Kim Gordon: “I don’t see myself as a musician. I never conventionally learned how to play music, I just fell into it”

Kim Gordon is as addicted to her phone as the rest of us, in search of comfort in technology in a modern age of panic. It’s at the heart of her second, broken-beat album – the latest piece of work from a reluctant punk icon who’s never considered herself a musician. Skye Butchard travelled to Paris to discuss what makes The Collective such an appealing puzzle

“Your mind will rejoin your body when it is safe to do so” – Jennifer Egan, The Candy House

It’s an unseasonably warm weekend for October in Paris. They’re still wearing shorts and strappy tops on the metro. In an office in Belleville, Kim Gordon and I are comparing phone chargers. “I just got this,” she says, pulling a magnetic power bank out of her bag and clipping it to her phone. “It’s quite the improvement.” Phones naturally come up in conversation, given they feature prominently in the background and on the cover of her new record, The Collective. For her painting of the same name exhibited at New York’s 303 Gallery last summer, an iPhone became a stencil to cut holes out of a huge canvas. The vacuum of living online affects even her life.

“You’re kind of addicted – I am,” she says. “There’s this weird need to check in. Why is that? I’ll check in on the news. I want more. I always want more of the news. I never feel like I’m done.” I ask if the new record is connected thematically to her exhibition at 303.

“Less so than one would think. I was inspired by this book I was reading, The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. It’s about this guy who rips off someone who developed an algorithm that changes people’s minds, which isn’t too far away from how it works.” She laughs a resigned laugh.

“He made this device that you send away for and plug into. All the people who have joined, you can access their memories. You are almost in their body, so you can feel what they’re feeling. To do that you have to upload your unconscious memories, and then you’re open to being manipulated and vulnerable. Using the information in devious ways, maybe.”

More and more, there are people born into the world who don’t remember a time before phones took up a portion of our attention span. Gordon is unsure of the exact point when she noticed that she’d become addicted. “Maybe when my friend signed me up for Twitter or something. She said ‘You’ll feel less alone.’”

Like most people, Gordon doesn’t seem to enjoy talking about herself. When I ask her how she’s doing when she walks into her label’s Paris office (in excellent metallic trainers), she sighs. “Oh you know, lots of talking. A couple of photoshoots.” She’s jovial and relaxed, but not excited for another chat. Given she’s been answering interview questions since the ’80s, some fatigue is understandable. In this third appointment of the day, another reason for her occasional distance comes up when we get to a lyric on her new album: “Cement the Brand”. Is that something she’s been told to do before?

“Not at all, but I’m worried that I’m doing that. Is this doing that? How do you promote yourself and not do that? Because you do want people to hear the record, but…”

And Gordon has a lot that she can promote. As well as her record, she recently attended the Charleroi premiere of Takemehome, a piece featuring nine dancers and five electric guitars and amps, which she composed for and worked on with choreographer Dimitri Chamblas. It’ll tour Tijuana, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Paris. “It’s funny,” she says, “being around dancers, it makes you want to start dancing.” Gordon is passionate and animated when talking about the people she’s worked with, and those that have inspired what she’s working on, so we start here.

“They’re some of the best dancers. They’re different characters, and Dimitri really wanted to make a piece incorporating all these different kinds of dances. One gentleman is from Africa [Salia Sanou from Burkina Faso]. He does his own choreography and has his own foundation. He’s an older, more experienced dancer, and then there are these young dancers from all over. [Marion Barbeau] was a prima ballerina for a few years at the Paris Opera and left to do more interesting things. It was fun getting to know the dancers. Their moves are very interesting and unconventional.”

I ask if her time with the dancers has influenced how she views her live shows. “It was more that I used what I take from performing and gave it to them,” she replies. “I used to take Martha Graham dance and some ballet. I did want to be a dancer at one point, but it’s a tough life. Being on stage is a little bit like moving through space. With the electric guitar, it’s very influenced by my physical movement in relationship to the amplifier. Obviously, you can see that with feedback. I quite like that, and always think about it if I’m doing solo improv.”

Checking In

Gordon’s recent visual art and upcoming record express the state of panic that is living in the present day. The album is told in surreal and personal vignettes, where she underlines the need to check in, to find answers through technology, consumerism or anything else that might provide some comfort. Like her first solo album, 2019’s No Home Record, it does so through funny, non-obvious lyrics and an emphasis on beats over songs. There are unexpected turns and lots of welcome weirdness. For Gordon, playing music has been a means to an artistic end.

