On stage, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth has an unforgettable presence, her small frame dwarfed by the bass she plays in the band’s older songs, her hair electric blond, her legs, still fabulous, jutting at cubist angles in a classic rock swagger. When she puts her instrument down, as in “Kissability”, she turns into a sort of shaman, whirling in slow circles as she intones the words, hands raised above her head clapping, face immobile, the epitome of cool. She is routinely the lone exception when young male fans scoff about aging female stars, and rightly so. She is as primally sexy in her 50s as she was 25 years ago when Sonic Youth made its start.
But as icons in every genre and every art must do, she has built some protective barriers around herself. If you haunt the fan boards, you will find SY aficianados constantly remarking about how friendly and approachable Lee Ranaldo or Steve Shelley or Thurston Moore can be, but not Gordon. A casual request for interview tips on an all-girl music writer’s board started a torrent of best/worst interview stories, with Gordon at the center of at least one “worst”.
Over the phone, though, she seems not unfriendly, but very, very private. Polite but reserved, she seems to weigh each question before responding, thinking not just about what the answer is, but how much of it to say. She becomes enthusiastic twice during the course of our short interview, both times talking about cross-disciplinary art projects she’s been involved in, rather than Sonic Youth. And, when asked about how audience members were responding to new material from the band’s album Rather Ripped, she gives a hint at the moat she’s dug and the reasons she needs it, when she says, “I try not to think too much about what the audience is thinking and what they think I should do.” Why not? “I’d be self-conscious if I did. Anyone becomes mannered if you think too much about what other people think.”
25 years and counting
Sonic Youth emerged in the early 1980s, out of a fertile downtown NYC art scene that spanned no-wave music, performance art, painting, and theater. Founders Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo met while performing with Glenn Branca. Gordon, who was dating Moore at the time, began playing the bass in the fledgling band.
From the start, Sonic Youth made innovative use of alternate tunings, an approach which Ranaldo has said allowed them to rethink songs and structures from a fresh perspective. They used feedback, too, in a way that few other bands could manage, something that Gordon brushes off with a laugh. “That’s just part of the magic of electricity. I don’t think that there’s too much thought that goes into it,” she says. “It’s just fun to do, and certainly if you’ve done it for 25 years, you know how to control it a little more. Everybody ... it’s like boys are born knowing how to make feedback. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Their noisy, dissonant sound linked them with the 1980s’ loudest, most creatively vibrant bands—Swans, Big Black, Minor Threat, and others—yet as they evolved, the sound became more melodic. The landmark Daydream Nation included lyrical intervals among its signature feedback-laden sprawls. Their later work—Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and this year’s Rather Ripped—subsumes, but doesn’t quite extinguish, the old fury under languidly beautiful melodies.
Throughout their career, the band has embraced opposites—beautiful melodies next to rupturing discord, major label support alongside underground sensibilities, marquee tours and tiny side-project shows—in a way that few other bands have ever accomplished. For example, this month Gordon’s husband Thurston Moore will play a low-key show with free-improv heavyweights Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano at the Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts, before heading off on a world domination tour with Pearl Jam. Gordon herself creates avant garde art installations and films when she is not holding down the third guitar line in Sonic Youth.
How does the band balance its edgy, experimental interests with the requirements of being Sonic Youth? “It’s pretty easy,” says Gordon. “There’s only so many small shows you can do. A lot of the smaller things are more side project things. Not everything is appropriate for Sonic Youth to do. There are certain ... like we like Pearl Jam. They’re really nice people, and we toured with them before and it was really fun.”
Rapture, incineration and Robert Plant
Like Sonic Youth’s career as a whole, the band’s new album Rather Ripped has elements of both experiment and mainstream rock. It starts with the laid-back, stretched out melodicism of “Reena” and “Incinerate,” then slips in “Do You Believe in Rapture?”, a gentle ballad built on Television-like chords but ruptured intermittently by the distant buzz of feedback. Cuts like “Sleepin’ Around”, “What a Waste”, and the sublimely dissonant “Rats” bring the rock, but the album’s second half includes a string of haunting, jam-based compositions. The album closes with “Or”, a long, lovely instrumental right up until the end, when Moore intones a series of questions, the final one “Which comes first/The music or the words.”
At first I take this to be a jab at journalists (how many times have I asked that question or some variant?), but Gordon says no. “I think it has more to do with being on tour and meeting friends ... You see someone you know, and they say ‘Oh, how long’s the tour? Where are you going next?’” she says. Of the words/music dichotomy, she ventures, “I thought it was meant to be philosophical.”
The answer, by the way, seems to mostly be the music, which for this album took shape unusually quickly in late 2005 and early 2006. “We started last summer working on some songs here [in Western Massachusetts] in our basement,” says Gordon. “Then in the fall, everyone was really busy, so we actually didn’t get back together until late November or early December.”
“Because our daughters have school and it’s just such a hassle going down to New York all the time, we can really only go on the weekends, we kind of ... Steve came up here and worked out stuff for the second half of the record” she continues. “Then basically, Lee just figured out his parts later, in overdubs. So kind of by December we had started recording, or January.”
