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Artists make the best cultural critics. They reveal what's happening around us with whatever level of transparency they see fit, with whatever level of opaqueness they desire to sustain mystery. They're observers, internally and outwardly, operating in a space that allows us, the voyeur, the listener, to learn. Kim Gordon has been teaching us for over three decades. Now she's doing it under her own name.
The experimental music icon got her start in Sonic Youth 35 years ago, revolutionizing the '80s New York no wave scene by extending and challenging its sonic barriers. The band's 1983 debut Confusion is Sex confirmed art school cool could exist in punk grit. 1986's EVOL found mania in madness, shape-shifting noise into avant-diatribe against rock and roll. 1988's Daydream Nation validated the musicians' discordant dynamism. 1990's Goo made them icons free from any form of obscurity. 1995's Washing Machine made them certifiable rockstars. 2009's The Eternal allowed them to both delicately fade into non-existence, and burn out after blazing.
In her modern musical era, Gordon has become Body/Head, a noisy guitar duo with musician friend Bill Nace. Much like Sonic Youth, Body/Head treats song construction as a three-dimensional entity, art music to think to.
Even with the sonic similarities between projects, there is no "Kim Gordon sound." If there was, she'd reject it. Instead, Gordon delights with texture, dazzles with distortion. With the exception of her memoir, Girl In A Band, "Murdered Out" is her first offering under her name as a solo artist and plays to that identity with new found accessibility. The song is perhaps her most melodic to date, a deep examination into a trend in the automotive industry — car enthusiasts blacking out their vehicles, covering the logo and window visibility — murderering out any identifying factors. Growing up in the epicenter of this car culture — Los Angeles — Gordon recognizes the specificity of the art-trend and attempts to honor it on the track.
Before hopping on a flight from L.A. to Australia, Gordon spoke on the phone about her new song, the political and distinctly American implications of murderering out and her new California home.
The first thing that struck me is that "Murdered Out" is the first song recorded exclusively under the Kim Gordon name.
Ha, I guess it is!
People are going to ascribe a lot of meaning to that. It feels distinctly personal, after all of your projects, for this to be the first "Kim Gordon" release. Is there a reason for that?
Not really. It just kind of happened randomly. I met Justin [Raisen], the producer. He wanted me to sing on this project he had been working on. After a year I finally went over and we made up some lyrics. He took what I didn't use, vocal wise, and made a loop, a rhythm thing. He put my vocals to it, extended it. I went back and did more vocals. He had [Warpaint's] Stella [Mozgawa] play drums on it.
Justin did the rhythm. I just overdubbed guitars. He did the bass and the main body of the track. We've talked about doing more stuff [together.] I've never really worked that way before. I worked that way a little bit, but not to this extent where someone's picking on my vocals and guitar and shaping it in a way.
That's a unique foundation. I wouldn't necessarily consider this to be a lyric-driven song, but there's certainly a strong narrative at play, the one that you sing. Collaborating with Justin is interesting ... his recent work is distinctly pop, but art-y pop: The Ariel Pink, Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Santigolds of the world. Was the pop element of what he does attractive to you?
To tell you the truth, I wasn't that familiar. I knew he did Sky's record and I liked that. He sent me another thing he did he did with this female vocalist, [it was] super trash-y and kind of punk-y. I think he did it because he felt it would appeal to me, you know? And it did. It's interesting working with someone who has the range of pop, but I'm not that at all. He knows history, musically. Our aesthetics are not exactly the same but I think he has a big vocabulary to draw from. He's a music enthusiast.
"Murdered Out" is definitely the most dance-y thing you've ever done.
Oh yeah, absolutely. It's probably the most accessible thing.
This might be stretching it but so much of the body of your work has been anti-rock, embracing a pop edge feels like a final frontier. Pop and rock are often considered in opposition to one another.
Yeah. It's funny, I mean, in Sonic Youth we always loved the contrast of a melody with noise, granted, it didn't always equal something catchy. Even in Body/Head, the guitar duo I have with Bill Nace, [we pull] song fragments that then go into something [that feels like it's] extract[ing], that kind of breaks away. I liked the freedom of working with Bill and with working with Justin. It was like working in a studio with different elements.
