Blonde Redhead might still be a mystery to itself. Kazu Makino and twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace are 10 years out of the band’s New York noise-rock beginnings and into a run of eerily elegant melody that began with 2000’s Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons. Yet the trio and its label, 4AD, have emphasized that the new Penny Sparkle was rather a pain in the ass to make. Makino touched off a collaboration with Swedish electronic producers Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid (Henrik Von Sivers and Peder Mannerfelt), which often gives the album a hard electronic edge, but also bred that much more agonized decision-making. Not only did each song go through several different incarnations, but Makino confesses, “we’re a little bit juvenile—we just run from one instrument to another to feed our curiosity.” The day the band began the U.S. leg of its current tour—which comes to La Zona Rosa tonight, Dec. 1—Makino told The A.V. Club about crafting a more spare sound than 2007’s 23, sharing vocal duties with Amedeo, and the virtues of overdosing on your own music.
The A.V. Club: The European tour you just finished was your first chance to play the Penny Sparkle songs live, right?
Kazu Makino: It was quite exciting because it was sort of walking on a tightrope-like experience. I hope people appreciated seeing almost a work in progress, but it was really inspiring for me. I don’t know, I’m just so involved in it that I don’t really see the difference between electronics and live instruments. I feel them kind of the same way. It’s a little scary to see Amedeo’s big hands moving over the keyboard. It always seems small for his fingers. He’s not a keyboard player. He looks a little sketchy, visually, but it’s cool like that. I like the challenge.
AVC: What were you trying to do on Penny Sparkle that was different from your previous work?
KM: We just dove into it without any sort of goal in our minds, but along the way, I started thinking I would really like to combine something super-hi-fi and super-earthy elements. In the past, we always tried to make warm-sounding records, but I didn’t have that in mind anymore, because I felt like we didn’t actually pull it off. We headed in the opposite direction, to see how sharp or how cold we could make it.
AVC: But isn’t Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons a fairly warm-sounding album?
KM: Well, we were always comparing it to, like, the best albums in the past, that sounded amazing, like Gainsbourg or The Beatles, or whatever we thought had the warmest sound. We could never get it like that, exactly. Lack of time, lack of talent, lack of gear, I don’t know what. It was a relief for us to go in [the opposite] direction and make it sound as powerful as we could make it. I think what’s so good about electronic stuff is you can just get it so in-your-face. Not that this record is really in-your-face, but I find the music itself to be very beautiful, but some of the sounds to be really in-your-face. I like that contrast.
AVC: Of your recent albums, this seems to be the most pared-down. Was that deliberate?
KM: Yeah. I think if there’s anything that we’ve been heading toward, it’s that. With everything, even artwork. I strived for something that’s just really stripped-down. It’s hard, though. Playing them live, you can’t really hide behind noise and distortion, so you’re really nervous about being in front of an audience. It’s complete in my head, but maybe people won’t hear what I’m hearing in my head. “What’s this, where’s the rest of the song?” People might think that, but it’s all there for me.
AVC: Do you think not being able to hide behind it, like you said, adds some tension you can feed off of onstage?
KM: Yeah, totally. People are like, “Oh, you made a quiet album.” To me, they’re like monsters, they’re freaking intense. It’s as intense and scary as ever.
AVC: What about the songs makes you say that?
KM: It wasn’t laid-back at all, making it. It was really difficult to make. I think that’s how they became monsters, because they just weren’t very quiet in the way that they demanded so much attention. Emotionally, psychologically, it was very demanding. “Oh, shit, these guys are just…” you know? You move one little thing and the song falls apart—that’s the kind of experience I had in the studio.
AVC: Does being in a band together for as long as you have make it difficult to keep things fresh?
KM: Well, yes and no. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been around so long, or because now I know there are people out there who listen to our music. One way or the other, we do expect more from ourselves, but then, music is music. You can make it intellectual, but fundamentally, music should be instinctive and stupid and spontaneous. If you start putting that kind of pressure on yourself, it’s a little bit—that’s not the purpose of music. I think that part can get quite confusing when we attempt to mix everything up.
AVC: One big constant on your albums is the contrast between your vocals and Amedeo’s. Do you think about that a lot when you’re sequencing an album?
KM: We don’t, but definitely Amedeo’s songs have a different nature. He’s a lot more profound than I am, in many ways. There’s a certain attention to detail in his songs. Also, singing doesn’t come that natural to him, so when he does sing, he really wants to sing that song—it means a lot to him. When we sequence it, we treat them like special children. The ones Amedeo sings have to be kind of protected, almost.
AVC: It just seems that whenever one of his songs comes in on an album, it’s timed to stick out, like when “Falling Man” comes in on Misery Is A Butterfly.
KM: Yeah, I’m really regretting that he didn’t sing more on the new album. We just kind of ran out of time. He had a few more songs that he was working on. You can’t plan everything, and you just kind of have to go with things. I’m sure years from now, it will have a profound meaning why he only sang one song on this album. But I don’t know why it worked out that way. We’ll see.
AVC: In the past 10 years you’ve always taken three or four years between albums. Do you prefer to work at that pace?
KM: It seems like the tours are getting longer and longer. I’m not trying to brag about it, but you kind of keep going as long as people want you in some parts of the world. I think our organizational skills aren’t that great, so every time we go on tour, we have to really think about, “Can we do this tour?” We bring all of our gear—we don’t rent anything on tour. No matter where it is, we have to come up with how to ship all the gear economically and not to lose money on the tour and stuff like that. Everything takes time, and it lessens the time to work on new material. It’s two or three years that we tour on each album. and by the time you finish that, you’re late for a new album. The impression is you’re always late. I’m already late for the next album. It works in our favor, because you really work through each album. By the time you finish the tour, you really know what you want next, because you O.D. on the current album. You want something entirely different. If you never toured, and you stayed home and listened to the album from time to time, and you think, “Oh my God, we just made the greatest album,” or something, and then you try to make another just like that one. Who knows?
AVC: You’ve talked about the difficult side of Penny Sparkle, but some of the songs, especially “My Plants Are Dead,” seem to have a sense of relief to them as well. Where do you think that comes from?
KM: When I started writing that song, I was very sentimental about the girlfriends I had in New York. I have so many girlfriends that live alone and are still single, and they’re beautiful people, and you have to be kind of strong to live the way they live in New York. I’d really like to write songs that they could just listen to, that they could just lock themselves in the apartment and feel really protected and have a relaxing song. That song in particular, and maybe “Everything Is Wrong,” I wanted to accompany my friends with the music. Literally, “My Plants Are Dead,” I used a text my girlfriend sent me. She was planning to have a ping-pong party and she just canceled it. You know how girls are so moody, the day of the party she didn’t feel like it, so she canceled it. It was the funniest text that she sent me. I used all of that for the chorus—it’s an excerpt from that text. Her parents live in the city and she has a ping-pong table, and she wanted to have a ping-pong party. She sent that text to me and I was laughing—how moody and temperamental we can be, so cute. Six months after, I was writing a song and went, “Oh my God, I’m gonna use that text.”