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A 'Girl In A Band': Kim Gordon On Life After Sonic Youth


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When two members of a band are married, what happens if the marriage ends? The band Sonic Youth had to break up after the marriage of founding members, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, broke apart in 2011. The band and the couple had been together nearly 30 years. In the process of figuring out her new life, Kim Gordon has written a memoir called "Girl In A Band."

Sonic Youth never developed a mainstream following, but it was a powerful influence on many indie bands, with its emphasis on noise and distortion and its roots in punk and the avant-garde. Gordon played bass, wrote lyrics and sang. Gordon and Moore each now have their own bands. Hers is called Body/Head. Gordon's memoir opens with her description of Sonic Youth's final concert at a festival in Brazil, shortly after she'd learned that Moore was cheating on her with a younger woman. Sonic Youth opened their set with this song, "Brave Men Run." Here's their original recording of the song. Gordon wrote the lyrics and sings.


KIM GORDON: (Singing) Seven days and seven nights. I dreamt a sailor's dream at sea. Seven days and seven nights. I dreamt a sailor's dream of me. Seven days and seven nights. The world was made and lost again. Seven days and seven nights. Brave men run in my family. Brave men run into the setting sun. Brave men run into captivity. Brave men run in my family.

GROSS: Kim Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GORDON: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're having to reinvent your life now that your marriage and Sonic Youth are over?

GORDON: I don't know. I don't really think about it that way. But I guess I feel like - yeah, I had to rediscover my identity or reclaim who I feel like I am. You know, my identity was so much wrapped up with the band and, of course, my husband and that relationship. So, yeah, once that fell apart, it was kind of like, who am I, and how'd I get here?

GROSS: Is that a hard question to be asking yourself at 61? And is there an upside to asking that to yourself at 61?

GORDON: It's a hard question. But I think that it's something that - I feel like I've always been in a certain process of discovery my whole life of who I am. And I feel like I was somewhat, you know, stuck in my marriage and my life. So in a way, I see it as kind of only a positive thing at this point.

GROSS: So let's talk about how you started to play music. Let me quote something from your memoir.

(Reading) Guys playing music. I love music. I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were on stage together - to try to link to that invisible thing. It wasn't sexual. But it wasn't un-sexual either. I joined a band so I could be inside that male dynamic.

Did you feel that dynamic? Did you feel that power when you started to be on stage yourself in Sonic Youth?

GORDON: Yeah. I think, you know, there's a certain, actually, thrill of electricity itself and plugging a guitar into an amp. And playing electric guitar is a very visceral, physical thing. Like, your movements affect - can affect the sound of the guitar. And I relate it to that in a way that's - because I always liked to do dance, I kind of related to that on a certain level that I hadn't expected. And I did feel - there were times, yeah, when it felt really great to be just surrounded by the sound and music and kind of just in a thrilling way of not knowing what was going to happen.

GROSS: So in talking about that kind of male energy and male dynamic on stage when a band of men is on stage performing, do you feel like you changed that dynamic, being a woman, where the rest of the members of the band were men, and also being a couple 'cause you and Thurston Moore were a couple and then you were married? So that maybe changes that energy - that dynamic, too.

GORDON: Yeah. I think I always tried to maintain my individuality in the band. And I didn't actually want to be seen as a couple. In fact, it wasn't until I was writing this tour diary for the Village Voice that my editor said (laughter) you have to say that you're a couple. And, you know, I just wanted to be really seen on my own terms.

GROSS: So did people not know until that point?

GORDON: I don't think so. I mean, you know, some people did, but I think...

GROSS: What year are we talking that you wrote that tour diary?

GORDON: Maybe like '84, '85? I don't know - '85 maybe? Yeah, maybe '85.

GROSS: So, you know, just one more thing about the energy on stage. How did that energy change during the final tour when you were in South America, when you knew that your marriage was over, but you still had a commitment to do this final tour. And, you know, you don't want to act that out on stage - you know, the acrimonious separation. So what - can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

GORDON: Well, it was very surreal because I - you know, everybody - you're playing before these huge audiences. And obviously not everyone was there to see Sonic Youth. We were playing with huge rock bands. And we were probably the smallest act on the bill. But it was odd to know that everybody knew that we'd broken up and that this might be the last show. So it was hard to - it felt ridiculous, in a way, to pretend like everything was normal. It was - you know, it was hard.

