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Kim Gordon's Personal Best

07 March 2024, 12:00

The uncategorisable Kim Gordon continues to confound expectations with her brutally vivid new solo album, The Collective. She walks Alan Pedder through five milestone songs in her storied career, from Sonic Youth to the anomalistic hip hop of her latest work.

Kim Gordon has always maintained that she’s a visual artist first and music-maker second, even as she finds ever more creative ways to mash the two disciplines together.

With her new album The Collective, she takes us on a thrilling, high-wire walk through a landscape of scraggy, minimal hip hop and congested production that dares to be divisive and risks collapse at every turn. It’s tough, often direfully so, but also weirdly brittle. The largely improvised lyrics gather among the storms, offering montages and supercuts of the modern world in all its monstrous motion and cynical consumerism. The emphasis is not on songs but experiences – our collective experiences – of everyday scenarios of alienation, overwhelm and, on lead single “BYE BYE”, an oblique mundanity firmly at odds with the music.

American writer and critic Hilton Als recently wrote about his friend, “Kim has the twin tools that make any artist exceptional: empathy and an imagination,” and to me that rings completely true. I can think of few other artists in their seventies able to so successfully tap into the contemporary dilemmas of much younger generations. Gordon is a singular package, effortlessly in our heads and a league of her own.


One thing she may not be blessed with, though, is an exceptional memory. Again, very relatable, and hardly surprising considering the arc and prolific output of her decades-long career as a (non-)musician.

Speaking to Best Fit from her home in Los Angeles, sitting on a sofa in front of a wall of stacked bookshelves flooded with the morning sunlight, she’s amiably non-committal. “I’m not sure I have much to say,” she says, setting expectations right off the bat as we start digging into the five songs she’s chosen as representative of different facets of her Hydra-headed creativity.

“It’s not a definitive list,” she warns. “These were just the first ones that came to mind. I’m no good at picking my favourites or my top 10 anything. I’m like a deer in the headlights or something when I’m asked that.”

Kim Gordon Danielle Neu blindfold

The five songs Gordon has chosen span more than 25 years, sidestepping the entirety of Sonic Youth’s revered ‘80s and ‘90s output and giving some much deserved love to the chronically overlooked Free Kitten – the band she formed with Pussy Galore’s Julia Cafritz in 1992, later adding Boredoms' Yoshimi P-We and Pavement's Mark ibold – and to Body/Head, her quicksilver duo with fellow visual artist–musician Bill Nace.

We also drop in on the trap beat-built “Paprika Pony”, a highlight of her first solo album, 2019’s No Home Record, and arguably the song that set Gordon and producer Justin Raisen on the path that eventually led to the deconstructed and aggressively disfigured hip hop beats of The Collective.


It's a journey that has served Gordon well and in unexpected ways – “BYE BYE” was a viral hit on TikTok, for starters – but it mostly likely ends here. If Gordon does makes another solo record in the future, which isn’t guaranteed, it will probably sound completely different. “This is probably as close to a hip hop record as I’m gonna get,” she says. “I don’t really like genre music. I’m just not that kind of musician. Like, I sometimes think I'd like to make a Brazilian record, but I’m never actually going to make a Brazilian record.”

She laughs. “I do think it’s funny how formal people still are about different genres of music, whether it be rock or country music or hip hop. People take music so seriously, but to me it’s just very, very freeing."

"Never Gonna Sleep" by Free Kitten (1997)

KIM GORDON: I just recently listened back to this song because somebody wanted to license it and I was kind of surprised that I really liked it a lot. It had been a few years since I’d heard it and it’s actually really cool.

The drums on it kind of reminded me of the drums on “Murdered Out” [from No Home Record], which was the first thing I did with Justin. I had gone over to his studio to record some vocals for another record he was working on with somebody. Afterwards he took some remaining scraps of vocals and put it to this really kind of trashy drum track, and that eventually became “Murdered Out”.

The really great drummer Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint later played on the song, and she’s a heavy hitter like Yoshimi. Hearing “Never Gonna Sleep” again, I thought, oh, maybe that’s why I responded so well to what became “Murdered Out”. Because it was familiar to me, specifically because of Yoshimi’s playing. This song is kind of a drum and bass thing, in a way.

