Blonde Redhead are sourcing strength from the shadows
“I was determined not to go back to the band.”
On a Thursday afternoon in a King’s Cross pub, Kazu Makino is describing the inauspicious circumstances in which Blonde Redhead’s tenth LP, Sit Down for Dinner, came to be. Unexpectedly alone in London due to illness within the band, the 53-year-old frontwoman takes a sip from her cup of tea. “I just thought we already did enough,” she adds, casually.
You could argue Makino had a point. In their three-decade tenure on New York’s art-rock scene, Blonde Redhead have more than fulfilled their potential. Championed by prestige indies including 4AD, Touch and Go and Steve Shelley’s Smells Like, their back catalogue remains richly rewarding, offering a uniquely amorphous mix of math rock, post-punk, shoegaze and dream pop. But as effortless as the musical interplay between the three band members might seem, Makino maintains that their creative process was fraught from the outset. “It’s always been so painful to make music [in Blonde Redhead]. I think our chemistry is not… ideal. It kind of works, but we have to make a conscious effort not to bite at each other.”
By any band’s standards, the dynamic within Blonde Redhead has always been complex. Named after a song by Arto Lindsay’s no-wave outfit DNA, they formed as a four-piece back in 1993, before settling on their permanent line-up of Kyoto-born singer and guitarist Makino playing opposite Milanese twins Amedeo Pace (guitar/vocals) and Simone Pace (drums). To further complicate matters, for much of their first decade together, the band’s relationship balance was at the mercy of Makino and Amedeo’s somewhat tempestuous, on-off romance.
For a long time, that abrasive atmosphere seemed to work, engendering the environment that ultimately birthed critical hits including 2000’s Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and 2004’s Misery Is a Butterfly. However, by the time the trio shared ninth LP Barragán in 2014, Makino felt drained by the ongoing friction. And with her chronic asthma worsening, she chose to put physical distance between herself and the brothers, swapping the smog of New York for the fresh sea air on the Italian island of Elba.
The move did more than just improve Makino’s health; it provided her with the creative breathing space to embark upon a solo career. Her debut album, Adult Baby, arrived in 2019, a lightly lysergic collection featuring collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and the Art Orchestra of Budapest. Today, Makino looks back on the period as totally transformative.
“It gave me strength,” she smiles. “I have always had such a chip on my shoulder that I need to prove that I’m good enough [writing] on my own. It’s also really fun not to have competitors when you make music – to know you can do anything you want and nobody’s gonna say anything, is really liberating.”
As Makino tells it, she was so buoyed by the experience that she had no intention whatsoever of reforming Blonde Redhead. A video call with Amedeo and Simone a month after speaking with Makino reveals that there was definitely no mutual agreement to call it a day. “I never thought that we were done with the band,” impresses Amedeo, now almost recovered from the Lyme disease and babesiosis that hospitalised him earlier in the summer. “Me neither,” agrees Simone. And yet neither dispute Makino’s depiction of their volatile creative dynamic.
“I mean, it used to be really fun,” Amedeo admits. “Then, as we made more albums, it started becoming less naive. And the more thought you put into it, the more insecure you become.” Simone continues: “But even if it’s difficult, that’s OK. You know, I don’t think writing is supposed to be easy or fun. Unless it is.”
In the end, it was the pandemic that brought Blonde Redhead back together. Having a weak respiratory system, Makino returned to New York to escape the first wave of Covid ravaging Italy. Within a few weeks, the disease had spread to the US. “Amedeo came to pick me up and we started this exile upstate,” Makino recalls. “We were house-hopping in the countryside with his partner, from February to July.”
With a surfeit of time to kill, the duo resumed work on demos started years earlier, laying down the roots for Sit Down for Dinner. The songs were then further fleshed out on a piecemeal basis, with later sessions taking place with Simone in New York City, Milan and Tuscany. From the outset, Makino laid down ground rules for their collaboration. “I said [to Amedeo and Simone], I am not suffering through this – I’m gonna have a good time. I’m not gonna argue and you’re not gonna take anything away from me. That was the bottom line,” she asserts.