GROSS: You've always loved music, but you didn't know how to play. And you write you've never considered yourself a musician. So what inspired you to actually start playing?

GORDON: It began with this artist friend of mine, Dan Graham, who had a performance piece. And he wanted to do the piece with an all-girl band. So he asked me if I wanted to participate. And that was kind of how it started. But, you know, the whole atmosphere of - this was like post-punk era, in a sense - 1981. But something about punk rock - I was just talking with someone about this - how it kind of set people off on this course, and you didn't know where it was going. And it wasn't about being a musician. It was just kind of this almost social phenomena that was happening. But it was happening through music, whereas everything had been fairly staid in mainstream music and also the culture. And so it kind of almost, like, set up this context where anyone could kind of participate. So it was this whole other avenue that was opened up. And it kind of pulled you along with it.

GROSS: Do you have a lot more technique now than you did then?

GORDON: (Laughter) I suppose I do, but it's hard to describe. Like, I have a vocabulary of sound and, you know, I have a pretty good sense of space (laughter) and rhythm. But, you know, again, now I play mostly improv music. And, you know, it's not really about playing conventional chords, and it never was in Sonic Youth. It was - the guitars were always tuned in different tunings. The base was tuned in regular - a regular tuning. So we didn't really talk in terms of chords so much and, you know, I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was kind of a skill in that, really.

GROSS: So it was like noise and drone, not only aesthetically appealing to you, but, you know, easier to play for you?

GORDON: Sure. Well, it was more conducive to what I - to who I was, like, you know, coming out of the art world. And I wasn't - had no interest in learning how to play conventional music. That wasn't really - you know, when I moved to New York, I was really influenced by no wave bands, who were incredibly free, and bands like DNA and Mars and The Static and Rhys Chatham. You know, there was - it was different than conventional three-chord punk rock.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, who is a founder of the band Sonic Youth, which broke up when her marriage to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth broke up a couple of years ago. She has a new memoir which is called "Girl In A Band." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, who was a founding member of the band Sonic Youth. And she was married to Thurston Moore of the band. When their marriage ended, the band broke up. She has now written a memoir called "Girl In A Band."

Let me quote you again. You write for high-end music labels.(Reading) The music matters, but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze.

So did you become aware of that in a new way when you signed with a major label? And did you feel like you had to dress not only in a more mainstream or fashionable way but in a more sexualized way?

GORDON: I mean, it wasn't anything that I was pressured into. I was just super aware of the platform being bigger. And that was - I was kind of into playing around with that idea and how clothes absolutely change the way people look at you. It was more like, you know, experimenting with it. It wasn't like they wanted me to do that. I was just pretty aware of it.

GROSS: So what are some of the looks you tried and how did you feel different with each of those when you were performing?

GORDON: Well, I sort of worked my way out of the giant, large T-shirt with choker and boots, which was actually - you know, T-shirts were such a big part of indie rock. And I finally discovered how to make it into a dress.


GORDON: And then, you know, I started wearing, like, shorts onstage or, you know, like, silver, leather hot pants or, you know, things that I could buy from Patricia Field's store, who dressed all the transvestites pretty much downtown. And, you know, I - somehow I got a lot of energy from having bare legs on stage.

GROSS: So just compare for me what it was like getting dressed for a concert, for a performance, comparing how much time you had to spend getting dressed and thinking about what you were going to wear and what your image was going to be compared to your husband, Thurston Moore's, time spent getting dressed and thinking about how he was going to look on stage.

GORDON: Well, you know, usually, I guess I'd figured out for a whole tour what I going to wear. And it was usually, like, would boil down to one thing or two things that you just, you know, become like part of your skin and you feel comfortable in. And then you just then don't have to think about it every night. And then you're always, like, having to change often in some, like, horrible bathroom or - I don't know (laughter) - someplace.

