In­ter­view: Blondes

Bright lights on New York’s elec­tronic scene, Blondes re­turn with mes­meric new al­bum, Warmth, on leg­endary dance la­bel R&S. Hamish Mack­in­tosh caught up with the hard­ware-cen­tric duo

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Blondes (aka Messrs Sam Haar and Zach Stein­man) have spent al­most a decade cre­at­ing their unique blend of beats and hyp­not­ica to­gether. New al­bum,

Warmth, their third but first on much-re­spected dance la­bel R&S, is a puls­ing, rhyth­mic trip, awash with ideas, again high­light­ing Haar and Stein­man’s love of hard­ware synths and out­board ef­fects for fash­ion­ing their dis­tinc­tive sound.

Hav­ing gar­nered plau­dits for 2012’s epony­mous de­but al­bum, and for the equally sump­tu­ous

Swisher a year later, the New York duo’s per­cus­sive and rhyth­mic pen­chants have risen more to the fore on Warmth. Tracks such as Clipse or the deep techno of Tens show­case Blondes at their best with bristling beats, per­cus­sion and re­verb-drenched hooks aplenty. FM caught up with Haar and Stein­man in their re­spec­tive mu­sic-mak­ing lairs to get an in­sight into how the pair make mu­sic to­gether.

Warmth is your third al­bum as Blondes but the first on the R&S la­bel. Is it ex­cit­ing to be on such a pres­ti­gious dance mu­sic la­bel?

Zach: “Yeah… so far, it’s been re­ally good work­ing with them and it’s such an awe­some la­bel that it’s kind of an hon­our to be a part of it.”

Are you guys still shar­ing your stu­dio in Wil­liams­burg?

Sam: “Not any more – we live in dif­fer­ent places now, so we’ve got sep­a­rate stu­dios. This new al­bum we did make in the Wil­liams­burg stu­dio… or rather we tracked it all there.”

You’ve both got a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing hard­ware devo­tees, and your sys­tem’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to most…

Sam: Ab­so­lutely. We both use a 16-chan­nel, medium -for­mat mixer, which acts as the main hub or the main in­stru­ment in a way. We use all the sends so we can route ev­ery­thing and break-out all the hard­ware that comes into the mixer which we can then route to dif­fer­ent ef­fects units, which lets us dy­nam­i­cally cre­ate new ef­fects chains and play the EQs etc. It’s kind of like dub in that sense.”

It’s be­com­ing more and more unusual, though still re­fresh­ing, to find peo­ple still hav­ing a piv­otal place for a mixer in their stu­dio setup.

Zach: “One of the main things we use them for is rout­ing things into dif­fer­ent ped­als and ef­fects. That give you a lot more playa­bil­ity at your fin­ger­tips and al­lows for a lot of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. It’s re­ally fun do­ing it that way.”

There must be scope for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the way you chain all the hard­ware to­gether.

Sam: “Yeah, ab­so­lutely. If we’re play­ing some­thing, there’s usu­ally a fair amount of ‘I won­der what hap­pens if I plug this into that or feed this back into that.’ The per­for­mance process is this con­tin­u­ous ex­per­i­men­ta­tion; a lot of it is about find­ing and dis­cov­er­ing new things. Maybe you’ll fil­ter out a sound with EQs in a cer­tain way, then run it into some­thing else that cre­ates another new mu­si­cal state.”

Do you have set roles within Blondes?

Zach: “Not as such. We both do rhyth­mic and melodic el­e­ments be­cause we both have synths and se­quencers. Usu­ally, when we’re record­ing or writ­ing, one of us will come with an idea, which we’ll then play off to­gether or maybe com­bine our ideas to see how they work to­gether.”

Warmth seems to go deeper into the rhyth­mic and per­cus­sive side of things than your pre­vi­ous out­ings…

Sam: “Stylis­ti­cally, we were in­ter­ested in a more drum-for­ward, per­cus­sive style of mu­sic and hav­ing the at­mos­pheres and the synths all sit a lit­tle bit be­hind that. We’ll of­ten write dif­fer­ent el­e­ments through the process of play­ing to­gether so it’s not all im­pro­vi­sa­tional. We’ll maybe come up with a line or a synth part that we’re in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing, but when we then come to the devel­op­ment of the mu­sic, that’s all done through im­pro­vi­sa­tional play­ing. So, we’ll have a sys­tem of loops, and how we bring it all to­gether and shape it is im­pro­vised.” Zach: “Also, a lot of things are flushed out when we play live. That gives us some im­me­di­ate feed­back on new ma­te­rial.”

Do you both write when you’re tour­ing or trav­el­ling, or is that re­served for the stu­dio?