The most memorable lyrical moment of "Murdered Out" is this repetition of "black matte spray." You wrote that it's an observation informed by your move back to Los Angeles, seeing cars covered in the stuff with increasing regularity. Some might view it as an increase or fetishization of, like, crime culture — historically it seems like making your vehicle totally dark is an aesthetic choice, but also from a place of necessary anonymity. You wrote that it's a reclaiming of a corporate symbol of American success.
I guess I meant that it was a reduction of that. Something like that comes up in low-rider culture and eventually gets incorporated into mainstream aesthetic or high fashion. It's no different [from] other things that get incorporated, from street fashion into mainstream culture. I don't think this is celebrating something that's a corporate symbol, it's more like blacking it out. We're getting rid of the logo, we're getting rid of everything [that] is [considered] design and yet the whole black-on-black thing is becoming already incorporated into mainstream design culture. It's almost like a peaceful resistance. It's denying that we're part of the culture, that we're not going to fit in. We're making our own kind of anti-status symbol, in our own language that's kind of subliminal. It doesn't jump out at you. It's something kind of hidden around. That's kind of cool.
Do you think it gets misinterpreted when it reaches the high fashion gaze? I'm thinking of young millionaires with blacked out, self-driving Teslas and whatnot.
Totally. It's funny, too, because I was doing these paintings with black matte spray paint on plexiglass because I was inspired by seeing it. Those lyrics found their way into the song, an art practice mixed with something more commercial.
By blacking out a car, or making something completely dark, it's made anonymous — possessing almost a protective quality. That seems to be reflected in the single artwork, too, the murdered out car and your face blurred.
I kind of interpreted it as the anti-success, what success means. It's always been unquestioned that there is one way everyone should be going, and not everyone is made that way. Some people are super driven. It's like when you hear some commercial, it becomes public music. There's private music and public music, almost. That's kind of interesting.
Absolutely. Another aesthetic trait is that murdering out is intimidating, obscuring inner and outer features ... it's an exclusiveness that becomes inclusive once it becomes a trend.
Right. Like everything else that becomes cool. Out of context it's given a new context.
A lyric like "secondhand smoke never goes away" evokes a claustrophobic feeling, an involuntary sensation, but it also feels celebratory in almost a dystopic way. Is there a duality at play?
I was just thinking about hanging out in the parking lot smoking cigarettes, but also how what you do in your past stays with you in some way, who you hang out with or your life choices and you can kind of move on and evolve but you still have this imprint of your experience.
Is that a good thing?
I don't know! It's not good or bad, it just is.
Is this "black matte spray" trend a good thing?
I think so. It is, in a way, taking things into your own hands. A DIY kind of thing. It seems to be that people are so frustrated — it's politics, how the government functions. I see it as a good thing.
It's fascinating that this trend exists almost exclusively in Southern California. Do you think there's a particular reason for that?
It's such a car culture. I used to see those little Toyota trucks lowered with the logo changed to read "T-Toy." I always thought that was cool in a subliminal way. I don't know if you see it in Detroit, and I don't know how much it's tied to gang culture, maybe originally more so .... There's such a culture here of hydraulic cars, souped up cars in L.A., also a kind of ghetto culture.
Has moving back to Los Angeles shaped the way you make art? Geography and environment has the potential to be intimately influential.
What I've always loved about L.A. is just driving around and looking at stuff. I feel like I've always carried the aesthetic with me to the East Coast. It's always been there. Now it's just more a matter of figuring out what the art world is here. Where the galleries are ... it's different in New York. I haven't really lived in New York in almost 20 years, I was in Western Massachusetts, but going back and forth to New York, I could feel the energy. In L.A., it's quite different. In New York, you feel like you're doing stuff even if you're not, there's so much activity around you. Here, you really do have to generate it, or not. I like the idea of things becoming more eccentric here because it's not like a fishbowl like New York. There's more space for people to get lost and create more on their own. There's less of a direct community, even though the art world here is much more evolved.
You get the luxury of privacy.
"Murdered Out" is out now on Matador.
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