Kim Gordon Sounds Off
In an ELLE exclusive, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon talks candidly about her next chapter, and what really happened between her and Thurston Moore.
By Lizzy Goodman
The last time I saw Kim Gordon, she was preparing a chicken for roasting. This was several years ago, and I was reporting a piece about the bohemian style of the Northampton, Massachusetts, home of indie rock’s most powerful couple, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, of legendary noise-rock band Sonic Youth. Moore gave me a tour of the veritable record store that was his basement, and Gordon showed me her art studio and racks of vintage clothes. I saw the rumpled sheets on the couple’s bed, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer box set in their den, and the refreshingly girly bedroom of their teenage daughter, Coco. But later, to my friends, what I described was sitting at their kitchen table watching Moore assemble cassette tapes for an upcoming release on his Ecstatic Peace! label while his wife of some 20 years was elbow-deep in poultry stuffing. In that moment, Gordon was the ultimate hipster Renaissance woman I aspired to be, a feminist rebel who could make avant-garde art all day, then cook a killer dinner for her family at night.
Since forming Sonic Youth with Moore in 1981, Gordon has come to personify two qualities generally considered incompatible: rebellion and maturity. She played bass and guitar, wrote songs, and sang for Sonic Youth, a band whose mission— infiltrate the mainstream with dissonant, defiant guitar noise—shaped ’90s alternative rock. Gordon coproduced Hole's debut album, Pretty on the Inside; nurtured a young Kurt Cobain; put a teenage Chloë Sevigny on-screen for the first time, alongside the infamous collection for Perry Ellis by then up-and-coming designer Marc Jacobs; and, via the band’s album-cover art and videos, helped popularize the work of such visionaries as Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes, Gerhard Richter, Mike Kelley, and Richard Prince. Over the past 30 years she’s been considered an indie sex symbol, an iconoclastic performer, and a de facto professor of modern feminist pop mystique (her interest in Karen Carpenter, Madonna, and, more recently, Britney Spears lent them depth).
And yet, as scrutinized as she has been, Gordon has always been considered a mystery. A typical Sonic Youth interview featured Moore waxing philosophical while Gordon, in sunglasses, sat by his side, nearly silent. Aloof, remote, and intimidating are often used to describe her. After decades in the public eye, it seemed like this was the way things would always be. Then, in the fall of 2011, Gordon and Moore announced they were separating. The news called into question the future of Sonic Youth and devastated legions of music fans. Jon Dolan, one of the flintiest rock critics around, began a piece for Grantland about their breakup with this plaintive cry: "Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!"
"I can understand people being curious," Gordon says when I ask her about all the attention she’s gotten since the split. "I’m curious myself. What’s going to happen now?"
It’s late afternoon on an unforgivingly cold winter day in New York City. Gordon arrives a few minutes early at Sant Ambroeus, the understated West Village restaurant she chose for our meeting. She’s wearing eyeliner, a black-and-white-striped sweaterdress, and cognac-brown boots. I find myself dissecting her look so I can copy it later; such is the immediacy of her style. It would be rude to say Gordon doesn’t look her age, which is 59. That’s a line reserved for those who are desperately trying to appear young. There is nothing desperate about Kim Gordon. When the subject of dating comes up, I’m not surprised to hear that younger men are vying for her attention, though the couple is not yet divorced.
"We have all these books, records, and art and are getting it all assessed; that’s what is taking so long," she says after ordering a glass of rosé. But both have moved on. Among her suitors are a restaurateur, an architect, and an actor. "It’s just weird," Gordon says of navigating new romance. "I can’t tell what’s normal." And Moore has regularly been seen with the same woman, fueling the rumor that his affair helped doom their marriage. "We seemed to have a normal relationship inside of a crazy world," Gordon says of her marriage. "And in fact, it ended in a kind of normal way—midlife crisis, starstruck woman."
Some years ago, a woman Gordon declines to name became a part of the Sonic Youth world, first as the girlfriend of an erstwhile band member and later as a partner on a literary project with Moore. Eventually, Gordon discovered a text message and confronted him about having an affair. They went to counseling, but he kept seeing the other woman. "We never got to the point where we could just get rid of her so I could decide what I wanted to do," Gordon says. "Thurston was carrying on this whole double life with her. He was really like a lost soul." Moore moved out. Gordon stayed home and listened to a lot of hip-hop. "Rap music is really good when you’re traumatized," she says.
