‘There’s Not a Lot of Really Raw Music Out There’: Kim Gordon’s New Noise Frontier

Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon, a founding member of Sonic Youth, is now one-half of the experimental duo Body/Head. Annabel Mehran

Five years ago this month, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced the end of their marriage and what fans correctly presumed to be the end of Sonic Youth.

The split left a small tear in the fabric of the universe: Alt-rock's original power couple—a 30-year creative and romantic partnership—dissolved. It’s also been a clean break. Half a decade on, Gordon, 63, has relocated to Los Angeles and reinvented her creative life on her own terms, outside the boundaries of a four-piece rock band. 

Gordon has become an author (her book, Girl in a Band, exorcises her demons and is already an essential rock memoir); fronted Nirvana at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony; released an album as part of the experimental guitar duo Body/Head; and somehow found time to guest on Girls. That’s not to mention Gordon’s first-ever solo single, "Murdered Out," a frantic and great ode to L.A. car culture that appeared without warning last month.

The artist's latest release is No Waves, a live Body/Head album that consists of three scalding noise pieces recorded at the Big Ears Festival in 2014. It’s improvisational in form, with Gordon and bandmate Bill Nace constructing abstract grooves from shards of feedback and vocal debris. “They're not pop songs,” Gordon says simply, before praising the cover artwork by Raymond Pettibon, the same artist who designed the iconic Goo album cover.

In a phone interview, Gordon chatted with us about Body/Head, women's involvement in noise music and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize.

What drew you to this particular Body/Head performance from 2014?
Somebody sent it to us and said, "This is great. You should check it out." So we listened to it. It kind of did hold together as a whole experience. [The show] takes place in these two beautiful theaters. That's kind of inspiring. The place you're playing can help inspire your mood. Anytime you are playing at a festival—I mean, the worst is having to play outside. This is a small festival, and so it was in a theater.

The music is quite intense. It's hard to listen to as background music. In what sort of environment do you want fans to hear this? What is the best way to sit down and listen?
Maybe driving in a car—although it’s on vinyl. Get a record player, put it in your car. I like driving around L.A., [and] in a car is always a good way to listen, on a long trip or something.

Is it...safe to listen to Body/Head while driving?
You know, the music can come across much more meditative than I thought. When you’re onstage, it can be quite loud and noisy. There are some waves that sort of float out. My friend who came to see us said, "It’s really meditative." And I thought, Hmm! That's really interesting. I never thought of it that way. 

In your memoir, you wrote, "[I] never thought of myself as a singer with a good voice, or even a musician." In this performance, you seem less concerned than ever with singing in any conventional form.
The voice is almost more of an instrument. They’re not pop songs. It’s kind of meant to be like another texture, almost—the voice.

Is it freeing not to have to share the singing with two other vocalists, as in Sonic Youth?
When it’s just two people, we’re basically doing improv. It’s good to only have two people in the band for focusing. You're also more vulnerable. 

Your voice was always one of the most powerful elements of Sonic Youth’s sound. It also drew so many polarizing comments over the years.
Well, it sort of bothers me that if a man is doing it, then it’s fine. Like, if a woman had Bob Dylan’s voice, how far would she have gotten? Or Leonard Cohen? And men can get away with saying more things that are—I don’t know, it's kind of like, everyone could sit around and pat each other on the back. And that’s not very interesting.

Women are expected to sing in a more beautiful sort of voice.
More melodic. There’s the Janis Joplins of the world. But she certainly got a lot of hostility towards her, whether it was the way she looked, her voice. When I watched a documentary about her, it was kind of amazing, some of that live footage, where she's really just screaming. Even the lovely Michelle Obama, in the beginning, got attacked for saying things that people didn't think she should say. But she's maybe the best speech-maker there is right now. And she uses her guts. That’s what motivates her.

