We Talked to Kim Gordon and She's Just Like Us (Not Really)
Kim Gordon sweats. Kim Gordon shits. Kim Gordon likes Rihanna's "Work."
Oct 17 2016, 12:00am
Portraits by Renata Raksha
It's easy to forget that legends are people too—that they wake up with stale breath and crust in the corners of their eyes, drop their iPhones and crack the screens, forget to pick up cream at the market. It's not that we don't think of them as human. It's that we just don't imagine them enduring the daily indignities of being human. We imagine them as ads in the 1950s imagined women: They never sweat or shit.
But when I called her in early September for our interview, Kim Gordon, guitarist, vocalist, and co-founder of Sonic Youth—one of the most iconic and influential noise rock bands of the past 30-plus years—was having a very mundane problem. Her hotel phone was broken.
Brnnng. Brnnng. Brnnng. The staccato buzzing of her publicist's phone tickled my ear and distracted me from the nervous flips my stomach was doing. Phone interviews are how you know God hates journalists—it's like having a long distance blind date. A click. I inhaled, smiled, and prepared to make small talk with one of the Coolest Women Alive. And then the line died. Her publicist rang me again. "Uh, so her phone broke," she said. "Hotel maintenance is coming up. Maybe it'll just be 20 minutes?"
Comforted as I was to know that Gordon doesn't have some superhuman ability to avoid the daily annoyances that swerve into our lives, there was still an ocean between us, literally: We'd scheduled the less-than-ideal phone interview because the 63-year-old artist was in Australia for a series of shows and speaking engagements about "rock, rebellion, and resilience." It might read a little glib, but it's a pretty accurate summation of her career. After forming Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore in 1981, Gordon and the band put out their first studio album, Confusion Is Sex, two years later. While Sonic Youth released a total of 16 records before it broke up in 2011, and is often heralded as the blueprint for many alt-rocks bands (with Gordon herself being tagged the "godmother of grunge"), the group always preferred to experiment with unconventional tunings and custom-made instruments than to court mainstream success.
Gordon cut a path of her own, too, writing for Artforum, curating exhibits, and showing her own artwork; debuting as a producer, at Courtney Love's request, on Hole's critically acclaimed first album, Pretty on the Inside; working on a fashion line; and making guest appearances on everything from a Gus Van Sant film to an episode of Girls. Along the way, she became a feminist icon, praised for her impact, even though she told me "sometimes I [think music is] just entertainment, you know? It doesn't actually affect things in a larger picture." She bucked the stereotypes of being a "girl in a band" and, last year, subverted the tired old question she has heard too many times by titling her memoir—what else?—Girl in a Band. Since the dissolution of both Sonic Youth and her decades-long marriage to Moore, Gordon makes music with Bill Nace as Body/Head. And she recently checked off yet another first—releasing a single, "Murdered Out," as simply Kim Gordon.
But as intimidating as her résumé is, Gordon does not want you to feel that way. She sweats. She shits. She likes Rihanna's "Work." She doesn't really want to stand out, and she shrugs off even the mere suggestion that she's a legend.
"I don't wanna think that I'm influential or an icon or blah blah blah blah," she said. Her words rushed out, then stopped, and then started again, abruptly. "Ultimately, I feel most confident when I'm just working. Thinking about ideas. That's how I'm most comfortable. Or performing in a group situation." She laughed. "I feel connected to myself, but I can't actually tell you what that is. I mean, I could tell you what my astrologer says I am!"
Gordon was born in Rochester, New York, but when she was five years old, her father accepted a position at UCLA, and the family packed up their station wagon and moved to Los Angeles. An academic instead of showbiz family, they lived in a normal middle-class neighborhood, removed from the celebrity studded canyons, which meant Gordon daydreamed about the glamorous lives of musicians like Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young as much as a kid in Kansas. Her father, a sociologist who was the first to identify and name high school archetypes like jocks, freaks, preps, and theater geeks, proved the absent-minded professor stereotype—he once put her into the bath with her socks on—and her mother, who ran both a seamstress business and the household, was no nonsense and unsentimental in the way that many who lived through the Great Depression were. Their influence, along with her older brother's merciless teasing, caused Gordon to suppress her inner rebel. She became a teenager who listened to jazz and Joni Mitchell, smoked pot and painted, and only flirted with trouble.
"I feel like I can have more fun with it now. I don't care as much. It's just very freeing. I feel like everything I've done has been leading up to this in a way."—Kim Gordon
"Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we're going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information," Gordon writes in her book. That process was easy for her. Though she cringes at the cliché, she says that she knew she would be an artist since she was a child. Graduating high school just as she turned 17, she bounced from Santa Monica College to Toronto's York University. She started a band with friends as a project and realized she liked performing. She went back to LA, attended Otis Art Institute, and then moved to New York, where she met Moore, started Sonic Youth, and became a legend.
But recently, LA beckoned, and she decided to return to her roots. "I think I've always carried a bit of LA and LA aesthetics," she told me. "One of the things I like most about Los Angeles is driving around and looking at the contrasting houses—one could be a completely different aesthetic. On the other hand, it's kinda scarily existential, 'cause you don't have that pulse of the city that you feel in New York. Even if you aren't doing anything in New York, you feel like you are. 'Cause there's so much activity around you. In LA, you really have to kinda make your own energy in a way."
Gordon never needed much outside stimulus to create, though she seems to have found at least bits of it in her hometown. She certainly never took her cues from conventional sources. "Not that I'm not drawn to some conventional things, but what I'm comfortable expressing is usually something that isn't the most straight, mainstream version of it," she said, as if it were something her legions of fans didn't already know. "I have very unconventional tastes. It's just what I'm drawn to."
Her new single, "Murdered Out," is a funked-out, inspired-by-lowriders tune that features her processed vocals over frayed drums. It was inspired by LA car culture—an ode to dark tints and a black-on-black matte aesthetic that she said is like the "ultimate expression" of "purging the soul."
She laughed when I asked how she developed such unusual receptors. "When I walk around and I'm on tour and exposed to a lot of music, whether it's in a taxi or walking into a store or a restaurant, there's all this music that nobody's listening to, and it is, in a sense, noise," she said. Noise music "is almost like starting at ground zero. When I'm playing it, [there's] something about electricity that I find really calming. Being surrounded, it's like a bath of sound or something."
It will be interesting to see how Los Angeles, with its wide-open blue skies and black underbelly, will affect and inspire the other art Gordon will make. "Murdered Out" shows that she's still experimenting, and LA seems to be giving her the freedom to do so.
"I like that you don't have the sense of ambition pounding at your door. I like the idea that you can get lost here. Things are not in such a fish bowl. Maybe things can develop more eccentrically or something," she mused. "I think to some extent I feel like I can have more fun with it now. I don't care as much. It's just very freeing. I feel like everything I've done has been leading up to this in a way. It feels right, basically." Gordon's daughter Coco, a painter who just graduated from art school in Chicago, also recently relocated to LA.
Gordon would like to transition and make visual art her main focus as well, but it's difficult; too many people keep pulling her back to music and performing. There's a reason for that. "After 30 years of playing in a band, it sounds sort of stupid to say, 'I'm not a musician.' But for most of my life, I've never seen myself as one," she writes in Girl in a Band. But maybe that's exactly who she is—a musician. The girl in a band.
"I spent a good deal of my life evading labels," she told me. "Mostly I don't wanna think about who I am."