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Interview with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth

 

Photo by Michael Schmelling. Doodles by JL.

Sonic Youth 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 17.
Live on the Levee, under the Gateway Arch. Free.


Electric Youth: Sonic Youth and Kim Gordon continue to age gracefully with a new LP, The Eternal
By Jaime Lees

In their 28-year career, indie-rock godfathers Sonic Youth have experienced unprecedented success — and had unparalleled staying power. Credit this longevity to the band’s stability: Guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon and guitarist/vocalist/her husband Thurston Moore have launched numerous side projects, completed countless world tours and released copius rarites and studio albums.

The band’s Matador Records-released latest, The Eternal, marks its return to an independent label. (It had been with Geffen since 1990’s Goo.) But Eternal is the perfect extension of the Sonic Youth catalog, a hybrid of resonant guitar textures and jammy, jazzed-out, free-form experimentation. The album evokes Daydream Nation‘s unpredictable explosiveness and the near-psychedelic, extended harmonies of Washing Machine, but it isn’t a musical progression as much as it is a lateral move. That in particular is Sonic Youth’s trademark: Although each new album the band releases might contain heavier guitars, additional harmonies or more noise, they all maintain that nebulous Sonic Youth quality. There’s something special about the dreamy pop blasts that the band creates together; instead of their dueling talents triggering a compromise, it feels as though collaboration enriches the Sonic Youth sound.

As Sonic Youth’s bassist and one of its songwriters, Kim Gordon has long been an inspiration to younger musicians. As one of the few females in a respected, long-running rock band, Gordon is thought of as the cool, MILF-y matriarch of indie rock. But unlike many women, she’s praised as much for her musical input as she is for her good looks and hushed, lusty voice. Her contributions to the band have rarely been as pronounced as they are on Eternal, on which she sings lead on several tracks, and her imposing bass lines sweep boldly through the din.

A prolific visual artist, Gordon is also accomplished in many other disciplines — including painting, drawing, writing, producing and organizing both art and music events. She’s also fronted two successful fashion lines, X-Girl and the new Mirror/Dash, which is sold at Urban Outfitters. On the eve of Sonic Youth’s current tour, we spoke with Gordon about how she balances her multiple interests with life on the road. She has a reputation as being private — even aloof — in interviews, but we found her to be inviting, engaging and downright giggly.

Jaime Lees: You have so many different projects. How do you decide what you’re going to work on? Is it deadlines?
Kim Gordon:
Yeah, deadlines. Exactly. Well, with the art stuff, some things you have to create [on deadline], either projects with someone or sometimes you get asked for a show. I work on ideas and stuff, but when it really comes down to it, it’s all about a deadline.

Do you complete your art first and then look for a show for it, or do you hear about an interesting show and want to create something for it?
It’s kind of a little of both. Right now I’m in this show in Graz in Austria, a group show. I don’t usually like group shows, but this one was interesting. I like the curator [Diedrich Diederichsen]. He’s a writer before he’s a curator. [Along with] my friend, Jutta Koether, who’s an artist, they asked us if we wanted to do a collaboration.

So how can you spend half of your life on the road and still be painting?
Well, this has been a really busy spring, but generally we just tour around a record. We’re not one of those bands that goes on tour for a year or something. We have a daughter, and Lee has kids so, you know, I try and tour around her school schedule. We’ve been gone a lot this spring already, so it’s hard. And I think it’s actually harder for moms to leave their kids. I know some people say, “How come people don’t make a big deal about asking fathers what it’s like to go on the road?” It is hard for them, too, but I think it’s easier if you have one parent at home that’s taking care of it.

Do you bring her [daughter Coco] with you on tour?
Sometimes. But as she’s gotten older she’s been able to stay home with someone. And she prefers to stay home. [Laughs]

When you’re out touring and you get to each new city, do you have something you like to do there? You know, like some people like to find the city’s best restaurant or used bookstore or whatever.
Oh yeah, we’re totally into picking out good restaurants. And actually, Mark [Ibold, of Pavement fame], who is playing bass with us now, he’s really great at looking up food websites, and he always knows about places to try. But when we first started touring, it was always like, “Where’s the good barbecue place?” [Laughs] So when we get to a city, sometimes we’ll get day rooms at a hotel. We usually have a few hours during the day to hang out before we do sound check, and sometimes we have interviews.

