The Blow: Interview
“There’s me [onstage], and then there’s Melissa at the back in the sound booth with the audience between us. We’re doing a kind of call-and-response with each other with the audience hugged between the two of us.”
When speaking about The Blow’s new self-titled album, due October 1 on Kanine, the first question on everyone’s mind seems to be, “What took so long?” Mastermind Khaela Maricich made a bit of a college-radio splash in 2006 with Paper Television and its impossibly catchy single “Parentheses.” Apart from occasional re-releases, that has been the last recorded output from The Blow, until now.
A lot of things changed for The Blow during the intervening years. Maricich’s bandmate on Paper Television, Jona Bechtolt, left in 2007 to pursue his own music with Yacht. Maricich’s girlfriend, Melissa Dyne, joined the band soon after. When it came time to work out the songs for this new record, Maricich stresses how adventurous and patient the duo were in giving their work the necessary breathing room to come together properly. A quick glance at Maricich’s schedule over the last few years reveals how busy she’s been with her various artistic endeavors. It just so happens she and Dyne are using The Blow as their chosen vehicle of expression right now.
Maricich recently spoke with Tiny Mix Tapes in anticipation of the new album’s release.
How is life for The Blow right now? Where are you?
We’re [about to do] a huge U.S. tour. It starts October 10th and runs until November 10th.
You’re catching us in Portland, Oregon, where we used to live but don’t anymore. There’s a big performance art festival here and we’re going to have a two-night show in a theater here, so we’ve been doing all the tech rehearsals. It’s the art festival [Melissa and I] met at back in 2004, so it’s a bit of a reunion.
Oh, this is where you originally met?
Yeah, we met at the Portland Institute of Performing Art’s TBA [Tim-Based Art] Festival when I was doing this performance piece and Melissa was in town because she was going to do a big art piece the next year and she was scoping it out.
Performance art seems pretty integral to The Blow.
I’ve been interested in using the band as a platform for being able to perform more than just singing the songs. There are people who are amazing singers and I don’t think I’m necessarily one of them! Like, I can sing all right, but I was using it as an excuse to try things out, performance-wise, just throw around different ideas and be different characters and see what’s possible in that space you find where people come to listen to music. It’s like any artist, any musician, trying to find an angle to innovate.
For the record, I love your voice.
I’ve come to appreciate it too. But I was never really a “singing kid.” I didn’t come from a singing family and I was never like [in a grandiose voice] “I CAN SING!”
[I came] from the scene in Olympia, Washington, which was very loose with musical skill. You did not need to be good at what you were doing in order to do it. My cousin was in this band, Beat Happening…
With K Records founder Calvin Johnson.
Yeah, totally. I was a total nerd. The International Pop Underground Convention happened in 1991. I was a senior in high school — I could have gone. I didn’t because I was such a nerd.
I remember my cousin saying, “Just because you can’t play music doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. And sometimes it’s actually better if you don’t know how to play.” I guess that’s a bit of a no-wave ideal: musicianship is one thing, but it’s also interesting to take an instrument and just put it in an artist’s hands and see what they do without a ton of training or expertise. That’s where I was coming from: I don’t necessarily have a trained voice, but I’m just going to see what happens.
Nowadays [the performance aspect of The Blow] can be even broader because Melissa has an installation art background. She grew up playing cello and worked for a luthier [someone who repairs lutes - ed]. She has, in many ways, a more trained approach to sound than I do. She trained classically and knows how to read music and all that stuff. Her approach to it is more through physics and sound art and what sound waves actually do. It’s really expanded the possibilities for what you can do in a live show and on the record in a really exciting way.
Melissa has a lot of education and background with the study of sound […] so she engineered all of the album and did most of the arrangements and all of the mixing. We composed it together. Full disclosure: we’re girlfriends. The lines really blur, we were always passing things back and forth. Everything that sounds refined and delicate is Melissa’s touch, like picking a synthesizer sound and separating it into multiple voices because it would give it a prismatic sound: make it sound thicker and more defined.
There was a New Year’s Eve party where we were all dancing in my living room, and I did this weird dance move, this kind of move with my butt… and I was like “Woah!” I’m not a pole-dancing kind of girl, it’s not my thing. It was just this move I did, but maybe it was me. I mean, I did it.
