With its origins as an experimental noise band, Blonde Redhead, playing at Mass MoCA this Saturday, has stepped up the rhythm and melody while retaining the spirit and invention of its older work.
Fronted by Japanese singer Kazu Makino, alongside Italian twins Amedo and Simone Pace, Blonde Redhead caught the attention of Sonic Youth early in its career — it brought in the kind of crowds most young bands would die for, but that wasn’t exactly how Makino wanted things to go.
“I hated the attention we were getting,” Makino said in an interview this week. “Every band is like, ‘We should have capitalized on that hype we once had,’ but I wasn’t ready for it. It annoyed me to no end that we were getting attention. People were coming to see us, and I wished nobody would show up at our shows.”
For Makino, music was not a career move but just something she did and something that came easily. She had been in bands since her junior high years but was unprepared for the reality of making music for other people.
“You can’t really control everything; you can’t control your audience,” she said. “But I realized that life isn’t black and white, and that’s when I started accepting and enjoying things that happened spontaneously. Then, once you start enjoying the accidental reaction from people, you want more of it — you want to be surprised; you want to see something you didn’t expect to see. Once you get into that, you want it all the time.”
From there, Blonde Redhead settled comfortably into a trajectory that it hasn’t much veered from — although its members don’t seem to have predetermined plan. They started out as a quartet, but the fourth member left after their first album, once it became apparent that the other three had a special energy among them. The trio found the departure liberating.
“We realized that the sound of the three of us was so much more original,” Makino said. “The fourth person forced us to try and be good conventionally, but we weren’t good conventionally. We were not able to make sense out of it. The four of us, we were terrible — the three of us, we could be interesting.”
The threesome was able to take what was interesting and craft it into a slow progression from the raw, noise-oriented early days to a more melodic and lush sound that incorporated their earlier elements as part of a richer mix. Initially, though, they made the only kind of music they felt they could make as they attempted to find a voice together that also dispensed with the twins’ jazz backgrounds.
“It really didn’t feel like we had that much choice, sound-wise,” Makino said. “They knew that they wanted to forget about what they learned, so that was a search for them. And me, I also despised what they knew. But it’s not like, then we could play many other styles of music. There was no goal. It was just things that we were able to do at that time and still have some kind of emotion. But it’s not like we could have changed the style immediately if we didn’t like it. Even if we didn’t like it, we had to work it out because we really didn’t know anything else.”
Makino first encountered Amedo Pace in 1993 over dinner at an Italian restaurant in a meeting orchestrated by a friend who felt they would have good chemistry for music. They did, but they initially played together without Pace’s twin brother on drums — that took a little more persuading.
“I was really against the idea of falling into that scenario of me playing with twins,” Makino said. “It didn’t sound like something that was easy to get out of once you were in, so I resisted that for the longest time. He [Amedo Pace] would say, ‘He just happens to be my brother, but he is also a rather competent drummer.’ But I was really freaked out by that — they are the first twins I have ever met.”
Sixteen years later, the band has perfected its own collaborative process for creating its sound, building on the earlier ideas and coasting into the current sound in such a way that the progression sounds seamless to Makino.
“Your taste and palette changes without you knowing,” she said. “Your tendency changes, but it’s so slowly that I’m never aware, like I hate that stuff now — I still enjoy listening to our old songs these days.”
Makino attributes the aural movement forward — while retaining a consistency at the center of the music that links it over almost two decades of recording — to a process that offers experimentation and improvisation, even at the risk of irritation.
“It’s a really annoying process because it never feels easy,” she said. “It’s always like you have no idea what you’re doing or where we’re going with it. I wish we had a little bit more of a formula, but we don’t.”
In this way, the band — particularly Makino — lives in the moment creatively, while still treating the present as a mystery to be discovered.
“You don’t really remember what you were like,” Makino said. “By the same token, you don’t really know who you are today, not so much. It doesn’t seem like you changed, but you did. The only thing I can count on is my feeling — like if you feel compelled to do something. It’s not organized.”
And Makino has no intention of making it organized — thinking over her musical career, she hasn’t for years, and it’s all worked out well.
“I think it would be a bit weird if I were to suddenly become ambitious with it,” she said. “I’m very grateful that it’s here with me, the music, but I need to be passive towards it the way I always have been. Maybe I’m being a bit superstitious, but it could just disappear if I try to hold it tight.”
Meanwhile, her bandmates, although they were able to dispense with a music school education, still cling to a structure that Makino doesn’t adhere to — and that’s the dynamic of the band, which has managed to create a sound forged from chaos and order, dancing around each other.
“They are complicated and have a much better work ethic,” Makino said. “They torment themselves over music, and there’s a pained expression on their faces when they work on music, like a dark cloud has come over their heads. It’s different.”
The only downside for Makino is her envy of other songwriters who manage to craft the kinds of music she likes and, perhaps, identifies with, but does not create herself: simple, groovy, melodic music that mixes energy with other emotions. She describes herself as a “groupie” in that way, eager to copy those sorts of songs if only she could figure out the secret.
“People appreciate us for that beautiful, kind of sad side, but I don’t think people ever say, ‘Your music is so beautiful because it’s so groovy!’” she said. “I don’t think people ever say that. It’s more like: ‘You can never dance to it’ or ‘What the hell? It’s too complicated.’ People say stuff like that. ‘You’re very challenging to listen to.’”