Music: True Colors

NYC art noise trio Blonde Redhead trade dissonance for melodicism on their new album

Nov 3, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Blonde Redhead overcame numerous obstacles (including a serious horseback-riding accident suffered by Kazu Makino, center) on their way to completing their latest disc, Misery is a Butterfly.

When one looks at the incredible range of influences and cultural experiences that comprise the life quilts of the members of Blonde Redhead, the fundamental dichotomy of their name makes perfect sense. Twin brothers Amadeo and Simone Pace globetrotted from Milan, Italy, to Montreal, Quebec, as teenagers and then gravitated south to New York City as college students. A chance meeting at an Italian restaurant between the brothers and Japanese art students Kazu Makino and Maki Takahashi ultimately led the quartet to join forces in a band, christening themselves after a song by '80s no wavers DNA.

Word of the band's arty dissonance and brash eclecticism reached Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley who oversaw the production and release of Blonde Redhead's eponymous debut in 1995. Bassist Takahashi departed almost immediately after and the trio carried on, first with guest bassists before dispensed with the instrument altogether. The Paces and Makino recorded and released their sophomore album with Shelley the same year as their debut, and then switched to Chicago noise aficionados Touch and Go in 1997 for a series of increasingly textured and nuanced albums (1997's Fake Can Be Just as Good, 1998's In an Expression of the Inexpressible, and Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and the Melodie Citronique EP in 2000).

The four-year gap between Blonde Redhead's last EP and their recent debut for 4AD, Misery is a Butterfly, is reflected in the new album's music in a number of ways. Clearly, Misery is a melodic and atmospheric departure from the majority of Blonde Redhead's previous jazzily art-damaged catalog and a more direct sonic conduit to their avowed influences of Serge Gainsbourg and '60s EuroPop. Still, Misery's end result is something of a mystery even to the band.

"It's hard to say what influenced us for this album specifically because it's so vast," says Pace.

"We were listening to Sigur Rós and some Cure records. It was a mix of things. We always want to do something different with every album, but this came pretty natural. It is a natural process we go through even though it's very difficult, but I think there are other things to take into account whether the album is more dark or sad or lively or aggressive. We always think, 'We've done this and this and this ... let's do something else.' At the end, it's really hard to fight what comes out of you. You don't really have a choice. You just have to accept it. Even if you pretend to sound like somebody else or say, 'Oh, God, I wish we wrote that song ... can't we write a song like that?' It never works. You is always you. You may get fed up with you, but I think we did alright."

Considering the band's dark journey since 2000's Melody/Melodie release cycle, it's a wonder Misery was made at all. The trio went through a distractive and time-consuming succession of rehearsal spaces in New York, evicted over rising rents and noise complaints. And then nearly two years ago, in the middle of the band's writing process, Makino fell while horseback riding; her mount stepped on her face, breaking her jaw and several teeth. It was a devastating injury at a crucial period for the band, and exponentially more draining for Amadeo, who is both bandmate and paramour to Makino.

"If something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us," says Pace. "It was a very scary time."

And just as the band was entering the studio after Makino's arduous recovery, longtime producer Guy Picciotto had to postpone the project due to his mother's death. It's an amazing testament that Misery is a Butterfly sounds as serene as it does, considering the chaos that swirled around its creation.

Misery also marks the first appearance of bass on a Blonde Redhead album in nearly six years. After the album was completed, the band brought in Skuli Sverrison, the ex-Sugarcubes bassist who had played on the debut album's closing track, "Girl/Boy," to apply bass texture to the songs.

"For us it's a really difficult instrument to understand. It can really clutter and choke the music," says Pace. "We knew he wasn't going to do that. We knew he would just add what needed to be added. We sat down with him and worked out all the bass lines and we knew it was going to work. We wanted that rhythm and that grooviness to make the music feel completed. I think it was worth waiting for him and for this record to have bass."

With Misery finished and the drama subsided, Pace is philosophical about both the album and the band. "I think it's the right mix of album after Melody," he says with careful deliberation. "It has some of the elements of Melody and a bit more. We lost some of the things we used to do, some of the more aggressive and spontaneous things. The main differences are the instruments that we used and the way we approached songs. Maybe the next album will be an instrumental album or maybe a crazy album or maybe anything."

BLONDE REDHEAD plays the Southgate House on Friday with The Helio Sequence.