Sam: “A lit­tle bit of both. Af­ter you re­lease some­thing, you’ve spent so much time on it that you of­ten just want to work on new ma­te­rial. A lot of times af­ter a new record, our sets will be mainly us ex­per­i­ment­ing with new work – push­ing for­ward.”

So what’s at the heart of each of your in­di­vid­ual stu­dio set­ups?

Sam: (laughs) “They’re get­ting pretty com­mon th­ese days, but we both use the Elek­tron Oc­ta­track as they’re such amaz­ingly pow­er­ful se­quencers and sam­plers. I use that as the brain, which then con­trols a Dave Smith Tetra and a Wal­dorf Blofeld desk­top synth. Then I’ve got ef­fects ped­als, de­lay, re­verb, am Even­tide H9 multi-FX pedal, and a Mooger­fooger phaser, which has been a sta­ple of the Blondes setup since we started play­ing. It adds so much colour, warmth and rich­ness to any sound. I al­ways re­serve that for adding an ex­tra layer of mod­u­la­tion and warmth. I used to use it more on synths for that phasery, washy ef­fect, but th­ese days I mostly use it with au­dio-speed mod­u­la­tion so there’s more of a ring-mo­du­la­tor feel. What’s im­por­tant to us is, does a piece of gear sound good when we set it up, and do we re­spond to it? Is it easy to find stuff you like with it? We’re not re­ally gear fetishists, so it’s not re­ally about what’s the next great thing – more about how it re­sponds and how it guides you to eas­ily make things that sound good to you.”

…and what about your setup, Zach?

Zach: “Not too long ago I got the Korg Mini­logue, which is re­ally playable –it’s so easy to find great sounds. Like Sam, I’ve got an Oc­ta­track run­ning as the brain with a Moog Voy­ager. I’ve got a Stry­mon Time­Line de­lay pedal, a Stry­mon Mo­bius multi-FX pedal and an Elec­tro-Har­monix Mem­ory Man.

Some of the de­lays and re­verbs you’re us­ing on Warmth re­ally en­hance the over­all sound of the al­bum. Are they all hard­ware, or do you have any soft­ware ’verbs in there?

Sam: “Through the evo­lu­tion of our setup, the types of re­verb have evolved a lot. We’ve got four dif­fer­ent re­verb ped­als that we cur­rently use, but each one has a slightly dif­fer­ent colour and use. For a while I was ac­tu­ally us­ing a Lex­i­con rack, which sounded so good, but the Even­tide H9 is way more portable and sounds great too.”

What made you choose the Elec­tro-Har­monix?

Zach: “It’s like Sam’s Mooger­fooger, re­ally – it’s just the pedal I’ve had the long­est and the one I know my way around the best. It’s just fun, and I can do great re­verbs, de­lays, and I can even use it for flange ef­fects. Just to com­plete the ear­lier ques­tion about my setup, on the record I did use a lit­tle bit of Doepfer Dark En­ergy II on the al­bum. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily part of my setup but we also used a fair bit of Korg M1 on it too.”

So, the Elek­trons take all the se­quenc­ing du­ties in the stu­dio…there’s no place for com­put­ers at all?

Sam: “That’s right. We also use the Elek­trons to play back dig­i­tal au­dio, drums and vo­cal sam­ples or what­ever sam­ples we’re us­ing. I strip the Oc­ta­track out via four mono out­puts that I bring into the mixer; Zach does the same with his. That way you can treat each one separately with EQs and ef­fects.”

The Oc­ta­tracks seem like quite mon­strous work­horses for such small ma­chines?

Sam: (laughs) “Al­most too much some­times! If you a cer­tain task you want to achieve then there’s gen­er­ally three or four dif­fer­ent ways you can tech­ni­cally achieve it within the Oc­ta­track. It’s a beast!”

Af­ter you re­lease some­thing, you’ve spent so much time on it that you of­ten just want to work on new ma­te­rial

A beast with a steep learn­ing curve?

Zach: “The learn­ing curve is high but I think once you spend some time with it and, at least ini­tially, find a way that works for you to play it then you can crack it.”

Sam: “Like we said ear­lier, there are so many dif­fer­ent ways you can play it, and I think everyone that has one has their own work­flow. You need to just spend some time learn­ing what it can do, and then you find a work­flow for how you want to work with it. If you don’t know how you want to work that might be dan­ger­ous as there are in­fi­nite ways you can use them! I know some peo­ple who might want to just use an MPC or some­thing, be­cause it’s fast and in­tu­itive, but the Oc­ta­track you have to spend a lit­tle more time on.”

If you had to pick one bit of gear that most epit­o­mises the Blondes sound, what would it be?

