Interview with Kim Gordon by Richard Kern
Portrait by Richard Kern
Attempting to pin a label on Kim Gordon is like trying to understand the lyrics of Sonic Youth's songs: it’s beside the point. She has worked for Larry Gagosian, written for Artforum, exhibited paintings and directed music videos, produced Hole’s first album and was briefly a character on The Simpsons. Currently, Gordon is at work on her second clothing line, Mirror/Dash. Of course, she is best known as the frontman/bass player for Sonic Youth. When the band formed in 1981, Gordon stood out in the male-dominated world of independent rock and roll. Still, she rejects the iconic neo-feminist labels pinned on her and insists that she loves what she does and that’s why she does it, gender aside. Perhaps the best paradigm for understanding her is an early-childhood obsession with Michelangelo, a luminary with a similar knack for innovation. Here, this true original sat down with her friend, photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern, to talk about sheetrock, Godard, fashion and how it can get lonely being an anomaly.
Richard Kern: I think of you as a modern Renaissance woman. What were you interested in first? Fashion? Music? Art? Or boys?
Kim Gordon: (Laughs) I was definitely first interested in art. I always wanted to be an artist, since I was like five or something—
Richard: —since you were five?
Kim: I was really into Michelangelo. (Laughs) I wanted to be a sculptor.
Kim: I used to make things out of clay. So, I guess boys is sort of…even though I think he was gay. I don’t know.
Richard: You think Michelangelo was gay?
Kim: I don’t know. I think so.
Richard: We can only guess. So, you knew already at five years old. Were you aware of fashion then, or just art?
Kim: My mother [is] a seamstress, and she made my clothes or bought them at thrift stores. She grew up during the Depression; the idea of buying clothes at the store was completely out of her realm. In the ’60s she made more exotic caftans and these things called abayas that are [made out of] silk and velvet. So, it was always around, even though I didn’t really want to have anything to do with sewing. We lived down the street from this huge fabric store that I used to go to with her all the time. Also, my great-great-grandmother used to make patterns and go up and down the West Coast and sell them.
Richard: Wow. So it goes way back for you. Where did you grow up, anyway?
Kim: I grew up in LA—West LA. West Side. (Laughs)
Richard: When I first met you in the mid ’80s you were more of a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl. When did you first become so aware of fashion that you began changing the way you dressed both on stage and off stage?
Kim: I kind of always was [aware of fashion], but I just sort of felt like it was beyond me. You know, I just was very poor. (Laughs) When I was thirteen and I lived in Hong Kong, I used to go to this store that had red velvet hip-hugger bell-bottoms and tons of cool ’60s clothes. I’d save up my money to buy one thing—something. I literally had no experience shopping in a store, because I always bought my clothes in thrift stores. I started going on tour and going to more vintage stores and got into finding ’70s or ’60s vintage cords, stuff like that. When we did X-Girl, it was more streetwear. I mean, there were dresses, but they were pretty—
Richard:—It wasn’t a luxury brand.
Kim: Right. It was no luxury brand! (Laughs) Dave and I would go to Daryl K’s little store on Sixth Street or APC, but there really wasn’t a lot going on downtown then.
Richard: How did you make a living before Sonic Youth?
Kim: I worked in a gallery for a while as a secretary, even though I couldn’t type. I used to work for Larry Gagosian and Annina Nosei. I was a framer in LA, when Larry used to do mass-produced prints and stuff—schlocky art. In New York I waitressed. I did house painting, high-end apartment painting.
Richard: I remember you saying you even did sheetrock. Did you do that?
Kim: (Laughs) No, I never really did that. I did plastering.
Richard: Plastering. Ok. (Laughs)
Kim: I worked at Todd’s Copy Shop, which was kind of like the center of the art world. Everyone would come in to make their fanzines. I worked there with Sara Driver, and her boyfriend, Jim Jarmusch, would come in and we’d make copies of his scripts. Thurston [Moore] would come in and we’d make killer magazines for him. You kind of knew what everyone was up to, like their grant proposals. Jean-Michel Basquiat came in and I Xeroxed some stuff that went into his artwork.
Richard: That’s where people told me to go, I remember, when I was doing Xerox stuff.
Kim: (Laughs) ’Cause Todd was very – well, his heart is sympathetic, and he would let artists do things on the machine themselves, too.
