On Music – If She May Say So Herself
Listen to my sound portrait here or read the text, below.
A lot of artists – especially ones who’s bands are linked to the ”noise-rock” Sonic Youth 1990’s and excel in the craft of “dream-pop” or “art-rock,” wallow in their own artsy, dreamy, dis-connected reality in a way that leaves them inaccessible – much to their own liking. This is what I feared leading up to my opportunity to talk with the timid lead singer of Blonde Redhead, Kazu Makino, when I was granted (“I can only guarantee 15-20 minutes and can’t guarantee who it’s going to be with) a last minute interview (please be with Kazu please be with Kazu) in advance of their St. Louis show at the Pageant last Monday. From what I could tell by watching videos of her past interviews, I was in for the awkward of my life – in an artsy rockstar way of course.
But Kazu is different – in a normal person kind of way. We had a genuine talk with phones ringing in the background (mine!!) and dogs barking (hers), and street noise. She reacted to my questions with a inward curiosity about her own answers, in a darling British accent that sometimes left me wondering! (Did she say “friends I have fun seeing” or “friends I uh… fancy?”) She chuckled, she laughed, she was embarrassed, she misunderstood me, she re-understood me, she finished my sentences. I stuck to my questions even when I should have explored the thing she just said and caught myself thinking at least once, “Holy crap this is awesome!” We talked for well over the twenty minutes that I was guaranteed by her people and when I saw her later that night sing “Here Sometimes” – This is me, completely me, I had to agree.
Aaron Doerr: First off, I was going to apologize for the rain, cause I thought it was gonna rain, but it looks like it’s gonna be a beautiful night and I wonder if the rain would’ve been a better atmosphere for your new album, Penny Sparkle?
Kazu Makino: Um, [chuckle] Mmm… No – yesterday we were somewhere – I can’t remember where – Minneapolis… it rained oh, no wait- where were we?
AD: Yeah you were in Miniapolis.
KM: Cinncinati? Yeah Minneapolis, it rained a lot there and everybody got totally soaked! So I think I got my fair share of the rain. It’d be nice to have nice warm weather like this…
AD: At first it does seem like sort of a gloomy album and I know you’ve gotten a lot of critizim for that…
AD: …yet there’s a warmth to it that’s really hard to describe. As you listen, it sort of begins to protect you from that original gloom and iciness, kinda like snuggling up safe against next a fireplace or something and watching all of that going on outside…
KM: [chuckles] Yeah…
AD: …Who should I thank for that? Is that something that you consiously try to bring out because you knew “okay we need to make this a little more accessable to people?”
KM: Oh, No! I don’t think that but uh [thinking]…
AD: That warmth it just really brought itself alive and it’s just really great.
KM: Yeah, well I think maybe we did feel quite protected making this album somehow. We very isolated and, just, some very lonely places that we went to to make this album. But then at the same time I felt really, really protected because we were working with people that we really loved
It was cold like nobody’s business but when we were inside in the studio it was very warm and then… there was nothing better we could be doing than to be making Music.
AD: That’s good to hear because I know the album was particularly hard to finish. In your hometown New York the band felt a little trapped in their upstate quarters while you were in Stockholm, Iceland’s Scandinavian cousin, for some of the year tracking vocals there. There was lots of anxiety and emotional stress surrounding demands of particular songs. And you say if you could go back and do it all over again you’d do it the same way. Is that because you felt so protected or did it feel good to disassemble the normal patterns and routines of songwriting and recording?
KM: Yeah well I think it’s mostely because I get the imppression that maybe it’s gonna take a little bit for people to… get used to the music that we make. So then I’m sort of asking myself “well then would I do it differently?” Cause when you’re making it you never think about who you’re making it for. You’re just doing it…
I know we’ve made many albums but when you’re making an album you simply can’t imagine if this Music is going to get out there actually – somebody’s gonna listen to this? – you just don’t get that feeling – this is the end of the journey – that’s what it feels like when you’re making a record. So you don’t really feel like there’s an afterlife to it. It’s good, that, cause you can be completely self indulgent – you’re just satisfying yourself. But once you finish, you have this kindof silly realization that everyone’s gonna listen to this! So I’m feeling a little bit guilty about making this album cause maybe it might be… might take a lot of effort for people to get into it?
