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.]
Zach, you’ve taken to essays, reviews, facebook posts, whatever to represent the band. How do you view the interview as a way of articulating or explaining what it is BBB is and what you do as a musician?
Zach Phillips: I love interviews with musicians — I’m addicted to the form . I remember reading this one with Tori Kudo at 16 and being changed. regarding BBB we’re songwriters first and unstable freaks before that. it’s impossible to represent any of our work together in the traditional mode of proud accomplishment because that’s not the feeling in operation.
I tried to explain BBB to a friend and the best I could come up with was Royal Trux with a lot on their to-do list and a clock rapidly ticking down on them. How would you describe how you and Sarah work together on Blanche Blanche Blanche?
ZP: if that’s the best you can do , then thanks ! we love Royal Trux , RTX & the Howling Hex [I released an album for the latter last year] and have learned much from them as musicians and personalities . Sarah and I are sisters and I don’t know what else to say about it . I believe in her , she believes in me , and this unconditional co-belief is a constant bomb , exploding any sneaky attempts of the lesser spirit to consolidate definite private identity beyond the present hysterical moment , obliterating all the hubris that comes with that . if I didn’t have this with her , and with other friends like Quentin , who played guitar in the live band , I would be looking for it all my life .
Your records demonstrate different modes, different concerns, different themes each time, without any sense of repetition. Is there a real desire to not repeat yourself from album to album?
ZP: from the Psalms : “sing a new song to God , for He has done wonders” . Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav : “this is a new pathway , an original prayer that springs directly from your heart . accordingly the maligning forces are not lying there in wait” .
Wooden Ball was a record that really seemed to zero in on some concerns about the relationship between privilege, entitlement, and creation, especially on songs like “TED Talks.” What motivates the BBB approach against blue-sky stuff like TED?
ZP: at the time , it seemed exciting and necessary to issue some kind of quasi-polemical statement in poetry about the state of the information economy . I wanted BBB to get sued by TED . we were still figuring out , I think , that the decision to invest our practices with value is ours alone to make , so I look at that album with the kind of emotional suspicion and studied distance you might employ when thinking about epic fights with past lovers . I won’t argue with the fact that many take this war to be their animal friend and pass their time taking funny pictures of their own misguided hands ; we’re just more focused these days on people / the parts of us that aren’t like that . grace means stepping out of battle position .
What’s your take on stuff like MIT and Harvard offering free university courses online?
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.
How did you find the experience of recording the record with the band compared to prior albums? Did the decision to do that arise from wanting a more aggressive sound?
ZP: Breaking Mirrors would sound different — maybe like that moment in the Zeros cut of “Cosmetic Couple” when one of the channels goes out for a few seconds — if there weren’t a band , engineer, and label to show respect to . Colin [White, AKA R Hundro] , Jo [Miller-Gamble , c.f. Punks on Mars and the Great Valley] , Adam [Steck] , Quentin [Moore, see Big French] & Mike [Kutchman , engineer at Kutch1 Studio] really rose above the material and we became a “real band” thanks to their dynamism (and in spite of my direction) . maybe I should explain that the band learned “unison” parts from sheets with note names but no direction w/r/t the octave in which the note is to be played , resulting in a weird kind of unison counterpoint as the band chose different avenues of melodic motion — most of the songs contain 0 to 2 chords according to the conventional definition . during recording , I felt I wanted to disappear entirely as a voice within the song and speak from without via approaching the production and arrangement dynamically , as a live instrument . ideologically and aesthetically , I’d like to challenge the staid models of representation nearly everyone defaults to especially w/r/t mixing , but a conservative approach is sometimes the only one intuitively available , and the “conservative / radical” opposition tends to reverse itself like a Necker cube from moment to moment . for example , keyboard hardly appears on the song “Breaking Mirrors” — that recording is the first take of the band getting through the song , and Adam’s bass dropouts were initially unintentional . picking that cut and largely leaving it alone was like taking an aggressive solo and blowing all over it . but as a whole , Breaking Mirrors is nothing but a weak gesture in the direction of truly dynamic mixing .
Since I live in Perth, Australia, I haven’t had the chance to see the new Blanche Blanche Blanche live band perform, so I’ve been living vicariously through YouTube. From that vantage, it’s really aggressive stuff; like the twisting, convoluted chord progressions and Sarah’s vocals feel articulated as if they are a direct challenge, instead of just being challenging. Is there like a conscious tapping-into of quote-unquote punk aesthetics in the way you perform live, or is it just a matter of playing a song with the intensity it warrants, outside of whatever baggage or vacuum it is I’m trying to pin on you?