Zach: “That’s a tough ques­tion as there’s been dif­fer­ent phases of gear…” Sam: “…also we use dif­fer­ent pieces of the gear for our es­sen­tial build­ing blocks at dif­fer­ent times. Maybe it’s the net­work of them…or the mixer!”

Which mix­ers are you both us­ing?

Zach: “When we go on tour, we back­line mix­ers, and it’s usu­ally Mackie mix­ers. I have a Mackie in my stu­dio. The Mack­ies are more durable.” Sam: “I have an Allen & Heath Mix Wizard at mine. When we first started tour­ing we had an Allen & Heath Z14, but it def­i­nitely didn’t han­dle be­ing toured very well.”

Zach: “It was our first show in Europe when it broke, which was very stress­ful!”

Sam: “One of the main coils on the power dis­trib­u­tor lit­er­ally fell off the cir­cuit board! (laughs) There’s al­ways a single point of fail­ure some­where!”

How about the com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dif­fer­ent gear – with such a mix of old and new hard­ware, does ev­ery­thing com­mu­ni­cate with­out a prob­lem?

Sam: “We mostly just use MIDI for Clock and se­quenc­ing; we’re not do­ing any crazy CC LFO stuff or any­thing.”

Zach: “That is ac­tu­ally one thing we have to back up though – the MIDI-Thru box. We’ve re­alised that we need to take a cou­ple of them on tour – if that broke… it would be pretty tragic!”

Is MIDI still enough for what you guys do, or does mu­sic tech­nol­ogy need a new stan­dard?

Sam: “It to­tally de­pends on what you’re us­ing it for. We just use it for send­ing note in­for­ma­tion and some Clock/Sync. I’ve run into its lim­i­ta­tions in other con­texts, and for the mu­sic that I make my­self, I’m try­ing to use things like OSC a lit­tle more – but that’s more lap­top-based. The Blondes stuff is more a case of us mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing clock.”

Do you think maybe peo­ple who do ev­ery­thing in-the-box might miss out on the ‘happy ac­ci­dents’ of jam­ming or ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent sig­nal paths?

Sam: “Yeah…al­though the rea­son we use hard­ware isn’t about gear fetishism – it’s just that cer­tain hard­ware sounds re­ally good. Cer­tain plug­ins sound good too, but for us, it re­ally is about the process of play­ing and mak­ing mu­sic, hav­ing that tac­tile re­sponse. If you had some crazy, mas­sive MIDI con­trol sys­tem set up for your lap­top, then you could achieve a sim­i­lar thing. It’s re­ally just about be­ing able to reach out and touch the gear you want to use.”

Zach: “There’s also a play­ful loose­ness to our mu­sic that I’m pretty sure peo­ple pick up on as com­ing from hav­ing this cock­pit of gear. It’s in front in our mu­sic but I’m not sure peo­ple miss out by not do­ing it that way.”

All the same, it must be quite lib­er­at­ing not be­ing tied down to a mouse?

Sam: “Yeah and one of the things that’s even more im­por­tant is not us­ing a screen. I’m on the screen so much in my day-to-day life that it’s re­ally nice to step into a dif­fer­ent psy­cho­log­i­cal space when you’re mak­ing mu­sic. Mu­sic is so tied to the phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence so tap­ping into that is great.”

Zach: “You’re cre­at­ing lim­i­ta­tions for your­self as well, which in a way is quite free­ing. You have to work within those lim­i­ta­tions rather than sit­ting in front of the screen with a mil­lion dif­fer­ent op­tions. You also have to keep fig­ur­ing out new ways of al­ter­ing your setup so that you’re not stuck in some set pat­tern.”

If you’re look­ing to pro­cure a new piece of gear for the Blondes setup, how do you go about de­cid­ing what to get?

Zach: (laughs) “We watch YouTube video demos.” Sam: “If I’m go­ing to get some­thing new, there must be a func­tional rea­son. Maybe I’m feel­ing lim­ited by the way my setup works in a cer­tain way and I’m want­ing to break out a new level of con­trol that you didn’t have be­fore.”

That said then, is there any­thing ei­ther of you want to add to the Blondes mu­si­cal arse­nal?

Sam: “Right now, I have both my table-top synths, the Tetra and the Blofeld, se­quenced to the Oc­ta­track, and I’ve been play­ing around with the idea of us­ing a synth, in­stead of the Blofeld, that has an in­built se­quencer. That’s cur­rently a lim­i­ta­tion when we play live that, with the Oc­ta­track as the brain for ev­ery­thing, then you’re kind of locked in to its pre­sets and pat­tern sav­ing sys­tem.”

Zach: “I don’t ac­tu­ally have any­thing on the hori­zon that I have my eye on, but the Mini­logue is ex­cit­ing for me just now with a key­board that I can play live, which is some­thing I didn’t have be­fore.”

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