Thirty-odd years ago Kim Gordon was an L.A. girl fresh out of art school and set loose on the New York City art scene. She co-founded the influential band Sonic Youth in 1981 and has since issued 15 studio albums with them, as well as several with her side band Free Kitten. Today Gordon is an icon of both music and fashion; she is also a painter and has designed two clothing lines: X-Girl and Mirror/Dash (the latter for Urban Outfitters). She has written about music and art (a memoir is forthcoming), sung songs that spotlighted women’s lives (Karen Carpenter’s life and death in “Tunic,” sexual harassment in “Swimsuit Issue,” and resisting objectification “The Sprawl“), and inspired many other women to pick up some instruments and start their own bands. Along the way, she ditched the Manhattan rock scene for the familial idyll of Northampton, Massachusetts, and scheduled Sonic Youth’s tours around the school year while she raised her daughter, Coco, who is now in college.
Since Sonic Youth went on hiatus in 2011 on the heels of Kim’s split with her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore, Gordon’s creative output has only increased: A survey of her artwork opens at White Columns this fall, and she’s been busy performing with her new duo, Body/Head, a collaboration with the guitarist Bill Nace. Together the two make ragged, minimal experimental unrock that features Gordon howling, whispering, sounding alive and driven. After decades of hearing Gordon as part of an ensemble, it’s thrilling to hear her this new way, in the spotlight but cool as ever.
Kim recently talked to Rookie about what it was like to be a young artist in New York, drawing power from your weaknesses, and her well-documented obsession with the Friday Night Lights hottie Tim Riggins.
Today, Rookie is psyched to present that conversation, as well as the premiere of Body/Head’s song “Actress,” from their upcoming debut album, Coming Apart, out on September 10 (September 16 in the UK and Europe) on Matador.
JESSICA: What was your first apartment in New York like?
KIM GORDON: Other than sublets, my first one was a railroad apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen and these two beautiful arches—a very classic Lower East Side tenement apartment. A million coats of paint on the wall, but crackly. Cockroaches scurrying around. It was kind of scary when the lights were off. It had a really nice ceiling.
How did it feel to be in the city by yourself and starting out as an artist?
It was kind of lonely. It was exciting. Everything seemed to have so much significance. I remember I saw Andy Warhol once crossing the street. You’d kind of hear about things going on, and it sort of felt like, How do I get into this world? The nightclubs were fun around then. There was no sign outside—it was always kind of an illegal club. You were going there to see what was going to happen and what was the fuss all about, who was playing. Everything I went to see was a new experience.
What made you think you could be a musician? Or did you just already have a sense of permission?
I fell into it, really. It was nothing I aspired to. It was almost like an art project that became something else—I started playing music when the artist Dan Graham asked me to start an all-girl band with these two other girls for a performance piece of his. I was writing [a lot] at the time. No-wave bands were playing downtown—it was anarchistic, free music. Being around those bands, I felt like, I could do this.
Musicians sometimes talk about performance as a way to be more real or to try on other identities–I am wondering how performance allows you to be your real self and how it allows you to be “fake.”
Sometimes performing, if all the aspects are going well, allows you to be in the moment—you lose a certain self-consciousness; you are not really aware of yourself or your body in a way that is separate from the music. It’s a visceral experience and a physical experience—you feel in the moment, and it’s a really great feeling. Whatever ambition you have, you don’t really think about it much. Sometimes I am aware that certain moves are considered—like, people like it if you are very assertive onstage, if you lead the audience, so to speak. That is part of the whole rock-star posturing. [With Body/Head] I have shied away from that a little bit.
Do you feel less bound by expectation with Body/Head?
People might have incredible expectations and hopes of what they want the music to be. But you can never control any of that. Nothing is ever going to be Sonic Youth. Anyone who thinks they are going get that, they are not going to get that.
Where do you get your power from?
That’s a tough question. I don’t think of myself as powerful. I somehow have this drive. I really don’t try to overthink it too much, but I think I use my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. It’s a weird way to think about things—in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Nothing is black-and-white, nothing is strong or weak, it’s a combination of both. But you use what you have. I like working from a place of not having anything, working with limitations. The idea that you don’t have limitations creates a whole other set of problems and pressure. I know women who are very Type A, who think of themselves as strong and confident—but I always overthink things. I am looking for, I guess, some recognition or approval. At my core, though, I feel confident. I don’t question myself.
