interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait RICHARD KERN
and personal pictures
KIM GORDON, the singer and bassist of Sonic Youth, has been an inspiration for us at Purple since our very first issue. We’ve photographed Kim on many occasions, but hadn’t really sat down to talk with her since 1992, when our magazine was still called Purple Prose — the same year she started the band Free Kitten. Kim’s not only a musician; she’s also a writer, a fashion designer, and a visual artist. Her recent exhibition, “Noise Paintings,” at John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, connected her music to her paintings. We thought now would be a good time to ask Kim for deeper insight into this connection and into her life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start by talking about Françoise Hardy. You must really like her, judging by your collection of her seven inch records. How did you discover her?
KIM GORDON — I don’t really know. I mean, a lot of Americans know about Françoise Hardy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really?
KIM GORDON — Yes, according to Charlotte Gainsbourg, they do. I suppose I know about her through Thurston and his record collecting. He’s always buying records when we’re touring and traveling around, and he always said that I’d like her. I found out about Brigitte Fontaine afterwards, via Leticia from Stereolab. She’s a much more interesting singer, but I like Françoise Hardy’s cool style, and the tomboy thing she has. When Daisy Von Furth and I were doing our X-Girl clothes in the early ’90s we were influenced by her. We would look at pictures of her and try and replicate the things we liked.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Françoise Hardy is known in France for being one of the young girls who were part of the ’60s pop scene.
KIM GORDON — I suppose France Gall was more of a pop star.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, and much more famous. Hardy has been overshadowed by Jacques Dutronc, her husband. Do you know of him?
KIM GORDON — Not really.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s an iconic French pop star, a male version of France Gall.
KIM GORDON — That’s interesting, because I think Hardy is better known over here, because of her style and her je ne sais quoi. There’s a famous picture of her and Bob Dylan featured in Todd Haynes’ movie, I’m Not There. Haynes sort of recreates that scene, and has a character play her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you have a role in that movie?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, in the documentary film within the film I play a cross between Suzy Rotolo and Judy Collins. My character is interviewed in the ’80s about Dylan.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like Dylan?
KIM GORDON — Oh yeah. I grew up listening to Dylan. I had an older brother who loved those early Dylan records. He had them all. I only stopped listening to him after Desire. After that it was over for me. I lost interest.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I love Sonic Youth’s album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star . Did the “No Star” part express your rejection of the rock star attitude?
KIM GORDON — Well, the Rolling Stones really mined the rock star look, the attitude. We come out of a post-punk genre. But there’s something about the tradition of rock and roll — of being decadent and careless.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And excessive?
KIM GORDON — Yes. Punk rock was against the rock star attitude, and we were influenced by the punk era, which had more kind of a do-it-yourself, seize the moment outlook. In the ’70s, youth culture was co-opted and exploited. Rock and roll became associated with corporations. It’s interesting to listen to lyrics from the Laurel Canyon scene of the ’60s. They started out as part of the hippie movement but then when they became successful and started making money…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Led Zeppelin with their private jet.
KIM GORDON — Led Zeppelin was beyond everything and everyone. Neil Young wrote the song “Out Of My Mind,” about being alienated from culture — “Hear the screams outside the limousines.” But a lot of groups weren’t part of that movement. One tends to think about how cool they were about their success. Certain rock music expressed values that were non-materialistic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were some bands trapped in the golden cage of success?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, but Led Zeppelin was beyond it all. 1970 saw the beginning of corporate rock and roll and the excessive lifestyles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you always conscious of that? And were you conscious of the punk scene’s anarchist agenda to destroy all the icons?
KIM GORDON — The US was different from the UK. It was very Beat, with its connections to the beatnik, bohemian poetry scene. We had Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. In England they had Malcolm McLaren and the Situationists. Even though it was hippies versus punks, with their different hair and styles, they shared many things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you move to New York?
