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When Kazu Makino met twins Amedeus and Simone Pace around 17 years ago, emotional chemistry was lacking. She was Japanese, they were Italian. She was quiet, they were loud. Against these odds an awareness of a deeper musical connection between the trio saw them form Blonde Redhead; they’ve since been typified as one of the quintessential New York must-sees.
Their latest release Penny Sparkle (4AD, 2010) has a decidedly more electronic ambience, one notch up from their prior release 23 (4AD, 2007) and another from Misery Is A Butterfly (4AD, 2004) before that.
Opening track ‘Here Sometimes’ sounds as if it’s made from mechanic soundbites from an industrial factory; the repetitive thumps of machinery are reinterpreted through synthesizers and keyboards. Listen closely to ‘Will There Be Stars’ and you’ll pick up the the beeps and pops that you’re likely to hear in a heavy club track. But it’s subdued, and it’s tempo slow. Some song intros would have you thinking you’re listening to Fever Ray or Depeche Mode until Makino or Amedeus’ hauntingly distinct drawls kick in.
Their recent work with producers Alan Moulder and Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid — who combined have tinkered with tracks by Massive Attack, The Knife and My Bloody Valentine — may have reviewers crying foul that the new release is too much rehash and too little angst as per their 1995 releases Blonde Redhead, and La Mia Vita Violenta (both through Smells Like Records). But discrediting them for this move toward electronica because it’s been done before is to condemn any natural musical evolution and every British indie-rock band that emerged mid-2000s.
Ask Makino where her influences come from and she wont say the aforementioned genre-similar acts, but old experimental and electronic music like Terry Riley, Pantha Du Prince, and Nina Simone.
Big Takeover caught up with the soft-spoken, strong-minded Makino after the trio returned from a “gypsy festival” in Australia in support of their latest release — where they cozied up to Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, Warpaint, and Yeasayer — to discuss their new album, skepticism and a certain song we might be hearing in the next Twilight film production.
BIG TAKEOVER: Before the release of Penny Sparkle you said you couldn’t define what it was about. Can you now?
KAZU MAKINO: It’s about what we were going through at the time [of writing]; it was like a documentary of our lives. I think when we worked together toward the end of the process we became really close as a band again. With songwriting we were quite separated at times and I had such a different approach when I went to Sweden by myself to work with the producers. It’s just really significant body of work. It sounds a bit disconnected to me but I really love playing them live. I look forward to playing these things live more to see where it takes us.
BT: How much of your music begins as a visual concept?
KM: It all depends on the different scenarios. I definitely only start working really hard on a song when I get the powerful impression of it. It’s often hard to describe as a feeling, but it’s just something that compels me. You try to make that thing you only have in your head a little bit more concrete when it’s still not music in an obvious way, so thats when the writing process comes together. But it’s almost like you already have something that you’re working towards. You see the potential of the songs — most of the time.
BT: I can imagine the process of transferring this mental concept into a coherent song must be very frustrating.
KM: Not really, because it’s so apparent in your head. Because initially it’s the fragment of music that gives you that impact so you think that it’s already expressed in these little ideas. You’re almost pleased with yourself for what you have, then you play it for friends or your band mates and they’re like, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ So you compromise and try to be a little bit more explanatory — somehow that process can feel quite compromising or a little bit cheesy. But you go until you get to, ‘Okay this is really obvious right now, I want to stop here.’
BT: Between your latest release and records past a lot of reviews have picked up on a shift to what has been called post-punk to something more emotionally resonant and ethereal. What dynamics have changed to account for the shift in direction?
KM: I don’t even know if…. I never thought we were violent or angry or post punk. I’m sure if I listened to it again I would just ask myself what I was so excited about. I was quite calm doing whatever I was doing. You know, in your life you never feel like your energy is too much for yourself, so you’re always doing things without knowing how much energy you contain. You could be breaking things every time you perform but actually you do it really calmly, like any really mundane, daily action. Really my energy was not really frightening for me at all. And today I feel the same way: I have a not-a-big-deal attitude towards playing music.
BT: In terms of press referring to your past work as post punk, I think in some cases it’s more of one reviewer recycling a term they might have heard, as opposed to deciding for themselves how they relate to it. And often there is an expectation for musicians to evolve musically — when they do they’re chastised for it, and if they don’t they’re chastised even more. In this context how hard is it to put out a record when the odds are against you?
