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Kim Gordon Is a Badass Feminist Rock Goddess

The former Sonic Youth cofounder, frontwoman, and bassist on her bestselling new memoir, Girl in a Band, writing songs about Karen Carpenter and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and LL Cool J's surprising favorite rock band.

by Elissa Schappell
Mar 2 2015, 9:05pm

Kim Gordon famously said, "People pay to see other people believe in themselves."

If you needed proof, look no further than the audience at the Strand's sold-out event last Tuesday, some of whom waited hours in the biting cold for a chance to buy a copy of her new memoir Girl in a Band, and hear her interviewed.

If being the cofounder, frontwoman, and bass player for experimental, post-punk alternative rock band Sonic Youth and helping inspire the Riot Grrrl movement wasn't enough to secure Gordon's place in the pantheon of badass feminist rock goddesses, then her elegant rise out of the smoking rubble of her divorce from Sonic Youth cofounder and philandering husband of 27 years Thurston Moore, should be. Since the split, the 60-something Gordon has formed a new band, Head/Body, an experimental electric band with Bill Nace and released a record, shown her art in the U.S. and abroad, beaten breast cancer, modeled for YSL—and, oh yeah, written a book that has crashed the New York Times Bestseller list—it's clear that not only is it time to paint Gordon's throne gold, you can nail the sucker down.

Despite the fact that Gordon grew up in California in the 60s and 70s and spent the last decade living and raising her daughter Coco in Northampton, Gordon's prominence on the downtown art and music scene in the 80s and 90s—that long-gone, oft-mythologized dirty glory days of the Lower East Side—causes New Yorkers to still hail her as one of their own. Which may explain why Gordon, drinking red wine backstage, seemed almost well, nervous. Gordon can be shy, and as we took the stage, slipping into our leather armchairs in front of a full house she joked, "I always enjoy a fabulously awkward conversation."

This interview is an edited transcript of our conversation from that night.

Elissa Schappell: You say you're awkward, but people don't see you shy or awkward. They see you as cool. Or we think, "Oh, she hates me."
Kim Gordon: It's good to have options.

Tell me about the title, Girl in a Band. I mean it's not shocking—that's probably the number-one question you've gotten asked in your career. There weren't many women in bands in the 80s and 90s.
Yeah, it's sort of this ironic, horrible question pretty much every girl hates to be asked. What's it like to be a girl in a band? It was sort of thrown out as a working title and I thought, God, I got to find something better than that. But it stuck around because it had multiple ironic meanings. It seemed like you can hang a lot of stuff on that.

What is the girl's job in the band?
Well, I think being a girl in a band's job is to add an element of chaos, mystery, an unknown energy. Like, What she's going to do next? It makes it slightly unpredictable.

You have this great line about how " the girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze, and throws it back at the audience." I was wondering, how does that fuel your performance?
Well, it could be that. I don't know. That's a good line. I mean, I was sort of aware of being projected upon, but every performer is. But I have used that maybe as such a panic for lyrics in terms of imagining an actress as a typical passive object in a film. What happens when you break through that expectation. What happens if you turn it around? I think that was what was so amazing about Riot Grrrl. That's what they really did. They took that and completely ran with that.

Let's talk about why you wrote this memoir. You aren't starving and...
Well, I needed another source of income. I didn't want a nine-to-five job. It's up there with my nightmare, which is teaching French class. Then showing up to a final when I'm sleeping.

Did you write to set the record straight? Or because you thought, let's see—you paint, you make music, you design clothes, you direct—I have a lot of extra time on my hands?
No. I mean, I never really thought about writing a memoir. My initial reaction was to make an art project out of it. You know like a noir novel. That was seriously one of the ideas. Then I got approached by a few editors, and then my first instinct was to like write a memoir like Bob Dylan. Just make shit up. Memoirs are a weird thing. You aren't remembering, you're recreating.

It seems like the act of writing the book was a process of self-discovery.
Yeah, I think when something really dramatic happens in your life there's this process of creation that splits your life up in pieces. There's a point where you want to see how you got to where you are. What part did I play?

It kind of sets you off on this course of wanting to discover who you are and owning up to it in some way. I think writing is this kind of way for me to figure stuff out.

It's like that great Joan Didion quote, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means..."
Right.

Marriage isn't that much different then being in a band. Everybody plays their role and if they don't, it's chaos. Everything breaks loose. Is it possible for two artists, male and female—same age, equally ambitious, successful—to really live together? Can you both be artists at the same time, especially if you have a kid running around?
I don't know. I think artists need a lot of space in their life. If you're lucky, you have a partner who understands that. Then you need to find someone who can be your wife. I mean in terms of just dealing with things like scheduling and all those other things you have to do. I think it's really hard. I know a lot of female artists who don't have kids and I think there's a reason for that. But people stay married because they love each other and they want to work things out.

I mean, it's the same reason why some bands last or don't. You have to be committed to make it work, because you like the music.

In 2013 you said you missed playing with Sonic Youth, do still miss it?
I don't miss playing with Sonic Youth now. I did it for so long, and I feel like now I have a situation with Bill Nace, [Head/Body], which feels closer to me and closer to my interests. I'm also focusing more on visual art, which is more of who I am.

How has this rupture—the divorce, the breakup of Sonic Youth affected your art?
I feel like it made me unstuck. Sometimes everything just converges at once and it's a shit storm, but it put me back on track in terms of what I should be doing. I can only say good things have happened to me.

