Ever since Sonic Youth was signed to a major label in the early '90s, Kim Gordon has had to deal with the scum of the music industry. "I wrote 'Swimsuit Issue' in 1991, it was about sexual harassment after we had just signed to Geffen, and there was this particular A&R person there," she told Gothamist. "Over the years, people didn't deal with it, no one dealt with it, so it's just kind of festered, and now it's exploding outward."
While the music industry has only been grazed by the reckoning of the #MeToo movement, Gordon has found her own place in the more insular world of free noise: "I mean, there's not a lot of people in power in the noise underground."
Experimental guitarist and Gordon's bandmate, Bill Nace, added: "I don't think that paradigm has completely changed, I just think there's other models now, and people can kind of have their own world that they make, and it doesn't really have to be a part of that [machinery]. Like, the image of the guy chomping on the cigar coming to your show and signing you. All that. There's other spaces now."
Gordon and Nace have carved their own space with their improvisatory noise duo Body/Head, who released their second studio album, The Switch, this month on Matador Records. Recently, Gothamist sat down with both of them to discuss the origins and development of the group, along with their feelings on how indie audiences have expanded thanks to the Internet and how NYC has changed in the years since Gordon made it her home.
Gordon and Nace first met when Gordon moved to Western Massachusetts at the end of the 20th century and became ingrained in the small-knit music community of Northhampton. They initially bonded over films and psychedelic music.
"Bill would come over and we'd talk about films, we both were interested in movies a lot, specifically the French director Catherine Breillat," Gordon said. "I had a book about her films, analyzing her films, and so we'd trade or share. And I found these old clips on YouTube of Pink Floyd from like '68 live, and it really seemed like they were just essentially playing noise music, with people dancing to it. I was just like, wow that's kind of amazing, with the light show and everything. And with Syd Barrett sitting down and playing prepared guitar, like Bill, with a file or something." Barrett is clearly a major touchstone for Gordon—she even named her a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel after him.
Nace runs the prolific Open Mouth Records label, improvising and collaborating with the biggest artists in the free music genre, including Yoko Ono, Thurston Moore, Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty. But he views Body/Head, which has released two studio albums and one live album over the last couple years since Sonic Youth broke up, as his main project.
He also grew up listening to Sonic Youth, in particular the landmark album Sister, well before they ever met, but he never really felt intimidated about playing with Gordon. "It was surreal at first, but we were friends before we started playing music, so by the time we started playing music, it was just we were doing it for fun," Nace said. Gordon added, "All the mystery was gone."
When Gordon was asked to contribute to a compilation of covers of the Peggy Lee song "Fever," she got Nace to join her for the project. "And then Bill came up with this name Body/Head, from reading the Breillat book, and I just said, 'Oh, that's a great name. We have to start a band,' that day," Gordon said. "That's always the hardest thing, finding a good band name."
Gordon connects the improvisatory nature of Body/Head's music to the No Wave music and art scene she had come up in when she first arrived in New York in the '80s. "If you're playing improv, you're actually incredibly vulnerable," Gordon said. "You don't have to be, but I think that we approach it that way." After the dissolution of Sonic Youth, Gordon felt that vulnerability as people speculated about the breakup; she was also looking for a different way to engage with her art and cleanse her palette, having worked on (slightly) more traditional songs for so long with the band.
Gordon and Nace have referred to The Switch as a stoner record for non-stoners. With its hypnotic, dissonant guitars and vocals, the album really does work as an aural reflection of the chaos of the Trump era. The album is all jagged textures and open space (Gordon: "I can feel music like a space"), darker and more minimalistic than their debut Coming Apart.
Most of their music has started completely from scratch at every gig. "We kind of became a band on the road," Nace said. "Improvising live in front of an audience, you really learn what works and what doesn't really quick. So it's kind of helpful—it wasn't just like kicking ideas around in the basement." One of the goals of the new record was to try to capture some of that live energy in the more sterile studio environment, while still refining it and imbuing it with structure. Gordon calls it a "cumulative product of all the shows we played since the last record."
In her book "Girl In A Band," Gordon talks a lot about the performative nature of her art, especially as a woman who long thought of herself as a visual artist who was "sidetracked by music." That idea touched on everything from her attempts at integrating into the male-dominated NYC music scene of the '80s to the awkward, faux-celebratory rock poses of Sonic Youth's final gig in 2011. She sees performance as the closest thing to a through-line throughout her career, but she said she tries not to think about the audience as she performs, to avoid becoming self-conscious about what she is doing.
"I certainly appreciate having fans, and actually in Sonic Youth, I was always amazed when I saw young people there, and that is definitely all because of the Internet," she said. "When this underground scene developed, it really did develop with the Internet in the mid-to-late '90s, and I think it made it just more accessible, and so it brought more people into it, besides the male record collector type, which I always equate with that genre of music. It's not a huge audience, but it is kind of a core community, and there's a lot more women and girls who are part of the experimental music scene. That's probably the biggest change in music, in a way."
"Now there's bands that grew up with The Raincoats, and The Slits, and even with the noise scene, there's like a lot more women," Nace said. "They're not totally represented, which is a problem, but regionally, there's more women involved."
The band will be playing select dates over the next couple months (you can check out tickets here); it's safe to say that no two shows are ever the same. Gordon has other projects in the works, including a possible novella and, more tantalizingly, her first official solo album, which she has been tinkering with on guitar on her own. "I'm sort of working toward that," she said.