In response to last year’s tragic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Blonde Redhead frontwoman Kazu Makino curated a benefit album. As its name infers, We Are the Works in Progress consists primarily of songs in an unfinished state, ranging from fan favorites that never made it onto an album such as Interpol’s “Song Seven” and Broadcast’s “In Here the World Begins” to Karin Dreijer Andersson’s head-turning haunter “No Face,” a cut from the currently unreleased soundtrack to the Ingmar Bergman play The Wolf Hour.
More than the latest in a series of charitable releases, We Are the Works in Progress is a compelling concept album in its own right. Kazu Makino spoke with Beats Per Minute to discuss the idea of songs as works in progress, the political climate in Japan, and what’s next in store for both Blonde Redhead and their new record label.
We Are the Works in Progress is the first release from Blonde Redhead’s Asa Wa Kuru imprint and is available digitally and on vinyl on February 7.
Beats Per Minute (Frank Mojica): What inspired you to put together We Are the Works in Progress?
Kazu Makino: I was devastated like everybody else and I needed to do something. I couldn’t just stand and watch and do nothing. But at the same time, it’s limited what I can do in my power. I thought this was the best I could do is to come up with something beautiful; asking my friends and the artists that I admire. I want it to be a really inspiring album.
What do you hope that the album achieves?
I don’t really know. Not that I think they really need money, I think Japan is a really rich country, but what I hoped most is this record could give people some courage or support to choose the right path in order to recover. I don’t know if it’s even recoverable, but I just, I know how Japanese people in general can be submissive, and I think the government’s always been quite rotten in Japan. But now I really do think they have to be courageous and take the matters into their own hands, you know? That would be the most I could hope for, if I could really raise awareness in the Japanese people that they can change the course of action.
And music is a powerful morale booster.
I don’t know; I’m not sure. It’s not like I could do any other things. This is what I could contribute.
In regards to the idea of songs being in a state of progress, what drew you to this concept?
We knew that we wanted to have exclusive material, but I didn’t expect everyone to come together to write brand new songs. All of us who make music, we are constantly making demos and then evolve into finished work. There’s always a moment the demo is so great that it makes you want to complete the music, and I kind of wanted to get a hand on a demo that was so significant to each artist. It didn’t have to be that, but I welcomed the demos or different versions of something they were never able to release. Something in the works in progress, I myself think you always try to create the power, the energy that those demos have, but then when you complete it, it’s never the same thing. Sometimes it sounds deader than the demo, the complete work, so I wanted to create that type of energy that’s more spontaneous and that never gets old. Like, demo never gets old somehow. And also, I thought that was the state Japan will be in for a long time, so that was the double meaning.
It’s fascinating because when I hear a song, I sometimes wonder what it was like in its early stages, and if it was even better. What if songs that were considered unfinished at the time were actually perfect as is?
Exactly. These are the things that make you compelled to keep working on music or keep making an album, to get to that. But the very action of trying to complete something is already maybe the wrong approach, because it’s always the early stage that has such great potential, the energy, and you don’t realize and accept that it’s already perfect and you shouldn’t do anything to it.
Earlier you said the government in Japan has always been quite rotten. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, it’s quite old. It’s very conservative. Japanese politics, it just seems like a whole other occupation, you know? You never see the person who is politically conscious in Japan, because it’s so hateful. Japanese politics are so hateful and sleazy. The candidates go on these trucks with a megaphone attached and with a big sash across their suits, and they go visit every house and shake the people’s hands and [say] “please vote for me.” That kind of really primitive approach to politics. Why do they do that? Why do they spend so much time going around in the car and make themselves look miserable, but now I really think that Japanese politics are just so backward. People who want to be politicians, they spend so much time doing that, and actually, I don’t even know read the newspaper. They seem completely ignorant about what’s going on in the world. I’m making things sound really, really simplified, but these are the frustrations I remember as I was growing up as a kid. When I read things in newspapers, I just think “do they even study or read newspapers?” Their ignorance seems completely incoherent to me. I’m sorry I’m not making it really accurate, but I think the Japanese people resent it; I think they know what I’m talking about. So many of the Japanese people…they just don’t look that way.
I think this is one of the big mistakes we’ve made, also. Somehow we were brainwashed to think the nuclear plant is applicable in Japan, which is not suitable at all. And we have so many of them now, all these plants are getting very, very old. How do you say when you wrap yourself with a bomb all around your body? It’s sort of like that kind of state.
Yeah, that’s how I feel about it.
Has the severity of the Fukushima disaster has been underplayed by the media?
Yeah, completely. And also, it’s been predicted it wasn’t going to tolerate the earthquake. There are a few scientists in the field that predicted that and warned the government. I think the worst of it is that the company that distributes all the power in Japan, they are not responsible in the case of accidents. There is a law that protects them. I think that’s the ultimate reason why this actually happened, because they didn’t have to be responsible. Imagine if this was a car company. Nobody would go near that kind of energy. I’m sure you can make the most powerful car using nuclear power.
