Interview: A Q&A with House of Blondes’ John Blonde

If you’ve been following JOVM over the past couple of years, you’d be pretty familiar with the New York-based electronic music/electro pop act, House of Blondes’ whose fantastic Clean Cuts landed at number 5 on this site’s Best of 2012 List that year, thanks to a sound that reminded me quite a bit of Kraftwerk and Brian Eno as the material on Clean Cuts possessed a stark yet dreamily atmospheric and minimalist quality. And you may know that I first discovered the trio as once opened for the Wellington, New Zealand-based psych rock/dream pop act Glass Vaults during the New Zealanders’ month long residency at Piano’s; as the band’s frontman and founder John Blonde had told me at the time, that set was the live band’s third set ever. (Talk about either being extremely lucky, being way ahead of the curve or both!)

But we have to start with some much necessary backstory. The Brooklyn-based trio comprised of John Blonde, Chris Pace and Brian McNamara, can trace their origins back to 2008 when founding members Blonde and Pace met at Smoke and Mirrors Studio. Along with local musicians Mike Ignethron and Paul Reyes, the then-constitued quartet had intended to work on an indie rock-based project; however, as Blonde’s interest in synthesizers and electronic music grew, the project gradually changed into a minimalist electronic project in which Pace and Blonde began working with each other exclusively. And the result was that the duo of Blonde and Pace wound up co-writing and recording the material which became their critically applauded debut effort, Clean Cuts along with contributions from producer/engineer George Vitray and instrumentalist Brian McNamara, who would eventually become a full-time member.

While playing an increasing number of shows locally and elsewhere over the last couple of years, including two shows with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Psychic TV at the now-defunct Brooklyn Night Bazaar, the members of House of Blondes also spent an intense period of time writing and recording the material that would comprise their recently released sophomore effort, Stranger Still, which was released earlier this month. Stranger Still’s 9 tracks are from a combination of live in-studio performances, improvisational jam sessions and much more formally structured songs and as a result the material feels and sounds looser, and intimate as it draws from dub, trance, cosmic house and Kraftwerk‘s motorik grooves. But perhaps more important, to my ears, the material while retaining the space age feel that first captured my attention is warmer, more human. It somehow evokes the sensation of floating through the cosmos and observing the rippling and undulating of the fabric of spacetime as much as it evokes more earthly phenomenon such as pushing and shoving your way through a New York rush hour commute and stopping to stare at clouds parting overhead, without bothering to care if you got in someone’s way.

I recently spoke to the House of Blondes’ frontman John Blonde via email about the new album, the band’s songwriting approach on Stranger Still their influences ranging the gamut from modern art, electronic and movies, their minimalist, mysterious and futuristic aesthetic, the best song of this century, and more in this revealing and thoughtful edition of the JOVM Q&A. Check it out below.

House of Blondes. L to R: Brian McNamara, John Blonde and Chris Pace

House of Blondes. L to R: Chris Pace, John Blonde and Brian McNamara

House of Blondes' latest effort, Stranger Still
House of Blondes’ latest effort, Stranger Still

WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that it was your calling — or something that you wanted to focus on?

John Blonde: It’s always been there, from the start. Nothing else has mattered as much as records, music, writing, recording, listening, album covers – the fascination and obsession with all of it is hard-wired.

WRH: The band has developed a reputation for its usage of old analog synthesizers. How did that come about?

JB: I’d been in indie rock bands as a singer but conveying musical ideas eventually became frustrating without an instrument. Years before then, I borrowed a drum machine and 4-track from an uncle for a day and recorded a guitar player and my vocals and added a trumpet because at the time it was the only instrument I owned. That was the most memorable afternoon I’d spent recording up till then and it was mainly because of the drum machine, but nobody else I knew then liked that approach. Years later, during the dark cloud of indie frustration, MeMe Antenna in Williamsburg began selling old drum machines and they also had a late ’70’s synth that I bought right then, a Roland SH-2. It all finally clicked, I could actually feel the clicking. And it launched everything. It’s on Clean Cuts and Stranger Still and at every live show we’ve ever done. Connecting with Chris, who has synths for bones, was perfect timing.

WRH: As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions on JOVM, a colleague of mine smartly described your sound as headphone music for astronauts. Curiously, how do you describe your sound?

JB: That’s a cinematic description, this astronaut with the entire universe  . . . and an iPhone at his fingers. When I see avant-pop and indie-electronic as genres in record stores it feels like that’s where we’d be right now.

WRH: On both Clean Cuts and your latest effort, Stranger Still, your sound and overall aesthetic seems to owe a significant debt to Kraftwerk. How much of an influence are they are you? Who else are your influences?

JB: I’ve been waiting for a girl to say we sound like Foreigner. Well, Kraftwerk is the greatest band that’s ever been and we’re all living now in their computerwelt and anybody that uses drum machines and synths as components of their music owes them, but I don’t hear the direct link, songwriting-wise, to HOB. We use similar gear but our approach is different. I have a different voice than Ralf Hütter so right there it changes things. Influence is a loaded word that feels like it represents a mountain of certain music that’s embedded in a band’s DNA, where really what happens is everything you experience is influential. Movies, books, art, the not-so-mean streets of your city or suburban town, it all feeds into it. Wolfgang Tillmans is an influence on me and he’s a beautiful contemporary photographer. For music, right now Chris is in love with Kristy MacColl, I’ve been listening to early ’80’s Scientist dub albums, Brian saw Iggy Pop kill at a festival in Iceland last month. At the last HOB performance a very nice man told me we reminded him of Pink Floyd. Another mentioned John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme because of a chord progression in “East Coast Boys.” I don’t hear that but say yes to all of this. I loved the last Pixel album, Brown Shirt is extra special, and the comp with all the recent Powell tracks is A+. Johnny Jewel‘s three LP fake soundtrack synthscape Symmetry is great. “Black Buick” was inspired by hearing Shackelton in a club in Berlin, but sounds nothing like Shackelton. I like Hot Chip and Stanley Kubrick and Suicide. The clean sound of Dirty Mind is forever and so are the muddy lines of Cy Twombly. Inspiration is potentially in every experience. I think maybe because we’re not using the guitar as the focus of our music people reach for songs they know that have similar sounds to what we use even though we don’t really sound like that when you hear the larger scope of it.