“More and more my art practice has merged. When I finished this record I felt like I forgot to make music,” she says. “I saw them more as little movies or something. You know, now everyone is an artist. It’s ‘Prince the artist’, and that’s fine, but I don’t think of myself that way.

“It’s more like I’m a visual artist first who’s making music, who’s writing, who’s making art. I don’t see myself as a musician. I never conventionally learned how to play music, I just fell into it. I have high regard for people who do that, I just don’t play that way.”

The post-Sonic Youth side of Gordon’s career has found her returning more to her roots within the visual art world, albeit operating on the edges of both the mainstream music industry and the art industry.

“I really tried to keep them apart for such a long time,” she says. “Getting invited to these exhibits… there are these ‘musicians who paint’. That’s not my context.”

Gordon’s rejection of her status as an indie music icon appears within this visual art, too. Last summer, she made an exhibition called Double Agent in Lausanne, Switzerland. At the entrance to the installation, she played a video of herself inspired by the Chantal Akerman film Jeanne Dielman.

“The camera was always very static, and I was doing in-real-time activities like cooking, cleaning the bathtub, sleeping. I also had my guitar plugged in, but I was ignoring it, so it would just bang around.”

Her critiques and reflections on status also extended to the institution she was working in, Museum im Bellpark.

“It’s not like I’m an institutional critique artist, but it was very close to it. It was a mansion in a small park with the original mouldings and everything. It was owned by the city in the suburb outside of Lausanne. I spent a lot of time with the director and the curator-archivist.

“When I went for my site visit, I made a little film of them, talking about what they do in the building, and how they decide how to paint the colours – they were installing some photo exhibit at the time – as well as the history of the place, and how every so often the city decides if they want to keep it going as a museum. It’s publically owned. As I went around, under my breath I was saying ‘Master Bedroom’, ‘Children’s Room,’” she whispers, lifting an imaginary microphone up to her mouth.

Things that fuck up sound

After No Home Record, Gordon wasn’t sure if she’d make another solo album again, and she certainly wouldn’t need to given how much work she was already doing. “I think I just wanted to do at least one more. Maybe I was bored,” she says. Like that record, she worked with producer Justin Raisen on The Collective, with whom she’s formed a strong partnership.

“It just made sense. I wouldn’t normally want to just work with a producer, and our coming together was random and accidental.” The two met through Raisen’s brother, who happened to sit at a table next to Gordon when out at a restaurant. After chatting, he sent his brother’s information over via DM.

“He knows what I like. Things that fuck up sound, invert the technology a bit. He’s good at that. He understands punk rock, and he knows where I come from, and what I’m going to bring. I like that he works with hip hop artists and makes beats. I wanted to be even more beat-oriented with this record. So it’s really a true collaboration.”

The Collective is formed from broken sounds and bit-crushed production. Tracks like ‘The Candy House’ sound like jpegs that have been compressed and copied one too many times. Gordon’s voice is a grounding presence throughout. (There is one other vocal contribution from the mysterious ‘Young Baby Goat’ – a “well-known rapper” whose identity Gordon keeps a mystery with a mischievous look when I prod.)

“It’s kind of cool to have a song that sounds more lo-fi. It’s more unexpected I guess,” she says. This brings us onto talking about the smoothing over of sound on streaming services like Spotify. For This Woman’s Work, the 2022 collection of essays Gordon edited with Sinéad Gleeson, her contribution was an interview with her former Free Kitten bandmate Yoshimi P-We. It’s an incisive look at what made Yoshimi interested in playing the drums in the first place. Gordon titled it ‘Music on the Internet has No Context’.

“It’s useful if someone says, ‘Oh, you should check out this’, but there’s no information on Spotify about anything,” she says. “That’s kind of the reason it’s good to have books, magazines and other ways you can access information if you’re interested. If someone hears something on Spotify, and they’re interested, maybe they’ll delve into it. That’s what’s great about the internet. Young kids discover music that obviously they didn’t grow up with. I used to love seeing young kids at a Sonic Youth concert.”

What irks Gordon more than this lack of context is the forced participation in branding that’s brought about by having your music on Spotify.

Nike can make a playlist, so you’re suddenly promoting Nike by being on their playlist. You don’t get paid for that, and that makes them look cool. Also, if you’re listening to a record, suddenly it’ll switch over to an artist they think is like that artist, and it’s not like you put on ‘War On Drugs Radio’, it just goes that way, and it’s often not the same.

