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Escape Velocity

Do It Yourself (Get A Friend To Help): House Of Blondes Interviewed
Nick Southall , July 8th, 2013 04:55

After discovering that House Of Blondes claimed to have two debut albums, and falling in love with the second, Clean Cuts, Nick Southall was both confused and intrigued. He contacted John Blonde to solve this puzzle, and ended up discussing the magic of recorded sound

Photos by Kurt W. Sawilla

It'd be nice to start everything again, wouldn't it? To know everything you know now, to have all your memory banks of experiences and senses and mistakes and regrets and triumphs, and take advantage of them to repeat your time over once more, but better.

John Blonde has released two debut albums. In 2012 he released his second debut album, under the name House Of Blondes. His previous debut album, in 2007, was also released under the name House Of Blondes. The first album was eponymous. The second is called Clean Cuts. He insists they're both debuts. What the hell?

In fairness, apart from John's low-key vocals, the two albums sound as different as you can imagine. The first is straight-up indie-pop, albeit touched with faintly abstruse song structures and an air of Catholic resentment and deep-seated melancholy rather than your common-or-garden Brooklyn hipster hedonism. Clean Cuts is something very different. The producer and engineer of that first debut album became the sort-of-bandmates for the second debut album. But it wasn't a transformation or reinvention; it was an ending and a new beginning. John essentially bought a synthesiser and an arpeggiator and threw his guitar and piano out the window because he wanted to make something real. Like a Yaz record.

I know all this because in 2007 John Blonde emailed me and said I'd cost him a lot of money by writing an article about the over-use of dynamic range compression, which he'd read, and which had made him spend a long time mastering that first debut album. He asked if he could send me a copy, and he did, and I enjoyed it, and thought little more about it. Until the other month, when I listened to it again and thought 'what happened next?'. So I stuck the name House Of Blondes into a search engine and discovered almost no reference anywhere, at all, to the album I had, but a few references to another album by a band of the same name, featuring someone called John Blonde, which called it a debut album and described it as synth-pop. I was confused, so I contacted John Blonde this time, and he kindly sent me his debut album. Again.

Whilst I liked the first debut album by House Of Blondes enough, I adored the second one. I can play it, and have played it, and will continue to play it, over and over again, back-to-back with itself. Because Clean Cuts is the most phenomenologically beautiful album I've heard in… a long time. The kickdrum pulse in 'Anhedonia', an Eno-esque ambient exploration, is so soft and deep that it feels like your own heartbeat. The synthesisers across the whole record sound like they're floating in the room in front of you, as though the tendrils of their oscillations and reverberations are reaching out and stroking your face, your skin, your inner organs.

If you think that the synths on The Knife's record sound good, then think again. The synths here sound as if the electric circuitry in your house has come alive and made music, as if your very environment is vibrating around you. It does not sound like a 'recording', like something that has been absorbed through a microphone and mixed and mastered and processed for dumb human consumption and then pressed to disc or encoded to MP3 and played back through earbuds or laptop speakers or a dynamics-and-frequency-flattening shop PA or a heavily-compressed-for-broadcast radio station. It sounds alive. It sounds real. It reminds you that recorded sound is the eighth and best wonder of the world, that it can make you believe in magic, that it can cause hallucinations and out of body experiences.

Grateful, intrigued, and a little confused, I started asking John Blonde questions, via email, because he lives in New York and I live in Devon, and meeting for a chat over a beer just wasn't going to happen, sadly.

So what is Clean Cuts? How is it a debut?

John Blonde: I definitely consider Clean Cuts a debut. I know that 'year zero' album had the same band name, but Clean Cuts represented exactly that from the previous work. I didn't mean to make it seem like there's this secret history, but the musicians and friends that helped me make Clean Cuts weren't the same as those that had helped before, so it honestly felt like a debut by a different band. I see the futility of attempting a Ralf & Florian scrub job! I just felt really attached to the name.

The new House Of Blondes band is a radical departure in sound from the old House Of Blondes band.

JB: Yes, it's a radical change of sound but it was something that happened naturally, it wasn't like a motto of "no guitars!" was thought up. There actually are guitars on the album but they're sort of deployed rather than used as the basis for everything. The other album was less of what I think things should sound like and this new one is getting closer. I used to wish I was a member of Broadcast.

How did this evolution happen?

JB: There was a point after the first iteration of House Of Blondes dissolved when I stopped even thinking I would be in a group and started painting and doing some photography. At one point I went to Berlin, and I had a strange experience at a friend's house whilst lying on the floor listening to Wings of all things, and I felt completely insignificant and purposeless with regards to music and what the first House Of Blondes record was. So it's Paul McCartney's fault. For a while I did nothing with music. I got back to New York and dumped my journals where I used to write lyrics, and threw out a lot of clothes and music too.

What got you back to music then?

