Before the release of her benefit compilation We Are the Works In Progress (QRO review), Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino talked with QRO. In the conversation, Makino talked about the album, made to help out in the recovery from the Fukushima disaster in her native Japan, the disaster itself & it’s continuing aftermath, wrangling artists & exclusive material, who was on time (& who wasn’t – including herself…), getting the track order wrong, how difficult it is to get tax-exempt status in the U.S. when benefiting foreign charities, Blonde Redhead’s plans for 2012, taking advantage of ‘demo-itis’, trying to play new places, trying to play old venues, and much more…
QRO: Where did the idea of We Are the Works In Progress begin?
KM: As soon as it happened in March, the disaster, I just didn’t want to do nothing. And then I didn’t know what to do, except something like this.
QRO: So it came directly as a response to the disaster?
QRO: How does one go about making this kind of compilation – do you start just by reaching out to the artists, or do you have a few songs already ‘in the bank’?
KM: I never did anything like that before, so I was a bit, ‘Okay, how do I go about this?’ But I just came back from a long tour in Australia and New Zealand with a bunch of bands; it was a group of bands who toured together, including [Progress contributor] Deerhunter (QRO live review).
I kind of were in contact with many artists around that time, so I called them right away, and it started off like that. I did, knew from the beginning that we wanted to be exclusive material. You know, everybody was starting to do something really new and whatever, but I wanted it to be quite good music, satisfying record. So I started asking for the exclusive material. It was quite amazing, ‘cause everybody responded to me really quickly.
Of course, writing exclusive material, or looking for one from their archives, took a long time. But that was really, pretty, amazing.
QRO: Were there any musicians that you didn’t maybe know as well, but you just reached out to see if they could contribute?
KM: Yeah, I did seek from other people that I never met before, but their music is so close to my life that I thought of them immediately. I suppose there’s a coherence in what I like, my musical taste, I suppose.
Literally like wrote to their fan club, and hope they wrote back to me – fan club or website or whatever. Just as humble as that, just to reach out.
QRO: Were there any songs that you received that ended up not making it onto Progress?
KM: Amedeo [Pace, Blonde Redhead’s guitarist] wrote a song, but I didn’t get to use because he was never around to sign these legal papers… I’m sure he wouldn’t have gotten cross with us, or mad with us, if we used it without official contract, but I wasn’t allowed to do that. Sadly, I couldn’t use his song.
Also, Philip Glass offered us a song, it wasn’t exclusive, and at that point, I had a bunch of, most of the songs, already. It just didn’t fit in. I’m a big fan of Philip Glass, I could have just requested certain pieces, but that seemed wrong.
Basically, it was getting to record; the record was getting too long. I had to give up. We could actually do another one, if I wanted to…
QRO: Were you worried about getting too many pieces?
KM: Yeah, a little bit, yeah. ‘Cause we knew we wanted to do vinyl, it has to be double vinyl, so…
QRO: Was the Drew Brown remix of [Blonde Redhead’s] "Penny Sparkle" already made when you started putting together the compilation, or was that made specifically for the compilation?
KM: Well, we tweaked it, but its based on the version that we… There were two versions of "Penny Sparkle" that was going on in the studio. Conceptually, we chose the one that we chose for the album [of the same title – QRO review], but that was the way we had it, a bit? But we had a producer and people, and we wanted to be produced, so we didn’t want it to be just about us, so we didn’t choose that.
But I really love that version, and was quite stuck with that version, so it was my chance to sort of release that version. We tweaked it a little bit, but basically that was another version we liked just as much.
But it happens – things like this happen a lot when making a record. You have to go for the bigger picture or whatever. That was something I really encouraged other artists to do, ‘Like if there’s anything you couldn’t use but you just loved as a piece, but you couldn’t use it on the record, things like that, that’d be really welcome.’ I don’t know which artists used pieces like that, but I’m sure they’re quite a few of them that said, ‘Oh, I always loved this version, or this demo that I have.’
