Kim Gordon: On “Becoming”


photo credit: Bertrand Delgoff

As a student at York University in the mid-’70s, Kim Gordon made “minimalist, gooey, unstretched paintings, with no instructor,” and a “silent surrealist film about Patty Hearst.” She played in a band, and took in performances by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but music was still just a possibility.

What Kim Gordon had was a sensibility. For 30 years, her primary vehicle for it was Sonic Youth: Girl in a Band tells this story, and that of her marriage to guitarist Thurston Moore. It also describes the worlds in which the band was formed — downtown Manhattan, but also late-’60s Los Angeles, where Gordon grew up, with its “sense of apocalyptic expanse” and traces of the Manson Family.

Sonic Youth are special. The music had a febrile element that punk rock mostly lacks — punk is not very magical — and their power was dread, not aggression. They had longevity, and in hindsight they represented the best parts of the eras they survived: the ’90s, back when ambition and creativity were considered mortal enemies, through to the 2010s, which sees them as inseparable. (If branding is the near enemy of sensibility, then maybe our ongoing ’90s kick should include nostalgia for its principles.) Sonic Youth were ambitious, but they were never not themselves.

More than a memoir, Girl in a Band is Kim Gordon’s sensibility as book. It’s as much about how she looks as what she sees, and it has a suppleness that feels authentic, as embarrassing as that word has become: it never loses its perspective, but that perspective refuses to settle. “I would never feel sure, or comfortable, about making conclusions or bold, definite statements about anything,” Gordon writes, reflecting on her teenage years. “Questioning things fit in with ‘becoming,’ which in turn brought me closer to living in the present and farther away from the idea that you’re done, ready, formed, or cooked at some preset age like your early twenties.” At 61, she seems just as curious. What follows is an edited transcript of our email conversation. – Alexandra Molotkow

The Barnes and Noble Review: You’ve been very candid about the end of your marriage, in a way that surprised fans who might have thought of you as sort of enigmatic and invulnerable. What made you decide to speak about it publicly?

Kim Gordon: Well, I didn’t actually tell everything. The band and my marriage were so mixed up that I couldn’t tell one part of the story and leave out the other part – that would’ve just been weird. You can’t separate the two. My story is my story.

BNR: Remembering Sonic Youth’s last show in São Paulo, you wonder what the audience thought of “this raw, weird pornography of strain and distance.” A lot of Sonic Youth fans felt personally affected by a huge event in your private life, and I was wondering how you felt about their interest.


Kim Gordon.

KG: I guess at the time I felt incredibly self-conscious about the whole thing. The band and I were onstage, but the two of us were barely speaking. A lot of people were overly focused on the end of our marriage because for them I think it meant the death of something bigger and more personal for them. Sonic Youth meant so much to so many people over the years, and all across South America people were incredibly supportive and knew all the lyrics to all the songs. So more than invasive, I experienced the interest in us as compassionate.

BNR: One thing I loved about the book was the lack of artifice. You write gracefully without straining your life into one smooth narrative. In one passage you talk about how Buddhist thought, French New Wave cinema, acid and pot influenced your thinking as a teen in the ’60s, and the concept of “becoming.” It seems like it works both ways — the past is a different story depending on the present. Do you think this is a different book than you’d write five years from now?

KG: Well – it’s probably not all that different. Certainly not about the parts that led up to the end. Right now my perspective on what happened with the end of the band and the end of my marriage is pretty distilled, pretty succinct. In the years ahead, sure, I’ll get greater distance and perspective on things, but it won’t necessarily change the narrative, or the way I feel about things today.

BNR: You’ve said that you never set out to become a musician — as a student at York University in Toronto, you were “immersed in art, but unformed and trying anything and everything” – but something coalesced when you moved to New York and saw No Wave bands play downtown. Does this music still feel like home?

KG: Sure – I still relate to it. Last year Byron Coley put out a Mars reissue that I still listen to.

BNR: Of all the art to come out of that scene, you mention that Gordon Matta-Clark’s was the most exciting: “Gordon was best known for his ‘building cuts,’ in which he would lop off sections of floor and ceiling within abandoned buildings. From my perspective, there was nothing better than this–nothing.” What did you love about it?

KG: He was just so gutsy. I mean, taking buildings and cutting them in cross-sections? Who else would do that? Where other artists were maybe doing more precious, large-scale earth works, for Gordon Matta-Clark to do something so large-scale and kind of unheard-of on an urban scale was amazing at the time, and still is.

BNR: You write about how drastically New York City has changed since the 1980s: “All that young-girl idealism is someone else’s now. That city I know doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s more alive in my head than it is when I’m there.” What does the New York in your head feel like? Is there a place for young artists today with that spirit?

