Blonde Redhead - Biography
Blonde Redhead is an American band consisting of three expatriates who started out as a dissonant noise-rock band and slowly morphed into a band capable of producing albums of entrancing dream-pop rock with an emotional punch. They are widely admired in alternative and independent rock circles and continue to widen their palette of sounds with every release.
Identical twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace were born in Milan, Italy and moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada when they were both 13. The pair started playing guitar and drums, respectively, and developed a keen interest in both jazz and rock. They later moved to Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, earning bachelor’s degrees before moving to New York City to pursue starting a rock band. A chance meeting in a restaurant resulted in the brothers meeting two female Japanese art students who were also interested in starting a band. Kazu Makino was an amateur singer and guitarist, while Maki Takahashi was a bass player. The four realized an instant connection with each other, and started hanging out together and rehearsing in earnest. The band settled on the name Blonde Redhead, after a song by the infamous New York no-wave group DNA (another band fond of noise that featured a female Japanese member). The band quickly forged a sound that was influenced by the no-wave bands of the late 70's and early 80's.
Blonde Redhead started making the rounds of New York's club and art scene venues, creating a furious racket with detuned guitars, flailing percussion and often either Makino's weird, high-pitched screaming vocals or Amedeo's heavily accented vocals flying over the top of the din. The group debuted in 1993 with the seven-inch single “Big Song” (Oxo), and that, as well as their growing live reputation, brought them to the attention of Sonic Youth drummer, Steve Shelley, who had recently started his own record label, Smells Like Records, and was looking for bands to produce and sign. After releasing another single, “Vague” (Smells Like) the group recorded an eight song album with Shelley titled simply Blonde Redhead (1995 Smells Like). The album immediately garnered critical praise, though almost every mention of the band lumped their sound in with Sonic Youth. Though Blonde Redhead did play detuned guitars and sometimes utilized similar song structures to that of the older band, they already were establishing a unique sound, not least because of Makino and Pace's unique vocals, which were pushed farther to the forefront than any of Sonic Youth's vocalists had ever been.
Soon after the release of the album, Takahashi left the band, and was briefly replaced by friend and bassist Toko Yasuda. Yasuda, feeling frustrated that she was not comfortable contributing songs to the band, soon left, and Blonde Redhead continued on as a bass-less trio. Another album followed in 1995, La Mia Vita Violenta (Smells Like), and it found the group further refining their sound. Makino was becoming more skilled on the guitar and her vocals became less a scream and more wide-ranging, often being favorably compared to Bjork's singing style. Amadeo Pace's vocals also became fuller, and Simone Pace's percussion work was becoming less thrashy and more nuanced. The band toured and continued to build a reputation as a unique and talented live draw.
By 1997, the band's popularity was such that a move to a bigger, better distributed label would be in the band's best interest, and the group signed with the well-regarded larger independent label Touch & Go. Their first album for the label, Fake Can Be Just As Good (1997), was co-produced by the band with engineer John Goodmanson, and the band asked their friend Vern Rumsey, bass player with Unwound, to play bass on the album. Due to commitments with his own band, he wasn't able to tour with Blonde Redhead, but his driving bass significantly contributed to the sound of the album. Fake continued Blonde Redhead's refinement of their sound, veering from motorik rhythms to almost beautiful chord colorings, all behind the vocals of Makino and Pace.
Blonde Redhead's next album, 1998's In An Expression Of The Inexpressible (Touch & Go), was producted by Goodmanson and Fugazi's singer/guitarist, Guy Picciotto. The sound of the album continued the trend of polishing and refinement that was started on Fake, with the guitars interplaying more tightly against the strong but supple backbeat laid down by Simone Pace. Keyboards were also starting to subtly make their way into the band's sound. The group had, at this point, become comfortable with not having a bass player, having either Makino or Amedeo Pace play one in the studio or live if the song required it, but often times foregoing bass in favor of the two-guitars and drums set-up. The band continued touring almost constantly, playing with the likes of Shellac, Unwound and Fugazi.
The group returned to the studio and released their next album, Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch & Go) in 2000. The band again tapped Picciotto to produce the album. At this point, Blonde Redhead had moved farther away from the furious guitar-rock and Sonic Youth comparisons of their earlier releases, and were now embracing a sound that took in aspects of 60's-era French pop as well as elements mined from such diverse forms of music as jazz, ambient and shoe-gazer rock. The guitars and keyboards didn't sting as much as form warm chorusy beds behind the more rhythmically complex percussion. Both Amedeo Pace and Makino were becoming much more mature vocalists, and the band as a whole embraced these new elements, making them that much more unique in the process. The band also released a companion EP, Melodie Citronique (2000 Touch & Go), featuring cover songs and reworked tracks from the album with Italian and French vocals.
After Melody, Blonde Redhead went on a four year hiatus, mainly due to a serious accident that Makino suffered in 2002 when she was thrown from a horse and nearly crippled. During her long recovery, the band switched record labels to the prestigious British record label 4AD, home to such acts as the Cocteau Twins and the Pixies. The band took the time to further refine and change their sound, so that when their next album, Misery Is A Butterfly, appeared in 2004, it took many people, not least of which their fans, by surprise. Strings and keyboards were featured prominently on the album -- it sounded like Blonde Redhead had become a sort of chamber music rock band. The feel was miles away from the sound the band had started with, yet it was completely their own. The music was graceful where once it was urgent, probably due to Makino's life being changed so drastically and the deepened bond that all three band members held with one another. Critics and fans soon came around and the album sold better than any of their previous records. Live, the band continued on as a three-piece, with members switching from their guitars and drums to keyboards for some of the newer material.
Blonde Redhead continued to tour and released their next album, 23 (4AD) in 2007. For the first time, the group opted to produce the album themselves, with assistance on two songs from producer Mitchell Froom. They wanted more spontaneity and clarity on 23 than they’d had on the previous album, and 23 is an excellent distillation of the different stages the band had experienced throughout their career. The creation process, though, was reportedly tense; Makino said the process “wasn't an entirely enjoyable experience. Without a producer, a referee, we could really get on each other's cases. It got intense.” The album was by far the bestselling album yet by the group, selling around 11,000 copies the first week of release and landing the band at #63 on the US charts. It will be interesting to see which direction the band will take in the future.