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Kim Gordon on her intense, disorienting, beat-driven new solo album, 'The Collective'

Listening to Kim Gordon's new album <em>The Collective </em>uncannily bottles up the feeling of being on the Internet, trying to discern what's real and what's not.
Danielle Neu
Listening to Kim Gordon's new album The Collective uncannily bottles up the feeling of being on the Internet, trying to discern what's real and what's not.

Kim Gordon has said that she doesn't view herself as a musician. Rather, Gordon sees herself more as an artist who makes music. This singularly iconoclastic approach to music-making has guided the way Gordon, who is also a painter, has forged conceptually inventive music for four decades and counting: Her attention to negative space and phrasing shimmer through the no-wave jams she created with her former band Sonic Youth from the late 1980s until the early 2010s, and her textured guitar playing lends the improvisational two-piece she performs in with Bill Nace, Body/Head, an experimental edge.

Gordon's thrilling new solo music draws from a similar visual ethos, too. When asked about the songs on her forthcoming album, her second solo effort The Collective, Gordon says she thinks of them as "little movies." But in a plot twist, one of those short films has short-circuited the internet as of late. Released in January, the single "BYE BYE" took on a life of its own on TikTok, with Gordon's menacing vocals, rattling off household items against a trap-infused barnburner, soundtracking videos of teens packing for a trip. The fact that kids are headbanging to Kim Gordon's music is electrifying to see, particularly in a world that isn't always supportive of artists making challenging sounds — much less on TikTok.

Calling via video from her sun-drenched home in Los Angeles, Gordon says she went into making The Collective, out on March 8, wanting it to be more "beat-oriented." From there, she started "reacting to things going on in the world." Listening to The Collective uncannily bottles up the feeling of being on the internet, trying to discern what's real and what's not. The warped and captivating soundscapes that Gordon creates on the likes of the skittering "The Candy House," for instance, call to mind the rapid-fire influx of information we absorb when we unconsciously open window after window, tumble down rabbit holes, mistakenly open ad pop-ups, furrow our brows trying to figure out if something was created by AI and frantically try and close whatever browser a phantom soundbite might be beaming in from. By turns surprising and disconcerting, listening to Gordon's radically inventive songs on this album play as an apt distillation of what it's like to live right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I was rereading your 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, and was struck by a part where you talked about creating the first Sonic Youth EP. You all wrote down random lines on pieces of paper, and then you cherry-picked fragments during the vocal overdubs and sang whatever happened to be written on the paper. You still work that way sometimes. What do you find generative about using that method?

Yeah, I still do that [laughs], and sometimes I just improvise and lines come out of my mouth. In a way, it wasn't that unlike working on an instrumental piece of Sonic Youth music, where I tended to sing on the more abstract pieces. Thurston [Moore] and Lee [Ranaldo] would do the more melodic things, where they would come in with the melody, and we would build our parts around it and still arrange it and shape it together. But then, we'd be always challenged with: "What can you do with this?"

I did pick phrases — not for all the songs [on The Collective], for a couple of them. Like "BYE BYE" and "I'm a Man." To some extent, some of the things are half-written, and then other things are made up as I go along.

Playing music... I always felt, in a way, that was the next step after Warhol and the Velvet Underground: Making comments within popular culture, instead of from the outside, because you have this platform.

That sounds like a good challenge, though. Sometimes if you put limitations on things, it can push you to be more creative.

Totally. Yeah, I like to work with limitations.

Speaking of "BYE BYE," the first thing that I thought about was Joan Didion's packing list. Can you tell me about how that song came together?

I forgot about the packing list thing, but I was rereading some of her work. And I was like, "oh yeah, well, she had a very minimal packing list." But I liked that idea, that she kept it on her refrigerator. I wanted to make some lyrics that were banal to go with the music because it was so propulsive. I thought it'd be nice to contrast it rather than try and replicate the intensity of it. Make it intense, but in a quieter way.

You worked again with Justin Raisen, who produced your last album, No Home Record, on this one. What's your dynamic like when you collaborate on music together?