There’s a moment in the song “Girls” — I wrote a guitar solo — well, it’s a synth, but it sounds like a guitar solo — and it just goes [distorted noise] “BWAAAAAA!” [Melissa] wrote this beautiful, high, delicate, crazy, multilayered synth sound with all these parts feeding back into each other. And they’re kind of playing a little duet together: I feel it’s a lovely portrait of the way we work together. She does all these things out of delicacy and they make everything sound better, and I make [guttural noise]… just big blobs.
That’s how I’ve always written songs, with lyrics and melody first with no accompaniment, and building up around it. Because we had these skeletons of songs — just lyrics and melody — we’d often do multiple versions around them. That was part of the exploratory process of making the album. We’d do a version, then say: “Uh, what if we did it completely different?!” and do it again.
Did that exploratory process contribute to the length of time it took to complete the new record?
It takes a while before you have songs you feel like sharing with anybody. I feel like one has to honor the muses and give them space. [Paper Television] came out in 2006 and we toured pretty consistently through 2008. At that point I just wanted to hide out for a while. Jonah [Bechtolt] and I stopped working together by that point. [I didn’t feel] like talking to anybody or having anybody listen to me, I just feel like laying around and listening to what other people were doing and saying.
Making an album as a business decision as opposed to something you want to share — no judgment — it’s not my way. I don’t want to try to force out — poop out — a bunch of songs. By 2011 or so, I had some songs I felt pretty good about working. Recording them took some time. It was a real odyssey — Melissa and I just went into this other world: “What is an album, what does it mean and how do you do it?” […] just trying to fully explore what was possible.
What does the concert setup for The Blow look like these days?
At a typical Blow performance there are no live musicians playing instruments onstage. There’s me, and then there’s Melissa at the back in the sound booth, with the audience between us. We’re doing a kind of call-and-response with each other with the audience hugged between the two of us. She’s performing music back there using samples and synthesizers. We can pick the songs apart — that was her vision — being able to manipulate them, change them, and move them around in response to each other and in response to the audience.
When you write songs, are you writing from a personal perspective or from a character’s perspective?
The performance we had been touring with [from 2009 until 2012] called Songs For Other People had a narrative… I was writing songs for a celebrity girl [to use on her album]. A number of songs on the album were developed out of that performance and that process […] the idea of writing these songs for [someone else] and trying to step into their character. The performance was a meditation of, “Am I writing [these songs] for her?” How do you divide that line between yourself and somebody else in a creative process like that? We kind of start taking on… just trying to embody that person or relate to them. The performance is exploring [me] starting to relate to them more than I thought I would. Especially someone who’s a celebrity girl who smokes in her car and wears crazy heels, all these things I pretty clearly know aren’t me. The performance was a place to try these characteristics on and say, “Why couldn’t I be that girl? Maybe I could be that girl.”
The process of writing the songs — after the fact — it felt like, “Wow, I think I started to act like that girl a little bit. I think I started to sing like that girl and sing a little bit less like myself.” It wasn’t premeditated — “Now I will go sing like someone else and this will be my art project, with nice neat borders.” You start with an idea and then as it grows it takes on a life of its own — it starts to take you in a little bit.
I remember my cousin saying, ‘Just because you can’t play music doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. And sometimes it’s actually better if you don’t know how to play.’
I was using my voice in a way that’s not the way I do it, in a way that was almost scary. I don’t know if you ever catch yourself doing something or making a gesture and say, “Woah, was I acting? Was I being fakey?”
Yeah, “Who did I do that for?”
You know what I mean? You catch yourself. There was a New Year’s Eve party where we were all dancing in my living room, and I did this weird dance move, this kind of move with my butt. I was like, “Oh my God, I think that was some kind of stripper pole move.” I got really embarrassed — all of a sudden I just did it — and I was like “Woah!” I’m not a pole-dancing kind of girl, it’s not my thing. It was just this move I did, but maybe it was me. I mean, I did it.
This album in particular is an exploration of, who are you really? Are the boundaries of yourself so defined? Do you know what you are? People are pretty mutable. So I guess sometimes I’m playing a character, but not intentionally. You’re sort of always playing yourself, remembering how to act like yourself.
Speaking of boundaries, I was curious about the song “Like Girls,” on which you sing, “Up walks a dude / says he likes the view / and is it weird he wants to talk to you ‘cause you’re a girl.” It seemed like you were speaking on the feeling of the prevailing straight sexual culture forcing itself into all culture, like people automatically applying “straight parameters” to your interactions.
