Search The Line of Best Fit
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Kazu Makino's Personal Best

06 October 2023, 14:00

With Blonde Redhead's tenth album Sit Down for Dinner being hailed as one of their finest, Kazu Makino talks Alan Pedder through the songs she's most proud of from their 30-year career.

“It’s quite amazing how you can keep doing something for so long without really having any ambition,” says Kazu Makino, speaking to Best Fit from the kitchen of her New York City apartment.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Blonde Redhead’s debut single as well as their triumphant return with Sit Down for Dinner, the band’s tenth album and first since 2014’s Barragán. As Makino tells it, it’s a comeback that might never have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic. The recording of Barragán had left her feeling “truly beaten” and, with her tank running empty, she almost quit music completely.

Inevitably, though, the desire to make music began to trickle back. “It’s like when people talk about giving birth as the most horrible pain imaginable but then somehow forget that and do it again,” she says, laughing. “Making a record, it’s like you hit a peak and then this sense of self-loathing kicks in and everything kind of falls apart. But then, somehow, one way or another, your tank becomes full again. I feel like I’m always going back to zero and starting over.”

Not that she was in any hurry to go back to Blonde Redhead. Craving independence, she moved far away from the rest of the band – her former partner Amedeo Pace and his twin brother Simone – and began work on a solo album. “I was telling myself, ‘Kazu, what are you waiting for? Just be brave and do it once and for all!,’” she says. “Moving away from the twins, physically, it became quite easy to feel like I was not attached to them anymore, and honestly the two or three years that I spent working on my album was kind of like a renaissance for me. I’d never had so much fun making music and I was so hopeful, but then the pandemic came along and everything went down the toilet.”


Despite the cancellation of her solo tour, Makino says she was able to maintain her renewed faith in music and explains how that led, one way or another, to the Blonde Redhead reunion. Isolating themselves in the countryside, surrounded by nature and far away from New York where, at the height of the pandemic, hundreds of people were dying every day, the band worked steadily until the record was done. On Makino’s part at least, Sit Down for Dinner was made without the weight of expectation. The lukewarm reception to Barragán and to Penny Sparkle four years earlier barely figured in her thoughts. “I don’t really think so much about the past, and that’s probably why I’m able to still be making music,” she says. “I don’t feel the weight of it over time.”

Fittingly, Makino’s selection for her Personal Best begins with the most recent of the songs – the two-part title track that forms the centrepiece of Sit Down for Dinner. “It’s not like I sit around and listen to our old records, but this list actually came together really quickly,” she says. “The way I chose the songs was really just trying to include ones that are important to me for different reasons. There’s a song in there that still moves me even after playing it a thousand times. Another song is one that often comes to me in my happiest moments, like when I am out horse riding.”

“There’s also a song written by Amedeo because I felt like I should choose at least one. That was hard, because I could easily choose five of my favourite songs of his, but that’s not what you asked for. If it was up to me, I would probably have chosen three songs from the new record, but I had to choose just one!”

20230218 Blonde Red Head Press Photo0741

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s nothing from her solo album, 2019’s Adult Baby, but that’s seemingly more to do with the self-loathing she mentioned earlier than the quality of the songs. “For me, the most important song on my solo album is one called ‘MEO’. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was really helping me at the time, told me that it was going to be a significant song in my life, and I really believed that. But then I put so much pressure on myself that I didn’t really serve the song in the way that I wanted to. Ryuichi was telling me that we should use the demo vocal because it was best one, but I’d recorded it using just the built-in mic on a laptop so it was pretty poor audio quality. In the end, for various reasons, I didn’t end up using it and, to this day, I regret it. It kind of collapsed the song for me, as far as the recorded version goes.”

“If we’re talking only about the end product, I’d have to say that it’s between ‘Salty’ and ‘Come Behind Me, So Good!’. But then again, with ‘Salty’, I feel like I could have pushed it further, and with ‘Come Behind Me…’ I feel like I pushed it too far. Maybe I could have held back a little bit. Anyhow, these are just matters of production, and I still really like the songs. If I could compliment myself, if I could pat myself on the shoulder, those are the songs that really stand out to me. Sorry I can’t choose just one though!”

"Sit Down for Dinner (Pts. 1 & 2)" (2023)

KAZU MAKINO: To me, “Sit Down for Dinner” is the song from the new album that sounds most like an extension of what I was doing on my solo album. In fact, the first part of the song is something that I was working on with Sam Owens, who co-produced my solo album. We were alone one night and recorded it and I really felt like, wow, I don’t want to lose the path that we’d found. I wanted to continue on it, and I think that’s what this song does.