“That contrast between light music and the violent human experience fits me so well, because I’m always searching for the balance between violence and beauty in music and in life” – Kazu Makino
“Kazu was a lot more certain about what she wanted in the songs,” Amedeo concurs. “We always have a few breakdowns, because she tends to get really attached to the demos. But this time around she really pushed for some things, all of which I think were positive.”
The title Sit Down for Dinner refers to the communal ritual of breaking bread – a tradition from Simone and Amedeo’s childhood that the three continue to honour within the band. It is also a direct reference to Joan Didion’s celebrated memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Contemplating the sudden death of her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, Didion writes, “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Coincidentally, Makino approached the book blind, following the passing of her horse of 23 years, Harry. She was instantly floored by its exploration of mortality and grief.
“I know Kazu was going through a lot during that period,” Amedeo confirms. “We were there with her when Harry died and it was really devastating. She was upset for quite a long time throughout the writing of the music, but it seems like a lot of things were also coming out of her during that time.”
Rest of Her Life makes for a haunting elegy for Harry. Featuring Makino’s diaphanous coos layered almost impressionistically over stately guitar strums, sparse synth notes and the ambient twitter of birds, the song concludes with a ragged gasp of breath. Sit Down for Dinner Part I is similarly introspective, constructed around an almost subaqueous keyboard figure and a wistful vocal melody, while Part II adds a frenetic, ticking rhythm and artfully smudged guitars. Thematically, the latter sees Makino contemplating the fleeting nature of life and the guilt she felt living so far away from her elderly parents during the pandemic in lines like, “Daddy oh, I know you’re lonely/ But I can’t, I can’t come home now.”
Throughout, the darkness of the subject matter is contrasted with some often quite bright melodies. “I’m happy the music is not dragging you down,” Makino grins. “There’s a groove to it, so you don’t have to stop and sob the whole time. But I really like to listen to [the album] while watching quite brutal images. It’s like Adam Curtis documentaries. That contrast between light music and the violent human experience fits me so well, because I think I’m always searching for the balance between violence and beauty in music and in life.”
It’s an approach that makes total sense when you consider that she was nearly trampled to death by her horse back in 2002 – an experience famously immortalised on the deceptively perky Equus from Misery Is a Butterfly. Amedeo, however, is less keen to be drawn on the stories behind his lyrics. He smiles, “I hate talking about it, because the process of writing lyrics for me is quite difficult… But I’ve learned that if I start getting emotional about music, I know I can’t really rely on it. Because after a while, the emotions go away.”
Fittingly, the undulating shimmer of Snowman seems to address the idea of emotional masking and communication breakdowns, finding Amedeo revealing, “Only some/ Only know why you went so far/ So far to write a love song that you still hide.” Makino develops that idea further on the balmy, dream-pop groove of Melody Experiment, positing, “How would you feel if I kept you secret?”
And yet, according to Amedeo, Blonde Redhead have rarely been in a healthier place with their communications. “Simone and I are family first, so it’s not as easy as you think just to say, ‘Go to hell.’ And then, me and Kazu had a really close relationship so I think we rely on each other quite a bit.”
He very much sees Sit Down for Dinner as a continuation of Blonde Redhead’s story rather than an epitaph. “I feel like there’s so much more to discover with Simo and Kazu. It never feels like we’ve reached the point where we keep doing the same things, or that we’ve lost interest in making art and writing good music. We still all love figuring out who we are through music and trying to write good songs. It never got old for some reason.”
As for Makino, well, she won’t be drawn on the band’s future for the time being. “I don’t want to say anything because if I throw big words around and then it comes back to me, it leads to complete insecurity and self loathing,” she laughs affectionately. “In my mind, I just want to serve this record right. Because now that it’s out there, I don’t want to abandon it.”
Sit Down for Dinner is out now via Section1
Sit Down for Dinner is out now via Section1