Kim Gordon (Alisa Smirnova)

Kim Gordon on life after Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore: "It was surprising how many people cared about the band or us"

Sonic Youth star corrects the record: Why she doesn't see herself as a musician, a rock star or a New Yorker


Sara Scribner
March 22, 2015 7:59PM (UTC)

For many people who discovered music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Kim Gordon will always be the pinnacle of cool. In Sonic Youth, Gordon was aloof, distant, beautiful and strange. Her vocals combined a guttural and ethereal quality that both anchored the band and shot them off into some kind of experimental-amateur netherland that either grated or sent chills down the spine.

Now that Gordon and Thurston Moore -- the bohemian rock world’s it couple for decades -- have broken up and the sadly familiar story of their demise has come out, Gordon has written "Girl in a Band." There are cameos by Danny Elfman, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, Lydia Lunch and some less famous figures worth discovering, but it’s all filtered through Gordon’s slightly removed, analytical take on things. She writes as she sings, in a down-to-earth yet removed way, as if she’s experiencing it all by satellite transmission.

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It’s a memoir that moves from L.A.’s dreamy, rangy canyon-rock scene to the New York’s darker, Lower East Side art world. In it, she offers slivers of memories about her life in pre-punk Los Angeles and hitting New York’s art/music scene as a young person (hard to say "ingénue" in the case of this artist -- it seems she never fit that role). She also talks about the strangeness of rock 'n' roll fame for a woman who doesn’t even consider herself a musician.

Gordon spoke to us from L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, about family, art and self-exposure.

I know that you’ve been through a really tough time; a lot of people would retreat into a more solitary life but you decided to write a memoir that’s extremely personal and you’re exposing a lot. Why did it seem like the right time?

Well, people were starting to ask, for one thing. I think because the Patti Smith book did so well, people started looking for what could be next. I think that was a surprising book for a lot of people. I don’t know. It just seemed like I was kind of in a thinking mode. Looking back over my life to see how I got where I was. It’s just useful for me to actually write to figure out how I’m feeling or thinking about anything.

Did you hesitate at all about putting it out there, though? Was there ever a concern for you?

I hesitated about doing such a conventional book. At first, I thought I would just make one copy to sell for a lot of money and some art context, but it was just kind of a way to begin again. Little bits of it were coming out in different ways so the editor said, Well, this is an opportunity to get in front of that. It’s just a part of the story. It’s not the whole story. It just got me thinking about my whole life, really.

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Did you find that it was helpful to you? When it was done, did you feel like you’d been on a journey? Did you feel like you understood yourself more and what you’d been through?

Yeah, I guess so. Instead of just half-knowing things about yourself and just facing the different phases of your life and making peace with them in a certain way.

I’m wondering about your decision to begin with the end. That’s a really dramatic way to begin and it’s really painful to read. I wonder why you wanted to start there?

I think so I could kind of get on with the rest of the story. It seems like that’s what people wanted to hear and I wanted to sort of get it over with and then satisfy that part of them. It’s just a way to kind of be able to move past it. It just seemed like a dramatically good thing to do.

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It’s a really dramatic way to begin but it seems like it was a really incredibly painful time, too. You talk at the beginning about how people reacted to the breakup. People took it really personally. I think a lot of people felt like they had grown up with you guys as almost like this model of what could be done even in a bohemian relationship with this great band that seemed to just keep putting out great records for decades. How did that impact you when people responded that way? Did it in some way help you to grieve with these people or did it make it worse?

No. It was surprising how many people cared about the band or us, for one thing. We have a niche audience. It wasn’t like we really felt like we were that famous or that much in the public. That’s how I was used to thinking of us, so that was surprising. It kind of -- I don’t know. I can’t say that it was comforting. It made me incredibly self-conscious. I’m the kind of person that when someone gives me sympathy, it makes me cry more. But I can appreciate it. I can appreciate it more now. I also just feel like when I went out and starting playing music again, people were pretty supportive. They weren’t like yelling for Sonic Youth songs and things like that.