This song feels so fresh to me, it flows so well. The lyrics are quite brutal and quite heavy, but I was able to combine that with music that feels light and groovy, at least to me. It’s not heavy, it just moves. I maybe hadn’t realised before that that’s a quality that I look for in other people’s music, but when I did realise, I was so happy that I was able to sort of lessen the pain of the lyrics by combining it with music that’s quite positive and spontaneous and spacious.

BEST FIT: What was going on in your life at the time to inspire those brutal, heavy lyrics?

Part 1 was sort of about the sadness I had because I had to move away from where I was living in Italy. I wasn’t going to come back to New York, I was so happy there. But when the pandemic started and they heard that there was going to be a country-wide lockdown, my management and an old friend at the time basically kicked me out. It was like, “You need to go back to New York. You need to work, you don’t have any money,” and I was really surprised to hear that. These were people I thought I knew so well but I was seeing a completely different side to them and it felt like maybe I didn’t know them at all.

It felt very much like a transactional thing. I was committed to do a tour for my solo album but I knew it was never going to happen. I was saying, “But this virus is going to hit the USA any moment and it’s going to be on fire. I don’t want to go back there. It’s going to be worse than being here on this isolated, secluded island." But I felt like I had no choice and that I was kind of forced out.

So, Part 1 is my experience of trying to understand what had just happened, and Part 2 is sort of a continuation. Like, have we ever experienced death like what we saw in the pandemic so up close in our daily lives? It just kept coming in all forms. We were forced to have such an intimate relationship with death and the thought of dying, so the song became sort of about that.

I suppose those ideas have always been kind of floating in my head, and with this song I was sort of writing a message to my parents and combining that with all the experiences with loss that I’ve had, like losing my horse and reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. All of it got sort of mixed together but the one running thread was death. For me it was almost like exorcising something, but mostly I’m just pleased about how optimistic the song sounds in the end.

It's funny because I hadn’t really sat down and explained to people that, even though the song sounds optimistic, it’s really about death from beginning to end. I didn’t tell my bandmates or the label, and it’s not obvious from the song, so when they were like, “Sit Down for Dinner? We love this title. We love food. Let’s do dinners with the fans!” and I was just thinking, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll just go with it, but guys, this has nothing to do with food, you know?’

They were really dark days. And, especially during the early pandemic, we were seeing an awful lot of anti-Asian sentiment everywhere. How did that affect you?

You know, America is in such an extreme place right now, and it all started long before the pandemic. It’s like a sickness, this hate that everybody’s tapped into. It’s almost like a policy. Like, I think in order to exercise something as close as dictatorship of pacifism, you need to really capitalise on people’s hate and fear. Now we’ve come to a point where we see it almost every day. It’s become the norm, in a way. So, yeah, when all that started, I was careful. I actually got beaten up, and the only reason I can think of is that I am not white.

My god, that’s terrible. When did that happen?

Not long ago, actually, and it happened right in front of my house in New York City. A young Latina woman attacked me. I was really shaken up. My friends came over and said, “Please don’t go out for a while. Your luck is kind of low right now.” But then, after a few months, I saw the same woman doing the same thing to another ‘exotic’ couple and then I realised, ahh, it was a hate crime.

Blonde Redhead Sit Down For Dinner

"Here Sometimes" (2012)

KAZU MAKINO: This is a song that I always think about during the most unexpected moments. Like, if I’m galloping full speed with my horse, I will always hear the song and start to sing it. You know, the Penny Sparkle record was not well perceived, compared with 23 for example, but I think it has, like for like, a set of songs that are just as strong. “Here Sometimes” is one of those songs. I think it’s extremely well written.

We originally made an entire version of that album ourselves, but then we sent it to some producers in Sweden. I went over to Sweden and to the UK to work on music with them, and it was a really amazing experience. We’d kind of had the idea that even if we made another record like 23, nobody was going to listen to it because we’d already made a record like that. We felt like we needed to shed our skin, but, oh, how to go about it? In the end we put the whole album through this huge process of digital gears and there was Penny Sparkle.

I love the album, but I always have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about it. People always say that you need to be in a place that’s uncomfortable to be truly creative, but I’m not sure if that’s true, actually, because I’ve tried that. The making of Penny Sparkle and Barragán were both extremely uncomfortable for me, and I was just hoping that the process was right. These days, I think it’s much more important that you really like what you make. I don’t think you need to be so far out of your comfort zone that you feel insanely uncomfortable listening back to it. I was really comfortable making Sit Down for Dinner.

