Kazu Makino, vocalist and guitarist for Blonde Redhead, makes a really good first impression. Lots of musicians are intelligent, involved, and genuine people, but few are as open and humble as Makino, especially when talking about their causes. When discussing We Are The Works In Progress, the album she curated to benefit charities dealing with the catastrophic situation in Japan following last year’s tsunami, she didn’t seem at all pleased with herself, which would have been a little understandable, having just put together a collection of unreleased tracks including everyone from Interpol to Deerhunter and Four Tet. Rather, Makino was focused on what she considered the job at hand- to use her particular situation to bring the most relief to those suffering.
What about this particular crisis led you to get involved?
I suppose the sheer scale of it and the shock that we all felt. I didn’t want to sit by and not be able to express the feelings that I had. That’s all.
How did you arrive at the idea of a charity album?
I did not want to just do a benefit show. I don’t really know where the idea for an album came from; I just instinctively knew that I didn’t want to do something immediately and then just move on. I think a lot of people were doing things in an urgent manner, while the events were still in the news. I’m not really good at doing anything in a rush; I also really wanted to have the opportunity to raise more money than was possible with a show. I wanted to raise something a little more substantial and long lasting- and not just financially, but also with awareness in the long term.
Take me through the process. Where do you start?
We were just off a group tour of Australia and New Zealand with a bunch of other bands. There were a lot of bands on the tour, but in particular we became friendly with Deerhunter and Ariel Pink. I called them right away, and they were in immediately. The more I thought about it, I realized how nice it would be to have exclusive material from the artists. I just started calling. Half of the people are my friends and the other half are people and groups that I admire and am listening to all the time. I just dropped an e-mail to their websites saying that I was Kazu form Blonde Redhead and was trying to do this project. I was quite surprised how everyone replied to me. Some of them asked me if I knew what I was doing and could pull it off, and others just were immediately at my service. It was great.
Did you find yourself deepening relationships due to the project?
I don’t think a lot of people were aware that I was such a big fan of electronic music. It was a bit of a surprise for some of the people that I contacted; they would respond with “Really, me? You really want me?” That was flattering for them, and nice to be able to give them that recognition. And someone like Karin (Dreijer Andersson) of Fever Ray, I knew her, and how specific she was about her method, so I wasn’t sure that she would be able to do something for the record. But she is also very politically aware, and had her own concerns about the issues, and was quite prepared to contribute. I had never really tested my connections before- I’ve been around for a long time, but I mind my own business normally, so I didn’t know that I could be connected to other artists in this way. It was surprising for me to find this out about myself.
Was there anyone that you wanted to get, but it didn’t work out?
There was a band that I really love named Beach Fossils. I’m such a big fan of them, and I did contact their booking agent. I never just went to the source and contacted them directly. I really wish that I had asked them to be a part of it. Also, Phillip Glass gave us a song, and I didn’t think that it fit with the album. It sounded really dark and pessimistic. But I didn’t want to go and request something else, because I was a little intimidated by his reputation. He’s written so many beautiful pieces of music; I wish that I had the courage to approach him. I’m also sure that if I decided to do a second edition, I could easily fill it up with even more of my favorite bands.
You took a while to put the record together. How were the songs arranged?
I listened to these songs like five hundred times. Artists also gave me songs at different times, so that affected how the album was put together. It’s funny; all of the electronic artists were very punctual- except Pantha (du Prince), he was late. I had all of that music very early, and listened to it while I was still on tour. Then I started collecting the “band” songs. If this was a record from my band, I’m sure I would have had to argue with A&R about the sequence, but on this project I was able to work from a totally musical perspective. I didn’t have to worry about making the project immediately accessible. For example, the beginning three songs of the album are the longest ones. If I wanted to work to hold the audience’s attention, I would have put short songs in between them. I didn’t have to think in that way, though, which was liberating. I just had to think about what was seamless musically.
How did you choose the charities that are going to benefit from the album?
It actually wasn’t ideal. I was quite determined to be specific about where I was going to put the money. We researched for months and months. We wanted a good chunk to go to renewable energy, including direct involvement- buying some solar panels for families in affected areas. The other aspect of giving that was important to us was to provide money for children who had lost their parents to be able to remain in school. We also wanted to work to some degree with those families still in temporary housing. We were so specific, and really pretty proud of ourselves, but in the end it turned out that if we wanted to do it that way, we would have lost our tax-exempt status and had to pay normal tax on every record we sold, and then we wouldn’t have made as much to donate. We had to give up the notion of specified giving and find charities with branches in the United States. We talked to these groups and told them our wishes; hopefully we can spend the money in the same way we wish, but we’ll have to do it through these agencies.
What are your next steps with this project? Will there be any shows?
No, this is it. I feel very torn in a way. I don’t want to seem righteous or something. I feel very complicated about it. I really just want to go back to doing the right thing in my own life, but I feel like what people are having to go through in Japan necessitated some further action on my part, and I’m happy that we were able to come up with a really decent album. I hope people are able to listen to it and enjoy the music and maybe even be inspired. I’m really not one for political causes, though.