“It kind of in a certain way has to do with what’s ‘punk’ and what isn’t,” she says. “You can’t really explain that attitude, because that’s really what it is. I’m not saying you need to be from that generation, Bill Nace who’s much younger than me [of Body/Head, Gordon’s active band project], we talk about that all the time. He’s had arguments with people. You can’t explain it, you’re just not going to get it.”

Playing the villain

Kim Gordon clearly enjoys playing a villain. You can hear that on ‘I’m a Man’ from the new record, where she performs a pathetic kind of masculinity. “I was supposed to save you, but you got a job / You got a degree / And I’m a slob / You got an Audi,” she speaks in a deadpan.

“It was inspired initially by politicians like Josh Hawley, who go around saying ‘feminism destroyed men and masculinity.’ Are you really that weak? You’re a white man in power. And also just thinking about historically… I’ve always actually been interested in masculinity, the fact that initially, you couldn’t read anything about it unless you read books about the gay scene in the West Village in New York.

“It was kind of about how masculinity changed from the ’50s and ’60s about being the protector and saviour, the John Wayne/Ronald Reagan era, and when that became obsolete, male identity became lost. Men became consumers, like women, and were advertised to, and that’s what the lyrics are about.”

There’s also a wink at Harry Styles on the sarcastic line “I can wear a skirt”, a potentially provocative moment that doesn’t seem to be linked to current culture wars that so often sucks up our attention on the internet. Instead, Gordon is looking further back at the rock music iconography.

“Mick Jagger I think was the first rock singer to wear a dress on stage, at Brian Jones’s memorial,” she says. “In a way, ‘skirt’ is just a reference to dressing and fashions. Harry Styles – his stylist is reading the times, but also, nothing is ever new, it just keeps coming back around.”

The Collective is a disorienting experience. Pieces of memory and fantasy coalesce. Gordon looked to her surroundings and her background for inspiration, but just as often she looks for an unexpected narrative hook.

“I was looking non-typical things to write lyrics about,” she says. “I would periodically ask a friend, ‘do you have any song ideas?’ One friend said, ‘why don’t you write about bowling trophies?’ I’m a terrible bowler. My memories of bowling are just hanging out at a bowling alley as a teenager. It was ridiculous.”

But it works. Bowling trophies become another trinket to search for meaning in, or a way to hold something over someone else. ‘Shelf Warmer’ is another of these unexpected topics. On it, a tacky gift has a sinister intention.

“It’s more like a metaphor for getting a gift that had nothing to do with you, or it’s a gift of guilt, or something that they want,” she says. “It’s something from a boyfriend who wants you to like this certain thing.”

Given her platform, and the theme of online life on her new record, I ask if Gordon has had that happen parasocially, too.

“I mean, recently people found out my address and they sent me pictures to sign. There’s this weird guilty feeling if I don’t but I don’t want to perpetuate this thing, so I’m kind of paralysed. I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away but I also don’t want to send them a message.” She laughs, nervously. “Don’t send me any.”

Collaged into L.A.

“I’m not a huge drug taker, but I feel like I fantasise about it more than I actually do it,” Gordon says. “It’s kind of like a weird fantasy. Everyone is so escape-oriented now because the world is so fucked up, that it’s a little fatalistic, but then I also want to get into it and take as far as we can.”

The intense peak of The Collective is ‘Psychedelic Orgasm’, which presents a bad-trip version of L.A. As well as exploring our need to escape from reality, it also highlights the placelessness of the album. Gordon has now been back in Los Angeles, where she grew up, for over half a decade, and although she’s still heavily associated with New York, she hasn’t lived there full-time for twenty years.

“It’s weird. I have such a connection to California and yet I still feel on the edge of L.A. But that’s what I like about it, I guess. My friend who moved from Chicago, when people ask him, he says, ‘I think I’m collaged into L.A’, and I think that’s a good way to put it.”

Gordon has moved around for most of her life. It’s fitting that the opener to her new album is framed around a packing list. Sometimes, the locations on songs shift halfway through, such as on ‘Tree House’, a blast of guitar and voice that blends time-periods.