It's interesting, because I was uncomfortable when we made Misery is a Butterfly. I really thought we'd overdid it, you know? Like, we really went for it. But in the end, we were able to keep the songs within our own orbit or whatever. It didn’t go too far beyond us. Then, after the album was done, I felt like I’d just eaten a whole stick of butter. I was like, ‘Wow, this is so rich.’ But it was received really, really well, and I suppose it’s an important album in our career.

BEST FIT: Although you were really uncomfortable making the album, there is a line in “Here Sometimes” where you sing “This is me, completely me,” and maybe that speaks to why you like it so much.

Yeah, it’s funny, because I didn’t think about it so deeply at the time but people have reminded me about that line and it made me realise that I really am singing about myself. It's sort of me just floating in the air. My friends were like, "Yeah, that's very much you," so I’m glad I have that in this song.

There’s another line in the song that goes “A man walks by, I want to be his wife,” and that really is completely me. I do that often, when I’m on the subway or something. I look around and imagine myself as married to one of the guys that I see.

Blonde Redhead Penny Sparkle

"U.F.O." (1995)

KAZU MAKINO: This is one of Amedeo’s earliest songs and I think it’s so gorgeous. It’s another song that I often hear in my head. I’m not saying that he’s not as good of a songwriter these days, but I will say that he was so ahead of me at that time. He was just banging out song after song and I really admired him for that.

I think almost everyone has this period where they are really flying high, and maybe it's followed by a period that’s... not weak but not your strongest, even when you’re doing your best. As songwriters, I think we all have this sort of cycle, if you look back. I didn’t realise at the time, but looking back I really think Ame had such a moment where he was writing the most beautiful songs. “U.F.O.” is one of those. It’s a pretty incredible song. I’m blown away by it, actually, because there’s really not much to it and I don’t know why I find it so beautiful.

It’s funny because Ame says he’s not good with lyrics, but I really love the words to this particular song. I love the sound of the guitar too. It’s so conceptual.

BEST FIT: 1995 was a huge year for Blonde Redhead, with your second album released so soon after the first. What do you remember about that year? Was it a joyful time? Or just super intense?

It was so competitive, you know? It was so intense, especially because Amedeo and I were also together as a couple. We gave each other so much musically, it almost felt like nothing was free. It was always like, what are you going to give me back now? So, yes, it was intense both in and outside of our private lives. We didn't know anything. I think we felt deprived completely – mentally, emotionally – because we were giving each other our most vulnerable selves but then we had to go home and somehow sleep together. That’s really not the healthiest thing to do.

Another reason it was so intense was that I was really learning the whole time. I was way behind where the twins were. I didn’t even know if I could really write music, so I really had to work hard to fend for myself and say to myself, ‘I want to do this and I can do this.’ I didn’t want anything to be taken away from me, but, yeah, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Do you remember when that feeling changed? When did you start to feel that you had finally caught up?

I have to say, although I did start realising it after the second album, I didn’t firmly believe it until I made my solo album – sadly!

I think I had to physically prove to myself that I could do it on my own without anyone else. I mean, not literally no one. You always need people to help you do what you need to do. In the end, I don’t think I will ever feel like I am a full and complete version of an artist. I will never feel like that. But, yeah, I do feel like I caught up. It just took me a long time.

Blonde Redhead La Mia Vita Violenta

"Maddening Cloud" (2004)

KAZU MAKINO: A lot of Blonde Redhead songs have this sort of layered repetition, where the different parts are spinning at different speeds, and that’s the kind of image that comes into my head when I hear this song. I’m one of those people who can see colours and shapes when I hear song, so for almost every song I have some sort of visual association. That’s one thing that I really like about “Maddening Cloud”.

Mostly I chose this song because I’ve always wanted to play it live, for years, but Ame always said no, he couldn’t do it. The reason was that the chorus was too high for his voice, but I really think it’s such a great song so I kept pushing and pushing. And now, on this tour, we have finally started to play it live with me singing the chorus. It took a lot of perseverance on my part but it’s been a win–win situation, for me at least, because now I get to sing all my favourite songs.

BEST FIT: Even though this is a song written by Amedeo, do you feel a personal connection to the lyrics?

I do, because it sounds like he’s talking about our lives back then.