QRO: Did you put the extra material at the end, after Interpol’s (QRO live review) "Song Seven"?
KM: Yeah. [laughs] That was a little bit, how you say? – ‘bonus track’. That was a really, really early version of "23", when we still didn’t know what the song was about, or anything like that. I really loved the guitar part that Amedeo is playing, which he would not repeat it for me. He wouldn’t, just say, "I just don’t feel it; I don’t want to do it anymore." I ended up incorporating it in my melody, singing. So the guitar part you hear in the version is the original idea for my back-up chorus, but I prefer the demo, of course, even so. That was my chance…
QRO: So you got to use a guitar part from Amedeo that he didn’t want to do, but you couldn’t use the song that he actually gave you…
KM: It was already, ‘Okay, that’s the beginning of "23".’ When we recorded it for real, he didn’t want to play that part of again, "I’m not feeling it; I feel silly playing it." And I was like, "How can you not play, how can you not feel that part?" I was like, "That’s where you get your money’s worth, for me…" But he wasn’t going to do it – "If you’re not going to do it, I’m just gonna try to sing it…" And that became the chorus.
That album [of the same name – QRO review] was really like that. We just did all the parts, we just did any parts we could think of, and we didn’t think of editing or anything like that. We gave as they are to remix to [producer] Alan Moulder, and we told him, "Kill anything you don’t like, and use whatever you like. Just mix and match as you feel it." I think he had fun doing that. So that’s 23…
QRO: That must have required a lot of trust in Alan…
KM: Yeah, because I knew that was his alley, up his alley. I knew that when we started writing, "Oh, he’s gonna eat this up, eat this all up!" I maybe don’t know the guy, personally, but I just knew that he would be the person to pull it off.
QRO: For Progress, how did you determine the track order?
KM: Well… You know… Well, mmm… I don’t think I did it too wisely, ‘cause all the really long songs [are] in the beginning. But that’s how I heard it. It’s not actually correct, or practical, or rational, or whatever?… [laughs]
But I hope it works. I feel like, those songs just sort of ‘set the vibe’, you know? A really good prediction of what’s about to happen. And the rest, for me, just followed that.
I don’t expect people to hear it in that order.
But I like that way. Also, if it’s your own album, you’re not being stopped by you’re A&R, "There’s no way you’re putting your sequence like this…" So I’m quite satisfied with that.
QRO: Were you at all tempted to make "Song Seven" the seventh track?
KM: Oh, no… Didn’t even think of that. [laughs]
QRO: Is there extra pressure on you with this because it’s you picking the songs, and it’s the debut release by your label?
KM: Uh… no? Of course, we want it – I’m not worried about it musically, I think it’s amazing, but I am worried about if it’s going to help anything at all, or if it’s gonna make people… how do you say?… I just want to support Japanese people in their decision-making. I know it’s really tough where they are; it doesn’t get much worse than they’re in right now. I just want to give them some kind of support, but, as I said in the beginning,
I do worry about that.
QRO: Do you worry literally about how much money it makes, because it’s raising money for charity?
KM: Well, you know, yes, it’s true, but the more I think about it – Japan’s been in recession and this and that, but still, if you think about it, Japan’s a pretty rich country. If this happened in some other country, they would have just disappeared altogether, you know?
So it’s not that I think that they need the money that we can raise, but I think this is more that we really, I just want people to be really strong and choose the right path, you know? Just not sit around and wait, even if this is gonna end in a really terrible ending, I want them to do the right way. These are the things I think about – if I’m able to make any one person a kind of courage.
QRO: How did you go about picking the charities that We Are the Works In Progress will benefit?
KM: The thing is, we looked into many organizations, and we saw many that we wanted to help out. We wanted to give a lot of money to renewable energy, people who are trying to come up with newest way of providing power, and all that stuff. And also to support the kids who lost their parents in the area.
