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June 05, 2008

Letting Their Roots Grow Out: An Interview With the Long Blondes

long blondes 1.jpg
photos by Devon Banks

The Long Blondes' first singles started trickling in on obscure labels during 2006, coinciding nicely with this site's gawky adolescence. It was no coincidence that the band dominated our coverage for that dizzy spell. They were sharp, smart, and obsessed with all the familiar hallmarks of a romantically disappointing but culture-rich misspent youth. Though our enthusiasm was more easily won than most, the band's debut LP Someone to Drive You Home (released on the legendary Rough Trade label), was too clever not to find its way on to numerous top ten lists in the U.S. and U.K. music press alike. In contrast to the slow burn leading up to that first disc, this year's follow-up "Couples" appeared fully formed with little foreshadowing. Dance producer Erol Alkan displaced Pulp's Steve Mackey as lead producer, graduating from his supporting role churning out some of the group's best b-sides. Generally, the press reaction to the icier, less guitar-driven new sound was confused and underwhelmed.

But sitting down with the band on a recent swing through New York, it was clear that they couldn't be prouder of their progression. Though guitarist Dorian Cox is still the primary songwriting force, all of the Blondes are invigorated by increasing musical prowess and direct involvement in the songwriting process. Instantly iconic frontwoman Kate Jackson and cheerful drummer Screech Louder (cough) offered their opinions quite freely, while the coy Reenie Hollis and Emma Chaplin seemed naturally reserved (or perhaps supernaturally disinterested).

Our chat about the making of "Couples" follows below...

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Jeff Klingman: What is your typical process for writing a song? Who starts it, and at what point do they bring it to everyone else?

Screech: I guess most of the songs are ghost written by Dorian.

[laughs]

Dorian: It's kind of changed a bit on this record. Like, it did start off with the first album, as kind of just something that I'd always wanted to do anyway--be in a band. And when we all kind of got together I had quite a few ideas in the back of my mind. So, and because we were all learning, I sort of wrote most of it, really. But this time 'round I think we--because we weren't practicing as we went along, you know we toured the first album--we literally came back off of the World Tour process for that album and straight into a rehearsal room together. We all kind of started from scratch. So a lot of it again was bits of ideas that I had, but this time around everyone else had a lot of different ideas as well and kind of chipped in their own bits. It's a lot more collaborative this time.

JK: Are you able to write on the road at all, or do you need a home base to work?

Dorian: Well that's the thing, it's weird, one of those things you're forced to do as a touring band is to use your sound check to practice songs. We're not really at the stage where we've started doing that. I don't feel that comfortable doing that. I don't think its necessarily a productive process. We never really "jam" or anything like that. We have more specific ideas about songs...

Screech: I don't think there's really time to do anything like that.

Kate: We're concentrating on getting the sound right for these songs. We haven't been playing these songs live for that long, really, although we've just come off a big tour of the UK and Europe. Still, comparatively speaking, they're quite new to us playing live. So we want to make sure that everything sounds exactly how we want on stage for this album's tour as opposed to thinking about new stuff. It'd be far too much to take in.

Dorian: I think you're always just naturally thinking of ideas, and you've always got things bubbling under....in the back of your mind? Is that a saying? [looks appalled]

[laughs]

Screech: I think that's just a hemorrhage.

Dorian: Well, just some ideas, that's about it. But yeah, anyway, after we got back from tour it all came together quite quickly. We sort of wrote all the songs within a month or two months or something.

JK: So are the songs you wrote in that time basically the record, or is there a lot of other material floating around that didn't end up on it?

Dorian: There's a few other bits and bobs. A couple of other songs and different things. I think the most interesting thing about this record, as opposed to the last one, quite a lot of the songs started out in a very different form. I was listening the other day to the early versions of these songs and they were completely different musically. I think that was more interesting. On the first record, we just kind of did a song and that was that. We didn't think about it in a deep, stylistic sort of way. Whereas this time around I think we settled quite early on the precise batch of songs, and then worked and worked and worked until they became almost different songs.

JK: So did they start more like the Someone to Drive You Home songs? Where they more guitar based, and then you stripped that away?

Screech: Maybe. I think that one thing that we did do, regardless of the instrumentation, was stripping stuff away, and maybe thinking "do we need to have this bit here?" and making everything feel much more necessary. Erol was quite good at that. Constructively critical. Like, "You don't need to have that second verse go on for that long, you can get rid of half of that," or "there's no need to have middle eight go on that long, let's lose that bit as well, and the get vocals coming straight in." Little things like that.

JK: How would you say the record's been received in the UK?

Kate: I think it's been good actually. The last time we seemed to get critical acclaim across the board, and we could do no wrong. This time it's been a bit more mixed, you know the NME was sort of unsure how to take it, but we sort of expected that would happen. But I guess more of the, well... [looks embarrassed]... serious music magazines like Mojo have given us really good reviews. And that's kind of what we wanted to do.

the Long Blondes - "Century"

JK: On a song like "Century" which is such an obvious departure from what you were doing before, I think writers are pretty quick to attribute the shift to working with a new producer. I was wondering to what extent changes in your sound are externally influenced, or to what extent they were a natural manifestation of the direction you wanted to go anyway?

