LIKE SO MANY NONPROFITS AND LITERARY COMMUNITIES, MANY OF LARB’S FUNDRAISING SOURCES HAVE BEEN UPENDED. IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PROVIDING FREE COVERAGE OF THE BEST IN WRITING AND THOUGHT, WE ARE RELYING ON YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER.
DONATE $5 A MONTH, RECEIVE THE POP ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL AS AN EPUB OR PDF, RIGHT IN YOUR MAILBOX, AS WELL AS ACCESS TO THE FULL JOURNAL ARCHIVES. FOR $10 A MONTH, RECEIVE IT IN PRINT.
I got some groceries, some peanut butter
To last a couple of days.
— Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”
This is not how I imagined my conversation with Kim Gordon. I first reached out in early January 2020, anticipating a slow response because Kim seemed busy: she had recently released a new record, started a tour, and was actively campaigning for Bernie Sanders. Then, the spread of COVID-19 rapidly accelerated and the possibility of doing an interview dwindled even further. When South by Southwest was cancelled, I received a polite note that Gordon was unavailable.
Murphy’s law then swung into action and the situation only worsened. The virus shut everything down. Isolated in my home, I wrote to Gordon’s publicist, “I’m social distancing and figure that, as a freelance writer, the best thing I can do is to have conversations with artists I admire and get them published. But I completely understand if Kim passes.” I received a quick response: Gordon would do the interview.
I meant this genuinely. At this moment of extreme anxiety — amid the latex gloves, N95 masks, and existential dread — Gordon, 67, seemed like an ideal artist to talk to. As a performer, she projects an unflappable air, a living embodiment of the punk ethos that nothing — not a stage diver, heckler, or technical meltdown — will stop the show. Her 2019 album, No Home Record (Matador), feels like a voyeuristic look at modern life from afar. Even when I started listening to Sonic Youth, as a kid, she gave me the sense that nothing could faze her — an imperturbable cool, that also comes off as stalwartness.
The night before we spoke, I pulled a few books from my shelves: Gordon’s 2015 memoir Girl in a Band, Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey (Sonic Youth is discussed), and a book called How to Write About Music, which I bought on an impulse, just because the title amused me. The joke was on me: when I flipped to the “How to Interview an Artist” chapter, the sample interview offered was with … gulp, Kim Gordon.
Our conversation took place the following day, by phone, over the course of an hour. Working from home, like most everyone, I went out to my garage and sat in a closet, balancing my laptop on my knees and my phone in my hands (I didn’t want to wake my sleeping 13-month-old). Gordon spoke to me from her home in Franklin Hills, the neighborhood sandwiched in between Silver Lake and Los Feliz.
ALEX SCORDELIS: How are you doing right now?
KIM GORDON: I don’t know. [Pause.] I just did an online yoga class.
Were there other people patched into the class, or was it just a one-on-one?
It was on Instagram. Actually, it was kind of annoying, because it’s already hard to see the screen, what the instructor is doing on your phone, and then people’s names kept popping up [as they logged in]. I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of that.
This is the new reality. Unfortunately.
Yeah, this is the new reality.
I want to talk about the past few weeks — you’ve ping-ponged from canvassing for Bernie Sanders to performing at Zebulon here in Los Angeles, to performing abroad in Europe, to now living in the era of social distancing. What has it been like for you?
The Bernie campaign has been a thread through it all. Then it switched from the politics to the virus. It’s been strange. I actually got sick in Europe which, when I travel, I pretty much always get sick. I never had a fever or cough, but I still don’t feel totally right. I was just dizzy during the yoga class. I honestly don’t know why that was, maybe a stomach thing, or who knows. Maybe I have leukemia. I’m a hypochondriac. But I’m feeling a lot better. But I don’t know. It’s just very strange. I can actually catch up on things. I guess, like a lot of people, I’m going to try and learn Spanish now. And I can always make art. I don’t know who’s going to buy it.
What is it like creating art in this moment of crisis?
Well, I haven’t even really started. I did something yesterday, some drawings that I had to do for some people. It’s hard to focus on anything right now. But in some ways, it’s like being on tour alone, or when you have to travel for work alone. Whether it’s to do an art exhibition or promo … you’re kind of alone. So in a weird way, my usual activity is not that different from social distancing. It’s just what it’s like when you’re on tour a lot.
I watched an interview with you on YouTube, and the interviewer called your new album a “solo record,” and you said, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s a solo record, but I had a community of artists around me who came along.” In this moment, how is your community of artists coping?