Basically, you know, the guys would just pretty much wear - you know, Lee would probably change his shirt or something. But, you know, it's kind of like they would sweat in their clothes (laughter. And I saw it as almost a practical thing, like I'm just wearing this every night, and I'm not going to, like, get my other clothes sweaty. And I had this one dress I wore on this tour we did in 1991, this striped dress that would get so sweaty, and it would shrink every show. So it kept getting shorter and shorter. But it was kind of - it's kind of cool actually if you do find one thing that you can just wear. You know, like always remember, like, seeing Keith Richards wearing, you know, the same, like, fur vest or, you know, something. That to me is like really rock, when you just wear one thing and then - I suppose that comes out of being a junkie (laughter), but I don't know. It kind of, like, establishes a certain rock look, you know, like you're...

GROSS: You're not referring to yourself here when...


GROSS: Yeah.

GORDON: I'm not referring to myself. I'm just saying that that whole aspect of, like, looking cool 'cause you're just wearing the same thing every day, you know?

GROSS: Yes, because you don't care (laughter).

GORDON: Yeah, or it's not like you're putting on a persona at night, you know. It's kind of like it's not showbizzy, which has kind of changed in music over the years.

GROSS: Oh, god, things are so showbizzy now.


GROSS: I'm just sometimes shocked at how showbizzy, like, not just the rock world but the pop world and the hip-hop world...

GORDON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: You know? It's...

GORDON: It's like Las Vegas entertainment.

GROSS: It's like Vegas, exactly. And then there's all the kind of S&M fetish wear that so many women wear in performances. Does that - what do you think of that?

GORDON: I mean, I think it's a...

GROSS: It's a look (laughter).

GORDON: It's a look. There are a lot of ways to be sexy. Like I -you know, it's like wearing, you know, your sexuality on your sleeve for sure - or your sleeve if you had a sleeve.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GORDON: I mean, I find I'm more into more subtle sexuality. I remember when we played in Detroit once, this kind of noise experiment - noise band opened up called Universal Indians. And the girl - there was two guys and a girl. And she was wearing, you know, sort of baggy, like 517 Levi cords, which my friend and I used to wear all the time. And so she looked kind of Tom boy-ish, and then she was playing her guitar with the rock. And I just thought, wow, that's a cool move. You know, that's really sexy. So, you know, everyone has their own idea of what is sexy, I guess.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, a founding member of the band Sonic Youth and now the author of a memoir called "Girl In A Band." Sonic Youth broke up when she and her husband, Thurston Moore, who is also a founding member of the band, broke up. And, Kim, you write about this some in your book. You found out that he was cheating with a much younger woman. And he lied to you about it. And when you decided to leave him and end the marriage, you also I'm sure knew that that would break up the band. Did you have to weigh at all what it would mean to not only end your marriage but to also break up the band, which was not only like your art, it would your source of income? It was, you know, the father of your daughter's source of income, too.

GORDON: Well, I guess I didn't feel like I had any choice. I mean, I did everything I actually could to, you know, maybe much longer than I should have tried to hang in there and, you know, see what would happen. But it just - you know, it just didn't really - didn't work. And I really hated my - I hated my life at that point.

GROSS: How did the band react to the end?

GORDON: I don't (laughter) - I think everyone was just shocked basically by who the person was. And, you know, it was somebody we all knew, and - I mean, I talked to Lee and Steve individually. But we didn't really talk a lot about what it meant in terms of the band. Like, I think everyone was kind of processing it and still processing it, you know? It's something that takes a long time to get over like any relationship.

GROSS: Well, you have a new band now called Body/Head. And it's - there's a lot of noise and dissonance in it. And you write, noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing. Is it as cleansing now in your 60s as it was in your 20s and 30s?

GORDON: (Laughter) I don't know. It's kind of - I mean, the music that Bill and I make in Body/Head, it's sometimes is kind of relaxing. I don't know. My friend who came to see us was like - she felt like it was a little trance-inducing. And it's really - I mean, when you're doing something that's so much fun to do and challenging, it gives you so much that - I don't know if cleansing is the word - but it just sort of - making new memories. I don't know (laughter).

GROSS: Kim Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

GORDON: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Kim Gordon co-founded the band Sonic Youth and is the author of the new memoir "Girl In A Band." After a break, we'll hear from the creators of the web TV series "High Maintenance" about a pot dealer and his clients. David Bianculli will review two short shows he considers part of the new TV revolution - an ABC series created by John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for "12 Years A Slave," and a Netflix comedy co-created by Tina Fey. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by songwriter Nora Jane Struthers. That's after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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