You mentioned earlier that the making of Misery is a Butterfly was a difficult time for you, but you also had a really severe accident while out horse riding before that. How did that experience feed into the record?

Mostly I just remember being in bed for a long time. I had so many injuries. My jaw was broken. I also got pneumonia, so I spent a lot of time lying down.

One day I was watching the English movie Far From the Madding Crowd, which is such a symbolic film. There are so many visuals in that movie that are really outrageous, like when the shepherd’s dog herds the sheep off of the cliffs. It was just so insanely intense. Ame was around at that time, because he was always looking after me, and I remember him asking, ‘What are you watching?’ I think the title must have stuck in his head and then became “Maddening Cloud”.

Far From the Madding Crowd was on the syllabus at my high school so I had to study it closely. I remember reading that cliff scene and the one where the shepherd punctured the sheeps’ stomachs because they’d become bloated from eating too much clover. It was so brutal.

It was really horrifying. But it’s also such an incredibly well-made film, and Julie Christie [who plays the lead role of Bathsheba Everdene] is such an unbelievable actress. She’s dressed in all these Victorian outfits but she just has so much sexuality on screen.

I often think about how the English really know how to record so well. Not just in movies, but in the BBC shows and all the records that have been made. So many of my favourite singers are from the UK, like Trish [Keenan] from Broadcast, Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins and Beth Gibbons from Portishead. You know, I can just imagine them singing English folkloric songs, but somehow they take their own music to a whole other level. I really don’t know they can just be unbelievably talented in that way.

Blonde Redhead Misery Is A Butterfly

"Dr Strangeluv" (2007)

KAZU MAKINO: I put this song in here because I think it must be the song that we’ve played the most in live shows, and I never get sick of it.

BEST FIT: I was watching a short YouTube video where you talk about how you weren’t really sure about the original demo for this song, but then it became one of your favourites.

Oh, I’m trying to remember why I said that. I always put a lot into this song. I do think I struggled to make it work until I finally found a way into it. And then, yeah, it became one of my favourite songs. I was actually really inspired by the song “Baltimore” by Nina Simone. I think I really ripped that song off so badly, but no one seems to hear it. Sometimes I think, wow, it must be so obvious what I did but then it’s not at all. That always happens to me.

What do you love about “Baltimore”?

I just love that song so much. I used to go to this club in Japan that would play that song when they wanted to close, so you’d always know it was time to go when “Baltimore” came on. Rather than being kicked out of the club, I think the intention was that you’d sort of leave gracefully.

I think, with the 23 album in particular, there was a sense that I was sort of just drawing from all of my favourite music that I’d been processing inside me over the years. In a way, it was like I was exploiting myself for my top secrets, because I just love music so much. Music means so much to me. If I listen to 23, I can start to feel this direct connection to my favourite songs, so that’s why I think “Dr Strangeluv” is so important to me and feels so good to play.

When I’m on tour, this song is a way that I can sort of gauge how fit I am on that particular day. Like, if I can really go with the flow when playing “Dr Strangeluv”, it means that I’m in a really good place. It means that everything is okay, that it’s all coming naturally, and then I will be lifted up by some other force, you know? I feel that especially when we get to the second verse, which is where all that sort of Brazilian percussion kicks in. It’s almost like the music is an octopus that reaches out and lifts me up.

When Simone plays really, really well, I often imagine him as a man with eight hands, all moving in equilibrium. Nothing is too strong or too weak, and it just keeps going. I love the way he can do that.

I’ve seen a lot of different opinions on what “Dr Strangeluv” is about, but I want to get the official word from you.

It’s actually to do with horses. At that time, my life was so divided between two places. I was spending half of my time in upstate New York with horses and the other half I was in the city working, as well as, you know, getting pretty fucked up and staying up all night. Even then, I was always missing the horses, because I felt guilty for leaving them. I felt like they thought that I would never leave them, like I could saved them all, so this song is sort of like me having conversations with the horses.

You know, when you go a certain distance outside of New York, you hit this sort of horse country with all these rolling hills and a lot of space to roam around. It feels like there are more horses than people, and it’s a perfect climate for them because a lot of those horses were originally from places like England and Scandinavia. It’s, like, two hours by car, so I had a lot of time driving and having these full-on conversations with equines [laughs]. I feel like I'm talking complete nonsense but, yeah, that’s what “Dr Strangeluv” is about!

Blonde Redhead 23

Sit Down for Dinner is out now via section1.

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