It’s hard to imagine Blues Control being any more new age than they are now, but breaking from their normal routine as Watersports for a one-off “rock” show is how Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho came to be what they are today. Since that happy accident took place, the duo has amassed a discography that has posited them as one of the premier acts in the experimental underground. In fact, calling them “new age” wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. By combining homemade beats and samples via walkman with kosmiche guitar treatments and virtuoso piano melodies, they’ve tapped into a well of leftfield textures and grooves teetering between mystical ambience and raging psychedelic miasmas.
With the release of their third album, Local Flavor, on the venerable Siltbreeze, they’ve managed to up the fidelity and bolster the instrumental soundscapes of Blues Control to even higher plateaus. The album coasts with a synergy so organic one would swear it was the work of a busload of zonked and noodling jazzbos. But as I found out in talking with Waterhouse and Cho, most of Blues Control’s compositions are meticulously planned and laboriously executed. There’s certainly nothing rigid about what they do; they operate with a modicum of freedom. Still, as discovered in our interview, peeling back the layers of Local Flavor has many rewards and reveals the duo as so much more than just your average noisy improv jam band.
I’m really interested in how you came to play together and how your unorthodox set-up was initiated. Did Blues Control form out of necessity or was this how you planned it from the beginning?
Russ Waterhouse: We were already playing together under a different name, playing a different style of music. A large part of Watersports was new-agey stuff. Just for a laugh we decided to try something new, something a little more rock-oriented for just one show. We already had the name and somebody offered us a show as Watersports, but we asked if we could play as Blues Control instead. Maybe we drank a little too much that night, but people seemed to like it. A couple people asked if we could play another show two weeks later and that’s about how it started.
Lea Cho: One of those people who were at the first show recorded it and that ended up being our first tape.
RW: That’s true. The recording sounded good and we liked the music. I think our roommate at the time offered to do a tape.
Did either of you play in more “traditional” bands before Blues Control, or within more “traditional” music environments? What was it that pulled you away from that?
LC: I obviously was classically trained from a young age. My mom went to Julliard, which is why I even started playing. I was pretty serious about it when I was a kid. I won some international competitions and played at Carnegie Hall when I was 11 as part of a young artists concert. As I got older, I got more into rock music and pop music, then indie rock and psych. Then it snowballed and I got less and less interested in what I was studying. I did kind of jam with friends in high school. We did a Jethro Tull cover, but nothing really clicked when we jammed. I thought that maybe I was too regimented and the reason it was happening was because of me. Then I met Russ and it just clicked. We started jamming for fun and it just became natural and all sort of gelled together.
In a review for Local Flavor, Doug Mosurak notes that you are both pretty skilled when it comes to your instruments, and that’s something I never really noticed when listening to the earlier albums because everything kind of meshes in this sublime blur of sound. Not to name any names, or imply that the untrained are any lesser, but do you feel that there is any lack of skill in the camp of bands that play similar music, and do you think it’s a detriment to have a glut of groups like this?
RW: I don’t know. With most of our favorite bands, I don’t even think about their musicianship. A band like Sightings are amazing musicians or a band like Excepter have a sound that is primitive, but there’s a lot of talent behind their programming and the way that they put it together.
LC: It’s not so much about trained skill or virtuosity. I guess you can appreciate it if it’s like Eddie Van Halen. With a lot of modern bands, you do notice a lack of training, but it’s more about musicality or a depth of knowledge about what you are doing. A band like Shadow Ring would not be considered virtuosos, but they are definitely geniuses at what they do. It goes both ways, and I’m not exactly sure where we fit into that.
I suppose that brings me to questioning how one of your compositions is created. Is it something you practice and plan and practice some more before recording or is it more of an intuitive and organic process?
RW: We jam and improvise, and good riffs will come out of that. We’ll record those and sometimes come back to them to see if we’ve got something worth building on. Other times, we come up with ideas to work in a certain genre. Every song comes about in a different way, both a fast and slow process. “Rest on Water,” on the new record, is a song we worked on for a year, and now it sounds completely different then when we first started. Part of that is because of the contributions of Kurt (Vile) and Jesse (Trbovich), but it was a song we almost got rid of before that and decided to save the melody and eventually recontextualized it.
