Progress Report: The Blow
Name: The Blow
Progress Report: Electronic art-pop pioneers hard at work on first new record in nearly six years.
It’s been over half a decade since the Blow released a record. (2006’s Paper Television, which included Yacht’s Jona Bechtolt) So, it’s with a happy heart that we can report that the band — now consisting of Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne — are nearing completion on a new record. Since the band are super busy with stuff like recording and going on exotic cruises and preparing for an anticipated set at Mercury Lounge on Wednesday 5/16, I e-mailed Maricich a bunch of questions to answer about what the band has been up to and what the new record is gonna sound like. Not too surprisingly, the answers they sent back to me are pretty awesome.
STEREOGUM: Who is playing in the band right now?
MARICICH: The short answer to who is playing in the band is: Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne. The term “playing” is kind of funny when it comes to the Blow, because the show has never incorporated the playing of live instruments on stage. I am onstage alone and Melissa performs from across the room, manipulating the beats and any other elements we are incorporating. The word “playing” is pretty accurate, though, in regards to how we approach the work, so yeah, we are like two ten-year-olds and The Blow is a room full of Legos and we are playing in it.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about what’s happened in the years since Paper Television was released in 2006?
MARICICH: Doesn’t it seem like the world is a different place from the one we lived in back in 2006? As far as the personal world of the Blow, the main events were a cycle of boom (crazy touring), death (needing a break and watching weeks worth of Lost) and rebirth (starting to make new material). The most significant development during this time is that I started collaborating on the Blow with Melissa Dyne. Full disclosure: Melissa is my girlfriend. In most cases, I don’t know if people being partners should really make any difference, but in our case I believe it has a strong bearing on the way that we work together. We kind of read each other’s minds. We worked on art projects together years ago before we ever dated, and riffing off of each other’s ideas is sort of the way that we fell in love. Melissa is by far the best artist I know, she has a crystal clear vision for how to realize things. Her work in the past has mostly been large scale projects that play with sound waves and light waves, which is a really thrilling background to apply to the making of an album and a performance. Moving to New York was also a radical change in our landscape; it’s very different to make something in the town where Beyoncé and Joan Rivers live than to make something in the town where Sleater-Kinney live, which makes it all the better that I feel like my partner in the endeavor is the coolest one.
STEREOGUM: What made 2012 the perfect time for the Blow to return?
MARICICH: The wording of this question gives the image of the Blow being a comet that appeared on the sky years ago and then looped away into the darkness. The Blow is finally burning back into to our field of view after completing its far flung orbit into the darker reaches. Is it the perfect time for the Blow to return? It might just be exactly the amount of time it takes to recede and return with something worth showing. Good songs take time to write and produce, and we now have ten of them. As well, I suppose that we could say that 2012 feels like a time of uncertainty, and in moments like this the atmosphere feels pretty electric, and I’ve always seen the Blow as an effective catalyst for channeling obscure energies.
STEREOGUM: Where and how was the album recorded?
MARICICH: Well, between you and me and everyone who reads this, the Where and the How of this album has been a real odyssey. It’s been a kind of humorous, terrifying, thrilling, seemingly impossible journey that Melissa and I have taken together. The journey of the album has been a literal one, because we recorded the songs on a portable rig in a series of locations around the Northeast. We funded the recording ourselves, and so in order to to pay our rent in Brooklyn we would rent out our apartment to tourists for a few weeks a month. While our place was rented out, we stayed in various cheap lodgings around the region. We ended up in a lot of places that we would never otherwise have gone, where we were completely separated from all the comforts of our own context. We worked in a hotel on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, a ’70s style tree-house cabin in the Poconos that looked like something out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a condo in Vermont at the end of the fall foliage festivals, an off-season cottage on a lake in New Hampshire, a motel on the Cape Cod Coast, a very poorly sound-proofed New Hampshire resort with screaming kids and a hot tub, and a run down Swiss ski chalet up by the Vermont border. We found that it was both really fascinating and pretty scary to work in places where we were surrounded by people with whom we had nothing in common. It really makes you look at what you are doing differently when you are in a place where people don’t immediately understand or value what you are making, like, for example, working class areas of eastern Pennsylvania. Some places were more productive than others, and some had really weird vibes which definitely made their way into the sounds. After about seven months of working in varied locations we took all the tracks into a recording studio on the Lower East Side, and there we’ve been taking advantage of the fancy gear and spit shining everything that we amassed in our sojourn.
