It’s been coming for close to ten years, but Blonde Redhead have finally gone soft. The Italian/Japanese/US trio made up of singer Kazu Makino, guitarist Amedeo Pace and his twin brother, drummer Simone, has moved slowly-but-surely somewhere south of their noise rock and shoegaze beginnings that began with 1995’s self-titled debut and moved to something of a climax on 2007’s brilliant 23.
The album that followed, 2010’s Penny Sparkle, suggested that Blonde Redhead had grown tired of stomping on the effects pedals and were finding peace in making quieter music. It was an atmospheric record, almost electronic in its construction and while it wasn’t particularly well-received in some circles, it did create something of a blueprint for what came next. This month sees the release of Barragan, the trio’s ninth album and an extension of the quieter sound the band began to explore on their previous record. While not containing the electronic sheen of Penny Sparkle, this new record continues the minimal theme with songs constructed from acoustic guitar (fear not, Blonde Redhead still plugs in for the majority), spare bass and drums and the otherworldly voices of Makino and Amedeo which are allowed to flourish in this new and open environment. While Makino and Pace the guitarist are the song writers of the band, this album is very much constructed through rhythm, so it makes sense that we spoke to drummer Simone Pace to find out more about Blonde Redhead’s change of pace.
Four years have passed since Penny Sparkle dropped, so I ask what’s happened in that time and why, if there is a particular reason, we’ve not had any new music in that time…Simone’s answer is fairly straightforward: “When we tour, it seems impossible to write,” he explains matter-of-factly, “so that’s why it took some time to make this record.” Things started to move into place around two years ago, following the band leaving the 4AD label: “We started the process for Barragan two years ago,” says Simone, “and it took us that time to get from the beginning to the end of the recording process – we took a lot of breaks because we were self-financing it.” It may sound mundane, but Simone reveals that the recording process was interrupted and extended purely out of financial necessity, saying “We were playing shows, trying to make some money, then going back into the studio, then playing more shows…it was kinda rough, that way, but we really wanted to do it the way we wanted to do it.” Part of doing it the way the band wanted was to use a trusted producer: “We recorded with Drew [Brown, engineer on Radiohead’s The King of Limbs and additional production duties on the last Blonde Redhead record] and we had ideas of where we wanted to do it, and how we wanted to do it, so that also took a lot of time. We did some work in Italy, a little bit more in New York, finishing off in the studio.”
My suspicion is that self-financing a record, despite the stresses dealing with money matters might bring, and working without label pressures gave Blonde Redhead a lot of freedom – from the practicalities down to how the music sounds. Barragan does have a lightness of touch and an airiness that I suggest comes from having no demands placed up on them. To a point, Simone agrees, but explains that his band has often worked on their own terms: “We’ve always done things with freedom,” says the drummer. “With 4AD it was really relaxed…it was the same with Touch and Go – we’ve always worked on our own, we’ve always done what we wanted. This one, we just wanted to do a record without having any input from anybody; we didn’t know who was going to put it out at all!” Was that a worry for the band? “We just thought ‘okay, we won’t have an issue trying to get money from a record label’ or anything like that. Let’s just do it this way, pay for it and it’ll be easier to shop around.” What happened then was that Kobalt – a publishing and “music services” company - took notice, not just providing an advance to help record but taking the unusual step (for them) of actually releasing the album. Pace explains: “Kobalt was really helpful; we did a publishing deal with them which was really good but they were also the ones who gave us the money to record at the end. They’re not a label so they don’t usually do things like that, but it was really cool of them and it just felt like the right place.”
As for how the record sounds, Pace is unsure of how this new set-up actually affected the sound of Barragan, at least not intentionally anyway: “I’m not sure about that,” he tentatively begins. “I think every time we record it feels different to the last time, but we always have the same objective of trying to make a record as good as we possibly can. Not having money to record and being a little bit on edge with that put a lot of strain and pressure on us sometimes…” Was there anything specifically that he can tell us about? “We really wanted, especially, to follow Drew’s advice and guidance but he often said ‘sorry, you can’t do that’ or ‘we can’t get that piece of equipment, it’s impossible!’ He was very selective with all the equipment that we chose, so that was tough! It was pretty stressful at times but I don’t think it affected the writing process – once you’re in there you just want to do it!”