We were already contacting them and all, but the huge obstacle came – if we want to give money directly to this Japanese organization, we wouldn’t have tax-exempt [status]. Each & every CD or vinyl, anything we sell, we would have to pay proper taxes in America – that wouldn’t make any sense.
So, in order for us to have total tax-exempt organization, they had to have a branch in the States, America. So those were the two organizations that you see on the album, they have office in the States, but we’d been talking to them a lot, they are willing to follow our suggestion or intention in what kind of ways that we want the money to be spent. So through them, they distribute to the organization in Japan. We needed someone sort of medium level, middle, coming to do that.
QRO: Was it just coincidence the debut release by your new label?
KM: No, we made this just so we could do this.
QRO: So the label was just made so you could do the record…
KM: Yeah. It was simpler that way. I don’t know if the label’s gonna exist or not exist. I like it [to] exist, but I don’t know how, or in what form.
QRO: How does making a compilation like Progress compare with making a ‘regular’ Blonde Redhead record?
KM: [laughs] It’s entirely different, ‘cause you get to harass people. Actually, I hated that part – out of all the people, me, out of all the people, am late for everything. Couldn’t possibly urge people to hurry up, tell them to hurry up. Just seemed so wrong. But I had to do it.
Interesting, though – all the electronic musicians, they’re quite good with time. And all the band people – terrible with time. It’s very interesting…
QRO: Blonde Redhead has contributed to other compilations before – is it interesting being on the ‘other side’ of the process this time?
KM: Yeah. I think look at making a record, the process of it – you always complain, ‘Why is this taking so long? Why isn’t this done? Why can’t we just release it?’, you know? We always bitch about that to label – I don’t know if I can ever do that again…
KM: I don’t know – having these songs in your archive, and having to play them live, it’s a different story. Especially, if I collect all the music from latest album, the album they have been promoting it, then the live show would be possible, but these are the songs that they wanted, ‘hidden treasures’, you know?
QRO: They probably weren’t played live…
KM: Yeah, I don’t think any of us would be able to say, "Oh yeah, I play that live all the time…" or, "Oh, I could play live, easy…" I think that would be nearly impossible.
We could do something else, I don’t know, something imaginary, but playing live would be quite difficult.
QRO: Have you thought about doing a ‘normal’ benefit show, like a Blonde Redhead benefit show, but for the same cause?
KM: No, ‘cause that was the choice we made – do we want to do benefit concerts, or do we want to do the album? And we wanted to have the album, because we wanted to have the lasting power, some kind of documentation that this happened.
QRO: How much actually has Blonde Redhead played in Japan?
KM: Not many times. We were quite unknown there for a long time. But I think we might be going back in May.
QRO: Were you personally affected by the Fukushima disaster – do you have friends & family in the region?
KM: No, but I couldn’t find – every line was down. Entire Japan. So I couldn’t find my parents for hours, and that was really scary.
QRO: How difficult is it to find out ‘the truth’ about what’s going on in the Fukushima area?
KM: It’s not hard, but… I’m actually part of a group called ‘Artist’s Power’. It’s formed with Japanese artists, intellectuals, academics, and all that type of public people. This people connect through Facebook – it’s called ‘Artist’s Power’. They leak so much information, everyday – it’s incredible. We get through exchange, something close to the truth.
It’s incredible, but at the same time, it’s quite frustrating, because no matter how much you know, there’s so little you can do about it, you know?
I think people are trying to be a lot more political than they have ever been, trying to come together and resist the tendency of government and others, their sort of attitude about what’s going on and stuff. People are trying to fight against that.
I think it’s quite hard – it’s almost too difficult to know to the truth; it’s too hard to know. I think it’s quite horrible.
QRO: How much do you think the region can recover, given the disaster?
KM: I don’t think it can recover. I think that region done with.
I think what Japanese people have to worry about is how to… so that doesn’t spread any more than it has to. I think that’s the part that hasn’t really been dealt with, correctly.
QRO: In Japan and around the world, there’s been a pullback from nuclear power. Are you at all worried that that could hurt efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and fight global warming? Nuclear power, for all its faults, doesn’t release greenhouse gases.