I have to say that the fact that we are full-on partners in life is pretty significant to the way in which we did the album (in scattered and isolating locations). Making this album, it really felt like Melissa and I were on our own in the world; that we were the only two people who understood what we we were trying to do, why it had taken so long for another record to come out, and the importance of making the album exactly the way that we imagined, even if the process was difficult and time consuming. It really did feel like we were out in deepest infinite space, in a capsule, making a light with our mutual energies that lit our way through the void.
As far as the process of how we record, I always write songs by singing the lyrics without any accompanying music. Then I sketch a model of the song and the beats and form the idea for instrumentation on the computer. Melissa takes the track from there and fleshes out subtleties in the instruments and works on the arrangement. From there we figure out how we want to realize the track and what else it needs.
STEREOGUM: Who worked on the record? Any special guests?
MARICICH: Yes, we absolutely brought in friends for cameo appearances. After spending so much time on our own in strange locations, envisioning and realizing the songs, it felt really nice to balance those times out with brief appearances by friends who could put a different spice into the broth. Rostam Batmanglij, whom we met when we opened for Vampire Weekend on a little tour, wrote a great keyboard part for a song. We magically got connected with the percussionist Bashiri Johnson, who did the percussion for Madonna’s first album (along with tons of other huge ’80s classics) and he augmented the rhythms on several tracks on the album. Sarab Singh, from the band Harper Blynn, whose quotes are featured in one of my favorite twitter feeds, “@Sarabisms,” played drums for us on a couple songs. Brian Patrick Hill from the band We Are All Romans added a really cool bass line to one of the songs. And we got hooked up with a flautist, Brian Taylor, who has worked for years on Broadway, and so we have some flutes popping up in a handful of the tracks.
STEREOGUM: If you had to come up with three different metaphors for what the making of this record was like, what would they be?
MARICICH: Is it obvious to the casual observer that I tend to be a real metaphor whore? No doubt it’s why you asked this question. I’ve actually been making an effort to pare down my use of metaphor in my writing, so that I don’t end up with an orgy of motley images all banging away at each other in the same paragraph. But if you insist on three at once, how about let’s say that the first metaphor for the album’s production is the one that I have already drawn out up above, of the Blow as a comet, faithful to an orbit that has pulled it far away into the most blackly disorienting parts of the universe, and which is now pummeling, by the force of its own heat, back into widespread view.
For the second metaphor, imagine using your bare hands to compress carbon into diamonds, and other precious minerals. Melissa and I are both such minimalists, our instinct is to strip everything down to its most essential elements. Our shared inclination with the songs was to build them out of a handful of very distinct, brilliant sounds. The basic element of each song is for me always the lyrics and, I guess to be most accurate in this illusion, the words and the melody are to us the most priceless element, and the challenge has been making a setting where the raw material of the song can show itself most spectacularly. Since we aren’t a band with a guitarist and a drummer the sky is the limit in terms of what sounds we can use, and it actually took a lot of experimentation before we found the elements that complemented the lyrics and melody in exactly the right way. We did a few songs over several times, because they were good, but they weren’t perfect; the process of smashing and compressing the little bits into a rock hard gemstone wasn’t quite done yet. Our good friend, the artist Jennie C. Jones, told us once that she wants to make t-shirts that say, “Minimalism is Hard,” and that phrase has been running through my mind for months now.
For the third metaphor, I am going to combine two images and create a mutant metaphor: the first is one that I already used above, of Melissa and I being in a space capsule moving through the deepest darkest void, lighting the pathway for each other. The second image I’m taking from one of the new songs, called “You’re My Light.” The lyrics of the song go:
“See us lean into the night. Hold your hand for balance and the dark on all sides. We can’t see how far it goes, illuminate a little space as we go towards what we don’t know.”
Melissa and I couldn’t have made this album without each other. Melissa continually redefines my sense of what is possible. She keeps reminding me of how vast our surroundings are, and then she simultaneously comforts me when I find myself terrified at the immensity of everything. She’s a real dark horse and doesn’t talk too much about what exactly I do for her, but I can only hope it’s something similar, and someday maybe we’ll get a quote on her about the subject.
STEREOGUM: What can you say about this new music? How does it sound? What is the vibe? Is it markedly different than music you’ve released in the past?
