Kim Gordon's book starts at the end. It's not a wistful look back through a rose-tinted kindle screen. It's a rock 'n' roll show, Sonic Youth's last. The final show before the band split, at the end of Kim's 27-year marriage to Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore. A series of events that she tells me - over the phone from her home in Northampton Massachusetts - were pretty much the catalyst for writing her memoir.
As Kim puts it, "When your life falls apart it makes you sort of look back and reflect on your whole life and how you got to where you are and all that sort of thing." It's what you do after a disaster, natural or in this case man-made. You take inventory of your life. Pick things up and feel the weight of them in your hands. Figure out what's important. "It hadn't really occurred to me to write a memoir right now," she explains. "I kind of have to write in order to think or figure out what I'm feeling about stuff," Kim says.
Kim Gordon is most famous for being a founding member of Sonic Youth. First and foremost she was a visual artist. She's also written about art and worked with interiors. In the '90s she and stylist Daisy von Furth founded X-Girl, the female offshoot of streetwear brand X-Large that brought together the amazing community of talent that included Mike Mills, Sofia Coppola, Chloë Sevigny, Rita Ackerman and Marc Jacobs. She produced an album for Hole. She co-directed the music video for The Breeders' Cannonball with Spike Jonze. She recently popped up in a cameo on HBO's Girls. She is fucking cool. She is an icon.
I ask if she ever had a plan. "I had a plan: I came to New York to do art," she gives a wry laugh. "But you know the plan went in different directions. Ultimately it's kind of all working together, it just was more circuitous a route." The themes that unite all of her work she puts down to, "I guess an interest in subcultures…or [an] interest in a performance/audience relationship."
The title of the memoir, Girl in a Band, references the question Kim Gordon's been bugged by in interviews her entire musical career: What's it like to be a girl in a band? It almost fits like a neat bookend to a first essay she wrote for Real Life magazine, Trash Drugs and Male Bonding, about men on stage and the way they lock in to one another playing music. Kim agrees that, "Yeah, gender's always something that's present." Is it something she's felt the need to offer much guidance on to her daughter Coco, especially with her being in a band (Big Nils)? Kim corrects me - "Oh she's not in a band anymore, that was just a high school thing." – and for a second I feel like someone's mom who's asking what the cool kids are up to. She continues, "I think just kind of being a role model of sorts to her. They just kind of look at what you do...but she's very much her own person and has her own ideas about what she does or doesn't like about feminism."
I make reference to Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/The Julie Ruin front woman Kathleen Hanna who, for an Elle magazine story, said of Kim, "It made the bullshit easier to take, knowing she was in my corner." Did she ever have anyone who made the bullshit easier to take? "No, not really. But I didn't have as much bullshit as Kathleen did, do you know what I mean? I wasn't stepping out and making [feminism] my whole agenda. Yeah it was more subtle, the bullshit was more subtle."
It was in the same Elle magazine interview in which Kim revealed that the reason behind their break-up was Thurston's infidelity. This came after months of a kind of vicarious grieving. A writer, Elissa Schappell, wrote an article for Salon Magazine titled How Could Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore Divorce? in which she described how she cried when she heard news of the split. But it wasn't only her – from music journalists to hardcore fans to quite a few people just caught somewhere in between, faith in the idea of monogamous long term relationships was thoroughly rattled.
The public sadness was understandable, but it must also be a bizarre thing when you're in the midst of your own, deeply personal, heartbreak. Kim agrees it was "totally weird", but is even handed in her reflection: "I guess in a block building indie rock kind of way we kinda meant something to a lot of people. And you know, Sonic Youth fans didn't want to see the band end. It was on the one hand quite touching but on the other hand a little scary."
When relationships are functioning with all their vital signs they feel complex and unique, like a fingerprint. Break-ups usually look and sound roughly – depressingly – similar; complacency, growing apart and cheating, or some other muddy combination. In the book Kim refers to their break-up as "probably the most conventional story ever".
Thinking about Lena Dunham's recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl and the unexpected controversy over details she revealed in the book, I ask Kim if she anticipates any similar trouble. "Not in a general public kind of way, I don't think there's anything controversial." And in a personal relationships way? "I can't think about that." She is quick to qualify, "I mean there shouldn't be…there's nothing fallacious. It's my story."
It is indeed her story, and after Sonic Youth a new chapter has begun. Kim has been painting a lot and exhibiting regularly. And she's playing music, with guitarist Bill Nace, as Body/Head. Starting a band in 2011 feels understandably different to starting a band in 1981. "Yeah I mean I don't really care about maybe the things I cared about when we started Sonic Youth. You kind of know - you've been through it all - you know what you don't want to do."
On stage it's an often-improvised performance of squalling guitars and Kim's vocals – at times breathy, and other times urgent. Behind them projections create an immersive experience. "When I started playing music with Bill I was like 'Oh good, this is great, we can just play music' and it's nothing that I'm going to end up promoting because there's no commercial aspect to this music whatsoever," she explains. "It's just purely music and it was kind of liberating to feel that." It feels like she's where she wants to be and it's a very different place to the tour diary she kept for the Village Voice in '87–'88(which she admits to me, "I kind of wrote in retrospect…I wasn't there writing in the van every day"). In it she writes, "In the middle of the stage, where I stand as the bass player of Sonic Youth, the music comes at me from all directions. The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you."
Is there anything left she hasn't done that she'd still like to do? "I'm a little interested in theatre," she says. She talks a little about a collaboration she's done with a friend involving music and text, sounding probably her most at ease. "We sort of think of them as one act plays…I'm sure most people look at it as performance art. We don't like that term." I push for more information but she's quick to shut it down at this stage. "Who knows, who knows. I don't have any plans to do anything so…" She does have a couple of big art shows coming up and the book tour. "And when I get to Athens I'll stay there and go to a Greek Island or something."
Published on February 4th, 2015 by Courtney Sanders
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