Q&A: Kim Gordon On Body/Head’s Coming Apart And Life After Sonic Youth
Few people seem to be having a busier year than Kim Gordon. In the wake of Sonic Youth’s much talked about demise (and the end of her marriage to bandmate Thurston Moore), Gordon has spent the better part of 2013 making all manner of art and music, not to mention touring around the world, dabbling in film work, and quietly working on her memoirs. She’s also been busy making what is shaping up to be some of the most compelling (and some might say, challenging) music of her entire career. Today Matador Records announced the release of Coming Apart, the proper full-length debut from Gordon’s new project, Body/Head. Formed as a duo with guitarist Bill Nace, Body/Head’s debut caps off what has been several years of refined experimentation between the two musicians — a kind of free-form guitar squall that, for Gordon, hearkens back to her more experimental no-wave roots. The record couldn’t come at a better time for Gordon who, having already seen both her private and professional life become a very public topic of discussion this year, seems more than ready to turn a page in her creative life. Having spent the better part of past 30 years of her life working within the confines of one of rock music’s most beloved bands, it sounds as if she is genuinely excited — and perhaps still a little perplexed — about what happens next.
STEREOGUM: How are you?
GORDON: Pretty good. Just a little jet-lagged. We just got back last night from the UK.
STEREOGUM: How was it? You played Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival, right?
GORDON: Yeah. It was good! One week tours rule. I mean, it was kind of a mix of things — Bill and I were also playing with Ikue Mori, which was a little harder for us. We’re not used to playing with a drummer.
STEREOGUM: What was it like?
GORDON: Well the London show — the Meltdown show — that was a bit of drag, because we got there and realized that they’d set us playing against Iggy Pop and Savages, but then Yoko came on stage and did an encore with us and that was fun.
STEREOGUM: Now that you’re back home do you have a ton of other stuff going on? It seems like this has been an exceptionally busy year for you.
GORDON: Um, no, I mean I’m not doing any traveling. This week I’m doing a shoot for Marcel Dzama who is doing this silent ten-minute film for the Toronto film festival. They’re honoring Cronenberg this year and he asked me to be in this film he’s making for that. So I’m kinda here doing that this week … oh, and another of my friend asked me to introduce the newly restored version of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence tomorrow at some theater in Williamsburg … so I’m doing that as well.
STEREOGUM: And the Body/Head record release is being announced by Matador this week. Are you going to be doing a lot of promo stuff for that?
GORDON: Yeah I’ll probably have to do some and Bill will have to do some. We’re just going over some promo pictures now. I don’t wanna … I mean I’ve done a lot of interviews in my time, so I don’t wanna do everything. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: How did you and Bill initially start working together?
GORDON: We met up in Northampton … and, by the way he’s not from Boston. You know how some things get on the Internet and you just never get rid of them? He’s from New Jersey, but maybe that’s why he doesn’t mention that either. [laughs] No, he lives in Northampton. He was playing in a band called Vampire Belt with Chris Corsano — he still does, actually — and I think that’s how we first met. There’s a pretty healthy experimental music scene up there and Bill also used to work at the local indie cinema, so he was just kind of around. Thurston actually started playing with him first and then we became friends. A couple years ago we started playing together. We initially played together with other people but a year and half or two years ago we started playing together — just two guitars with vocals. We also played with Michael Morley, which was one of our first gigs. He happened to be visiting and we played a show together. We projected a film in slow motion behind us. Anyway, Bill and I had been sharing ideas — just talking about things that really influenced us — and film something we really had in common. Catherine Breillat films in particular. I was reading this book analyzing her films, and somehow the term “body/head” kind of came out of that. We were also looking on YouTube at early Pink Floyd videos — Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd — and I was so amazed at seeing people basically dancing to noise music, you know? Dancing to long, kinda drawn out songs with psychedelic lights happening around them. That was kind of an inspiration. So we had sort of shared tastes and that was kind of the vocabulary we started with. So basically we played with Michael Morley and we screened this very slowed down version of a Catherine Breillat film — I forget whether it was Fat Girl or A Real Young Girl — but it was playing so slowly that basically that you’d almost think that there wasn’t anything going on. We had two guitars and my vocals through an amp with effects on it. That started it. I guess we kinda see music a little bit like soundtrack music in a way. You know, that sounds kind of pretentious [laughs] but we think of it as very kind of filmic thing somehow. As soon as you take away the drums, it sort of changes the quality of guitar music. So, not long after that we did a cover of the song “Fever” for a compilation that friend of ours at a Belgian label put out. The name of his label is Ultra Eczema. Then we did a cassette, wait, did we do a cassette? No we didn’t do a cassette, we recorded … our first recordings were on a cassette. Anyway, we put out a 7-inch, then we did an EP … and now we’ve done a double album.