KIM GORDON — I came to New York from Los Angeles to make art. LA is all about being commercial and doing things to remind people of wealth. I came here to escape all that. California culture doesn’t really support art. In general, America’s not really a country that supports art.
Kim Gordon, Trash Drugs and Male Bonding, essay from Real Life Magazine, March 1980
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which might actually stimulate the making of art.
KIM GORDON — That’s true. It’s more interesting to fight against something.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Unlike in Amsterdam, say, where half of the artists get support.
KIM GORDON — Canada’s like that, too. But New York does have a history of supporting artistic culture. When I got here I responded to the most unconventional music: No Wave music, really nihilistic. Punk rock didn’t really alter rock and roll. No Wave was more abstract.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define No Wave? Was it a more intellectual version of punk?
KIM GORDON — Kind of. It was more dissonant and unconventional. It wasn’t musically based on three-chord rock and roll, like punk rock basically was. And No Wave wasn’t so much oriented toward lyrics, whereas punk rock was lyrically oriented, railing against the system. No Wave was artier, I guess. Musicians like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham were influenced by minimalism. Glenn had worked in theatre. Lydia Lunch was a Dead Boys groupie. She was wild. When Sonic Youth started, we were at the tail end of that and there really wasn’t much of a music scene in New York. It had dispersed. And we wanted to do something more positive. We wanted to mix rock and roll influences with the minimalist music of Glenn Branca. New York has a rich tradition of music like free jazz. I think bands like The Fall were popular here because they were so rhythmic and minimal — and so free. When we first started we weren’t really thinking about anything except going on a musical adventure. That led to a gig at CBGBs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it was a spontaneous music combined with an artistic agenda?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. It was intuitive, organic. When we first got together we had a couple gigs under the name Sonic Youth. We’d sit around in a circle, playing acoustically. It was actually more conceptual because we couldn’t rehearse anywhere and we didn’t have a drummer, so Thurston would pick up a drumstick and play his guitar percussively. Steve, our drummer, came along a few years later.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since the formation of Sonic Youth and 18 years since the creation of Purple. Can you explain your longevity?
KIM GORDON — It’s probably because we weren’t rock stars! We didn’t indulge in drugs or drink heavily.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even at the beginning?
KIM GORDON — Well, I mean, we drank a little. We just never got heavily into it. We were a bit older when we started — in our mid-20s. Thurston was in his early-20s. We were more interested in the music. We had so many different guitar tunings that it was hard to keep everything straight. We didn’t have roadies so we had to tune everything ourselves. Which meant we needed to be together enough to at least tune the guitars. At first we had really cheap guitars that didn’t sound good in regular tuning, but sounded better in stranger tunings. It wasn’t about having a pristine sound or being perfect. Our sound was an uglier kind of one.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Getting back to the question of longevity, every three to five years New York seems to change. Sonic Youth’s been through a lot and has remained respected and influential. That’s really rare. If you think of all the different bands, there’s a moment for them that comes and goes and then comes back as nostalgia. There’s nothing nostalgic about Sonic Youth. It still feels like a work in progress. Is it because you’re constantly searching?
KIM GORDON — [Laughs] What can I say? You know, there is a point when it doesn’t really matter how good the record we do is. Our fans will listen to it. I mean, history always readjusts itself. For a lot of people, we’re an ’80s band. Daydream Nation is the record people hold up. That’s what happens with everything. But I think that because we all do other things and play with other people we continue to bring different energy and ideas into the band.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about Thurston. You’ve been together for a long time.
KIM GORDON — We’ve been married for 26 years, and together for 30.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That must be unique in the history of rock and roll.
KIM GORDON — There are a few other examples.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s difficult to maintain a marriage, and more so when you work together. And maybe it’s even more complicated when you work in the art or music scenes — maybe especially so in the music scene because, you know, there are so many girls, so many boys, so many dreams, so many dramas…
KIM GORDON — We come from similar middle-class backgrounds. Both of our fathers were academics. My dad was a professor and then dean of sociology and education at UCLA. He did the first study of the social system of a high school — recognizing social cliques. That was his big thing. I think that’s why I like sociology. Thurston’s dad taught philosophy and music.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And now you two do sonic sociology.
