As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
Kim Gordon was a founding member of Sonic Youth, the New York band who tore apart the rules of how rock music should be played. Since their split in 2011, Gordon has performed as half of experimental guitar duos Body/Head and Glitterbust, written the bestselling book Girl in a Band and, last year, released her first solo album, No Home Record. She’s also dedicated her time to art, film and political activism.
In this podcast, Gordon discusses NYC’s No Wave scene, her career in art, dealing with depression through writing, her passion for film and politics, and being “freaked out” by modern pop culture.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Healy talking to Stevie Nicks, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Mike Kinsella, Conor Oberst and Bobby Gillespie.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another instalment of me, Matty, in conversation with some of my heroes. I’m joined today by a songwriter, an artist, a visual artist, an author, member of one of the most seminal rock bands of all time; it’s Kim Gordon. How are you?
Hi. I was surprised that you asked me to do it.
I’ve been really lucky. When they asked me who I wanted, I kind of reached for the stars, do you know what I mean? I thought of all the people who have been informative to me. So I’ve been lucky to talk to Steve Reich and Brian Eno and now yourself, so thank you so much for doing it.
Where are you right now? Are you in England, or?
I’m in England. You’re in LA, right?
How do you find LA?
I mean, you know in some ways, superficially, it’s unchanged. It’s very quiet – my neighbourhood’s always quiet. The biggest change is there’s no traffic, so it’s kind of like a brand new city. You can drive to the west side in half an hour. There’s space to walk around. I have to say, I can’t complain as far as being stuck somewhere.I feel bad for my family and friends in New York, honestly.
It’s weird, isn’t it? I’m lucky I’m kind of in the countryside, near the Oxford area.
Oh yeah, so pretty.
So it’s really pretty, and then I catch myself on my walk kind of getting lost in my world and then I remember, do you know what I mean? It’s kind of like this weird almost guilt for being in this kind of quite lucky, comfortable setting. Let’s stay on the subject of LA – we could put everything into the context of the pandemic, I’m trying not to at the moment. I’m just thinking about the difference between LA and New York. Obviously I tour a lot, and then being from the UK I have my record label set up. So a lot of my time is spent between LA, New York and London specifically. I know that you went to art school in LA, that’s right, right?
Yeah. I went to several different schools, I sort of went wherever was cheapest to go. I couldn’t get into CalArts, I couldn’t afford it. So I went to a city college, I went to school at York University for a year. I had a friend, a percussionist from high school who was going. They had an interdisciplinary programme that I could go to for really cheap in Canada, but I didn’t like it so I came back and I went to Otis my last year. It was $500 dollars a semester or something, so I graduated with no student debt. Nowadays it’s so different, people really look at where you went to art school. Then it mattered in the sense that places like CalArts, they really turned out artists, and they really had a lot of artist visitors, that’s why I wanted to go there. When I moved to New York, so many of the artists that I met had all gone to school there and had a group…
What was that transition like? That’s what I was really interested in – what the feeling was from the perspective of a young artist, I imagine at art school in Los Angeles at that time, kind of part of a scene, moving to the other side of the country and essentially the other side of temperature – physically and culturally. What was that like?
I didn’t really love being a teenager in LA. On one side of it was great, going to the beach in Malibu and things like that, but I kind of hated the feeling of living in suburbia. Where my parents lived, west LA, it was kind of boring. Historically, to me, it seemed like everything cool had happened in New York; from abstract expressionism in the ’50s and Pop art, process art and what came to be called conceptual art. That was all very exciting to me. I had just met Mike Kelley who’d kind of graduated from CalArts at the same time I graduated from Otis, and I don’t know… he and Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber were kind of the beginning of artists who didn’t move to New York. But I felt like I needed to feel the energy around me of activity, and in LA it felt like it was hard for me to be motivated or something. I really felt like I was influenced by my environment so much, I’m kind of superficial that way. New York was undeniable for its energy and stimulus, and just the history is incredible. I really wish I’d been alive during those times in New York.
That’s a funny thing for you to say, because when I kind of found all of your records, from my generation it’s this discovery of catalogue, which is this amazing thing. With that I found your music, and then I would find the more obscure stuff, and I’d think, what were they listening to? What was going on? You’d find bands like Liquid Liquid and people like Glenn Branca and stuff like that. The whole no wave explosion – not necessarily the music itself but the philosophy that it kind of had, about the destruction of form. If punk was supposed to destroy form… I know that you were there and I know that you were witness to that. I just wondered if you could talk about how informative that was for you?
