I Sing the Body Electric

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It throws you that someone of Kim Gordon’s art-rock stature, someone who has redefined the position of “female-guitarist” throughout 30 years of uncompromising cool and squall should come across as vulnerable and even a little shy in interview, yet she often is. Markedly self-deprecating and often laughing at self-perceived pretentiousness, it’s hard to believe though that this persona isn’t natural. We certainly anticipated the detachment and diffidence she’d become known for during the Sonic Youth years, yet we’re met by an individual altogether more welcoming and mellowed. But why? Well, we should remember this is new territory for Kim Gordon.

Late 2011 not only saw the disintegration of Sonic Youth, the alt-grunge trailblazers that tilled the fuzzy meadows for an ensuing generation of detuned alt-kids but, perhaps more sadly, the break-up of its godhead and mouthpiece, indie eminences elect – long-time husband and wife Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. Externally unfazed, Kim immediately teamed up with fellow Northampton, NY noisenik Bill Nace to assemble Body/Head, an experimental duo who administer two guitars, a phalanx of effects and the occasional arcane vocal to explore the more twisted, discordant aspects of her former band’s output.

The live improvisations of Body/Head throb and murmur, wirey and hypnotic like a whispered truth just out of reach. But more than a fractured echo of Sonic Youth, this is Kim Gordon asserting herself publicly beyond the conventional framework of her previous band and returning to her experimental roots with a stark and soul teasing mystique. It’s firmly camped in the leftfield and stubborn in its avoidance of the mainstream or even alternative music for that matter. Maybe this is why she’s almost apologetic in her explanation of it.

The authentic surprise to her that anyone would be interested is really quite disarming. This naturally makes it all the more intriguing and raw – a soul-baring hitherto unseen. Glass spoke to Kim before Body/Head’s recital this week at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown, the annual fiesta of bands at the South Bank centre in London, picked each year by a different seminal artist, which has seen David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Scott Walker among its past curators.

Their first offering in England since an initial salvo last year and to the joy of Kim, boasting no-wave deity Ikue Mori (DNA) on drums – an addition that again references and taps into her abstract roots – this is all symbolic to her striking out on her own, complete with characteristic daring, integrity and this newly discovered sincerity. This is Kim Gordon against the odds.

What sort of influence has Yoko Ono had upon you personally and as a performer?
When I first saw her (perform) she cut her dress off, she cut her clothes off as she sat there. I think this was done before she split with John and that was such an incredible study of vulnerability (laughs). (There’s a) spirit and fearlessness about the way she goes about her work in her life. We’ve played maybe once or twice, once at The Stone (a non-profit performance space in the East Village), a year ago or so and she was amazing …

Meltdown is boasting some legendary artists such as Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux this year and also young pretenders such as Savages and Deerhoof. Was the wealth and strength of the woman performers an attraction to you playing?
No, I didn’t actually know who was playing, it just was more that Yoko was curating it and I thought she’d probably have a lot of women.??Have you experienced Meltdown before? What were your impressions? I think Sonic Youth probably played a long time ago, with Spritualized maybe? (1998 – curated by John Peel) I think it’s always a great idea, ATP have also been doing that for years, having guest curators and I think that adds a good sense of community, it kind of makes it more fun than a random big festival. Small festivals are always more fun.

Can you tell me about your previous work with Bill Nace? How did you originally hook up?
He’s from this area, Northampton (New York), where I lived, there’s kind of a big seminal music scene there. He was playing a lot with Chris Corsano (improvisational drummer) in a band called Vampire Belt and he played with Thurston for a while – they had this band Northampton Wools. And then, about a year and a half ago we started playing together. The first recordings we did were in my basement and we did a 7” from that (2012’s The Eyes, The Mouth / Night Of The Ocean – Ultra Eczema).

At what point did you decide this was a worthwhile outlet?
I don’t know, I guess I just really liked playing with him, he’s a fantastic guitar player, he’s just a really in-tune player … he might be angry if I say this but he’s a lot of female energy. There’s not a drop of any kind of attitude towards a woman playing or non-musician playing. He’s very of-the-world of eccentric music.

How do you see your guitars complementing each other? Bill appears to create adornments that overlay your guttural undertones? Do you have assigned auricular positions? 
It’s like that sometimes but it’s different every night. It shifts. It could be like that but it’s not intentionally like that. I mean it’s really all improvised stuff we do because we play together a lot. It’s kind of like this vocabulary that we know that we have, I know his sensibilities. On the double album that we recorded that is coming out in September on Matador (laughs, almost embarrassed that this is the case), we did use some overdubs and some vocals with a better mic but again it was all improvised and there was maybe one time when there was an edit.