KIM GORDON — Well, the first thing I did in New York was to write. I wrote an article on male bonding and trash drugs for a magazine called Real Life — there was a copy of it at the Noise Paintings show I did at John McWhinnie. I was interested in male bonding. In fact, that was my main reason for joining a band — to do research, but not by being simply a voyeur. I always looked up to male musicians and had boyfriends who were musicians. I guess I wanted to be a musician, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What intrigued you the most?
KIM GORDON — The male world and the music worlds. When I was little I often looked at my dad’s books. I was fascinated by the titles of them. I remember one called Men and Their Work. I wondered what it meant. I guess that everything stems from that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Real Life an art magazine?
KIM GORDON — Yes. It was founded in the ’80s by Tom Lawson. He was an artist who showed at Metro Pictures. Real Life was small, more like a fanzine, but well done, and it had images and essays by a lot of artists. A book about such magazines recently came out, kind of a compendium of them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you once write for Artforum? I did for a little while.
KIM GORDON — Oh really? I wrote a couple things when Ingrid Sischy was the editor. I did a piece on Glenn Branca called “I’m Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams.” I was also the first one to write about Raymond Pettibon — in the early or mid-’80s. I sandwiched him between Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley in order to get him into Artforum, because at the time he was unknown.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you could have become an art critic.
KIM GORDON — Possibly. But I was a fake academic. I would come up with really preposterous premises and then try to prove them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a good definition of an art critic.
KIM GORDON — Maybe. But I was being tongue-in-cheek, at least partly. There was another magazine, called ZG — do you know it?
OLIVIER ZAHM — No.
KIM GORDON — It was started by an English woman named Rosetta Brooks. I wrote an article for ZG about David Salle and other passive-aggressive artists, about how they were influenced by the weird sexuality in works by artists from Warhol to David Bowie.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There was an interesting context at the beginning of the ’80s, at the end of minimalism, especially in New York. There was a mix of everything. A lot of things came back — painting came back — and everything was a bit chaotic.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, and then it became very commercial.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you didn’t answer my question about you and Thurston — how do you explain your longevity? How do you combine love, work, and children in your amazing chemistry?
KIM GORDON — It’s not always easy! But we’re committed to each other. That’s what a marriage is supposed to be about. We’re committed to making it work and there’s something nice about being with someone for such a long time. They’re a witness to your life. That’s what a relationship like ours is like.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s beautiful seeing you together, because one assumes your intimacy and understanding, and yet you also seem a bit distant from each other.
KIM GORDON — You mean independent?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, and reserved — a bit distanced, no?
KIM GORDON — Definitely. Especially in public. I mean, for a long time I didn’t want to be seen as being in a relationship. I wanted to be seen as an individual. I thought that was important. But as much as it’s important to have good communication, which we don’t always have, it’s important to maintain enough distance to be able to come back together. Touring is difficult in that it’s hard to maintain the same sort of communication or relationship. On tour you get into a pattern — you’re tired and always together but not really together. You feel almost closer onstage, communicating via the music.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was it like to having your daughter, Coco? I remember when she was born. Did it change your life?
KIM GORDON — Having Coco made me pull back a bit. It made me realize I couldn’t be involved in every decision. You have to step back from some things. You know, our band is very democratic. The minutiae of being in a band can be so boring!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean that everyone in the band discusses everything with everyone else?
KIM GORDON — Yes, kind of — or they have that option. But a lot of times I don’t care, or I don’t want to expend the energy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like when Coco was really young, maybe?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I always had to do press, even when I was pregnant. Other people got pregnant and were allowed to get away from it all. For me the questions went from “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” to “How does it feel to be pregnant?” to “What’s it like to be a mother in a band?” The X-Girl line was coming out at the time, too, so we had to do all these photo shoots. It was stressful. But it’s hard for any woman to balance everything, maybe because they worry about the future more. Scheduling is our biggest nightmare. We don’t live in New York, so we’re always going back and forth. Thurston’s in NY a lot now. And Coco’s schedule is full, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you name Coco after Coco Chanel?
