Blues Control “It’s just about trial and error.”

Queens duo Blues Control were an anomaly to me for ages, and listening to their records only made things worse. Their particular mysticality is created with a deeply abstracted series of layers that end up feeling sublimely confounding alongside the various swoons and gritty feelings of transcendence that come with their musical experience. Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho shoot for unique beauty, and that's perhaps the major attraction of their sometimes-linear noise-based sound; scuffed-up enough for Siltbreeze sludge fanatics (their new LP Local Flavor came out on the imprint) and accessible enough for non-“noise fans” as well. There's a calm sort of unpredictability as far as where their tape decks, keyboard pianos, guitars, and harmonicas take them; maybe kraut-style drum plods like “Boiled Peanuts” or the brokedown shopping-mall melodies and nostalgias of “Paul's Winter Solstice” or, more recently, the just-plain-pretty nautical vibes of “Rest On Water.” Pretty tranquil, yeah, but so distinctly oblique, so imagistic.

Just before their European tour (preceding a lengthy U.S. tour), I talked to Russ and Lea via a slightly clunky Skype conference call (so futuristic) about their place in the "noise scene" (if any), tapes, imagery, immersiveness, and plastic nostalgias. After talking, I felt much more prepared to venture into their music, or more able to understand it, but I'm not so sure that's right; it seems truer that I'm just better equipped at getting lost in this stuff.



I'm not sure if I'm misinformed on this but someone had mentioned that you guys weren't especially big on “noise” music as a thing or a scene to be involved with. How do you feel about this?

Russ: Well, I don't really listen to that much noise, but say like, 10 years ago, I was listening to a lot of it; buying a lot of tapes. Personally, I got a bit sick of all of that after a certain point and just started listening to other types of music. Yeah, it's pretty rare that we'll put on a noise record these days, though we still do some trading with people, so we do hear some new stuff. But it's not really something we seek out. I think both of us prefer listening to music that is a song, rather than abstract or experimental pieces. I'm just speaking for myself. I mean, there's still a lot you can take away from that, but I haven't really been seeking it out for years now.

Lea: I think what it is is really, in general, we listen to older music. There's so much new music it seems like there's no way you can possibly hear it all. I feel like it's not so much that we don't like noise music, it's just that we went through a phase where we used to listen to much more of it; it's more of like a phase kind of thing.

"There's something about this whole wave of music that came up in the late 90s and mid 2000s, this post-glitch digital stuff, and that's just not appealing to our ears."

I'm glad you didn't take that the wrong way [laughs], but I was pretty curious, as I find that “noise” scenes can get kind of weird sometimes, you know?

R: [laughs] That's kind of what is a bit of a turn-off about that scene, to be honest; it's very insular and I don't necessarily think that a lot of people involved with it have a sense of where they fit in a larger music world, nor do I think they even care; it's just kind of like a smaller community, I dunno. The unfortunate thing is once you get involved in that, I think it's easy to get stuck in it and I don't necessarily think people from outside of it think those people are entirely serious about stuff. Just by virtue of the fact that we listen to a lot of other types of music, it just seems to make more sense to steer clear of being pigeonholed in that respect, even if our music may be abstract and noisy at times.

L: I mean, we listen to so many different things, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who do that too, but there are people, not even just in noise scenes, who are interested. We never really feel comfortable falling into some group where it's about one type of music. We just are simultaneously part of a lot of different groups.

R: We've played with a number of so-called “weird punk” bands or even garage-rock bands over the years, but I don't think we necessarily fall in to those sorts of scenes or are even part of it. We just happen to have friends that are. I dunno. There are a lot of small insular scenes like that; microgenres.

I think sometimes people tend to get hung up on authenticity as far as the noise microgenre in particular goes. But anyway, Russ, you mentioned something before about fitting into a wider picture of music; is that something that you guys think about?