You’re joined at Meltdown by Ikue Mori on drums. How has she inspired you in the past and what does she add to this incarnation of Body/Head?
I played with her off and on over the years with her electronic percussion stuff and I always wanted her to play drums again because she’s such a great drummer and she just decided to this year finally! We played (together) at Chloe Sevigny’s fashion show presentation. She had different bandstands with different girl configurations playing and the models were in their clothes holding signs that we made. We would kind of play a song and then it would go around the room. Playing with a drummer like Ikue is completely different.

Has she contributed to the album?
No, but we will do some recording with her in the future if she wants to. She was always my favourite drummer and I was always looking for someone who would play like her.What kind of textures do the drums bring? Mostly I guess you would say it’s momentum, it kind of carries things and I it suddenly makes it more like a song rather than a song fragment.

The Body and the Head in your name are pointedly separated by a slash. Are you trying to make a distinction between the music and your visuals?
We kind of got the name from reading about this French filmmaker, Catherine Breillet, she talks a lot from a woman’s sexual point of view. There’s this one movie in particular where this young girl, a teenager, gets on top of this older man and she is a virgin and it becomes all about (that) she wants to lose her virginity because she doesn’t want to be controlled. It’s the separation between the body and the head in the context of sexuality.

The use of visuals appear quite important? Is there a narrative working alongside the sonic elements?
It’s more abstract. We sort of the feel the music is filmic. In the past we used a film that was so slowed down it almost looked like nothing was happening. It’s meant to have this mysterious tension and a contrast to the music. But we did a collaboration with Richard Kern (New York underground film-maker and photographer) and that’s probably what we’ll be showing (at Meltdown), this film we did with him.

Are the lyrics also intended as textures or are there particular themes at play?
Kind of. Sometimes when you listen to a song, you don’t hear all the lyrics, you might hear a couple of lines that get you thinking about something and you even mishear a lyric and you project stuff onto it. So (the lyrics) are kind of things to project onto you in a filmic aspect, a little bit like dialogue or something. Sorry this sounds really pretentious (laughs at herself).

The Let’s Start a Pussy Riot book (a creative response to the imprisonment of Pussy Riot, published by Rough Trade and featuring the art of 60 artists including Bobby Conn, Robyn and Antony Hegarty) is launched at Meltdown this week. How did your involvement come about and what’s your contribution?
Someone just emailed me about it. I just did something really simple. I’ve been doing this series of paintings of names of obscure Noise bands so I just did a painting of their name in pink. (Kim has a survey show of her artwork at the White Columns gallery in New York this Summer)

How important do you think it is that Pussy Riot and their dialogue upon active feminism has hit the mainstream?  I think it’s hugely important! A year ago we had this idea that we’ve dealt with feminism and now that everything is fine. But the same issues keep surfacing, certainly nothing as extreme as Russia or other places in the world, but it’s a slow evolution and sometimes it’s five steps back and one step forward. (Though) I feel like there has to be a revolution in Russia for them to actually be free. ??

As you are seen as a kind of alpha-mother of girl rock stars, do you feel the weight of everything you put out to be a statement of feminism or something political?
I feel guilty because I’m really not that political, I just feel like for an artist, it takes a lot of energy to really commit to being political and I just don’t have the time (amusingly dumbfounded), I mean I can barely do what I do. In order to feel like I was really doing a good job, I wouldn’t be able to do all the art that I do. I feel like I can only lead by example in some way. Someone sent me a quote by Gloria Steinem (feminist and political activist), she said, when asked by an interviewer, what do you want to be when you grow up? – “I want to be free and old … A little mean”. Sometimes women express what they really think and they have to then deal with the stereotype – she’s a bitch or she’s you know – and if you live a long time, sometimes you don’t the patience to deal with all the niceties all the time.

Do you find your art more soul-baring than your music as its just you?
It’s different. It’s easier and it’s harder to work on your own. You have to find different sounding boards in other people to give you feedback. It’s kind of nice but for me it’s a whole another level of stress and doubt. It’s a lot harder to me than doing music. ??You appear to be moving back towards the deconstructionism and free-form playing of your roots.

Are you consciously coming full circle as you move out on your own?
That’s sort of what inspired me to make music, you know, no-wave bands, more kind of free, abstract music, not that I didn’t love conventional songwriting, I certainly love all kinds of music, but for me as a person – because I don’t see myself as a musician – I’d rather focus on my art as well.

by Benjamin Lovegrove
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Watch Body/Head here …

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Glass Online music and literature writer

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