Imagine yourself submerged in the tranquility of warm water; your body moves slowly while your ears make up the complexities of white noise, leaving you in an ethereal state of repose—a feeling that best describes Kazu Makino’s shy yet powerful confidence.
On stage, the multi-instrumentalist of Brooklyn-based Blonde Redhead dances along to her angular, dissonant accompaniments and breathy long-form melodies shared with bandmates (and twins) Amadeo and Simone Pace. On the phone, Makino mirrors what she evokes throughout Blonde Redhead’s artwork and studio albums of the past 20 years—continuously seeking and naming intricacies. During a phone conversation—in which we were pleasantly interrupted by barking dogs and New York sirens—Makino explains creating music out of thin air, breaking out of shy habits, and the perception of change throughout Blonde Redhead’s career.
She Shreds: Who are you, where were you born, and what’s your first memory of being alive?
Kazu Makino: I am Kazu. I’m from Japan. I was born in Kyoto. And my first memory of being alive is being in the bathtub with my mom. Japanese bath tubs are really nice, really square and tall, made out of like a cedar wood. I remember just being soaked in there. I still really love taking a bath.
I read that you were classically trained in a private school and formed your first band in elementary school, so it seems that music was a part of your life from an early age.
KM: I was sort of educated that way. I did painting really early as well, from watercolor to oil paint. I learned piano. I did everything that was sort of artistic. It’s quite funny that my father was like, “No matter what, I don’t want you to go into entertainment.” But I was trained to do all things, I really did have a lot of training in Japanese instruments like piano and violin. My grandfather is a pianist and they struggled a lot and that’s why my father didn’t want me to become a musician. But meanwhile he just sent me to all these lessons really early on.
Obviously growing up with all of that art shaped you, but how did Japanese culture shape your outlook on music and performing?
KM: I was really shy always. Being shy in Japan is being extremely shy, because they’re shy in general. I’m quite used to things that are quite ancient. I think I do have a good sense of things that are quite profound, like a harmony. I like things that have a lot of complexity. I suppose different aspects of things I got exposed to must come out in my approach to music. I learned to play classical music but I never thought of covering other people’s music. Even when I started playing with my girl classmates in elementary school or junior high school we right away started writing our own songs.
How did you break out of that shyness?
KM: I’m still quite shy. I remember when my mom found out I play music and sing she was like, “But I never hear you make any noise, I never hear you hum a song in the bathtub, I’ve never heard you make any sounds.” So, it was kind of surprising, even to myself. I have to block out the fact that people are there.
I can imagine it to be extremely nerve-wracking if you’re shy and you see thousands of people from the stage.
KM: You know, when [Blonde Redhead] started we became friends with people in DC like Fugazi and The Make-Up, a punk rock scene. Back then, all your friends would watch you from the stage while you play. That was somehow reassuring—all the people that you trust right beside you, practically holding your hands and just listening to you play. There were more people on stage than in the audience, and that was a nice way to start.
I know you all shift instruments, at least live. Do you do that as well in the recordings? How do you go about writing?
KM: Whoever thinks of a part. The instrument just becomes a tool, you know? It’s amazing, you just can use them even if you’re not a master at each instrument. As you start recording everything changes. Something happens spontaneously in the air and you can’t block it from happening so you kind of have to go with it. It’s almost like the songs start to have their own life, and instead of nurturing it you have to chase it—it just goes where it wants to go. It’s a fine mixture of exploring yourself, but sometimes it feels like catching a butterfly, like something is in the air already. You’re just sort of like a messenger.
Has there ever been a song or an album that you’ve kept in it’s original form?
KM: We have what we call demo-itis. It’s like a disease. You get such an attachment to your first demo. So once you go in the recording studio and it starts changing you think it’s great, but still I prefer that first demo. The producer will say, “Oh, you’re having severe demo-itis right now.” But yeah, that happens quite a bit.
Blonde Redhead is 20 years old this year and you’ve put out nine studio albums. I feel like you can clearly hear the evolution of the band through the years with each album. I’m curious if there’s anything, besides you three, that you feel has been consistent throughout and will never change.
KM: Wow, no one has ever asked me that question. Maybe I’m not aware of my own changing, because in my mind we’re pretty much the same—we just use different tools. The quality of a person doesn’t have to die out. If it’s really the core of your being, it should keep shining no matter how long you go on. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror. Like, you’re not going to look at yourself one day in the mirror and scream, “Oh my god I look so different.” You shift so softly and slightly every day that you don’t have to take such pain in changing. It’s already hard enough to keep living, you should be excused from how you changed.
You’ve mentioned writing entire albums out of tragic events or while bedridden. It seems that you take a lot of inspiration from times when you’re faced with incredible challenges. Has that always been a source of inspiration for your songwriting?
KM: Mmm, well, no. Even when you’re in those phases of life, there is some kind of chemical in your body that is not making you feel so much pain, so you go through it and think that it is quite normal when it’s not. We started touring and I got pneumonia that took three months to cure because no antibiotics worked. And I still suffer from respiratory issues. Right after that, I got stepped on by a horse on my face, so I couldn’t sing. I had a mild fracture in my jaw. It was quite comical most of the time, trying to sing and your band members cracking up because you just sound so hilarious. Maybe when it’s too nice or too beautiful you never want to put yourself in a basement and work on music. You kind of do have to be bedridden or whatever, otherwise you would just be exploring some other part of life.
Do you write music on a specific instrument to format the song?
KM: The keyboard. Amedeo finds it so amusing and is so deeply entertained when I’m playing guitar because I’m not really a guitar player. The other day we were jamming and I sort of drifted and I started playing, I didn’t actually hear them anymore but I didn’t notice. And I kept playing and I kept looking at the ceiling and I was thinking about something else completely. And then suddenly I turned around and they were just laughing their head[s] off at me playing this complete nonsense on guitar. It’s really cool when you don’t know instruments in a classic, technical way—you just start fooling around. You do things that sound good to you. I suppose, I have a different sense of time so I think it gives a little bit of style to my playing. Even my singing too, I’m always behind. People always think, ”She’s never gonna make the entire phrase in this given time,” but I always make it. It’s something that’s really natural to do for me.
You have some things in the works—compilations, and some remixes of your original songs by some pretty awesome bands like Grizzly Bear and Deerhoof. I’m curious about whether you chose them and why.
KM: Yeah yeah yeah! Oh, because we really admire them, you know? It’s such an opportunity. Remixes are great because it’s just a moment to do something with the people you’re already a fan of. And there’s kind of two ways of going about it. Some people would just give a whole other rendition to the song, like what you could have done that you didn’t think of doing. Some people take it back to the essence of the song, so you get the feeling that this person really gets how we were inspired to write this song. It brings it back to the very core.