So you have sound check and then you go do your dinner thing before the show?
Sometimes. I mean, you have to eat a certain amount of time before the show. Steve, our drummer, won’t eat if it’s less than five hours before our show.

Does he get barfy?
[Laughs] He just plays better. And you do play better if you’re not full. Nothing like a whole lot of barbecue and then having to go onstage! [Laughs]

So do you get any of your other work done on tour? I mean, it’s not like you can paint on the bus…
It’s hard. Some people can do a lot of stuff on tour. I can’t because I have a perpetual state of exhaustion because I don’t sleep on the bus very well. Like, Lee seems to always have little projects he’s working on, but I’m not so good. I’m going to try and seek out, like, yoga classes and things like that to offset the barbecue. [Laughs] It’s a little anxiety provoking, actually, to have to go away for six weeks. In fact, I’m in the middle of packing right now.

I know, like, how many shoes do you bring? Who knows?
Yeah, it’s like, how do I pack all these vitamins? I always over-pack. But you’re basically living out of a suitcase for six weeks. It’s like, you buy all these clothes [at home], but then you kind of have to say goodbye to them. [Laughs] It’s hard to go away during the summer, actually. But it’ll be fun once we get going.

Is it easier for you guys when you’re touring with another band, because then you have more people around to hang out with? Or is that just annoying?
[Laughs] Well, it can be. You’re together all the time, and sometimes you sort of create a distance, because otherwise you would really be irritated all the time. [Laughs] Twelve people on a bus is kind of hard. But anyway, God, it’s nice to be asked other questions than normal, you know? I mean, we get tired of the same questions all the time so it’s going really well so far. You’re doing a good job.

Well, thank you. I’m bored with reading the same questions all the time. So, do you ever have free time? Do you ever have a time where you’re at home, and you don’t have any huge projects staring at you?
Um, pretty much never. But last summer, we only did a little bit of touring, but that was the first time in maybe twenty years where we hadn’t toured in the summer. I mean, it was kind of shocking, actually. But when I’m home I procrastinate about doing things so I can hang out with my friends. Like now, I should be getting my things done, but I’d rather see my friends before I go, so…

So what are you doing when you get back from tour? What’s your next big thing?
Well, Mirror/Dash, the clothing line, is kind of an ongoing thing. But for the next project, I have a book I’m working on, my paintings, and I’m sort of working on another painting series. But we’re going to do a bunch of touring in the fall, so I’m kind of keeping my schedule as open as I can. I don’t want to be too…pressured. But as busy as I am, Thurston has many more projects than I do. I don’t know how he does it, really. But it’s energizing if you get stuff back from it.

  • Riverfront Times (St. Louis) – link
  • reprint in The Pitch (Kansas City) – link
  • reprint in Dallas Observer – link
  • interview outtakes at A to Z blog – link
  • Sonic Youth – website
  • Sonic Youth – Facebook
  • Sonic Youth – Twitter
  • Urban Outfitters – Mirror/Dash
  • Michael Schmelling – website
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The Livers


The Livers
By JAIME LEES
Published on December 30, 2008 at 4:18pm
The Livers, with the Pedaljets and Honeywagen.
Friday, January 2, at the Record Bar.

The Livers have managed to invent something brand-new: a four-person rock band with just two members. Multi-instrumentalists Scott Freeman and Luke Roulston augment their live sound by playing electric guitars in front of a prerecorded video of Freeman on drums and Roulston on bass. Through the magic of painstaking video editing and green-screen wizardry, all four band members have the ability to interact with one another. This setup is both spectacularly effective and logistically bewildering, but without competent songwriting and playing prowess, the Livers would be little more than an interesting live art project. Amazingly, the music is even better than the presentation. The Livers’ sound lands somewhere between the Pixies and the Melvins, with a combination of crunchy riffs, catchy lyrics and intimidatingly heavy drum hits.