STEREOGUM: I’m not a musician — so I can only guess about what it’s actually like — but I would imagine that when you’re making this kind of music, which is so amorphous and free-form, finding someone that you can have this kind of intuitive, symbiotic relationship with as a player must be very difficult.
GORDON: Right. It’s kind of rare, I mean it’s the kind of chemistry thing that happens in any relationship but it’s unusual because it is improve-based music and the lyrics are typically repeated themes, but it’s not the same as simply jamming. It’s almost like a Cassavetes film or something. You play together … but it’s almost like you rehearse because you’re playing together so much, and then you, you know, the music is kind of improvised from there. You know it’s just going to be different every time you play.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you guys play three different times and each show felt very different to me. I think a lot of it has do to with the context and the audience. The music sort of shifted to take on the qualities of the room — there was a very experiential quality to it. Does that make sense?
GORDON: Yeah, I think that’s true for most music, but maybe more so for this music because of the acoustics and the…for me, how it sounds on stage always affects how much I get into playing, for sure. I think that can translate to the audience.
STEREOGUM: How does it translate into making a record? Playing this kind of music alone in a studio space must feel very different.
GORDON: Well, we set up in a, kind of a big-ish room, and just played … basically we just played a lot together and then went through and edited things, picked the pieces we wanted to use for the record, and then went back and did some overdubs on some of the songs. I redid vocals on a few songs with a mic that was actually good and then put that through an amp. Actually, there’s very little editing on the final recordings. There are some guitar overdubs but for the most part it was all improvised. It was kind of like lovingly crafted in that way. [laughs] Um, that’s a very Western Mass thing. Lots of handcrafting around here.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by the results?
GORDON: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of intense to listen to in one setting. [laughs] It’s not happy music, you know?
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting, what makes you say that about it?
GORDON: Well, only because … well it’s a double album for one thing so it’s a lot to listen to. I don’t know … my friend came to the show the other night at St Vitus and said he found it really soothing and calming to listen to. I thought that was kind of … I don’t know maybe live it’s just a different thing? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: That’s funny. Who knows, I have friends who listen to death metal as a way to relax, so it’s totally possible. I’ve heard you reference your interest in psychology a lot in the past — specifically the ways that your interest in the psychological has informed your various creative endeavors and your visual art. I was thinking about that in relation to seeing you play this music live. The exchange you get when you play this kind of music for an audience must be a very different experience than the one you get when you are two people alone in a recording studio — the energy is very different. A lot of the pleasure I got from seeing you play as Body/Head came from watching the exchange you seemed to be having with the audience.
GORDON: Yeah, it is different, it does definitely feel different. I really try not to look at the audience because … it’s weird, it’s like you can feel them, you can feel them listening. But recording, I feel like it’s more of a spatial experience, like I’m really making a sound in a space. It’s hard to describe it, but it’s very spatial for me. You know how Kim Deal writes songs? Like her songs are incredibly minimal and she thinks about space a lot. To me that’s what makes her pop songs so interesting. And I’m not saying that – we’re not minimal like that, but there is a certain similar sensibility or something. I don’t know, I feel like she must feel like that too in a way when she writes guitar chords. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to read all the stuff about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ Last Splash. Those songs are so much a part of my consciousness that I’ve never really even thought about them in a critical or analytical way, you know what I mean?
