One year after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tokohu coastal region, the people of Japan have made significant progress in rebuilding both their buildings and their communities. However, experts estimate that longer-term recovery may take five years or more. In response to this situation, Kazu Makino, the Japanese-born frontwoman of the band Blonde Redhead, put together We Are the Works in Progress, a benefit album that was released earlier this year.
We Are the Works in Progress is unique both creatively and as disaster-relief effort. All of the tracks are either rough or even incomplete cuts. Also, both of the non-profit organizations receiving proceeds from the album have an eye to the future: The Japan Society currently uses it’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to the address country’s long-term humanitarian and economic needs, and Architecture for Humanity works to provide sustainable, design-oriented responses to disasters and social problems.
Kazu recently sat down with PopMatters to talk about We Are the Works in Progress. In the process, we also discussed Japan, the musical process, what’s in store for Blonde Redhead, and more …
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I wanted to start out the interview by asking you about the relief effort that you’re raising money for. How do you feel like what Japan needs has changed over the past 11 months?
What I notice most is whether people are getting correct information or not about the current radiation levels. I think the biggest concern from the public that I’m aware of is how to bail out of nuclear plant energy. And I think that those are the things that become more and more significant as the time passes.
I know that the organizations that you chose to raise money for with the album had to have branches in America [for tax reasons]. How did you chose Architecture for Humanity and the Japan Society, and what are the advantages of them over other organizations that you might have worked with?
We did pretty extensive research, but it wasn’t that complicated before we came across these two organizations. It was my biggest homework to find out who’s doing what, and where and things like that.
Do you see yourself in the future doing anything to promote sustainability or alternatives to nuclear energy?
No. Really, I’m not exactly politically a very active person, so this sort of came as a surprise to myself as well. I’m really glad that we are doing this, but I can’t say that this is totally in my nature or that I want to keep approaching things. I’m not very good at multitasking either, so I want to just focus on music. I think I’m going to be more microscopic in what I do, so I’m not really thinking to spread myself that way in the future.
Along those lines, what do you think is next for Blonde Redhead?
[laughs] Well, if we come up with something decent, musically, I suppose we will go ahead and record them. That’s what we’re working on right now.
Now, I know that the tracks for We Are The Works In Progress are all rough cuts or unfinished in some way. You’ve said that that gives the album a unique energy. Can you tell me more about that?
I always struggle with that. I think many artists do. We get excited about an idea or something and then you know, that often comes from listening back to something that you did. And you try to really recapture — because, you know, the demo’s always the demo, it’s not recorded well or there’s not enough finish to it or something, so — but we try to retain the essence of what’s great about that demo. And I feel that the finished song often becomes something else entirely different. And then you kind of have to let go of whatever it had in demo and then just get on with it. But at the point it’s remains that the demo is one of those things that just stays inside you, and you always think, “Ah, that was so good, and I wish I didn’t change so much in some way.” So I wanted to maybe talk about those things and see how it would sound as a product. I think it does have the peculiarity of something that’s a little bit more spontaneous or it’s not as responsible, as a work.
Do you feel like the songs themselves relate to what you’re trying to do with the album as far as the relief effort.
Yeah, I suppose. I didn’t really send anything too detailed to any of the artists but I feel like everybody looked for something that’s appropriate for it. Therefore there’s a sort of a kind of seamless transition between songs, which I was really, really quite impressed by, but it was quite an accident. But I know what you mean — nothing is too abrasive or too pessimistic-sounding to me, it just sounds very, how do you say? To me, the songs sound very soothing, and it has a sort of pure quality to it.
Was that what you were looking for? Or were you looking for songs that sounded sad or hopeful or political or anything specific?
No, no I definitely didn’t. I think often, artists feel like “Okay, I have tons of material at your service, you can just chose any song I have.” It wasn’t like that. I think most of them really went into their archives and tried hard to look for something. Because often, when something is good, we complete it and release it, so to find something that is great but hasn’t been released, it wasn’t easy to achieve. So I think everybody kind of looked hard into their closets. I didn’t have like, “Oh, no, I don’t like this this songs too pessimistic.” It wasn’t like that. It was just great to have material from each of them.
Do you feel like the input of the artists who contributed shaped how the album as a whole came out in the end?
[laughs] Well, it’s not really up to me to say — I think the listeners would be the best to say this — but yeah, I think there’s definitely continuity. But also everybody’s song is not typical of their work. It sort of, it shows, kind of a, not their signature sound but a different complex side of each artist. It shows that. I definitely think you get your money’s worth [laughs]
Tell me a little bit about the decision to release the album on vinyl as well. I thought that was interesting.
Hmm. Well, vinyl is great. Anyone who’s a fanatic about music appreciates vinyl, I think. I didn’t even question it, from the beginning, “How do we do this?” We did the vinyl. To make a CD beautiful as a product, it’s quite an investment, really, and the cost is much, much less than vinyl, but we still thought vinyl is the way to go.
Do you feel like the artists who contributed to the album mainly wanted to do something for Japan, or were they motivated specifically by those charities that you chose?
No, they had complete trust in me in choosing them, but many of the artists that I know, they have such a special relationship with Japan. [Musicians] from outside of Japan, when we visit, we all have a very special welcome over there, just the difference the way people behave and treat you. It makes it a completely one-of-a-kind experience for most artists. And of course, it has many defects as country, but it also is one of the most spiritual places you can visit on this earth. So most people that I know of like that just really love Japan. So it wasn’t so hard to be motivated to do something for our country.
Did you want the album to reflect that sense of spirituality?
Yes, very much so. I want people to sort of carry on with what they have, with how amazing the country is, and their spirit, to be aware of how different they are and carry on with it. Just to have the courage to chose the right path. I’m sure that they know that political things are quite corrupt over there and I think it’s going to take a lot of strength to change the situation or condition right now that they’re in.
What went into selecting the two Blonde Redhead songs that went on the album? Was it just once again a matter of what was available?
[laughs] Yeah, yeah yeah.. We had this version of “Penny Sparkle” that I was so sorry we couldn’t put on the album, but it wasn’t right. It didn’t have the concept that the album had. So, it was right then not to chose it, but yet that version was very special to us. So that’s a typical example of what I was looking for form all the artists: they couldn’t release it for some weird reason, or some exercise of the concept that they were working on, but they still loved it just as much. So that “Penny Sparkle”, and the other one — actually we have three songs in there. The other one was a Liars song. They asked me to do a remix or to song on it, and I did and it I fell in love with the song. And then I did all sorts of things to the song, but they chose what they liked, and it’s still their song. But in our minds, we had this version of that song that was completely on their own. So, we made it ours and then that stuck on the album. But if it wasn’t for this opportunity — we didn’t have the right to release somebody else’s song and change it entirely. So that was a really good opportunity. And then, there’s a bonus track, a very early version of “23”, and it has this idea that I really love and I’m not sure that we carried it through to the final version, but there’s one idea in I that I’m still completely, still, in love with. It’s all very much about details, I suppose. [laugh]