Just texting. FaceTime. Basically, everyone has pretty much the same worries, and watching different films or TV shows or people suggesting, “Oh, let’s do like a … I don’t know, virtual film club or something.” I don’t know what that is. I guess just watching the same movie and then talking about it.
I feel like people tend to consume art like comfort food in moments of turmoil. What’s been your experience consuming art during the past week?
This friend of mine who is one of the two people who I’ve seen, one is my niece, who lives with me, and the other, he brings over records and art books. Like when I was sick. And it’s social distancing, but we still get to share culture together. He has a lot of great art books; we had an afternoon of just culture.
Nimble and prolific, Gordon has punctuated her post–Sonic Youth career with surprise twists: art shows at Gagosian, acting turns on Girlsand Portlandia, wild electric performances and albums from her noise band Body/Head (with collaborator Bill Nace), a 2015 memoir called Girl in a Band, and in 2019 No Home Record, the first album release under her own name.
Despite this flurry of public activity, she remains somewhat mysterious and unknowable. In 2016, there was an internet account dedicated to posting images and stories about a run-in between Kim and a coyote in the parking lot of the Silver Lake Whole Foods 365, an absurd “Paul is dead” myth for millennials. And yet, it seemed so unlikely that it might have actually been true. Gordon has managed to maintain an elusive air despite having her own active social media presence. In fact, just the day before, I had noticed an exchange she’d had with Pavement’s front man.
I saw on Twitter that Stephen Malkmus ranked the songs on Led Zeppelin IV, and then you responded, “My fave!” I thought you were just being nice, but this morning I watched your Amoeba Records “What’s In My Bag?” video, and you bought Zeppelin IV and said, “It’s my favorite.”
Yeah, it’s my favorite of their records. I like III, also.
It dawned on me that you truly are a child of L.A. in the ’70s, and I was curious
to hear your thoughts on how Zeppelin manifests itself in your work.
I did a show a long time ago, like in 2003 or 2002, about L.A. I had this weird interest in Jimmy Page’s interest in California. You know, like the song “Going to California.” It was a diaristic sort of show, and it had these texts I’d written about growing up in L.A. and being into Joni Mitchell. On one wall, I did this airbrush painting of Joni Mitchell from the Ladies of the Canyon album cover. It was that iconic outline of her. And then on the other wall was Jimmy Page. I had this theory about how he’d been influenced by her, then I read an interview where he said that when he listened to “Song for a Seagull,” her guitar playing made him cry.
At that show, I also had a video of driving around L.A., up into Laurel Canyon, that I put to the song “Tangerine.” Or was it maybe “When the Jetty Breaks”? I forget which one. [Note: she probably means “When the Levee Breaks.” But I didn’t correct her. Her use of “jetty” immediately made me think she’s someone who spends more time thinking about Robert Smithson’s Spiral
Jetty than Page and Plant.]
I wasn’t initially into Led Zeppelin. I thought they were too macho or something. So I came to them later. Actually, what got me was seeing a clip on YouTube, this early clip when they played on the BBC. They did “Dazed and Confused,” and seeing Page use his violin bow to play the guitar solo, that classic clip, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s amazing.”
I always associate Zeppelin with the ’70s, but I think that clip is probably from 1969.
Right, right. I feel like a lot of the ’70s was actually in the ’60s … Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett … just swathes of just experimental noise music going on, with psychedelic lights and people dancing. I’ve seen clips like that, too. It’s pretty amazing. Of course, everyone’s on drugs.
Gordon mentioned that she starts most days by watching The Hill’s Rising with Krystal and Saagar, a political news web show. On her social media platforms, Gordon has documented her support of Bernie Sanders, and has encouraged her followers to get out and vote for the senator in the Democratic presidential primaries. She has phone banked, canvassed door-to-door, and even made a humorous video, “Cooking with Kim,” in which she blends “ingredients” like Medicare For All, Green New Deal, and Women’s Rights. The outcome is a sheet cake with Bernie’s logo. Gordon also joined Artists4Bernie, an artist-led campaign that supports Sanders. As of early April, nearly 4,000 artists have signed a letter of support for Artists4Bernie, including Gordon’s tourmate from the ’90s Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and author Rachel Kushner, who has written about Gordon’s Bernie support for Artforum.
Gordon told me that she was first impressed by Sanders when she lived in western Massachusetts and would listen to him speak every Friday on the now defunct Air America radio network. “These are not radical ideas that he has,” she said. “It’s kind of ridiculous, in this day and age that people think they are.”
You’ve been an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Sanders has positioned himself as an “arts president.” As someone who’s toured in countries where the arts are more valued than they are here, what about his platform appeals to you?