You mentioned Bob Dylan as someone who has an unconventional voice. How do you react to his winning the Nobel Prize?
Hmm. Well, I’m sure he’s won a few different prizes. I think everyone at this point has already acknowledged how much he's changed songwriting and lyrics. The fact that there's like a $900,000 money prize that goes with it? I think there would have been a writer who maybe could have used that. I don't know. I feel like it's a little redundant at this point. But maybe I'm just assuming too much. He's a great songwriter, obviously. He's great. I wouldn't want to take anything away from him.

What can you tell me about the title No Waves? It seems to evoke the "no wave" movement from the early 1980s.
It’s kind of a play on that. No Waves. I’m in California and [bandmate] Bill's been spending time out here. Then I asked Raymond Pettibon to do the drawing for it based on that title. That’s kind of funny, because he actually spells it differently. He spells it W-A-Y-V-E-S.

Is the project meant to bring back the spirit of that really early Sonic Youth period, from the no wave era?
In a way. It’s not self-conscious. But it’s just fun to play with that. Sonic Youth got more and more refined over the years—as bands tend to do, if they stay together. [On] your first record, you really don’t know what you're doing. It always has a certain energy to it that you kind of move away from. But I also feel like, yeah, there’s not a lot of really raw music out there right now.

Body/Head Bill Nace and Kim Gordon, members of the experimental duo Body/Head. Annabel Mehran and Andrew Kesin

Is the music industry more or less welcoming to experimental music than it was in the ’80s?
Oh, it’s much easier. When Sonic Youth started, the word "noise" was a derogatory term. Used in reviews about our records. You know, the owner of [NYC nightclub] Hurrah, when Hurrah shut down, he was interviewed, and he said, "Bands are just making noise right now" [laughs]. I don’t remember the exact quote.

Little did they know...
That’s why the noise festival [began]. It was based on a joke about that quote. Yeah, I think there's much more [avenues for experimental music now]. Home recording and putting stuff out on the internet. The DIY movement—from the ’90s, the late ’90s, it really started proliferating. We became less dependent on radio stations. But I'm also talking about music that there’s not a large audience for. It’s certainly grown. And girls’ and women’s involvement in that scene has really grown. That’s the biggest significant change I've seen in music since the early ’80s.

That women are making noise music now?
Yeah. Experimental music. It was kind of a genre that came out of male record collectors.

Are there any younger artists in that genre that you’re really inspired by lately?
I don’t know about younger [laughs]. Everyone’s younger than me!

What about new releases?
Heather Leigh Murray, she’s great. Check her out. She’s great. She’s actually been doing a lot of shows with Peter Brötzmann. But she’s solo. She’s amazing and inspiring.

You recently put out the first-ever song under your own name. Are there more on the way?
There could be! Not yet. But thinking about it.

You're based in L.A. now. How has the move been for you?
I grew up here, so no surprise. But I feel like there are more people that come here now in the art world. It’s kind of interesting discovering the art world here and small galleries. It’s nice to be an artist and not be in New York, which is such a fishbowl, and everything’s so formal and self-conscious. I think it’s probably the same as—if you're an actress or actor, you probably don't want to live in Hollywood. It’d be difficult. 

Have you been involved with any of the Sonic Youth reissues lately?
Not really. Steve [Shelley, drummer] kind of gets into that. He likes to do that.  I don't even, like, tell them what I'm doing.... I forget about it.

What’s your favorite Sonic Youth album?
That’s difficult. I don’t know, I like Sister. Washing Machine, I like a lot. Sonic Nurse I like. Murray Street. I thought that was great.

You had a pretty star-studded book tour last year. How did that compare with being on a rock tour?
Yeah! For one thing, I was by myself. It was kind of a strange thing. It was kind of exhausting, actually. It’s work. Some of the interviews were really fun. There was only one that was a bit tough, which I won’t mention who it was. The interview with Carrie [Brownstein] was great. That part was fun. Traveling. It's also just a kind of work, doing press—it’s work, but it’s not work. It’s not, like, creative work. It’s difficult. And then when you put something out, like a book or even a record, it has life of its own. It’s hard to really stay in the head of that. It kind of has a life of its own.