|Photo by Josh Rothstein|
Blonde Redhead have a new album out, called Misery Is a Butterfly. It’s on 4AD, a new label following the band’s departure from Touch and Go. As the title of the album might indicate, this band deals in multiple emotional terrains, usually simultaneously. Misery. Is a . . . Butterfly.
By now you’ve seen their photograph: Two handsome identical twin brothers, Amedeo and Simone Pace from Italy, framing a beautiful young woman from Kyoto, Kazu Makino. That’s Amedeo on guitar or bass and vocals; Simone is the drummer, an extraordinarily hard-rocking and idiosyncratic one (he plays keyboards, too); Kazu plays slanted and/or harsh and/or wrenchingly dramatized guitar shards, and sings in a breathy, not-so-guileless sigh — or screeeeeeeeeems. But on record, at least, the screaming’s been put on the back burner for now. No call for screaming when you need to persuade.
Misery is a radiant thing — beautiful, but in peculiar ways. In the context of the New York–based band’s past work, it feels like a leap headfirst into the baldly breathtaking, and thus somewhat of a departure. Past provocatively titled albums such as Fake Can Be Just As Good, La Mia Vita Violenta and In an Expression of the Inexpressible had their obvious roots in hardcore and the no-wave scene of downtown New York circa mid-’80s (specifically the barbed-wire nihilism of DNA), combining a coolly intellectual yet jolting claustrophobia via angular rhythm slashing and crooked melodic/textural tendencies with a near-autistic urge toward minimalist-isolationist meditations. These elements merely poked their semi-ugly heads up on 2000’s oddly romantic/cinematic (and best-selling) Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and the follow-up Melodie Citronique EP, however, as Blonde Redhead gave hint that their partialities were broader and deeper and perhaps less so highly conceptualized.
The new album finds this formerly lonely and alienating music opening up like some kind of dark flower overflowing with a strangely sweet nectar; a dam has burst, exploding with new tone colors, new unidentifiable emotions. Whether because of Kazu’s alluring sighs or Amedeo’s nerdy whine, it’s an almost overwhelmingly touching sound, which had to have been a tricky proposition, since the band has never concerned itself with “emotions” as such. Misery comes a long four years after the band’s last album, and reveals an evolution perhaps explainable by the trio (founded in the mid-’90s) having of course grown older — maturing; and there were a few events that put them on hold for a while, including Kazu’s serious injury from falling off a horse.
Last week I talked to Amedeo about the making of the album, and what the band were aiming for this time out. What was going through their minds when they prepared the material? Time for a change?
“We don’t put that kind of pressure on ourselves,” he said. “I think it would be difficult to live like that. Basically, we just kind of started writing, and then when it was time to record it, we really took care about details. We really wanted the music to come through. We worked on the record for a very long time; the problems that delayed the recording allowed us to really get deeply into it. We had more time to think about it, and develop the songs more. But I also feel like we didn’t hold back on what we really wanted to do. Some of our earlier records were a little more careful, and maybe we still needed to go through certain things. On this record we just wanted the record to be honest and completely open.”
Amedeo used the word honest in a hedging way, as if careful not to be misunderstood. I suggested that the band had a romanticism they needed to explore — this music is opulent, widescreen, even — as if they were previously reluctant to flirt with something so blatantly human. But romanticism is a tricky term, and I was rather simplistic about it.
“We’re always really cautious about being too emotional,” said Amedeo. “We don’t want emotions to come through so much. It’s almost like an addiction, you know, if you’re too emotional in music. When you don’t have it, then you really miss that. So what we tried to figure out is what we wanted for the songs to sound right, to have real emotional effect, and to spend time with that without feeling awkward in any way.”
The band’s now wide-ranging and open-ended sound owes its effect to some unusual compositional approaches deriving from a lot of improvising in their rehearsal studio while ripping off their own music in order to further develop it.
“It happens when we play old songs,” said Amedeo. “We kind of grow out of the old songs, and we come up with new songs that [spin out of the old songs]. Like ‘Falling Man’ on Misery is a result of ‘Melody of Certain Three’ on the last album — it happened as a reaction to that. We’re unaware of what’s going on usually when ideas come out; it’s usually pretty chaotic, everyone is playing something different, and then the ideas come out. One thing leads to another.”
Misery’s songs are constructed and enhanced in very unstandard-rock-type ways, a bit more complex in how the parts are put together, far more complex in their effect on the passions. I said the songs have opened up like flowers; one explanation for this is the confluent recent discovery by Blonde Redhead, the High Llamas, David Byrne (who generated the tracks for his new Grown Backwards album by humming into a microcassette recorder) and a few others that the tyranny of the “groove” — building songs by piling parts on top of bass and drum tracks — has led to a very restrictive harmonic/melodic palette from which to choose. On Misery, adding the bass and string parts last makes for a crucial liberating of tone color, as if the songs were shot with 100 percent pure human blood. And the album just sounds different for its stormily imaginative use of instrumental counterpoint (keyboards, guitars, drums and strings), which isn’t too common in pop or rock music — if in fact that’s what Blonde Redhead is making.
“The three of us spent a lot of time figuring out the forms of the songs before we went into the studio. For the strings, we spent two days working with a violin player — and there’s only one person who did everything [he multitracked his parts]. We didn’t write down any charts; we had a computer there in our house, and we sang in what we like and we tried it, and then we added some other things to counter that part. We didn’t have time to try different options; I think some stuff could have been better, but I think when you do something for the first time you tend to be really naive about it, which is good.”
The moral of the story is twofold: 1) In much great music, emotions are not the point, exactly — at least not the ones we’re familiar with. And 2) musicians don’t always know what they’re doing till they’ve done it — and they’re probably better off not knowing. Proof of this is the special intuitive bond that exists between Kazu Makino and the brothers Pace, which actually transforms the music they make together.
“I react to them so much, especially to Kazu, when we work on melodies and harmonies,” said Amedeo. “We react to each other — really, it’s strange, in ways that we don’t even have any control over. I don’t know what I would do, how any of us would do, without each other.”
Blonde Redhead perform at the Henry Fonda Theater on Saturday, March 20.