Pretty much everything. His idea that America needs extreme economic restructuring, and then all these other things are interwoven. Medicare For All, Green New Deal. If you’re going to tell people, no more fracking or oil or whatever, then you have to have some other means of putting people to work, and training people. The working class is already in crisis, and now there’s this [COVID-19] crisis. And it just really shows what’s wrong with the system, and wrong with really the Democratic Party, and the establishment. Basically, they don’t really care about workers, actually, in their policies.
I saw a post of yours on Instagram where you mention that you’ve always supported anti-establishment, radical politics. How does Sanders fit into the spectrum of what you’ve supported politically over the years?
Aside from women’s rights and supporting that, I haven’t been overtly involved with radical politics. Only in my head — my ideas, or how I feel. I’ve always been anti-establishment. Growing up in the ’60s, that informed the way I see the world. I always saw homogenized culture as an evil form of capitalism. I’m not saying that I think communism is great or anything else. Even in countries that are democratic-socialist democracies, their cultures can be just as homogenized. We all have H&Ms, Starbucks.
I want to talk about the song “Hungry Baby,” off the new album. Listening to it, I thought back to when I was a young teenager and I read an article, probably in Rolling Stone, where you talked about touring with Neil Young, and you called out his road crew for sexist behavior. As a kid, that was the first time I’d heard a woman call out sexism.
Thirty years later, you’re still using your art and your platform, in songs like “Hungry Baby,” to call out sexual harassment, violence, and abuse. Where do you see the fight of women’s rights standing now, and where do you see it going from here?
I guess maybe the way all the grassroots movements are, women’s rights movements have always been having to carry the mantle themselves. And I think our best hope is … it’s imperative that we have to vote against Trump. Because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not going to last another four years. I hate to say that, but you know … And Trump’s already loaded up the courts. I guess that really is what we have to do, is just help to support progressive people, get the Senate back, keep the House, and try to get Roe v. Wade and abortion rights into permanent law. I kind of grew up thinking in part that it was [already law].
To prepare for this interview, I pulled my copy of Girl in a Band off the shelf. When I flipped it open, the first word that I saw was Trump’s name. You mention him in describing the “ugly sheet of Trump buildings” that line the West Side Highway, that they’re a monument to urban corruption. You wrote that before he was a presidential candidate.
Oh yeah, he’s always been gross. I remember, we did this photo shoot once, uptown by Trump Tower. There was this big giant key, golden key in the lobby. I remember posing next to it. It was funny.
In all your years in New York, did you ever cross paths with him or his family?
Actually, strangely, someone seated him next to me at a Marc Jacobs fashion show. I had just happened to have brought my good friend [the critic] Byron Coley, who couldn’t be more worlds apart from anyone going to a fashion show. And he was sitting behind me, and I was talking to him. I saw this look on his face, squinting in kind of disbelief. And I turned around, and it was Donald Trump walking toward us. And he had full orange makeup on. Marc didn’t have a catwalk, so Trump said to me, “Aren’t they supposed to have one of those things?” And like, “They must be expensive to build.” He’s such a fucking idiot. I think his daughter must’ve been modeling or something.
But there was a picture in Entertainment Weekly of the front row [at the fashion show]. There’re two people who have their jaws jutted out, and kind of leaning forward. One is Trump and one is Byron. Byron has just the most quizzical look on his face.
I saw Sonic Youth play for the first time in the summer of 1995. I had just graduated from the eighth grade. Gordon and her bandmates headlined Lollapalooza that year. I caught the roving festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. The venue, with a capacity of 22,500, was sold out. Most of the bands and artists on the bill carried Sonic Youth’s stamp of approval: Hole, Pavement, the Jesus Lizard, Beck, the Dirty Three, and Mike Watt, to name a few. As a kid fresh out of a Catholic junior high school, it was an eye-opening day. An old guy offered me and a friend a joint (as good Catholic school kids, we politely declined). There were booths for Rock the Vote and Rock for Choice. I saw Mike Watt play bass with an egg whisk. To an unworldly kid, Lollapalooza in the ’90s felt like the epicenter of underground culture. But looking back, the annual festival was more like a roving head shop. The amphitheater stank like bad incense and cheap weed. A horde of kids dotted a sprawling lawn eating cheese fries, drinking jumbo Cokes, and watching Cypress Hill perform in the middle of the day.
In my mind, the memory that stands out is Sonic Youth. They were shredding at an ear-splitting volume, with Gordon thrashing away at her bass. Unfortunately, I could only watch the first few songs of their set because by that point, my mom was already waiting to pick us up in the parking lot. She had arrived at nine o’clock sharp.
