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Standing Firm at Thirty: an Interview with Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino

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The legendary New York dream-pop trio Blonde Redhead played the Ottobar on February 24th as the kick-off of their most recent US tour. This year marks not only the 20th anniversary of the release of their turning point album, Misery Is A Butterfly, but also the 30th anniversary of Blonde Redhead’s formation. I took this opportunity to catch up with vocalist Kazu Makino and reflect on the band’s journey.

There’s a popular Chinese saying, “standing firm at thirty,” meaning at thirty years old, one knows their position in the world.  In thirty years the band has become solid and iconic—from their early, noisier style, where the shape of sound continued to transform into something sad and ethereal from within, occasionally with some electronic textures. What remained unchanged was the tone of romance, where Makino’s vocals always bring lightness to the songs, making you feel like floating in a starry sky full of beauty and sadness.

Speaking with Makino, and listening to their music over the years, the pace of their musical journey reminds me of Wenders’s fundamental concept of road movies—a profound depiction of the contradictory “American Dream,” in which you can feel the sharp coldness of American capitalism everywhere. At the same time, there is passion and pureness in its music and arts. As migrators, we continuously pursue the various possibilities in life or try to determine its multiple meanings—on the seemingly endless long road, which may be crowded with people or deserted. Like Susan Sontag wrote in her book The Benefactor, “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.”

 

Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace, photo by Zach McCormick
Simone Pace, photo by Zach McCormick
I’m so used to being in a man’s world, and I learned to deal with it.
Kazu Makino

BmoreArt: In the early days of Blonde Redhead, you boldly played unique and built-up characteristic noise in the music. The early style also made people compare the band to Sonic Youth. Steve Shelly was so impressed by your music that he signed Blonde Redhead to his label, Smells Like Records. Your music has always maintained a sense of noise and extended dreaminess later on. After years of living and making music in New York and traveling between the United States and Italy, what do you think is the significant change in Blonde Redhead’s music?

Makino: What you’re saying is true. I suppose we used to have much more sound with dissonance, distortion, etc. I didn’t feel so violent doing it. I think I was already writing songs in the same way as I am today, and hearing the same kind of music in my head. However, I suppose the way we produced it was much more noisy and sounded angry. We were sort of part of the punk rock scene [in New York]. We were young and frustrated and trying to belong to a particular genre. To be honest with you, we never truly wanted to change ourselves. I think our concern is how to be authentic. 

I have a playful mind, so I want to do some experiments which could be vague and abstract. Making music is more about who I really am. When you focus on that, it could be something so small, simple, or minimal that it can feel like it represents how you feel at present.

Listening to the album Sit Down for Dinner, that tenderness facing grief gives a sense of sorrow, which turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it, exactly like Joan Didion wrote. Is music a way for you to process death or heal yourself?

Sure. Sometimes, I really do thank God for music. Because I am more grounded when I do it. I’m sensitive to sadness and death and such. The things I’m sensitive to are not just my own suffering but also intense events that amplify me. Sometimes, I can’t tell if it’s happening to them or me. I feel it close. When I returned to see my parents, I was just as sure as everybody was. And it’s tough. You don’t know what to do with yourself because they keep changing as time goes by. It’s like visiting your past, and it’s always tender.

It’s a sadness that you realize you moved on. You’re somewhere else and have people you have spent much more time with. Then you realize how much time you were not with your family just by seeing them—through the absence of closeness. That can be quite sad. When you are there, you sort of play the role of who you once were until you leave; you leave your parents and then go back to the version of yourself today. I guess it’s also a normal thing.

 

I need something to counteract the energy that I have inside me, which is so undisciplined and uncontrolled. It is also why I like things that are super controlled; I don't have them.
Kazu Makino


In an interview with American Songwriter, you said that you struggled with “discomfort being me” when you lived in Japan, which made you want to escape from everything there. Later, your acquaintance with John Lurie made you want to leave Japan to pursue something you desired. What do you mean by “discomfort being yourself”? Did you feel constrained by tradition, family discipline, or Japanese society at the time?

It’s hard to explain. You feel it, and everybody else feels it. Even if you’re not doing anything weird or different from anybody else, you are still being looked at as someone strange. I did exactly what everybody else was doing, like going through the day as you were supposed to, and people were still looking at me differently—but not necessarily in a good way. I felt like spending years hiding myself and trying to blend in, but I failed. I love the traditions and cultures in Japan. I thrived on limitations. I was thankful to have those borderlines, and it wasn’t so much like a threat from society, but it was more like struggles in the head. I could constantly feel that I couldn’t really tame myself.

So I also appreciated those traditional formalities, practiced all that, and learned how to communicate with people and craft that the Japanese can offer me. I loved all that. My mom and grandma were both tea ceremony instructors, and they were so great at teaching people that they still made people feel safe about being themselves.

Speaking of formality, there is a philosophy in Japanese culture—to master the form before becoming a master. Do you also follow this concept for everything?

