Kim Gordon on her new memoir, 'Girl in a Band'

February 23, 2015

Kim Gordon is a founding member of Sonic Youth, visual artist, feminist icon, mother and fashion trendsetter. Now she can now add "memoirist" to her list of accomplishments. Her new "Girl in a Band," not only offers insight into music, art, the shifting tides of underground culture and the dynamics that made Sonic Youth tick, itís also more transparent about her personal life than she has ever been.

Gordon and her husband of 29 years, Thurston Moore, finalized their divorce in 2013, effectively ending Sonic Youth, the band they co-founded in New York City in the early í80s, when the couple separated in 2011. Since the breakup, Gordon has formed a new avant-rock band, Body/Head, and been the subject of numerous exhibitions of her visual art around the country.

In a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts, Gordon said the dissolution of her marriage prompted her to try to "make something constructive out of it."

"Life steps in front of you, you have to take it on," she says. "When something traumatic happens in your life, like a breakup, it sets you off thinking about your life. How did I get here? Who am I? I started thinking a lot about my childhood, and it was helpful in making sense of where I am now."

Hereís an edited transcript our conversation.

Q: You write that you did some high-school dance choreography for Frank Zappa music. So I have to ask, how do you dance to Frank Zappa music?

A: (Laughs) It was me thinking about what is the most off-the-wall thing I can do. It was the only creative class in high school, and the teacher was a gym teacher who left me to my own devices. I was doing modern dance outside of school, so I kind of knew what I was doing. I hated high school, so here was my chance to rebel. I did a more legit piece of choreography to (the music of) Pentangle. The Zappa piece, there was a toilet mechanism and toilet paper involved.

Q: Did you get a good grade?

A: I canít remember. It was probably pass/fail.

Q: Your first rock band, Below the Belt, you describe as "pure mayhem and caterwauling." You were stepping into music for the first time after being in the art world. How did it feel?

A: It was super exciting, because Iíd never done anything like that before. We started a band for a college art class project, so it was within that context. I donít think it mattered how it sounded. The art context can be very forgiving (laughs). When I was at Otis (College of Art and Design in Los Angeles), people were doing experimental music, and that piqued my interest. When I moved to New York, I was super influenced by Warhol, the Factory, and art that had music attached, like the Velvet Underground. Music was a new thing, but I didnít really think about pursuing it further. I moved to New York to pursue visual art.

Q: Are the challenges to developing a career in visual arts and music similar?

A: When I look back on Sonic Youthís journey, I wonder how did that happen? There was no money for a long time, and we were not thinking what will come out of it. It was always about letís make a record, get a gig at CBís (New York punk club CBGB), get a tour. When youíre not thinking about anything else you just move one day at a time. The art world is the same and yet quite different. The art world now is a lot more commercial than when I started out. Itís harder. Iím still establishing myself as an artist in that world. I guess Iím a late bloomer. I was in a band for 30 years and did what I could in art. In 2003, I started more seriously getting back to this thing that is so much a part of who I see myself as in the world. In the art world, careers slowly progress or they donít progress at all. Itís not like having a hit and selling a bunch of records. In the art world, there is always going to be the hot trendy new artist thing, but itís hard to sustain that.

Q: You wrote an essay in the í80s about your desire to get inside of what you called the male dynamic that defines rock bands. Why was that important to you?

A: Maybe it had to do with the (bad) relationship I had with my brother. I was looking for a better relationship with guys. I grew up such a tomboy and I wanted something brotherly. My dad was a sociologist, and that had something to do with it. I only recently figured that out. I have this memory of looking at my dadís books and seeing titles like "Men and Their Work" when I was 9 years old and wondering what does that mean?

Q: But you couldnít just be one of the guys either, right?

A: I felt a little like a dork, sort of an outsider. I did admire all these girl groups: the Slits, Raincoats, Runaways, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch, Au Pairs. It wasnít like I just had male icons, but I ended up with these guys. (Before Sonic Youth) I was in a band with girls, but it didnít work for long. The alchemy of personalities, thatís whatís so fascinating about bands. Why something works with one group of people, and not another group. Itís so reliant on each of our personalities and how they mesh together.

Q: You write that the need to be a woman out front never entered your mind until Sonic Youth signed with Geffen a decade into the bandís career. Why is that?

A: I guess I didnít feel like my style was together. Things changed after we made "Daydream" (Sonic Youthís breakthrough album "Daydream Nation" in 1988). The songwriting became more structured. Even though I was there and contributed, I felt like I had less creative input in songs that were more conventional. For me, it became about thinking about image and playing around with that. The record company was not really behind that. For me, some of the ideas were more playful, inspired by Blondie. I liked the way (Blondieís Deborah Harry) used clothes ironically. The goofy glam shots (on the inner sleeve of the 1990 "Goo" album), that was my idea. I was conscious of getting more into fashion, and what I could wear on stage, because I could afford to buy nicer clothes. My friend at (Gordonís í90s fashion line) X-Girl, we would have conversations about cool white jeans, FranÁoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, and the way these (female) artists (from past generations) would dress, and have a dialogue with that in a way.

Q: Youíre critical of Billy Corgan in the book when writing about the lines drawn between underground and mainstream in the early í90s, and the "authentic" and "manufactured" music of the alternative-rock era. How do you feel about those distinctions now and why do you think theyíve melted away in many ways?

A: I didnít mean to slag off Billy in the book. I was trying to explain the sociology of what was going on back then. But the lines that were created have fallen away. Look at the way people listen to the Carpentersí music. When they first came out, the songs sounded like an ad for a bank youíd hear on the radio, they were so conservative in the midst of all this groovy stuff. It was hard to listen to that (in the í70s), but now they are appreciated. Thatís what happens to history. The context of the time disappears, and now the line between genres is pretty much obsolete. I donít know if itís good or bad. Now I can hear a Smashing Pumpkins song and think, "That sounds good." (Visual artist) Raymond Pettibon, some of his best work was the way he took on the whole hippie thing in the middle of the punk era. History changes music and art in a way, because the context for it slips away and itís rediscovered by a younger generation in a new context.

Q: In the same way, you write about the way Madonna used her sexuality to sell her art and that evolved into a cultural landscape where porn is everywhere. You argue that it was about a woman using a maleís idea of marketing sex. How does someone like Beyonce fit in with that wave of sex-as-marketing?

A: Iím all for sexy images. I donít see that many Beyonce videos, but I think there are so many different ways to involve sexuality in the way women present themselves, but just presenting it in one way gets kind of boring. I donít see a lot of sexy images lately (in the mainstream) aside from conventional ones. Itís more about gender fluidity now, thatís where the conversation is. People like Lady Gaga have brought humor back to these (sexual) images, where no one had been doing it since Debbie Harry.

Q: Why did you decide to write so openly about your breakup with Thurston?

A: Thurston was part of my whole story, and I didnít want to leave it out. What happened between us is an important part of where I am now. (Gordon writes in her memoir that she found phone messages her husband had been secretly exchanging with another woman and confronted him about a long-standing extramarital affair that eventually broke up their marriage.) I thought this was my best opportunity to clear the air. Iím sure weíll hear his version of it. I could have gone into huge detail and made a whole other book out of it, but I didnít want it to take over the book and I didnít want to write a salacious thing. I have compassion for people falling in love, but I do have issues with how it happened and what it did to our daughter.

I didnít want pull quotes about it. I realized that people do look at me as some kind of (cultural) figure, so I felt I was writing about something that happens in so many peopleís lives. And, yes, it happened to me, and this is how I dealt with it.




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