THERE'S A PICTURE on Blonde Redhead's Touch and Go website of singer and guitarist Kazu Makino looking calmly preoccupied, flanked on each side by guitarist Amedeo Pace and his twin brother, drummer Simone, each of whom is holding one of Makino's breasts and grinning. The image is surprising, even though it's just a band photo, because it's both uncharacteristic of Makino, with her almost inaudible phone voice and thoughtful pauses between ideas, and of Blonde Redhead--it's a moment of silliness for a band that takes music and everything surrounding it very seriously.
Blonde Redhead is more than just a band that's cool because the members consist of a Japanese woman, her Italian boyfriend and his twin brother. It's cool because, while every band is always all about music, Blonde Redhead is more so.
When you take music as seriously as this trio does, it becomes your life. You live it, breathe it, and when you perform it, it becomes saturated with some kind of freaky aura--something not unlike those cartoon squiggles that indicate how good a pie smells and tickle the nose of some unsuspecting cartoon dog or mouse and lead him, delirious, right to the windowsill where the pie has been placed.
Blonde Redhead has that aura, or, rather, aroma of music taken seriously, without pretension. "Seriously" in the sense that the band recognizes music as almost a life-altering medium that can both rebuild and destroy. It drags you in unsuspectingly, and latches itself right to that section of the brain that likes to replay melodies over and over again, which can either imbed the song permanently into your psyche so that you can't imagine life before it, or can really, really annoy you.
This is the difference between good music and bad music. Good music transcends. To quote a line from "In Particular," off of Blonde Redhead's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, "I had to tell myself it was only music."
But the way Kazu Makino, singer and guitarist for Blonde Redhead, talks about it, it's far from being only music. Over the phone from her apartment in New York, she quietly explains, "I almost panic listening to music. I'm just like, oh my god, and it just takes over you and you just don't know what to do with yourself anymore. It happens to me a lot, but I think that's why I keep doing it--to try and figure out what it's all about or to try and be able to write something like that."
Live, Blonde Redhead can exude an energy that's postmodern in both its self-awareness and sound. The three musicians just returned from a European tour only to find themselves embarking on a new tour of the States, which stops in our little village November 27 at Solar Culture. Opening is The Need, whose synth punk complements Blonde Redhead better than, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with which they toured this summer.
Needless to say, most Chili Pepper fans didn't take too well to Blonde Redhead. "It kind of gave me a weird energy from being rejected so hard," Makino says. "My skin got a bit thicker and I think that's not a bad thing." But Makino points out that what the Chili Peppers and Blonde Redhead have in common is a passion for music. "They were so enthusiastic about our music," Makino explains, "so that made it a lot easier to be in a place where it seemed everything was out of context in terms of what we were doing. We're (both) quite serious about music"
Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons is Blonde Redhead's fifth full-length (its third on Chicago indie Touch and Go) and, as the title suggests, the album is more melodic than previous ones. Its 1997 release Fake Can Be Just As Good has often been compared to Sonic Youth (which is hardly original--Blonde Redhead's first full-length was released on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's label, and he also produced it), and its 1998 album In An Expression of the Inexpressible leaned toward a more Fugazi-like structure (which isn't very original either, since Guy Picciotto co-produced it). Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons has elements of both--Makino's breathy la-las on "This Is Not" could be something off a Pizzicato Five record, yet "For the Damaged"'s simple piano and vocals strain with all the sadness of Lisa Germano. But Makino wouldn't go as far as to say this is necessarily a progression.
"I don't want to really look at it as growing up or growth or whatever," she says. "I think each record is ... you don't know if it's going to come out good or not because it's not like with experience you can make a better record. So I was just hoping we could capture as much as we can of things that we were going through, or what was interesting to us, you know, so I don't know if experience really helps. It actually kind of gets in the way, because you kind of can't remember how you actually managed to finish all of the records you've done. You almost feel like you've lucked out, like we were lucky to be able to finish it. You feel like you don't know if you're going to have that luck again."
Blonde Redhead (the name comes from a DNA song) began when Makino and the Pace brothers met by chance in a restaurant in New York City. Ever since then, they've been characterized in the world of music journalism as an exotic, symbiotic entity. "It just gets mixed up completely," Makino says of her relationship with the other band members, "and you have a kind of a weird twisted assurance that your music must be valid. I don't know the proper English word ... because it's so much a part of your life and you think you could live better ... you end up thinking it must be pretty good protection of who you are because we do it so continuously."
The band started working on Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons in France between tours. "I think it brought us to a good frame of mind," Makino says, and the songs reflect the band's cosmopolitan makeup. Also this year, Blonde Redhead released Melodie Citronique, an EP with versions of some songs off of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons in different languages as well as a Serge Gainsbourg cover and a new song. The language capabilities of Blonde Redhead are fascinating to a mostly-monolingual language-lover like this author; since it's hard to understand the lyrics, the listener places more emphasis on the melody, and it becomes more stripped down. Remember that aura/aroma thing? It's even more intoxicating in French.
"It's weird," says Makino about songs in different languages, "because even with part of the songs we wrote, I often heard it in a different language in my head, but we never managed to record it, but I had it in my head and I was kind of annoyed with myself that I never tried things, I never really do them and it just only stays in my head, so this time I said, 'I gotta do it, it just can't stay in my head and talk about it like some old people.' And so we got up and did it and it became something else, it didn't necessarily stay like the way I heard it in my head ... and now I don't know what to think of it anymore."
Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto produced some 7-inch singles for Blonde Redhead and co-produced In an Expression of the Inexpressible before producing Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. "He's the kind of person who gets involved so deeply into what you're doing it's really quite ... astonishing," Makino says. "I guess he can do that because he's so selfless, he can really get inside of it and he can reflect very well. He's like a mirror. He's like a really good mirror that you can sort of see yourself through. Otherwise, you don't really know what you're doing. I trust Guy because I know how he plays his music and that really helps me to really appreciate his opinion of what I'm doing."
And as always, the best way to find out what a band is doing is to just plain listen to it, which you can do this Monday at Solar Culture.
Blonde Redhead plays at 9 p.m. Monday, November 27 at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave., with The Need. Admission to the all-ages show is $8. For more information call 884-0874. Also check the club listings, starting on page 48.