Richard: The Sonic Youth video Sugar Kane not only featured a young Chloe Sevigny but it was also shot in the Perry Ellis studio when Marc Jacobs was a young designer. If I remember correctly, Marc kind of set up the whole thing for you. Is that correct?
Kim: Nick Egan, the director, was good friends with Marc, and we had this idea to have kind of a fashion show going on and have a girl who was sort of undressing walking back and forth. And Nick said, “My friend Marc will let us use his showroom and his collection,” and it just happened to be the so-called grunge collection.
Richard: Was that the first time you met Marc?
Kim: Yeah. That was the first time we met.
Richard: He already was making quite a name for himself, right?
Kim: I think he got, certainly, a lot of publicity when that line came out. You know, it was kind of notorious. The whole grunge thing was kind of funny because when the New York Times called up Megan Jasper at Sub Pop she just made up all these terms (laughs). She was just like “grunge,” and that was such a joke—
Richard: —that’s where the name came from? It was a joke?
Richard: I remember seeing it all of a sudden. It was on all the runways. It was what everybody was wearing.
Kim: That wasn’t really Marc’s intention so much. I mean he was just using things. Like when he saw a kid wearing thermal underwear, he thought that it was an interesting idea to make it in cashmere, or something. You know people get inspiration from all kinds of places
Richard: He seemed to be very much into the music scene.
Kim: Yeah. He was always around. He used to go to Hurrah’s all the time.
Richard: Oh, he did?
Kim: Yeah, as a youngster, teenager.
Richard: We were all youngsters then. In the ’90s, you and your partner Daisy started X-Girl, and X-Girl was located right next to XL, the Beastie Boys store. Were those labels somehow connected?
Kim: XL was our parent company. Basically we knew those guys, and at some point Daisy started working at their store. They had a store on Ave A and one of the brothers who was involved with the line, Eric, knew that Daisy and I shopped together and talked about clothes. They asked us if we would do a girls’ line for them. So, X-Girl was born.
Richard: Was XL all of the Beastie Boys, or just one of them?
Kim: It was none of the Beastie Boys. I think Mike D. had some small investment. Everyone thought [it was] their line or something. Occasionally, Mike would do a t-shirt. They really just wore the stuff. They were friends. They all lived in Los Feliz together.
Richard: I remember that XL and X-Girl was this whole style that was going on that defined a certain period.
Kim: Yeah, there was Liquid Sky down the street. That was a great store. And Patricia Field; that was where one could go to get silver leather hot pants, or whatever. (Laughs)
Richard: Exactly. Does X-Girl still exist?
Kim: I don’t know. That’s a good question; I have no idea. We sold it to this Japanese company that kept buying more and more of XL. For a while they had a lot of X-Girl stores. I don’t know how it survived the turmoil of the economy.
Richard: Was that in the ’80s or the ’90s?
Kim: Well, the line came out the year Coco was born—’94. I remember being bummed I had to do press while I was pregnant. I was incredibly grumpy about that. I remember this one photographer wanted me to stand on this rickety table; and now everybody’s pregnant and they make it look so glamorous! And it really wasn’t. When we did the Bull in the Heather video, that was when we first got some of the clothes, and I remember—I was maybe four or five months pregnant—I kind of squeezed into—
Richard: —No kidding! ’Cause I watched the video the other day, and I was thinking, ‘Is this when she was pregnant?’
Kim: I had Kathleen in it jumping around. I wanted to have one of the Knicks cheerleaders.
Richard: I know that X-Girl was pretty much street clothes. Is that different from Mirror/Dash?
Kim: It’s still clothes that you could dress up or dress down. It’s more sophisticated, certainly, than X-Girl.
Richard: Urban Outfitters is producing Mirror/Dash. Is it aimed at a young demographic?
Kim: Our hope is that the clothes are sort of ageless and kind of classic.
Richard: Had you already started a new line when Urban Outfitters approached you?
Kim: We were doing this limited edition jacket for my friend’s store in Japan, and it was supposed to be connected with some magazine or something and that kind of all fell through. We ended up doing the jacket anyway ’cause we just thought it was fun.
Richard: Who are your collaborators on Mirror/Dash?
