Kim Gordon's post-Sonic Youth project with Bill Nace unlocks the emotional power of pure noise
As Body/Head, former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon and Western Mass noisnik Bill Nace make big, maximal-sounding rock with a spartan instrumental palette: guitar and sing-spoken vocals for Gordon, guitar for Nace. It's raw, emotional music informed by noise's sensitivity to the materiality of sound, and while it's got clear lyrics and melodies, it's the things that upend these song-like elements—an explosion of ear-splitting feedback, for instance—that tug at the heartstrings the most. We got together with the year-old duo in the lobby of the Soho Grand in Manhattan to talk about the genesis of their new album, Coming Apart, the pre-Internet ethos of rural noise capital Northampton and drawing musical inspiration from French film director Catherine Breillat.
How did Body/Head come together as a band? GORDON: I don’t know, I guess I was doing something by myself, recording on cassette, and Bill and I were hanging out, and we just decided to play together. And then Dennis Tyfus [of the label Ultra Eczema] was putting out this compilation and asked me if I’d record a cover of [the Peggy Lee song] “Fever,” so I asked Bill to do it with me. And then we just decided to do some more recording.
The band name came from a book you read about Catherine Breillat, right? What exactly was the phrase “body/head” referring to? GORDON: It was just talking about all her films in terms of sexuality and female vs. male power tripping, the battle for control. I really don’t recall the exact movie, but it’s about this girl who gets involved with an older man. She’s a virgin and wants to lose her virginity, but then she doesn’t really want to lose control—she doesn’t want to be possessed by him. It’s a theme that’s in all her movies: control and sex. The body wants one thing and the head wants another, sometimes. It’s not like some riddle thing—it’s not like Bill’s the head and I’m the body, or vice verse. Or it could be the audience is the body and the music is the head. It’s open. It means everything and nothing.
It could even be a reference to experimental music in general, like is it cerebral music or music that you feel physically? GORDON: Electric guitar and electricity is very visceral… it’s affected by movement in the body, so I guess that’s kind of a starting point—feeling a turbulence in the body.
Structurally, with the album, did you start doing a free improv thing, and then kind of work the material into actual songs? GORDON: Yeah, I mean it’s all improv, the record. The way we recorded it was essentially going in and improvising and picking out certain of the pieces that we both agreed were worth building on, and then shaping them in some way. And then redoing, in some cases, vocals, and maybe adding guitar.
Is it possible to reproduce those songs in a live setting? GORDON: That’s a good question. NACE: We could but we’re not going to. I think the show and the record can be kind of separate. It’s not about like, Here’s the record, we’re going to play it through. GORDON: In that case, the record is the head and the show is the body. Or vice versa.
So if you’re mostly improvising on stage, are there any sort of parameters you set beforehand? GORDON: Well, when we’re playing live, we would start out with that song “Abstract,” or that lyric, and then Bill would maybe start somehow with his guitar. That’s basically the only parameter. NACE: No EBows. [Laughs] I think the recording had parameters. We didn’t want to just start playing and have it be this endless, two-hour chunk that we then had to go through. We definitely played with some kind of imposed structure in mind, but other than that, not really.
It’s not like some riddle thing—it’s not like Bill’s the head and I’m the body, or vice verse. Or it could be the audience is the body and the music is the head. It’s open. It means everything and nothing.
When you’re writing lyrics, what sort of headspace do you have to get into? GORDON: I don’t know. Concentrate. Sometimes I’ll think of images from a movie or something, or ideas. I like to skim really pretentious Semtiotext(e) books for one-liners, and then put them in an emotional context.
Have you read any good one’s lately? I just read Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl, by Tiqqun. GORDON: Oh yeah, that I’ve taken a lot from [laughs]—I endlessly used that overdub when we did that the 7-inch. And some lyrics relate to the [relationship between] the audience and the performer. Just sort of acknowledging it.
There’s also the three songs in a row, called “Murdress” the “Last Mistress” and “Actress.” Were you thinking about female archetypes? GORDON: Well, “Last Mistress” is taken from a Catherine Breillat movie. Bill wrote the lyrics. NACE: “Murderess” is just a chop-up also from Catherine Breillat text. From Anatomy of Hell. GORDON: And “Actress” is a song that came out of the Jeune Fille book.
Northampton, MA is a cool town. You’re surrounded by people reading interesting books all the time. NACE: Or just interesting people losing their minds. Yeah, it’s really an intense place for that. I feel like the inevitable thing that happens when you stay there for 12, 13 years—that it feels like an extension of my mind and not like a real place. Like how many times have I stood at the intersection and waited for the walk sign? An infinite number. I think Northampton has an unfolding narrative though, because if you people watch a lot, it’s the same people all the time. Like you see this guy, and it’s like, Oh, he’s doing the same thing, but he’s kind of changed something a little.