GORDON: Right, I know what you mean.
STEREOGUM: And when you go back and really think about them, it’s amazing just how amazingly constructed — not to mention how truly weird — they actually are.
GORDON: Yeah it’s weird and kind of druggy, or at least Pod is a really druggy record. But they are kind of more psychedelic — or cerebral, in a way — than just regular pop songs and I think it is because she really thinks about the space in the songs — it’s so bare and so minimal.
STEREOGUM: You’ve often spoken about your love of no-wave music and how much that scene really inspired you. Does this Body/Head project feel like getting back to your roots in a way?
GORDON: Yeah, in a way. I mean no-wave is what first made me wanna play music … and it’s so free and it’s actually really fun. Still, it’s not like I don’t think about the audience or wonder if, oh, you know, sometimes if there’s someone there I know who’s really critical it can make me feel much more self-conscious. It’s a fine line between not wanting things in the music to go on for too long … but wanting it to continue long enough to go somewhere that’s interesting.
STEREOGUM: When you’re playing music live — when you’re on stage — do you find that that’s one of the places in life where you can feel the most un-self-conscious?
GORDON: Definitely. Especially if it sounds good, you know? Then it’s like writing or anything else; you just get into sort of an un-self-conscious flow — or deep concentration — or something. Yeah, that’s the best.
STEREOGUM: Watching you guys play, the vibe is often super intense — but there’s something euphoric about it as well.
GORDON: Well there’s something about the wash of sound, you know? People use that term, the “wash” of sound, or “bathed in sound” — but when you can make that happen, it does create this feeling of chaos that kind of makes you — as a listener — have to do something with it.
STEREOGUM: Will you guys spend a lot of the rest of this year touring?
GORDON: God, I hope not. [laughs]. We’re gonna do some touring in the States in September and probably play in New York a few times. We’re going to go to Europe for three weeks at the end of October and after that, I don’t know. I’ll be deaf, probably.
STEREOGUM: I know the logistics and the sort of day to day mechanics of being on tour can be a real drag, and not much of a novelty if you’ve done it intermittently for many, many, many years. But is there something about the live experience that if you didn’t do it, you would miss it?
GORDON: Yeah, definitely. I like playing live; it’s just the traveling. Someone said once, “oh you basically get paid to travel not to play” or something. It’s kind of true. The traveling itself gets kind of old — the lugging stuff around, not getting enough sleep, things like that. The endless waiting around.
STEREOGUM: Even when Sonic Youth was still going on you’ve always had a lot of outside projects happening — other musical projects, art projects, writing, acting. Still, it seems like this is a particularly busy time for you.
GORDON: Well, my daughter’s not at home anymore — she’s in college — so I don’t have to be home as much. I’m not missing her at home, you know? I’d just be at home missing her if I were at there all the time. [laughs]. And now that Sonic Youth isn’t playing anymore it frees up my time. I have always kind of had to put art more in the back burner, but now I can finally spend more time pursuing that as well.
STEREOGUM: I read an interview where you were saying that you’d sort of always thought of yourself as a visual artist, first and foremost.
GORDON: Well, yeah. I did go to art school. I mean, I didn’t have any musical training, and I basically, I don’t know I can’t say anything about this without it sounding like some stupid cliché or something like, “I always wanted to be an artist since I was five,” but, you know, it’s kind of true. I just … it’s how I think. Visually. Even the way I think about music is kind of visual.
STEREOGUM: Earlier this year there were several long magazine articles written about you that really dove into not only your personal life, but also your creative life as well. I’m sure it’s both a surreal and kind of bittersweet thing to see your life dissected that way in print, but one thing I thought was kind of great about it — which maybe hasn’t happened enough in the past — is that it really brought to the forefront all the other kinds of work that you do. People that know you primarily as a musician might not have been as aware of your career as a visual artist.