I want to talk about music a little bit. There’s one part in the book at the beginning and I think you reiterate it later one, that you don’t consider yourself a musician, which really surprised me that you said that and that you consider yourself kind of a rock star in small letters?

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Lowercase rock star.

For a lot of people, you’re the center of the one of the best bands to come out of the '80s. I wonder how you can say that -- that you don’t think of yourself as a musician. What do you think of yourself as being?

Really a visual artist. That’s what I grew up thinking I would be my whole life. With my training. The music thing I just sort of fell into. I think that for a lot of people who were more --. Even though Sonic Youth is a post-punk band, punk rock kind of created the situation, almost like an intervention or an opening in the culture like there hadn’t really been since the '60s. It was kind of rebelling against the status quo, so a lot of people I think who got involved with music weren’t necessarily musicians, you know what I mean? It wasn’t about playing an instrument. That’s basically why I don’t think of myself as a musician. It wasn’t about learning how to play your instrument well. I have so much respect for musicians who are like that, who really actually know how to play, but I don’t. I don’t relate to that. I have a technique of not playing -- never learning how to play too well. It’s a technique unto itself.

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You talked about authenticity when you were talking about your voice -- that it’s more about authenticity and then I think there was a jazz reference? You talked about moving into the negative spaces...

Yeah, something like that. Appreciating space as much as -- yeah.

I want to talk about all your influences. You brushed up against Los Angeles in the 1960s, your father’s jazz collection was important to you, the East Village art world, the experimental music world. Can you talk about some artists outside of rock 'n' roll who had a strong impact on you as somebody in a band?

What do you mean? Other people outside rock 'n' roll?

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Somebody who is outside rock 'n' roll who had an impact on the work that you did in the band.

The artist Dan Graham influenced me in different ways. He turned me onto Greil Marcus’ "Mystery Train." That book was really influential and I think I was inspired to write some lyrics like “Brother James” from that. Reading about Jim Morrison and Robert Johnson. I started playing music as an art because Dan Graham had this performance piece called “Mirror Audience Performance” [“Performer/Audience/Mirror”] where he would stand in front of this huge mirror that reflected the audience and he would describe the audience looking at him. Then he would turn around and describe himself very self-consciously in the mirror with the audience looking at him.

Anyway, he wanted to do it with an all girl group and he asked me if I wanted to do it. He introduced me to this girl Miranda and we asked Christine Hahn who was playing with this band with Glenn Branca called [The] Static with Barbara Ess. We formed a trio and we performed. He wanted us to do something where we would do a song then each one of us would take turns interacting with the audience in some way, which we sort of failed to do. We were sort of nervous. I forget what we did but it was really fun. That was kind of how I started playing music in New York. When I met Miranda Stanton, we started playing in this band. Blah, blah, blah.

Before that, you lived in Los Angeles, and you say that a lot of people ask you about L.A. in the '60s. You say that California or the West Coast makes you think of death or decay. It seems like Los Angeles is a lot more noir than sunshine for you.

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You know, it is, symbolically. The western movement. It’s like you’re actually moving west towards the setting sun, which is kind of symbolic of death and dying. It’s sort of like the furthest edge of the United States. There’s a lot in L.A. about things being new and you’re not reminded of anything that’s decaying or death. Newness is a huge part of the American culture in general and I just feel like L.A. really epitomized that.

But at the same time, there were also a lot of dark things going on, whether it’s in Hollywood and the whole Manson thing, ‘69. A lot of kind of subtle looks one way on the outside-- it was more really like what it symbolized in terms of thinking about the early suburbs. People moving west searching for opportunities but also escaping. Are you, like, reaching for possibilities? In the Gold Rush and all that -- I have family from the Gold Rush with that whole idea of getting fortune found under a rock and that whole kind of thing. That’s really prevalent throughout Hollywood and lot of other things that influence American culture.

I think a lot of people who see the pictures of you in the book when you’re young -- you look so much like a California golden girl. Were people surprised by those early pictures of you?

