Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: “#MeToo Is Symptomatic Of A Culture Of Women Feeling Repressed, But The Music Industry Was Always Sexist”
Kim Gordon has come home. Although her name is more immediately associated with New York and the faded memory of the Lower East Side’s ‘no-wave’ scene, in which artists mixed with filmmakers, actors, and the earliest punk musicians and rappers, she has returned to the California of her youth to continue an artistic career that is now into its fourth decade.
Kim started making music without any formal training, toying with guitars, drum machines, and lyrics often cut from magazine advertisements. Taking personal inspiration from early punk pioneers The Slits, The Raincoats and Patti Smith, she met her Sonic Youth bandmates at the age of 27. Over the next 30 years they would make 16 albums and 46 music videos, bringing the best elements of America’s avant-garde to stages across the world.
Sonic Youth’s layers of noise, dissonance and percussive invention grew into a more melodic and textured sound by the early ’90s, when they were able to bring bands like Nirvana and Babes In Toyland to European audiences.
Their influence on Nirvana found particular expression in the likes of Nevermind’s Drain You, where Kurt Cobain brought sounds as unexpected as a squeaky mouse toy and several aerosol sprays to the song’s sinister, distended middle section. Kim still misses Kurt’s creativity and conscience, prompting her to accept the honour of singing Aneurysm with his surviving bandmates Dave Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic, when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014.
Kim’s recent solo record No Home Record brims with experimentation, distorted bass beats and Kim’s personal sense of resistance and critique. Although many musicians that came in her wake were explicit political activists, her take on the predatory corporate forces that shape our lives makes for far more fragmentary, artistic and personal lyrics. Take Get Yr Life Back, for example, where she sings about the end of capitalism and its ‘winners and losers’, or Air BnB, where she interrogates the very American idea that you can fake your way towards happiness.
All but two of the record’s songs are produced by Justin Raisen, who has previously collaborated with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Even in their most abrasive moments, the scathing distortion and shocking electrical noises offer a reprieve from the clamour of the world.
“Why a solo record?” says Kim. “I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have happened without the persistence of Justin. Living in LA the last few years it feels like home, but the transience of the place makes it sometimes feel like no home.”
No Home Record captures something of the chaotic and deathly undertow of California. Is that something you’ve been aware of, even since songs like Sonic Youth’s Death Valley ’69, from 1985 album Bad Moon Rising?
“I’ve thought about that my whole life, basically. That’s what I liked about the recent Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Although it was indulgent, it captured that essence so well. It was almost serene, but that’s the way things look from the outside. There’s this book by the poet Trisha Low that inspired me, too, where she’s talking about the concept of home. She’s from Singapore, and she moved west to go to school, as her father had done. But I mostly moved back to California for the weather. I’d been living up in western Massachusetts, in Northampton, for the last 17 or 18 years. I didn’t want to move back to New York. It had changed so much since I first lived there.”
Sonic Youth have been classified as everything from avant-garde to indie rock, inspiring bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana. Ultimately, though, there’s a punk sensibility at the core of it all. For you, what was the ‘ground zero’ of punk rock?
“I think that The Stooges were almost the original punk band, but it’s hard to say for certain. The scene at [legendary, now-closed New York venue] CBGB – Richard Hell [The Voidoids] and Tom Verlaine [Television] and Patti Smith – all kind of came out of the poetry scene, and that’s the lineage of the beats and hippies. He didn’t have much to do with punk, but in a way, Malcolm McLaren [manager of the Sex Pistols] saw the Pistols in his mind as something that was sparked from situationism [an arts movement started in 1957], and inspired by the civil, anti-capitalist strikes in France in 1968. And that wasn’t far from being hippie, which is the opposite of being punk. They’re two sides of the same coin, though. So who knows?”
Why do you think The Stooges, and frontman Iggy Pop in particular, remain so important, over 50 years on?
