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Cultural Capital

Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino’s Long Journey Back to New York

Making the stately dream pop of "Sit Down for Dinner" brought the indie rock band back from the brink of breakup.

(Charles Billot / Blonde Redhead)

Kazu Makino is packing for the Blonde Redhead tour, but the closet open behind her is still full of her clothes. She's sitting on the floor in her East Village apartment, and a rack as tall as her that's full of little plants in jars sits by the window, which is now filled with the sunset. She's pulling up the sleeves of her tie-dyed sweatshirt every few minutes, but they keep falling back down. "Every day is super chaotic," she tells me. "I'm not good at being busy." 

A couple weeks ago, Blonde Redhead, the indie rock band comprised of Makino and the twin brothers Simone and Amadeo Pace, released "Sit Down to Dinner," their first album in nine years and one of the most critically acclaimed works in the band's nearly 30-year history. When Blonde Redhead released their debut album in 1993, their music was the noisy, tortured kind of alternative rock you might expect from a band signed by Sonic Youth's drummer; "Sit Down for Dinner" can be seen as the culmination of their decades-long transformation into a tear-jerking, stately dream pop act. It's a coalescence that was always presaged by the tender quality of Makino's and Amadeo's singing as co-leads around whose turbulent romance the band was once built. Now they remain as some of the few elders of a long-dead scene.

Originally from Kyoto, Makino moved to New York and met Amadeo in the East Village in the '90s, before linking up with both twins in Italy, on the island of Elba. When Makino was burnt out after the chilly critical reception of 2014's "Barragán," the band's last album, she returned to Elba, where she recorded her solo debut "Adult Baby." When she tells me that the years she spent making her solo album on Elba were the best years of her life, she says it like she's just realizing that herself. Yet she returned to Blonde Redhead, and what is still at times a strained reunion (“The twins are like real family,” Makino recently told the Guardian. “The hate and contempt [between us] are as strong as the love. I can’t even talk to them sometimes.“) has led to some of the band's best music. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Hell Gate: The last time Blonde Redhead put out an album was in 2014. But you were always touring. Why do you think in those nine years, the band was touring but not recording an album?

We didn't tour that much, though. 

According to SongKick, it looks like you toured from 2015 to 2018.

Oh yeah. You know what, to be honest, we could have just been trying to make rent. That's how it is for bands now, right? It's one of the few ways to make a livelihood, so we did that, but it was painful. As I remember, it was not a good experience. I remember feeling quite compromised. It wasn't ideal. 

Really, to be honest, I think I didn't know if I wanted to make another Blonde Redhead album. My spirit was kind of broken about the band. I was kind of done, not with music altogether, just the struggle of keeping it as a band. I found it too difficult to continue. And then, subsequently, my life kind of came undone as well. So, I moved away. 

When you moved out of New York, where did you move to?

I moved to Elba, the island sandwiched between Corsica and Sardinia. I have a history with this island. That's actually where I met the twins, basically. They had a summer job, and I already met Amadeo in New York once, and I really liked him, I liked him romantically. I suppose the feeling was mutual, and so yeah, he invited me to Italy. I'd never been to Italy. So that's Elba. And that's where I kind of started playing with them.

Moving to a different country, it takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of time to settle down, and it just felt like it was the end of this big, big chapter for me. Not just the band, but I sublet my house. And then I was quite sick as well, so it really didn't feel like nine years. 

So when I got better, I said, I'm gonna make a solo album, because, let's say if I was only one third as successful, I should be able to still make a livelihood. So, I started that journey, which was so exciting, and it's so liberating. And it was just the best years of my life, privately, musically, and in so many ways. I have never experienced such happiness. I didn't know making music could be so joyful. 

I always doubted whether I could make serious music with other people, and I found out, yes I can, and there's so many great musicians out there. It gave me such a satisfaction to watch other musicians come alive or bring their own core of themselves as musicians, through my music. It was the most gratifying thing I've ever experienced, I didn't even know such a thing could happen. So I toured with them, and I just had a blast. Even the touring routine was so different from the way we do Blonde Redhead tours.

I think moving to this beautiful island [after our last record], and then just feeling so insanely happy, and making this music I wanted to make, and pushing everything I can in my power to promote it…I didn't do it right, because it didn't go anywhere. But still, in my mind, I really gave everything that I can think of that I had: I made a movie, an "Adult Baby" record film, and I met incredible friends—Sam Owens; the producer, Eva Michon, who directed the album; Isabel Marant, who produced the film. I had a solid support system, where no matter how insecure I am, and no matter how doubtful I can be, or the intense sense of self-loathing I live with, I would still make music.

I think that gave me a really powerful reboot. 

How did the new Blonde Redhead album come about?

Amadeo, my bandmate, being all quiet and subdued, he always wanted to make another album, you know. Maybe he doesn't go through such highs and lows as I do, but I'm sure he feels a lot inside. But then he's also a resilient type of person. So he was always like, "Come on, Kazu. Let's do another one." When I came back, I told him, "Well, I'll do it if you're gonna let me do it my way. I'm not gonna cry over it. I'm not gonna suffer over it. I want us to feel a lot of joy and fun." And he said, yeah.

And then the pandemic happened, which took me back to New York, and from then on, because I have a really bad respiratory condition, Amadeo insisted that I go with him and his girlfriend to basically exile upstate until things calmed down. So we started house-hopping in the countryside from February to July 2020. And he always rented a house with a piano in it, so I just started making music, so in a way, I fell back into it. 