KM: Right, right – as long as it’s working…
But still, I think that there’s no other way than to come up with a solution.
But, at the same time, in order to keep it cool, these nuclear plants, it needs massive amounts of water to cool it down. That’s why it’s always on the coast, the river – that’s adding to global warming, for sure.
And the fact is, all of them, across the board, is getting old, really old. In order to maintain, in order to update it, it takes billions and billions of dollars. And what we want to decide is, instead of investing money into that, just we have to… how do you say?… ‘change the course.’
QRO: What is Blonde Redhead doing right now?
KM: Uh… We are supposed to write new material. We started to think about – we just kind of move like a turtle. We are thinking about new things.
Also try to reach to area of the world that we haven’t been to, while we do that. That’s the two things that we have in mind.
QRO: What parts of the world? You mentioned going to Japan…
KM: Yeah. We’ve never been to Russia; we’ve never been to Asiatic countries except Beijing and Taipei. We have not been to Africa. One day, I would like to go to Syria, but I know that can’t happen right now.
And also, even, like, Germany – we’ve just started to do outside of Berlin. We’ve been very conservative, going to places. So we’ve probably not been to that many places. We’d like to go back to Scandinavia – we’ve only been there like twice.
QRO: That’s a bit odd, considering that you’re from Japan and the brothers [Pace, Amedeo & drummer Simone] are from Italy, that you’re conservative in where you go…
KM: [laughs] Yeah! We went to Italy one too many times, I think.
QRO: The last couple of records, 23 and Penny Sparkle, have had more success. Has that enabled you to broaden your horizons, in terms of where you can play?
KM: Well, yeah – you know what it is? You just don’t wanna find yourself repeating. You kind of want to avoid that.
Unless you have such an amazing memory, you know? That happens, too – I quite often think about the way, the beginning of our career. Not the very first club, but when you go back second or third times, mid-size clubs. I miss those places, 400-capacity places. Quite often really nice, beautiful theater about that size, and then when you go bigger, thousand, fifteen hundred, it starts to look really like a gymnasium, you know? Or just big, black, square box. I’m not too keen on going back to places like that, over and over.
So I’ve been talking to booking agent about things like that, if we can have a few more shows in smaller places, than just…
QRO: Oh, multiple dates in the same city…
KM: Something like that. It’s always a challenge to make it possible, financially.
QRO: So your plans are to tour the newer places?
KM: Our plan is to start writing music, here, and then play shows here and there, so we can try new materials as we go along. And then, once the songs are all set to go, then we chose a place to record them. That’s kind of how we seeing it.
QRO: Normally, when you have new material, do you like to test it out live?
KM: Yeah. It’s kind of scary, how we test it out when it’s far from ready, you know? Don’t even have lyrics or whatever, but still, it’s nice to try this new material.
QRO: I’ve seen you outside quite a bit in New York – do you do anything differently outdoors?
KM: I dread outdoor, because it’s weird – you feel more exposed; there’s more a reality check, also. But then, it can be quite magical, too. I like when the sun is setting, or something – the vibe can be quite special.
It’s always been really nice to play outdoors in New York. I expect nothing; I actually dread it, so much, but it turned out really nicely in the past.
QRO: When outdoors, does the wind ever blow your hair into your face?
KM: [laughs] What are you getting at?…
QRO: When you’re performing, does your hair get into your mouth or anything?
KM: Oh, my hair is always in my face… Yes, it does.
QRO: How long did it take you to automatically tell the difference between the twin brothers [Simon & Amedeo]?
KM: [laughs] They’re quite different. They’re actually phenomenally different.
This is what really tells you about – it’s not about the look; it’s really about the personality. ‘Cause I forget that they look alike, because they’re so different, personality-wise. I’ve never mistaken the two…
QRO: Do you think that you’re the only Japanese-Italian band out there?
KM: I never thought about that. I doubt it; I bet there are other bands in that combo.