Songs As Meditations: An Interview With Body/Head

On their debut album Coming Apart, the seething guitar noise of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace's Body/Head project possesses a strikingly raw emotional force. Petra Davis speaks to the duo about the meditative improvisational processes that went into its making

Coming Apart, the debut album from Body/Head, the abstract noise duo comprising Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, Free Kitten, The Supreme Indifference) and Bill Nace (Vampire Belt, Northampton Wools), is an oddly emotional listen. Though the improvised noise tradition is not necessarily best known for its affective range, Gordon and Nace pull compelling threads of sensation through the fog. Constantly polarised in the stereo picture, their guitar parts describe distinct vantage points and moments, but always purposefully: space and time are pressed into the service of feeling.

The record is carefully structured, with themes juxtaposed by track order: three subsequent pieces named for feminised nouns (‘Murderess’, ‘Last Mistress’ and and ‘Actress’) hint at a project of formal feminisation long overdue in improv culture. Cryptic covers of Nina Simone and Patty Waters standards (‘Ain’t’ and ‘Black’, also set side by side) reinforce the impression while darkening the palette, and ‘Frontal,’ the album’s 17-minute final track, takes on sexual violence and derealisation. Gordon is at her most cloudily heartfelt here, chanting, murmuring questions, repeating them insistently, at times violently. "My body’s drifting, drifting away from me to you," she sings. "What can I do? What can I do?"

The Quietus spoke with Gordon and Nace about the project’s origins, how the album’s songs emerged from sessions of improvisation, and how Coming Apart differs from their live incarnation.

How did the project come about?

KG: We were just hanging out a lot, and our friend Dennis Typhus [of Ultra Eczema, the Belgian label which released the first Body/Head single, ‘The Eyes, The Mouth’ last year] asked me to do a compilation of different people covering the song ‘Fever’ and I asked Bill if he wanted to play with me on that. I think that was how it started.

And the tracks from this record were written together in the studio?

BN: They weren’t necessarily written; most of the album is improvised. The only one that we had any kind of precedent for was ‘Abstract’, but that was the only one [where] the vocals were predetermined to be matched up with that part. Other than that it’s pretty wildly different in the recording than it is in the shows.

This record… well, it’s out of the ordinary. I’ve seen enough improv noise duos over the past few years – they’ve become a festival staple – to have grasped some of the standard forms, if you like.

BN (laughing): Right.

And this is, very successfully, not a standard improv duo record.

BN: Great!

Yeah! I think it’s a beautiful record. I wanted to ask, I suppose, a sort of unformed question about the balance between structure and spontaneity, and what your aims for the record were.

KG: I think it almost follows like an Alice Coltrane-like structure, songs as meditations or something, or there’s like a theme and then it kind of goes into something else, and breaks down and maybe returns at the end. But [for] the record, we didn’t really have a goal so much. Although we did feel that it wasn’t something that would recreate what we did live – it was this thing unto itself. And that’s always been my experience of making records anyway: even if you have songs that you play live, the records are always a different presentation of them.

BN: The thing you see a lot with improvisation is – and it’s hard not to do – is to come in with: this is what I do. And then the other person just does what they do. But [with this project] I was kind of more trying to figure out where the best music was found, so it was outside of what I had normally been doing, in a way that was really exciting.

KG: Even though we’re improvising, we think of it as a band. These are our ideas of what a song is. And it’s more, maybe, pushed out to the limit than what other people think a song is.

Kim, I was wondering how closely the way you use texts in this record might mirror your artwork. Are you conscious of using found lyrics in a collagistic way?

KG: I’m not sure what you mean.

I’m thinking of ‘Ain’t’ and ‘Black’ in particular. It struck me that you’ve been working in collage in terms of visual art, and here on this record you’ve been using found lyrics.

KG: ‘Ain’t Got No’ [which became ‘Ain’t on this record] is a song Nina Simone was doing in the late 60s. It’s a traditional that she made her own. I’d seen those videos on YouTube, they were pretty cool. ‘Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair’ [which became ‘Black’ on this record], Patty Waters has a version of that. I don’t know how much it relates to my artwork – in terms of appropriation or something, maybe. I don’t really think of it in the same way. Maybe it’s similar. But I don’t think of lyrics as collage.

You performed in the UK earlier this year with [DNA drummer] Ikue Mori. What did that bring to the work? The songs on the album seem carefully balanced between your respective points of view. How did adding Ikue’s drums affect that?

KG: I’ve been trying to get her to play trad drums again for years – I’ve played with her in different trios and quartets over the years. It’s different than what we do without a drummer – it makes it a little more conventional, in a way.

BN: Yeah – we usually provide a lot of the rhythm or pulse with what we’re doing, with what Kim does with the vocals, and I think having the drums fill that space just made us play in a more standard rock way – which wasn’t bad, it was just different to what we were doing as a duo.

And on your current tour, are you planning a return to a less standard form?

BN: Well, we won’t be playing the songs as they are on the record, or anything like that. By then, maybe we won’t want to do those songs, we may do something else – we won’t really know till we start playing, I guess!

Both of you are very seasoned musicians with considerable bodies of work behind you. What are your remaining ambitions?

BN: To remain. I’d just like to keep playing as long as I possibly can.

KG: Not to go deaf.

BN: Too late, dude!

Body/Head’s Coming Apart is out now via Matador. The duo play Cafe Oto on November 10. Bring earplugs.

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