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Kim Gordon Isn’t Done Making Noise

With a brilliant, challenging new solo album on the way, she tells us what she really thinks about ‘Barbie’, Kurt Cobain, the presidential election, and much more

Kim Gordon

Illustration by Mark Summers

During her three decades in Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon helped redefine the possibilities of rock & roll, from her unsettling voice and subway-rumble bass playing to the way she integrated her feminism and art-school background into the band’s lyrics and philosophy. Today, Gordon is pondering another road ahead as she prepares to tour behind her second post-Sonic Youth solo album, The Collective (out March 8 on Matador). “The band is really great,” she says, “but the hardest thing is all the decisions you have to make yourself, whether it’s T-shirt designs, backdrops, or the opening bands. There’s just a lot of stuff.”

As hard as it is to believe, this fall will mark 13 years since Gordon and Thurston Moore announced they were breaking up as a couple — and taking Sonic Youth down with them. Gordon’s first musical project after that dissolution was Body/Head, her experimental duo with guitarist Bill Nace. But five years ago, Gordon fully stepped out on her own. Working with producer Justin Raisen, whose résumé includes everyone from Angel Olsen and Charli XCX to Lil Yachty, Kid Cudi, and Teezo Touchdown, she made 2018’s No Home Record, which set her distinctly imposing talk-singing voice to post-apocalyptic electronic soundscapes.

The Collective, her second collaboration with Raisen, swings a bit more, as if she were still wandering around post-Armageddon and stumbled upon an underground dance club. “It’s essentially a continuation of the last record, but I wanted this one to be more beat-oriented,” she says. “Justin is really good at taking sounds and fucking them up. He’s sort of punk in that way, not respecting the technology in a way.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Gordon admits to missing her old home of New York and visiting every once in a while to see her daughter, Coco, who lives there. The music scene in L.A. doesn’t feel the same, either: “There is seemingly more of a music scene, but I’m not really involved with it. People make music differently here.” But sitting in a light-filled room at home, she remains as private and pithy as ever.

You moved back to your native state of California after Sonic Youth’s breakup. How do you fit in there? Do you hike, for instance?
I’m not a hiker. I like my house. There’s so much driving. But visually it’s always been one of my favorite places. Just to look at the houses, the architecture, how it changes from one house to the next … you can still feel the Seventies here.

You’ve now put out two electronic-leaning solo albums. What musical directions did you want to explore that you couldn’t or didn’t in Sonic Youth?
Well, I’m not a natural singer. I know what works for me in the sense of using rhythm and space, and I really do like working off rhythms. I really just wanted to do more of that. I feel much freer in what I’m singing about in a certain way. I don’t feel like I have to hold myself back in some way.

Do you feel that was the case in the past?
In a certain way, because the music [in Sonic Youth] was defined and the vocals went through the music, which we made together. Now, you don’t question yourself in the same way.

You don’t seem like someone infused with a lot of doubt.
It’s one extreme to the other. It’s not self-doubt — just mulling things over, thinking about it, and then saying, “Fuck it.” On this record, a lot of the lyrics are improvised. I started out with some lines. Depending on the song, some had more than others. But when we were recording, things just come into my head, or they’ll just come out of my mouth. Then it becomes a matter of editing and shaping, which Justin’s good at. I just felt a certain real freedom and confidence in doing this record. I’m not worried about what I’m doing.

“Tree House” almost feels like a sequel to Sonic Youth’s “Pacific Coast Highway,” since they’re both creepy tales involving hitchhikers. Is there a connection there?
In a way. The first part is sort of a trauma, teenage kind of memory experience. And the second part is actually from an earlier coming-of-age experience, but also influenced by [French writer and novelist] Marguerite Duras. I was reading The Lover and I was in Hong Kong [when I was younger]. She’s talking about Vietnam and trying to express memories.

What inspired “Trophies,” which is about …. bowling? Are you a bowler?
I’m certainly not. I asked my friend Rachel, “What I should write about?” and she went, “How about bowling trophies?” I just thought it was a good challenge.

