"I'm so totally nervous about the show tonight," Kim Gordon is saying on the phone from New York. She's about to play in Brooklyn with her new band, Body/Head, the first concert in a tour that brings her to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Tuesday. "We haven't done a gig since June, and there's all this publicity about the record. It's kind of nice when you get on stage and stop thinking about it, though. You feel like, 'Great, I can just play and not have to worry about anything else.' I always have that feeling when I play, actually. I like the adrenaline of playing improv — it makes me feel really calm."
Gordon put in three decades with one of the most innovative and influential bands of the last three decades, Sonic Youth. But after splitting in 2011 with her husband, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, the band effectively ended.
Gordon's daughter with Moore, Coco, is now in her late teens, studying art in Chicago. So Gordon threw herself back into visual art, which initially brought her to New York from California in the '70s, and started Body/Head with her friend Bill Nace. Their album, "Coming Apart" (Matador), consists of eerie scoundscapes built on two guitars and Gordon's ghostly vocals, in the spirit of Sonic Youth's earliest experiments in the New York "no wave" scene.
"Compared to other things I've done outside of Sonic Youth, this feels the most like a band, it's more congealed," Gordon says. "I don't know if it's because it's just two of us, so it's easier to focus, so that each of us kind of tunes in on the other person. The record is a culmination of playing live, a thing unto itself. It's never gonna replicate live, and live is never gonna replicate the record. I think of what we do as really loosely scripted improvisation."
After Sonic Youth split, Gordon started recording some solo pieces in her Massachusetts home, then collaborated with Nace on a twisted cover of "Fever," a '50s hit for both Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, for a Belgian label. Inspired by their mutual love of art movies, particularly those of French filmmaker Catherine Breillet, they named their collaboration "Body/Head."
"Since we had this great name, we had to make a band," Gordon says with a laugh. "The name 'Body/Head' had a feeling about it, a spatial sense, where if you were deliberate about a sound and give it space, it can start a composition. We talked a lot about Catherine Breillet's films, how they explore the relationships between men and women, the idea of control. Of all the directors, she's the only one who makes incredibly erotic sex scenes out of awkwardness. Some of it is really dark, but it's also offhand, uneasy. She does a certain type of realism that you don't often see in movies."
In the same way, Gordon and Nace wanted to steer clear of formula in making the music. "We had played a little bit with a drummer. It has a different feeling, it makes it more powerful in a certain way, but also makes it more conventional, takes it to a specific place, and we decided that's not what we wanted."
Though she played a major role in Sonic Youth as a bassist, guitarist and vocalist, Gordon still doesn't consider herself a musician. Did her lack of formal training help her to be more creative?
"I'm a slow learner," she says. "When people are so talented or facile at picking up an instrument and playing covers, like Yo La Tengo, I admire that. But I could never do that. I'm more interested in ideas, I see it as another form of expression. I think of what we do as kind of filmic. The lyrics could be dialogue from a really minimal, dark French movie, almost vignettes. I would be too self-conscious if I just thought of writing lyrics for a song. I have to trick myself into doing it."
Gordon says she knew since she was 5 years old growing up in California that she wanted to be an artist, and she's spent her life not only playing in bands, but writing and developing her visual art.
"As a kid, I had an older brother who listened to free jazz," she says. "We used to do improv music around the house, on piano and African drum. I never worried about making a living. I think it's just because my parents were middle class. They grew up during the Depression, so they always worried about money. But I wanted to be an artist and they were really supportive. I never thought about doing anything else. I refused to learn how to type because I didn't want to be a secretary. I feel like my daughter and her friends worry more about that now, and I also worry about that, because we know so much more about the world. Even if you're successful, art and music can be very unstable careers. Sonic Youth was my main source of income for a long time. We didn't get a chance to cash in. But I wouldn't change what we did for anything."
With an exhibit of her artwork currently underway in New York, Gordon says she finally has found time for her first love. "I still consider myself a visual artist. But while raising a daughter, you can't do everything. I almost feel like I'm playing catch-up. Playing music for me was an escape from the art world, which is a scary place. You have to be so hard. You can't knock on someone's door selling your art. They like to discover you. In a lot of the art world, you have to present yourself as you know what you're doing at a young age. Music gave me another outlet. The 'no wave' bands were such an inspiration, it felt so free — once you start doing it, it's hard to stop. But I can't get away from art. It comes back around. I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't pursue it."
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: $24; mcachicago.org
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m.Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).