“With The Stooges, the lyrics were simple and the rhythm was primal, and they cut to the chase of rock’n’roll being the music of rebellion. Iggy Pop going out into the audience was almost like an intervention. [Late drummer] Scott and [guitarist] Ron Asheton kinda held things down onstage while Iggy was, I guess, scary as hell, saying, ‘I’m gonna give you an experience. I’m going to scare you, and give you something you’ve never seen before.’ I Wanna Be Your Dog was kinda sexy, too. You could find that quality in blues songs, but nobody used lyrics like that.”
How did American cities influence different scenes in your earliest years making music?
“The West Coast music in the ’60s was all kind of ‘peace and love’, for the most part, although there are some songs that indicate the darkness below. It had such a different vibe than what was going on in Detroit, which was the link up with the [anti-racist political collective] White Panthers, or the Velvet Underground in New York, which was linked to Andy Warhol’s Factory studio and that whole art scene. There were different influences and darker drugs.”
You saw one of the earliest incarnations of Black Flag in Hermosa Beach in LA, 1982, and describe seeing Henry Rollins “twerking before twerking existed”. That later had a bearing on the Sonic Youth song Halloween. What are your abiding memories of that experience?
“I remember that particular gig. It was at someone’s house, which was also a novelty for us, coming from the East Coast. Seeing a house show like that, with no barrier between the audience and the band was new to us. Henry was coming up to you and slithering around and singing in your face. It bred a certain scary thing – probably a lot like Iggy did before him. At the time, Chuck Dukowski was their bass player, and he was also kinda scary. He was a good foil for Henry, but the first time I saw Black Flag in LA was actually at a park in Orange County, which is still a really conservative part of the city. That time, the singer was Keith Morris. He almost looked like a Vietnam veteran. He didn’t have any kind of punked-out haircut, and he wore a camo jacket. I thought that was more subversive, in a way. But what happened was, kids were booing and the audience were throwing Cokes at the band onstage. The MC came out and said, ‘We’re going to have to stop this, unless you all settle down.’ To see something like that in LA was funny – especially in somewhere like Orange County – because everything seems mellow. Black Flag didn’t necessarily look subversive, but their music certainly was.”
Like Black Flag, Sonic Youth later worked with artist Raymond Pettibon, who created the famous black and white artwork for Sonic Youth’s Goo album in 1990. How did that collaboration come about?
“I think we first saw his zines in LA. We actually met at the Hermosa Beach party, and I then wrote about him in Artforum magazine. We took part in a film of his as well.”
Thinking about your move to New York, is it true that you used a household drill through an effects pedal on Sonic Youth’s 1982 debut EP?
“Yeah, Lee [Ranaldo, Sonic Youth guitarist] did, on The Burning Spear. He had a drill that he connected to his wah-wah pedal. It was really good. Thurston [Moore, vocalist, guitarist and Kim’s ex-husband] also jammed a drumstick in his strings and kind of beat on it, using the guitar more like percussion. And then we had these long, beautiful chimes, too, but they eventually got lost. But we had a lot of shitty guitars, so it kind of made sense to Thurston. Actually, when we first started, it was me, Lee and Thurston – we didn’t even have a drummer – so he uses guitar in a percussive way on that song.”
How did the change from being independent to signing with Geffen affect how Sonic Youth operated?
“We had more money to spend on recording. We could afford different kinds of recording studio situations. And there was money to make music videos. So in a sense, it gave us a higher profile. We were cautious, but at the same time, we had been together for 10 years, and we were kind of frustrated with the limited distribution from indie labels. So we figured we didn’t have anything to lose, or that the worst thing that could happen to us was that we’d break up.”
On Goo, you recorded Kool Thing with Chuck D of Public Enemy, which legend has it came about as a chance encounter. Is that true?
