Blonde Redhead is a band that possesses that rarest of distinctions: the combination of conviction and longevity that allows a group to push their creative horizons into uncharted territory without becoming lost in the thicket, always remaining resolutely themselves.
Since their 1993 founding, the band’s palettes and palates have grown to include explorations into electronics, classical instrumentation, a wealth of arcane influences, and radically inventive compositional flourishes. March 10 marked the release of 3 O’Clock, their latest EP. It’s another small milestone in Blonde Redhead’s unbroken string of gorgeous work — a sonic painting made with delicate, patient strokes.
Blonde Redhead’s stylistic roots lie somewhere in the tattered jumble of genres that washed up in the wake of the punk, goth, and new wave movements of the late ‘80s. Call them post-no-wave-noise-rock-experimental-punk-art-gaze — whatever was on the list of ingredients, it caught the ear of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who signed Blonde Redhead to his Smells Like Records label. Listening to Blonde Redhead invokes a kind of familiar novelty, which is in large part a product of lead singer Kazu Makino’s signature high-register vocal stylings. Though her voice has, over the years, conspicuously evolved along with the rest of the band, she has really only come to sound more and more like herself.
Makino’s ethereal vocals temper the snakebite-precision melodies and deep-groove beats of the twins: Italians Amedeo and Simone Pace on guitar and drums, respectively. After initially establishing themselves as something resembling an urbane and avant-garde European contemporary of Sonic Youth, Blonde Redhead has since attained a level of harmonic interplay and cohesion possible only for a band that’s been playing together for two and a half decades.
At four tracks and roughly 20 minutes, 3 O’Clock marks a small but meaningful step on Blonde Redhead’s assiduous climb to the indie music pantheon. Featuring string arrangements by Eyvind Kang, the EP is a lovely little gem. The band has taken an interest in incorporating more strings into their work since they played their classic album Misery Is a Butterfly backed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). This time around, Kang’s strings add dramatic character, while a heavier reliance on acoustic guitars gives the EP a satisfyingly tactile timbre. 3 O’Clock is filling a lull between the three-plus years it generally takes the band to complete a full-length. That their span of time between albums is significantly larger than that of most bands speaks to their meticulousness and masterful craftwork. A small, low-pressure EP has made for a nice respite.
“It’s been quite fun!” says Makino, speaking to me on the phone from New York. She tells me that she herself is on a small break, waylaid for a day before heading to San Francisco to play the Regency Ballroom on Saturday. “This EP was a turning point for me,” Makino tells me. “I wanted to give some kind of gift, like a present to the twins — I wanted to give them a couple of songs. At the time, I was really listening to a lot of gospel music, like Aretha Franklin. ‘Golden Light’ was a little influenced by those gospel songs.”
Makino has also, with little fanfare, “completed more than half my solo album. I’ve been having a blast doing it, but I don’t know—I hope people want to hear it.” I felt strange reassuring her: Of course people will want to listen to it — you’re in Blonde Redhead, for chrissakes. Good-humored and self-conscious, Makino has an endearing humility about her. She has been, ironically, un-shy about her struggles with stage fright. This vulnerability is evident in her music as well as her personality, and it hints at the source of her startlingly powerful ability to conjure emotion through music.
I asked Makino if her new project sounds like Blonde Redhead, or if she was exploring new directions. “Well, it’s just me!” she laughs. “I have such a different process — usually, after our initial ideas, the twins take over, so to speak. But on this one, I’m seeing it through — I’m giving it a birth, and feeding it until grows up. So hopefully, it will be reasonably different.” Working outside the by-now well-trodden creative pathways that have defined Blonde Redhead has provided Makino with a refreshing challenge: “It’s almost like speaking your native language and then speaking in a foreign language. It’s that kind of dissonance, you know?”
Makino and the Pace twins will only be able to rest for a moment, as they’re about to set out on a new tour through California and up to the Pacific Northwest. Makino is weary from the road and is missing her horse, Harry, who’s stabled in upstate New York. She tells me that, in Japan, 3 o’clock is a teatime. It’s a break in the day, a time to relax. It’s around that time when we finish our phone call. By Saturday, Blonde Redhead will be onstage at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, playing their newly crafted tracks and earning another day’s worth of well-deserved applause for their pristine, heartfelt, and beautiful music.