[It’s about] the experience of dudes just being [makes a “guy-dude-bro” noise] “URRHHHHH,” assuming you’re automatically interested because you’re a girl — you must be potentially there for the taking. On the other side, [I am] appreciative of girls myself. I like girls too, man. I get caught staring, checking girls’ bodies out. [Laughs] Melissa’s better about it. I never really get caught checking girls out, but I guess I’m more like a wolf. She’s much more subtle than I am.
I wondered about these sorts encroachments with songs like, for example, “Parentheses,” which was the big hit off Paper Television. The lyrics to the song sound personal and idiosyncratic, but then after it hit I heard people taking it, putting a thumping bass line behind it, and doing remixes. At the same time, I remember a ton of people playing it during their wedding receptions, which brings up a whole host of other social and political issues, since marriage in general is only slowly and painfully being pulled from a purely “straight” context.
Being on the inside of making things and sending them out, it’s a really blurry experience […] having any sense of what happens to what you’ve made after it leaves you. I don’t feel I have a lot of clarity about that, and in some ways maybe I try to not pay too much attention: “You know what, we just made this, you should take it and do what you want.”
Maybe it’s sort of like making kids. You facilitated them being born, but you didn’t have total control of what they ended up being, at least that’s how I feel. I felt like this song just came out of me. I let it come out, we put it together, and now it’s out there. I didn’t feel any sense of negativity — if people have received it and cared about it, that’s just the biggest honor ever. Something you had a part in making has a purpose in someone else’s life. If people want to have it in their wedding, that’s huge.
It’s a big deal, something that means enough to you to make it be a part of this huge ceremony. Or if it means enough to you for you to put your thumping bass to it.
I read an interview you did with Miranda July around the time of Paper Television, and at the time you said “Parentheses” was the first song you wrote from the perspective of, “I love you!” whereas previous work had been written with the voice of, “I think I love you! I’m trying to love you!” Now that you’re making music with someone you’re romantically involved with —
Someone I love!
I’ve been interested in using the band as a platform for being able to perform more than just singing the songs. There are people who are amazing singers and I don’t think I’m necessarily one of them!
Right. Now that you’re making music with someone you love, what voice are you writing with now?
It’s so hard to have perspective about yourself. It definitely it’s not a breakup record.
Yeah, that would be the next logical step from “I’m trying to love you,” then “I love you.”
That’s what the voice isn’t. It’s not “jilted lover.” Breakup songs just rip through you. You don’t have to have any awareness of the other person anymore: they’ve hurt you, so you can say whatever — you can just shred them. That can feel really intimate because you’re giving it out.
[It’s different] writing songs where that person’s there and they love you — they’re looking at you and you’re looking at them. There’s this quiet, really tender intimacy to songs like that, like a very delicate candle flame, as opposed to the intensity of a…
Yeah, or like a huge bonfire, burning all the furniture in your house — you don’t even care if you set your ex-lover’s house on fire.
It’s more like staring at a candle. I mean, you could blow it out. There’s a song on the album, “Not Dead Yet.” [You’re] aware that love is there and it’s something you both keep alive and it’s delicate. Even in a strong love, you’re aware you can affect somebody. Your gestures really mean something, so [you use] really delicate gestures.
[…] Just those weird moments where you’re with someone you love and you look at them, they look at you, and you’re like “Wow” […] you just trip out for a little bit and it gets existential. “Here we are.” Love is strange and hard to define, especially when you’re in it.
I think I know what you mean. Sometimes my wife and I will just look at each other and say, “I can’t believe we’re married. That’s weird.”
Yeah. You know what I mean?
Yeah, like, “It’s strange it turned out to be you.”
You kind of trip out. “Wow, we spend every night together — every night!” And it’s an intimate feeling: “Wow, I may not even know you all the way. I could keep walking into you forever and finding more.” It’s a trippy feeling, and trippy in a magic way, like magic, in-love, trip-out.
I think I need more distance from the songs to say more about what the voice is. That’s where we’re at right now: this thing just burst out of us, we just watched it happen and now we’re getting to know it.
We’re continuing the process, so we’re going to start recording new stuff together […] in December. We’re just going to start making stuff: we don’t even know what’s going to happen with it.