Inside Kim Gordon’s Northampton “torture chamber”

Sonic Youth vocalist Kim Gordon takes us into her culture-vulture underground lair

Arts+Culture Feature
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Photography by Henrique Plantikow

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Kim Gordon’s 103-year-old house is stuffed full of esoterica arranged with ramshackle artistry: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game lies atop the dining-room table, a DIY poster dedicated to punk provocateur Richard Hell stands in the entryway and No Wave memorabilia shares space with photos of Gordon’s daughter Coco goofing around with Sofia Coppola. 

Led Zeppelin is playing in the kitchen as Syd Barrett – Gordon’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel, not the late psychedelic guitarist – sits contently on her lap. Bill Nace, her partner in noise outfit Body/Head, shows me down a flight of stairs past a sign that reads “Torture Chamber” and leads me into the basement, a space of such concentrated culture-vulture savantism it would send Nick Hornby into apoplexy. Amid thousands of painstakingly archived records in white boxes and books in cases (tomes include the Situationist International Anthology and works by Robert Mapplethorpe and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, as well as a whole case of Philip K Dick books) is a slew of instruments with which Body/Head created their haunting LP, Coming Apart. Sharing its name with a 1969 Rip Torn film that depicts a man’s psycho-sexual deterioration into madness – the band use it as a slow-motion projection during their live shows – the record is an oceanic soundscape of internalised turmoil that ebbs and swells into a maelstrom of diffuse power, and includes a fantastically eerie cover of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”.  

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Photography by Henrique Plantikow

There’s no spooky vibes today though, just two friends hanging out, dissecting how the 6,000 sq ft house, its contents and the surrounding area played such a pivotal role in their foreboding musical alchemy. 

Escape from New York

Kim Gordon: I feel most comfortable at home, though I’m always kind of going back and forth to New York. Travelling a lot. Thurston (Moore) and I moved here when our daughter was five. We needed a bigger place and weren’t really sure we could afford to live in New York. We knew people who lived in the area like Byron Coley, and J Mascis lives in Amherst across the river. We always thought Amherst was really exotic sounding. I spend most of my time now in the kitchen – you know, the windows, the French doors, the garden, the record player. I like that it’s so light, the rest of the house can be kind of dark. It is very Stars Hollow – the place where they lived in Gilmore Girls. The husband and wife who created the series, they came out here once, I think. They literally took one trip and were only in the area for a couple of days. When I come back to Northampton from being in New York it’s kind of a sigh of relief. I stayed briefly in Green Point, which I liked because it was much more chilled out than other parts of New York or Brooklyn. But you definitely have to leave.

Howl at the loon

Syd has a horrible high-pitched bark. It’s the most annoying sound. I can’t even take him for a walk as he gets too excited barking at the squirrels.

I’m just this middle-class girl from California. But it’s important to represent the normal

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Photography by Henrique Plantikow

Analogue anarchy

Fender DeVilles are our amp of choice and we have a couple of funky, really analogue-sounding loop pedals. I sing through an amp with effects and a Memory Man. I always consider that as one of our main instruments.

I like that show Ray Donovan – I’m obsessed with that. He’s in Hollywood, he’s some kind of a fixer, but he’s also kind of a thug

TV party

It’s not like Bill and I have a formal TV night, but we do watch a lot of movies and cable shows together. I like that show Ray Donovan – I’m obsessed with that. He’s in Hollywood, he’s some kind of a fixer, but he’s also kind of a thug. And Scandal, the DC one with Kerry Washington. The term ‘Body/Head’ comes out of talking about this Catherine Breillat film, 36 Fillette. It’s about this young girl who gets involved with an older man and wants to lose her virginity but doesn’t want to give up control or give over herself, and this struggle she has. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding really pretentious, but the name also relates to playing music. You do your thinking beforehand, and the rest sort of comes out.

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Photography by Henrique Plantikow

Enter the Wu-Tang 

Bill made some a really good mix CD for me. He knows I like old-school rap mostly – it has a bunch of Nas on it and Wu-Tang. I like music that’s rhythmic, I like that it’s so harsh sometimes and desperate-sounding. It’s like, yeah, life’s bleak, get used to it. Like, this is the bottom. It’s not sentimental, I guess that’s why I like it. It’s not going to make you sad. The best stuff is really sexualised and feels good to move to. 

Fight for your rights

Northampton is a very gay-friendly community. It’s also very pro-women here. There’s not much you can do about men being afraid of female sexuality, which seems to be at the root (of misogyny). The only thing you can do is to create things as a person who, in a sense, clears the air, or just creates something where nothing existed. It’s hard to be creative and be political in a really overt way. I’ve never been able to make that work for me, not like someone like Kathleen Hanna, like, ‘This needs to be said or done.’ There’s always some backsliding also – things go forward then two steps back. It is strange how gay marriage really seems to be prevailing here, and then in Russia it’s a complete nightmare.

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Photography by Henrique Plantikow

Bill Nace: I think it’s easy to forget, living here, what it’s like living somewhere else. The sign in the parking garage says, ‘Where the coffee is strong and so are the women.’ It’s kind of corny but kind of awesome.

Now I’m older, I’m self-conscious about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to wear something that looks inappropriate'

Dress to impress

KG: I was very aware of performers who have a persona, whether it’s Siouxsie Sioux or Patti Smith or Lydia Lunch, and I’m just this middle-class girl coming from a more conventional upbringing, this California person. But in a way I felt like it’s important to represent the normal. I came out of post-punk, not corporate rock. I am basically a shy person, so performing sometimes helps me focus – having all those people concentrate their attention on you. I don’t see it so much as becoming another person onstage, it’s more exploring a different side of your personality. Now I’m older, I’m self-conscious about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to wear something that looks inappropriate,’ but then one of my idols is definitely Tina Turner, who was to me the most rockin’ person onstage, male or female. So it’s always a balance, wanting to feel like you’re still authentically yourself, and age doesn’t change that, but also I keep thinking, ‘When am I going to start dressing like an adult?’

Coming Apart is out on September 16 on Matador Records

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