I used to live in Northampton, and go to shows there. Now I live in Brooklyn, and everyone here is very entrepreneurial, even in the underground. In Northampton, it felt very much like people were just doing their thing and happy to have whoever was deeply interested listen. NACE: I think that might be kind of a generational thing more than like a place [thing]. You’re talking about [the mid-aughts scene surrounding] the early Schoolhouse and all that. The internet was obviously around back then, but now it seems almost like a training course in how to groom yourself and sell your band immediately. I don’t think that was necessarily a thing [back then]. It’s something I think about, but I didn’t experience it the other way, so it’s hard to say. I think that was just an exciting period of time in a lot of different places, and there was kind of an openness to that [music] for like for a few years that wasn’t there before, and it’s already waning. GORDON: Right, when Wolf Eyes peaked or something.
To someone who’s not familiar with it, how do you describe the musical aesthetic that prevails in Northampton? NACE: It’s definitely kind of a freak scene. GORDON: Well they used to call it freak-folk. NACE: People talk about it like it’s a big noise scene, but there’s actually no just straight-up noise acts, like Tabletop. Diagram A and Noise Nomads are probably the closest to that. Everyone’s got a weird sort of take on that stuff; it’s kind of interesting. GORDON: It’s more eccentric in a way. Less kind of formal, or genre-specific. NACE: Like even Jeff [Hartford’s] thing [Noise Nomads] is way more dada than straight-up harsh noise. GORDON: He’s still to me one of the most interesting elemental musicians. NACE: Diagram A is a favorite of mine, too—he’s got his own space going on. GORDON: I personally am spoiled. I like going to a show where there’s only 10 people. And in Northampton, or you go to shows there and there are people there of all ages. You don’t see that here. You need older people, like a wider range. Like you see teenagers, and then you see older folk. NACE: It’s not as much of an identity thing… GORDON: It’s more a lifestyle. NACE: That’s another thing with the internet: the identity thing is so huge, or bigger. It feels more inflated. Like people trying to put across this specific identity through the music. I don’t know, it seems more pronounced, to me. Branding. GORDON: I think that’s a good thing in a way: it makes things more accessible, less reliant on corporate things like MTV. It’s more freeform. I think it’s interesting that there’s this nostalgia for times before the internet now. The whole, what was it like? I don’t mean us—I mean people who didn’t experience it, like they’re so young that they grew up always with the internet. New Museum had this show recently, “1993” because it was before the internet. Suddenly it’s all this nostalgia in the media for things that you had to go out and discover.
As far as branding is concerned, do you guys get called noise a lot? GORDON: Drone is a thing that came up at the Red Bull Academy [show, Drone Activity in Progress]. It’s funny. [When I think of drone], I think of La Monte Young, and minimalist music. But then—Bill and I were talking about it, a lot of people think of drone music as like, Velvet Underground! But it’s just a word that’s become this catch-all.
A drone is like a long tone. GORDON: Yeah, it doesn’t say a lot. NACE: Drone’s present in Indian music, it’s present in Velvet Underground. It’s kind of a big umbrella.
Bill, for you, how is this project different from your usual way of working, in bands like Vampire Belt and X04? NACE: I’m not playing prepared, which is a big thing. Having the vocals there is really different and interesting, and I really like it. GORDON: Maybe you should explain what “prepared” is. NACE: Normally, I play sitting with like pieces of metal or wood—implements like that. I really like the way Kim sings, and we can play these kind of abstract pieces of music, and then once Kim puts vocals in it immediately becomes like a song, which I really like. The voice is a big part of it: it’s almost like playing to the voice or playing for the voice, or playing in a way that the voice can be framed, which I think lends to the song thing.
I heard that you guys bonded over old school hip-hop when starting the project. What is it about hip-hop that you find inspiring? NACE: It’s really similar. Obviously culturally and stuff, it is it’s own thing, but I think you can trace lines back to Steve Reich, and all the use of loops and stuff—it’s really interesting. If you take the beat out, it’s really kind of abstract music in a way. GORDON: If you look at early Pink Floyd videos on YouTube—you know, their long, drawn-out middles of songs—you realize people are just dancing to noise music. That was actually really inspiring—it was one thing we did bond over. We wanted our band to sound like that.
Kim, I know that White Columns is doing a retrospective of your visual work—a survey going back to 1980. When you look back at the stuff you did at the start of your career, do you feel like your interests have changed a lot? GORDON: There was a project I did, it started in 1980, called Design Office—doing sort of interventions in private spaces and writing about it. I’m just kind of putting everything I’ve done over the last 30 years under that umbrella. [My concerns] haven’t changed completely, they actually haven't—they just kind of got diverted into other areas. But I’m still interested in the same things, like private and public spaces, and the kind of music that gets popular it might be music that you liked privately or something? Like what happened with Nirvana. Suddenly, when you hear it everywhere it makes it feel less special in a way. It’s not bad because it’s popular, it’s just like why would you listen to it at home when you hear it everywhere else? There’s just certain kinds of music, and some are more like bedroom music, or private music. Or like our record, I wouldn’t imagine hearing it all over the streets. And just that idea—of taking things that are private and making it public, and vice versa.