Sept. 11 2013 08:22 AM

Indie-rock icon charts an improvisational path with new band Body / Head

Photo by Jason Rodgers

It’s mid-August, one month before the annual San Diego Music Thing, during which Kim Gordon is scheduled to both speak and perform with her new project, Body / Head.

Yet, when asked about which topics she plans to talk about at the industry conference, the musician and artist admits she hasn’t quite made it that far.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I haven’t really decided yet.” It’s not as if Gordon hasn’t been busy. In 2011, the veteran performer closed out 30 years with legendary noise-rock band Sonic Youth, which is on an indefinite hiatus at the moment, if not a permanent one—the status of the band’s been up in the air since Gordon and husband / bandmate Thurston Moore separated. But just as that long-running, celebrated band was coming to an end, Gordon launched Body / Head, a new project with guitarist Bill Nace.

Body / Head’s first official release was a cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” on a compilation released by Belgian label Ultra Eczema, and a handful of 7-inch singles and hardto-find cassette releases followed. The duo—who play at The Casbah on Saturday, Sept. 14, with Gram Rabbit, Wild Wild Wets, Trails and Ways and Two Wolves—released their debut album, Coming Apart, via Matador Records just this week. It’s a largely improvised collection of songs, some of which resemble Sonic Youth’s early-’80s no-wave material; the rest is much more discordant and abstract.

“We wanted just to play with the two guitars and vocals,” Gordon says. “But then if you take drums away, it becomes a different type of music.

“I was looking at a lot of early Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett YouTube videos online, and a lot of it was really, like, people dancing to basic noise jams, like psychedelic noise,” she continues. “And that was kind of interesting. We just kind of shared things we were interested in. We thought it would be cool if it sounded like those influences.”

Coming Apart exists in a realm well outside of conventional pop-music structures and forms. Fittingly, the first track on the album is titled “Abstract,” which is about as accurate a word as there is to describe the hazy, trippy musical headspace that the duo occupies. With just two guitars and Gordon’s vocals, the sound is minimal, but it carries some impressive range, be it a dense, melodic approach on “Actress,” a meditative ambience on “Untitled” or even a somewhat disturbing dissonance on “Everything Left,” a track that bears a slight resemblance to Throbbing Gristle’s horror art piece, “Hamburger Lady.”

Indeed, some of the tracks on Coming Apart sound more like traditional songs than others, but, Gordon says, one element that remained constant in the band’s development is the improvisational approach she and Nace took to form the album.

“You’re playing with—kind of—more adrenaline,” Gordon says. “It’s kind of fun to play improvisation. You have a certain vocabulary of sounds or things that you do. And I just wanted to do something different.”

“We’ve done a little touring in Europe, and that solidified us as a band,” she continues. “And after that, we recorded. So there were some things we were recording that carried over from that. So, it’s almost like a practiced improvisation. I guess you can call it that.”

Improvising has been part of Gordon’s artistic identity for most of her career. In fact, essentially every Sonic Youth album—some to a greater degree than others— prominently features improvisational techniques as part of its makeup, particularly on their mid-’80s output, like Evol and Sister. Yet, Gordon explains that even pursuing music as a career has been something of an improvisational move. Before she co-founded Sonic Youth in 1981, she had a different artistic path in mind.

“Music’s something I fell into doing,” Gordon says. “I really moved to New York to do visual-art stuff. But even before that, I did some writing—some critical writing. And I felt like that was a partial responsibility of being an artist. Or, at least, for me, I was interested in that as part of my art practice. And then the rest of the stuff comes out of having different opportunities that open up. It’s kind of accidental.”

Accidental or not, Gordon has seen her name attached to a wide variety of different projects since entering the New York music scene in the 1980s. Before playing music, she wrote for Artforum and worked in several galleries in New York, and, later on, she exhibited her own multimedia works in Tokyo, London, The Netherlands and back home in New York City. She’s been the subject of two books, Kim Gordon Chronicles Vols. 1 and 2, the first a collection of photos of the artist, the latter a showcase of her own drawings and paintings.

Gordon has also increasingly been more involved in film since the 1990s, having appeared in projects such as Gus Van Sant’s Last Days and Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. And, in 2005, she co-directed an experimental feature film, titled Perfect Partner, with Tony Oursler and Phil Morrison.

It’s a long résumé, though Gordon says much of it came about because the opportunity presented itself, rather than an ongoing active pursuit of so many different projects.

“I’ve done some small film things, because I like film,” Gordon says. “I don’t have a need—I don’t feel like I want to do all these different things. Music is just another creative outlet. I guess I’m restless. I don’t know—I don’t think I’m James Franco.

“I have some issues, I guess, about the art world and what it means to be a professional artist,” she continues. “I spend a lot of my time escaping from that.”

As the conversation winds down, and Gordon is about to transition from the current interview to one with another journalist, she brings it back to where we began. In an unexpected move, she turns the question of her San Diego Music Thing appearance back on the interviewer.

“What do you think I should talk about?” she asks. 

The possibilities are endless, but if all else fails, improvise.

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