I played him things I liked, but then he would send me beats. And then I just decided which ones I thought I could build on. Then I would go in and make up guitar parts and do vocals, and then he'd shape it, edit a bit and then I'd sometimes go back and add more things to it.

On the last record, I really liked the song "Paprika Pony," which has a trap beat. Actually, his brother made that. It suits my vocal style, I guess. I think I'm more motivated by rhythm than melody.

You've described yourself as an artist rather than a musician. How does your background in visual art and in dance inform the way that you make music?

It's more conceptual. But also, a lot of artists will make comments about popular culture but from outside popular culture, in the art world. Playing music ... I always felt, in a way, that was the next step after Warhol and the Velvet Underground: Making comments within popular culture, instead of from the outside, because you have this platform.

But it's not like we were ever a mainstream band, Sonic Youth. Like, when I wrote "Swimsuit Issue," it was right after some big A&R guy had been busted for sexually assaulting his secretary. And it was a bit embarrassing to sign to this label and then that all came out. But I realized, "Well, as a woman who's writing songs, I have a whole lot of material I could write about."

You've written before about how Sonic Youth got pushback after signing with Geffen, and people accused you all of being "sellouts." I remember that, in the '90s, being called a sellout or a poser was the ultimate diss. But you never hear that now. When do you think that shift happened?

Yeah, it's interesting. Maybe it coincided with people promoting themselves on social media. But I don't know when Instagram appeared, not until the 2000s sometime? I have no idea.

But honestly, I think we were probably the last people to be criticized [laughs]. After that, I don't remember hearing anybody else saying that. It really was just Steve Albini, actually. He was really mad at us. But then he would make records for, like, Led Zeppelin, or corporate, big bands, and take the corporate money. Which he never had a problem with.

The thing is, we could still put out records on our own label. When we finally got off Geffen and went with Matador, it did feel like a breath of fresh air. Like, "These people really like music."

What have you been moved by lately?

Movies, books. I read this book by Jennifer Egan, The Candy House, which is actually where the name The Collective comes from. I don't know if you've read it, but it's this guy who rips off this research someone else has developed using algorithms and creates this kind of app. And through it, you can experience other people's memories and how they felt. But in order to do that, you have to upload your own memories and experiences and join the collective, or the collection. I thought that was interesting. It felt very near-future. And there's something a little sci-fi about the record, or dystopian, that I felt like it fit in.

Are you into sci-fi?

Not really that much. I used to read more. I was really into Philip K. Dick at one point, and William Gibson. But the things I liked about those books were that they felt so philosophical and said a lot about culture. The feminist science science fiction writer [Octavia E. Butler], she was kind of an inspiration, actually. I've only read one of her books [Parable of the Sower], but the whole thing — and it takes place in LA — is there's random shootings, people with guns and people taking this drug and lighting themselves on fire ... and it's just, like, "Oh my God, this is so insane." But at the same time, the whole feel of it felt like what's going on today.

Reading about AI feels dystopian to me. The amount that it's progressed in the last year is ... staggering. Especially that new text-to-video one, Sora.

Yeah, I saw that the other day. That actually was the only AI thing so far that I thought, "oh, I might try that." Because you could make a film with no money or something. I'd be interested if you could — I'm sure you will be able to at some point — add things on to it that are more analog-ish, or interact with it once it's a product. But the scary thing about technology is that it seems to be developing faster and faster.

Are you interested in AI, are you skeptical of it?

[Sora] piqued my interest. But other than that, I'm not really interested. I'm just not a technological person. And I'm a little afraid of it, actually. I'm afraid of the political implications for it. It's hard enough now to figure out what the truth is. And so that's mostly what I think of when I think of AI. It seems like it's going to make everything even more insane.

These two industries that you've been involved in for much of your life — the art world and the music industry — don't always nurture challenging art. How do you keep making interesting art within these ecosystems?

It's really the only way I know how to make art. Hopefully there's always some kind of audience for it, even if it's a small audience. And sometimes that sort of thing grows.

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Paula Mejía