In their 28-year career, indie-rock godfathers Sonic Youth have experienced unprecedented success — and had unparalleled staying power. Credit this longevity to the band's stability: Guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon and guitarist/vocalist/her husband Thurston Moore have launched numerous side projects, completed countless world tours and released copius rarites and studio albums.
The band's Matador Records-released latest, The Eternal, marks its return to an independent label. (It had been with Geffen since 1990's Goo.) But Eternal is the perfect extension of the Sonic Youth catalog, a hybrid of resonant guitar textures and jammy, jazzed-out, free-form experimentation. The album evokes Daydream Nation's unpredictable explosiveness and the near-psychedelic, extended harmonies of Washing Machine, but it isn't a musical progression as much as it is a lateral move. That in particular is Sonic Youth's trademark: Although each new album the band releases might contain heavier guitars, additional harmonies or more noise, they all maintain that nebulous Sonic Youth quality. There's something special about the dreamy pop blasts that the band creates together; instead of their dueling talents triggering a compromise, it feels as though collaboration enriches the Sonic Youth sound.
As Sonic Youth's bassist and one of its songwriters, Kim Gordon has long been an inspiration to younger musicians. As one of the few females in a respected, long-running rock band, Gordon is thought of as the cool, MILF-y matriarch of indie rock. But unlike many women, she's praised as much for her musical contributions as she is for her good looks and hushed, lusty voice. Her contributions to the band have rarely been as pronounced as they are on Eternal, on which she sings lead on several tracks, and her imposing bass lines sweep boldly through the din.
A prolific visual artist, Gordon is also accomplished in many other disciplines — including painting, drawing, writing, producing and organizing both art and music events. She's also fronted two successful fashion lines, X-Girl and the new Mirror/Dash, which is sold at Urban Outfitters. On the eve of Sonic Youth's current tour, we spoke with Gordon about how she balances her multiple interests with life on the road. She has a reputation as being private — even aloof — in interviews, but we found her to be inviting, engaging and downright giggly.
Jaime Lees: You have so many different projects. How do you decide what you're going to work on? Is it deadlines?
Kim Gordon: Yeah, deadlines. Exactly. Well, with the art stuff, some things you have to create [on deadline], either projects with someone or sometimes you get asked for a show. I work on ideas and stuff, but when it really comes down to it, it's all about a deadline.
Do you complete your art first and then look for a show for it, or do you hear about an interesting show and want to create something for it?
It's kind of a little of both. Right now I'm in this show in Graz in Austria, a group show. I don't usually like group shows, but this one was interesting. I like the curator [Diedrich Diederichsen]. He's a writer before he's a curator. [Along with] my friend, Jutta Koether, who's an artist, they asked us if we wanted to do a collaboration.
So how can you spend half of your life on the road and still be painting?
Well, this has been a really busy spring, but generally we just tour around a record. We're not one of those bands that goes on tour for a year or something. We have a daughter, and Lee has kids so, you know, I try and tour around her school schedule. We've been gone a lot this spring already, so it's hard. And I think it's actually harder for moms to leave their kids. I know some people say, "How come people don't make a big deal about asking fathers what it's like to go on the road?" It is hard for them, too, but I think it's easier if you have one parent at home that's taking care of it.
Do you bring her [daughter Coco] with you on tour?
Sometimes. But as she's gotten older she's been able to stay home with someone. And she prefers to stay home. [Laughs]
When you're out touring and you get to each new city, do you have something you like to do there? You know, like some people like to find the city's best restaurant or used bookstore or whatever.
Oh yeah, we're totally into picking out good restaurants. And actually, Mark [Ibold, of Pavement fame], who is playing bass with us now, he's really great at looking up food websites, and he always knows about places to try. But when we first started touring, it was always like, "Where's the good barbecue place?" [Laughs] So when we get to a city, sometimes we'll get day rooms at a hotel. We usually have a few hours during the day to hang out before we do sound check, and sometimes we have interviews.
So you have sound check and then you go do your dinner thing before the show?
Sometimes. I mean, you have to eat a certain amount of time before the show. Steve, our drummer, won't eat if it's less than five hours before our show.
Does he get barfy?
[Laughs] He just plays better. And you do play better if you're not full. Nothing like a whole lot of barbecue and then having to go onstage! [Laughs]
So do you get any of your other work done on tour? I mean, it's not like you can paint on the bus...
It's hard. Some people can do a lot of stuff on tour. I can't because I have a perpetual state of exhaustion because I don't sleep on the bus very well. Like, Lee seems to always have little projects he's working on, but I'm not so good. I'm going to try and seek out, like, yoga classes and things like that to offset the barbecue. [Laughs] It's a little anxiety provoking, actually, to have to go away for six weeks. In fact, I'm in the middle of packing right now.
I know, like, how many shoes do you bring? Who knows?
Yeah, it's like, how do I pack all these vitamins? I always over-pack. But you're basically living out of a suitcase for six weeks. It's like, you buy all these clothes [at home], but then you kind of have to say goodbye to them. [Laughs] It's hard to go away during the summer, actually. But it'll be fun once we get going.
Is it easier for you guys when you're touring with another band, because then you have more people around to hang out with? Or is that just annoying?
[Laughs] Well, it can be. You're together all the time, and sometimes you sort of create a distance, because otherwise you would really be irritated all the time. [Laughs] Twelve people on a bus is kind of hard. But anyway, God, it's nice to be asked other questions than normal, you know? I mean, we get tired of the same questions all the time so it's going really well so far. You're doing a good job.
Well, thank you. I'm bored with reading the same questions all the time. So, do you ever have free time? Do you ever have a time where you're at home, and you don't have any huge projects staring at you?
Um, pretty much never. But last summer, we only did a little bit of touring, but that was the first time in maybe twenty years where we hadn't toured in the summer. I mean, it was kind of shocking, actually. But when I'm home I procrastinate about doing things so I can hang out with my friends. Like now, I should be getting my things done, but I'd rather see my friends before I go, so...
So what are you doing when you get back from tour? What's your next big thing?
Well, Mirror/Dash, the clothing line, is kind of an ongoing thing. But for the next project, I have a book I'm working on, my paintings, and I'm sort of working on another painting series. But we're going to do a bunch of touring in the fall, so I'm kind of keeping my schedule as open as I can. I don't want to be too...pressured. But as busy as I am, Thurston has many more projects than I do. I don't know how he does it, really. But it's energizing if you get stuff back from it.