Was there a catalyst for your feminism or was it always part of your understanding of the world?
I don’t think I consciously became a feminist—it was a pretty gradual awakening. I was a tomboy when I was young, and I had an older brother I was always competing against, so I knew there were double standards. I never really wanted to grow up and be a mother or a housewife; I really just wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t really aware of how sexist the art world was, I guess, growing up. I was never politically active the way, say, Kathleen Hanna was—she really took action when she felt the need to, when she was aware of the issues and aware of her surroundings. I was older than the hardcore scene—we were never on the receiving end of the mosh pit. Certainly I had the experience of sexual aggressiveness in different forms at concerts, and the whole thing of having sex with a guy that you don’t really want to—like, “Screw it, I am just gonna get it over with”—because you feel like you are suddenly in some situation where you are with this person, getting stoned or something. I grew up in a weird time. I was too young to be a hippie, but I was around it. You were supposed to have really relaxed sexual ideas and attitudes—everyone did the whole free-love thing. But it wasn’t comfortable. And I also felt, when [Sonic Youth] started going to England, that there were more ageist and sexist attitudes in the press [there]. Guys would interview you who were too cowardly to actually confront you about something in a question, but they would write really snide things afterwards. But then when I was writing songs, I felt like there were so many experiences as a woman that you can write about that had not been written about—rather than conventional relationship songs. I grew up listening to my dad’s record collection, like Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, and, later, Joni Mitchell. She was probably the first woman I felt was singing about her personal feelings, being isolated in a real boys’ club in Laurel Canyon.
There was a really good book called Girls Like Us [about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon]. It was more than I’d ever want to know about Carole King, but they [represented] three different types of woman in terms of how they transitioned from the ’50s to the ’60s. 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 L.A. It was all so glamorous to me up there.
Who are some of your female friends who have influenced you most in your life?
Tamra Davis has influenced me. She is one of those women who can really do almost anything. She directed [Sonic Youth's] videos–“Kool Thing” and “Dirty Boots” and “Bull in the Heather.” She was really generous in teaching other people how to make videos, showing them that you can just do things and get them done. The other people you wouldn’t know, they aren’t famous. [Laughs] Like my friend Luisa Reichenheim, J. Mascis’s wife–she is such an intuitive person. I think I am too, but she reminds me that the things I think I am feeling, I am feeling. She’s just a big-hearted person. I am so interested in the way she thinks. Kathleen Hanna inspires me with so much of what she does.
I think a lot of people imagine you to be the coolest mom, but when you’re a teenager, no matter how cool your mom is, she’s like Stella Dallas—a source of endless embarrassment to you. Can you burst our bubble a little? Was there ever a time when Coco was younger when you were like, “You are not leaving the house dressed like that!”?
It was never about what she wore. There was some R&B stuff that she liked—or the super-dirty rap that she likes now—and I am just like, I don’t get it. Musically it’s not that interesting to me, and as far as I can tell it’s not ironic. [Laughs] I just can’t.
So, can we talk about [the Friday Night Lights character] Tim Riggins? Are you still in the throes of your obsession? What is the locus of his appeal for you?
In the context of Friday Night Lights, his character is supposed to be the brooding running back with cute looks who is not really verbal, so every time he opens his mouth there is the drama of, what’s he going to say? Is it going to be incredibly stupid? Ultimately he would say something vulnerable or minimal but also smart. He showed himself to be a lover, not a fighter. It’s not [the actor Taylor Kitsch’s] fault that in all these other movies they are trying to make him be an action hero, when he is still more of a lover–well, it’s his fault because he chose the roles [laughs], but I think part of it is that his look is not metro-male. It’s more old-school male, before men became consumers like women. There is a certain appeal to that rawness.
I feel like there is not a female cultural analogue to that character.
There’s really not. I have had this conversation with people–who do you think?
I am not super aware of TV, but I feel like Connie Britton could be it.
Oh yeah! That’s true. Bill Nace, my partner in Body/Head, always brings her up. He thinks she’s hot and so do I. I am totally into Nashville. Her guitar player/love interest on the show is the new Tim Riggins to me.
TOTALLY. Okay, so I have a crucial final question about a topic very close to Rookie’s heart. What’s your favorite, most crucial pizza topping?
Whoa. OK. My fave, most crucial pizza topping has to be red pepper flakes, if we are talking New York–style pizza by the slice. Red pepper flakes are it. ♦