Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead on Penny Sparkle, dealing stage fright and music criticism
Early in its career, Blonde Redhead clearly drew inspiration from DNA, whose song was the inspiration for the band's name. But instead of solely offering up atonal squalls and musical deconstruction, Blonde Redhead's songwriting also flirted with haunted melodies.
By the time of 2004's Misery Is a Butterfly, what would become the group's mature sound fully emerged, with Kazu Makino's unmistakable high-register voice floating over increasingly elaborately textured atmospheres and rhythms. The Alan Moulder-produced Penny Sparkle, released in September, received mixed reviews, but anyone following the band's trajectory should have known the trio wouldn't try to repeat itself.
The new album is deeply layered with synths and gossamer guitar work wedded to electronic and organic percussion. As a live unit, Blonde Redhead projects a chilling intensity that is surprisingly emotionally charged and moving. In advance of the band's show tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre, we spoke with Makino about the new record, dealing with stage fright and her misgivings with music criticism.
Westword: Were you born in Japan? What part?
Kazu Makino: Yes. I was born in Kyoto.
I was curious about that because my mom is from Okinawa.
Your mom is from Okinawa? Wow, that's amazing. I've been there. I used to scuba dive quite seriously to make an underwater map. So we used to go there to dive a lot. It's beautiful. We visited some small islands, I suppose. You're half Japanese. I'm interviewing you now. Your father is an American?
Yes, my father was an American and he fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. That's how my mom met him. He was in the army.
Wow, that's amazing. They're not together anymore, yeah?
Well, he died nine years ago.
Oh no. Until then he was with her? That's amazing? She moved to America?
Yes, in 1968.
Wow, that's very romantic. You should write about this instead of about us. That would be great.
What was it like growing up there?
I don't have a romantic story like that. Kyoto is a very conservative city. Normally I don't like talking about things like this, but I can talk about it a little bit. I went to private school, and it was even worse than public school in terms of the people that went to the school and the people who sent their children to the school.
So I have a pretty old fashioned upbringing. I started playing classical piano when I was small, and I started playing in a band barely out of elementary school, singing. It was an all girl band and we actually wrote -- or ripped off -- basic blues. But then all blues chords are the same, so you could hardly say it was original. It's pretty funny, yeah?
The name of the band was a typical slave's name. We had no idea what was up with all of that, but when I look back, we had pretty good instincts for things. I knew that it was the name of somebody, but I don't think I knew it was a typical name for slaves that came from Africa. Even today, whatever genre it is, I really think music that has a foundation in blues. Fever Ray is very bluesy. Even though she's kind of a techno/pop artist. But there's something very African about what she does, and I'm really attracted to that.
How did you initially get involved in playing music, and what got you interested in playing experimental rock?
I never meant to play it. I didn't even realize it. It came out experimental because I couldn't play music, so I ended up experimenting, I suppose, but not in an intellectual way. Although the twins are very well trained, musically, and they have an unbelievable sense of harmony that I think is innate.
They challenged me, and they learned it in school, but I have a feeling they always had it in them. Still, there's something so musically naive about the twins, which is great. They don't check out all the new music that comes out. How they approach music is childish in some ways. And that has so much to do with what we do.
It surprised me a little that you still suffer from terrible stage fright, which is something I struggle with as well. What sorts of things have you done to overcome your fears over the years, and is there anything that consistently works for you now?
You have stage fright? Me too. You don't overcome it. And it gets worse and worse. It's terrible. I used to open my eyes. Now, I don't think I open my eyes more than two or three times during an entire show. I wouldn't know how many people are out there most of the time. It really frightens me. In some ways it helps to play bigger spaces where there's a little more distance. Unless it's a tiny place, but everyone is very much on the same page, I think you might be okay. I feel like I'm dying every time I have to go on stage.
I try not to drink, I try not to drink at all, but I can't do it without a little help from alcohol. Right now, the only time I drink is on stage. I feel like I'm going to a bar when I play a show. It's a little bit embarrassing, but I'm just so afraid of going to this complete, white blank. It's a hard thing. Sometimes it goes away, sometimes it doesn't. It doesn't get much better.
Once or twice, or maybe three times, I have gone into this complete, bleached out, blank state, and nothing came out, and I was so panicked,, we had to stop playing. I came apart. Some people get so used to stopping in the middle of a song and talk, but for me it's not like that. For me, it's like I'm at a piano recital or something: I just stop playing. It was horrifying. Then, the fact that I know it could happen, that makes it that much worse, because it has already happened to me in the past. Scary.
In your interview with Supersweet Zoo with Gemma Dempster earlier this year, what you had to say about the New Yorker book reviews and how they're written by famous writers who understand the pains of writing really rings true. Do you feel that the same level of understanding is given to you by music writers who are also musicians?
Sure. I mean, usually, you can tell that they play music too when you're reading music reviews. But I have a feeling that a lot of the people who write music reviews seem a lot more irresponsible. They start dropping names and compare you to other people. Book reviews don't generally do that. I find that very painful maybe because fundamentally book reviewers are also writers and they try to write well.
Music critics maybe do not. I don't know. I love constructive criticism, as opposed to the People Magazine approach. They seem to think it's their job to rip you apart. It seems like they feel like that's how they get paid -- to be vicious. It's already so difficult to create things that you don't need to be ripped to shreds. I suppose it's a tricky business.
Probably everyone remarks on how Penny Sparkles sounds very different from your previous few albums and I figured it was you felt like you needed a real departure so as not to bore yourselves. One thing I thought was interesting is how the vocals have probably never sounded better. Did you make a conscious effort to make changes in that area, or do you think that's a result of other changes made to your overall sound?
I think it's because a lot of people got involved in making this record. My dynamic with the twins is pretty much set. We all treat one another like an instrument. Henrik [von Sivers] and Peder [Mannerfelt], Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid but also the engineer Drew Brown -- they were all very focused. While they were able to contribute to the sound, the groove and the beat and all that sort of thing, they still needed a solid song and that's sort of where I came in.
I became a missing link for everyone that was on this project. No matter what changed within a song, I could always stay the same. So the melody was not a core, because I don't think we ever write like a singer-songwriter, but we gave it a sense of a big wheel that was running through the songs.
The image of the dove on the cover art for Penny Sparkle is interesting. What is it holding in its mouth, and why that kind of imagery?
It's a glove! Thanks for asking! You're the first person to ask me about that. I made it, and nobody ever asks me anything about it [laughs]. I had a really old box that I found somewhere in Paris, and I've had it for many years. It made me happy to look at it, so I wanted to do that and have all the song titles in between. I'm quite childish in some ways, I suppose, the things I get attracted to: dogs, horses. I pay a lot of attention to detail, so even with the CD insert, there's that pattern of doves and with vinyl as well. It's like a little world inside.
You seem to take a very spontaneous and Zen-like approach to making your music. In what ways do you feel that this has helped you to continue making music that interests you?
Yes, that's true. You could look at it like it's very lazy, but the music is one thing I haven't done with too much ambition, and I'd like to keep it that way. When you love something too much, it always come with sacrifice, and it's not that I don't love music, but I never had the feeling of "Do or Die" with music.
It's almost like when I get exhausted with all the other elements of life and when I couldn't confront something in my life, it was always sort of more an escape than it ever being a career or goal or something. Maybe that's why we've never been completely successful. I appreciate that that I have that in my life. It's not killing me to do this.
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