I was 14 when I first saw Sonic Youth play. At that time, it seemed like there was a goal within the band to bring underground culture to suburban kids like me. Was that a conscious decision?
It feels like a revolutionary act.
When you’re talking to the converted all the time, it’s not … [pause] we just wanted more distribution. After a while, if you’re making something you like, you want as many people to hear it as possible. And it is more radical to try and do something different within the mainstream, rather than to operate in a ghetto.
To that point, you were bringing people from the underground to the mainstream with you. Was that something that you thought about at the time?
What do you mean, like having different bands open?
Yeah. Lollapalooza 1995, as a 14-year-old, it felt like you were curating a show for a suburban kid like me. To be like, “You should know about this stuff.”
Well, it’s just so much more fun to play with bands you like, that you feel like you have some community around, rather than that you’re just all lumped together because you’re played on alternative radio. That was when alternative radio, to us, was suddenly like, “Whoa, wait a minute. We’re not like this.” It was kind of a fake community, you know?
I used to work at Paper Magazine, and in 2012, a couple of my coworkers interviewed you for an oral history about your ’90s clothing line, X-Girl. I remember them telling me, “Kim seemed baffled that we wanted to talk to her about this.” What’s your attitude about looking back at your own body of work?
I don’t know, it just really surprised me that people were so interested in X-Girl, because the clothes weren’t that great. Actually, I shouldn’t say that because Mike Mills did graphic design for us, and the T-shirts were great. It was hard to get the clothes to fit properly. But there wasn’t anything else going on at time in
downtown streetwear for women. We didn’t really make money from it till we sold it. I probably made more money from that than I made in Sonic Youth, which is kind of sad. But when we started Sonic Youth, we weren’t thinking commercial success. We were just like, “Let’s make something cool.”
In the summer of 2011, I published a profile of the band Wild Flag. After it ran, their publicist put me on the list for a show they were playing with Sonic Youth at the Williamsburg Waterfront. I went by myself because a plus-one wasn’t offered. When I arrived at the gate, I discovered that I wasn’t actually on the list. I texted the publicist but didn’t hear back so I walked home. Thirty minutes passed and I got an apology text and a guarantee that I was now on the list. I turned around and went back. I had missed Wild Flag’s set, but I would still get to see Sonic Youth. I’m sharing this story, so you get a sense of how moronic and banal life as a music journalist is. It’s like being a minor character in an extremely low-stakes Kafka story.
And yet, that night, Sonic Youth unleashed a ferocious set. The band played with focus and fervor. Gordon stood center stage, plucking an electric-blue bass. There was little interaction between the band onstage. At one point, Thurston Moore took the mic and said, “Later tonight a giant rattlesnake is going to rise over Manhattan and introduce us all to 2012. And it will spray LSD that will sprinkle down on us, and we’ll all turn into women.” I know he said this at 9:02 p.m. because I actually wrote it down. I also snapped a photo of the band that’s still on my phone. I took it because there was a full moon rising directly above the stage as they played, and most of the songs they performed were off their 1985 sophomore album Bad Moon Rising. It was an unusual move for Sonic Youth, a band that otherwise spurned nostalgia.
That ended up being the last Sonic Youth show in North America. A couple months later, Gordon and Moore announced their separation. They had been married since 1984. The band played five more shows later that fall in South America, to fulfill an obligation, and then like Gordon and Moore’s marriage, Sonic Youth dissolved.
I didn’t ask Gordon about her divorce. It’s a subject she covered in her memoir and in the interviews she gave at the time of that book’s publication. Her book has an all-time last line, right up there with “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” In the memoir’s final scene,
Gordon is returning home to L.A. after a trip to New York (where she was singing in place of Kurt Cobain with Nirvana at their 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction). She parks in a car in front of her Echo Park home and makes out with a guy. “I know, it sounds like I’m someone else entirely right now,” she writes, “and I guess I am.”
How would you describe your childhood in L.A.?
Boring. For elementary school, I went to the Lab School at UCLA. I learn by doing, which is why, maybe, I like to work in different mediums. But it was just totally creative, and then I had to deal with public school after that, which I really didn’t adjust to. I really hated suburban L.A., the banality of it. I felt like, when I read that book [Jean-Paul Sartre’s] Nausea, I was like, “Oh, yeah. This describes how I feel as a teenager.” High school was better than junior high. It was kind of real. I was starting to go to demonstrations, things like that.