AD: Well yeah, I wonder about that. I should say it was hard for me at first to like the new album – I’ve been a fan for years – and unfortunately lots of people think of it as a radical departure from what you guys do best. But the more I listen to it the more I like it and now I really love it, I can’t stop listening to it – it’s really a special album…
The great composer Steven Sondheim explains that the more familiar something is the easier it is received, and we are drawn towards songs with familiar and common melodies and chord progressions, and we’re put off by ones that are hard to grasp or subtle by nature. And that makes a lot of sense because it so easy to follow something you’ve heard before, and a lot of really popular songs are so simple and so accessible.
But yours aren’t that way at all, and I wonder if this actually makes it more successful in your eyes – that if people dig down a bit to connect, to uncover, what you’ve dug down so deep to reveal that maybe there’s a unity there – like we’re all in it together?
KM: Ya excatcly. Maybe the journey that I have, you are having in a sort of another form or different time… To me it was never like “ok im just following my instinct” and just one process thing [?], but it’s not like that. You come up from your intuition with something but then you go through this journey that you really fight with yourself… and you become suspicious of your limits and sensibilities and you go through this long process of self-doubt and then you come out at the end it’s like, “finally!” – the song starts to come alive again. At a certain stage it sounds like shit, you know and then suddenly it finds it’s place again and then you can really appreciate it. But at that moment you actually say to yourself “I don’t care if anybody or if no one likes it.
AD: That’s interesting because you’ve said things about who you write songs for… I love the lyrics to “My Plants Are Dead” and you’ve explained how that whole song was built around a text message from your friend back home, who cancelled a party because she wasn’t feeling up for it at the last minute, and how cute you thought it was that she could be so flippant and moody, kindof like a little girl would I guess, and that you hope to write music for your friends to listen to, that they can sort of hide with and be protected like you were. Did that come into the album at all? You’ve talked about the protection and the journey that you’ve went through. Do you expect your friends to be able to listen to this album?
KM: Ya i suppose, like I have so many friends that I really like and that I have fun seeing, but you know when you really appreciate people you often can’t really invade their space either, you know? We all go through moments like “we’re not made for this world” and I think lots of my friends cannot carry that auroa of like – “oh my gosh, we’re not made for this world!” And I do think you end up excelling at something and whatever but… [thinking] I just like to help protect them or feel protected with my music or something… It’s often how we spend so much time alone. I thought about how I wish I could make something to keep them company…
AD: That’s beautiful and you know I keep wondering who is who? in that song. You’ve said before that you used her text for the chorus but is she the one asking questions about your “petit chein” and who you’ve been listening to lately? Is that her?
KM: [chuckles] It’s a little bit rounded like, I think…. the bridge – chorus or whatever is her text all alone but the verse is more like a conversation with myself and a friend, like different girlfriends who look after stuff in my apartment. They’d be like “Oh do you need your key… Your plants are dead…” [laughing] You know, we’re always talking about “What you’ve been listeing to” you know, “How’s your dog, did she come on tour with you?” you know that kinda thing… That song is based on really superficial moments that we go through, but it’s actually rather significant you know?
AD: It’s VERY significant – I mean – it’s so surreal at the same time because the record and the production is so icey and in-your-face and electric and kind of isolated a bit but warm at the same time and kindof hard to digest at first, and yet you bring in this amazingly personal text message from your friends! And you’re imagining talking to your friends on top of this landscape – it’s really succesful and I think it’s one of my favorite conepts on the whole album.
KM: I’m really happy you think that!
AD: Can you answer some of those questions for us now, those imaginary questions that friends ask each other like, um, well 1st of all:
Who would you blame for letting your plants die while you were gone?
KM: Who would I blame?
AD: Yeah – you’re friends – who’s the worst at looking after your plants?
KM: All of them! [laughter] They all get assasined! They all like, masacre my plants… It seems to be that your plants know their owner – like their mom – [chuckling] it just has to be you who waters them, like, they all -without exception – they all die! it’s crazy….[chuckling]
AD: Another question in the song is about your dog, Collette. Is that who I hear in the background?