WRH: Speaking of your aesthetic, I’ve clearly seen the band play a number of times over the years. The first few times you used space-related projections, which included at one point a CGI rendering of the moon from a probe/spaceship and a short film depicting an astronaut, in full gear wandering down a city as though he landed on another planet. And your album artwork manages to be minimalist and abstract to the point of a mysterious futurism. What has influenced this? 

JB: Mysterious futurism! Fantastic. We definitely connect with science and space. It’s an interest that’s there but it’s not purposely being pursued when we create the music or when I do the artwork. It’s thankfully just who we are naturally and what we like. A lot of boys (and Jodie Fosters) are attracted to astronomy growing up and we still have that sense of wonder about it. And synths are inherently cosmic for some reason.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

JB: Today’s recently played list: The Fall, Echo Wanderer, Sven Atterton, Scientist, Cluster, Broadcast, Kassem Mosse, Roman Fluegel, The Smiths, “Try Again” by Aaliyah — one of the best tracks of the century — and Donald Byrd, thanks to a great DJ set by James Murphy at Output last week. I’m guessing that, among other things, Chris is listening to Kristy MacColl and loving every minute of it.

WRH: How did the band meet?

JB: I met Chris in his recording studio in 2006 when Mike Ingenthron, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, brought him a few tracks to mix that we were working on, and then I met Brian in 2010 when he came to visit Chris, also at the studio, while Clean Cuts was in its second period of creation. CLICK.

WRH: Stranger Still is a bit of a refinement of your sound in the sense that a song like “Black Buick” employs elements of old school dub but besides that the material feels looser, more atmospheric, much more trance-like, if you will. To me it’s much like the difference between Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine and Trans Europe Express. And perhaps more important, the material is —to my ears, at least — completely based around synthesizers, whereas Clean Cuts employs the use of live instrumentation here and there. Did you go into the writing process with the intention of changing things up? What inspired that?

JB: I think being together and playing a lot of shows for a few years moved everything in a different, stronger direction. Some music can’t be made in a bedroom. The new album is a refinement in instrumentation but “East Coast Boys” has some significant guitar and feedback and “Are You Boys All Right?” is built upon live bass and drums, although I see what you’re saying: the overall impression is SYNTHS TILL SUNRISE. We experimented with different arrangements but the way it all sits together as a nine-track album felt right when we reduced the instrumentation. It was a natural evolution as we progressed. “Black Buick” originally had some guitar but it ultimately felt unnecessary for the song, especially in the context of the album. Removing unnecessary elements was a focus. A lot of bands have everyone playing from start to finish on every song with little room for the notes and sounds to breathe, like they’re afraid somebody will think they’re being lazy. Live shows can be tortuous on the ears with bands like that. It’s ok to stand on stage and not play anything for a minute, listen to what the rest of the band is doing and relax. Part of the power of a lot of the music I listen to is the balance of minimal elements. Dub uses that approach, where the echo of a snare hit by itself can fill four measures and it’s sublime.

WRH: Your sound manages to be very precise. How do you know when you have a finished song?

JB: It nags at you if it isn’t right, like an open window on a cold night when you’re already in bed.

WRH: “East Coast Boys,” “I Always Wanted To Live Like That” and “First of July” are three of my favorite songs off the album. What influenced them?

JB: The almighty beat was the inspiration for “East Coast Boys” and was Chris using a new TR-8 drum machine, paired with lyrics I had previously written, the rhythm worked perfectly. I really enjoy singing that live, something about the way the meter of the lyric works with the kick drum. “I Always Wanted to Live Like That” was born when we did a live improvisation set at Muchmores. It was about 110 degrees in that room, the sweatiest room on earth, and the lyrics about going across the ocean reflected an immediate desire. “First of July” began as a song for a compilation of bands doing interpretations of William Blake poems, with bloody legends like Coil, Genesis Breyer P’Orridge, and Little Annie, having all done tracks and Bryin Dall generously wanted to include us. We were given “The Schoolboy”. Mr. Dall has that version for whenever he deems the world ready for his compilation but, in the context of our album, the poem felt flown in from a different world (like the 18th Century) so we decided to write new lyrics of our own. I’m happy with how it came together and hope Blake would like the groovy coda as much as we do.

WRH: You opened for Genesis Breyer-P’Orridge and Psychic TV at the sadly now defunct Brooklyn Night Bazaar twice. How did that come about?

 JB: A throbbing angel was looking out for us.

WRH: What advice would you give to bands trying to make a name for themselves?

 JB: Nobody knows anything, just keep playing

WRH: Are there any local acts out there that should be getting love from my fellow bloggers and aren’t?

Sandy is a trio with some of the dreamiest songs in Brooklyn. They should be at Radio City tomorrow. Lost Coves are a duo that’s always experimenting and interesting. I’ve been lucky to be a part of Louis Sherman’s absolutely essential Your Village nights since they started at Troost earlier this year and there has not been one night where somebody, especially Lou himself, didn’t knock me out. Come to the next one. And the next.

WRH: What’s next for the band?

JB: More music!