Blues Control duo guitarist Russ Waterhouse and pianist Lea Cho travel the spaceways of indie rock on an undulating platform of psychedelia, electronic, jazz, prog, and new age conventions. The combined result is music that flows from blissful quiet to hypnotically droning to feedback-drenched loud, with any number of random interludes--from jazzy to proggy to spacey--tucked in the middle.
Now based in rural Pennsylvania, the band escaped New York City for a quieter place to get loud, but also free themselves to unencumbered experimentation. The result is Valley Tangents, the band's fourth album.
Up On The Sun reached Waterhouse and Cho at their home and studio, where rabbits hop across the yard and the sun actually shines as the pair discuss their musical outlook, making the new album, escaping NYC, and how Blues Control brings it all to life on stage.Up On The Sun: On one side you can sound kind of new agey and spacey, and on the other wildly psychedelic. How do these two styles work together?
Cho: We started playing together as Watersports. That was only our minimal, spacey, new age stuff. Blues Control came later and actually incorporated everything we were doing.
Waterhouse: When we started Blues Control we used a lot of the same gear. With Watersports we did our new agey stuff, but Blues Control was the flipside of that, sort of the loud rock, piano rock, classic rock, psychedelic rock. I sort of see new age and psychedelic rock as being on the same continuum, it's just different shades.
Cho: We don't feel like they are opposing forces; they complement each other.
Waterhouse: Exactly. A lot of new age music, depending on how far back you go and how deep you get into it is pretty psychedelic.
Cho: That was our main influence, anyway.
Waterhouse: We were sort of exploring new age stuff which I think evolved out of a love of krautrock artists. We explored more world music and drone. It all seems to be the same in our minds.
So with all these influences and potential starting places, what gives a piece its initial direction?
Waterhouse: Every song on our song on our new record had a different genesis depending on the influences we were working on.
Cho: Sometimes we have a musical riff first and then we turn it towards a larger idea. But sometimes we have a larger conceptual idea and try to express that musically. It can start at any angle, but then it fleshes itself [out]. We do a lot of talking, but sometimes you just have to jam.
Waterhouse: It's harder just writing a melody, so sometimes you just need to play.
Cho: And sometimes we'll just talk and talk. And sometimes we're just playing and playing. And then we start talking. We try to balance the two.
Waterhouse: Sometimes we're playing and something will happen and we'll be, "Wait, let's record it."
Valley Tangents is your fourth album. How do you see it as far as growth of the band? To me it sounds less spacey, more direct, and jazzy in places but also psychedelic and rocking compared to earlier works.
Cho: We don't want to make the same record twice, and on some level each record has its own goals. The jazzy, prog-y vibe we're pushing for this record, we had it on other records, but it wasn't as essential as it was for this record. Again, it feels connected to the other ones too. It's not a whole new thing.
Waterhouse : Our first two records came out and were made around the same time, in 2007. Our third record came out in 2009, so it's been a very casual progression.
Cho: I feel like we're creating a long-term discography so each record will have its own time and vibe. Hopefully [this one's] not the same as another one, but you can also see the lines [getting there]. All of them still sound like us as opposed to someone else?
We had three windows in our practice space and we could look out and see rabbits running by, or birds...It's the first time we weren't playing in a dank basement.-- Russ Waterhouse, Blues Control
You started out in New York City but have now relocated to rural Pennsylvania. It's certainly a less hectic lifestyle now. Did that play a role in this album?
Cho: I think it helped us move forward. We were feeling like we were up against a wall at some point dealing with the limitations of space and time and living expenses. Moving helped us make a better record. I'm not sure if we were living in the city we would have even made another record.
Waterhouse: Just trying to live and work and play music in the city... We lived at one point in an apartment in Queens and we had neighbors on either wall. If we wanted to work on music that was quiet, maybe for Watersports, there'd be a loud math rock band next door and we couldn't hear ourselves. Or we'd want to play loud and the neighbors would start banging on the wall. We don't have those issues here so we can stay focused. We had three windows in our practice space and we could look out and see rabbits running by, or birds...It's the first time we weren't playing in a dank basement.
Cho: I think we felt rejuvenated at a time when we really needed it. Russ was really set on the no sunlight vibe [laughs], but things change, you change or at some point it's not as inspiring anymore.
You take an old school approach to looping using tapes. I can see where there's an advantage, but also disadvantages. Why continue this way instead of opting for computers? Is there a sound quality you're after?
Cho: It's not the easiest way to go.
Waterhouse: We had to make some compromises over time for the live show. There's something we like about tape hiss or the sound after you put it on tape.
Cho: It is harder to manage sometimes, and [tapes] are much more fragile. The players themselves are fragile and the speeds are all different, which makes things out of tune. It's not the easiest way to do things. But all in all we feel it's worth trouble.
It could be a little hazardous in concert given all the variables you mentioned. Cho: But it can also make the show better. Sometimes there's a happy surprise with that stuff. There are technical difficulties once in awhile, but at least with tape even if something's screwed up it will still sound good. (laughs)
Waterhouse: We've been doing this for awhile so we've learned how to deal with it. Which isn't to say every show goes...
Cho: The way you planned it.
On record, many songs have a freeform make it up as you go vibe, though I gather the songs are thoughtfully arranged. In concert then, is there room for improvisation and jamming, or do you stick to the script? Cho: There's a tiny bit of room for improv. It's very very small where we specifically know a section can be free, but its way more structured and worked out.
Waterhouse: There's a free songs we play live that are open ended, but most things are pretty mapped out. I'm pretty surprised when people say is sounds improv-y or jammy because the passages where we lock in and come together should indicate it was intentional all along. But I guess not everyone sees it that way. [Laughs]
Cho: The places where we get free are the solos. It's a classic thing in rock when people take a solo. That's the same thing that we do.
You're an instrumental band. What do you do to keep the audience engaged beyond just the music? Cho: We don't change what we're doing to get attention on stage, but at the same time we want to put on a show. In part I think with photos and short video clips it's hard, especially when the sound's bad on the video I find it's really hard to convey what we do. Part of the reason we tour is that we find that playing in front of people is a much more communicative way of doing what we do, rather than the internet. It's not as clear; our stuff doesn't translate as obviously.
Waterhouse: If you hear one song or a part of a song it's not really representative of our live show because we always think of our set from beginning to end. We try to think of the dynamics and shifts throughout the set--and each song as well.
Cho: The whole thing is of a piece. There's definitely things we through in there you can't convey but have to experience.
Waterhouse: Our songs do actually have a performance element live. It just may not be obvious.
Blues Control is scheduled to perform Friday, February 15, at Crescent Ballroom.