The first few months were rough. "It did feel like every day was different," she recalls. "It's a huge, drastic change." But slowly things improved. She adjusted to the framework of semisingle parenthood. (Coco, their only child, is now a freshman at a Chicago art school.) Gordon kept their colonial filled with friends—a musician, a poet, and Moore’s adult niece, with whom Gordon has remained very close. "Sometimes I cook dinner and just invite whomever," she says of her improvised family life. "Everyone helps out a bit with the dogs. It’s a big house. It’s nice to have people around." Things were stabilizing. Then Gordon was found to have a noninvasive form of breast cancer called DCIS. "I’m fine; it’s literally the best you can have," she says of her diagnosis, which required a lumpectomy. "I didn’t do radiation or anything, but I was like, Okay, what else is going to happen to me?"
Sitting across from Gordon, who has long been a role model for women who want to be tough without becoming hard, I’m struck by how well-placed in her our collective faith has been. "Kim comes off all cool and badass, but she’s really sweet and gentle and feminine," longtime friend Sofia Coppola says, praising Gordon’s ability to draw power from vulnerability. That trait is much in evidence when Gordon discusses the recent past. She’s sad, and unafraid to show it, but she’s also clear-eyed about how the dismantling of some areas of her life has freed her up in others. “When you’re in a group, you’re always sharing everything. It’s protected,” she says of being in Sonic Youth. “Your own ego is not there for criticism, but you also never quite feel the full power of its glory, either.” She’s done with that for now. “A few years ago I started to feel like I owed it to myself to really focus on doing art.”
Gordon has been painting a lot, in anticipation of a forthcoming survey show at the San Francisco gallery Queen’s Nails. She also recently worked on a capsule collection with French label Surface to Air and, with Coco by her side, shot an ad campaign for Saint Laurent. She’s been onstage quite a bit in the past year too, singing and playing guitar. She joined musician John Cale in his tribute to former Velvet Underground bandmate and muse Nico at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, toured Europe with the experimental musician Ikue Mori, and took part in the renowned “Face the Strange” music series hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. And Gordon, like Moore, has a new band. This year she’ll tour in support of the forthcoming debut album of Body/Head, which she formed with longtime friend and collaborator Bill Nace. “I do have a lot of things going on right now,” she says with a slight smile.
Gordon grew up mostly in Los Angeles; her father was a sociology professor, and her mother a homemaker with creative tendencies. “She’d make long caftans with hoods and sell them out of our house,” Gordon remembers. Her mother and father had few traditional expectations of her. “They were from a generation of hands-off parenting,” she says, and cultivated in her two traits that an artist needs to survive: intellectual curiosity and a near antiauthoritarian level of creative independence. “I’ve never been good with structure—doing assignments for the sake of them or doing things I’m supposed to do.”
She attended a progressive elementary school linked to UCLA and loved it. “It was learn by doing,” she recalls. “So we were always making African spears and going down to the river and making mud huts, or skinning a cowhide and drying it and throwing it off the cliff at Dana Point.”
The way Gordon talks about the L.A. of her youth conjures the bleached-out, diffuse brutality of the city as portrayed in Joan Didion’s classic collection The White Album. “I remember when we were young, playing on these huge dirt mounds that became freeway on-ramps,” Gordon says. “And my mom pointing to Century City, saying, ‘There’s going to be a city there.’ I have a lot of nostalgia for Los Angeles at a certain time—just the landscape, before it was overgrown with bad stucco and mini malls and bad plastic surgery. It wasn’t like I was happy. I don’t want to be back in that time, but it felt a lot more open.”
If you had to describe the core sensibility of Gordon’s work—painting, vocal performance, or dress—it would be that quintessentially Californian expansive desolation. It’s a feeling, not an idea, and it’s what first pulled Gordon away from fine art and toward rock ’n’ roll. “When I came to New York, I’d go and see bands downtown playing no-wave music,” she recalls of her arrival, after graduating from art school. “It was expressionistic and it was also nihilistic. Punk rock was tongue-in-cheek, saying, ‘Yeah, we’re destroying rock.’ No-wave music is more like, ‘NO, we’re really destroying rock.’ It was very dissonant. I just felt like, Wow, this is really free. I could do that.”
