"When we started playing together it just felt like this open, free space to do whatever we wanted," says experimental guitarist Bill Nace about Body/Head, his collaborative project with former Sonic Youth bassist and singer Kim Gordon. And indeed, Body/Head's music, as heard on their new effort, The Switch, is truly "free" in the musical sense of the word, with Gordon (guitars, vocals) and Nace (guitar) conjuring minimalist, impressionistic six-string soundscapes out of completely improvised performances.
The results are often unsettling, and wholly engrossing. For just one example, take the album's first "single," "You Don't Need," which unfolds slowly on undulating waves of dense distortion, and ends five minutes later with all manner of guitar squiggles and scrapes, as well as Gordon's anxious, disconnected vocals. The effect is as if the music is trying to claw its way clear out of the speakers.
The key to their sound, Nace says, is that "you have to be present in what's happening, and be in service to the music." In that respect, he continues, "I feel like whatever we make together, that's the band. We could do songs, or we could do something totally different. But right now, this improvisational approach is how we get to the space that we want to get to."
If it all sounds incredibly intense, it should be noted that there's also pleasure at the project's core. Explains Gordon, "Playing with Bill, it's just fun."
WHAT LED THE TWO OF YOU TO FORM BODY/HEAD?
KIM GORDON We were friends first. We lived in the same town [in Massachusetts], and I'd seen Bill play solo and with other people. We would hang out, and one day we sort of just went down in the basement and started playing. And it felt very free. And actually, what happened was, this musician/artist from Belgium, Dennis Tyfus, was putting out a compilation record and he asked me if I'd record a cover of [Peggy Lee's] "Fever" for it. So I did, and I asked Bill to play on it with me. So that was actually the first thing we did together.
BILL NACE It definitely came out of our friendship more than anything. And it still functions that way, in the sense that we have to be clicking with each other in order for the music to work. Because it's not like we have concrete parts or any kind of thing we can lean on if it's not working. We can't fudge it. So that's the starting point, and then it moves on from there. But yeah, when we started playing together it just felt like this open space to do whatever we wanted. And at first there were not a lot of plans to do anything with it. It wasn't like there was much of an identity ascribed to it, other than we just wanted to play with each other. That was the basis, and it's still in the DNA of the band.
WHEN YOU GO INTO RECORD AN ALBUM LIKE THE SWITCH, HOW MUCH OF THE MUSIC IS SKETCHED OUT BEFOREHAND AND HOW MUCH IS CREATED IN THE STUDIO?
NACE It's all created in the studio. We're just trying to catch as much as we can. And we're really conscious of trying to shape it as we're playing. It's not like we have three hours of tape of us just randomly jamming. Most of what is on the record is what happened live, and then there's just some fine tuning.
GORDON We make it up there, and then we kind of sift through the stuff, which takes a while. A couple of months later we might come back to it and pick out some things to work on. Then we do some overdubbing and kind of just shape everything.
HOW MUCH OF WHAT EACH OF YOU PLAYS ON GUITAR IS A REACTION TO WHAT THE OTHER PERSON IS DOING?
GORDON It's all pretty informed. You've heard the term, what is it called? Sensitive uncoupling?
NACE You mean, like Gwyneth Paltrow? [Laughs]
GORDON Yeah. Conscious uncoupling! [Laughs] This is sort of like conscious coupling.
WHAT FIRST ATTRACTED YOU TO IMPROVISATIONAL MUSIC?
GORDON Early on, I was really inspired by seeing No Wave bands in New York City. That was kind of what made me want to start playing music to begin with. And a lot of that was improvised — bands like Mars or DNA. Though I think with DNA, those were pretty worked out songs, but they were kind of free in their structure. They weren't traditional in terms of songwriting. And I don't know, after being in a band and writing songs for so long [with Sonic Youth], I kind of didn't want to do that anymore. At least not in that same way.
DO YOU FIND THIS SORT OF LIVE, IN-THE-MOMENT COLLABORATIVE PLAYING IS A DIFFERENT BEAST IN THE STUDIO AS OPPOSED TO ONSTAGE?
NACE Yeah, I do. For starters, in the studio there's no audience, so you're in this kind of weird, sealed-off environment where it's just the two of you. You can't expect it to be the same experience as the show. I've been recording in the studio for a while — not as long as Kim, but a while — and that's a lesson I feel I have to keep relearning. But I think we got better at it on this record, in terms of not needing what we're doing to reflect what the live show is like at all.
GORDON But in the studio there's still this sense that you're performing, in a way. Only you're performing for, like, history or something. There's an excitement in the recording process because you know it's for prosperity.
IT'S FOR PROSPERITY, BUT AT THE SAME TIME YOU'LL NEVER PLAY THOSE SONGS IN THE SAME WAY AGAIN.
IT'S AN INTERESTING IDEA, BECAUSE WE'RE TRAINED TO THINK OF THE STUDIO VERSION OF A SONG AS THE STAMPED, "OFFICIAL" VERSION, WHICH IS THEN RECREATED ONSTAGE. BUT WITH BODY/HEAD, THE RECORDING IS NOT REALLY THAT AT ALL. IT'S JUST A MOMENT IN TIME THAT WILL NEVER BE REPLICATED.
GORDON Right. In a way it makes the musician more centric. It becomes less about just selling an object. And if you're into Body/Head, you hopefully hear the record and then want to go see us live. Because it's going to be different every time.
THIS IS YOUR SECOND STUDIO RECORD TOGETHER AS BODY/HEAD. HOW HAS YOUR COLLABORATION CHANGED OR DEVELOPED IN THE FIVE YEARS SINCE YOUR DEBUT, COMING APART?
GORDON I don't know … maybe I feel a little more confident in my guitar playing. Not that I didn't feel confident before. But I guess I have more experience.
NACE I think it's hard to map. But I do think we're better at letting the record kind of be its own thing, and be separate from the show. Before, it was just all this energy that we were trying to get on tape in the studio. And you can kind of hear that on the first record. It was all this stuff just getting thrown out there. But with this one I think we've focused in on this one area, and we're trying to see how long we can stay in there and keep it interesting. And I really like that. I like trying to see how minimal you can be and still have it be engaging.
WHEN YOU PERFORM LIVE, ARE YOU EVEN ATTEMPTING TO PLAY THE SONGS THAT ARE ON THE RECORD?
GORDON Not at all. There's some sounds that maybe we used on the records that will show up in the live show. But more than anything else, that's because we're using the same effect boxes. [Laughs]
GIVEN THE SOMEWHAT CHALLENGING NATURE OF YOUR MUSIC, HOW WOULD YOU SAY THE AUDIENCE REACTION HAS BEEN TO BODY/ HEAD?
GORDON It's been good. People have been surprisingly open to us. I mean, there's so much music out there that sounds really … genre correct. [Laughs] But I think there's also people out there that want something different.