Sonic Youth was a band I didn’t appreciate until college. I was still in grade school when the group broke into the mainstream in the mid '90s. I do, however, remember the first song that got me into the band. It was a cover of “Superstar,” made famous by the pop group, The Carpenters, in 1971.
As Kim Gordon told me:
I'm a lot older than you so I remember when The Carpenters weren't cool then. But [Karen Carpenter] just has such a beautiful voice. It's so soulful and it's interesting how, out of the context of that time, you can just listen to the music. Usually I'm all about how important context is to understand.
And just like Gordon wanting to get into Karen Carpenter’s head, I wanted to know what makes her tick creatively. So I started at the beginning, when Gordon was growing up in Los Angeles.
I remember when I was a teenager, food was a big part in my family and my parents were both good cooks. But one way to rebel was just not to want to eat dinner.
James Kim: Was there a lot of you wanting to rebel?
Yeah, I was pretty rebellious. I just didn't like being told what to do.
Kim: Why is that?
I'm just deeply stubborn. No, I was very independent as a kid. So I just felt like I could do everything.
Before playing the guitar, Gordon picked up a paintbrush and began taking art classes outside of high school. She eventually attended Otis Art Institute and found her way to New York in the ‘70s where she discovered punk rock.
I went to New York to make art and then I saw these bands and I thought that it was just so free and interesting. An artist friend of mine asked me to be a part of this performance piece to perform in an all-girl band. So that was kind of the beginning.
The band was called CKM. It was short-lived. But soon after, Gordon met guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and together they formed the noise-rock band Sonic Youth in 1981.
The band had an underground following until its third album, “EVOL,” was released in 1986. The album was a hit with critics, and Robert Christgau, the legendary rock writer who actually panned the band earlier in its career, wrote a review for The Village Voice that said: “The good parts are so good that for a while there I thought I was enjoying the bad parts.”
Sonic Youth’s follow-up album, “Sister,” was also well received. And then, “Daydream Nation” was released in 1988. Rolling Stone, Billboard, the L.A. Times and The Guardian all hailed it as one of the best albums of the year. And in 2005, it was one of 50 albums selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
The band went on to sign with a major label, Geffen Records. And they even had Chuck D from Public Enemy do guest vocals on the song, “Kool Thing,” from the 1990 album, “Goo.”
Sonic Youth headlined major festivals throughout the ‘90s and was even featured on an episode of “The Simpsons” titled "Homerpalooza." After releasing 15 studio albums from 1983 to 2009, the band ended in 2011, as did Gordon's 27-year marriage to Thurston Moore. "I think when Sonic Youth broke up, it was in a sense freeing in a way," she says. "I could go back to just playing music that felt more natural to me."
Gordon went on to start a new band, called Body/Head, with guitarist Bill Nace. The duo released the album “Coming Apart” in 2013, and most recently a live album called “No Waves.”
The music is experimental and the band often improvises on stage. And earlier this year, Gordon released her first solo song, “Murdered Out.”
After spending the day at Kim Gordon’s house, recounting her life from art school to Sonic Youth to the present day, I couldn’t help but wonder if she thinks about the imprint she has made in the music world.
I never really thought of myself as an icon or being looked up to. It just can be paralyzing if you think too much about what [people] think of you. Hopefully I'm a role model to my daughter. But I never want to be glib about anything. I like to almost feel like I'm starting over for the first time.