Interview with A.A. Bondy


AA Bondy reinvents himself as an indie-folk artist

By Jaime Lees
Published: February 6, 2008

Though few outside of the indie circuit recognized Verbena, critics and fans hailed the group as the second coming of Nirvana. The comparison was easy to see — and not just because former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl produced the band’s 1999 major-label debut, Into the Pink. When Verbena emerged from Bir­­m­ing­ham, Alabama, in the late ’90s, its sound was dark, powerful and based on a foundation of big pop hooks. Lead singer Scott Bondy in particular came across as very Kurt Cobain-esque, with his lazy, marble-mouthed singing style, snarky attitude and bleached-blond hair. These days, Bondy is all grown up and no longer playing the role of snotty rock kid. Performing solo under his birth name of AA Bondy (the initials stand for August Arthur), he composes enchanting, elegantly sparse indie-folk music. The songs often feature just his voice and an expertly strummed guitar, with the occasional hint of mournful harmonica and handclaps used as percussion.

When he tries to explain the difference between the louder Verbena and his current stripped-back project, Bondy confesses via phone, “I don’t really know what I was doing before.”

He’s certainly figured out what to do on his solo debut, American Hearts (which will be re-released on Fat Possum Records in April). Hearts is a bewitchingly beautiful album that’s been embraced as an impressive contribution to the world of nü-folk — largely because the songs don’t sound like the “unplugged” indulgences of a former rock guy. They’re not stripped down; they’re just not decorated with unnecessary wrapping. The songs overflow with unflinching sincerity, and the tiniest details — like the delicate noise of fingers sliding across guitar strings — stand out and seem purposeful.

The way Bondy constructed Hearts reflects this simplistic style: He recorded it in a rickety old barn next to his house in New York. (“It’s a really good-sounding barn,” he says with a chuckle.) Perhaps as a result, Hearts‘ lyrics are also unadorned and straightforward, relying heavily on the polarities of good vs. evil, apathy vs. love and God vs. the devil. Still, Bondy finds plenty of room for shrewd statements (“Love, it don’t die/It just goes from girl to girl”) and optimistic observations (“The barroom is filled with the joy/Of making old friends.”)

Many of Hearts‘ songs also carry a twinge of the ’60s protest vibe — meaning that the Bob Dylan comparisons are inevitable. It’s no surprise that Bondy has absorbed a penchant for clever lyrics; he cites Tom Waits, Nina Simone and Tom Petty as classic favorites. But of these influences, he fondly explains, “You can’t really speak to the nature of what makes things special. But whatever does make things special doesn’t really matter. I guess for a listener you just know it is special to you — and that’s all that matters.”During live shows, Bondy is frequently accompanied by his wife, Clare Felice, who plays the organ. She’s from the same family that produced the up-and-coming Americana band the Felice Brothers — a group Bondy lovingly refers to as his brothers and source of inspiration.

Jaime Lees: The stuff you’re recording seems very… like, if someone walked into your house, you could be sitting there playing it.
AA Bondy
: Yeah, I could.

It seems very intimate — like you’re not putting on a kind of show.
Yeah, those songs could exist without any other accompaniment. And they were written that way. Which is one of the main differences between this stuff and anything that happened before it. Those other songs weren’t brought to the light of day in that fashion. They were always pieced together. They were… like, a guitar part always came first. They never started with, like, basically a finished song. Which all of these songs did. They were finished songs that things got added to — or didn’t.

Is it scary for you to stand up there alone?
When I first started playing by myself, I’d played tons and tons of shows with a band. I didn’t even understand how freaked out I was. If you’re getting up on stage with a band, it’s like you’re part of a team. But once you get up there by yourself, it’s totally different. ‘Cause you’re responsible for it all. I like it better. It’s more thrilling, at least. I don’t get too freaked out anymore, but I used to. When you’re by yourself, it’s so much easier.