So she did. The Sonic Youth discography includes 16 studio albums and numerous EPs and compilation albums, not to mention music videos and documentaries. Their 1988 LP, Daydream Nation, was added to the U.S. Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005. Sonic Youth is not just revered within the indie rock world; it’s an indelible part of American pop-cultural history, a sort of byword for tasteful and progressive art that’s also popular. “She was a forerunner, musically,” says Kathleen Hanna, of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and later the dance-rock group Le Tigre. “Just knowing a woman was in a band trading lead vocals, playing bass, and being a visual artist at the same time made me feel less alone.” Hanna met Gordon when she came to a Bikini Kill show in the early ’90s. “She invited my band to stay at her and Thurston’s apartment,” Hanna says. “As a radical feminist singer, I wasn’t particularly well liked. I was in a punk underground scene dominated by hardcore dudes who yelled mean **** at me every night, and journalists routinely called my voice shrill, unlistenable. Kim made me feel accepted in a way I hadn’t before. ****ing Kim Gordon thought I was on the right track, haters be damned. It made the bullshit easier to take, knowing she was in my corner.”
Gordon’s anodyne vocals and whirling dervish stage presence are as much a Sonic Youth signature as Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s discordant guitars, but her pursuit of additional creative outlets helped others think more broadly about what it could mean to be in a rock band. “Kim inspired me because she tried all the things that interested her,” Coppola says. “She just did what she was into.” Hanna agrees. “I loved so many kinds of art besides music, and it sometimes made me feel torn, but Kim seemed very comfortable doing whatever she felt like at the time.”
“I never really thought of myself as a musician,” Gordon says. “I’m not saying Sonic Youth was a conceptual-art project for me, but in a way it was an extension of Warhol. Instead of making criticism about popular culture, as a lot of artists do, I worked within it to do something.”
We’ve finished the dregs of our wine, and the sun has set. I’m interested in something Gordon was filmed saying about imprisoned members of the Russian activist punk band Pussy Riot: “Women make natural anarchists and revolutionaries, because they’ve always been second-class citizens, kinda having had to claw their way up.” Gordon nods as I read back her quote: “I mean, who made up all the rules in the culture? Men—white male corporate society. So why wouldn’t a woman want to rebel against that?”
pt 2 cont.
Part of my own affection for Kim Gordon, I realize, is her association with an era when even boys thought it was cool to call themselves feminists. I’m not sure when exactly that changed, but I know that by the time I was aware of experiencing sexism firsthand I’d already gotten the message that to identify myself as a feminist would limit me. I envy and admire the way Gordon—and the pop-cultural heroes she helped shape, like Hanna and Coppola and Courtney Love—seemed unafraid of that word. But I am even more envious and admiring of the way the men in Gordon’s orbit—from the Beastie Boys, who played with Sonic Youth over the years, to Moore to Cobain, who was very close to Gordon—seem to have taken cues from her about how to be good men.
It’s easy to forget that the ideals Gordon championed are now taken for granted by a younger generation, a fact driven home when Gordon mentions Lena Dunham’s Girls. Despite being a fan of the hit show (“I love that all of the sex scenes are awkward and kind of a failure”), she’s troubled by what she calls a “misleading” scene in which Marnie sleeps with Hannah’s gay roommate. At one point Marnie says no, but they proceed to have sex, and her objection becomes part of their sex-ual play. “It’s a mixed message about what no means,” Gordon points out. It’s part of an “ironic Williamsburg hipster” pose, she goes on, that considers political correctness kind of square. “If you’re going to do that [in Girls], you also have to—in some other instance—show that it’s not cool.” For a show that’s been written about nearly to death, it’s an observation that seems both totally obvious and underdiscussed.
“What the breach of generations shows is that there’s more than one way to be feminist,” Gordon says. Indeed, her admirers put her in the same hallowed category in which she puts such figures as Didion, Jane Fonda, and, now, Hillary Clinton. When Gordon recalls Clinton being grilled by Congress in her final hearings, it’s with deep reverence. “It just showed how experienced she is and how inexperienced those other guys were—she was masterful, the way she handled them. She’s a living embodiment of being pro-women.”