KM: That really upsets me because whatever people are doing for occupations don’t you think they should have time for their job? I find that very disappointing that people don’t take their time to do something. Maybe everyone who writes about music it’s not their main job but I cant stand the laziness or the deliberate cruelty. Creating is never hard because you’re not faced with the audience constantly. Creating is always just like having a conversation with yourself — it’s hard in a way that any creative process is. It seems like the only way to promote it is to go play live shows and be exposed to this criticism. I can’t say that’s not hard. It’s hard.
BT: How are you taking the press for Penny Sparkle so far?
KM: I was pretty hurt. Often you don’t quite know what you’ve done, but by playing live shows you really get a grip on what you have done and whether you really appreciate the songs. It doesn’t mean if they’re bad or good or sometimes certain albums we made was almost unplayable live because there was so many layers and what not. And this album too there are a lot of layers but we can definitely made it concise and edited many parts and then we added another person to play with us so playing a live show has been really great. I have a really clear grasp on what just happened and what we made so I’m really quite pleased with [the record] I must say. At the end of the day I can only speak for myself.
BT: Observing past interviews I’ve noticed that you’re all kind of hard on yourselves and each other. You said you felt bad for making the record because it would take people a little while to get used to it. Why?
KM: I sometimes dread listening to the new music of an artist I really love. The journey they put you through can become quite challenging but you have to accept it if you really love who they are. We are all creatures of habit and you get comfortable — we create that comfort zone with clothes and a house and music and food — so I think sometimes to be challenged musically or intellectually can be a bit exhausting. I often think, ‘How long is it going to take before I get it and I love it? Will I ever?’
BT: The musical connection between you and the twins seems quite deep and comfortable. So when you’re personally collaborating outside of Blonde Redhead as you have with James Iha and Battles how do you have to adapt?
KM: It’s quite easy because if you like what each other does, it’s really not that much of a problem. It’s very fresh for me to work under different sensibilities. I still have complete trust in people that I know what they’re doing and they know what I’m going through. It’s really like we speak a universal language. Yes, it’s intimidating and I don’t know what I’m capable of or if can add something to the music that they make, but you never know unless you try. I always ask them, if they hate it, just to say so. If you change your mind right in the middle and decide ‘I don’t want her’ tell me so, because it’s their music and it’s not about me. I always tell them just to fire me any time they want. I would never resent it.
BT: Have you ever been fired?
BT: And how did the recent collaboration with Battles come about?
KM: They just called me up. I was very surprised because they play very progressive music. My impression of the music is so boorish. It’s not that I find it bad, I just found it really boorish so I didn’t know if I could add something or not spoil the mood. But they just said, ‘Why don’t you have a go at it?’ And I say all these things about firing me if they need to because I don’t want to put them in an awkward spot, but I also want to allow myself to do whatever I’m capable of without feeling like I have this huge responsibility.
BT: You’ve recently produced a song for the upcoming Twilight film. Tell me about how that came up.
KM: We submitted it but we haven’t heard anything from them (cackles). Isn’t that pathetic? They gave us such a tight deadline. You know, any deadline is going to be tight eventually because we don’t do anything until the last second, but Amedeo literally locked me up from 7 a.m. because it was the day of mixing. We booked that day in the studio and it had to be done, and I had nothing. I’ve never worked under such conditions like really fight against time — like clock-ticking song writing. We mixed it down and I listened to it, and I think it’s not a final product. I think we should keep working on it, but the melody is good and the chords are really good. There are many ways of playing it and maybe we didn’t pick the right way of playing it, or the production could have been much better. I know still it’s very us. I’m starting to speak words — I really want to have speaking voices. I always loved listening to spoken words in music and it gave me goosebumps when I hear myself speak, so I want to start trying it and this song has a little bit of that.
BT: If they decide to take it are you prepared for a new influx of a new, youthful, pop-oriented fan base?
KM: It doesn’t mean anything to me because I’ve never watched the show. But I’ve seen the actress and she’s beautiful. What fascinates me is she hardly makes any facial expressions yet it’s so popular. Talk about minimalism, you know?
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