Reenie: That song was nearly fully written before we even went anywhere near Erol Alkan. It was more or less the exact same song that we had practiced in Sheffield. Then we just recorded it in London, so that's probably not the best example of it, though it would seem so.

Dorian: People seem to have picked up on it because it's the first track as well. You've got a lot of people who don't seem to have actually listened to the record, and they're like "I see that you've gone electro man!"

Screech: Someone was saying to me the other day, "Oh, it's interesting, how will you play 'Century' live when it's just Kate singing over backing soundtracks." And I was like, no it isn't. That's us playing those instruments. It's not like Erol's just done some "banging techno beat" and Kate sang it and we just sat there twiddling our thumbs. I mean we did write it and play it.

Dorian: It was just a case of having a sympathetic producer, that was the direction we were all going in anyway, that song pretty much was written. But we needed the right person to understand how to produce it properly, and that was Erol.

JK: It's strange with that one--because most of your songs have come from such a very strong character or narrative viewpoint--it's striking on that one how it's much less of a story and it's more impressionistic. Is that a mode of writing that you're interested in going forward?

Kate: I wrote the lyrics to that one, and Dorian writes a lot of the more narrative ones, so maybe it's just a personal difference, but I guess the lyrics for that came from the music. Because when were in the studio we sort of constructed the lyrics when we formulated the song. So I wanted it to be more of a pop art sort of sketch, as opposed to a narrative. Because we've done so much of that in the past. It was just an interesting sort of experiment really. A different way of writing, of working.

Dorian: The lyrics sort of come with the music, but that was one of the first times when we've had a song where it was pretty much done musically and it didn't have any lyrics for a while. And you kind of wrote the lyrics after it and put bits and patches into the recording, which is not normally the way we would do things per se. So it's kind of just getting out of your comfort zone a bit, trying to do things a little bit differently. Trying to push yourself.

JK: That song and others on the album struck me as kindred spirits to the U.S. label Italians Do it Better. Have those records been on your stereo?

Kate: Yeah.

Dorian: [chuckles] All over it yeah. We love all that kind of stuff. We're really influenced by 70s disco music anyway, just the way it's constructed I think is amazing. People always seem to think that it's just sort of frothy dance music, but it's all really well put together. I remember getting the Italians' compilation when we were recording the album and putting it on in the studio quite a lot. It was really inspiring. Really good icy dance music, but it has a real human element to it. With the vocals going a bit out of time, and things like that. It's like a live version, which is something we're quite interested in doing.

It's the same as with something like "Century." I think it's still got an element, it's still a bit....well...angular's not the right word I'm looking for...but, it's still got a few elements to it. It'd be weird if we did produce a kind of perfect dance record. I don't think that's the type of band that we are, but it sounded like us bringing in a separate influence, I think.

long blondes 3.jpg

JK: I wanted to ask you Dorian, how is it that you've developed such a knack for writing lyrics from such a convincingly angry female point of view? Where does it come from?

[laughs, Kate points to Emma sitting next to Dorian]

Dorian: Shall I lie down on the couch? Umm...angry females...arrr...

Emma: He's surrounded.

JK: I mean would you say you're projecting monologues onto people you know, or are you conjuring it from scratch, or...

Dorian: Uh, bits of both really. I dunno, some songs start from a certain experience, not even an experience, but a situation I have in mind, and then it sort of becomes its own thing. I think it just comes from all my favorite lyrics have been quite narrative. Obviously Jarvis is quite a big influence in that way. And even going back to the Shangri-las and things like that I've just kind of liked songs that tell stories. That's one of the best things to listen to, so it's just sort of come naturally.

JK: Kate, do you think one of your characters will ever escape a Long Blondes song with a healthy relationship intact?

Kate: [laughs] I think that would spoil it, wouldn't it. You never know though. If we write an album when Dorian's settled down with a lady friend. God knows what'll come out.

[mischievous giggles from the other girls]

the Long Blondes - "Round the Hairpin"

JK: Screech, the drumming on the new album, and I'm thinking specifically of "'Round the Hairpin," it's a more mechanical or krautrock sort of a style as opposed to the first record. Has that always been something you've been interested in?

Screech: Yeah, always really. I think it's more like for everyone with this record, just being more confident as musicians than we were the first time around. We've been much more able to express unusual influences. We were quite naive when we made the first record and we've just kind of learned to play with each other and become more sympathetic to each other as musicians and there's more space to bring that side of things out.

Though actually that song is the least, people talk about it being krautrock-y, but like...

JK: Well more minimal I guess...

Screech: Yeah. The thing that I really like about that song is that it's more like minimal techno, where the rhythm's quite repetitive and little changes in the rhythm really shift the mood of the song. Maybe other songs were more influences by krautrock than that one. But it's a confidence thing, more than anything.

JK: Is one of you a particularly nerve wracking driver?