Gordon says that she was concerned, during the writing and recording process, about the band’s new configuration. Rather Ripped is the first Sonic Youth album since NYC Ghosts & Flowers not to include Jim O’Rourke on bass. Gordon started out playing bass in Sonic Youth, but began playing more and more guitar in the 1990s. Now, without an extra bass player, she worried about returning to her old role in the band.
“It’s really hard for me to sing and play bass,” she says. “Unless you’re singing something that’s kind of in rhythm with the bass, the melodies, it’s just difficult.” Gordon also has chronic tendonitis, which makes sustained bass playing painful. “I just think that playing bass, like punk rock bass with a pick, wasn’t meant to be done for 25 years,” she says, laughing. “Susan Stenger [of Band of Susans] who also plays a lot of repetitive bass stuff, repetitive motion, with a pick. She has the same thing. I think it’s very pick-induced.”
“I have a really hard time writing my own lyrics for this record, because one, I had to write so many and also I was kind of perplexed by the idea of how I was going to sing and play ... because at that time, we hadn’t really thought about asking someone else,” she said. (The band has since persuaded Mark Ibold of Pavement and Gordon’s side-project Free Kitten to join as touring bassist.) “So I was kind of paralyzed in a certain way.”
As a result, many of the songs on Rather Ripped, including those that Gordon sings (“Jams Run Free”, “Turquoise Boy”) were actually written by Moore. The two of them have worked together in this way in the past, and it’s a process that Gordon says she really enjoys. “I like sometimes singing [something] other people wrote, because it kind of gives you more confidence in a certain way. It’s a lot like acting,” she says. Plus, she explains that Moore has an uncanny ability to shift voices, writing for her voice or sometimes another person altogether. “I like also that he plays around with gender a lot, and that he can write from a woman’s point of view or not write from a woman’s point of view,” she says. ” I remember when we did “Plastic Sun” [for Jane magazine]. He wrote the lyrics and everyone was like, ‘They sound so angry.’ It was almost ironic, that he had written these angry girl lyrics.”
Not that their approach to a song is always completely in sync. “For ‘Turquoise Boy’ Thurston had this melody and he wanted me to sing it like Robert Plant,” she recalls. “And I was like, no way I can sing like that. So it ended up being kind of ... I ended up singing it lower. It’s kind of a hard song for me to sing.”
Lee Ranaldo contributed just one song for Rather Ripped, the menacing and gloriously distorted “Rats”. Gordon says that Ranaldo brings a melodic, college-radio-ish sensibility to the band, an approach that can still be heard in the jangly guitars and soaring choruses of this song. However, the song, as it stands, bears the mark of the other SY musicians as well. “When Lee brought that in it was kind of these simple chord changes and Thurston and Steve put this sort of Gang of Four drums and bass on it,” Gordon says. And her own contribution? “I get to play, actually, noise guitar on that song,” she says.
Beyond Sonic Youth
Festival shows, world tours, magazine spreads—Sonic Youth has accumulated all the trappings of a big, mainstream band, but its members remain devoted to the experimental underground they came from. Asked where her heart was—with mainstream success or the avant garde—Gordon doesn’t hesitate. “It’s definitely with the more experimental stuff. That’s kind of my grounding.”
So it makes sense that Gordon, somewhat detached as she talks about Sonic Youth and its new album, comes to life when she describes the edgy, extra-curricular projects she has recently been involved in. For a recent South London art show called “Her Noise”, Gordon and her friend Jutta Koether created an installation that encouraged other people to make music. “I asked my friend Jutta Koether, who is an artist and who has also done music stuff, to paint this big tent, kind of Moroccan shaped tent that I’d had made. We put glitter and black gesso on it, and inside we had set up instruments and I made a song that was just my voice. The idea was that people could play along with it and make a CD, kind of a reverse karaoke,” she says.
She is also putting the finishing touches on Perfect Partner, a film she made with Tony Oursler and Phil Morrison, whose script is entirely based on automobile ads. Actor Michael Pitt stars in this skewed road movie, which has been performed live in England and Europe several times. Gordon is re-editing the film, she says to fix the pacing, and preparing for a showing in Monclair, New Jersey. Like many of her other projects, the film incorporates music in an unusual and multi-disciplinary way. “A band plays in the middle between the two screens,” she says. “They’re doing improv, based on different cues from the movie.”
But for now, most of Gordon’s time will be consumed by Sonic Youth. The new album comes out June 13th on Geffen, and the band starts its US tour a week later at a sold-out show at CBGB’s. The band will be on tour all summer, playing Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and a few shows in Japan—and appearing with Peal Jam, the Flaming Lips, Be Your Own Pet, and Awesome Color. In December, the band will play at a Thurston Moore-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties with the Stooges and other as-yet-unconfirmed bands. No time for art? We expect the enigmatic and fascinating Kim Gordon to somehow find a way.