JB: I saw a stunning performance of Thee Majesty, with Genesis P-Orridge and Bryin Dall at Knitting Factory, and a few days afterwards I read an issue of Signal to Noise magazine. Somehow, I felt excited again. Fired up, I scheduled some low budget studio time. I guess this was 2008. I heard The Field's From Here We Go Sublime and that blew me away. 'A Paw in My Face' and Thee Majesty and a never-ending obsession with Ha Ha Sound by Broadcast energised this dormant desire to make music.

Two tracks, 'Anhedonia' and 'Do It Yourself (Landscape)', both came together really quickly. They were just something I was doing for myself after realising the first iteration of House Of Blondes was over. It's very difficult to talk about how I felt right then before those tracks came together.

Chris Pace, who'd worked on some of the older record as engineer, owned a studio, and I went there. With 'Anhedonia' he helped actually create sounds as I was writing and then mixed it. It was the first time I'd had that spark of collaboration in a while. A few days after that session I went to George Vitray, who mixed the early House Of Blondes stuff, and recorded the chassis of 'Do It Yourself (Landscape)'. It sounds wrong to say I saw that track as empowering, to continue alone, when clearly I had good friends who were strong musicians helping. 'Do It Yourself (Get A Friend to Help)' was the working title!

It's a definitely, defiantly collaborative album. Your name is the only one credited with writing on every song, but there's only one song where it's the only name. The members of the first House Of Blondes crop up on a couple of tracks, but for the most part the credits are to Blonde, Pace, and Brian McNamara.

JB: Brian came in toward the end of these sessions and co-wrote a couple of songs and played these minimal but musical guitar and bass lines that really added weight to things. Once the album was done he suggested we try playing live. So now we've been playing live regularly for about a year, and it's been going well.

Sound quality is obviously very important to you.

JB: Sound quality has been something I've been aware of since my dad bought a very good hi-fi when I was a kid. I went with him to these intimidating adult stereo shops, and he let me bring my own records to test things out. So tubes and needles and woofers and tweeters and power conditioners held this exotic appeal. He'd let me carefully use the equipment once he bought it, and it was all very ritualistic listening to albums.

When I sit and listen to an album, really the best thing in the world to do, I want to be leaning into it. If I can't do that throughout a recording of our own stuff, tracks that I listen to dozens of times, it's not worth doing. Listening to The Drift or Jim O'Rourke on vinyl with a decent stereo is life affirming. I wanted that for House Of Blondes, and every decision Chris made as an engineer seemed to be reaching for those levels. We don't have Scott Walker-like access to the world's best recording studios, but that's fine, maybe even a good thing. You can still make things sound right with a very limited budget; those limits become your vocabulary.

How do you go about getting this amazing sound?

JB: Let's take "Shadows" as an example. The central arpeggio comes from a Roland JP-8080, recorded through a guitar amp. The drums are recorded using two or three basic mics, and the vocal was live in the room with no headphones, so there's a lot of bleed on the vocal track. On top of that you have the lead Moog synth line, a thick guitar, and various noises caught between tokes and sips and the rest. This could easily sound like a mess but Chris was able to capture everything and keep each piece distinct. George mixed it, and he and Chris lean very lightly on compression, from capturing sounds to mixing. We knew we liked the sound of the song that very first night.

A lot of the music we dislike is looping a tiny sampled synth part for four minutes across a software grid. What we like to do in the studio is let the synth play the whole song. There are tiny variations, imperfections, in each cycle and this is pleasing to listen to.

Steve Fallone, a mastering engineer who worked on Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest and Pet Shop Boys' Release, does economical off-hours mastering for independent bands at the normally prohibitively expensive Sterling Sound, and we went to him. He did a few different masters of it. At first it was too dull, and then it was too hot, but eventually he did a pretty light touch job and left it almost exactly as it was recorded.

How do you go about writing lyrics?

JB: The lyrics for the first album were all pulled from journals I'd kept for years. I didn't have an instrument during rehearsals; I sat there with these notebooks while the guys played.

On the new record I'm playing synth or organ on everything, and didn't need to express things with words or voice. Sometimes words will pop into my head. We try not to edit too much from initial vocal takes because things start to sound mannered. With some songs there's little or no voice because that's right for the atmosphere.

What hasn't changed from the journal days is rejecting lyrics that sound trite or predictable or obvious. I think what feels so much better to me about how we're working now is that things feel more in-the-moment. This comes from instruments being in my hands and not just a microphone, but also because I don't arrive at our space with a set idea of what we're going to do. If a sound captures our imaginations and it wants for a vocal melody then I feel like I have this reservoir of lyrics and ideas that I can access.

What do you do when you're not in House Of Blondes?

JB: I'm always 'in' House Of Blondes in the sense that I think about music and art and creative possibilities all the time, like everybody else in the world. I live in New York, downtown Manhattan. Day to day, to pay rent and buy coffee, I used to be a paperboy, then I worked in a bakery, then a video store, then an architectural office, then then then… There's never really a day that I don't think about making something, a new song or album or t-shirt or 12" cover. There's no better feeling than when something creative comes together.

House Of Blondes' Clean Cuts is out now. To listen to more, click here to visit the House Of Blondes Soundcloud