Dorian: Yeah, me. [giggles] No, that one was actually sort of influenced...I've always been into 60s girl groups and things. And there's kind of this phenomenon of "death discs," where bands would write about someone dying in a song, usually involving a car or a motorbike, which was a trend at the time. "Leader of the Pack" or "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean. It was kind of my take on that. But I think, it's nice--again moving on as musicians--if we'd done that song on the first album it would have had that 50s-60s sort of thing to it, and the music would have been a 50s pastiche as well. this time we could take that lyrical influence and put it on top of a minimal drone instead.

JK: There was less on this record of Reenie & Emma chiming in vocally in that 50s-60s manner as well....

Emma: Yeah, I don't sing anything on this.

Reenie: Live I do, but hardly anything on the album. I didn't notice it at the time. I didn't really notice until you just said it then.

JK: So are you disgruntled now that's it's come to your attention?

Emma: [laughs] No.

Reenie: Not really. There was a line that you don't sing that I do on my own, and I heard it back and I was like "Oh My God," because you never hear the microphone, and I thought "Oh my God that sounds awful."

Dorian: But again, I think that just comes from us getting better. Before we had sort of a light and fluffy image, like the Pipettes, or stuff we were quite influenced by, the girl group stuff. I think the three girl thing, the call and response, doesn't necessarily help your cause when you say "No, were kind of serious."

When you see us live, I can't image you having much time to do backing vocals and stuff, because you're doing quite alot of keyboards or samplers or guitars and things. It was something that came naturally I think. Just trying to bring out different influences from the first record.

JK: And Kate, on these songs it seems like you're singing in a higher register? There's less....growling? I don't know how to put it...

Kate: It's the same as everyone getting better on their instruments. I just wanted to challenge myself a bit more vocally and see what I could do with my voice.

JK: Was it tough for you to wrap yourself around those higher notes?

Kate: No, because I really wanted to do it, you know? Like that song "Too Clever By Half," that was one that actually started as more of a guitar and bass track, and then we dissected it in the studio and stripped it back to just this drumbeat. I used to sing that song with a guitar an octave lower, but as soon as I sang it in the falsetto voice it just kind of all came together and Erol said, "That's what we should do, This is really working now." It had that disco feel. I mean like Glass Candy, I really like the way she sings on those records. I just wanted to see if I could do something like that as well.

the Long Blondes - "Too Clever by Half"

Glass Candy - "Beatific"

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JK: It seems in this particular moment that bands who are getting the most intense critical attention are those who are reverting back to the early 90s DIY, "we're just going to play in the clothes we showed up in today" sort of a thing. Do you think a band like yourself who takes pains to have a sharp visual element...

Screech: Well, I don't know about that...

JK:I dunno, I've seen a couple gigs, it didn't seem to me that it was just "off the bus." Or at least you have that reputation. I wonder if you think that might be an impediment for people engaging with your music at all?

Dorian: I think it is to a certain extent, yeah. Despite what you said, I disagree with what you said. I can see what you mean, we do dress up a bit, but no more than any other band. Or a lot less than someone like CSS or something. That's like a full-stage carnival. But I dunno, we've certainly toned it down, especially from when we started. When we started one of the things was, it was just kind of fun really, we didn't take ourselves too seriously, quite over the top with dressing up and things like that. As we've gone on, the dress is still there to a certain extent but it's not the be all end all.

JK: I just think it became like a first paragraph note about your band.

Screech: It's one of those things that people like to talk about, but it's not much of an issue for us. I mean just from a comfort point of view, it's easier for me to drum in a t-shirt than it is in a shirt in tie.

Kate: I think when journalists look at what other people have written, to write a review, or "How do I start this review of the Long Blondes album, oh let's check out what other people have said." And every time, you read, oh, "Long Blondes, known for their style..." so that goes in every time.

JK: So is that annoying?

Kate: Yeah, a little bit. I mean I have one outfit for this entire tour!

JK: One of the main themes of the first album, at least as I interpreted it, I mean it was saturated with references to film, and literature, and other music. It seemed like human interactions were disappointing in comparison. I didn't get as much of a sense on the new album that you were all living vicariously through art as much, it's more focused on interpersonal relationships. I was wondering if that was a conscious shift?

Dorian: I'm aware of it, but mainly through people like yourself who've pointed it out, it's not something I've really thought consciously. The thing with the first record, is it's just kind of a classic first album. You spend you're whole life writing the first album as sort of a bedroom thing. You just spend a long time saturated in culture, and it sort of naturally comes out. But then again, I think you can kind of get to the point, where that becomes a bit of a pastiche of itself. Like, Morrissey still wheels out pictures of James Dean, and it's like yeah, we get the idea. It wasn't a particularly conscious thing, but you need to move on.

the Long Blondes - "Guilt"

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Long Blondes on MS previously:

- On "Century"
- Live @ the Knitting Factory, 07.27.2006

Posted by Jeff Klingman at June 5, 2008 04:30 PM

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Comments

Nice interview. Fashion question steamed him up eh?

Posted by: Sebastian at June 6, 2008 12:24 AM

Interesting interview. Hope this band eventually get some much deserved recognition.

Posted by: Little Joe at June 6, 2008 06:19 PM

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