While interviewing Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse of the avant-garde synthesizer, guitar, and tape loop-fueled duo Blues Control, I made a mistaken assumption. We were discussing how the pair perform together live and I asked questions assuming that they synced up all their complicated musical parts via MIDI, the typical electronic method musicians use to get their gear to automatically play in time. Somewhat surprised, they both answered emphatically that they don’t implement MIDI. They know their songs, their gear, and each others’ playing style so well that they never needed a technological solution for playing together. They simply get together and play.
Cho and Waterhouse are a couple, but their communication goes much deeper. As a music duo, they have proven themselves instinctual in their collaboration. As interview subjects, they speak and interact with each other at times like seasoned musical professionals and at others (as they finish each others’ sentences and offer interpretations of what it was the other person said) like very old friends. On June 19, Blues Control will release Valley Tangents, the long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s excellent Local Flavor. A few weeks ago, the duo took time to talk with Tiny Mix Tapes about the new album and how life in Blues Control has changed over the years.
The only track from Valley Tangents I’ve had the chance to hear so far has been the song “Iron Pigs.” I was struck by the bright sound of horns in that song, as well as the overall tight feel. Is that giving us a taste of what to expect from Valley Tangents as a whole?
Russ: I guess similar to other records we’ve made, different songs have different influences. Therefore, there’s probably no other song on the record that sounds like “Iron Pigs,” but there are similarities to it in the way it’s structured.
Lea: We kind of do a particular thing but we apply it to a lot of different influences. It’s similar in approach to the whole record, but there’s no other song that sounds like “Iron Pigs.”
So regarding the overall approach of Valley Tangents… how does it differ from your earlier work?
Russ: It’s maybe a bit easier to distinguish all the pieces from each other, as opposed to our previous recordings where things were a bit more compressed.
Lea: A lot of our previous records were tracked live, and on this one we multitracked a lot more. So there’s a slight fidelity difference.
Russ: It’s not extremely different, we were just better able to achieve what we we wanted to do all all along. We had more control over the final sound of the record this time by taking everything apart and putting it together piece by piece.
How did the new approach affect how the songwriting process?
Russ: I guess the one big difference this time was that we sometimes wrote while we demoed the song. So we would start recording before the song was completely written and arranged.
Lea: We demoed every song before we went into the studio, which we’ve never done before.
Russ: Previously we had worked everything out before we even attempted to record it. This time we would start recording a demo before it was even finished. We even did several drafts of certain songs in order to finalize the arrangements. And then after demoing everything we went into a studio and basically recreated the demos but on a slightly larger scale, but with different equipment.
Speaking of equipment, what sorts of gear to you use to produce your samples? For example, the horn blasts on “Iron Pigs?”
Lea: Actually, I play the horns live.
Oh wow! Really?
Lea: Yeah, on the recording and [during concerts] I play it live.
Russ: [Laughs] Yeah, [Lea’s] like a keyboard and horns section.
Lea: A lot of what we do is live. I think sometimes people think it’s all samples or a lot of it is samples. I remember earlier [on Local Flavor], the song “Good Morning” that Kurt Vile and Jesse Trbovich played horns on… They did that live in the studio and some people thought that was lifted from a record.
Russ: We’ve been increasingly limiting our use of samples.
Lea: Very early on we would sample beats and stuff like that. We’re doing much less of that.
Russ: It’s just not as interesting anymore. There are samples on the record, but we try to limit it.
For awhile I thought I was maybe too classically trained. It wasn’t really clicking with the other musicians I would play with for a while. I thought maybe the problem was me, that I was too rigid or something.
I really enjoyed the collaboration you did with Laraaji for FRKWYS Vol. 8 How did that partnership come about?
Lea: The experience was really cool. We had been fans of his for a long time, listening to his records for a while. When we were invited to be part of the FRKWYS series we [immediately] thought of him but we weren’t sure that he’d be into it, so when he agreed to do it, it was really cool. We’re not completely improv – we work things out. His thing is he pretty much improvs everything he does, including live. So that was his idea for the collab – that we would just meet in the studio and record for a day and see what came of it.
Russ: We had never played before we met up at the studio. Fortunately we were able to pull together an hour’s worth of material from that.
Lea: We also had nearly an hour of bonus tracks that came from that, too.
The interesting thing about your work with Laraaji is that he, with his interest in laughing meditation and ambient music, has had of history of focusing on producing music that aims to evoke some sort of transcendent or otherwise meaningful experience for the listener. That’s an effect people have attributed to your music as well. How do you feel when people tell you your sounds caused them to go into a trance or some sort of “otherworldly” experience?
Lea: Hey, that’s super-great and really cool if that happens. Laraaji has definitely been able to verbalize and theorize on all of these things we’ve musically expressed and touched on, and that’s one reason we resonated with his music for so long. I feel like there are definitely similarities in terms of the experience of it.