KIM GORDON — No, it’s just a name. Although we didn’t know anyone named Coco, except, I guess, Coco Chanel. It’s a rather unusual name. We thought it was a nickname. We wanted a name that wasn’t too girly, but one that was playful and easy to say. I liked Bianca, but Thurston thought it was too close to Bianca Jagger.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You must be really proud of her, because she’s so beautiful. When I saw her I was really impressed, because I hadn’t seen her in three years and there she was, a beautiful teenager.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, thanks. She’s pretty grounded, though. She’s at an interesting age. Sometimes she seems so wise it blows my mind.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You said something once about women being true anarchists because they have to fight against male domination. Do you think this is still true in the music world?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, I do think it’s still true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you did Free Kitten, was it to make a statement? You had an image of two girls with guns scaring men.
KIM GORDON — There are a lot of bands, including punk bands, with women in them. I was inspired by bands like The Slits. They were anarchists. They didn’t know how to play when they first started. They just made sure they knew the beginning and the ending of a song. There was a freedom in what they did that was really inspiring. I mean, that’s the way I saw things. There are so many different kinds of women in music, singers and songwriters. Music was also an escape from the art world, which at the time was so commercial.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean that you wanted to develop two careers, one in art and another in music? Did you want them to be clearly separated, so as not to seem like a…
KIM GORDON — A dilettante, or something? I’m interested in dilettantism now!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your art career a parallel vocation?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, I would do things periodically. It was hard because to a certain extent my art training was more formal and intellectual. I didn’t know anything about music or how to play an instrument.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were an amateur in music and an academic in art?
KIM GORDON — I’m still more formal about art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started to play the bass without having had any previous musical training, right?
KIM GORDON — Yes, but that was also a part of the No Wave thing, that you didn’t know how to play an instrument. Same thing with punk rock — just do it. Minimalist music really just required you to have a big pick. I remember either Glenn or Rhys explaining how to use a pick: just strum down strokes in open-E.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But obviously, you had a sense of rhythm, a feel for music.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, I’d wanted to be a dancer. I took Martha Graham courses, and I did have a sense of rhythm. I didn’t have a melodic sense, but I had a rhythmic one, a sense for phrasing and for space. For a long time I wanted to keep everything separate because I thought it was too easy to combine music with art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You once said that the bridge between your music and your art is in the performance, in your relationship with the public. Were you always interested in this relationship?
KIM GORDON — Yes, interested in the audience and the performer’s relationship with it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How has Dan Graham been important for you? Did you meet him in New York?
KIM GORDON — Dan has been a big influence. He encouraged me to write. I met him in LA. He was giving a lecture at CalArts. I met Mike Kelley there, too. An artist who was involved with John Knight — he was a conceptual artist — told me to go to Dan’s lecture. Dan has an incredible wealth of information. He and Mike Kelley were arguing about punk rock, about who started it — was it really Iggy? It was really funny. When I moved to New York I looked Dan up, and he said something like go to Franklin Furnace and he told me what shows were happening. He recorded all the No Wave shows with this giant Sony stereo cassette player. I ended up moving downstairs from him on Eldridge Street. He asked me if I wanted to start an all-girl band and do one of his performance pieces, one with a mirror behind the performers that the audience looks at. He introduced me to Miranda Stanton, who played bass. I played guitar and Christina Hahn played drums. We were called CKM.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were part of a Dan Graham performance.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, that’s how it started. But that was our only gig, because Christina left to go play with Malaria. We played with different people but we never played out again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, it was a great start.