Well, I guess some people were, like on a surfboard or something. In a way, I was surprised because I was like, "Oh, my gosh. My daughter does look like me.” I’m thought of as very East Coast or New York.

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I also wanted to ask you about your brother because your brother comes up a lot in the book. It sounds like you had a really complicated relationship with him and that he was really difficult person to grow up with. He was hard on you and kind of tortured you, but you also seem to have adored him in a lot of ways. How do you think he shaped you?

He was my older brother who I looked up to so, one, I think I felt a little bit betrayed by him and I just also then was afraid of being humiliated and didn’t want to show my feelings, so I found other ways to show my feelings, you know, in a creative process and that kind of space, so in that way he shaped me. I think also that’s why I ended up being comfortable playing music with guys. I was maybe seeking some better brotherly relationship or something. I don’t know.

Do you think it made you protective in some ways? You talk about--.

Yeah, I guess so. I felt protective of him, though, too. I felt like I also, because he was out and often getting in trouble, it made me develop this codependent side. I wanted everything to be all right. In that way, I think maybe it affected me.

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Like you were trying to cover up for him to make things less dramatic at home?

Yeah.

I still think that your love for him is really strong in the book and it doesn’t always end up that way. It’s a really interesting dynamic the way you describe it.

Right now, he’s much nicer than he was before he had his first psychotic episode. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, which means there might have been a lot of hostility and aggression there before. Someone can push your buttons, even if you know that they’re--. The worst part was there was period where I was getting sucked into trying to have a rational conversation with him, which would then turn into an argument. He would kind of say things to push my buttons and because I had been emotionally drawn in, I realized I couldn’t actually have a real conversation.

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That must have been frustrating.

It’s frustrating because it’s not something you can fix.

Courtney Love comes up a few times in the book. I don’t think that many people are surprised at this point of how she comes across.

Right, I didn’t say anything I didn’t think people already knew. On the one hand, I wanted to clarify why we weren’t friends and lay down a little bit of history because things of getting really confused in the media. I wasn’t doing it to be mean. It’s unfortunate that people pulled that stuff out as a  headline because there’s so very little of it in the book, quite frankly. But people pick up on that stuff. I didn’t say anything that people don’t pretty much-- well, maybe younger generations don’t know. But it’s kind of like everyone knows. Everyone’s afraid to say.

It is a small part of the book but it stands out because you’re being very honest and I think a lot of people are careful about talking about other famous people. It sounds like you felt very protective towards Kurt Cobain when you knew him and that he was sort of fragile person that you wanted to protect.

Yeah.

There’s one section in the book that I love the image of you painting and smoking pot and listening to Joni Mitchell. I know that you’re painting again and I wonder who are you listening to as you paint now?

I’ve always been painting or doing-- it’s kind of conceptually based painting. Now since 2003, I’ve been more active with my art career and now it’s my main focus, but what was I listening to?

I like this German singer Sibylle Baier. This one record is kind of -- her son found her cassette in a drawer and gave it to my friend and got someone to put it out but it’s a super beautiful record. Catherine Ribeiro, this Portuguese singer who sings in French. She had this kind of proggy '70s band called Alpes. I like a lot of her. She’s a pretty inspiring singer. I’ve been listening to "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac, which only in the past five years have I been getting into Fleetwood Mac. And then very weird DJ stuff and hip-hop stuff. My friend makes mixed CDs for me. I like Mikal Cronin. I like Kurt Vile. There’s this female guitar duo Talk Normal. I like them. Heather Leigh plays slide guitar and lives in England now. Or Scotland? She’s great. She comes out of the sort of experimental music scene. Mara Belati from White Magic. Her name is Mira Billotte. She’s great. Amazing voice.

Good. That will give me some listening to do. Are you going to keep writing in an essay form?

I don’t know. I had this book I’d been writing. It came out last spring. I don’t know if you know it. It’s more art writing. Sternberg Press does a series of artists writing. Writing in an essay form ... I’m not writing a sequel or like "Eat Pray Love 2."


Sara Scribner

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