ZP: we recently toured the east coast with Guerilla Toss , typically playing at a low volume and without any pretense of provocation . for some time prior to the tour , a certain violence in approach seemed attractive , but it proved unsustainable and ultimately counterproductive [I’m too sensitive and volatile to be under sway of a war-mythos — Chris Weisman, you were right ! and Chris Cohen said he liked it better when he could hear the notes anyway] . so instead of burning itself out , the band became very skilled at interpreting a large number of old and new songs , trying new EQ at each show , and enjoying all the personal freedom temporally accessible within the structural parameters of the songs . the quality of our playing often broke my heart , but the tour confirmed our suspicions that the prevailing culture of rock shows isn’t amenable to me & Sarah’s particular self-abrogating brand of psychedelic enthusiasm . for now , no shows , and no ambition , other than to keep writing and recording , carefully resisting psychological traps like stalkers in the Zone … though if we were asked to play in a quiet environment somewhere with a piano , that might be hard to resist ! I’m very happy with the notion of limiting my “public activities” to self-releasing to a limited audience without any promotional bravura and further detaching from a certain problematic orientation to contemporary music culture and “art” . but I miss the music of the live band , and I hope we record again together . in the meantime , keep your eye on my label OSR , as I’m blessed to be releasing three outrageous vinyl records some time this summer , including a new album for triple Blanche .
You’ve written elsewhere that basically the music should come first and theory should come later, instead of artists making ‘thesis rock’ that straitjackets material. Are there any other basic guiding principles that govern how you feel you ought to make your music?
ZP: in the context of songwriting, principles suffer the burden of exhaustion like anything else. but I’m giddy facing the question of what one ought to do , which is always a matter of some urgency , as when you plant your feet in ethical stance , you can really feel the rapid erosion underfoot as your personal slice of zeitgeist reorganizes itself like a Rubik’s cube . the richest writing I know acknowledges this unstable environment and zeros in on the conditions of possibility for ethical and political engagement ; the question of whether it is currently important to embrace or combat some principle with respect to making music , what that principle might be and how it can manifest itself musically and extra-musically : this is where I like to live , and not in the antechamber of any particular philosophy of which my spirit is too flighty to make lasting use . “the recent propagandists for technique on the one hand , and for content on the other , had better watch out” — that’s Frank O’Hara . “in exercises in meditation and concentration , one ought not to try to force results” — that’s the I Ching . I think of Ed Askew , of “Trip To Hyden” by Tom T. Hall , of Rebby Sharp , of Hartley C White , of Kassie from Guerilla Toss , of Christina Schneider , of Family Fodder, of Sediment Club , and so on & on . with respect to claims about “theory music” etc. , all I can really say is that you can tell when people are doing it wrong, and any efforts on my part to flip that wrongness into a call to action are merely taking up Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s claim that “one must be able to build a good spirit , a spirit of prophecy , which is the opposite of a depressed spirit” . at any rate, thinking about any of this stuff is just imbibing radioactive tracer fluid so that when you go to writing’s surgery room to operate on yourself the work to be done is illumined . and to extend the metaphor to bring attention to the institutional parameters of music , you gotta be clear on your relationship to the hospital . speaking of O’Hara , I haven’t made it past this question : “how can you really care if anybody gets it , or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what ? for death? why hurry them along ?” Kurahashi Yumiko : “what on earth can modern novelists give their readers ? even if I offer too general an answer of ‘an imaginative world’ , the passage to lead readers into this world is a ‘labyrinth’ , like bitterness itself , and what lies beyond it is not a brilliant ‘kingdom’ , but only ‘death’ and ‘nothingness’” . so much the better !
Taking thing out of the specific context he was referring to, Wink With Both Eyes reminded me of Adorno’s basic conception that for music to actually reflect modern reality, it has to come to new levels of complexity and exist in opposition to simpler, previous musical structures. Linked to that realisation was the sense for me that Wink With Both Eyes was the closest record that I’ve heard which approximated or articulated the idea of how interpersonal relationships exist in a world after the internet, even though it didn’t explicitly mention the web at all. Do you feel that the complex and I guess kinda sui generis approach BBB has to songcraft is a kind of necessary response to the times?
ZP: your take on WWBE is interesting and unrelated to my experience of it . I do feel like there is a contemporary state of affairs that should be challenged , and that a given problematic in a musical sphere has natural corollaries in the world at large , in political processes and ethical arenas having nothing to do with music . but many apparently worthy battles turn out to be fought against chimeras , and the real referent available to critical energy is often only an internal manifestation of something which does in fact exist externally as well but which resists approach . James Tate : “I will take this one window / with its sooty maps and scratches / so that my dreams will remember / one another and so that my eyes will not / become blinded by the new world” .