“It was kind of about memory, going up and hitchhiking up to Big Sur with my friend when we were teenagers and doing wild things. The other part was because I was reading this Marguerite Duras book, The Lover. It takes place in Vietnam, and it sort of reminded me of when I was 12 and 13 living in Hong Kong, so coming of age, looking way older than my age. My mother allowed me to roam around in the streets. We lived out in the new territories which was British at the time. We went to school in town, and you had sailors leering at you.”

Element of Danger

“Every night the songs get a little more evolved, and the band’s more melded.” It’s December, and the dance piece Takemehome has now had its shows in Los Angeles, New York and Tijuana. “It was interesting, and sort of like being a band on tour,” Gordon tells me.

The Tijuana leg especially sounds memorable. The dancers performed at Cine Bujazán, an abandoned art deco cinema, which has been converted by two brothers into an arts and event space. It even has a small film school. Currently, there’s no roof over it, and so the dance was outside on a makeshift stage. Gordon is excited when describing it.

“After the dress rehearsal, they realised that all this dew had fallen on the rubber mat that covers the wood part of the stage, and the dancers were slipping around. For the best part of an hour before the performance they had to rip off the matting, paint a couple of the squares that weren’t black, dry it with a hairdryer and all this stuff. It was still rough wood, so the dancers all wore shoes.”

During the performance, one dancer broke a square on the stage with an energetic jump, leaving a crevice. “It all added this element of danger to the evening, which kind of inspired the dancers in a way,” Gordon says. “They were really super on fire that night.”

It sounds similar to how you might imagine things to go during Sonic Youth or Free Kitten shows in DIY venues, which Gordon agrees with. “At a festival, you don’t have time for soundcheck, and you think the worst is going to happen, and it turns out to be an amazing show. You never know.”

We speak on Zoom in a follow-up chat. It’s only been two months and it feels like we have a lot to discuss, both with her work and with the world. Though Gordon speaks about that need to be caught up with the news, she’s less quick to post about it. Leaving her social presence to Instagram (“I try not to go on X or Twitter or whatever the fuck it is. It’s just stupid”), she posts occasionally about her work, her daughter or an absurd thing she’s seen while walking around.

“When I do get really angry, I do want to post something, usually something about politics. Generally, I try not to post too much. I think it can be obnoxious quickly. Just because you have a platform, doesn’t mean you should use it all the time.”

It’s the story of Kate Cox that has made Gordon want to post something today. Cox is a mother of two, who was 20 weeks pregnant with a baby that would likely die during childbirth or soon after, due to a chromosomal abnormality. “She’s in a lot of pain right now because of what’s going on with the baby,” Gordon says. “It could ruin her fertility chances as well as possibly other things.”

A circuit court judge had given the go-ahead for an abortion, but the Supreme Court in Texas then rolled back this decision. “It’s the most insane thing. That made me want to post something about it. It makes you give up, too,” Gordon says.

“People think that abortion is the only thing that’s going to help get Biden reelected. It really is the only thing that people will come out to vote for him on. I just feel like people who are pro-life are anti-women.”

Men in power and men struggling to maintain power loom over sections of The Collective. I’m interested to get Gordon’s perspective on a new kind of man in power who has risen up over the last 15 years – the tech CEO. Gordon, through her art, is someone who’s come to represent genuine artistic disruption, and figures like Elon Musk are quick to use the language of disruption, in their own way.

“That’s the most interesting thing about him, I think,” Gordon says.”But he’s also just a rockstar toddler too. He doesn’t seem like a very nice person. He has a huge ego and he’s power hungry, and he’s one of those narcissist personalities like Trump that has a lot of charisma.

“It’s scary how much power Elon Musk has over the country, even as he does whatever he does to self-destruct in different ways. But I don’t know, it’s kind of just an extension of corporations being the people who are really running the country. Tech people like Elon Musk becoming cultural personalities is attractive to people, rather than a corporation.”

Often with Gordon’s art, she doesn’t have to explain it. You just have to get it. In interviews, she’s thoughtful, taking time to form a thought before speaking. Figures like this are a subject where she’s more brash and matter-of-fact.

“People in America seem to always be looking for some daddy figure, or some rockstar to tell them what to do. I’m not saying the whole country’s like that – the MAGA people obviously are for one thing. They don’t care if Trump says he’s going to be a dictator for a day or whatever he’s teasing. They want someone who they believe is going to fix everything.”

Gordon is hesitant to being taken as someone with all the answers. Her rejection of the rockstar image fits in with how she sees powerful men who gleefully accept that role. Instead, what she offers artistically is something more relatable and genuine. Pure panic.