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After Sonic Youth, Gordon takes freer rein with Body/Head

Annabel Mehran

Kim Gordon and Bill Nace.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin Globe Correspondent 

NORTH ADAMS — Kim Gordon makes it clear that this is not her Next Big Statement after Sonic Youth.

But fans of the musician, artist, fashion designer, and all-around ur-Riot Grrrl will no doubt look in her new album for clues to Gordon’s reaction to that band’s 2011 dissolution (or indefinite “hiatus”) and her concurrent breakup with husband Thurston Moore, with whom she cofounded the pioneering experimental-rock outfit in 1981.

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After all, “Coming Apart” is the name of the album she released this fall with free-noise guitarist Bill Nace (a fellow Northampton resident), recording as the duo Body/Head.

“I prefer not to think about it,” Gordon says, in a phone interview, of the context in which the album arrives. “I don’t want it to make me feel self-conscious about what I’m doing. It wasn’t deliberately like I said: Well, now I’m going to do this. It was just that this feels good to do so I’m going to do this.”

On the basis of the band’s last proper studio album (2009’s “The Eternal”), Sonic Youth didn’t sound creatively exhausted. But Gordon doesn’t seem to feel she left too much unsaid there. Speaking slowly in the low, careful voice one might expect from listening to her recorded vocals — and often pausing to find the right word or reframe a thought — Gordon wrestles with the place of her hugely influential ex-band in the musical universe at the time of its death.

“I’m sure there could have been more Sonic Youth songs, but it probably wouldn’t matter, in a certain way, if we stayed together. Certainly as far as feeling relevant to the culture in some sort of way, I think that — I don’t think it matters if we stopped or continued.”

So does she think the band had lost relevance?

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“I’m proud of all the work that we did and the records we made the last few years. But it’s, like, we developed our own niche audience and — I don’t know, I can’t really say. It’s hard to explain. Everyone's always looking for the next new thing. I think that it's difficult to feel like you’re really relevant in the way that — I guess, at some point, you can make songs that people like or something, but there’s an urgency that somehow gets lost.”

“Coming Apart” is a sprawling, noisy affair, released as a double-album at nearly 70 minutes long. While Sonic Youth mined the intersection of art-rock, noise, psychedelia, and conceptual hardcore, Body/Head pushes listeners further into the realm of experimentation. Almost wholly improvised (including Gordon’s vocals), it is all but devoid of hooks and traditional song structure, instead exploring moods and textures in a sometimes-cinematic way. Onstage, the duo (who play Mass MoCA’s Hunter Center on Saturday) continues the experiment — sometimes using the shell of an album track as a jumping-off point, and sometimes not.

So it comes as a surprise to listeners unfamiliar with Nace’s earlier work (which includes an ear-pealing 2008 trio with Moore and free-jazz saxophonist Paul Flaherty) that he’s actually reining it in a bit for Body/Head. It’s a conservative move for him, for instance, to play guitar standing up — rather than from a seated position more conducive to prepared-guitar techniques including various foreign objects.

“I don’t even know if it’s a whole foot, but it’s dipping a toe into song form a little, way more than most stuff that I do,” Nace says, in a separate phone interview. “Sonic Youth was seen as such a band that played around with [open improvisation], but it was still starting with the song structure. I think for people coming from Sonic Youth, this is way more deconstructed than that. And for me it’s way more constructed.”

The duo first surfaced publicly with a recorded cover of R&B chestnut “Fever” in September 2011. Subsequent tours allowed Gordon and Nace to hone their musical rapport before cutting the record in an Easthampton studio.

“I find improvising with just one other person certainly a lot easier than improvising with two other people,” Gordon says. “We tend to make our own rhythm without a drummer. We just have more space to play around with and to use dynamically. I don’t always have a sense of what I’m playing and what he’s playing, and there is even a point sometimes where you’re just concentrating so hard, you’re so focused, that you can’t actually step outside of it to see what’s going on. You’re just kind of trusting that it’s going somewhere. It’s almost like free-falling or something.”

Nace says the success of his improvisations with Gordon stem from their shared musical intent. But don’t call it jamming. “To me there’s a huge difference between jamming and improvising. Improvising to me is a way more focused and directed thing. Jamming is like — it’s not something I would want to do live. It’s not stuff that I’d really want to watch live, either.”

Gordon isn’t going away as a cultural presence. She’s working on an autobiography, her visual art was the subject of a survey show at New York’s White Columns gallery this fall, and she’ll even make an appearance on the next season of HBO’s “Girls.” But fans of her music might want to get used to the vibe of Body/Head.

“I don’t really have a craving to be in a full band again, in a conventional band,” Gordon says. “I’d rather devote my energy to art practice and playing like this. I did the other thing for so long.”


Jeremy D Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.