KIM GORDON — I remember that Christian Marclay organized that gig, at the ICA in Boston. Eric Mitchell showed a movie, and Non played. It was a good show.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But CKM only did this one show.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. Miranda was playing music with Thurston — that’s how I met him. She said there’s this boy in a band called The Coachmen who’s really special, that I’d like him. So we went to see them. They were all really tall, except the drummer. It was their last gig.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you fell in love.
KIM GORDON — I definitely liked him. He was five years younger than me, and I’d never thought about going out with a younger guy.He had a special glow around him. We started hanging out. He was also playing with Anne DeMarinis, who was Vito Acconci’s girlfriend at the time. She was a beautiful blonde keyboardist, way younger than I was. So we started playing music with her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Robert Longo had his band at the same time. It seems like everyone in art was playing music.
KIM GORDON — Well, Robert and Richard Prince played with Glenn, or with Rhys — actually Robert was in the piece I wrote for Real Life. The strange thing is that Dan Graham and Vito Acconci weren’t really talking at that point. They both came out of the poetry scene together in New York. I don’t know if Vito ever went to school to study art but Dan didn’t. [Acconci attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — Ed.] I met a lot of people back then. I was working at a gallery that Annina Nosei had with Larry Gagosian. I’d known Larry from LA — I used to frame the schlock prints he manufactured. I worked for him as a framer. When I came to New York he said they needed someone to answer the phone. I didn’t know how to type or anything. I was a terrible secretary. That’s how I met Richard Prince and Troy Brauntuch and Robert Longo.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Larry Gagosian had a gallery at the time?
KIM GORDON — Yes, in LA. He mass-produced these really terrible prints. When he came to New York he was starting over. They put on David Salle’s first show. Because of the co-op’s rules, it had to be a private gallery. Basically Larry would just stay there. He was traveling back and forth from LA. He hadn’t moved to New York yet. I didn’t believe people would take him seriously in the art world, but they certainly have.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Jean-Luc Godard an influence for you?
KIM GORDON — Oh yeah. I think I was 14 when I saw Pierrot Le Fou. Just the way he used language and the idea that he thought of himself as someone who wrote essays that could become this other medium.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Visual essays.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I related to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about his use of sound and noise?
KIM GORDON — I liked the way he integrated music and sound, the way he was so aware of all the elements of film and their relationship to the audience — the relation of the viewer to the camera, and his use of the one-way mirror idea of painting and visual art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about Richard Kern, who did pictures for some of your albums? How did you meet him?
KIM GORDON — I think we met him through Lydia Lunch. She showed some of his early films at the Pyramid, when she was doing performances there. She acts in The Right Side Of My Brain. He did our first video, Death Valley ’69. We’ve known each other for years. He went to art school. He’s one of the few people I know who’s my age.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What ever happened to Lydia Lunch?
KIM GORDON — She’s living in Barcelona. She still writes and performs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know that you collaborated with Spike Jonze on The Breeders’ “Cannonball” video. It was good.
KIM GORDON— Yeah. Kim Deal asked me to do it. I didn’t really have a production company and Spike had started doing videos, so I asked him if he wanted to co-direct it with me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet Spike?
KIM GORDON — We met him early on in LA, doing a photo shoot for a skate magazine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — “Cannonball” is somewhat of a cult video.
KIM GORDON — Well, I took that mirror idea from Dan Graham. I thought it was also very Godard-esque , showing the viewer the camera. The cannonball was Spike’s idea. I wanted to dress Kim Deal up like Mick Jagger, but that didn’t quite work out. Kim was skeptical about being in a video.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you stop Free Kitten?
KIM GORDON — Well, we did do a record a couple of years ago, after a ten-year break. It’s called … ah…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve forgotten?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. We recorded it two years ago up at J. Mascis’ house, where I live. You never know, we might do another record. It’s hard to have two bands. And Julie doesn’t really like to play live — she’s got stage fright. The way we work is to get together and come up with some songs or ideas, record them, and then build on that. It’s kind of a drag to have to go back and relearn songs. I like to make things and then go onto something else.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you continue to do fashion. Your new project is called Mirror/Dash — what does the name mean?