The lyrics to “Bye, Bye” are literally a packing list for a trip.
Yeah, again, that was asking a friend if he had any subject matter and he said, “How about a packing list?” I thought “OK, yeah.” I’m journaling, like Taylor Swift, but not in the same way.

What have you learned about yourself in making these solo records?
That I worry a lot. I never really thought of myself as a musician. I still think of myself more as a visual artist who plays music. I still don’t know chords and things like that. But I have realized that I do know some things about music and performing. It’s kind of embedded in me and seems to activate at the right time. Even before [Sonic Youth ended], I thought, “Oh, by the time I’m 40 — that’s too old to be doing this.” But it’s a lifestyle, like blues or jazz players who play all their life.

What’s the last piece of art that moved you?
I saw some amazing movies, if that qualifies as art. Zone of Interest was brilliant.

What about Barbie?
I liked it. I had the original Barbie in 1959. It didn’t bother me that the movie used that platform to go on this feminist rant. I liked Ken discovering the patriarchy — that was funny. The movie could have been a lot worse. It was charming. But I will say that it made Mattel seem like they were cool or something, and they’re really just a corporation.

What did you make of the media proclaiming 2023 the “year of the woman” thanks to that movie, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé? 
I’ve also heard it described as the year of the doll. I don’t mean to take anything away from Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. But the way they look onstage is kind of unreal. Both of them are these shiny objects of perfection. That’s why I actually liked that movie Poor Things so much. She goes through how women have gone through different stages in the culture, along with her development. It’s like a horror Pygmalion.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
To have more self-confidence and not to be so serious.

What do you regret?
That I didn’t spend more time with my parents while they were alive.

We’re nearing 30 years since Kurt Cobain died. What are your enduring memories of him? 
That is hard to believe, but it makes sense. My daughter was born that year and she’s 29 now. I still have very vivid images of him laughing, smiling, and goofing around backstage. And doing these amazing shows, throwing himself into his drum kit. Really just going for it in a way I’d never seen anyone quite do.

Nirvana merchandise is selling well lately. 
Oh yeah. It cracks me up walking around and seeing people wearing that. Maybe they are into Nirvana. Maybe they’ve never heard of them!

What are your hopes and fears for this election year?
My hope is that Biden drops out and someone like Gretchen Whitmer steps in. My fear is that we’re going to have Trump and Biden again. Either one is kind of scary.

How about your own governor, Gavin Newsom, running? 
He wouldn’t be the worst, but he would have to de-slick himself if he wants to be president. Change the hair.

What would it take to interest you in a Sonic Youth reunion show or tour? 
I don’t know. It would never be as good as it was.

What did you think of Thurston Moore’s memoir?
I haven’t read it. I’m happy for him that he’s finally got it out there.

Name one of your heroes.
I guess Joan Didion is sort of a hero, even though she’s kind of an antihero. She’s not a typically positive role model, but I relate to her writing style, her steadfastness and just being who she was during those different periods of history and being a woman in journalism.

Do you keep up with modern indie rock?
I don’t, but I like this woman Kelsey Lu, who is going to be playing with us. She’s interesting. She plays cello.

What’s the best advice you ever got?
Neil Young told me that it doesn’t matter how good your voice is, in terms of range or whatever. It’s about how authentic it sounds. That stuck with me.

It’s been nearly 10 years now since your bestselling memoir, Girl in a Band, was published. What impact did writing it have on you?
I guess I thought about my life more: how I got to where I was, where I came from. I’ve always felt pretty much like the same person I was when I was, like, five. I guess it made people more interested in me.

Did the book’s success surprise you?
Definitely, yeah. It wasn’t my idea to write a memoir, honestly. I think people saw how well the Patti Smith memoir did, so they were kind of looking around. I thought, “I do like to write. Maybe this is a good time to figure out how I got to where I am.”

What conclusion did you reach on that?
I’m not a believer in conclusions.

From Rolling Stone US