Melody and malady
Before I can begin my scheduled interview with Blonde Redhead singer-guitarist Amedeo Pace, he covers the phone with his hands so he can talk to bandmate Kazu Makino. When he finally uncovers the phone after a short and muffled exhange, he asks if I would mind doing the interview with Makino instead. "She is very nervous about something, so it would be very nice of you to talk to her," he says, a bit cryptically.
Actually, I did mind: Nervous flashbacks of one-sentence responses in previous interviews with Japanese acts such as Cornelius, Buffalo Daughter, and Guitar Wolf quickly come to mind when Makino picked up the phone. Those instances produced quotes that sounded like dubbed versions of kung fu flicks on minor-league television -- at best. Fortunately, Makino has been living in the states for 10 years now, and it's a relief to learn that not only can she speak well, but she also has something to say. It's a welcome change from garage shockers Guitar Wolf, whose major confessions were their love for steaks from Fort Worth and "lock and loll."
As it turns out, the thought of airplanes falling from the skies is what's making Makino so nervous. She's set to leave for Europe soon to handle Blonde Redhead's overseas press. "I just hate flying because I move every day so I fly almost every day, and I'm just concerned I won't survive. And if I die, I'd rather die with the twins together than by myself," she says, referring to Amedeo and his brother, Simone Pace, who plays drums and keyboards. Apparently the label could afford to send only one member of Blonde Redhead overseas, and she leaves for the European press tour the day after their gig at Trees.
However the night plays out there, the audience will hear a preview of Melody of Certain Damage Lemons, the new and uplifting disc that has the band poised to step into the indie-rock spotlight once again, picking up where they left off on 1998's In An Expression Of The Inexpressible. In June, Touch and Go Records will release the no-wave-influenced album, which they recorded and mixed in less than a month. Though the band has never been too far from critical comparisons to Unwound or early Sonic Youth, this recording fueled something altogether new. The result is a mix that's frustrating, provocative, and saturated in passion. The pan-ethnic melodies split between Makino and Pace ache with emotion. Their voices are too similar in high-pitched range to offer the classic male-female vocal differentiation, but that only makes it better.
Certain Damage Lemons explores the tension between melody and noise, imploding song structure along the way. The songs' dynamics are simultaneously unnerving and electrifying, because at any moment, they'll turn into a booming and bellowing mess of noise. Rhythmic guitar lines confront decorous electronic loops on top of rock-solid beats and tight grooves. Certain Damage Lemons may be the group's most approachable offering, or it could be the complete opposite. Even Makino isn't sure.
"When we were writing songs for the new record, I thought the songs were more accessible than those on In An Expression," Makino says. "But I also thought that record was completely accessible, too. Every time we write something, I go, 'This is it, this rocks' and you kind of psyche yourself to it." She laughs at her enthusiasm. "I'm very surprised when I hear people say that our music isn't easy to digest, because I think we make very catchy albums." The trio makes a conscious effort to control how its listeners absorb their sound by using specific instrumentation and sounds.
But one factor that stays constant throughout is Makino's vocals. Her voice was somewhat buried on past efforts, but here, thanks to the thoughtful production of Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, her voice is clearly heard above the din of distortion and harmony. Both Pace's and Makino's range is considered limited by typical standards, but it's Makino who handles it in such a way that her style is elevated beyond anything common or expected.
"This is hard to talk about it because I don't know," she says, sounding suddenly shy and uncertain. "My voice, I do what I can with it. I've had to find what it is that's cool that I can do with my voice, and that has been purely accidental. I hear it over and over, I get fed up, and after a while, I think, 'God, I sound like fucking mosquitoes.'"
Feeling self-conscious about her vocals, she joined Amedeo on guitar -- if she couldn't improve her voice, well, she'd hide it behind a wall of sound. She recalls those times as being tough, but even tougher for the twins. "I really wanted to play, because it was very painful when I was standing there and wanted to work all the time on stage," she says. "It was rough in the beginning, because I didn't know how to play, and I wanted to be as rock and roll as I can be. Before, I'd just play these layers of chords when Amedeo was playing something more intricate, and it was nice, but we don't do it like that anymore mainly because our interests keep shifting -- thank God. When we try something we realize we've done before, we're like, 'Let's move on,' because we want to be fascinated. You want to be objective enough to know when it's really good."
There are still a few things the band hasn't tried before. For example, the band will be touring stadiums this summer when they go out on the road with the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Apparently, Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers specifically requested that they join the tour. (Never would have guessed that the boys of white-boy pop-funk and lame tattoos would have such hip music tastes these days.) Kazu says Frusciante learned of the three-piece from his "good pal" Picciotto.
At least the band has had some experience playing to larger audiences. Many years ago, they played the side stage at Lollapalooza, although Makino wants to erase the memories of that tour. "Do you know what kinds of things are going on between bands? Oh God, it was a total freak show. It was kind of ridiculous, I guess," she says, laughing out loud to herself. "I'm very nervous playing at a stadium. It's beyond my imagination playing for 20,000 people. But I don't know, kids will probably be buying Cokes or T-shirts while we're playing. They don't even know who we are." They will soon.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.