By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
While some acts emerge full-grown and spend a career exploring variations on a theme, the more intriguing trajectories often belong to those bands that spend their lifetimes in a variety of guises, expanding and subtracting from their sound. Blonde Redhead hail from the latter camp, after having spent their early years on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's label Smells Like Records, and surveying a noisy, experimental sound similar to his seminal band.
With the new millennium, though, Blonde Redhead embarked on a U-turn, first apparent on 2000's far quieter and more modulated Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and culminating with 2004's Misery Is a Butterfly. The bristling atonalities and scratchy guitars were replaced with shimmery delicacy in keeping with new label 4AD's legacy, embodied by dreamy, darkly romantic acts like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil.
"When you grow up, you don't want to wear the same clothes as you did when you were 15, you just want to move on," says the trio's guitarist, Armedeo Pace. "I feel like we need to challenge ourselves and keep moving in different directions. It doesn't even feel like we have to change. It just happens because of the way things are."
It was a fortuitous move that produced their first Billboard chart entry (at No. 180) in 2004, which the band followed with 2007's even stronger 23 (which reached No. 63). And the band continues to tinker with their sound on their latest, Penny Sparkle. Collaborating heavily with Swedish producers/electronic artists Van Rivers & the Subliminal Kid, they forge an idiosyncratic sound that blends sputtering synthetic tones with live instrumentation in their most spare arrangements to date. The room brings singer/guitarist Kazu Makino's girly, high-wire vocals into relief.
It seems, at times, as if the band has completely excised the guitars, though Pace swears that's not the case.
"Actually, there is a lot of guitar on the album," he says. "But it's not maybe your distorted loud main guitar that's apparent. It's more in disguise and in the background. There's a lot of intricate stuff that happens in a lot of the songs. We kind of chose the places that we wanted it to be, and I think Henrik and Peter [a.k.a. Van Rivers & the Subliminal Kid] helped as well, deciding where things would go. Our choices would've been to maybe put it more together throughout the whole song."
It was an unusual working process, in that the producers never left Sweden and that most of the album was transacted over the Internet, between e-mailed tracks and conversations held over Skype. Makino did spend some time overseas with the producers, but Armadeo and drummer brother Simone Pace did all their work in a quiet, bucolic upstate New York studio with Drew Brown (Radiohead, Beck). The natural outside environs contributed to the music's vibe, while Brown encouraged the greater use of synths and abetted the album's textured tone. Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode) added the final touch, mixing the album.
"It was difficult, at times, because we had disagreements, as always happens in creative work," Pace says, referring to the Swedish producers. "The frustrating part was that we really needed to talk at times and couldn't unless we were on Skype and saw each other's faces and kind of communicated that way."
Overall, though, Pace is very happy with the process as well as the product.
"The more I listen to it," he says, "the more I start really liking the sound and being intrigued by it."
But it's perhaps not surprising that, after a decade pursuing this new tack, Pace finds himself being pulled back to some of their old songs. Out with an additional player to pick up some of the keyboard parts, Blonde Redhead have found themselves working up some of their older songs in soundchecks.
"It feels good to do them because they're so different from what we're doing now," Pace says. "It's good to do new things so you can go back and see the old things as something different and refreshing."
As always, Blonde Redhead remain a work in progress.
"It takes a lifetime to master an art or begin to master it," Pace says. "With Simone and Kazu, there's so much that we can do together and can experiment with. It feels endless and it is. It doesn't get any easier—it gets almost harder to keep going. But it's also addictive."