KG: Artists find their way. I think that LA has picked up some of the spirit New York had once. LA doesn’t have the same money or the kinds of high-end collectors New York has, so maybe it’s a place where artists feel less scrutinized. But overall, I don’t think it matters all that much where an artist lives. Most artists who make their way manage to, somehow, and the ones who don’t, don’t.

BNR: You talk about the nostalgia we have for pre-internet culture, a time when people were “wandering around in an eternally unknowing state, scrounging for bits of information.” It does feel as though counterculture was more exciting and serendipitous back then — it was harder to find people on your wavelength, but when you did, it was magic. You played the Ann Arbor Film Festival in the mid-1970s with a short-lived group called Below the Belt. Though it was one of just a few gigs you played, the artist Mike Kelley was in the audience, and your performance inspired him to start a “noise garage band,” which became the group Destroy All Monsters. The two of you later became great friends. In another time, maybe you would found each other on Tumblr. Have we lost something, or are we just fetishizing the past?

KG: Well, I’m not really someone who sentimentalizes the past, and at the same time, today is not my favorite time in terms of technology and all that. I get emails from Tumblr, and I don’t even know what it means, or why I’m getting them. So I’m not a nostalgist, and I’m not a technological person, either.

Girl in a Band: A MemoirBNR: One theme that surfaces throughout the book, and which seems particular to the eras you’re writing about, is the fixedness of cliques and subcultures. (It blew my mind that your father, a UCLA sociologist, was the first person to name school-age archetypes — preps, freaks, geeks, etc.) You talk about the distinction your parents made between “academic” and “showbiz” families in 1960s LA, and the endless debate around who was “punk” and who was “alternative” in the ’90s. Did these categories ever mean anything to you?

KG: Sure they did. I guess distinctions like that represented values of different kinds. That’s not to say I would refuse to listen to someone’s record in some “despised” camp and feel embarrassed that I like it. In the end, a lot of distinctions are the same anyway. It was Raymond Pettibon who once said that Hippie and Punk were just opposite sides of the same coin.

BNR: In 1990, Sonic Youth decided to sign to a major label. You received a lot of criticism for it — people said you’d “sold out,” a term that seems dated now. How did you feel about it at the time?

KG: Well, we may have gone to a major label, but when we went on tour with Neil Young, we learned pretty quickly that we weren’t part of the mainstream – his audiences hated us! And being on a major label didn’t change us. We pretty much continued to do what we wanted to, including a lot of experimental stuff. Geffen never really promoted us, but in return they never pressured us either, or told us we had to go back and edit a song to turn it into something commercial. It was only when we signed with Matador that I realized in some ways that “These are our people,” and not the other guys.

BNR: The term “sellout” seems very ’90s — today, as you write of New York, “creative ideas and personal ambition are no longer mutually exclusive.” That punk-rock puritanism has sort of gone out of style, but have we moved too far in the opposite direction?

KG: I’m of the opinion that individuals need to look into their own souls and figure that out for themselves.

BNR: You write about performing “Aneurysm” at Nirvana’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, “bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years — a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it.” Is it strange to think that your experience is history?

KG: Life is strange, I think, and you can’t make this shit up.

BNR: I’m interested in your critique of Lana Del Rey: “who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes it means women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross older men or getting gang-raped by bikers.” At the same time, Lana Del Rey is an artist, and feminism is at least partly about making space for women to do their own work, and develop their own sensibilities, whether or not they seem palatable. I guess I feel torn about this, and about the tension between creative freedom and social responsibility more generally, and I wondered if you could elaborate on your thoughts.

KG: Lana Del Rey is free to do whatever the fuck she wants. I just wouldn’t call what she does “feminism.” I think I would call it “fascinating branding” or a fascinating piece of work – sort of post-Chris Isaak. Ultimately it’s just the next step toward pornography in marketing.

BNR: What is the difference between art and entertainment?

KG: They’re not always opposites. There’s such a thing as art that’s entertaining or that presents itself as entertainment – art that is kind of showbizzy. Entertainment lives in its own context, outside a museum, and it’s usually more about escapism, whereas I’ve always considered art to be more confrontational.

BNR: The ’90s influence in feminism has really blossomed in recent years, with magazines like Rookie (who you’ve been interviewed by), pop stars like Lorde (who you performed with), and shows like Girls (on which you appeared). Riot Grrrl is an established part of teenage culture — every year a new cohort discovers it. You’re an icon, but you’re still creating, and you’re still receptive to a culture that you helped create. What are you inspired by?

KG: I’m inspired by my daughter, Coco, and by her friends. I’m inspired by making new music with Bill Nace in Body/Head. And I’m inspired – always – by the opportunity to make new art.

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