R: It's something that we consider, but, well, nothing we do is entirely calculated, but I feel like it's good to stay aware of what's happening and if you see something good happening or your attracted to something to maybe make a connection with it, even if it's different than what you've connected with in the past. So we play shows with folk artists or with dance bands or with noise bands and hardcore bands; it all makes sense to us, growing up with lots of types of music, and even if I can't follow everything -- there's just too much to follow -- I just do what I can.

L: Yeah, I don't there's a huge calculated thing going on with us, it's just about trying to explore different types of music and more people. We're still learning, obviously, but we just try to keep a bigger pictures in our heads, that's all.

Do you find that crosses over into stuff that isn't music, like either wider culture that isn't art or other types of art itself? Can you detect those other influences much as well?

R: We're both interested in other mediums as well, whether it's film or painting. There are also mediums that neither of have been particularly interested in, but there's no bias against them. Like, I don't know the first thing about contemporary dance or theater, but I know, for instance, last year through a university show, we got in touch with a filmmaker and composed a score for one of his films. We travelled to Chicago to perform it after spending a couple of weeks working on it and then we just performed it once and moved on, we didn't record it or do anything else with it. That was a fun process. Also, every time we put out a record, we collaborate with someone else because we haven't done that much of our own artwork, but I think it usually works best if we find somebody to collaborate with. We are aware of and draw inspiration from other things. I'm one to pay a lot of attention to sound design and editing in film; I think they play into what we do a lot, and people have even said that certain pieces of our music remind them of radio collage, which I hadn't even considered.

L: I'd say also, like, you were saying about unintentional influences, so maybe just neighborhoods we've lived in; I know when we lived in Queens, just the general feeling of it was influential. And also, some of our songs can end up being about something that people can relate to in life but isn't exactly musical as such, like the Christmas 7-inch we did seems to evoke a certain holiday feeling or something like that.

"... both the tape players we use are variable speeds so when we mix they're changing speeds, so one song might be slower on one occasion than another."

Absolutely, especially the B-side on that; it's real imagistic and somehow very holiday-y, which is quite an abstract feeling.

L: Yeah, and on the new album, "Rest On Water,” we named because it sounded generally aquatic, like boats floating and the wind coming through. There's definitely some feeling of being influenced by outside things but not really consciously beforehand, you know?

R: I was gonna say, I feel like our environment has definitely influenced our music. We may not even be aware of it at the time, like there might be passages in our music that might sound like what you may hear coming from outside of you're apartment or walking around various neighbourhoods. That holiday 7-inch in particular in my mind reminded me of this memory I had of going to the mall around the time of the holidays and having holiday music reverberate in this big place.

In like some beige/white shopping mall kind of way, for sure, I hear that as well.

R: Yeah, that kind of dead mall kind of thing.

That faded-photo sort of feeling comes through a lot for me in “Rest On Water” too, in a different way. For me it kept giving me this nostalgia of being really young in summertime and fumbling around on a piano; it has this real spacious kind of feel.

L: Yeah, especially with the holiday 7-inch, that definitely comes into play, and we kind of knew that; there are signifiers that we knew, like sleigh bells and stuff like that, or the string intro that I played. I feel like all of it is a signifier of something that may have been manufactured in the past, but then everything we do is sincere also, so I guess it's working on two different planes. But “Rest On Water,” that just happened completely organically. I had already written the song and then everyone else came to it and added what they felt. Me and Russ worked on the general atmosphere before Kurt and Jessie even showed up. We gave them a mixtape of general songs or influences of kind of what we wanted them to do and they made it up.

I should clarify as well; when I use the word manufactured, I don't mean to detract at all from the sincerity of it, but more like a weird sort of combination of the two things that comes across in a sonic/aesthetic. It's this interesting but subjective kind of feeling.

