“I think it’s really easy to just go up there and play at the same time and do this jam, but that’s not really what we were trying to do.”
By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
The opening of Kim Gordon’s first North American solo visual art exhibit, Lo-Fi Glamour, has the potential to feel dense with iconography.
On Thursday, in the lobby of the Andy Warhol Museum, Gordon – along with guitarists Bill Nace and Steve Gunn, and drummer John Truscinski — will perform a live improvised score to Andy Warhol’s screen test Kiss.
It’s a convergence of many things: Warhol’s work, of course, looms. But there’s the legacy of the Velvet Underground, a band all four performers revere. There are the long-standing personal relationships between the musicians, and the blending of two separate improvisational duos. There’s the former Sonic Youth bassist’s own status as a cultural icon. And the performance itself is an extension of the exhibit, a work of art being made in real time, a live collaborative study in intimate communication.
These various elements weren’t lost on the members of the newly formed quartet when they arrived at the Warhol last August to record an initial version of their Kiss soundtrack. “To be in the Warhol museum and to be surrounded by Andy’s work … it was super inspiring,” says Steve Gunn, who makes ambient roots-based psych with Truscinski in the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, and who just released a new solo record, The Unseen In Between.
“I have so much respect for Kim, and I grew up listening to her play,” he says over the phone, from his tour van. “There’s definitely an element of her being an icon that’s kind of exciting, but she’s also a friend.”
Truscinski recalls the intensity of the recording process itself: “The first time we ever played as a quartet, it was when we had the film up on the screen and we were in the room recording it,” he says. “There were, like, a million cameras around and it was sort of a big production … so we really had to just go for it.”
Though the Kiss score – which was commissioned by the museum and will be available on vinyl as a limited run – was a first-time collaboration, the four musicians had just finished a series of dates promoting The Switch, a record from Nace and Gordon’s dynamic, mind-bending experimental guitar duo, Body/Head.
Nace, who chatted with me at his South Philadelphia home just before leaving for his own European tour, recalls that Body/Head and Gunn-Truscinski Duo felt like a natural double bill. “They sound very different but I think there is an openness to both [duos] that is similar,” he says. “A similar approach more than an aesthetic.”
Truscinski, speaking over the phone from his home in Connecticut agrees. When Gordon suggested playing as a four-piece, he says, “I think [she] was getting at the similarities between the two bands, in that the music [is] really based around this intense or intimate relationship with one other person. That’s sort of what the foundation and the source of the music is, that interaction between two people.”
There are obvious parallels between that and the film, which is an hour of close-up footage of couples kissing. And Nace acknowledges that Kiss can become a fifth component, another thing to interact with. “It’s weird, how the music can make it feel dramatic, and you’re like, ‘Woah, this is kind of heavy watching two people kiss on this giant screen,” he says. “But it can feel mundane, or it can feel like background.”
But, he adds, “I try not to think about it too much. I’m just trying to be present to Steve, John and Kim and the film, and whatever it’s eliciting from me. And then trust that out of that there actually will be this connection that happens without just steering it a certain way.”
Gunn says, “I think it’s really easy to just go up there and play at the same time and do this jam, but that’s not really what we were trying to do. We were trying to move in and out of the piece … where it starts in a certain tone and then grows, in a way.”
And as with any form of communication, listening is key to improvisation. “I want to lend sympathetic aspects to what Kim’s [playing], and to the relationship between Bill and Kim and how they kind of perpetuate music,” Gunn says. “A lot of it is very … reactionary, certainly, from my perspective: listening to Kim and Bill and figuring out where I fit in. It kind of takes on its own form. And John also, he’s such a deep listener. They’re just all very, very acute listeners.”
The subtle building process of that close collaborative listening might read as a contrast to some of the starker visual work included in Lo-Fi Glamor, particularly Gordon’s blunt, declarative graffiti-inspired paintings. But of course – as with, say, Warhol’s simple line drawings vs. his Dollar Signs series — both serve to present a fuller view of Gordon personal process and endurance as a cultural force.
In an interview with the New York Times last year, Gordon described the sense of making up for lost time. “My whole life I wanted to be a visual artist,” she said. “I really got sidetracked into music.” It begs an alternate history thought experiment: Where would Gordon have taken her visual art had she stayed on that track? Would the public have the same taste for the kind of free-form, dissonant, possibly challenging auditory experience of Thursday’s sold-out performance if not for the reach of Sonic Youth?
Nace is quick to draw a clear line about what, exactly, this quartet is about. “It doesn’t feel like Body/Head with Gunn-Truscinski, it feels like Kim’s opening,” he says. “It’s a small difference but in terms of what was going into it, its Kim’s thing, it’s her show, she put the quartet together … we’re kind of supporting her. It’s a big thing for her. She’s got an art show at the fucking Warhol.”
Regardless, almost a year after the initial recording, they’re all eager to revisit the quartet. “I’m just excited to do it,” Truscinski says. “And to be a part of Kim’s show, it’s pretty amazing.”
“I’m really curious to hear how [the record] contrasts to what we do [at the opening], and if we keep doing it, how it changes.” Nace says. “It would be cool if it morphed into something that, two years down the line, sounds totally different than what we did on the record.”