The output of Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips as Blanche Blanche Blanche over the last few years has been one of the most inspired runs from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Over the course of eight home-recorded albums in less than three years, they’ve done everything from Casio reggae to torch songs, cycling through twisting chord changes and arcane lyrical conceits the way a military hospital goes through bandages. Breaking Mirrors — their ninth record and first recorded in a studio — takes those methods and wraps them in a Ramones jacket.
Tiny Mix Tapes spoke to Smith and Phillips individually about making weirdness fly live, Theodor Adorno, and Royal Trux via email. Smith’s portion is first, Phillips’ second. (Note: We left the duo’s answers, at their behest, as they are; that’s why you’ll notice a space before each comma/period in Mr. Phillips’ portion and no uppercase letters. Onward!).
What is Open Session Rock? Is it a process, an idea, or the latter living through the former?
Sarah Smith: “oh, señor.”
Your vocal style has always felt like this really fascinating blend of recitation and singing, and it feels like there’s a similar dichotomy at work in the lyrics. Like, in “Results,” you declare a set of very dry, observational statements (“sex/demonstrates love”) before, in a much more melodic fashion, you reassure that, “It’s never too late.” To me it felt like a way of charting emotional ambiguities between factual matters and personal reality. Like, there’s a real sense of being lost in that welter that’s reflected by how you refuse to be caught repeating the same melodic phrase identically throughout the same song. How do you see the different ways in which you deploy your voice?
SS: that’s a difficult question to answer! i’m just a sexy girl next door. i don’t really draw direct inspiration for melody, delivery, etc. from real life stuff. it’s more what the music and words tell me to do. it’s most fun for me to let the audience draw their own conclusion about what i’m doing and what that means.
How do you find live performance with a real band compared? You’re hollering really complex lyrics over a complex backing, which is now coming with what seems like a more intense sense of impetus. It’s all complex, but with that kind of force it’s the kind of thing that it feels impossible to just stand there and chin-scratch at. Is there a sense of the absurd to it for you?
SS: live music has always felt like a totally different world to me. we’ve more recently started backing away from super-loud, rock-style playing at shows and have started playing more quietly — which i really like for now — but we are all pretty fickle so we’ll see how long it lasts [ZP: it didn’t!]. it all feels pretty absurd. i think shows are kind of absurd and for a long time i hated playing them, but this band has helped me a lot with that.
i don’t know if i would describe the “impetus” for the live band as “more complex” — i feel like anything can become or appear more complex when there are more individual pieces involved.
I got my introduction to BBB by stumbling upon some of your records online for free from the OSR site and promptly going through them like an untrained truffling pig. Why do you offer out of print material for free, and are you happy with doing it?
SS: we offer out-of-print materials for free because, if possible, everyone should have access to whatever art they are interested in, free of cost. of course tapes and CDs and records are fun and often-beautiful objects, but at the end of the day it’s not really about that. the music is why those objects exist and after the objects are all gone there’s no reason why the music needs to die with them. we aren’t making money from music anyway so what’s the point of charging somebody for download permission?
What do you think the future holds for BBB?
SS: work in the form of friendship.
What bothers me most about music journalism is the difficulty people have in saying anything intelligent about female musicians. What do you think people are missing when they relate female musicians solely to female musicians?
SS: i think it’s very hard for a lot of people to understand that women are people too. there is such an incredible amount of expectations heaped onto all women at all times that it totally makes sense that people only understand how to compare women to other women. you could look at it from an analytical standpoint and recognize that a woman’s experience in the world is obviously much different than that of a man and will deeply inform the art she makes, so comparing the two in a serious way may seem impossible, i guess. that being said, i don’t think that’s something very many people think about. i think it’s way more about subconsciously denying women agency through putting us all in this weird box together.
One of the songs that floors me, and it’s an early BBB track, is “Brattleboro”; to me there’s this huge ambivalence captured in a couplet like “Wetstone River (sic.) Retreat Reservoir/Massachusetts if you have a car.” It’s probably one of the most powerful portrayals of place I’ve heard. How did the environment of Vermont influence your music when you were living there/starting BBB in the first place?
SS: the environment was a major influence for me. brattleboro, vermont is where i grew from child to adult. zach and i both grew up in a very square, uptight town and moving to this place full of young, freak artists was integral to our development as people and creators. the most inspirational thing to me always is to be surrounded by people making art i can get down with. i have no idea where i’d be if it weren’t for ruth garbus, chris weisman, abby banks, and so many others. also the leaves and the way the air smells in october are unlike anything else on the planet.
it’s easy to look at the audience at these shows and just see horny college kids, which can be frustrating. i come from a lineage of labor. i’m a genuine freak.
BBB’s music is littered with punchlines. A song like “The Crazy Band CD” is downright hilarious and yet deadly sad and serious at the same time; it’s skewering a very real idea of how people seem to think music can work. How important is humor to your approach as a musician and a writer?
SS: humor is very important to me as a person. it’s deeply ingrained in my psyche, so it’s hard to imagine making any sort of art without a lot of humor attached to it. zach is the same way, i think. when we’re happy, we joke. when we’re uncomfortable, we joke, etc.
What prompted relocating to Brooklyn? It’s usually touted as the nerve center of ‘Pitchfork rock.’ Is there much you identify or don’t identify with re: that new locale?
SS: i identify with my friends and most direct peers (our bandmates, their band Big French, etc.) but for the most part i feel a bit like a foreigner. there are a lot of young, enthusiastic people here, which is great, but at the same time it’s easy to look at the audience at these shows and just see horny college kids, which can be frustrating. i come from a lineage of labor. i’m a genuine freak. it’s hard to relate to anything except to what i’ve been relating to for years. that being said i do love living here. i have met plenty of folks who are kind and generous. there is great art. matt thurber writes songs and makes comics that are so good i can’t even be jealous of them because they are so him and so perfect. ultimately it’s just a fucking place, but some of its hipster diaspora happens to be very rich and very attractive so its cultural importance gets inflated.
BBB have moved record labels almost constantly; what’s the reason for that to date?
SS: nobody wants us for more than a second because we are too cool and annoying also. we love everybody though! especially in japan.
[Continue to page 2 for Zach Phillips’ portion of the interview.]