As Kim Gordon and Bill Nace release the latest full-length document of their visceral live improvisations, Claire Lobenfeld finds out how Body/Head’s push-pull collaboration springs out of noise, sex and confusion.
When Body/Head, the guitar duo comprised of improv noise don Bill Nace and former bassist of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon, were promoting their first album, Coming Apart, Gordon stated that their name was inspired by the themes of French director Catherine Breillat. Many of Breillat’s films deal with sexual desire, and in particular, how to manage emotional expectations and competing physical interests.
“There’s a movie, 36 Fillette. It’s about this young girl who wants to lose her virginity, and she’s on vacation with her parents and there’s this older guy,” Gordon says. “She really wants to lose her virginity, but she doesn’t want to give up control, so there’s a head game – the idea of body-slash-head.”
Breillat’s films have explored these dueling emotional and physical connections to sex from every pocket, from the uncomfortable intimacy of having to film a love scene when the two actors hate each other in the very meta Sex is Comedy or how the intent of violence in rape can be negated when the victim is actually consenting, like in Fat Girl. There is something homologous about sex and noise music – when you are an experienced practitioner, you have a toolbox but the outcome isn’t always the same.
“It’s very intuitive,” adds Nace. “I improvise with a lot of different people, so it’s really about being open to the moment. It’s always a mix of having some intention but being open enough to being surprised by something. I think there’s always a balance between pushing back a little at the other player and then having them push back at you, and maybe at other times just sounding like one big instrument.”
“It sounds lazy, but I don’t want to tour that much. I need to be concentrating more on my art practice”Kim Gordon
Body/Head began in 2011 as a fun project emerging from the collaborative music scene in Northampton, Massachusetts, where both Nace and Gordon were living at the time. Primarily a live project, Nace and Gordon performed both as a duo and with musicians like Michael Morley, of New Zealand noise-rock trio The Dead C. That set with Morley, performed in front of a slowed-down projection of Breillat’s Une vraie jeune fille, was recorded and pressed up for a 300-run LP on Feeding Tube Records. With this and a few other hard-to-find live LPs, they released the first seeds for Body/Head’s primary trajectory, sealed with their debut album, Coming Apart, released in 2013 on Matador. Their latest release, No Waves, is a live full-length recorded in 2014 at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.
So why this show out of all the gigs they’ve played in the last few years? “This one had a big sound,” Nace says. “It’s a good recording, but it was also in pieces, which we liked. A lot of them are kind of just long pieces. This [recording] has discrete endings and beginnings. It can help a record and it can kind of help the listener invest in it more.”
Put this way, the live album is a curatorial art. There is a certain finesse to figuring out which moves you’ve made spontaneously in public best represent you, in a way that’s worth repeating. Most live albums are preordained, recorded at concerts selected in advance (though occasionally some uncoordinated magic seeps into orchestrated moments, like the iconic debut of ‘Tyrone’ on Erykah Badu’s Live.)
Body/Head’s live show doesn’t stray from the project’s improv roots, but threads of Coming Apart are woven throughout. “Maybe sometimes there’s a vocal cue or tone we’ll wanna have musically, but it’s not like we’re playing a song or recreating a song from the record,” Nace says. “Sometimes there’ll be one where lyrically it will kinda go between a couple songs. This does have that element.” Nace is referring to the third and final track on No Waves, a piece influenced by a hybrid of studio-recorded tracks ‘Abstract’ and ‘Actress’. Gordon describes the performance process as “going with it and trusting no one’s leaving the stage until it’s over.”
The ability to change and refine music through improv is a fitting lens through which to view some of Gordon’s visual art, too. She’s recently released a catalogue for her work that was displayed at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, in the summer of 2015. Called ‘Design Office: Noise Name Paintings and Sculptures of Rock Bands That Are Broken Up’, the collection showcased pieces Gordon started almost a decade ago.
“I had done the noise name paintings in 2008,” she says. “Then I started crumpling them and making them into sculptures.” The works are far grander than Gordon’s modest description. “The crumpled sculptures were names of bands that were broken up or the [solo artist] was dead and then the ones on the wall were noise artists,” she says. “It’s kind of interesting because it’s a cultural museum and it was cool to have [my work] in the context of ancient Greece.” The banner for show — which features a splatter-painting inscribed with “The Stooges” — over the entrance of an art museum suggest that Iggy Pop’s punk contributions could be easily cast in marble, at least somewhere.
Art is where Gordon’s head is at right now. Despite having recently released a solo 7”, ‘Murdered Out’, with production from Justin Raisen (who’s also worked with Angel Olsen and Sky Ferreira) and insane percussion by Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, it’s unlikely Gordon will put out a full-length on her own. “It sounds lazy, but I don’t want to tour that much,” she says. “I really like that single, I really like the way it came out, and I really like the music I make with Bill. I just feel like I need to be concentrating more on my art practice.”
Nace, who she’ll play a four-date tour with later this month, has plenty on his plate anyway; he has a coterie of friends-cum-collaborators, including trumpet player Greg Kelley, drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist Steve Baczkowski, among many others. Playing live is almost his way of catching up with his pals: “If I haven’t played with this person in a while, it’s something good to tend to. If it’s someone I want to have a playing relationship [with], it’s good to kinda keep investing in it.” There is also his label Open Mouth Records, where records of many of these unions can be found, as well as his own drawing and visual art interests.
The push and pull between visual art and music is its own body-slash-head arrangement. Gordon herself first went to New York to make art – Sonic Youth was just a detour that ultimately became the output she is most known for. Now she has the opportunity to truly dictate her own expressive output. Nace says that the two will be working on a studio album at the start of next year, but they certainly don’t know what that looks like yet. They won’t until they get into the studio – that element of improvised surprise will remain.
Gordon says. “There are endless configurations that could be brought out of it, if you want. Between me and Bill, who’s the head, who’s the body? Does it matter?”
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