In a catastrophe, the best thing I could do was just to make music with my original bandmate, and that's what happened. 

I've been thinking a lot about artistic collaborations, and what makes them last. I'm curious about when you guys were living together in the pandemic and writing—how was that?

That was great, because everything went into the music, all the fears and desperation and all the things that we couldn't do, we couldn't say, we couldn't express. They went into the music, and I don't know how, but the album still sounds quite positive to me, but I suppose because I started before the pandemic started.

Was making the new album fun?

Yeah. I think for the twins, not so much. Because I was like, yeah, okay, let's do this, and I was like, I want to do it this way, even if I don't see exactly how. I kind of knew where I wanted to go. 

But then, I think they didn't like it so much, the way I was doing it. This morning, Simone was like, "Oh, I was miserable." It was a joint interview. He said, "I was not given a voice, I was left out, I was this, I was that." I was like, really? But in the end he said, "Well, but it doesn't matter, because the result is good and I really liked the record, so it doesn't matter." 

He said that in an interview? 

Yeah, we were interviewing, I was like, yeah, no I had a lot of fun. They asked, how about you, Simone? He was like, no, I was miserable. [laughs]

I always had to put others in front of me. Basically, he was saying Kazu's needs were prioritized over my needs. 

How did it make you feel when he said that? 

I was like, God, he's gonna whine in public? But then I thought about it, and I thought, I guess any sign of honesty is not a bad sign. You know?

What happened with the last album that left you feeling burnt out with the band?

It wasn't just the last album. I think after "23," we sort of hit roadblocks everywhere. How I feel today is that it's not that I changed at all, I was always doing the same thing. I'm always making music. But now, today, I am just getting all the green lights. 

And after "23," people could just tell me, "Well, it's because you made a shit album." You know, that could be the simplest reason, I don't know. But everywhere I went, and I kept trying, it was like a red light. That's the simplest way to explain it, from my point of view. 

I kept trying, but it was just a no-go, no matter which way I looked. But that also may come from the fact I wasn't being really honest with my bandmates. We were all going through a very, very rocky period.

Where were the red lights coming from?

They came from everywhere. And it kind of started when we were on [the record label] 4AD, and the person who signed us, I was in London with him the morning that he got sacked. It was so shocking, it was shocking for us, shocking for him. Because, you know, us signing to 4AD was quite phenomenal. We were riding on such a musical period, doing "Misery Is a Butterfly" and "23." And 4AD got a total renaissance also, for a while. I'm not going to take credit, but it certainly helped, I think, that they signed us.

And then two albums in, this guy, the most amazing person, who had the right mind, the right ears, the right aesthetic, was perfect for us, got sacked. And I just did not even know what that meant. And, he said that morning, he said, "Wow, I am 4AD. How can they do that? I am 4AD." That's what he said. "They cannot fire me, I am 4AD".  But then later on, I kept hearing that they really wanted to start making mainstream music, they wanted to start making real money. So I suppose we didn't fit into that, he didn't fit into that. And then I think things started to get really, really difficult. 

In your 20s, you moved to New York alone. And I wanted to ask about that time in your life: What was your life like then?

I landed in the East Village. I had such little hopes or dreams. I stayed in some horrible places, where at night I'd feel somebody's tongue in my ear, like some guy trying to do something to me, things like that, horrible stuff. But what can you do? Those were the days I spent in New York. It was all like that. It felt like everybody was in heat. Every dude, every guy I met, they were in heat, you know? Just looking for release. 

It was so hard for me to respect people like that, who were always trying to get laid, or whatever. It was hard for me to respect them, but at the same time they were the people who were doing stuff, like making music, and being part of the center of a really important musical movement in New York. So I learned everything, I absorbed all of that, without feeling any respect for them. 

So as I was starting to make my own music, and as I started to come up, I never name-dropped, even though I knew a lot of people who were able to help me or push me forward, musically, but just because it felt to me, like, the music and sex and all drugs, that was so entangled. I was like, when I'm gonna have my own career, I'm never going to mention these people, because I don't want people to think I slept my way through my career. It just looked so ambiguous, even though I never had to sleep my way, but it might look like that, so I kind of closed my mouth and never mentioned anyone. 

And then one of my old friends from this era was like, "Why did you never give me credit for anything? Because of me, you did this, and you did that, you met the twins." And it's funny that people give me a hard time about that. I have to explain to them, it's because those days, I was always on the verge of being like, seduced or like, half-raped by so many people. I just don't want to talk about that stuff. People would be like, but Kazu, it's only sex. [Long pause.] But I think that the '90s, or whatever, that was the vibe, right? It's a hustler culture, and it still is. I suppose that's what New York is. 

You recently moved back to New York City. 

Since the moment I arrived, I always told myself, I'm not going to be here forever, I'm going to get out of here the first chance I get. And I'm still here. I do spend a lot of time elsewhere. And sometimes when I come back, I can't believe how hard it is to be here. But at the same time, there's really nothing like walking on the street here and just hearing everybody saying crazy stuff. There's something to love about New York. And then that gives you a sort of desire to make that work. But I don't know. I don't know how much longer I'll be here, but by now, I know that no matter what, I will keep making music. I should be able to do it no matter where I am.

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