Yeah, seeing no wave bands was just kind of mindblowing because I kind of felt like, oh this is what freedom is. It maybe felt akin to what it was during abstract expressionism, which in art I think kind of symbolised a freedom. The art world was kind of intimidating to me. I just kind of fell into playing music basically through an artist, Dan Graham. It just felt like it was… Yes, really inspiring and yet kind of like, by the time Sonic Youth started it was basically the tail end of no wave. There was this kind of experimental noise… not noise, “noise” was actually a derogatory term, nobody used “noise”, except bad reviews of Sonic Youth. But those people like John Zorn and these kinds of players who came out of the free jazz scene and knew music composition. That whole mood downtown, that was just a huge influence, I think. And also, you really can trace it back in a way to the Velvet Underground and pre-Velvet Underground, actually. The Dream Syndicate, with people like Tony Conrad who’s an amazing artist and musician. I don’t know if you know that book, The Dream Syndicate? But Tony played with La Monte Young and John Cale. They would spend hours recording. Actually it was Tony Conrad who told Lou Reed and John Cale that they should put pickups in their acoustic instruments, thus creating their sound, this drone. There’s always been the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol and blah blah blah… that was a huge, I have to say, influence on me before I moved to New York, just this mythic scene, right? It’s funny, with Sonic Youth we didn’t really identify with the improv scene, we weren’t really part of the no wave thing because we came after that, we were sort of post that. We wanted not to be totally nihilistic, we wanted to create positive stuff out of that as a vocabulary.
Sonic Youth are kind of the ultimate, along with Black Flag, indie band in its truest sense. But what was it like signing to a major label in the late ’80s as Sonic Youth? How did that feel?
I guess Goo came out in 1990 or something. We’d felt like we’d exhausted the distribution possibilities with indie labels, and Paul Smith from Blast First did really try. I think Daydream Nation was on some version of Blast First Capital in the US that he had some deal with? I’m not sure. But basically, we felt like well, we’ve been together for ten years, so if we signed a major label and we break up, we’ve had ten good years. We were just curious what our records would sound like with a bigger budget and we really wanted more distribution, which I’m not sure if we got? I guess maybe we did to some extent, I think it did maybe elevate our name more? But it was a lot of frustration, basically. It wasn’t like they asked us to do certain things that we didn’t wanna do, but they basically ignored us. They didn’t do a lot to promote after the first two records, and even those two records, they weren’t totally gung-ho. As we were saying today, it’s all about the first single or the first video, that’s what it was about then or something.
I wanna talk to you about No Home Record, I was reading that you kind of wrote lyrics that are based on little phrases and advertising slogans that you kind of saw around, which to me is very situationist, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem… It seems like it comes from that place still. Do you still find that as exciting when you’re making music, or is it a lot more of a… I don’t know, is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, I mean I was definitely influenced by situationists. Maybe I’m just more of a sociologist than anything. I just kind of find bad copy fascinating, and advertising. It’s just part of the landscape and so it’s kind of trying to usurp it and use it for other purposes, like take it back. It’s kind of like reclaiming it almost.
For sure. It’s very like that now in America, like all advertisements, it’s all jokes. It’s always very much, you know, “consumerism is cute,” do you know what I mean? Anyway, we can pivot away from that. I wanted to talk to you about how Sonic Youth and the legacy that that band has is undeniable. What I think is really interesting is that there’s this whole new generation of women. Girl In A Band is a moment that has really resonated with this kind of cross-generational palette of people. I just wondered if you could talk to our listeners a little bit about what your intention was behind that book?
The idea of writing a book really didn’t occur to me, I just was approached by a couple of editors or a couple of publishers. I think the success of Patti Smith’s book really surprised people. I still really didn’t think that my book could be as popular as hers, she’s a much bigger name and more influential, blah blah blah. But I just kind of felt like, quite frankly I needed another source of income and I wanted to… I was kind of in a place in my life after my marriage fell apart, and subsequently the band, just looking back and asking how did I get to where I am? I wanted to make something positive out of it, or just like use it as an opportunity to make something, because when you get to a place of deep sadness, you just have to find a way to get it out. I think writing is something you can just do on your own. Anyone can do it, it has that immediacy.
