I was born in 1981, the same year Sonic Youth became a band. The first time I ever took a road trip by myself, I saw four Sonic Youth shows in a row, and it was Kim Gordon who changed my musical world. Now that her longest running band is over, Gordon has a brand new bag as a duo with Bill Nace called Body/Head, which continues her great sense of aural adventure and experimentation. When I caught up with them at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., it seemed appropriate that we broke the ice by talking about the movie Cold Souls. While Bill and Kim are both warm, articulate people, their music could be the perfect soundtrack for the Paul Giamatti film.
: We’re at the Big Ears Festival here in Knoxville, Tenn., and it seems there is no better festival around that you could be part of than this one. Innovators, artists that are skirting the art and pop world, and you fit in.
Gordon: Yeah, we’re just sort of zooming around the edges of everything.
: Do you see yourself as part of a little club?
Nace: Going on here at the festival?
Gordon: Yeah, kind of. I mean we’re literally like…yeah, we’re kind of…
Nace: I don’t know. What are we?
Gordon: We never feel like we’re actually in the club. Wherever the club is.
: I just don’t see where for a lot of festivals you couldn’t take a yearbook photo of it. But for this one it seems like you could take a nice photo of everyone and it would make sense. It’s this type of music, what’s going on here. I mean, could you ever imagine something like this going…mainstream isn’t the right word, but something like the accessibility. Because there is some really interesting music and ideas here, and I guess what I’m getting to is that while you guys aren’t a “rock band,” but in the realm of rock and pop, we hit a wall every few years and it takes someone to move it forward, and it feels like we could get something out of these artists that could do that. These are the artists that are trying.
Nace: I think that idea of the mainstream and kind of breaking into that way is not as relevant nowadays. It’s more about access, which is easier than it used to be to check out a wide array of things.
: I guess you don’t need a radio hit anymore to make a living.
Gordon: Or to not make a living.
: Did you make a living off of your radio hits?
Gordon: We didn’t have any radio hits! But I mean, I think there is something interesting about, maybe eccentricity is kind of a way you could describe even some of the bands that are playing, like Television. But I think it’s kind of accumulated, people getting years of that dissonance and that kind of music. Like filtering up and you know, I think basically anything can be marketed. Like, the Red Bull Academy did this festival, but they called it drone music. I would never…I think very specifically drone music as like, minimalist classical music. Or I guess I can see how people would think of The Velvet Underground as drone music, but I don’t think of that.
: Well, we look at this through history books now, so it’s through that filter.
Gordon: Right. But people have seemed to have glommed on to that word.
: There was a catch-all with shoegaze as well.
Gordon: That was more pop though.
: If it was slow and murky, it was shoegaze.
Nace: I just think having improvised music at a festival is kind of not the norm.
: Not jam-band improvised music or like free jazz or something like that.
Nace: No, but we’re improvised. And I’m not sure, but I imagine the Haino trio has some improvisation going on. So to have that at a festival is pretty not usual. Which is nice.
: That’s a great lead-in to your record. There is a certain amount of improv in it. Some structure to it, but there was a lot of free range. How does that play toward the live show now that you’re seven months in? Are these songs completely different? Have you all found that there is any kind of structure to these songs on any given night?
Gordon: Well, the record was literally completely improvised, including the lyrics and the vocals.I went back and overdubbed some other lyrics, and we did some shaping and a little bit of editing and a couple guitar overdubs.
: So you’re not playing it.
Gordon: No, we could never recreate it. It was completely made up in the moment. Our whole career, that is what we do live on stage, so the only thing that’s really carried over are some lyric ideas.
Nace: Or some things that we do because that’s who we are and how we play.
Gordon: Yeah, I like to think of it as scripted improvisation, but it’s really unscripted improvisation.
: So what does the setlist look like? Does it even say “Abstract” on it?
Gordon: We don’t have a setlist! But when we tour in Europe, for publishing they always want the name of the songs, so we just put down the names of the songs on the record.
