It’s probably fair to say that making Penny Sparkle wasn’t the easiest phase of Blonde Redhead’s career. The long-running New York alt-rock trio’s eighth album sounds cohesive enough, but drummer Simone Pace reveals that working with the Swedish production team of Van Rivers & the Subliminal Kid (aka Henrik von Sivers and Peder Mannerfelt) turned out to be more challenging than he and his bandmates had anticipated.
“They had a lot to do with the record,” Pace says when the Straight rings him at his home in Brooklyn’s artsy Greenpoint neighbourhood. “The record would definitely sound completely different without them. But we got into a little bit of a tricky moment with them, because things were not going exactly the way we thought they should go. The whole process was very difficult, because a lot of it was based on just giving up your idea of what the record should sound like and letting them do their thing.”
That creative friction almost scuppered the project when singer-guitarist Kazu Makino travelled to Stockholm to work with von Sivers and Mannerfelt, who are probably best known for remixing tracks by Massive Attack and Bat for Lashes, and for their production work on Fever Ray’s eerie self-titled album. The report Makino sent back to Simone and his twin brother, singer-guitarist Amedeo Pace, wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.
“We were ready to go, and then Kazu said no,” Simone says. “She was there already, and we were supposed to meet her there. She was like, ”˜It’s not going well,’ and we all got a little freaked out. And then she came back and we just started recording more ideas in New York [with engineer Drew Brown] and sending them in to them. After that moment, it started working really, really well. It really felt like we were in the same place, and we started to go the extra mile to make things happen.”
The result is arguably Blonde Redhead’s mellowest effort to date, with spacious numbers like “Here Sometimes” and “Love or Prison” woven together from subtly shifting ambient textures. These songs are unhurried and uncrowded, leaving plenty of room for melancholic vocal melodies from Makino and Amedeo.
Penny Sparkle is also the most technology-dependent entry in the trio’s catalogue, brimming with synthesizer drones and burbles as well as electronic rhythms. Some rock drummers might be hesitant to let producers tinker with their beats, but Simone clearly isn’t one of them. “On this record there’s a lot of programming and there’s a lot of loops, and a lot of things that we haven’t done before,” he notes. “Technology allows you to do so much more now than you could before, and I feel like why would you not want to try it? I’m not a purist.”
For Simone, the goal was to craft a seamless blend of the acoustic and digital elements, such that the question of what he played and what he didn’t becomes moot. “The crucial thing is, how do you get the listener not to think about what’s what, but mix the two things in such a way that you kind of wonder, you know?” he says. “And you kind of let yourself go and just go with it, rather than being critical. I mean, I know it’s gonna go there; people are going to be asking. But then you have to play live, and if they really care they come and see it live and see what happens, and it all kind of gets explained and makes sense.”
If Blonde Redhead’s drummer offers no apologies for diving headfirst into the realm of electronic percussion, he’s equally unrepentant about the band’s decision to follow up its highest-charting album, 23, with something that takes a marked sonic departure from it. That 2007 release, which the band produced itself, featured a number of up-tempo songs, like the sinewy “Spring and By Summer Fall” and the title track, both of which were swathed in enough shoegazing guitar to make Kevin Shields feel all warm and fuzzy.
“I think every record should sound different,” Simone offers simply. “Otherwise, what’s the point of making a new record? A lot of people were like, ”˜Oh my God, they did something good with 23, and at a time when the record industry is so shaky, why would they ever risk a change completely when something worked?’ But we did.”
Blonde Redhead plays the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (November 21).