How is your writing different as you’ve gotten older?
I actually write songs now. [Laughs] You know, I don’t just, like, play a guitar part and put some stuff over it. I just know that it feels completely different than it used to. It feels like there’s something contained inside of it, as opposed to being like a shell.

The topics seem pretty grown-up — relationships, war. Do you feel like you’re getting something out? Does it make you feel better?
Maybe it makes me feel better only in the way something gets completed that I’m somehow satisfied with. Not in the way that I’m saying something, you know. Like, it could be a song about a pile of leaves that I lit on fire and I could feel just as good about that as if it was, like, a so-called song that had something to say.

8 p.m. Wednesday, February 13. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 314-773-3363.

>> EXTENDED INTERVIEW HERE <<

  • 02-06-08 Riverfront Times (St. Louis) – article link
  • 02-07-08 reprint in the Pitch (Kansas City) – article link
  • 03-27-08 reprint in the Dallas Observer (Dallas) – article link
  • interview outtakes here
  • AA Bondy – MySpace

Interview with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi


Ian MacKaye takes on new venues.
8:30 p.m. Monday, November 5. White Flag Projects, 4568 Manchester Avenue. $5. 314-531-3442.
By Jaime Lees
Published: October 31, 2007

On an Even(s) Keel
As the frontman of the legendary punk bands Fugazi and Minor Threat and co-founder of Dischord Records, Ian MacKaye has proven himself to be both a prolific songwriter and a keen businessman. He birthed the highly respected independent label nearly three decades ago and it has since grown to be the very nucleus of do-it-yourself punk-rock culture. MacKaye’s unwavering integrity and sincerity in the face of the shady corporate music business reveal his career path to be nothing short of inspirational. Viewed as the moral and dignified godfather of the hardcore and straight-edge scenes, MacKaye seems to start accidental revolutions by simply speaking his mind and doing his work.

With the much-missed Fugazi on indefinite hiatus, MacKaye has plenty of other projects to cultivate. In addition to speaking engagements, running the label and giving interviews, MacKaye is busy scheduling tour dates for his newest band, the Evens, a lo-fi (yet still intense) duo with Amy Farina, formerly of Washington D.C.’s the Warmers. Though the Evens could easily cash in their punk-royalty status in exchange for the best gigs in town, the band schedules the dates by itself and prefers to play small, non-traditional venues including art galleries, libraries and community centers.

Calling from Dischord House, the headquarters of his label, MacKaye is instantly likable. He seems smart, affable and warm. In conversation he’s quick, but not rude. Funny, though not sarcastic. In this and every other forum, it is clear that MacKaye takes what he does very seriously.

“I work really hard,” he says. “[Other] people, they punch out for the day and they go home. I never punch out. I’m never off the clock, in a way. The fact that I haven’t separated my work from myself — it has its pluses and it also has its negatives.” The lure, however, is clear. “I wake up every morning having something to do and wanting to do it.”

Aside from the advantage of keeping costs down for fans, MacKaye reveals another purpose in booking alternative venues: “So we can be liberated from the rock world, which is pretty constricting when you get right down to it. I mean, you think about the kind of venues or the kind of establishments where music can be presented, and ultimately it’s pretty limited and largely dictated by one of two industries, you know — and that’s the rock industry and the alcohol industry. And since we don’t feel beholden to either, then why not break free?”

When MacKaye is questioned about his constant work and touring, he pushes off any concern. “I like places, I like people! I like going somewhere. I like that fact that music is a point of gathering that can effectively work anywhere.” Here he further clarifies: “I guess I don’t feel ever burned out at all. I just feel fortunate to be able to go play music.” — Jaime Lees

[FOR EXTENDED INTERVIEW CLICK HERE]

  • 10-31-07 Riverfront Times (St. Louis) – article link
  • 11-01-07 reprint in the Pitch (Kansas City) – article link
  • 11-08-07 reprint in the Houston Press (Houston) – article link
  • 11-15-07 reprint in the Nashville Scene (Nashville) – article link
  • interview outtakes here
  • The Evens – website