Blonde Redhead gets comfortable with past records

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Formed in 1993 by Japanese singer Kazu Makino and Italian twins Simone and Amedeo Pace, and forged in the noisy underbelly of the New York alternative scene, Blonde Redhead has charted a path that has taken it from screeching underground noise rock to fragile, glacial, minimalist melody without ever losing the essential rawness at the heart of its sound.

Since moving to British label 4AD for 2004′s “Misery is a Butterfly,” Blonde Redhead has been on a three-year cycle of new releases and touring. The trio is currently coming to the end of the cycle that began with 2010′s electronic and synth-inflected “Penny Sparkle” and has a new album, “Barragan,” scheduled for release in September.

“An album always feels better once you’re done and (have) toured it, and you can go back and realize, ‘Oh yeah, it sounds like us,’ ” explains guitarist Amedeo Pace on the phone from his home in the United States. “When we’re first making (the album), it feels new and it’s hard to find a place (for it).”

Pace says that “Penny Sparkle” has finally taken its place in Blonde Redhead’s discography, and adds that since the band has been recording albums for a long time, it’s always interesting to embark on creating a new one.

“You’re developing a voyage, documenting yourself through the music,” he says. “(‘Barragan’) is going to have its place, too, but for now it’s so new and different.”

The band has been working on its new album with producer Drew Brown, who was also the engineer on “Penny Sparkle” and produced the alternative version of the title track that appeared on 2012′s “We Are the Works in Progress,” a compilation to benefit victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Pace says Brown’s influence on the new album can be felt in both the approach to songwriting and instrumentation.

“He loves instruments that are acoustic and old,” Pace explains. “He got a lot of things out of us that we didn’t know we were capable of, and taught us things about jamming. We didn’t finish the songs before going into the studio like we usually do.”

The result promises to be an album in which the band explores new levels of minimalism, with some songs boiled down to skeletal structures featuring just one or two instruments. The increasing emphasis on minimalism seems to fly in the face of the feedback-drenched noise of its early records, but in Blonde Redhead’s world, noise and fragility seem to function as two different routes toward achieving the same goal of creating an emotionally raw experience. For Pace, the changing form his vocals take on the occasional songs he contributes to the group’s albums is informed by his ongoing battle with shyness.

“When we started, I was singing in front of the producer, the engineer, band . . . anyone else who happened to be in the studio. That was very difficult for me,” he remembers. “So on the early albums, I kept that in mind, protecting myself from being vulnerable, (thinking,) ‘I’m going to have to sing this song, so I’ll have to (do it in a way) I’m not embarrassed.’ “

The increasing availability of digital recording equipment has allowed Pace to retreat into his shyness, and he records his vocals alone at home. The result of this is that his songs on “Penny Sparkle” have a sense of incredible closeness and intimacy that contrasts with Makino’s more distant, spectral utterances.

Looking back on Blonde Redhead’s material from the 1990s, one of the things Pace finds most remarkable is how well most of it holds up, given the difficulties he experienced during the recording of it.

“I don’t cringe or feel uncomfortable listening to it,” he says. “I’m surprised at how comfortable it feels.”

He says that the first album is still a little difficult to listen to, but from the second album, “La Mia Vita Violenta,” he doesn’t hear as many problems.

Blonde Redhead’s headlining gig at the upcoming Hostess Club Weekender in Tokyo comes at the end of a string of Asian dates that includes Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Taipei. As a result, the band will likely not feel the jet lag that has plagued previous tours, which has even gotten to the point where all three members could sometimes be found passed out in the dressing room before shows. Given the band’s involvement in the earthquake and tsunami relief effort through their curation of “We Are the Works in Progress,” the visit will provide an opportunity to see firsthand how Japan has responded to the disasters three years on, with Pace lamenting the way the media has consigned the ongoing troubles at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to the box marked “yesterday’s news.”

In addition to upcoming concerts and preparations for promoting “Barragan,” Blonde Redhead’s members have also been building on their budding careers as soundtrack artists.

“We’re doing a Brendt Barbur documentary for this bicycle film festival he does,” Pace explains. “The music for a film called ‘The Commentator,’ but we still need to do lots of work on it.”

The film follows Danish cycling commentator Jorgen Leth as he comments on the grueling Paris-Roubaix cycle race and it marks Blonde Redhead’s second foray into soundtrack work after director Keven McAlester’s 2008 documentary “The Dungeon Masters.”

The image of the cycle race is perhaps an apt metaphor for the place Blonde Redhead now finds itself, with each new release a small revolution that takes the band forward to the next stage. With the group preparing to enter a new cycle, it’s faced with the challenge of interpreting new material with its wide variety of instruments into a format that can be played live on tour. Right now the band is so close to the music that its members aren’t sure of the new album’s identity. Once released into the world, though, its shape will start to become apparent. For Pace, that is part of what makes being in a band so exciting.

“I’m curious to know when (‘Barragan’) is finally done and I can finally see it for what it is.”

Blonde Redhead plays the first day of the Hostess Club Weekender at Shin Kiba Studio Coast in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on June 21 and 22 (1:45 p.m. and 2 p.m. starts; ¥13,900 for a two-day pass, ¥7,900 per day; 03-5534-2525). For more information, visit www.blonde-redhead.com.