KM: [laughs] yeah…
AD: So you did bring her with you? Did you bring her for the European leg or the U.S. leg or both?
KM: Well she had to stay for the European tour because – or we would’ve brought her back – the end of Europe we had to go to China and there’s no way we could bring her to China so, she stayed.
And then when I got home she was in such a bad shape she just, uh i dunno… she got really really deformed! I suppose she was so lonely she, like, ripped her own hair off and she looked so miserable that I knew I had to take her on this tour…
AD: Does she travel well?
KM: She’s really good now, and ya she’s just happpy. She like just tries to eat everybody [laughing] like on the bus and stuff… ya [chuckle]
AD: Okay and what’ve you been listening to latley – staying with the questions in the song?
KM: Uh well… [thinking] We’re touring with Pantha du Prince and he’s enormously inspiring so I’ve been listening to him a lot. Every night I go on the side stage and listen to him and then we come back in and I listen to him again on the bus…
AD: Oh wow, I can’t wait,
KM: Ya he’s very interesting…
AD: I don’t know excatly what to expect from him I’ve never heard him before so I’m really looking foward to it….
KM: Very spontanious, he creates his own Music just… onstage as he goes along – the sound is amazing.
AD: Um, you write in a kindof vulnerability and sensitivity that portrays this uncertainty that we can all relate to. You talk about protecting your friends as well. You question Love on this album with a nostalgic immediacy and purity which is really intense – especially the conversation you wish you could have with your horse, Penny, and what you can see in her eyes on that title track is so moving.
It must be draining to go through these emotions in front of an audience, night after night, while trying to sing and perform at the same time – of course, that’s what every artist has to do – but with these new songs there’s certainly less to hide behind than maybe you’re used to. What kind of distractions are you faced with under these circumstances… Do you feel like you have to put those emotions aside in order for the song to come out more true?
KM: No, I think, it’s really a blessing: you have all this awful – oh not awful but like – it’s true, like draining emotions inside and quite sad things or painful things that you experience. But when you… when you actually can write a song from those things you, kind of gain wierd strength… the fact that you’re actually able to make something out of something so dark and miserable, it gives you a little bit of strength. You save yourself from going down sort of like a darkest path…. You kindof save yourself by having a song. So, once you have that then you feel just so much stronger.
Then when it comes to performing – yeah of course sometimes I DO get like a little shakey about it – but most of the time it gives that – those kinda dark emotions a little bit of a coating or a strength so you’re able to perform it with this kind of a detatchment, you know? That really helps.
I think Music, if it’s succesfull, you don’t have to feel emotional in order to perform it because all the emotions are already built into the notes and chords and the melody, so you can just sing them and all the emotions are there already you don’t have to like… work yourself up to it. You know – I mean, if I can say so, that’s how you know you wrote a solid piece of music – you don’t have to feel it to play it.
AD: I can see it being a helpful release and to get it on paper and to get it out into the world it’s like – thank god!
KM: Ya… Otherwise it is too painful. If you live with all this stuff inside you and there’s nowhere to put it… that would be pretty difficult.
AD: Well thank you for making it public because it’s really successful and moving.
Um, I’m quickley becoming a dog enthusiast since raising my own new puppy and you of course are so closely connected to your horses. There’s equestrian imagery in your past videos and lyrics and on the new album as well.
In “Love or Prison” you struggle with a bond that you decide in the end – I think, tell me if I’m right – qualifies as Love, although it kinda seems up for grabs the whole time. Is that song about your horse?
KM: No actually [chuckle], it’s sort of about… about me not being able to be independent emotionally… [thinking]… or something like that? [embarassed] it’s hard to explain.
AD: No it’s – that’s what I was wondering – because it seems like it could be about many things and that’s part of an artist’s…
KM: ya… I do touch the subject a little bit – I think that’s the only part I feel kinda liberated. When I’m with the horse there’s so many moments where i feel actually independent, and i think all the other moments I feel like a little bit like a marionette or something? And i think that’s what i was trying to think about – that there’s actually an operator that’s operating me rather than me doing things… Even if i go through all of these things – I cry or hide or whatever – I feel like somebody’s sort of allowing me to be that way… Like I’m not… I feel often like I’m not in charge of my own self. – Except for when i ride horses.
