Exploring Experimentalism: An Interview with Body/Head

Gus Yafcak, ’14

Kim Gordon is a bassist, a vocalist, and a founding member of Sonic Youth. After her breakup with her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth declared an indefinite hiatus. She has since formed a new group, Body/Head, with Bill Nace. I met the two after a performance last weekend with the Poetry Project and they agreed to an interview.

How would you define experimental music?

Kim Gordon: Well, there are two different ways people define it. One way is like kind of a genre that people tend to put a lot of electronic music into. I’ve noticed at these festivals that we do, for those people, that’s what it means. For me it means anything that’s not conventional music, in a broader way. I mean, I like to use the term for what we do more like “eccentric music,” or noise rock.

Bill Nace: I think it depends what your entry is into music. Like, if you listen to a lot of hip-hop, I think what experimental is is different than if you listen to a lot of classical music. I think it kind of depends on how you’re kind of entering into music as a listener or someone who plays it.

KG: Yeah, definitely.

BN: And then I think from there what makes it experimental can really vary.

Do you consider yourself experimental musicians?

BN: I don’t…

KG: I guess, you know, if I’m being really lazy, but I don’t really feel that it adequately describes what we do.

Do you think that, in terms of music being experimental, if something is experimental at one point, will it always be experimental? Or will it ever be incorporated into tradition?

KG: Yeah, I think things get incorporated, sure. They become part of the vocabulary of music. I mean, Sonic Youth is a good example. I don’t think we ever started out thinking that we were experimental music. We thought we were writing rock songs.

BN: Yeah.

KG: It was other people that said that it was. We did some experimenting, but yeah, things get incorporated. You know, you can hear the way dissonance is used in music, and even…dare I say noise? You know, when Sonic Youth started, “noise” was considered a derogatory term. We once…in one of our first reviews we were described as “dental drill music.”

BN: I think it’s weird, though, because it can imply that there’s, like, a norm to music, which you’re then deviating from, which certainly is the case with some people, but I think in other cases it’s not…they’re not doing something that’s playing around with conventions, or they’re not doing anything in opposition to it, it’s just a thing. The idea that there’s just regular music here and everything else is kind of deviating from it is kind of strange.

KG: Well, I think that’s true with, I mean, mainstream music, three-chord rock-n-roll, or pop music that goes from verse to chorus to bridge. You know, a lot of the time, technology tends to, or at some point it started dictating what it would sound like or something, on a certain level. That’s what, to me, falls under that big umbrella of the genre of something. Or not such a big umbrella. It can be a narrow one.

Are there any specific artists or bands that come to mind when you think of experimental music?

KG: Well I guess…I don’t know. There’s experimental music, and then there’s also experimental noise music. Everything has subgenres. I guess someone like Merzbow you could say is a noise musician, or experimental noise. The word “experimental” kind of starts getting in the way of understanding what music is, like a lot of labels.

BN: I think a lot of that’s changing, too, because people’s ideas of what genre is, or what…or having clearly defined lines like that, I don’t think it’s really in that way any more. Like, an interesting example of this just came into my head, but when you guys [Sonic Youth] did “Kool Thing,” I think having Chuck D. there was like…or it felt like this…I mean, it was really New York but it felt like these two worlds colliding. That’s kind of been done. I don’t think it would feel like that anymore. Everything’s so meshed together. I think that idea of…

KG: Defined genre?

BN: …defined genre, yeah, because I think before they came more out of a culture and a context, too, and I think that also a lot of fans don’t have that as much now. I think there’s good and bad in that.

KG: Yeah, genres are really kind of slipping away.

Do you think that’s a good thing?

KG: Good and bad. Yeah, like, I think the good is that it makes everything a material to be used, and maybe it opens up people’s expectations. But the other part of it is that there is no context for anything. I mean, there is after you go back and research things, but the way people listen to music on the internet is just a song here and a song there, or, you know…

BN: Branching out to expand your brand.

Has the change in the way that people listen to music affected the way you put together your albums or your songs?

KG: Well, we just sort of ignore that. We put out a double album.

BN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t even know. Even to try to think of that would be maddening. I have no idea. The changes would be so personalized.

How about your other art? Do you think that the line in art is the same as in music in terms of experimentality?

KG: It’s a whole…it’s completely different.

How so?

KG: Well, context is more important in art. And it’s still looked at. It’s just a totally different history.

Do you think that the term “experimental” – would that exist if weren’t for critics using it and the industry trying to sell it?

BN: Is there an industry for experimental music?

That’s a good question. Do you think so?

KG: Well, the Red Bull Academy.

BN: I think it’s a non-selling industry.

KG: I’m sure that there is. Well, I think that it kind of…people put a beat on it and then it is. I don’t know how experimental it is though. I don’t know. What was the question? No seriously, what was the question?

Do you think that anybody other than a critic would call music experimental?

KG: It’s only a short form of communicating. Critics don’t usually talk about music in those terms. They talk about records.

Does the music that you listen to influence the music that you make?

KG: Sometimes, yeah.

In what ways?

KG: Well, it kind of reminds you of what’s possible. I feel like female vocalists in the past were more intense in a certain way than they are now. Maybe it’s partly because of technology. It evens everything out. Or it evolves into separate crescents. But I think that intensity is not as inbred or a desired trait, unless you like rock music, but even then….When did bland become the norm?

BN: Yeah, all of this stuff has happened musically and now everything is so clean again.

In the same vein, have you ever heard an album or a song or an artist and immediately thought of something that you wanted to write or perform?

KG: Yeah, definitely. There’s this duo, Talk Normal. Their records are inspiring. You should listen to them if you haven’t.

Do you think that your music has changed over the course of your career?

KG: Sure, yes.

When something changes in your music, are you conscious of it? Are you trying to make that change or does it just happen?

KG: Well, it depends on who you’re playing with or the format that you’re playing.

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