KIM GORDON — It comes from the name of the experimental duo that Thurston and I have. We have a couple singles out and some things on compilations. We perform occasionally. It’s all improv.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you stole the name from that.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, just to make things more confusing. I wanted it to mean something but be kind of obscure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s really obscure.
KIM GORDON — They’re the nicknames we used on Sister — Thurston’s name was Mirror Moore and mine was Kim Dash. It was during our Philip K. Dick period. Cyberpunk.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of fashion are you doing now?
KIM GORDON — We’ve been collaborating with Urban Outfitters, trying to do clothes that are sort of not for teenagers — less trendy, a little more basic. But ultimately, that’s all they know how to do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you work?
KIM GORDON — We work with the designer Jeffrey Montero. And I have a partner who works in sales for Jeffrey. She used to work for Jane Mayle and so did Jeffrey. We start with ideas and then Jeffrey draws them up and then we meet with Urban.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you try and do things that you think they’ll like?
KIM GORDON — Well, we have to pick fabric that’s affordable. Every two months we have another delivery of clothes. But it’s not all that satisfying.
OLIVIER ZAHM — First you did X-Girl, and now this. Have you always liked fashion?
KIM GORDON — Not really. I mean, fashion is interesting, but I think that artists have a very skeptical relationship to it. You don’t want to get lost in it. Because I’m a visual person, I do like fashion. But I don’t really like the fashion world. It’s an odd relationship, because I do like clothes, but I don’t want things to be too perfect.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When I go to one of your concerts, I’m always curious to see what kind of dress you’ll wear, what kind of look you’ll have. It’s part of your…
KIM GORDON — Lightshow?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, people like to see how you dress for the performance.
KIM GORDON — I guess it helps you to get into it, to remove yourself. I used to just wear a giant t-shirt or something with boots and a choker, but you know, you have to move on from that. At the time I thought my outfits were terrible. Now I look back and think they were kind of interesting. At a certain point I wanted to wear a dress, or at least something that contrasted with what people thought about rock and roll, what it was supposed to be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The absolute contrast for me is a girl playing onstage in a really pretty dress.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, like a Rodarte or something. I like it when I see girls onstage looking like secretaries or something, and then they play extreme noise music.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This gets us back to the Françoise Hardy of the ’60s — pretty and nice: not a rock and roll cliché.
KIM GORDON — Mark Arm from Mudhoney once said to me, “How come you don’t wear t-shirts anymore?” In a way, he’s right, but at the same time, I remember Debbie Harry from Blondie wearing athletic wear or something, and wondering why she didn’t go back to the way she used to dress, all Stephen Sprouse-y.
OLIVIER ZAHM — She had a very good sense of style at the beginning.
KIM GORDON — I think Stephen Sprouse dressed her. That’s what Mark told me. I think a great part of her style came from her hair being black in the back, because she couldn’t reach back there when she dyed it. She had such a great sense of irony in her way of dressing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What fashion shows do you go to these days? Marc Jacobs’?
KIM GORDON — I haven’t been invited the last few times. I think only people in the industry go to them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But are you still interested in what he does?
KIM GORDON — Sure. He’s always interesting. I like going to the Rodarte shows. They’re really exciting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s it?
KIM GORDON — More and more people invite me to shows and I’m curious to go, but I get tired after a few shows. I mean, some things are just presentations of clothes. They’re not really shows.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We haven’t spoken about Courtney Love. You produced her first record, right?
KIM GORDON — Yeah.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet her — through Kurt Cobain?