After twenty years together as a band, and album number nine about to be released, I wonder if the way the band records, writes and interacts has changed much in that period – and even if it can. Brothers in
a band must cause tension (heck it always does, doesn’t it?) but it seems Simone, Amedeo and Kazu are somewhat set in their ways: “At this point we know how to work with each other and when to stay out of each other’s way!” laughs Simone. “We’ve learned that through the years, which is important of course, you have to find your place. Sometimes I wish there was more communication but it’s hard after so many years and a relationship goes in a certain way…but for me it’s always great and when I play the songs it makes it all come together again in a positive way.” Pace goes on to explain that any moments of strain within the band are likely to appear when the three are in the studio together, especially when his drumming duties are over and done with fairly early on: “Recording is difficult because it’s a really involved process,” he says, “especially when they have to do their vocals; when I’m done with my drums I’m so relieved. But they have to wait until the very end…if there’s no vocals then there’s no song! We always try to support each other and you learn how to do that, learn how to time it and how to keep some kind of balance – it’s basically the same learning experience for a lot of situations in life.”
The defining sound of Barragan is its absence of sound, so to speak. Blonde Redhead has continued the stripping-back of their sound which began on Penny Sparkle. Here, on Barragan, we find the trio in minimal form; songs are sparse, the noise and layers of past records removed to expose skeletal bass and drums and giving Kazu and Amedeo’s vocals room to breathe. Although acoustic in places – the album opener and title track is a thing of finger-picked beauty – it’s the skittering rhythms of the likes of “Lady M” that signals a sparser sound. I ask Simone if this was one of the band’s aims: “Yeah; when we record, Amedeo especially loves to add a lot of stuff!” he jokes. “I mean, I like it too. I love a rich, rich sound and I love details and getting to the point where it feels so good. But for this one, Drew was really holding us back from getting too rich a sound.” Brown’s trick was to cut down on new technology, and push the band towards vintage instrumentation and equipment: “We’d done that before, so this time we were using analogue instruments thirty or forty years old instead of Pro Tools, and Drew was really adamant about going that way. I think that’s why it sounds sparser, more minimal.”
Listening to the aforementioned “Lady M” and then the stunning centrepiece jam of “Mind To Be Had”, makes me think of Barragan as very much a drummers’ album. The rhythms are to the fore, and I suggest that it must have been a lot of fun for Simone to play on: “Yeah, yeah – that was fun!” he agrees. “We recorded that one in Michigan; that was another part of the recording process down to Drew. He came to a show on New Year’s Eve at Irving Plaza and he was like ‘Oh my God, we gotta do something where you guys just play together in one room’ and he wanted to capture that energy. So ‘Mind To Be Had’ was recorded that way and we recorded another couple of things there – but we did really want to capture that energy, and it was great fun to play – we must have played it about a thousand times!” While Simone had fun with the drums, he tells me that Kazu and his brother worked slightly differently than on previous records when it came to the lyrics for the album: “I think for this record they worked together a little bit more than usual,” he reveals. “Usually the songs they sing, they write lyrics for but I think Kazu helped Amedeo a little bit with ‘Penultimo’ and I think there was a little bit more communication between the two of them for lyrics stuff – usually they’re pretty private about it.”
Self-financed, recorded on their terms, with a label/publishing company that seems to be a perfect fit…surely this is the model for Blonde Redhead to adhere to for any future records? “I dunno what we’re gonna do next!” admits Simone. “Right now, it’s just about learning the songs and pushing this as much as we possibly can and making the right decisions for it. Only time will tell what’s gonna happen next, whether we do another record or do more projects or different things.” Pace does detail one new project, providing the soundtrack for cycling documentary The Commentator by Brendt Barbur: “We really enjoy doing soundtracks too – we’re working on a soundtrack for a bicycle film. Yeah, it’s interesting but it’s also difficult because you’re dealing with editors and directors…” And you’re writing for someone else’s vision rather than your own? “Yes, it’s almost like that and sometimes they put music on at the beginning just to have it…but in general it’s so nice to have freedom in that because the music changes everything - it’s fun to do.” Freedom, it’s not such a bad concept.
Barragán is out now via Kobalt. The band play a Rough Trade East instore on Thursday, and headline Islington Assembly Hall on the 29th September.