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Kim Gordon on the Upside of Airbnb and Being Cool, Not Cold

The former Sonic Youth bassist talks new album “No Home Record” and not being the godmother of grunge

Natalia Mantini

Kim Gordon has been making music since the early Eighties, but somehow she just got around to making her first solo album. In her defense, she’s been pretty busy: since the 2011 break-up of Sonic Youth — the enormously influential band she co-founded, wrote, sang and played bass in — she’s released two albums of improvised avant-rock as part of the duo Body/Head, written the universally acclaimed memoir Girl in a Band, flourished as a visual artist and relocated back to Los Angeles after forty years on the East Coast. “I miss people there,” she says of Northampton, Massachusetts. It was the last place she lived with Thurston Moore, her musical partner in Sonic Youth and husband from 1984 to 2011.

Gordon’s new album, titled No Home Record and out this week, is definitely an L.A. record. It references to the city’s car culture and Fleetwood Mac, and has quintessentially Californian feelings of transience, cultural plasticity and commodified beauty. “I’ve always thought about pop culture because of Andy Warhol,” Gordon says. “He was a big influence, obviously.”

Though Gordon is expanding on themes she’s explored throughout her career, the process of making No Home Record was different: rather than creating songs in real-time with a band, Gordon working with a series of producers, singing and playing guitar over pre-made rhythm tracks. What emerged was a set of hard-hitting songs that can also feel dreamlike. The searing, searching album evokes music from Eighties New York rap to experimental electronics to Sonic Youth’s tidal noise rock. We caught up with Gordon at the Soho offices of her label Matador to discuss the new album, its influences and the ongoing artistic journey of one of rock’s most revered figures.

This is technically your solo debut. Why now?
It really happened accidentally. About a year and a half ago or so, I met [producer] Justin Raisen, and he asked me if I wanted to sing on this project he was doing. Eventually, he sent something where I felt like I could do something on it — but I wanted to make up my own lyrics. It came out pretty good, and he put a drum loop and a bass and sent it back to me. I was really surprised. It was cool, so we put that out as [the single] “Murdered Out.” I thought it was an interesting way to work, as kind of a collaborative collage. And I always like to write about L.A. I just was gathering lyrics from running around, looking at signs and things and getting ideas for material. L.A. is such a transient place. It always has been, and now it seems even more transient because of the homeless population.

Transience seems like a theme on the album. It’s called No Home Record, and you have a song about Airbnb, which you say is “the American ideal.” I’ve always liked advertising copy, and I was looking at Airbnbs online. I was fascinated by how everything matched, and that some of the art in Airbnbs is actually sort of good! Right now, art is at its most commercial, and interior designers are so sophisticated. You can see a really good painting in a corporate lobby and it goes so well with the fountain. More and more, I see culture creeping in on how your mood is supposed to be. It’s almost like nothing is out of bounds as far as what can be branded.

Have you ever had a bad experience staying in an Airbnb?
I actually haven’t stayed in that many; I mostly look at them online. But I’ve heard of people having had kind of bad experiences, where you think you’re staying at the David Lynch-themed Airbnb which looks spacious, and then you get there and it’s a tiny hallway. How do you fit your reality into something that looks idealized?

You recently moved back to Los Angeles after living on the East Coast for decades. Does it feel like home?
In a way, yes. I live in such a different part of the city than when I grew up, so it doesn’t seem as “L.A.” to me in a funny way.

What do you like about being back there, and what aspects bother you?
The things that I had issues with about L.A. [growing up] I still have issues with; just a certain glossy Hollywood kind of thing. I just disliked how everything is about money. But that’s pretty easy to avoid. And, I mean, New York was always about money. I just wasn’t aware of it cause I didn’t have any for a long time. I almost feel like, in the recession, L.A. started looking more quaint as things started deteriorating there a bit.

The album’s title comes from a film by Chantal Akerman, who chronicled what it was like to be a young woman in New York during the Seventies, when it was a much more dangerous place. Are you implying young people trying to be cool have it easier these days?
I think young people in their early 20s have a very hard time no matter what generation they are. There are all these expectations after college that you’re gonna have your life together if you went to college. But I don’t know, I feel like everyone still feels like they have risk. And kids growing up now, like, what is their future? Climate change. I know what you mean though about, sort of the democratization of coolness. I kinda felt that way in the early Eighties, everyone was wearing black downtown and everyone looked cool. Now there isn’t the same urgency to move to New York or L.A. because of the internet.

Do you feel like the last ten years of your life has been especially liberating?
Sure. I hadn’t thought about writing a memoir, and that kind of ignited people’s interest in me.

The book was often very unguarded, and it kind of went against this myth of you as being “aloof.” Did you want to counter that idea in writing the book?
Not really. Obviously I can be guarded and masked. I don’t really mind being aloof, but I guess it bothered me to be described as being cold. People just project stuff on you — people did that with Yoko. I just felt like, in the context of a band, I wasn’t going to splay my soul open in an interview with a rock magazine. I’m going to save it for myself. I’m not gonna compare myself with Dylan, but when men are aloof, no one says they’re cold. They say they’re cool.

You recently did an art exhibit of paintings of protest signs with hashtags, like #resist and #PussyGrabsBack. What inspired that?
It was inspired by Trump getting elected. It was also inspired by protests, and that things never go away. Here we are dealing with abortion again, and women having control of their own bodies. It’s kind of crazy.

In terms of resistance, we’ve all been kind of sucked into this vortex of Trump. How has the last couple of years effected you psychologically and emotionally?
It’s depressing. I listen to the news much more than I should I guess.

What do you do to escape?
I just don’t listen to it.

Who are the young artists and musicians that inspire you?
There’s a poet friend of mine, Elaine Kahn. She’s political in a way that’s not out loud, but its individualistic. And my daughter and her generation; she raised money for the Brooklyn Cash Bail Bond Fund. It’s local. I think the bigger the organization and the more global, the less likely the money is going to go where it needs to be.

You’ve written about being kind of a surrogate parent to fans. Was that something you were aware of at the tine, and did it that feel like a burden?
It’s not something I felt comfortable with, because I just don’t like labels. I feel like it ends who you are, and what you can be; just the idea of being called “icon” or something.

“The godmother of grunge.”
It’s so ridiculous.

What’s the dumbest one you ever heard?
Maybe “the godmother of grunge.” First of all, we weren’t a grunge band. We were friends with grunge bands. I don’t know. No woman wants to be called “ma’am” or “lady” or whatever.

You’ve often been seen as kind of intimidatingly cool. Are they any people you’ve met who intimidate you?
Not really. I got to meet Stevie Nicks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony when I did that thing with the Nirvana boys. She was so human. She had sprained her ankle, and she showed me these kind of platform sandals she had to perform in. They were just dorky, and her dress covered them. There’s something about seeing someone’s feet that makes them human.

Is she one of your heroes?
I wouldn’t say a “hero.” Someone like Joni Mitchell or Janis Joplin would be closer to a hero. With Joni, it really did feel like she was bearing her soul.

Will you play any Sonic Youth songs on tour?
Uh, no

Is there a possibility that Sonic Youth will play or record again?
I mean, there’s always possibility.