The neo-kosmische house pulse of Blondes has made their second album Swisher one of the most talked about records in the underground recently. D. Strauss met them in Berlin before their Panorama Bar appearance. Photo, left to right: Sam Haar and Zach Steinman of Blondes, by Tania Castellvi.
Sam Haar and Zach Steinman, otherwise known as the nü-kosmische duo Blondes, graduated from the Lena Dunham-endorsed Oberlin college a decade ago and one can witness a jokey conceptual side in their naming of A and B sides (“Business” backed with “Pleasure,” “Hater” the reverse of “Lover”). Live, the oft-improvising duo privileges actual trance over the EDM version, with Swisher (RVNG), their latest full-length, embracing the early eighties German sounds of “Love on a Real Train”-era Tangerine Dream and Manuel Göttsching’s proto-techno E2-E4, fitting in nicely with the current kozmik zeitgeist of Lindstrøm and the like, though sporting a less disco-y approach.
Considering your backgrounds, how does conceptual art figure into what you do?
Zach Steinman: I think we actually do have a conceptual art approach to our process but I don’t wanna get too lofty. In college, we were in a band called Misty and it was all percussion, and it was sort of set up to…
Sam Haar: It was a drum circle [laughter]. It was sort of like a taking from Sol LeWitt. The beauty of this idea was that you could just do whatever you want with it and it would be whatever it is. It was kind of like, you just set up the rubric and then worked within it, and I think our project uses the 4/4 bass drum much the same way. “Class,” off our new record, is probably the only track that doesn’t have a straight 4/4 bass drum at some point. It is about limitations but also about the ability to set something up that can never be really, totally fucked up. Because the constraints give you the freedom to work.
As long as you have a house beat going underneath you can do anything that you want on top of it.
Would you consider your work more headphone than club music?
ZS: I don’t know how people react. It’s funny ‘cause either people will say we’re really good live and really not exciting to listen to on recording, or it’s the opposite.
SH: “Can’t see how this works in the dance club.”
ZS: Yeah! “Doesn’t work as dance music.”
SH: We definitely set out to be doing live electronic playing—you know, synths and stuff. But it always set out to be dance music, or at least to have this sort of metronomic thump.
ZS: Right. And there’s just something about the ambience surrounding dance music that’s always been attractive to us.
The idea of having an immersive experience.
ZS: Well, yeah, there’s nothing like it, really.
When I was first reading about you guys the term “lo-fi” was used a lot.
SH: But we kind of came out of that world, so yeah.
ZS: We’ve also definitely been influenced by the worlds of experimental or noise music.
SH: Yeah. Our first shows, we were playing our friend’s sort-of warehouse loft, where they would have noise shows.
A Black Dice approach?
SH: Not that, but there’s been a lot of shows in Europe with people who were just with tables full of gear, making shit happen. We were sort of coming up in that scene, I guess. But doing sort of a dance music version of it.
So you were subconsciously trying to create dance music in contrast to what was going on?
SH: It was communities of friends, basically.
And you had DFA, where they’re trying to somehow bring dance music to crowds that don’t normally dance.
ZS: Yeah. We were definitely into DFA.
SH: Gavin Russom was huge.
He was living here in Berlin for a long time. But he also seemed to have this moment where he moved from ambient sound to a more populist approach. He created a public personality that’s completely different from his mad tinkerer era. It’s as if he became a Scientologist.
SH: Yeah, I remember that’s when he was doing these whole repetitive acid lines, and he would just like open and close a filter for ten minutes, and it was a really religious experience.
ZS: It was also the same time we got into Manuel Göttsching and E2-E4, so those were two things that really influenced us. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that we also first heard E2-E4 in this art installation at Peres Projects. Here in Berlin. In a room with, like, this neon pyramid that spun, and E2-E4 in the background.
You guys lived in Berlin for a bit.
SH: Just for a few months in 2008. I’ve been into kosmische and krautrock for a long time. Well, before we were in college and discovered, like, Neu! and stuff.
ZS: We actually didn’t make anything that was ever released while we were here.
That motorik, rhythmic thing is more Kölsch, whereas Berlin kosmische is floaty.
SH: I found the Neu! stuff to be really floaty, though. I don’t know, maybe I’m betraying my lack of understanding, but I think the metronomic, kind of pulsing, moving forwards slowly, sort of jamming out and slowly unveiling—I saw that in all those different groups, and then really got into that. And then I was into Basic Channel for a while. I was really into Pole in the early 2000s. And ˜scape Records. I was feeling Ricardo Villalobos a lot. We were living different parts of the States before then. I was living in California, he was living in New York. And we had been talking about how we wanted to start a music project.