AD: Which is such a relief for you because you’ve mentioned before that it’s a struggle to feel alive sometimes…
KM: Yeah excatly
AD: I really do think it’s a blessing and a real gift to be able to connect to an animal’s energy and actually use it as a useful outlet – it can be a survival tool like you said. And you’ve talked before about your struggle to feel connected and alive and the way performing and riding helps you do that – is riding maybe a more useful tool for this than performing music? …The trust that comes with bonding with an animal much more powerful than youself – how does that compare to performing in front of an audience and are these complimentary to each other?
KM: It’s similar – there’s a lot of common ground. I’m always like, when I see a person who I think is really gifted or very musical I always think “oh he should try to ride” or “she should try to ride” or “I bet you’d be good at it” or something you know?
KM: I don’t know, ya, something about it, i think it’s… I feel like you could be completley non-athletic to be able to be a gifted rider, but… you can’t be insensitive to rhythm or sort of musical things and also be a good rider. I feel like you have to really have a pretty good sense of inner rhythm to be able to ride.
AD: Okay good – I was thinking on one hand it would take an enormous amount of athleticism, you say rhythm, and I would say also trust and the energy it takes to bond with an animal much more powerful than yourself.
AD: For you is it easier to confide in people, animals or Music?
KM: Uh… [thinking] Yeah I don’t really confide with people that well…
AD: I might have been able to guess that.
KM: [laughs]… I literally have to like tell myself “Kazu you have to speak you have to speak you have to speak – you have to talk to someone – just call anyone! Just speak to someone – you have to!” You can’t keep it all to yourself, you have to really make an effort to make a phone call or speak to someone.
AD: Who knows a good song might come out of it!
KM: [laughs] ya!
AD: What have you taken from the European leg of this tour, which you are now in the second week of here in the States? What have you learned playing these songs live and how has your reception been in Europe, and here?
KM: Uh…[thinking] Europe was really really good, I must say like,
KM: Ya, and then they took the… the hardship because we really didn’t know the music so they became the sort of sacrifice like a goat! [chuckles] I’m like so sorry they had to listen to this bad stuff but, they seemed like they really enjoyed it… and I had a really good feeling from playing them live. And here, we’re still learning. Still learning…
It’s been very stimulating. I’m actually quite intrigued by our Music and once you get used to playing the songs you kinda go through the motions without thinking too much. But right now, every day we really really really have to try to feel it out to do it the right way. Like “My Plants Are Dead” doesn’t sound good in every hall – like you have to kinda test it at the sound check… or…”This room really carries the song well…” Um, it doesn’t work in every room for some reason….
AD: That makes sense and you guys use a lot of gear that would have to be fine-tuned to give it that same up front and in-your-face texture. I was also wondering about the production of the record in that way. You’ve mentioned that the band felt it was really important to make this record sound good on ANY listening device and I wonder if –
KM: We always say that! But you know it’s just so hard to do. I feel like, we feel like, it’s the best sound we may get if it sounds really good on different stations [?] – so i think we’re quite happy about that.
AD: When you say “make it sound good on any listening device,” is that a technical production kind of thing or a songwriting kind of thing?
KM: More like producing the songs themselves. It’s all about if a song’s written well and all but, once the song’s written – how to record them so it sounds really really good. And you know it’s often we’re very disappointed once the record’s made we’re like “oh god this sounds so small or sortof dingy…” so that’s always been a real struggle for us..
And we always try to get the warmest sound and we’re actually kindof tired of trying it that way so we kinda approached it the opposite way – We tried to get sort of… very hi-fi sound but.. we took the cold rather than warm in order to sound more powerful or a bit more like in your face…. So that was a different approach.
AD: Ya, it really paid off, I really do love the album… a couple more questions I know we’re out of time – You have your dogs and your horses… Did Simone get to bring his bikes for this U.S. leg of the tour?
AD: Oh no!
KM: Yeah because we have so much stuff now – we also have lighting gear with us – so we’re like totally packed! So he didn’t get to – but maybe next tour if we plan it well.
AD: Kazu it’s been a real friendly conversation, it’s been a real honor and a pleasure – thanks for setting aside some time for this.
KM: Thank you!