“Yeah. Both Sonic Youth and Public Enemy were recording at Greene St. Studios. They were working in the other room and they were around a lot. It was a small place to hang out, so we’d see each other and I asked if Chuck would do a cameo on the record. The other guy [Flava Flav] had kept him waiting for two days or something, so he said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ Kool Thing was about how you can have expectations of your idols, and project stuff on to them.”
You’ve described 1994, the year that Kurt Cobain died, as one of the happiest yet bittersweet of your life. What are your recollections of singing with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear at Nirvana’s induction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014?
“Well, we were all sitting at the boring ceremony for four hours, but I guess I felt like I really wanted to represent Kurt, or to do justice to him. And I wanted to channel him in some way. I mean, I’d seen him play so many times, and I thought the audience was just filled with these old white dudes from the industry, for the most part. But it was so emotional, and I felt so pent up that I really wanted to get it all out.”
What did you do after the ceremony?
“We went to this small club and played a few more songs. Other people, like J Mascis, sang something, too. I can’t exactly remember, but I might have done songs from [Nirvana’s 1992 Australia/Japan EP] Hormoaning, and we re-played what we played at the ceremony.”
Before No Home Record, you put out five records with Bill Nace under the Body/Head banner. How did you two end up working together on music?
“That was from Massachusetts. Bill was playing there – there’s a cool, but small experimental music scene in western Massachusetts – and Bill is an amazing guitar player. We were just playing together; it was different just playing with one other person. We would rehearse in a basement, but we wouldn’t talk about it that much. We played at art galleries and other strange places – it took trust because everything was off-the-cuff and improvised.”
It’s apparent that your extensive reading often seeps into the music that you’re making at any one time. Which books, if any, fed into No Home Record?
“I don’t read as much as I used to, unfortunately, because there are so many good shows on HBO these days! Well, I love Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, and I’m reading this book by Ben Lerner, The Topeka School. And there’s This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan. I really enjoyed that.”
Was writing your memoir, Girl In A Band, a difficult process?
“In a way I really didn’t want to write about myself or about being in a band, even though I was writing a memoir. It was more like portraits of places, and selecting certain songs. There are things I wish I’d articulated better, but it’s not my whole life. It’s a story.”
In the book you say, “Culturally, we don’t allow women to be as free as they would like, because it’s frightening. And we either shun those women, or deem them crazy.” Who in the music world do you think has suffered from this regressive attitude?
“In music, it’s almost more of a self-censoring thing than anything.”
Towards the end of the book you mention the comedian Dave Chappelle and the artist’s fight for free expression. Why does that resonate with you?
“It’s tough, even now he’s saying some stuff that maybe he shouldn’t be. I don’t know what point he’s trying to prove. I think he’s just frustrated with the whole PC-ness of the comedy world. But there are also so many cool female comedians who are getting more and more exposure. In my opinion, comedians now, the best are really dark, and they’re almost like modern-day philosophers.”
The Pretenders’ vocalist Chrissie Hynde has said that the music world is yet to have its own #MeToo moment. Is that something you would agree with?
“Well, there has been, somewhat. There have been some people coming forward. I think the #MeToo thing is symptomatic of a culture of women feeling repressed, and lacking equal rights in some parts of the world, and equal pay. But what people don’t talk about so much is that the music industry was always totally sexist. That in itself is not necessarily a crime (laughs), but it comes out in different ways.”
Is this the ballpark subject you were addressing in Sonic Youth with a song like Swimsuit Issue, from 1992’s Dirty?
“Yeah. That was about sexual harassment. I heard about an incident involving an A&R guy, high up in one of the labels, who allegedly sexually harassed his secretary. And that was in, like, 1990. But people forget about it. They don’t talk about it. I think he was fired, but he probably got a job straight away somewhere else. Some majors used to have a thing called ‘Secretary Day’, but they would rarely if ever actually promote the secretaries, or give them a chance to move up from their positions in the corporate world. But I’m only talking about major labels. I’m not talking about indie labels. In Seattle, Megan Jasper used to answer the phones at Sub Pop, and now she runs the whole company.”
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