Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: ‘The word ‘icon’ is a little uncomfortable’

Kim Gordon has inspired generations of musicians. At 70, the Sonic Youth co-founder talks about her latest album, The Collective

Rock is full of men whose careers have lingered into their 80s and older, so it shouldn’t be unusual that, at 70, former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon is making music that’s as fresh and edgy as ever. Though it’s long felt like there’s a different rule book for women in music, Gordon has never paid it any attention. As a member of Sonic Youth, she broke barriers just by existing – her 2015 memoir is called Girl in a Band, a tongue-in-cheek reference to being the only female in a mega-famous rock group.

After Sonic Youth’s break-up in 2011, which followed the romantic split between Gordon and band co-founder Thurston Moore, she moved back to LA from Massachusetts. She released her solo album No Home Record in 2019, and her latest album, The Collective, comes out on March 8th. But Gordon was a multidisciplinary artist before she was ever a musician. In the past decade, she has also been able to turn back to her art in a new way. In 2019, her exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), She Bites her Tender Mind, included paintings, video and spaces inspired by Airbnbs.

Her memoir ends with Gordon musing about how, in her early 60s, she felt she had changed. So at 70, does she feel like another iteration of herself? “I guess so, yeah. Things are more behind me, and I have done some things, I guess, on my own,” she tells Irish Times Magazine. “But at the same time, I basically feel the same person. I’m the same person I was since I was five or something, deep down. I keep waiting to become an adult. When am I going to feel like an adult?” She punctuates the question with a deep, droll laugh.

‘There’s this whole vocabulary of music now that I feel like Sonic Youth had some hand in creating as well’

In person, Gordon exudes a mix of New York edginess and California cool. For our interview on Zoom she has her camera off, and her answers are short, but she’s not disengaged. You get the feeling that after decades of interviews, she’s just not going to waste words.


She played bass and guitar and sang in Sonic Youth, which she formed in 1981 alongside Moore, soon adding guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley to the line-up. Their noisy squalls and experimental tunings saw 1990s journalists proclaiming the band proved that rock wasn’t dead.

Sonic Youth’s 1990 signing to major label Geffen brought them from the underground to mainstream attention – they even appeared in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons – but the band always retained a fiercely independent streak. Gordon’s bleach-blonde look and eye for fashion meant that she was often reluctantly pushed to be the “face” of the band as they gained fame. When Gordon and Moore split, they faced fan and media speculation – a article about the couple simply bore the headline, “How Could Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorce?” In her memoir, Gordon candidly details discovering Moore’s affair with a younger woman, and how she subsequently returned to LA to pursue her art.

Her art and music coalesce in The Collective. Last year, Gordon exhibited a series of paintings in the 303 Gallery in New York. Out of some, she had cut shapes the size of an iPhone 13. The largest painting was called The Collective, a title which came from Jennifer Egan’s 2022 novel The Candy House (which itself shares its name with a track on the album). Gordon explains that in the book, a man invents an app which “allows you to access anyone else’s memories and experiences”, if they’re in the Collective. “So it’s just symbolic, I think, of maybe what social media is,” she says. She doesn’t know which came first, her using the title for her album or the painting, but she loves the synchronicity.

Gordon’s own relationship with social media is on/off: “I don’t really go on Twitter that often. It’s annoying… [but] I feel the need to check in, I suppose.” She posts occasionally on Instagram. “I like that it can be a place of self-expression for a lot of people. And then of course, I just end up re-gramming stuff about me,” she deadpans. “Me, me, me.”

Musically, The Collective is more beat-heavy than No Home Record, with splashes of My Bloody Valentine’s ear-smashing heavy drone, and Kanye West-style autotune. Gordon worked on both records with Justin Raisen, a former punk band member who has produced material from Drake, Charli XCX and Yves Tumor. “He just got my sensibility, and so that’s why we get along,” says Gordon.

Raisen would make beats and send them to her. “I would decide which ones I could feel like I could do something with. And then I would go in and put guitars on it and vocals, and then he would edit it and shape it, and then I’d go back and do maybe more vocals and guitar.” Was there a particular genre or sound she was thinking of when it came to those beats? “Only in the sense that I relate to rap music, in the way that my vocal style is not like rapping, but I use spoken word, or I work off of rhythm more than melody,” she says.

I tell her the My Bloody Valentine influence really stands out. “I was a big fan, but I hope it’s somewhat elevated,” she laughs. “There’s this whole vocabulary of music now that I feel like Sonic Youth had some hand in creating as well. I do like a lot of drone music, like this band Bardo Pond from Philadelphia.” This sparks a memory from her youth: “Initially, what made me want to play music was going out to see No Wave bands in the late 1970s, early 1980s, that were super dissonant and unconventional in their songwriting format and stuff like that. Very free.”

On The Collective, Gordon brings in echoes of Sonic Youth’s dissonance, but also the experimental freedom of Body/Head, her improv duo with Bill Nace. She doesn’t dwell on how others view her work. “It’s best for me not to really think about it. I think Justin was excited. He’s very excited about the record and how the rap world is reacting to it,” she says. “I just don’t like to be so self-conscious about what I’m doing, actually, or what my goal is.”

Sonic Youth had a particularly random approach to songwriting at some points. Her own latest single, Bye Bye, sounds like writer Joan Didion’s travel packing list mixed with an Instagram stream of random items. “I would keep a list running, like one-liners or signage, names of stores,” Gordon explains. In the studio, she improvised with lyric placement. “Justin [would] say, ‘bring over your abstract poetry shit’.”

The song I’m a Man was “inspired by the right-wing politicians who are whining that they’re victims of feminism, and feminism has destroyed masculinity”, she says. “It’s kind of a theory about how capitalism destroyed masculinity.” The lyrics reference former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, and the idea that “the man is gonna come and save you on his horse and ride off into the sunset. So in the 1960s and 1970s, when that started going away, men became lost and didn’t know what to do, so they became consumers like women. And that’s what the song is about.”

‘It’s kind of a theory about how capitalism destroyed masculinity’

What’s it like in the US now, with the 2024 presidential election looming? “It’s different than 2020, when Bernie Sanders was a possibility,” says Gordon. “That was exciting, but it’s just hard not to feel really defeatist about this upcoming election, and the state of politics in general.”

We turn to what artists can or should do when it comes to speaking publicly about politics. “People should do what they feel comfortable with,” says Gordon. “I think it’s sort of crazy, all this pressure on Taylor Swift or that people think [that she could sway the US election]… I mean, maybe she could really sway the election, but I think it’s kind of hilarious that the GOP are concerned.”

Last year, Gordon and Irish writer Sinéad Gleeson edited This Woman’s Work, an anthology of essays written by women about music. The book “got beyond the women and rock thing, which is so tired”, says a proud Gordon.

She’s often called a musical icon. To fans it’s fitting, but how does she feel about the word? “It’s a little uncomfortable. The word ‘icon’ itself is like a frozen situation,” says Gordon. “I’m a slow developer – I don’t like to feel like I’m finished. But I appreciate the sentiment.”

The Collective is released by Matador on 8 March.