Music

Kim Gordon on Her New Project With Bill Nace: ‘It’s About Fucking With People’s Heads’

by

During their earliest shows as Body/Head, Kim Gordon and Bill Nace would open each of their improvised sets by playing the same menacing, dissonant chords, the reverb thrumming between them until Gordon called out in a strained, sudden voice: “The show…is…over!” The phrase was borrowed from a Christopher Wool painting; Gordon would repeat this mantra as the ragged interplay of Body/Head’s dual guitars contradicted her words, the sound building into an improvisational melee. To begin a show by sounding its death knell is exactly the kind of irony that’s marked much of Gordon’s output, but Body/Head specifically upend rock performance, taking the typical cacophonous spectacle and turning it inside out.

“I just like the idea that people don’t expect to see a show start that way,” Gordon tells the Voice. “[It’s about] fucking with people’s expectations.” A version of “The Show Is Over” appears on the duo’s latest record, No Waves, out on Matador on November 11 with a release show at National Sawdust the following day.

Unlike their studio-improvised debut album, 2013’s Coming Apart, No Waves is a recording of a 2014 live performance at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Kim Gordon’s been pushing the boundaries of music, performance, art, and politics for many years now, and Bill Nace has been pushing the limits of guitar sounds for years, too,” says the festival’s founder, Ashley Capps. “[Our goal is] crossing, blending, and ignoring traditional genre boundaries, so they were an obvious choice for us. It was a scorching performance, too.”

The recording of that performance merges and builds on the songs from Coming Apart, unleashing the band’s propulsive arc. On No Waves, Gordon’s familiar wails complement guitars that splinter off on jagged tangents, morph, and meet back up; the music is challenging but meditative. It’s a portrait of Body/Head that feels more viscerally accurate to the spirit of the project; as Gordon explains, “The heart of the band is playing live.”

Other than the band members themselves, no one has heard Body/Head play live as much as Aaron Mullan, of the New York neo-folk outfit Tall Firs. Nace says Mullan has seen almost all their shows; he’s now their main sound engineer. “They are both just such killer players — it’s a two-person all-star band,” Mullan says. “For improvising musicians, you can’t really rely on muscle memory and fake your way through the show. [With Body/Head] the walls melt, the floor implodes, and Bill and Kim appear to be floating in a sea of liquid metal.”

Nace, whose own career has focused on experimental guitar work, says he and Gordon had “zero goals” when they began to play as Body/Head but quickly established an easy give-and-take. “We really were just playing in the basement for ourselves, but we hit the ground running,” he says.

Since 2010 Gordon had been recording their jam sessions on a slimline cassette deck; at one point, her then-husband, Thurston Moore, discovered the tapes and mistook them for demos from another band working with his Ecstatic Peace label. By the time Body/Head had scheduled their first European tour, in 2012, Gordon and Moore were involved in a messy divorce that included negotiating the dissolution of Sonic Youth, one of the most respected and beloved alt-rock acts in the genre’s history.

“I feel like [Coming Apart] is such a heavy, dark record in a lot of ways, but it was actually a fun process to make that record,” Nace says. “We were a new band, just learning to play with each other. I had my own stuff going on, and I was really close with [Gordon’s] family, so that happening was a big deal, but of course it’s not all of it.”

For her part, Gordon was relieved that no one expected Body/Head to be a Sonic Youth redux. “It was kind of freeing and fun to play with Bill in this way,” she says. “I didn’t want people to yell out ‘Sonic Youth!’ or [ask for] the songs. In fact, before we played New York for the first time, I tweeted, ‘Lower your expectations.’ ” If anything, No Waves raises the bar again and finds the band hitting its stride.

It’s the ephemeral nature of Body/Head’s music that makes No Waves so compelling; there’s space in the music not only to interpret where the duo has been, but also to imagine where they’re going. “[Our sound has] congealed a bit, [but] it’s still this living thing that’s changing and going through different configurations,” says Gordon. “There’s no way we can repeat [what we’ve done].”

Body/Head play National Sawdust on November 12 at 10 p.m.