I really liked reading about you growing up in California in the 60s and 70s—scraping goatskins in school, choreographing dances to Frank Zappa, making pottery. Did you ever imagine this would be your life? Was the music a surprise?
Yeah, the music is a surprise. I think in a way punk rock opened up people in ways they didn't expect. It was just the most interesting thing since the 60s—and I'm old enough to know about what the 60s were like. It meant different things here than it did in England. It was exciting, and it drew people into music who never thought they'd be musicians.

But when you came to New York in the early 80s you weren't into punk as much as no wave. Which is less conventional and not as cheeky as punk. What music set your brain on fire?
Music that was very confrontational for the audience. Bands like Mars and D.N.A. Then there's bands like the Static, which was Glenn Branca's band at the time. A lot of artists and people came to New York to play music.

You didn't know how to play the guitar or the bass before you came to New York. So how did that start?
Dan Graham introduced me to this girl Miranda Stanton, who played bass and Christine Hahn, who played drums. We formed this all-girl group called Introjection. Dan wanted do this famous performance piece of his, an audience mirror piece, with an all-girl group, and he asked us. So I learned guitar. Someone taught me how to do like a sort of jazz half-chording on the guitar. That was it, man.

Was there a moment when you thought, Yeah, this is what I should be doing?
I thought it was thrilling when we did the performance. I was incredibly nervous. But it was like going on this huge rollercoaster ride, and then it was over. Then the next day I felt like a rock-and-roller or something. I'm wondering, Should I continue doing music or do art? It was very confusing.

But you've never not made art. Even when you were making music you were still making art.
To some extent. I mean, for a number of years, it was pretty much on the backburner. I pretty much always did think of myself as a visual artist. Rather then identifying myself as a musician.

When you started writing music with Sonic Youth, how did it work?
Mostly we sat around playing. Jamming. Someone would start playing something interesting. Sometimes Thurston would start with a riff that he sort of related to and worked around it. Then I would do big extra music. Then we would meet in the middle.

When you look at the songs that were the most critically acclaimed and the most popular they are from the 90s, and they have feminist themes, and they are ones you wrote. Was there a reason you started writing more then?
I was aware that we had more of a platform and audience, and then I was more aware of women in the corporate world, as we'd go into the offices.

Talk about that—this is why I threatened to bring pliers—talk about the song "Swimsuit Issue".
Well, I guess shortly after we signed there was a scandal at Geffen where some executive was accused of sexual harassment by his secretary. So, I decided to write a song about it and used the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit sort of as a metaphor.

The song ends with you listing the names of all the swimsuit models. But wasn't there more to it than just thinking, This is interesting.
I think there's a lot of material to write songs about if you're a woman. Maybe more than if you're a man. I mean, emo-core showed guys could write songs whining about how they're misunderstood by their girlfriends and shit... They became liberated, [ laughs] but if you're not just writing about a broken heart—there are a lot of other things to write about. In our band we took advantage of that. I mean "Tunic" was about Karen Carpenter.

When I was writing my last book I put together a playlist of songs that would help get me through the rough parts. And when I started thinking, no one cares about women and control, I'd listen to "Tunic" and think, Fuck yes they do.
Yeah, eating disorders are kind of a metaphor for how far women will go please other people. The feeling that our body is basically the one thing we have to work with. It's a powerful thing. Women's bodies. It's a challenge to talk about things like that in a way that isn't overtly political. Some people thought the song was just kitschy.

Which was because of Todd Haynes' movie, Superstar.
Which was an amazing movie. Much better then the TV version.

But then you listen to it, and it's a dark, deep intense song and it doesn't just speak to women. You go to a show and both men and women are singing along.
At the time the Carpenters were regarded as incredibly conservative and a part of the establishment. People didn't take them seriously. But Karen's voice is incredibly sexy and soulful so she made those lyrics her own. They're incredibly dark. The Carpenters are weirdly radical.

What about "Kool Thing"?
That was a weird song about a bunch of different things partly inspired by a film Raymond Pettibon did called Weather Underground. Where it's kind of like being sexually drawn to the Black Panthers. Then throwing Jane Fonda and Barbarella into the mix.

You see those influences in the video, but what is the song coming out of?
We were very inspired by LL Cool J and his first record Radio. Rick Rubin produced it, and I interviewed him for Spin. I had to go his rehearsal, and I was really curious. Like, how much did he know about rock? I was sort of disappointed when he said Bon Jovi was his favorite rock band. It made me think about your expectations for performers and what you project on them.

Chuck D has a cameo.
We were recording at the same studio and we thought we'd ask him. He kind of did the most cliché thing when he said, "Yeah, word up. Tell it like it is." It was kind of cliché in a way that we deserved.

Do you think as an artist gets older their work becomes more political?
I don't know. You just feel like less of a loser. You've been through more so it doesn't really matter. When I started playing with Bill I thought, Thank god, I am just playing music that I don't have to promote . I could just enjoy it. It ended up being very freeing. I could set the bar low and I could just play music. It turned out to be a very radical record.

I don't want to talk about all this Lana Del Rey Twitter bullshit, but I'm a feminist, and you're a feminist. However, not all women are feminists and some of the very best feminists are men. So, how do you define feminism?
It's changed gradually over the years. But the bottom line is, it's really about people's rights around the world. Women shouldn't be abused. They should be fucking free. All the other subtitles and everything else doesn't really matter. Whether you're a man or a woman you have to morally answer to yourself.

Despite how Lana Del Rey may feel...
Feminism doesn't mean women are free to do whatever they want. You can't go and stab someone.