BEST FIT: It definitely has those ingredients. Now, Free Kitten is an interesting project because it started out almost as just a bit of a joke and then grew from there, right?

Yeah, it was basically a duo with me and Julia, and we were sort of making fun of the Sunday afternoon free jazz scene at CBGBs. I mean, there were some really great people who played those events, like Charles Gayle and some of our friends, but often it would be these guys who would always play too long. Julia and I said, well, we can do that. We can do free jazz in our own way. Actually, our first gig was on an afternoon when Charles Gayle was also playing and he really liked us. I was like, whoa!

We were also inspired by Royal Trux, who, when they started, were just Jennifer [Herrema] and Neil [Hagerty]. That showed us that you only really need two people to make a band. But then we wanted to play with Yoshimi and bringing her into the band was kind of just an excuse to hang out with her [laughs]. Then we added Mark on bass, because he’s also fun to hang out with.

Do you have any memories of recording “Never Gonna Sleep”?

Not really! It just happened.

It’s funny because we’d only have a week or something with Yoshimi and we’d just make up the songs as we recorded them. We’d basically have to go back and learn how to play them afterwards, because we did tour a little bit, in England, when my daughter Coco was 7 or 8 months old or something. I remember there was a riot grrrl band called Skinned Teen who opened for us in London. They had this song called “Pillowcase Kisser”, which is just genius. Well, anyway, that was an exhausting tour for me [laughs].

Was Coco around in the studio much when you made Sentimental Education?

No, she wasn’t. I do remember being pregnant when we recorded [the second Free Kitten album] Nice Ass and having to go get an amnio in the middle of that. On the cover of that album I’m wearing this giant Knicks jersey because I was so pregnant.

Do you feel like it’s time for Free Kitten to be reappreciated or discovered by a new audience?

Oh, maybe, you know [laughs]. Honestly, I don't really remember what any of the songs sound like. When I hear them sometimes I'm like, ‘God, that sounds familiar. Who is that singing? Is that Coco?’ She had a band, briefly, in high school.

Free Kitten Sentimental Education

"Pattern Recognition" by Sonic Youth (2004)

BEST FIT: Next up is “Pattern Recognition” from Sonic Nurse. What is it that appeals to you about this song?

KIM GORDON: It was just such a fun song to play live. I really like the urgency of the music.

This song was inspired by a book with the same title by William Gibson, which was his first book and it’s kind of but not really science fiction. The female protagonist in the book is ‘a cool hunter’, which basically means that she’s hired by branding and marketing companies to figure out what’s cool, and there’s a whole sinister, dark, espionage element to it. I just really liked that character and sort of wrote the song from her perspective.

What was what was going on in your life around that time? How were you all feeling, coming off the critical success of your previous record, Murray Street?

Um, yeah, we had Jim O’Rourke come back again to sort of mix and produce the album with us. It was great to have him because, you know, it’s very hard to mix a record democratically. We’d aim for it but nobody really had the strength or the priority to win an argument [laughs].

What’s good about Jim is that he was somebody we all more or less trusted and felt comfortable around. I think it was probably the hardest for Steve [Shelley, Sonic Youth drummer], because the way that drums are mixed can affect the sound of the whole record. That’s why people get so preoccupied with the way that drums sound. So yeah, it was kind of not fair on Steve, but anyway, that’s what happened. We recorded the album partly in our studio, I think, but then finished mixing it with Jim somewhere else.

Unfathomably, Sonic Nurse turns 20 years old this year. When you listen to “Pattern Recognition” now, what feeling does it stir up for you?

I don't listen to it. I haven't listened to it in a long time, probably since we last played it live.

You know, when you start touring a record it kind of takes on a life of its own and you almost have to forget about what the record sound like. The songs just live inside you, more or less, so I have more of a memory of playing it live than I do of listening to it. Not that I remember how to play it! [laughs]

Sonic Youth Sonic Nurse

"Paprika Pony" by Kim Gordon (2019)

BEST FIT: Let's move on to something more recent then, “Paprika Pony” from your first solo album, No Home Record. What makes this song one of your personal best?

