Inside Kim Gordon’s Latest Post–Sonic Youth Experiment
Kim Gordon may be a renowned veteran, but she can still piss off a room full of Neil Young fans. Last year, the 63-year-old singer-guitarist and former Sonic Youth member shook up a classic-rock tribute show with a grinding dissection of Young's 1974 song "On the Beach." Certain audience members were addled, to put it mildly.
"Get the fuck off the stage!" yelled one man. Gordon's last experience in front of a Young-crazed crowd, when Sonic Youth opened for the legendary singer-songwriter in 1991, didn't go much better. ("His fans hated us," Gordon wrote in her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band). Nearly a quarter century later, Gordon continues to push rock music in bold new directions.
"I enjoy a nice bath of audio chaos to get lost in," she says softly, a year later, on the phone with Rolling Stone from Australia. In her meandering tone, Gordon describes what it's like improvising before a live audience like she did that night at Neil Fest. "Your body almost takes over – in an intuitive way," she says. "I try not to be in my head, because you can feel when the audience is listening or when they're focusing without getting self-conscious or out of yourself."
Body/Head, the free-form duo Gordon started with musician Bill Nace after Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011, is now five years old. After one studio album, 2013's Coming Apart, the duo will release No Waves – a live EP documenting their improvised set at 2014's Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee – on November 11th. And while Gordon says a second studio LP is on the way, this product gives an unvarnished representation of the duo's sound.
"I was just so surprised that it was as good as it was," Gordon says. "I don't remember playing any of it – I'm always afraid to listen to [our] live stuff. I don't want to be self-conscious about my voice and find out that I sound horrible or dumb." Nace, speaking on the phone from his Manhattan apartment, explains that the pristine live sound came from close microphones on the amps, not post-production whitewashing. "It was pretty basic, because we didn't think anything was going to happen with this show," he says. "But this particular raw mix had a certain character that held together as a whole."
Nace, 39, grew up in suburban Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Like Gordon, he was raised on Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan records. He eventually enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study film and English but dropped out after a year. Somewhere along the way, he caught a Sonic Youth show. "It was either the Goo or Dirty tour – both those albums were a big deal to me," he says.
In 1999, Nace moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he befriended a vibrant local enclave of indie ex-pats including Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, Gordon's Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore and Gordon herself. "When I moved there, I started getting really into improvisation with other people who were getting into it at the same time," says the guitarist, who runs the western Massachusetts indie label Big Mouth. He and Gordon collaborated on Fractured Orgasm, an ad-hoc cassette recorded in Gordon's basement, with Moore producing.
After Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011, Gordon began spending more time in California and eventually moved back to her native Los Angeles. "Sonic Youth was together for a long time," Gordon says carefully. "Now it's time to do something else."
"Sonic Youth was together for a long time. Now it's time to do something else."
The improvisational spirit of Body/Head provided an outlet that's stemmed into unbridled creation. In the past year, Gordon released an LP as half of the duo Glitterbust (with Tomorrows Tulips' Alexis Knost), as well as her first single under her own name. The industrial rocker called "Murdered Out" was inspired by seeing Los Angeles neighborhoods coated in black matte spray, Gordon says. "It's a subliminal way of X-ing yourself out of the culture," she says. "It's a way of saying that there's nothing in mainstream culture for you."
Nace stayed with Gordon in Los Angeles last January, loosely working on Body/Head. They dined at her favorite eateries (Saito Sushi) in between jam sessions, he says. "I don't think we have any kind of mentor relationship, but it's a relationship I can't really put into words," said Nace. "She's always working, always traveling, always engaged, and that kind of work ethic is something I aspire to."
The title of the new EP – No Waves – points to Body/Head's rejection of traditional music genres (presumably including No Wave) as well as Nace's rejection of the West Coast (back east, he's currently part of at least five groups putting out music this year). The live set begins with the aqueous, vaguely Eastern guitar strums of "Sugar Water," set against Gordon's low, inscrutable koans. Then a layer of electric distortion slices through the mix, bending the song in a new, rougher direction. "I definitely try to keep a pulse going," Nace says. "I think having [Gordon's] voice there to push against makes things interesting and enjoyable."
"I'm not ever worried about what Bill's doing," says Gordon. "When you're onstage and you don't really know what you're doing, you just have to remind yourself to embrace the awkward moment and not worry about how it sounds too much. Sometimes there are these incredibly awkward moments if you finish a piece of music and you don't know how to start the next one."
One of those moments might have been on "The Show Is Over," when the unlikely fluttering of a harmonica (played by Gordon) sounds like a canary lost in Nace's distorted coalmine. ("I love the harmonica," Nace says. "It's like an extension of her voice.") Nace created a complementary galloping effect, giving the song a surprising spaghetti-Western tone, by simply muting his guitar strings with one hand and tapping them with the other, he says, laughing.
"I don't remember what else."
Body/Head Tour Dates
Nov. 10th – Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
Nov. 11th – Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA
Nov. 12th – Brooklyn, NY @ National Sawdust
Nov. 17th – Los Angeles, CA @ Masonic Lodge @ Hollywood Forever