R: First and foremost, the music and the song writing should trump the concept or the formal elements that build the pieces of music. So just to do something to convey an idea or to, I dunno, a concept or formal trick is not enough; it has to be the song that has to work as music first and foremost. Whether or not we're conveying certain ideas, what's ultimately going to hold someone's interest and make them want to hear something repeatedly is “is it a good piece of music.” And so, the manufactured element I don't think is necessarily truthful; certain pieces of music have evolved over quite a while; like “Rest On Water,” that song was tinkered with for over a year and at one point was a much louder thing, in three parts that were very distinct and sort of built into more of a dark epic. We just keep reconceptualizing it and when finally we were all in the same room playing it, that changed the song once again. So it was a pretty organic piece of music that developed and each person brought different things to it. Certain songs happen real fast and they're committed to recording, but that one took quite a while. Half of it was composed already, but the other half was fairly improvised.

"Well, I don't really listen to that much noise, but say like, 10 years ago, I was listening to a lot of it; buying a lot of tapes."

That sort of builds on the idea I'm kind of trying to say: it's so easy to get lost in a song like that as well, and it's confusing with various layers going on at once. I think part of the reason for it feeling so dense and immersive is some contrast between analog and electronic sounds, shifting in and out of focus. Is that something you guys think about much, that contrast?

L: There's a lot of things we do that are extremely low tech and analog that a lot of people I think would digitize just for the sake of convenience [laughs]. We do certain things in analog just because we like the way it sounds, not because of some anti-digital stance; it's just some things are digital, some things are analog, depending on what sounds good or what we can afford or get our hands on.

R: Electronics and computers, in the digital realm, computers have played a pretty massive part in our records; everything was basically mixed digitally and recorded digitally. I've done some extensive mixing on a computer, too, but as far as what we play, we try to keep things relatively true to what we can perform live. There's something about this whole wave of music that came up in the late 90s and mid 2000s, this post-glitch digital stuff, and that's just not appealing to our ears. We tend to shy away from that. I'd rather hear music that harkens back to older techniques. I mean, I can't dismiss people who make their music with computers, but as an audience member, in a live setting, it's usually not that exciting to watch. I don't find them so appealing; neither of us like that modern, clean digital sound.

L: Right, and not even all the analog stuff we play on works either; it's just about trial and error with everything.

R: There should be a certain crude element, or a primitive element at the core, whether it's just simple tape loops, or, I dunno. We make some of the loops of our recordings on computer and then dump them onto tapes; we're not shy about that use of technology.

That's quite an interesting process, like putting MP3s onto a cassette, or the other way around, listening to someone's cassette as an MP3 on your computer -- some interesting misplaced context or something. I was wondering, with the cassettes, how big a part do they play when your playing live?

R: It may be the foundation of what we play. We play over them live; there are two tape decks and certain songs might have less room for improvisation because the backing track is all on one tape, but usually we swap tapes around and change the order of songs in our sets and experiment. It can be sort of a challenge; doing it this way allows for a certain amount of control, like we literally mix everything including vocals, so there's not much for a sound person to do apart from mic our amplifiers. That maybe developed out of a fear of people mixing things in a way we don't want them to but it also places the burden of responsibilities solely on us.

Do you ever notice on a tour, if you're carrying the same cassettes around with you in the van, that the quality changes or they get warped or anything?

R: Fortunately we haven't had too many problems...

L: I'd say the thing that really degrades is the tape players themselves.

R: Yeah, there's definitely wear and tear, and both the tape players we use are variable speeds, so when we mix they're changing speeds, so one song might be slower on one occasion than another. There are a lot of cues to remember over the course of any given set, but the tapes themselves -- I dunno, they've held up pretty well. When we went to Europe last time we brought dubs of all our masters out of fear of losing them.

If you left them on the dashboard by mistake and they sat in the sun for a while, I was thinking it could add a pretty interesting element.

L: Yeah, for sure. I'm sure they are degrading as time goes on, but so far they've held up and somehow it's the tape players that break more. We've noticed that the dubs we used sound worse than the originals, obviously, but there wasn't a huge difference.

Photo: [Blues Control]

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