In the same way that Sonic Youth was a gateway for suburban kids to contemporary art, were there certain works that were a gateway for you?
Oh, yeah. My brother took me to see this Godard movie when I was like 14 or 15, Pierrot le Fou, which really, really blew my mind. I guess that was maybe the biggest thing. And just listening to records like the Velvet Underground and music from that time. Neil Young. And then just a lot of free jazz. I listened to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Archie Shepp. My dad had a big jazz collection, more mainstream, but that was more my early childhood, listening to stuff like that. Billie Holiday. Can you hold on a second?
I have to text somebody that I’m supposed to meet for a walk. Can I call you back later?
Of course. Should we set up another time to chat?
Yeah. Like around one or something?
That works for me. Thanks.
I stepped out of the closet in my garage and paced around. It was noon. Gordon would be calling back in an hour. My years in the trenches writing music journalism gave me a gut feeling: she’d give me 10 more minutes. No more than that. I looked over my questions. I wanted to ask her about a photo of her and Kurt Cobain that she’d posted on Instagram on Super Tuesday. But she might be annoyed by that. I wanted to ask her about the alleged (but definitely fictitious) coyote attack at Whole Foods. I also wanted to ask her a bunch of nonsense lightning round questions. The world is teetering on the edge of oblivion, why not ask something lighthearted about how she takes her coffee or what her favorite dance move is? I called a couple of friends and ran my questions by them. They said I had to ask the Kurt question and the lightning round questions. Gordon’s publicist texted me Kim’s number and said to call her back.
Your new record came out in October of last year, and has a very modern production quality. It’s both experimental and would fit seamlessly on a playlist between Cardi B and Ariana Grande.
I worked with Justin Raisen, who’s worked with Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira. I met him through his brother, who does a lot of hip-hop and stuff. I just figured whatever I brought to him, he would make into a song, like he would make it sound that way. We did the first song together, “Murdered Out.” That came about accidentally. And was like, “Oh, okay, you get me.” It’s kind of trashy. And it had this playful element to it, which I liked. Basically that’s why I decided to work with him.
I have one more Bernie-related question. On Super Tuesday, you shared a photo of you and Kurt Cobain on Instagram in an attempt to get out the vote for Bernie Sanders. Cobain was a close friend of yours, but he’s also become a symbol. And his image is powerful. I was curious what inspired you to share his image in that context?
[Pause] Honestly, I was just trying to get people’s attention. But I think he would have approved of Bernie.
Finally, I have three or four lightning round questions for you. I saw a doctor from UCSF post that singing is very good for your immune system. Do you ever sing during the day, and if you do what do you sing?
I don’t. But when I was trying to memorize these lyrics for my tour, I would listen on my iPod to them and sing along. But that’s as close as I get to singing aloud. I have lyrics going through my head, but nothing comes out of my mouth.
In what museum in the world do you feel most at peace?
Oh, I don’t know. At peace?
It feels most like home. Or, I guess, that you enjoy going to the most.
The museums keep changing and expanding their properties. I really like the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but I haven’t been there in a while. I’ve seen amazing shows at the Beaubourg [Centre Pampidou].
What’s your morning coffee setup?
Lately it’s been having a cup of rose Darjeeling tea with honey while I watch Rising.
You’re a physical performer. What pop star do you enjoy watching dance the most?
Tina Turner. She is one of the most amazing performers ever.
And to go off that, do you have a favorite dance move of all time?
I mean, waving my arms around, I guess.
After we said goodbye, I hung up and walked out of the garage closet I’d been sitting in. It was a relief to talk for an hour about anything that didn’t deal with death and disease. I felt somewhat foolish ending on those frivolous questions, but this was all new to me. I’d never interviewed an artist at the start of a global crisis.
With Gordon, I never expected to get every answer I was seeking. She’s always let her art do the talking for her. There’s an eerie Richard Prince painting on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 2004 album Sonic Nurse that features a nurse, whose face is partially obscured by a surgical mask — the kind everyone is now wearing at Trader Joe’s. Despite the mask, the nurse seems to be making direct eye contact with the viewer. There’s something of Kim Gordon in this image: even when she’s baring her soul — like she does on her new album, and in her memoir — Gordon remains obscure. Sometimes this obscurity is literal — scanning old interviews on YouTube, Gordon occasionally answers questions from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. Like the nurse on the album cover, Gordon never lets herself be fully seen, though she can be heard, entirely, loudly and without restraint.
Alex Scordelis has written for Billy on the Street, and Difficult People. His writing has appeared in New York, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Esquire, and The Believer.