It’s been three years since Blue Hawaii released their excellent Blooming Summer EP. Six tracks of dark and stark pop, it showcased moments of warmth and ingenuity, and standout track ‘Blue Gowns’ propelled the Montreal duo into the ears of music fans across the world. Later in our chat, when the Dictaphone is switched off, Raph will tell me that there’s a lesbian night in Baltimore that still spins the track to infatuated response each week.
I meet the unassuming and polite pair also known as Alex and Raph in an East London café the morning of their headline show at Dalston venue Birthdays. Earlier this year they released debut album Untogether to critical and public praise, and have since been touring the US and UK. However, I can’t help but start the interview by sharing my love for ‘Blue Gowns’.
A breeze of pop, the lyrics suddenly take the song to a new level as Raph’s vocals breath “My daydreams go through, I think about you thrusting into her. And I ask myself, how stupid can you get?”
Alex – It’s really nice when music can do that. Sometimes it’s just so easy to get lost in the process of making music, that feeling you have when you listen to something and you get something extra out of it. Like it just applies to your life in a new way.
So why did Blue Hawaii disappear for so long after the release of Blooming Summer? Was it because you (Raph) were playing with Braids?
Raph – It was a bit of both. I was doing Braids stuff and went on tour for a year and a half, and also, Alex and I went back and forth a lot with whether or not we wanted to do the project.
Alex – We really just took a long break. Just a long musical break. I was living in Berlin for a bunch of the time, I was also touring with Braids for a few months, and I was helping my brother out with Arbutus Records and working at an art gallery in Montreal.
Raph – But I remember you feeling like nothing was happening.
Alex – Well, it wasn’t like a focus point.
So you wrote the record while you were apart? Is that why it’s called Untogether?
Raph – Kind of. We wrote it in the same house, but we never really worked on it together. And it’s also Untogether because it really came about in pieces that we had to bring together over a period of time and we kept ripping the songs apart, splicing them up, trying to join them back together. And also there were a lot of things in the community going on. Everybody was leaving.
Raph – Well, everybody was doing well and living out their dream. So everybody was parting and nothing felt interwoven. Everything was so untogether, over a long period of time.
Are you still in Braids?
Raph – Yeah, I’m going on tour with them in like, two weeks. Just for five days. For headline shows.
How is the balance going to work now?
Raph – I’m just going to go and do Braids now and take a break from Blue Hawaii, I guess do some songs here or there. We’re trying to record some stuff. And then we’re doing a bit of a tour.
Do you have any worry that you’ll lose focus again?
Raph – It’s not really about losing focus, it’s just about shifting focus. It’s like, I’ve really had to focus on Blue Hawaii for this time, but it’s been OK not really being part of Braids stuff. I just talk on the phone with them to catch up with what we’re doing and with scheduling and I’ll go back and turn off that side of my brain and do Braids stuff. It’s just a switch in focus.
You mention everyone leaving Montreal and it’s kind of your brother’s fault with the success of Arbutus and Grimes. Does it seem now, when you’re on the road playing shows like The Great Escape and half the bands there are Canadian, you’re reuniting the scene, just abroad?
Raph – It’s really great! We get to see all our friends. So even though there was that effect of everyone leaving, it’s in the last year people have been meeting up in other parts of the world and it’s been really, really nice. In Brussels we played with Mac de Marco, and Sean Savage is on tour with him so we just had a huge hang out. And Tonsstartbandht!
Doldrums are everywhere…
Raph – Yeah, we were on tour with Doldrums in the States…
Maybe you can all go back in the summer and have a big party.
Raph – Yeah! Well, I think it happens in a lot of circles where you kind of reach this stage where everyone’s pursuing what they want to do. Even Alex’s friends from university – a lot of them moved to London and one’s an engineer and one’s a writer, and then our friend Rosie is an artist and she’s been travelling all over the world that just happens; that ebb and flow of people departing and moving back. I think when it first happened I was upset and just feeling jealousies because it wasn’t my time to break out in that way, you know?
How do you feel about the Grimes thing because her career trajectory has been insane? She triumphed your album as the must hear of 2013. Do you think that put too much hype behind the record?
Raph – Perhaps a little bit. A lot of people wanted us to be a pop band and some of the criticism we’ve read in reviews says, ‘This album falls short of a pop record.’ It’s like, we didn’t write singles. But it wasn’t about writing something that was popular or catchy. Visions is like that great album that’s all those things, so I guess in that way it was set up a little prematurely. I guess it’s difficult being called ‘Grimes Jnr’ because I’m doing something totally different and have been doing something totally different for a really, really long time. In the eye of the public, somebody always has to come first. But in reality that’s not the way it is. But when people come up at a show and are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re just like Grimes,’ I’m like, aahhhhhhhghhrh.
How did you two start making music together then?
Alex – I’ve always been interested in electronic stuff, like ever since I was in high school. All I listened to was Warp records and that’s always been a really big part of my life, so it all happened in this really natural way where I was just starting to make a lot more music…
Raph – …and you started dating me, and that’s all I really did was music and that was something that we found in each other – our ability to make music together. Like, we did take a break from music but we kept making it together. And having a girlfriend that’s doing music and all your friends are musicians. And he learnt it so fast!
Were you kind of like, damn you, I’ve been doing this for years!
Raph – Ha! Yeah, you definitely hopped the pond there.
Alex – I always think about the connection between electronic music and DJ culture and people, and the way that it’s something that is by nature isolating in its creative process. It’s just some guy behind a laptop. And it’s kind of inhuman too, in that it’s a lot of different sounds that we don’t recognise from the outside world. It’s built from these preconceived builds and drops, it’s really predictable in many ways, and it just doesn’t really have that impact that you received from that ‘Blue Gowns’ song, to come back to it. It doesn’t have that kind of second level to it. It’s a very primal interaction with the music itself and it’s isolating in nature. But I think about when it’s performed live, how it really brings people together in this interesting way. For something that’s so inhuman and isolating, it has this propensity to collect massive, massive groups of people in a space together and make them feel that they’re experiencing something as a whole. I think that’s part of the reason that I was really interested in it.
Like, running a venue, doing lots of live shows, and the record label and all the community stuff and I was just surrounded by people constantly, but I couldn’t figure out how to put that inside the art I was doing. Because the way Raph can write a song about the experience she’s had, for me that would be really cathartic, to be able to sing about something that’s happened in a beautiful way. To preserve that thought, but also like further that moment. I think that’s a really beautiful process to go through and I found it frustrating because how do you do that when you’re just sitting behind a mouse or whatever? It wasn’t until I came on tour and started playing around a lot that I realised that that moment is realised in the playing of the music, it’s not realised so much when I’m sitting behind there. That’s just preparing it. And then when it comes out, you can really make a lot of people happy by doing it. It feels really good.
Untogether is available now through Arbutus Records.