Yeah, of course. It’s the idea of losing yourself and stuff like that. I mean in the past ten years, you seem to have balanced visual art with your music work. When did you think that you wanted to formally pursue that as a career of yours?
I mean, I always wanted to be an artist and music became a side. I kind of tried to keep my hand in it. Actually, the first thing I ever did sort of in the art community was an essay I wrote about Rhys Chatham called Trash Drugs and Male Bonding. It was basically a description of his guitar trio to other people. I kind of felt like around 2000, I better really get on… time’s going by. It’s just hard to balance, because Sonic Youth was always on this cycle of recording and touring, and then when you have a kid and you’re managing a whole house and everything. My first solo show was in New York in the early ’80s. I did these projects in people’s apartments, sort of “interventions”. I had this thing called Design Office, it was supposed to be sort of a psychological interior decorator thing.
So anyway, I felt like I owe it to myself to really devote more time. I really don’t think of the music world at all, it seems strange to say but my head’s more in the art world. I always felt like when I made music, I was an artist who made music. As a writer, I didn’t think of myself as a writer, I was like an artist who was writing, that sort of thing. So basically, at the core, I think of myself that way.
Your work, I’ve always sensed quite a dark sense of humour. I mean, there is a dark sense of humour in your work. Are there any areas of contemporary pop culture that you’ve got a morbid fascination with right now? Because I do, I’m very obsessed with incel culture and the deep recesses of the internet. I was wondering if there’s anything now that’s kind of catching your eye, that you find fascinating.
Gee, I don’t know. I did get kind of obsessed with Airbnb, there’s a whole wealth of things to think about there. I don’t know, popular culture now and the internet kind of freaks me out a lot. I’ve kind of got more interest in politics and sort of political shows like Rising on Hill TV, that kind of talk about the democratic establishment and the GOP. There’s a woman, Krystal Ball from the left and this guy Saagar on the right. They basically agree on a lot of things but they’re a non-mainstream news source, and I get so much more information from them, from the different independent reporters they have on. It’s cool.
I hate when people ask me these questions, but then when I’m on the other side, I’m genuinely interested. Is there any artist now, you don’t even necessarily have to listen to their music, but is there anybody that you find quite inspiring right now?
I mean, I’m really looking forward to listening to Lucinda Williams, I always like to hear what she’s doing. I’m still interested in what PJ Harvey does. I can’t say that I’m really up on new artists so much. I like film a lot, so filmmakers like Claire Denis, she really inspires me. You know, Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve – these filmmakers who make films like every other year, or have been. I find them inspiring. I find AOC inspiring.
This is what I mean, yeah, people like that. I was really lucky that the first single after this new record that I put out is just a speech by Greta Thunberg. I’m playing the piano and this orchestra shit, but it’s just her doing a speech. I think it’s just about now, this sense of these platforms that we have, it feels like, without purpose. Even on a personal level, I like making music that’s occasionally frivolous or I like making music that’s kind of in the world of escapism. But even for me, I don’t think that I can stand there and not try and make a statement. In a fucking hundred years’ time, you can still find records in the rubble. You’re not gonna find a YouTube channel in the rubble, you’re not gonna find a tweet in the rubble. So yeah, the people that really inspire me at the moment are just the people that have always inspired me, and the people with purpose. I think that there’s this weird thing in pop culture that kind of arised, I don’t know when it happened, but people started saying stuff to artists like, “Stay in your lane. You stay in your lane when it comes to talking about the world.” It’s like, artists are supposed to signpost towards a utopian ideal. That’s their job, and to not do that is really like… I don’t know, “Back down or behave according to fear,” and stuff like that. Everyone’s being watched now, we’re all watching each other or we’re all making sure that everyone’s “woke” as we want them to be. Everyone’s almost scared of making a statement, so I think that the people that do shine super bright now.
Yeah, for sure. Definitely.
Well, Kim Gordon, I can’t thank you enough for talking to me. It’s such a pleasure, you’ve been so lovely.
It was so nice!
It’s so humbling to have you do this, so thank you so much.
I enjoyed it a lot.