Blue Hawaii surfs Net to an Asia tour

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Though they hail from the same Montreal music scene that spawned crossover electronica star Grimes, the members of Blue Hawaii don’t have any illusions about where they rank in the popularity stakes.

“I come home for Christmas, and my family’s like, ‘Woah, you’re going to Asia and all this stuff,’ ” says the duo’s resident production whizz, Alex Cowan. “It’s funny, because travel for them equates with a certain degree of success, and I think that that level of success has changed over the past 20 years. Now a smaller to mid-sized band is able to travel a lot more.”

Still, Blue Hawaii’s upcoming trip to Tokyo is notable for a couple of reasons. Not only does it kick off the duo’s inaugural Asian tour, but it’s also the first show organized by Alive.mu, a new website that uses a crowd-funding model to promote gigs in Japan.

“We definitely wouldn’t be playing in Japan without the advance of technology,” says the group’s vocalist, Raphaelle Standell-Preston. Cowan agrees. “The whole crowd-funding thing aside, it’s not like we’d be playing anywhere without the evolution of fandom and the Net,” he says.

It has only been a few years since the DIY music collective that coalesced around Montreal’s Lab Synthèse venue began to attract wider attention. In-house label Arbutus Records acted as a springboard not just for Grimes, but also acts such as synthpop duo Majical Cloudz and gauzy art-rock band Braids (which also counts Standell-Preston as a member). Just don’t expect to see any of these groups hanging out in Mile End, the city’s famous cultural hub.

“Everybody is off touring now,” says Standell-Preston. “I think we all see each other more on the road and in different cities than we do in Montreal.”

For Blue Hawaii, this separation was keenly felt. The duo’s relationship isn’t merely creative: They were previously a couple, and recorded their first EP, 2010′s buoyant “Blooming Summer,” while in the throes of new love. When they returned to produce a full-length album, “Untogether” (released early last year), Standell-Preston’s touring commitments with Braids had kept them apart for the previous year. On record, the contrast was striking: Gone was the wide-eyed dream pop, replaced by a starker, heavily treated sound, where melodies were fragmented to the point of abstraction. Though the duo lived together while making the album, they worked on it separately, alternating night shifts with each other in the studio; the isolation was almost palpable.

“Everything about this project is a reflection of our relationship,” says Cowan. “The whole personal side of it will be as interesting as the technical side.”

“It’s like Sonny and Cher,” jokes Standell-Preston.

Though they’re now back to being just good friends, the pair’s trip to Tokyo has spurred a new phase for Blue Hawaii. When The Japan Times speaks to them, they’re in the middle of reworking their live set and recording new material together at a “little cabin” not far from Cowan’s birthplace in British Columbia. Having spent much of 2013 playing to larger audiences as the opening act for Purity Ring — prompting a tilt towards clubbier sounds — the prospect of appearing at the intimate Tsutaya O-Nest has inspired the duo to, as Cowan says, “return to something a little more folky.”

“It’s been a dream of ours for a long time,” he says of playing in Tokyo. “If we didn’t have this, we probably wouldn’t be at the cabin recording right now.”

The duo plans to continue recording when their winter tour stops off in Taipei and Mexico, with the hope of compiling half a dozen songs that Cowan will then complement with remixes. In an age when genre boundaries are seen as increasingly porous, if not redundant, the pair says they are attempting to preserve a semblance of purity. Cowan explains that his clubbing exploits over the past year have made him “less comfortable with recording something that is like dance music, just for the sake of it”; Standell-Preston dreads being shackled with the “indie-electronic band” tag.

“So much of it’s just crappy, just getting really confused with what both of those genres are,” she says. “Borrowing from genres is a really wonderful thing, but I guess people don’t take the time to understand what they’re borrowing from. We’re trying to really love electronic music.”

Blue Hawaii plays with Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa at Tsutaya O-Nest in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 23 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; www.alive.mu/event/detail/1). Tickets are available from the O-Nest box office.