KIM GORDON — No, I met her in LA. Our friend Dave Markey said we should check out Hole. She was very charismatic and kind of wild. She asked me to produce her record, but I was really hesitant because I could tell she was a bit crazy. I usually stay away from such people. I have a good radar for insanity. But she was going to have Martin Bussey do it and I said it would be terrible for her. Not that he isn’t good — it just didn’t seem like a good match. So I asked Don Fleming to do it with me. We had only a week to do it. The first time I met Courtney she had a big scar on her nose — it looked like her roommate had given her a nose job. She still had a bump there. Years later she was talking about further plastic surgery — she’d already had two nose jobs — and she said, “I don’t know if you know this, but I had a nose job once.” [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s amazing.
KIM GORDON — I remember when Nirvana was on tour with us in ’91 — this was before their first record came out — we were playing in Holland and Courtney was there. She’d come over from England to hang out with Billy Corgan. She had a huge thing for him. But she ended up watching Nirvana and afterwards you could tell she’d zeroed in on Kurt.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet Kurt Cobain?
KIM GORDON — It was in New York. We saw him play at Maxwell’s, a club in Hoboken. Bruce Pavitt, who owns Sub Pop, said we should see them, because they were amazing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you become friends with Kurt?
KIM GORDON — We were never close friends with them. They toured with us, and you kind of hang out, but you’re not really friends.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They toured with you in Europe?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. It was clear that Kurt was emotionally starved for attention. He was, like, parched, really susceptible, and easily influenced. I guess we had some kind of a bond. I remember we were on tour in Seattle — Kurt’s daughter Frances was just a baby at the time — and he said that Courtney was upset because she thought Frances liked him more than she liked her. I thought, oh god, it’s probably because he spends more time with Frances. Courtney was so self-centered. I got the feeling that Kurt didn’t have anyone to talk to.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He came from Seattle, right?
KIM GORDON — Not from Seattle but … I forget the name … a really depressed area of Washington state. He was very self-destructive. I mean, anyone who thrashes around and throws himself into a drum kit every night… I think he wanted to alienate everyone around him. At some point he said, “I want to be rich and famous.” Maybe he just wanted to be rich. He couldn’t deal with the fame, though. I don’t think it made him literally psychotic, but it alienated him from the community that he came from.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you speak to him about that?
KIM GORDON — No, what was I going to say? He was so young — he came from a generation with different ideas. You know Michael Stipe, from R.E.M.? He can deal with fame.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s rare.
KIM GORDON — But I think Kurt came from such a different background: very poor and virtually without real parents. I think his mom kicked him out when he was like 14.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s really sad. I want to ask you about Hong Kong, because you lived there for a while. Do you remember it well? Did it influence your sensibility?
KIM GORDON — I lived there for a year, in the late-’60s. I was 12 years old. My dad took some university students there for a study program. I went to an English school. You know, it was the first time I saw extreme poverty, and coming from California, it was a culture shock. My mother let me roam around on the streets, which I still can’t believe. This was before Hong Kong became so commercial. It was hot, dirty, and noisy. That’s why the first time I came to New York it all felt so familiar!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you enjoy growing up in Los Angeles?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. It’s sensuous there. We’d go out to the beach in Malibu, and we’d hitchhike up and down the Coast. People hitchhiked in those days.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The ’70s was a glorious period for LA, with so many people coming in from everywhere.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, but there was also this weird pressure to be happy all the time, which I finally had to escape. You know, the weather’s so nice, every day. It’s very alienating there. You have to always be up. Being up is an industry in LA. When the weather’s nice in NY you really do feel good.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still like New York? Do you think it’s become too commercial?
KIM GORDON — I don’t live in the city any more, so it’s easier for me to be cynical about it. But I believe in the genetics of this city. New York has always been about a good time. You know, at the turn of the century there were posters in Boston that read, “For a Good Time, Go to New York.” [Laughs] Superficially, New York City is always changing. There’s so much energy here that you can’t deny it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where do you live now?
