“The best record captures a sound that happens only once”
Today, Blonde Redhead releases its newest album: Barragán. Lars Mensel spoke with singer Kazu Makino about why good music so often relies on chance and circumstances.
The European: The announcement notes for your new album Barragán describe Blonde Redhead as a band always somewhat out of place in the musical landscape. And indeed, you have never struck me as a band very intent on fitting in. Are you?
Makino: It seems that the harder we try to fit in, the more isolated we become. But I don’t necessarily enjoy that.
The European: Is the new album an effort to counter that? It sounds a lot more laid-back to me than your earlier releases.
Makino: It definitely is. It has a wider range of emotions and music.
The European: Your new record has the name of Mexican artist and architect Luis Barragán. Why him?
Makino: While we were trying to finish the album, we went to play in Mexico. I knew of Barragán’s works, but I didn’t really know the man behind them. I didn’t really know why I liked them so much either. He loved horses, so all the things I had seen of his work had horses in them – that might have been why. But then, by sheer chance, I walked into his house that he had lived and died in, and realized who he was. I liked his work, but more than anything, I really liked how his name sounds. So while we were staying in Mexico, I kept on saying it, just for fun.
The European: Did it develop a new meaning?
Makino: I have that advantage of being able to detach myself from the meaning of language or the sound of words, because I am not a native speaker and even grew up with a different alphabet. I can really enjoy the sound or the look of something without reading into it too deeply.
“I couldn’t believe they wanted to put it on the album”
The European: I find that in many countries where there is English music on the radio, non-English speaking kids will love songs and even sing along to something they do not understand.
Makino: Isn’t that fantastic? It is so profound.
The European: For the new record, you used ambient recordings in some of the songs. Can you tell me more about that?
Makino: It was unintentional on my part but very intentional on our producer’s part. We worked with Drew Brown, who has previously produced records for Radiohead and Beck. We got to know each other through our last record that we made together, Penny Sparkle, and since then we had exchanged many ideas, feelings and likings of music. He would make me mix tapes that often featured not field recordings but direct excerpts from a movie conversation or sound. I could not get enough of it. So I think he was really leading me into creating more and more moments like that and insisted that we would record anything that happened outside of the studio.
The European: How did that work?
Makino: Well, he would carry the recorder and when I got up, he’d say “Hey Kazu, let’s have a cup of tea together.” And as we walked he’d say “Sing something!”. I was often very spaced out but had enough trust to do what he asked me to.
The European: In the song “Cat on Tin Roof”, you are recorded as saying “Maybe we should work on it a little more”…
Makino: Even on the last day of recording, my band mates had to convince me to put that song on the record. I knew that not the entire album had to sound as ambitious as “Dripping” or “The one I love”, where we invested a lot. That there had to be other songs that should be less ambitious and more casual. This one was casual to the bone and I couldn’t believe they wanted to put it on the album. But then our producer played it for me one last time and it sounded really good. He said “You are the one who is crazy for not putting this on the album.”
“Too much intensity and too much will to actually be good”
The European: You recorded this album with the entire band playing at the same time rather than making different recordings and layering them together afterwards. I imagine it must have felt more like performing for a live audience than recording in a studio…
Makino: It was more like practicing in our own space. During live shows we know what we are playing, but some of these things we were doing felt like we were searching for songs as we went along. It was more like recording a practice session with the best equipment we could find.
The European: You seem fascinated with that kind of work, music that is raw, unfinished or accidental – and the energy that comes with it. A few years ago, you curated an album called We are the works in progress…
Makino: You know, I have this word for it: “demoitis”. Which means you get so obsessed with your demo that it becomes a sickness. What is bad is that you like everything about this demo, how fucked up it sounds and how distorted it is – and then you go to a fancy studio and you try recapture that fucked-up sound but keep on missing the point. Often you grab something that is in the air and you can’t even repeat it, you can’t even go there again.
The European: …which is a notion that goes completely counter to what we think of as music nowadays: A recording that can be played back time and time again, for eternity.
Makino: Yes, it’s true. It is not supposed to be like that. The best record is the one that manages to capture that one-time thing, a sound that happens only once and never again. At that moment, it is not even yours anymore, it is just a phenomenon, something that can’t be repeated. But if you manage to capture that, you can play it back over and over again.
The European: But how?
Makino: Some people might disagree, but I think most of us artists try to preserve that. Maybe too much even: Too much intensity and too much will to actually be good.
The European: Is that ephemerality also the reason why you tried so very hard to keep this album’s tracks a secret? How hard is it to be a musician and keep your work hidden?
Makino: Drew, our producer, must have had many previous lives to arrive there; he is such a protector of music. If I just scribbled something down, he would put it away, saying that nobody could see it. If he wanted me to record something, he made sure that everyone knew it and that I would not be distracted. It became almost like a very serious ritual to be careful around the entire recording process. I was quite amazed by this kind of behavior and how he was so, so secretive. He said: “You never know what is going to be the most important thing for the record”, and so everything was treated as if it was. Of course he also wanted to make recordings we were unaware of, to create accidentally genius moments. When I wanted to work on something by myself at home, he wouldn’t let me. He would never put anything on a laptop for me to take home. I had to come back to the studio and work in the back of the room, he never wanted anything to get away
The European: Maybe it helps if these moments are engineered?
Makino: It is quite magical. It takes a lot of presence of mind and a lot of patience for these moments to appear and to be ready to document them all. Sometimes I would get so agitated because I would spend so much time and money, waiting. In the end, our producer became almost like a shark swimming around us.