Russ: We’ve gotten comments from people relatively often that our music took them to another place, or it was a journey of some sort. That to me seems like a positive thing, because when we’ve constructed our records we try to think of an arc or some sort of vague narrative. So it seems like our music is achieving what we want it to do. So if people are experiencing it in a trance-like state, for lack of a better word, then that’s good, from my perspective.
I’ve noticed that your music, from 2007’s Puff and onward, has gotten a little tighter, steadier, and more structured in approach with each recording. Do you notice the same thing?
Russ: Our early music was probably a lot more messy and rough around the edges. I think essentially it’s all the same, but our approach to putting together a record is a bit tighter, a bit less open-ended… it doesn’t happen quite as quickly.
Lea: The context is really different. You’re writing in a period of time. A lot of things we did back then are not as interesting anymore. When I look back at those records I’m really proud of them, but you have to develop and grow. I think we’re getting better over time at what we’re trying to do.
Russ: It’s just not as interesting for us personally to do things that are quite as quick and… tossed-off… for lack of a better word. [Back then], we would work on things and then record them and move on. Now we have the end in sight much more clearly. [When] we started in 2006 it was just a different climate.
Your approach to your craft seemed largely different from the direction of the experimental genre, if there ever was a quantifiable “direction.”
Lea: If anything, we were trying to go against that from the beginning. That’s sort of how Blues Control started.
Russ: Back then there were a lot of improv drone CD-Rs and tapes coming out week after week after week… there was just a nonstop flood of things like that. I feel like people are still taking that approach to music, but they’re applying it to different genres. It may be more poppy or dubby or shoegazy music…
Lea: … But the approach is still the same.
Russ: I guess if anything we’ve always tried to maintain a high level of quality control. We haven’t put out everything. There are a lot of songs we would play live, and possibly even record, that never made it out. But as time goes on I think we’re even more cognizant of what we wanted to put out there. There was a time that we worked faster but it was a different era. I think what we’re doing now is what’s right for us.
Lea, I understand you’re a classically trained musician. Do you think that experience ultimately informs how Blues Control operates?
Lea: I was definitely classically trained, pretty seriously. For awhile I thought I was maybe too classically trained. It wasn’t really clicking with the other musicians I would play with for a while. I thought maybe the problem was me, that I was too rigid or something. So when I started to play with Russ and things started clicking… it changed my idea of my background. I started to appreciate it more. And I’m using it more to do what I actually want to do as opposed to doing classical music.
Russ: Some people dismiss musicianship out of hand, but the reason why some people study music and practice their instrument is that they feel like they can be more expressive when they have that freedom. It can cross the line and you can go too far. As Lea said, you can become rigid or formulaic. There’s amazing improv and bad improv. There’s amazing composed music and bad composed music. Personally, I’m not as interested in amateurish improvisation as I maybe used to be.
We’ve gotten comments from people relatively often that our music took them to another place, or it was a journey of some sort. That to me seems like a positive thing, because when we’ve constructed our records we try to think of an arc or some sort of vague narrative.
I understand that you’ve left Brooklyn and you now live in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.
Russ: Well, we moved in three stages. When we moved out of New York in 2009, right after we finished mixing Local Flavor, we moved down to Richmond for about nine months. We were just based there so we could go on tour. Then we moved to Philadelphia and we lived there for about a year. It was a tough situation. We had a lot of friends there and we had a lot of good times but…
Lea: We found it was very similar to New York, in terms of the problems we were having working on music.
Russ: It wasn’t easy to focus on music. There were a lot of distractions. We were in a bad neighborhood…
Lea: We had a rough apartment to start with.
Personally, I’m not as interested in amateurish improvisation as I maybe used to be.
Russ: Yeah, we had no privacy and no security. It was hard to get much done with music. We were actually looking for a different place in Philadelphia, and we started looking outside of the city just out of curiosity and we found this place.
Lea: We never expected ahead of time to move to this area, but it turned out to be the perfect place and time for it.
Russ: A couple other things happened about the same time that made it possible. So we moved here and it’s been a lot easier to focus. We have more space, more privacy, a little more time.
Lea: We can actually work on music, we can play as loud as we want any time we want, we can just do what we want to do.
What’s it like being in a relationship, living together, and being in a band? Do you think it makes things easier or harder to have so much closeness?
Lea: Probably both [laughs]. On some level it’s cool because it’s a constant on-and-off thing when you’re talking about music and thinking about music when you’re doing laundry or having a meal or whatever. That’s pretty cool. You can practice anytime. Inevitably everything gets combined into the same thing. Whatever’s going on in the band goes on elsewhere and vice-versa.
Russ: And considering that we live together and spend almost all of our time together we have all the same shared musical experiences. So because we have all the same references so that makes the communication easier on some level.
Lea: It’s definitely intense in the best possible way.
Russ: Which isn’t to say that we always agree.
Lea: No. But that’s fine too. It’s like any relationship [laughs]. But things get better with time, that’s what I’m realizing.
Russ: Blues Control is basically where the two of us meet in the middle.