Russ Waterhouse of Blues Control on the unlikely influence of New Age music
Blues Control is an experimental rock duo that got started in New York City in 2006 as a kind of side project from their New Age music project Watersports. The greater immediacy and visceral impact of Blues Control connected with audiences, and soon, the side project became the main band of Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho. The group's blend of psychedelic rock and atmospherics makes for one of the most unique live music experiences going.
Waterhouse and Cho have released albums on a handful of notable underground imprints over the years, including Holy Mountain, Siltbreeze, Not Not Fun and now Drag City. The sound of Blues Control has evolved considerably in fascinating ways with each record, including the outfit's collaborative album with Brian Eno compatriot, Laraaji. We checked in recently with Waterhouse about his sound design-inspired approach to aspects of the band's latest album, Valley Tangents, how New Age became an important part of the duo's musical development and their mutual interest in Laibach and the hybrid aesthetics of early industrial music.
Westword: In a 2009 interview for Tiny Mix Tapes, you mentioned your interest in sound design and editing in films.
Russ Waterhouse: I went to film school, and I tried a lot of different classes like directing and cinematography, but it seemed like most of my concentration ended up being in sound, whether that was location sound recording, like recording dialogue and such, like using different mics, hiding mics, etc. Then I took a class on "creative sound," which was basically sound design influenced. We definitely pay a lot of attention to sound in films, and I'd imagine we're influenced by that. I like people who use sound in unconventional ways, like Jean-Luc Godard. I almost feel like sometimes our records end up being similar to soundtracks but without the film.
What are some films that you feel had especially good sound design?
I mentioned Godard, but his film Pierrot le Fou -- all of his movies, really -- the editing is really interesting and unconventional. He uses sound that doesn't relate directly to the image. It's sort of a creative juxtaposition for a different effect. Just a lot of New Wave cinema and post New Wave cinema. Even things like Christopher Nolan's movies like Inception.
A lot of movies that aren't necessarily cinematic masterpieces but have impressive sound design are in the horror genre. The Strangers depended heavily on its effectiveness on its sound design, and there's a great scene that uses Joanna Newsom's "The Sprout and the Bean" to great effect. Even The Chernobyl Diaries had great sound design.
Another one along those lines: There's this really great B movie called Shockwaves. There's an amazing score in that movie.
The song "Open Air" on Valley Tangents has an interesting sound design quality to it. Would you say that that background noise-sounding sort of thing was used intentionally or left in because it added an intriguing element?
That was intentional. There's some field recordings from when we lived in Richmond, Virginia, which was about nine months in 2009, when we first moved out of New York. Those are sort of layered under the music. Some of those same tapes are being played back through the microphones as well. So there's a mix of direct recording and re-amplified recordings. The piano has a field recording quality as well. There's definitely a shift in the way Lea [Cho's] part was recorded.
Do you feel that gives a depth of feel or the sonic equivalent of depth of focus that isn't always obvious?
Oh yeah. That was supposed to imply a movement through space, then virtually a non-space or a world without the literalness that's in the beginning. That sort of happened organically, though. That's how I've always worked. Before the two of us started playing music together, I did a number of solo recordings, and for a lot of them, I would prepare almost an environment or a system including tapes and I recorded that like a slowly unwinding performance documented on tape as well.
One of your earliest full-length albums in this project came out on Holy Mountain Records. Why did you feel they were a good fit for what you were trying to do at that time?
That sort of happened very early on. We were doing a lot of stuff as Watersports, which was sort of environmental, low key and it involved tapes and mixing. Someone asked us to do a Watersports show, but it happened to be in a week where we were already doing a show, and we asked if we could do Blues Control instead.
Things sort of happened very quickly [after that]. Somebody recorded that show, and it came out as a tape. We decided to put up a Myspace page because the concept of this project was a rock band and at that time every rock band had a Myspace page. So we were thinking about the concept of the rock band and what it meant in older times.
Holy Mountain sort of emailed us. I was familiar with it, and I was friends with Ben Chasny [of Six Organs of Admittance]. He's on Drag City now, but he was on Holy Mountain a long time ago. We had a mutual friend, Holy Mountain and us, and on that level it seemed like we could fit.
Every time we make a record for a label, we try to think of the context it will be released under -- like the history of the label, the other artists, etc. Doing a record for that label brought out any tendencies we may have had to make a stoner rock record or a psychedelic rock record. Those interests were always latent, but we definitely put that together with that label in mind.
We don't really tailor the music for any particular commercial concerns, but we definitely look at the overall picture. We were listening to a lot of classic rock at that time, a lot of riff-heavy stuff like Deep Purple.
You put out some later records on Not Not Fun and Siltbreeze. Did you feel the aesthetic they both represented what you were doing at the time?
Definitely. I've been a fan of Siltbreeze Records since the '90s. When I first moved to New York, a lot of stuff was coming out like the early Guided By Voices stuff and Harry Pussy, Charalambides. I didn't get into Shadow Ring until a little bit later. Basically I got into Shadow Ring after they started incorporated electronics. So I definitely feel like there are elements of our record on Siltbreeze. The entire B-side and maybe "Tangier" with its muddy, trance-y qualities.
Also we hung out with Tom Lax of Siltbreeze a lot before we put out that record, and he is also a big hard rock/classic rock fan. A song like "Good Morning" seems like it would fit those tastes and aesthetics. We hung out with him once on the Jersey shore. Him and his girlfriend. We got a room in a hotel off season, and there was a big storm when were there. But we just listened to Led Zeppelin on a boombox while pool chairs were flying into the pool.
What got you started playing music?
