Music News

All the World's a Stage

It's November 9, two days after the American presidential election, and the media is simply delirious, scrambling to provide the latest updates on the as-yet-undecided race, reveling in the chance to use words like "historic" and "unprecedented." Almost everyone in the United States has their eye on Florida, waiting -- not so patiently -- for a decision: Who will be our next president?

Kazu Makino, singer and guitarist of Blonde Redhead, has other things on her mind.

"Oh, I don't know about that stuff," she says. "What is going on with the president?"

Good question.

It could be that Makino's Japanese upbringing and somewhat limited English have muddled her knowledge of the Bush-and-Gore fiasco. More likely, though, it's because she and her bandmates -- Italian-born twin brothers Simone (drums) and Amedeo Pace (vocals and guitar) returned from a tour of France and Italy just days ago. Despite the excitement in the air, Makino is jet-lagged. Groggy. She just wants to sleep.

"I have to go to bed in ten minutes," she says from her home in the SoHo district of New York City, where it's 8:10 p.m. "It's sooo nice to be back home. It's sooo nice to sleep in my own bed."

Unfortunately for Makino and the Pace brothers, such creature comforts -- sleeping in one's own bed, cooking meals, sacking out before the early news -- won't last long. By the time America has a new political figurehead, Blonde Redhead will be back on the road, covering 21 North American cities in 26 long nights. Relentless touring is something the band has done since the release of its "Big Song/Amescream" seven-inch on OXO records in 1993; making the sacrifices inherent in touring is one way in which the band has achieved relative success and expanded its reputation as a volatile live band. According to Amedeo, the constant movement provides its own kind of comfort.

"Once we're on tour, life is set," he says. "You may get physically tired from the travel, but your mind is relaxed."

It's not surprising that he would take this view. For all of the members of Blonde Redhead, travel, migration and assimilation are almost second nature. The Japanese-born Makino made her way to New York "so long ago that I don't remember." The Pace brothers, who originally hail from Italy, immigrated to New York City eleven years ago after a short stay in Montreal. As the lore goes, it was a chance encounter at a New York cafe that brought them together. ("It was sooo long ago, I don't remember how we met," says Makino. However they found each other, in the eight years since Makino and the Pace brothers began playing as Blonde Redhead -- a name coined from a song by the '80s band DNA -- the trio has emerged as a shining and enduring light in the indie-rock realm.

Between the summer of 1994 and the fall of 1995, the band released four recordings for the Smells Like Records imprint, the label owned and operated by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Impressed by its sound evolution and its prolificness, Chicago's Touch & Go Records signed Blonde Redhead in 1997 and released The Expression of the Inexpressionable. The album was well received by both critics and listeners and was a watermark of Blonde Redhead's evolution from a punk outfit whose high-frequency guitar wanderings and wound-up, apocalyptic drumming brought early comparisons to Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch, to a tightly knit trio of fully realized, postmodern visionists.

In some ways, the band's musical evolution mirrored what was happening to its personal infrastructure. According to Amedeo, the friendship has developed in a unique, almost inverse way. "Unlike most relationships, where you're much closer friends right after you meet and then drift apart as time goes by, our relationship was much more difficult in the beginning, but we are getting closer and finding our place with each other."

Amedeo says he and his brother have come to regard Makino as an extension of their own twin bond. "Simone and I are such a package," he adds. "We are so close that we might discourage people to hang out with us. We're trying to become more independent of each other and be our own people, but that's hard, because no one teaches you how to behave with people.

"The main reason us three are so closely tied together is because Japan and Italy have so much more in common than the American perspective and American upbringing," says Amedeo. "The Japanese and Italians are much more sensitive to certain things and have stronger values of family and how you behave toward family."

Of course, the band is also tied by its music, something that becomes more articulate with each recording. Earlier this year, Blonde Redhead released Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, a beautifully languid collection dominated by guitar melodies and downright enchanting compositions. It's a swirling and stripped-down combo, complete with creepy Devo-esque off-time rhythms and good ol' country guitar twanging accents ("In Particular"), as well as quirky space melodies that sound as if they were liberated from a bad '70s sci-fi flick ("Ballad of Lemons").

Lyrically, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons runs the gamut of emotional expression, from manic and frightful ("I felt unsure and catastrophic.../Someone new would be so cruel/Incurable paranoiac/Hysterical depression," Makino sings on "In Particular") to childlike and gleeful ("Sometimes I spin around for days/Skip and chase and say forget about tomorrow," Amedeo exclaims on "Melody of Certain Three"). The words -- most of which are penned by Makino -- often convey a strong sense of emotional uncertainty; there's a suggestion that the lyricist feels almost incapable of dealing with her feelings. "Hated Because of Great Qualities" finds Makino strumming gently as she sings, "You were sorry I was alone/So sorry you ran away/...It never meant a thing/These are different matters/These are uncertain feelings/These should never be discussed/So keep it to yourself."

Asked if she uses her lyric writing as a platform for voicing her emotional woes, Makino responds with whispered embarrassment, like a young girl. "Oh, yes. That is right. The lyrics come from and cause all kinds of symptoms," she says. "These symptoms are from the stuff I discover and see. It's just a reflection of what we're going through. But this album only covers a pretty small area of emotion, and it's just a reflection of what I am going through right now."

Although the members of Blonde Redhead reside in New York City, they went to Bear Creek Studio in Washington State to record Damaged Lemons with Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. The band credits the albums' dense textures and undertow sounds -- despite its seemingly limited instrumentation of two guitars and drums -- to a shared vision between the trio and Picciotto.

"I guess when you're making a record, you're half there, and half of you is somewhere else," says Amedeo. "You just do things that you are ready for at that moment. It's like making a painting. You look at it from the outside and it makes sense. But when you're making it, things are a bit out of control, and you don't want to think about it because it makes you self-conscious. That's why Guy is so amazing. He understood what we were trying to do. And the moments when we needed things to be clarified, he did that for us. We lost perspective when we were writing this music, but being our producer, he was innocent and was able to help us see what we wanted to accomplish."

Picciotto also controlled the dials for Blonde Redhead's most recent release, the five-song Mélodie Citronique, which pays tribute to the band's European heritage by offering foreign-language readings of the Damaged Lemons material. Somehow, the translations render many of the songs more emotionally devastating than they are when sung in English. During "En Particulier," Makino rolls her consonants while singing "Sans confiance et catastrophique/J'ai du me dire c'est just de la musique," making the phrase sound like a French scat. Though Mélodie Citronique is considered a tribute release to the band's love of French opera, the Paces' Italy is well represented, as well. "Odiata per le Sue Virtú" -- sung in Italian by Makino (who was undoubtedly coached by the Pace twins) -- is simply chilling in the Old World tongue. "Chi É e Non É" is "especially dedicated to the Italian people," according to Amedeo. "That song is dedicated to Italy because they give me so much that America does not have, like being sensitive to certain things like life, family, food and religion."

Blonde Redhead's tendency to experiment with both indie and punk-rock methods of expression -- the way that language can alter the emotional tenor of a song, for example -- has led some to classify its music as "art rock," a term that sometimes implies a certain aimlessness or pretension. Makino is quick to dismiss that idea.

"I don't like that term 'art rock.' It means nothing to me," she says. "Any great music can be art, of course. But no arty music is that interesting. I don't know what possesses people to create great music, and great music can become art. But the people who try to create art in music, they seem to have lost it."

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Mike Engstrom