Kim: Jeffrey Monteiro and Melinda Wansbrough. Mel and I became friends. We were just hanging out and we would talk about stuff, and we decided to do a line. We thought Jeffrey would be great to work with because he’s so experienced and then Mel ran into her friend that works at Urban [Outfitters] and she said, “You should come talk to these guys.”
Richard: Was Jeffrey at Mayle with Melinda?
Kim: Yeah. Then he left to go to Derek Lam, and now he’s designing under his own name, a more high-end line. It’s really great.
Richard: Are you a hands-on designer? Do you do drawings and pull ideas?
Kim: No. I can sketch a little bit, but I don’t really do the drawings. I come up with an idea like, ‘This would be great if this were like this’. Then Jeffery interprets it and draws it and we discuss it. Then we go up to the production house to do all the fabric sourcing and samples and patterns, and manufacture it.
Richard: What designers do you wear on a daily basis?
Kim: I wear APC. I wear Isabel Marant, Acne, some H&M. Urban, if there’s something that I feel like I can, you know, get away with. (Laughs)
Richard: Wait, what’s that?
Kim: You know, something that doesn’t look, what do they call it, “mutton in sheep’s clothing”? I mean, up in Northampton, it’s a different lifestyle. If I lived in New York, I would probably dress up a little more on an everyday basis. Maybe I wouldn’t. I have a couple of Sari Gueron’s things, not from her collection, but from her cheaper line. It’s great. I wore a lot of that this fall.
Richard: Do you have a piece of clothing that you wear over and over?
Kim: I have this oversized Marc Jacobs cashmere waffle sweater that I basically wear every day now, because I live in a big, drafty house. It’s the softest warmest sweater. Actually Coco and I fight over Thurston’s Marc Jacobs sweaters and we kind of divvy them up if they shrink on him.
Richard: Is Coco very tall?
Kim: She’s pretty tall. She’s 5’8”; maybe more now.
Richard: Will you wear your own designs once this gets rolling?
Kim: I hope to. I ordered some stuff.
Richard: When I say ‘style icon’ what name pops into your head immediately?
Kim: I like Françoise Hardy as a style icon of the past. People like Anita Pallenberg have really great style. Jane Birkin, of course.
Richard: I see a lot of French New Wave in [your style]. I don’t know if that’s correct or—
Kim: Yeah. David and I would look at the Godard movies and certain ones [we would] try and replicate; like the striped dress from Pierrot le fou.
Richard: Exactly. Will any of that kind of stuff be in this new line?
Kim: Maybe, but people wear things shorter now.
Richard: Is it hard maintaining your interest in producing music when you’ve got all these other interests, like painting and clothing?
Kim: The funny thing is that right now even though I’m pretty ridiculously busy, sometimes it helps me to do more things and be more focused. We just finished a Sonic Youth record and I actually had an easier [time]—not that it was easy—but, I felt like writing lyrics and doing vocals I was more focused. I think the record came out pretty good. But again, there’s that machine of Sonic Youth that kind of pulls you along with it. I tend to procrastinate, but if you have deadlines… I hate to rehearse, that’s my least favorite thing, but I’m into writing music. I like making the stuff. It’s just what comes afterwards that’s kind of hard. But I really do have to carve out [time], like, ‘I’ve got a show, I have to focus on doing these paintings’. You know how it is.
Richard: Do you feel a stronger bond with the women of your generation or the younger generation?
Kim: I’ve always been older than most of the people that I hang out with. I mean, I love Coco and her friends. I think they’re really interesting, and that’s kind of an amazing age. I know women of all ages, and I think I kind of relate to them in different ways. I don’t really want to get too—
Kim: There are women I know who I relate to my age, but there aren’t that many women I know who perform music at my age. So, that’s a little, kind of, odd. I mean not odd, but sometimes that’s lonely.
Richard: Um, and my last question—
Kim: Can I ask you a question?
Richard: Oh sure. Go ahead.
Kim: What’s your next book?
Richard: Oh. Maybe it’s the MILF book. I’ve been talking to Thurston about a book of older women. I’m trying to get it going with your husband, actually. But this is off in the distance. I can’t do another book for at least three or four years because of contracts.
Richard: So, do you have any advice for those young designers out there?
Kim: I don’t know. It’s kind of a lousy time to start doing fashion. (Laughs)
Richard: Yes I agree.
Kim: I don’t have any advice. I don’t know. I don’t like that question.
Richard: Ok. (Laughs) That’s a good ending.