For three decades, Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth were synonymous. Alongside longtime husband Thurston Moore and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the now-60-year-old served as the bassist, guitarist, singer- songwriter and humble guiding force behind one of alt-rock’s most influential outfits. But in 2011, Gordon and Moore, married since 1984, separated and then eventually divorced. To that end, Sonic Youth was put on indefinite hiatus.
But Gordon is nothing if not an untiring creative force: in addition to a visual art gallery showing, an in-the-works autobiography, and an upcoming guest spot on HBO’s Girls, the longtime Northampton, Massachusetts, resident has now teamed up with longtime friend and collaborator Bill Nace to form Body/Head. This week, the duo released their debut album, Coming Apart – an improvisational-style collection of swirling guitars, loops and feedback with Gordon’s muddled, oftentimes nonsensical vocals buried deep in the mix, the majority of which they recorded last December at Sonelab Studios in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
In a conversation with Rolling Stone, the two musicians break down their musical partnership, Gordon discusses her life post-Sonic Youth and reveals how she misses playing with the band that made her famous.
You two have known each other for more than a decade. Why was now the right time to form an official musical partnership as Body/Head?
Kim Gordon: I think from the very beginning we really liked played together and saw that there was some kindred spirit and something happening there – chemistry or whatever. I don’t think we really thought about the future of it or anything.
Bill Nace: We’d played in different contexts before. But I think we gelled together as people. We really became a band on the road, which I’d never really done before. It’s interesting because you learn really quick what works and what doesn’t. And what comes up between the two of you – your natural chemistry.
Bill, you’ve mentioned in interviews you were a major Sonic Youth fan growing up. Was there initial nervousness when you and Kim first began playing together?
BN: Not really. It was really comfortable. Even though the band’s fairly new, we’ve known each other [a long time]. It was pretty natural and comfortable.
KG: We’ve been friends a long time. You should just ask him what it’s like playing with a diva?
Fair enough. Was there hesitation to move forward as a band so soon after Sonic Youth ended?
KG: Maybe I felt kind of protective of [mine and Bill’s musical relationship]. Originally it was like, ‘let’s do something we don’t have to promote.’ Though purely playing has its own set of problems — like when you want to tour.
So was releasing an album more a necessity so the band could hit the road?
KG: Well, it’s kind of nice to have a record out so people know more what to expect. Even though now I feel like maybe people are going to be disappointed if they like the record and want it to be exactly like that or something [when we perform live]. [Laughs]. The record is a thing unto itself; it could never be re-created that way. There are some bands that play and sound exactly like the record but I’ve never been in a band that . . . that never worked for us. We tend to think of records of the songs as a certain time. And the live [show] feeds into the record.
BN: There was an impulse to mark where you’re at as a band. And if everything else fits then great.
Coming Apart, while containing proper songs, is decidedly free-form in nature.
BN: It’s a weird line to straddle. ‘Cause you definitely don’t want to be jamming ’cause that’s definitely not what we do or what we want to do. You don’t want people to hear you searching for the song. We had a foot in each world. I usually play even more open than this. This is actually more of a step in the other direction toward something that’s more structured for me.
Does it make it a challenge then to rehearse or practice the material for your small club tour, which kicked off last night in New York?
BN: Practice might be the wrong word. We’re not practicing stuff off the record. It’s keeping the communication open. But it’s not like we’re going over material.
KG: Sonic Youth were never really that well rehearsed. [Rehearsal] is like warming up. It’s like a basketball player shooting hoops before a game.
Many have equated the album’s looseness and nonadherence to conventional song structure to the early Sonic Youth records.
KG: People always like to make a narrative about stuff. It’s maybe stretching a bit. I dunno. I think that certainly whenever you have a new band, the first record always has a certain energy to it before you know what you’re doing. [Laughs.] I think some of the early Sonic Youth stuff was maybe like that. A little bit, I dunno. I can’t really tell.
Some of the only decipherable lyrical touchstones on the album were your roundabout covers of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” and Patty Waters’ version of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
KG: Right around the time [we recorded] someone had sent me some YouTube links of Nina Simone in the late Sixties, the live shows. I was just really struck by her – the music, how it was hard to classify, the genre. On “Ain’t [Got No/I Got Life]” she just seemed so alone in her world. It was just so powerful. I had never really listened to Nina Simone that much. I was just kind of blown away by how amazing she was.
Kim, you currently have your hand in a slew of creative endeavors: a partial retrospective of your visual art at White Columns gallery in NYC; an in-the-works autobiography; and a book of essays you wrote for art and culture magazines in the early Eighties now being published.
KG: I’ve been catching up with things that I put on hold while raising a daughter. I had my hands full playing in a band and then trying to keep my foot in the art world. Now that my daughter’s in art school I can do more. I feel like I’m stretching out.
And thanks to a friendship with executive producer Jennifer Konner you’re even in an episode of Girls next season.
KG: It was just kind of incidental. It was just really great working with them. Lena [Dunham] is really incredible. She’s really generous. It’s amazing how her team works . . . and the writers. It was interesting. Really fun.
Despite Body/Head and all of your ongoing projects, is there a part of you that still misses Sonic Youth?
KG: I mean, yah. I definitely do miss playing with those guys. [Playing] live was always fun. It was very powerful.