KIM GORDON: I really like this song because I like to play with space and phrasing when singing, and I think what we came up with really fits my style of vocalising.

This song just wrote itself. It was basically done in half an hour or something. I remember Justin’s brother came by the studio/garage and we asked him, ‘Hey, do you have any cool beats?’ He played a couple of things and then he played the beat that we used for “Paprika Pony”, and I just instantly knew that I could put vocals to it. I had some lyrics that I kind of made fit, and I guess I probably improv’d a lot of it.

Was “Paprika Pony” similar to “Pattern Recognition” in taking on a life of its own outside of the studio? How much did it change in the live setting?

It didn't change that much, actually. Camilla [Charlesworth] added a bass part, and there were other subtle things that were added to it. And it wasn’t exactly the same, timing-wise, as on the record, but it was mostly adhered to.

There’s just something about this song. The music has a kind of drama to it. There’s a tension that I like, and I feel like it kind of makes me get into some kind of character.

How would you describe that character?

Oh, no character in particular. It just kind of takes me out of myself, I guess. This song feels filmic to me.

Kim Gordon No Home Record

"Tripping" by Body/Head (2023)

BEST FIT: This track comes from last year’s surprise Body/Head EP, Come On. What made you choose this particular track?

KIM GORDON: Well, I really love playing with Bill and I love the music we make. It's very free.

Usually we record by playing live in a studio and then we just kind of go through those recordings and pick out pieces than can be worked on and shaped. With this EP, we made it separately. I recorded some stuff and sent it to Bill, and Bill sent me some stuff and we’d have a little back and forth. That way of working allowed us to focus more and to construct the songs in a different way, and then Bill basically mixed them himself. It was a nice way to work.

We ended up sending the EP to [French film director] Catherine Breillat, whose movie 36 Fillette was something we talked about a lot before we came up with our band name. We were reading a really good book about her work and it talks about how that film is about this conflict between the body of this 16 year old girl who wants to lose her virginity, and her head, which doesn’t want to give up control. That’s where the name Body/Head comes from, and basically our dream since then has been to soundtrack one of her films. The funny thing is, she doesn’t really use much music, except for incidental music, and that’s actually one of the things I really like about her movies.

Anyway, we sent her the EP and she really liked this song, “Tripping”, and ended up using it twice in a film called L'été dernier [released as Last Summer in the US], as well as the Sonic Youth song “Dirty Boots”. She kept wanting to credit me with all the music and I was saying that she couldn’t do that, so we kept adjusting the credit. It ended up as ‘Song by Body/Head’ but then she also put ‘Music in collaboration with Kim Gordon’ and by that point it was too late to change it [laughs].

She did say at one point that she sometimes uses really low-end sub-bass in her movies, but it’s more something that’s felt than heard. I’d sent her some of that, but I don’t think she really used any of it. Anyway, I met her in Paris and she was very sweet.

"It's Dark Inside" by Kim Gordon (2024)

BEST FIT: What can you tell me about why you’ve chosen this particular song from The Collective?

KIM GORDON: I recorded this song and “Trophies” in the same day, and I think the two songs share some similarities. I don’t really know what to say about it [laughs]. I had some lyrics to hand but I ended up improvising a lot of the words, just trying to follow or project the sort of broken narratives that exist now in the world.

It’s interesting how the song seems to get more and more claustrophobic as it goes on, with all that scraping and grinding.

To me, the ending of that song is kind of like what I imagine it would be to be trapped in a school room, hiding under a desk. But it’s also got a kind of feeling of asking, what recourse do we have now? With our failed politics and governments. It feels the world is barely hanging on in some ways.

I caught the lyrical reference to Pussy Galore in this song, which ties in nicely with the Free Kitten song we talked about earlier.

Yeah. That part of the song actually came from reading some article about some woman who’d found something on her clitoris and went to see a doctor about it. But this doctor didn't know what it was or how to treat it, so he just took a hole puncher and punched a hole in her clitoris.

I was just like ‘Wow, clearly they don’t teach clit in med school.’ I mean, what did he do that for?! That's insane!

Kim Gordon The Collective

The Collective is released on 8 March via Matador Records.

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