paintings of people’s tweets. Spray-painted. They’re kind of like modern landscapes.  Everyone’s so interior now, they’re not really looking around them. They’re on their phones. And it’s a description of something. I can show you one! [Gets out phone.]

Slate: I noticed you tweeting recently about the Friday Night Lights character Tim Riggins.

Gordon: Yeah… it was his birthday.

Nace: It was every day. [Laughs.]

Gordon: Every day is Tim Riggins’ birthday. There was some Friday Night Lights reunion thing … [Scrolls through photos on phone.] Oh, here’s a Lena Dunham [tweet painting]. Hers are really good, actually.

Slate: Do you know Dunham at all?

Gordon: I’m actually on an episode [of Girls] next season.

Slate: Did you know her parents from the New York art world?

Gordon: Not really. I’ve just met her mom casually. But Jenni [Konner] I know, her executive producer.

Slate: So besides the concert films, your IMDb page will be Gossip Girl, Girls

Gordon: [Laughing.] All the shows with “girls”!

Slate: Does it seem like there’s more opportunity now—versus, say, when Sonic Youth was starting out—for women to control their own representations in media, or…

Gordon: I think people get more abused. [Nace laughs.] If Washington is any indication. Or with the anti-abortion drama going on. There’s even less respect for women.

Slate: Does the radicalism of noise music feel … let’s say connected, during performances, to the political stances you hold?

Nace: I don’t know what people think about when they’re playing music.

Gordon: The best is when you’re kind of just being intuitive or you’re not being conscious of your body at all.

Slate: There’s the Body/Head dynamic again.

Gordon: Yeah. It sounds corny. But you’re intuitively…

Nace: Losing your mind.

Gordon: Losing your mind.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.