And if the car crashes, a whole city is destroyed.
Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the core reason.
Which part of Japan are you from and how did the earthquake affect it?
I’m from Kyoto. It didn’t affect it, not directly. That area is still intact. Of course, as far as the radiation goes, I don’t if know any parts are safe.
It seems the radiation has started to spread.
It’s everywhere. I’ve been reading about the rain. We have to be really careful these days because in some parts of Canada they are starting to detect really high radiation.
We Are The Works in Progress is the first release from your Asa Wa Kuru label. What’s coming next from the label?
We made it just for this, but we might be able to continue this label. But we just wanted to have this as a pure benefit album album, so we wanted to be entirely independent. I have no plan after this unless we keep making benefit albums.
I guess you could say the label itself is a work in progress.
Yeah, -Laughs- maybe we’ll do something with it.
The version of “Penny Sparkle” on We Are the Works in Progress is quite different than what’s on the album of its namesake and almost like a different song.
It’s pretty, no?
Of course, we tweaked it to put it on the album, but a lot of the songs on Penny Sparkle have two versions. There’s definitely this one concept and then there’s another concept. Basically, we chose the one we were not very comfortable with and ended up putting it on the album.
Working outside your comfort zone?
Yeah, we really tested ourselves. We wanted to be produced; we didn’t want to produce it ourselves. So [the We Are the Works in Progress version] is the version we would have done, I suppose. But conceptually, that was boring, but in the case of “Penny Sparkle,” I was so attached to this version, so I was quite happy with the opportunity to put this version out.
Will we ever see the other versions of the other Penny Sparkle tracks?
Yeah, there are a lot of different versions, but we haven’t had the time to get around to it. There’s a big mess out there of different versions. I suppose when we’re too old to create something new we could just look inside the box and organize it one day.
Penny Sparkle: Special Edition?
-Laughs- What it could have been.
What’s the story behind “No Face,” the Karin Dreijer Andersson contribution?
Yeah, it’s amazing. I listen to it to go to sleep. I’ve actually been thinking I listen to it to go to bed but then I’d like to wake up to that song also. It’s really amazing. I think she worked on it for some theatre piece. I don’t know if she ever got to use it as is, but I think she did it some theatre company. That’s an amazing song. When I heard it the first time, I got welled up because I was like “wow, this is the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard,” you know?
Will Blonde Redhead do another tour for Penny Sparkle this year?
I’d like to, but I think what’s going to happen now is we’re going to start writing new songs and before we set off in the studio, I would like us to play the new songs, just try them out along with songs from Penny or the other albums. So we will go to places we haven’t been for a while and just try new material and some old stuff. We really focused on having Penny Sparkle shows last year, so we won’t be able to do that again. I’m actually quite sad that we won’t do that because I enjoyed that a lot, playing those songs.
Tell me about collaborating with Nosaj Thing.
Oh man, I can’t wait for him to just release the thing already. He’s been working on it for a really long time. I think it must be a great album because he’s not too fast about releasing it. -Laughs- He’s like, “oh, it’ll come out, I’m not worried about it.” Yeah, it just came out of the blue. The moment I heard it, I was like “whoa, this is probably the best thing I’ve ever gotten to work on,” so I was really pressured to come up with something good. And we exchanged the ideas back and forth, then he had a gig here in New York City, so he came here and we spent a day and a half in the studio. I got to record with him, and that’s that, but it’s a really beautiful song and I was flattered that he asked me.
I am especially fond of the Broadcast rarity “In Here the World Begins.”
I remember when [Trish Keenan] passed away, I felt ill hearing that and then almost exactly two months after, [the earthquake] happened. I was in the same place, and I just felt my world was breaking right underneath my feet. It’s just strange because I love Broadcast so much and I almost listen to them or think about them daily. I didn’t have the courage to ask them to be a part of it because James Cargill must be in such mourning that I couldn’t dare to bring it up. But somehow, I had an opportunity to speak to their manager, and I asked for his advice. “Is it wrong for me to even want to think that, to include this song?” I always loved that song so much, so I asked for that song specifically. He got back to me really quickly. I was already wrapping up the album and then I got to speak to the manager. “It’s already finished and all, and I would just be so grateful if he could give us this song. He made it happen; he moved so quickly so I was able to squeeze the last song in. It was really phenomenal.
If there’s ever a sequel to We Are the Works in Progress, which artists would you seek?
I regret not asking a couple of people. I should have asked Beach Fossils; I really like this band from Brooklyn. And I should have asked Panda Bear. That’s about it, though.
Always next time?
No, I don’t know. This was really exhausting to make. I’m not sure I want to be in that position ever again. -laughs-
Order We Are The Works in Progress from here.