When various music circles started buzzing in early 2010 about a Brooklyn duo that fused elements of the American jam-band aesthetic with ecstatic trance, we approached with due caution. Fast-forward over the past three years and, what could have potentially gone so wrong has gone so right. Sam Haar and Zachary Steinman have steered Blondes from a debut EP on London's Merok Records, to three singles the next year that culminated in a self-titled LP on the highly-acclaimed RVNG Intl label. What could have been a cheesy shtick swept us up in loping dopamine rushes and endless, earnest rapture at their gigs, which grew from the local DIY warehouse scene into prime-time slots at Berlin's Panorama Bar, Ibiza's Space, and even New York's MoMA Museum.
It's now a year on from their last proper tour and Blondes have sneakily surprised us with their second LP, 'Swisher'. Aside from a mostly improvised set with RVNG Intl label-mate Holly Herndon in November, and an RBMA gig in May, nary a peep was heard from their camp until the 25th of June. Suddenly a finished album appeared seemingly out of nowhere for digital purchase, streaming in full on a handful of blogs, and was accompanied by news of a physical release shortly after alongside a five-week European tour. Whilst DJ Mag is suitably impressed with this anti-hype campaign during a year of, ahem, daft examples of the opposite, we're curious as to what happened during the band's almost year-long silence that eventually led up to the creation of their most ambitious release to date?
“We hadn't really played any shows since last summer,” Sam says. “Instead we went into the studio with some new equipment and generally took a break. Cocooning is probably the best term for what we've been doing.” Zach agrees. “Yep, cocooning. We had to step away from everything since we'd been on tour for a really long time. We needed to cleanse our palettes a little bit.” Sam continues: “We needed to get out of it for a bit so that, when we came back to making music, we felt creative again. Plus we got a bunch of new equipment so there was the process of learning that, seeing how we played with it, and then finally, once we'd figured that out, we spent a few months on making the album.”
Although it eventually drove them to take time off, Blondes' 2011 and 2012 touring schedule has had an undeniable impact on the group's musical evolution. Gritter yet more cohesive than any of their previous output, new album 'Swisher' is a marked conceptual and musical step forward over nine sprawling tracks. It's percussion-heavy at times, sweetly melodic when not, and contains elements of dub techno and other more abstract genres, alongside echoes of their trademark trance sound. “The set that we'd been doing on the last tour was constantly changing throughout the year,” Sam remembers. “Some of the ways we were playing certain material became completely different by the end. We were getting much deeper, and specifically more techno, whereas before it was maybe on the trance side. A lot of what we intended to do when we came back, after playing these huge clubs and parties around the world, was to observe how the ways we wanted play, write, and perform had changed during this time period on the road.
We then wanted to create new music based on these new processes.” What came out of these observations? “For one, we were a lot more methodical about our sound design this time,” Zach explains. “We were more like, 'OK, we're only going to use this sound palette' and we'd load our samplers up with just that. This made everything feel a bit more unified.” Sam and Zach partially credit their recently heightened attention to detail on wanting to explore their new gear, as well as going from barely hearing themselves on DIY show speakers to being able to hear every sonic nuance exposed on some of the world's best soundsystems. They do make a point of stressing that they still love “the smaller, sweatier gigs as much as the bigger ones as they're so engaging and can often be the best”.
'Swisher's overarching moodiness, at least compared to Blondes' earlier releases, can also be attributed to this heightened attention to sound design. Zach believes that they were able to convey a lot more through timbral shifts instead of dense sets of chords, and the space this opened up set the tone for the record. “A lot of the darkness on the album comes from not wanting to do chord progressions. Not that we ever did very big ones, but a lot of 'Swisher' is holding onto single arpeggios or single note chord stabs. We got a lot more minimal note-wise and tried to be more understanding of space.” Blondes' production techniques have also grown to the point that, instead of simply recording live takes with minimal editing, they are now having to figure out a stripped-down version of 'Swisher' to play out, since so much of it was created in the studio.
“We still tracked everything live,” Sam points out, “but this record is a bit more edited and overdubbed than previous ones. The production definitely utilised more digital recording techniques. We still generated a lot through playing and improvisation, but then we'd take the material, work with it in the computer, and go back and forth through this several times.” Make no mistake, though, in spite of all of these changes and steps in new directions, 'Swisher' is still very much a Blondes album cut from the same humanistic, euphoric cloth as the rest of their oeuvre. “We are still always trying to find ecstatic trance moments,” Zach says. “A lot of it is about trying to summon that energy of being there and dancing in bliss. It's still in there, a bit darker for sure, but the way we build things, we're still making body music.” DJ Mag only has to close our eyes and lose ourselves in standout tracks like album-closer 'Elise' for a bit until we are immersed in that powerful moment of pure ecstasy, that feeling of truly being there.
Isn't trance, if you're in an underground electronic band from Brooklyn, a dirty word given its mainstream American associations though? “It is,” Sam laughs. “We obviously have some euphoric chord progressions, but we're not like these pop artists doing this. It's interesting looking at the cultural thing surrounding it, and how it's perhaps shaped us and similar artists. At the same time that we've been doing stuff, there's been the rise in EDM. This phenomenon has also pushed people who are into house out into further, more fringe music like more abstract strains of techno.
It's been a displacement of sorts.” DJ Mag agrees, but we get the feeling that 'Swisher' would have happened regardless of what's been going on in the wider world of dance music. The duo make a point of saying they never felt like their stylistic shifts were purposeful or premeditated; they were as organic and spontaneous as their music.
When we ask about their record label, Sam and Zach sing RVNG Intl's praises and agree that they fit in perfectly and are growing well together. What about how they see themselves in the Big Apple's current musical landscape? Whilst Blondes are quick to praise their contemporaries, DJ Mag gets the feeling that they would be doing what they're doing no matter what was happening around them. “You can still be part of a scene, but exist on the fringes of it,” they explain, and we don't doubt their stance nor sincerity. It's exactly this disregard for the superficial combined with their headstrong vision and perpetual maturation as artists that guarantees we'll continue to hear more from them as periphery trends come and go.
'Swisher' was released digitally on 25th June and will be released on vinyl on 6th August.
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