: That’s funny! Bill, I know you’ve mentioned that in previous bands, you didn’t work with a vocalist. Now that you’ve had time in Body/Head, what has that been like for you? Have you found new tricks over these months?
Nace: It’s changed how I play with other people or how I approach it. I mean, you can get away with more in terms of the way Kim sings; it kind of ties it together, and I think it gives it that kind of song quality.
: Kim’s voice is the Lebowski Rug.
Gordon: You’re quoting Bill’s favorite movie.
Nace: But, yeah, so we can work with more abstract musical pieces, but then the vocals tie it together and make it something that I don’t think it would be without the vocals. Just for me, I had never played with that too much, so it’s kind of interesting. I mean I had played with vocalists, but more people that also did more kind of abstract extended technique type of stuff.
: The exciting thing about Body/Head is that it doesn’t seem like there is any kind of road map. I don’t know how you see it. Is this a project or your band?
Gordon: It’s our band. We had a name, so I was like, “let’s make a band.” I haven’t ever really done that many projects except for art projects.
Nace: I think project gets used when there’s a main, you know Free Kitten was a band, but Sonic Youth was happening so then people kind of…
Gordon: Sonic Youth was a project, and Free Kitten was a band.
Nace: Exactly! It’s like where your entry point into all of that is, but I don’t think it means that much.
: It might not happen on this level, but have you had any problem finding your place given Sonic Youth and its history, because there is a spotlight when you walk out, and it’s a new band, but there’s the “that’s Kim Gordon” factor? Have you had any problem, because of that, saying that “this is a duo and not a project”?
Nace: No, I think because it’s a duo there’s not much issue with that. It is what it is.
: Kim, there’s similarity in sounds from what we’re used to hearing from you. Was there ever the point where you thought, “I could step out and completely reinvent myself with this”?
Gordon: I didn’t really think about it so consciously. I felt like, I like playing with Bill and I thought, “oh great, now I can just play exactly what I want to play.”
: “I am the Captain now.”
Gordon: Playing with one other person, it’s just easier to focus on the music for one thing. Also, I just thought, we’re just going to make this music. We didn’t think beyond just going down in the basement and starting to record and then starting to do some shows.
Nace: Yeah, people always want a narrative of something that’s beyond just like, “I like to play music.”
: We have to fill space somehow, Bill.
Nace: It’s true!
Gordon: I wasn’t actually thinking, I was thinking more I would concentrate on art, but I did miss playing and it was fun to do something that, I thought, I wouldn’t have to promote.
: And here you are.
Gordon: Yeah, but if you like it, then you want people to come see it.
: Well, we love it. Luckily it worked! Do you mind if I ask how the book is going? There’s going to be a bio, right?
Gordon: Yeah…It’s going. Actually, my deadline is in April.
: The way you’re saying that doesn’t sound too promising.
Gordon: Let’s just say that I should be at the hotel writing right now.
: Has it been surprising at all how much people from the moment that they heard there was going to be a bio, they were salivating?
Gordon: I mean, it’s not going to be a Sonic Youth bio. There’s things about writing about different songs, and recording, and stories about that, but its purpose isn’t to make a Sonic Youth fan totally happy.
Nace: Just like the band!
Gordon: Just set your bar low. Yeah, please, I want everyone to set their bar low. For whatever I do!
: Have you read any of the unauthorized biographies that have your life in it? Did you ever open any of those? Because there are quite a few out there.
Gordon: They’re all really awful, pretty much. They’re boring. I mean, the only one that’s actually—I mean, they’re not awful, but they don’t have any context to them. The best one is actually this catalogue, Sensational Fix, from a show art exhibit that unfortunately didn’t come here because the recession was going on, but it went to seven or eight museums in Europe. It was an exhibit that had to do with artists that we were influenced by and collaborated with. It was less really about Sonic Youth, but it had individually some of our artwork, and some ephemera and stuff from Sonic Youth, but it was kind of an interesting context for the band and it’s really the best book on Sonic Youth.
Body/Head’s debut album Coming Apart is out now via Matador Records.