MARICICH: Like I said above, I think the music sounds like a collection of simple, crystallized elements, boiled down to their most essential essences. A friend came by the studio and gave the assessment that the songs are “skewed pop,” which we took as the highest compliment. I love a good hook, and I have a lot of offbeat impulses when it comes to rhythm and structure. Melissa also has really crazy rhythm and an amazing sense of space and how to spread out the sounds so that they can capture a sense of subtle disorientation. We have probably the least clear perception about the songs, while also having the deepest insight, but our sense of the songs is that they are poppy, bright, expansive and spooky. There is this very subtle streak of goth that we just haven’t been able to shake, so we’ve just had to accept and embrace it. One song is about how the Specter of Death is a hipster who saunters through eternity, refusing to take us with him because we aren’t cool enough to be with him … yet. I think that the music is similar to the past recordings in the fact that it takes serious subjects lightly and light subjects seriously and isn’t ashamed of being catchy. I like to get weird, and then we keep asking, “would our moms like this?” and that’s kind of a continuing litmus.
STEREOGUM: When will the record be released? Will you hit the road and tour?
MARICICH: We are nearly finished with the production of the album, meaning that we are about thirty days away from being finished, but we are still totally enmeshed inside of the process. The date for release isn’t set yet, and it exists in our minds as some other world where we will someday live, but at this point we can’t yet imagine it existing. But I promise that the album is real, and it’s coming out, and I can prove it’s real because we’ll be playing the songs live in New York on May 16th at Mercury Lounge, and around the northeast for a handful of dates before that. We will definitely tour the shit out of the songs once the album comes out because we love the road and we love the weirdness of the moment when you share the songs with people and let your version compete with the versions that they have in their heads.
STEREOGUM: Tell me something you did in the making of this record that you’ll never do again.
MARICICH: Well, I have to say, I think that making an album in obscure condominiums around the Northeastern United States might have been a one-time thing. If we don’t ever have to scrub our apartment from top to bottom and empty the drawers for subletters and wash the sheets and towels and buy them eggs and English muffins, and then load all our equipment into the station wagon and drive it somewhere and cart it up into a little 300 sq ft room and set up our studio for a week and then take it all back down again to move to the next place, that would actually be okay with me.
STEREOGUM: Where are you right now?
MARICICH: Right now, as I write this, we are on board the Caribbean Princess cruise ship. We are in our little cabin, where we have a balcony and we can hear the water crashing against the side of the ship. My parents invited Melissa and I to join them for a three day cruise from Puerto Rico up to New York, on what they call a “repositioning cruise,” where they have to move the boat from one desirable location like the Caribbean to another location like NYC, and there are no stops in between. It would take an entire book to describe the strangeness of the cruise atmosphere, or an essay at the least. Let us just stay that we have never felt less kindred with the people around us than we do on this cruise. We have absolutely nothing significant in common with anyone here. It’s very weird, in a good way, I think. We can take it for these four days, at least.
STEREOGUM: Please attach a photo that somehow represents your experience making this record and/or the way the record sounds (this doesn’t actually have to be a photo of you).
MARICICH: The photo we are attaching is an image of a work by one our favorite artists, Gordon Matta Clark. In the 70’s he took advantage of the abundance of abandoned buildings in New York and dissected them in various ways. He is a big inspiration to both of us.
STEREOGUM: Are there any specific records or artists or works of art that served as a specific inspiration or point of reference for the new record?
MARICICH: We found an 8 x 10 glossy of Stevie Wonder at a yard sale in New Jersey, and we’ve had him on our fridge since September. We also have a print of Grace Jones up there. I think it’s really necessary to have some totems to look up to when you are trying to do something that you don’t totally understand. The album that made its way onto the turntable the most has been Brian Eno’s Another Green World, and we also listened to a whole lot of David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Kanye West. I think that we are pretty poor imitators, though, so whether or not any of that actually translates, you will have to tell us.
STEREOGUM: Fill in the blank. Regarding the new record by The Blow: File this under _____.
MARICICH: Oh gosh I really don’t know how to answer this one. I have my own filing kinks that would make no sense to anyone else. You tell us where it goes.
STEREOGUM: The new record by The Blow sounds like _____.
MARICICH: Us, but: nothing like we expected.
STEREOGUM: What happens next?
MARICICH: We take it out into the world, and everything will be different. We will have to share the music, and not just have it as our own weird secret. Our baby will grow up and take on its own existence without us. We are almost ready.
The Blow’s new album is out soon.