GORDON: Right. Yeah, I mean it’s hard if you’re known mostly for one thing. There are always these art shows where they invite musicians who also do art to be involved and I always sort of tried to avoid that. [laughs]. Mostly because you don’t necessarily have your art in common with everyone else simply because you are all musicians. But, you know, people usually do one thing and it’s easier to be known in that way. I mean I don’t really … it’s such an effort to talk about what one does. I’m not always good at it. I don’t know. It seems odd to me to do interviews about art. It’s kind of funny.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that I was really struck by in regards to all this press about you during this past year was that people really do think of you as a kind of feminist icon. And there was also this huge feeling of support and goodwill towards you that seemed to be generated by those pieces in Elle and The New Yorker. I don’t know if you felt that or not.
GORDON: Oh yeah, I did. Especially after the Elle piece came out. I was surprised, actually. I was really surprised because I normally think of myself as a fairly private person. I’d been doing interviews for music magazines for so many years but it’s not like I really wanna talk about myself — my private self — in those contexts. So, yeah, it was kind of like I was saving that part of myself for most of my career. So maybe people were just curious to hear what I had to say now or what I’m gonna do now … I was surprised.
STEREOGUM: It must be gratifying to hear it vocalized in such a public way just how much your work has meant to people … to other women, especially.
GORDON: It is! Although, because I never really actively pursued that it’s always odd when you get it. I don’t feel like I’ve ever … I was never an activist or anything so I don’t feel like I wanna take credit for anything. But I realize there’s a certain amount of inspiration that comes from seeing somebody do something. I’ve had that experience. It doesn’t take that much actually to be reassured that, “Oh okay, this is the right way,” or “there is someone else here doing this,” and it doesn’t have to be a big gesture, it can be something small.
STEREOGUM: Outside of all the Body/Head stuff, I know you have a slew of other projects happening as well. I know you are prepping for a show of your work here in NYC …
GORDON: Right, at White Columns.
STEREOGUM: What else are you working on?
GORDON: Um, I’m working on this book. A memoir.
STEREOGUM: How’s that going?
GORDON: Uh, it’s going. It’s going good [laughs]. Um, what else am I doing? I’m trying to actually do less, but I’m just also just trying stuff that I wouldn’t normally try — like this film for Marcel Dzama. I don’t know … I wanna be able to focus on my art, but at the same time I just have a lot of stuff going on. It’s really hard. It’s hard. But I don’t have any other shows planned right now. I’m just trying to be patient and really, you know, just take the time to work and not think or worry too much about things like what gallery am I gonna show at.
STEREOGUM: That’s probably a good thing.
GORDON: It’s more like, who am I gonna date? [laughs.]
STEREOGUM: THAT is the question! Also, trying new stuff is always good. It’s healthy. It becomes easier as I get older to say no things just because I don’t want to deal. I hate that.
GORDON: Also when you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time and that comes to an end … you know, so my identity was so tied up with Sonic Youth and my relationship and my marriage and so now it’s also like, who am I? It’s a little bit of, like, going back to the beginning. I mean, I basically feel like I’ve been the same person since I was little, but you know, it does make you really kind of search for who you really are.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I can only imagine. I mean, the Sonic Youth situation is so complicated because it’s also so tied up in your personal relationship but when you’ve been engaged in that specific creative endeavor for so many years, there must be obviously a kind of deep loss involved when it ends.
GORDON: Oh yeah, totally.
STEREOGUM: Does doing this new project also serve as a way of getting over that?
GORDON: Well, I guess I felt like I had to rebuild from the ground up or something. It’s like starting over in a way. I just needed to create new things.
STEREOGUM: Doing this project is such a good step in that direction, obviously. It must feel good.
GORDON: Oh yeah. It’s great. I mean, Bill’s so great to play with. I mean, not that the other boys weren’t [laughs] but he’s just so open and he really is not … he’d get mad if I say he has a lot of girl energy [laughs] but maybe that’s part of it.
STEREOGUM: That’s not a bad thing.
GORDON: Maybe if I keep saying things like that it’ll make him more inspired to do more of these interviews.
Body/Head’s debut LP, Coming Apart, will be released by Matador Records on 9/10.