I was into music for as long as I can remember. If I could scrape together money, I would buy disco 45s and stuff like that. I was born in '74, and that stuff was happening. I was into the radio, and I got into skateboarding somehow, maybe because I wasn't a fan of organized sports. From skateboarding, I got more into punk, SST stuff, skatepunk, some metal. Somebody randomly took me to an Iron Maiden concert when I was in junior high. From there I got into alternative music like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.
I managed to go to a lot of shows in high school in the Boston Area. Bravo, the television network, used to be pretty cool when I was a kid, and they would show things like Repo Man and Koyaanisqatsi. My dad also had some modern composers in his record collection. When I went to NYU it was open season.
The record stores were amazing, and I had saved up a lot of money from summer jobs, and I basically blew it all when I moved to New York on CDs. I could finally get records that I'd heard on college radio. There were a lot of reissues at the time, like classic avant-garde records and Japanese noise was really popular at the time and '90s lo-fi.
I guess I started recording in junior high. I took keyboard lessons and bought a drum machine and a guitar. An older brother of a friend of mine got us into Sonic Youth, Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Pussy Galore. Also we were all into New York hardcore, like Youth of Today, Warzone. All that stuff sort of became kind of a mish-mash in the music I was making with friends at home. We were using broken tape decks, so it sounded very garbled but also kid of juvenile.
What musical interests lead to the formation of Watersports?
I feel like Lea and I both got into New Age music...If you get heavily into krautrock and you follow the careers of a lot of those people, a lot of them got more ambient as the '70s wore on. One of our roommates had a pretty great record collection, and he got deep into that stuff, and he was constantly turning us on to records.
It's funny, we would visit my dad, and we would go to this Barnes & Noble nearby, and they had this massive New Age CD collection. Whoever was the buyer there, knew a lot about that stuff. We would pick up stuff on certain labels or looked like it was from a certain era. Anything that looked cool, like Laraaji's first album, or Paul Winter. On our Sub Pop 7-inch, one of the songs is kind of a nod to Paul Winter.
That was sort of the genesis of Watersports -- we were listening to a lot of New Age. Nobody was really doing that at the time, at least in sort of underground music circles that we knew of. A little bit later, I think the Skaters were getting into that as well. I was getting a little burned out on the direction the noise scene was going in, which I was involved in by virtue of putting out tapes and setting up shows.
I felt like rather than being a refuge for weirdoes and community-oriented, I felt like things were getting oddly competitive and things were getting kind of macho. Even though it was sort of cloaked as being ironic, in actuality it didn't seem that ironic. The scene was getting a little more hierarchical.
Watersports was partially a response to that. We wanted to be something that was low key and the opposite of macho. Some people said that we were kind of punk in a way because we would go into these environments and on bills where the rest of the bands were nothing at all like us. We would play as quietly and in as static a manner as possible as almost a challenge to the audience. Sometimes it would work; other times it wouldn't. More often than not, surprisingly, people were open to it. Maybe because it was just so out of left field.
It seems as though things are returning back to that original culture. It's almost like noise sort of exploded and got very popular for a few years in the mid-2000s. It couldn't sustain itself. It was like any other cultural cycle. It's seen a wane. It seems to be a bit more underground. I don't know too much about what's happening because I've been so busy. It's not like on MTV these days.
Blues Control became your main musical project at one point. What made it more appealing, at least for now, than Watersports?
It's not that surprising, I guess, because we played in a rock format and things were more melodically structured, people responded more immediately than that. There was never a conscious decision to put Watersports on the backburner. They overlapped for quite a time. Even when Blues Control got started, we were busier with Watersports with putting together recordings, playing shows and touring.
Over time, more people asked us to do more Blues Control records, and more show opportunities came our way. Our attitude has always been if an interesting or exciting opportunity comes our way, if it's at all possible to follow through, we will do it. There are still some vague aesthetic boundaries, but we ended up rolling some of the Watersports concept into Blues Control.
We haven't done Blues Control shows where we play something completely static for fifteen minutes. That's not what Blues Control is about. But we have done things that are more gentle and light. That really came to the fore when we did the Sub Pop 7-inch. We wanted to do a holiday single, so that's how we put that together. After that it seemed like it was okay for Blues Control to be New Age-y.
You did an interview you did with Under the Radar regarding your Valley Tangents album, and you mentioned Laibach. What do you like about them?
The song on our album, "Iron Pig," is definitely influenced by Laibach. I don't know, their sort of martial rhythms. We both like a lot of music that's early sample-based music, that's very chunky and chopped up music. We've even been listening to early EBM recently. Early industrial music is really interesting, bridging post-punk, punk and avant-garde music. Laibach, I think, had a sense of humor, as well. That record where they cover all of [The Beatles' album] Let It Be is hilarious.
[Also, we are into those] extended remixes of '80s singles on 12-inches. A lot of that music is awesome, the way things are constructed. It's a lot weirder than people even know unless you get into that. We had a conversation recently discussing how the chunkier the sample the better. It just seems absurd what people were doing. Maybe not everybody would see a connection between Trevor Horn and Laibach, but a lot of music at that time was constructed in a similar manner just based on the technology people were using. It's just a cool sound.
When you mention the cross over from post-punk to industrial, you may be referring to bands like Cabaret Voltaire and, on the early EBM side of things, Front 242.
Absolutely. I'm touching a Front 242 CD right now. Somebody gave it to us: Front By Front. Back Catalogue is another favorite. There's that three CD set by Cabaret Voltaire, Methodology, with the early experimental stuff. That stuff is great. There's just a lot of great, weird DIY music in that era mixing electronics, rock and tape.
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