So, you conceived the act before you created the music.
SH: Yeah, we were, like, we wanna make music together again. And then we just had to figure out what that was going to be.
ZS: Then we were all, “Yeah, let’s meet. Let’s go to Berlin, and—I don’t know, work on something there.”
SH: “It’s cheap.”
There’s a strain of minimalism that runs through your influences. Were you also interested in the originators of the genre, such as La Monte Young?
SH: Yeah, I’ve always been into that, but more conceptually. La Monte Young was really into the physicality of it, really into the phenomenon of it.
He’d play for 24 hours and some people would stay for it all. While Blondes is almost a rejoinder to the pummeling ideology of dance music as a whole.
ZS: I’m not sure exactly which pummeling you’re talking about: whether it’s like the EDM pummeling or the techno pummeling. Are you saying it’s not durational music?
The communal experience of Blondes is separate from the dancing. Of course, I don’t know if you hear that in what you’re doing.
SH: I don’t know. To do something that’s just a “dancing experience” says to me that it’s just like handing something in, like a form or a language that people are preconditioned to understand as a dancing thing. We are just taking the individual forms and manipulating what we have, so it’s much more about the actual process of that transformation and building something out of that. But we still do the big builds, and tension release, and pound out some stuff. It doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it.
ZS: I mean, you can, but what makes it cerebral is that you’re listening to every little thing as we do it. All these things happen at once and then it’s changed—it’s like a slowly evolving sort of structure to a lot of tracks, whereas I feel like most dance music is a little dictatorial.
Where is the line drawn between composition and sound design?
SH: When we play live right now, we’re mixing every element there on the board, or two small boards. You can’t really hear what’s going on, stuff can kind of get away from you.
ZS: Yeah, we kind of need the immersive environment ourselves. We’ve been toying with the idea of playing in the front of house.
SH: Where the guy sits that normally mixes the band, because they have the best sound, they’re sitting in the sweet spot of the whole sound system, and why are you up on the stage?
Maybe the audience should be there.
SH: [laughs] Yeah, and you’ll see it—it’s like a tradition of electronic-acoustic music. The composer will sit at the back and he’ll dim the lights so he can mix properly for the sound system. In some ways, yeah, we’re toying with the idea because we don’t really feel like a stage act, we feel more like a sound system act, you know?
ZS: The performance is not as important. It could actually be interesting to have no one on stage and just lights going, and us in the booth. Like sensory, sensual formalism.
Do you see yourselves perhaps disappearing? Daft Punk manages to put on a show somehow and yet anonymize at the same time.
ZS: There is a history of that with Orbital or…
SH: Kraftwerk too. Behind the screen, with the robots around it.
But Kraftwerk is essentially a comedy act.
SH: What’s interesting to me more is Berghain. You go there and you don’t see the DJ. He’s not on a big stage with lights on him, you know? He’s just kind of in a DJ hole off to the side. You’re not staring at the DJ—you’re experiencing the sort of sonic environment and the music and you’re dancing and that’s kind of what comes out to you, too. Some people might like seeing us turning the knobs and seeing how and what we’re creating, you know? But I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the main reason I want to do it is to have the best spot of monitoring the sound system, because what we’re doing, we’re spending all this time turning knobs, adjusting sound and we’re not even in the best spot to hear it.
Watching electronic music live can be an alienating experience: it’s like watching a movie. Or filming a movie. I get the sense that you’re trying to create a sense of group connection when you play live.
ZS: Yeah, for sure. I think there is definitely some sort of psychic feel to it. You can kind of sense it—we’re not really even looking up a lot of times, but we can kind of just feel between hearing what you’re playing and then how that’s feeling and then seeing the audience—how the general reaction is.
SH: Especially when you’re like building with loops or developing grooves, and it’s really transforming them and developing them and taking them places and discovering new places. We were talking about this before; everyone’s kind of on a journey together. Like, we’re on a journey, and we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing up there too. [laughs]
So you’re as confused as they are.
SH: [laughs] In some ways, yeah. They’re gonna be, like, “Oh we’ve found something!” and we’ll be, like, “Oh, let’s work with this and twist this into something,” and when we’re all in that together it, can be this really creative spirit.
ZS: Usually, if we’re happy, people will be. It’ll be good. ~
Blondes’ Swisher is out now on RVNG Intl.