KIM GORDON — In Northampton, in Western Massachusetts, about three hours north of here. It’s not like the Hamptons. There are colleges all around us — Smith, Hampshire, Amherst. Smith is a women’s college in the Berkshires. It’s really beautiful, and it’s probably the most liberal place in America. It’s very progressive. But it’s mixed — there are hill towns and rednecks, too. It’s also the lesbian capital of North America.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you decide to move there?
KIM GORDON — Well, it’s interesting to live on the outside of the action instead of in the middle of it. So when Coco was five we moved up there. We wanted her to have some idea of freedom, unlike her situation in the city, where we have to watch her all the time. We wanted her to be sophisticated, but not be jaded by growing up in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you still record in New York, right?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, although we wrote the last record in our basement. We work up there and then come down here on the weekends and record, going back and forth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you working on a new Sonic Youth album?
KIM GORDON — No, we’re taking the year off.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let me take a minute to talk about your latest paintings. Is this the first time you’ve combined art and music?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, I suppose it is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This one painting here is all of names of bands.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, mostly noise bands.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Not songs?
KIM GORDON — No, not songs, although some of the paintings, like the ones in the cases downstairs, came from a Richard Hell lyric — each word is a different painting. Now I’m sort of moving around. I have a show up now in a gallery called KS Art on Leonard Street that has some sculpture I really like and some of my first noise paintings. The show relates to the Rizzoli book, Performing/Guzzling, that came out recently.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you conceive the book?
KIM GORDON — I wanted it to be big but still have the feel of a smaller book. Buried inside are texts by Jutta and Hilton Als, and there are lyrics from the last Free Kitten record, and then some things I wrote for different shows.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it sort of a retrospective of your work? Did you put some pictures from your shows in it?
KIM GORDON — Only one, from a piece Jutta Koether and I did in phone booths. It was supposed to be for Sacred Practices, a show about music and art in Graz, Austria. The phone booths were open and they had big ’70s-style speakers with a little picture. Inside we put little DVD players that had YouTube videos of different noise bands, like Two Dead Sluts and One Good Fuck — boys jumping around naked and screaming. I also made one of Julia Cafritz singing “Fuck You” — the first song she ever wrote. For the same show, but outside, we made really bad-looking paintings that had questions like, “What’s it like to be an icon?” or “What do you feel in your mind when you play noise?” It became part of the show that was traveling with Sonic Youth. Sensational Fix — do you know that catalog?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. Does the KS Art show include the noise paintings?
KIM GORDON — Yes. The show has a couple pieces from the book and some new things, including some paintings with fake names.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fake names?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, but then I called Jutta and we did a performance and decided to use the name “Bad Adult.” Now I’m starting to use phrases taken from art history books or art criticism, sort of clichés and things. I also want to do a series of book titles. It’s like going back to the Men and Their Work one I talked about earlier.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think the paintings are beautiful. They really make sense, but I can’t explain why.
KIM GORDON — It’s funny. I mean, the first painting I did, Pussy Galore, is in the show at KS Art, and it’s a big one. I’ve always felt that Pussy Galore was an important band, but they broke up, maybe because Julie left. You know, when people write articles about women in music they never talk about her. That’s why my first painting was called Pussy Galore. After that I thought I’d do paintings of obscure noise bands, including some I’ve never heard. Knowing them is not so important to me. I just like the names. It only bothers people like Thurston, when he doesn’t consider them to be real noise bands.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is Thurston a stickler about the history of noise music?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, he’s a purist, a musicologist: Professor Punk. If you ever want to do an article on punk rock, you should talk to him. His enthusiasm for going to shows is pretty much the same as it ever was.
[Table of contents]
Aaron de MeyRead the article
Dave SchubertRead the article
Hanna LidenRead the article
A.P.C. & CarharttRead the article
Gaia Repossi & Alex WangRead the article
The Black KeysRead the article
Tiffany Paintings by Richard PrinceRead the article
Michael StipeRead the article
Carsten NicolaiRead the article
Max SnowRead the article
Amy Greenspon & Mitchell AlgusRead the article
purple BEST of the SEASON
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