LC: We are at the point now where there are a lot of intuitive happy accidents that we don’t intend, but happen from playing together. When I listen back over the live shows, I’ll notice things I don’t remember happening and I think that is just us feeding off each other when we play. We always leave it open so things like that happen, but we also plan things out so that when we play we aren’t completely wasting everyone’s time. We do try to keep it as loose as possible.
Russ, how do accumulate the sounds and rhythms that you play along with Lea and your guitar? Are these samples you have created or are they pulled from somewhere else?
RW: It’s a mix of several different things. Sometimes we may sample things off of records and speed them up or slow them down or add things on top of them. We’re always playing on top of those. Sometimes we’ll start with a loop from one of our records and play on top of that. Other times, we’ll build loops and beats from scratch and again we may add things to those tapes. It’s kind of like bouncing things on a four-track, adding layers, but we actually don’t own a four-track. That’s the basic idea: samples versus self-generated loops.
Where you a big fan of the earlier Siltbreeze releases before being on the label? You fit the lineage quite well.
RW: When I was in college, I was buying up a lot of those records. I can’t say that I bought every Siltbreeze record, but I was buying Harry Pussy, the Shadow Ring, and Strapping Fieldhands. Actually, when I got out of college, I worked for Matador and one of the main reasons for doing that was because they produced and distributed Siltbreeze records, and I thought that was super cool. I remember when the Dead C’s White House came out and I would listen to it endlessly. From there, I went through the discography backwards.
Have you ever been approached about scoring film? Have you already? If not, is that something you’d like to do, or leave it alone as your music already is (in my opinion) the soundtrack to something else?
RW: It’s something that we’ve talked about and it’s something that we’re interested in. I’d be curious to see what happened if something like that came to fruition. But you know, we’re always careful about what we do and the people that we work with. We only work with people that we are excited to work with. We haven’t done that much in the way of collaborating with visual or film artists. We did do one thing last year at Northwestern University. They do a yearly event where they pick four bands that curate four movies to play along with. I’m not that big of fan of bands playing to projections, but we asked them if we could play with this one specific film that I was exposed to in college that I had a vague memory of. I always wanted to see it again, and we asked them to track it down. They found it and we composed a score for it, worked on it for about a month, and played it once. The response was really good, so we considered doing it again, but by the time we got back we were distracted and moved on to something else.
What was the movie?
RW: It was part of a trilogy of experimental films using cut and paste and Xerox on Super 8. Lewis Klahr was the filmmaker. I actually went to film school, so I was exposed to a lot of experimental film. When I saw this for the first time, it was pretty aggravating to be honest. Over two hours of lo-fi, mostly black and white, animation that was abstract with abstract sound. We picked the third part of it to work on. I think the cycle was called “Tales of the Forgotten Future.”
With Local Flavor, it seems like we’re seeing your name in some unusual places, which will certainly expose you to some unique opportunities and different arenas to present your music. Do you have any grand ideas about how the next album will turn out? Are you going to have more live instruments or is the walkman, guitar, keyboard format a construct that you don’t intend on messing with?
LC: I think that one thing that was just a random, lucky thing, is that Kurt started blowing up at the same time our record came out. That contributed to the press, I think. But that was decided a long time ago, and it was Kurt who approached us about jamming. We’ve been friends for a long time and always support each other.
We kind of try to keep everything in perspective. We feel like we’ve already completely over-exceeded any of our remote expectations. We’ve achieved so much more than we thought we would, and for that, we feel lucky. In our heads, we have ideas of adding more horns, making it bigger, but you can only get so big with our budget. We are completely cognizant of the fact that there’s a glass ceiling for us in terms of what we’ll be offered in the future. Because there’s no vocals, it’s all instrumental, it can be pretty abstract at times. I know it’s all about marketing.
RW: All I can add it that it’s pretty rare that an instrumental band will do that well in general. But constantly people are like, “Have you ever thought about adding a vocalist?” Lea has sung on a few recordings, but it’s just something that never felt comfortable. The only band I can think of that’s done really well doing something even remotely similar would be the Boredoms. But there’s only room for one band like that, so we keep our expectations realistic. If we do ever happen to come into money, I’m sure we can think of things to do with it. For the most part, though, we just work within our means.