[In celebration of the 10th issue of She Shreds, we will be posting some of our favorite selections from across our print catalog throughout April. The feature was originally published in the second issue of She Shreds Magazine, October 2012 and has been edited for timely accuracy. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 10th issue when it is released later this month!]
When you think of who the most influential bands among the indie/no wave rock scene of the ’80s and ’90s are, somewhere on that list you will find Sonic Youth.
And then on another list of the most badass, intimidating, no-bullshit humans on earth is Kim Gordon, bass player/songwriter for Sonic Youth and, most recently, guitar player in Body/Head. But to say that Kim Gordon is just a musician is like saying that Andy Warhol was just an artist. In fact, Kim Gordon might not even consider herself a musician at all. And she couldn’t care less what you think about that. It’s exactly that don’t-give-a-damn attitude that has made Gordon so iconic to people all over the world. Gordon took 15 minutes from the busy schedule of a European tour with Body/Head to talk with us about disregarding technicality, using instruments as tools for creative expression, and her influences.
She Shreds: When Body/Head played in Portland, it was really stripped down, no drums and completely improvised. It reminded me of really early Sonic Youth before you all got signed and became more polished. What has the journey been like, going back and forth between polished and unpolished?
Kim Gordon: Well, I don’t know. It just seemed like there wasn’t that much thought put into it. I wanted to do something more—straightforward is maybe the wrong word—I guess stripped down, like you said, and I just wanted to play with Bill [Nace]. We did play with a drummer once or twice, but we liked having the space of just the two guitars with a vocal. It felt good to play like this, and that’s really all there is to it [laughs].
Had you tried improv before?
Yeah, sure, I’ve improvised with other people. I mean, I grew up listening to jazz and free jazz….
How would you describe your approach to developing a song?
We just play. Sometimes I write some ideas for lyrics and then, you know, we each have certain effects that we use. The vocal goes through an amp with effects, also. It’s mixed with dry mic. It’s different every night. Often, it’s affected by how the stage sounds and how the room sounds. You can make it more inspiring or harder. We just sort of listen to each other.
I noticed during the Body/Head performance in Portland that you had a big array of pedals that you were working with.
It’s just all improvised, you know. I have a couple loop pedals. It’s a very lo-fi loop, so it only holds one loop—you can’t save it, really. Or you can save it, but you can only have that one loop on it then. It sounds more like it has a cassette sound to it. Bill has, I think, the same pedal. I have one fly vocal. You know, it’s just kind of playing with the texture of effects on vocals…. It’s just like another instrument, I guess.
What’s it like to be viewed mostly as a musician when you don’t necessarily identify that way?
I don’t know. I just don’t really think about it, you know? It’s kind of like: I like playing music, but I don’t necessarily want to be a musician [laughs]. It’s kind of weird, but it’s not my identity so much. I’m more of a visual artist. I guess it’s because I wasn’t trained as a musician. You know, I sort of picked it up post-punk, and the kind of band [Sonic Youth] was… the bass was the only thing in normal tuning, so it wasn’t like we talked in terms of chords and stuff. I mean, I vaguely knew the tunings the guitars were in, and there’d sometimes be root notes later on. But early on it was more playing and then finding things that worked, and then we would work on them, whereas in Body/Head we kind of let it go…. We don’t make it into a structured song, but it has some of the same energy, I guess.
How would you say playing bass and guitar has affected your other mediums of art?
It’s just another form of expression and context. Maybe instead of making art that references popular culture, it’s more working within a subculture and referencing it in different ways through the lyrics.
How has your view on incorporating feminism in music developed throughout your career and affected it?
Lyrically, you know, thinking about being a woman, there’s a whole lot of subject matter other than a love song or something. When we signed to a major label, I was more aware of sexism in the music industry. It was only weird because people have this idea that people in the music industry are somehow more enlightened but, you know, corporations are corporations.
How do you see feminism growing in music today?
I don’t, really. I mean, the one thing is more women playing music. That allows you to have different personalities, so it kind of cuts through the clichés about how women are perceived. But I don’t really think things in the mainstream have changed so much. In the underground, it seems like there’s a lot more women involved in the scene, which mostly comes out of male record collectors, so it was surprising in the late ’80s to start seeing more girls and women involved with experimental music as that scene grew. That’s pretty cool.
What about the mainstream?
Well, there are people like M.I.A. or Karen O who are making interesting music. It’s not just about image and doing something different. I don’t know, I don’t really think about mainstream music so much unless there’s some rapper I like… but most of it is not that interesting. You know, it’s people talking about Miley Cyrus, and I don’t really listen to her music, so… that would be my first complaint [laughs]: her music, not her image. Image is a symptom; it’s not the problem. She’s just, like, dressing up and toy-acting, I think. Trying on different kinds of sexuality. But, I mean, there are more interesting people to talk about.
Who have been your biggest influences throughout your music career?
Hmm… I don’t know. A lot of people. I like this Portuguese singer, Catherine Ribeiro. She’s pretty great. She’s Portuguese, though she sang in French. Brigitte Fontaine, Yoshimi and the Boredoms… Joan Jett, the Runaways, a lot of different people.
What have been some of your favorite songwriting experiences that have made you feel in awe of what just happened?
I have to say that in the Body/Head record there are some things that came out where I was like, “Whoa, this is really heavy,” [laughs] or “No one has ever written a song like this,” or, like, “No one has written lyrics like this.”
Why do you think you felt that way?
Sometimes you just play music to see what’s going to come out and to be surprised, and I just felt like it was the way everything came together. It didn’t sound like it was improvised to me, so I guess that’s what surprised me.
I like what you said in your Rookie interview about using your weaknesses and turning them into strengths. I feel like women come across that challenge more often than men because we’re sort of taught to be weak. How has that mindset affected your role in Sonic Youth, Free Kitten and Body/Head?
That’s almost kind of a zen idea: using your weakness and accepting it… or your difficult position and making something out of it. I just think that sometimes I’m comfortable working with limitations because, in a way, if you have too much choice, it can get in the way of ideas. I think that it’s sometimes interesting to see something out of balance instead of in balance. In a way, you arrive at its process, and then you arrive at some other point that you make something out of. It’s like the idea of art that looks destructive. Its like you’re destroying something and making something out of it. Like, tearing it down first and then making something out of that.
Do you think that if you had education in music things would be different with the way you play music?
Oh, I dont know. Theoretical questions like that…. Maybe I wouldn’t even want to do music if I had studied it.
Do you think that there is a kind of creativity that comes out of not knowing something?
Well, the thing is that the kind of music that I’ve been involved with [is] like honing the fine art of not having a technique, I guess. It’s a lot of what punk and indie rock came out of or formed. It’s not all about playing punk rock. It wasn’t about technique; it was something else. And rock and roll never really was about that. It was about sexuality and finding something that was breaking out of the conventional form.
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