Russ Waterhouse of Blues Control on the unlikely influence of New Age music
Blues Control is an experimental rock duo that got started in New York City in 2006 as a kind of side project from their New Age music project Watersports. The greater immediacy and visceral impact of Blues Control connected with audiences, and soon, the side project became the main band of Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho. The group's blend of psychedelic rock and atmospherics makes for one of the most unique live music experiences going.
Waterhouse and Cho have released albums on a handful of notable underground imprints over the years, including Holy Mountain, Siltbreeze, Not Not Fun and now Drag City. The sound of Blues Control has evolved considerably in fascinating ways with each record, including the outfit's collaborative album with Brian Eno compatriot, Laraaji. We checked in recently with Waterhouse about his sound design-inspired approach to aspects of the band's latest album, Valley Tangents, how New Age became an important part of the duo's musical development and their mutual interest in Laibach and the hybrid aesthetics of early industrial music.
Westword: In a 2009 interview for Tiny Mix Tapes, you mentioned your interest in sound design and editing in films.
Russ Waterhouse: I went to film school, and I tried a lot of different classes like directing and cinematography, but it seemed like most of my concentration ended up being in sound, whether that was location sound recording, like recording dialogue and such, like using different mics, hiding mics, etc. Then I took a class on "creative sound," which was basically sound design influenced. We definitely pay a lot of attention to sound in films, and I'd imagine we're influenced by that. I like people who use sound in unconventional ways, like Jean-Luc Godard. I almost feel like sometimes our records end up being similar to soundtracks but without the film.
What are some films that you feel had especially good sound design?
I mentioned Godard, but his film Pierrot le Fou -- all of his movies, really -- the editing is really interesting and unconventional. He uses sound that doesn't relate directly to the image. It's sort of a creative juxtaposition for a different effect. Just a lot of New Wave cinema and post New Wave cinema. Even things like Christopher Nolan's movies like Inception.
A lot of movies that aren't necessarily cinematic masterpieces but have impressive sound design are in the horror genre. The Strangers depended heavily on its effectiveness on its sound design, and there's a great scene that uses Joanna Newsom's "The Sprout and the Bean" to great effect. Even The Chernobyl Diaries had great sound design.
Another one along those lines: There's this really great B movie called Shockwaves. There's an amazing score in that movie.
The song "Open Air" on Valley Tangents has an interesting sound design quality to it. Would you say that that background noise-sounding sort of thing was used intentionally or left in because it added an intriguing element?
That was intentional. There's some field recordings from when we lived in Richmond, Virginia, which was about nine months in 2009, when we first moved out of New York. Those are sort of layered under the music. Some of those same tapes are being played back through the microphones as well. So there's a mix of direct recording and re-amplified recordings. The piano has a field recording quality as well. There's definitely a shift in the way Lea [Cho's] part was recorded.
Do you feel that gives a depth of feel or the sonic equivalent of depth of focus that isn't always obvious?
Oh yeah. That was supposed to imply a movement through space, then virtually a non-space or a world without the literalness that's in the beginning. That sort of happened organically, though. That's how I've always worked. Before the two of us started playing music together, I did a number of solo recordings, and for a lot of them, I would prepare almost an environment or a system including tapes and I recorded that like a slowly unwinding performance documented on tape as well.
One of your earliest full-length albums in this project came out on Holy Mountain Records. Why did you feel they were a good fit for what you were trying to do at that time?
That sort of happened very early on. We were doing a lot of stuff as Watersports, which was sort of environmental, low key and it involved tapes and mixing. Someone asked us to do a Watersports show, but it happened to be in a week where we were already doing a show, and we asked if we could do Blues Control instead.
Things sort of happened very quickly [after that]. Somebody recorded that show, and it came out as a tape. We decided to put up a Myspace page because the concept of this project was a rock band and at that time every rock band had a Myspace page. So we were thinking about the concept of the rock band and what it meant in older times.
Holy Mountain sort of emailed us. I was familiar with it, and I was friends with Ben Chasny [of Six Organs of Admittance]. He's on Drag City now, but he was on Holy Mountain a long time ago. We had a mutual friend, Holy Mountain and us, and on that level it seemed like we could fit.
Every time we make a record for a label, we try to think of the context it will be released under -- like the history of the label, the other artists, etc. Doing a record for that label brought out any tendencies we may have had to make a stoner rock record or a psychedelic rock record. Those interests were always latent, but we definitely put that together with that label in mind.
We don't really tailor the music for any particular commercial concerns, but we definitely look at the overall picture. We were listening to a lot of classic rock at that time, a lot of riff-heavy stuff like Deep Purple.
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