I wish. I don’t practice much. That’s really a problem for me. I don’t really try to master the foundation. I know basic grammar is good for me, but I start doing whatever I want. That’s why I need something to counteract the energy that I have inside me, which is so undisciplined and uncontrolled. It is also why I like things that are super controlled; I don’t have them. At the same time, I am pretty obsessive when I’m really into something, and I will go deep into it in my own way—to look at things with a magnifying glass. I think Japanese culture generally has that tendency—we look deep into things.

Kazu Makino, photo by Zach McCormick

I appreciate the Pitchfork article in which you shared the ten albums that have influenced you the most. You said you deeply resonate with the repetition in Terry Riley’s music. It reminds me of Daniel Levitin, who expounded on the concept of repetition in his book This Is Your Brian on Music—that music can activate the amygdala precisely because it continues to repeat and makes changes or transpositions, stimulating our memory and emotion system.

I think it’s hypnotic to me. When something is so good that it can be repeated over and over and over, it’s like a loop; you can’t stop it. If it has no repetition, I’m not sure it would work for me. I feel conscious, but I know I’m drawn to it deeply.

Continuing the previous question, you also mentioned in that article that listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s album, Async, made you have some identity crisis. What was the identity crisis you felt at that time?

Because it’s so good! It makes me think: What am I doing? How dare I make music when I could never achieve the place he did. Then why do I even bother trying? I’m fortunate because my impulse to make music is pretty strong… It’s instinctive, not because I think I’m good at it. I’m compelled to do it because I won’t feel well if I don’t. Also, if I were genuinely paralyzed by my own criticism, I probably wouldn’t be able to do anything. I would stop myself. But there is always a moment when I forget about everything else, I forget about time, and I put down whatever I have in my mind. That is music for me.

I think it would be much harder for me to write lyrics in Japanese. It helps when I write or sing songs that are not my language. So you have a little distance and can comfortably talk as if it’s about someone else’s feelings.
Kazu Makino


Since English is not your first language, does it feel unnatural for you to write lyrics in English? And how do you interpret song lyrics when you write them in other languages?

I think it would be much harder for me to write lyrics in Japanese. It helps when I write or sing songs that are not my language. So you have a little distance and can comfortably talk as if it’s about someone else’s feelings. It makes me feel so personal to write songs in Japanese. Writing songs in English makes it easier for me to exploit myself. I can’t speak for Amedeo because he has a different approach to writing music; I don’t intervene unless he asks me to write.

Take one of your past albums, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, as an example. The songs you sang on that album sounded instinctively in tune, and the lyrics seemed like part of the music and free-spirited, especially “In Particular.” Is this the way you’ve always interpreted songs?

It was. But that song took a long time for me to break through. I knew I wanted something abstract like that, but you had to make a considerable effort to keep it abstract. I tried to keep the song very abstract but without sounding finished. We spent hours figuring out how to keep that song minimal.

Do you ever feel isolated and lonely associated with language differences, like only your mother tongue can fully let you articulate yourself in words?

I do what I can do. Of course, I’m wholly inadequate compared to people who are like hip-hop artists. They can really express themselves with language. And I’m not that advanced. But I do it in my own language skill level, I suppose. There is some advantage to not understanding exactly what’s going on. I love being an observer—appreciating that everybody is so intelligent when you don’t fully understand what they’re saying. Once you do understand it, sometimes you would be terribly disappointed. (laugh)

In the documentary Our City Dreams, filmmaker Chiara Clemente interviews women artists such as Marina Abramovic and Ghada Amer who moved into a metropolitan life with a culture and language different from their own. The predicament became a drive for creativity that emerged from their cocoons in a way. Did you have a similar feeling when you came to New York from Japan? What is the freedom of being an artist to you?

I’m so used to being in a man’s world, and I learned to deal with it. I also realize I’m often the only girl in the place I live in, but I never let it get to me. It’s not like I really look up to all the men. However, I can see their struggles as being men, too. So, I kind of take advantage of just being the only woman. I think it’s great to work with women, too. I do feel a bit more protective towards them. When I moved to New York, I felt the freedom to be an artist. I guess it’s always that way when you move to New York or any other big city. I always have it in me, yet I’ve not changed.

Sakamoto Ryuichi described in his book Music Gives Freedom that he felt moved to New York as an immigrant. Nam June Paik described the sense of being immigrants as Koreans being like hunters and prey, while the Japanese are like fishermen, going to the ocean to catch fish. The fishermen may eventually return. Do you think you have a sense of belonging that has taken root in the States? Have you ever thought about returning to Japan one day?

I thought about it, but I don’t have a concrete plan. I love animals and would like to have cats, horses, and more orchids. The regulations are so strict and tricky that you can’t easily bring animals from other countries back to Japan. Besides, the walls of the house that I come from are so thin you can’t even play piano or make a loud noise. I know my grandpa’s house is like that, at least. 

I don’t feel deeply attached to America, as I think it is my country. It’s probably because of the American mentality, I suppose. It is really money-oriented here, and that’s a problematic quality for me when it comes to adopting the idea of living. It would lose the cycle of humanity and then put money before everything. People would do anything or turn to somebody else to benefit from something. I’m sure people like that exist in Japan, too. But it’s really more in your face here.

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