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
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.”