Blue Hawaii is the duo of Braids’ lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Montreal artist Alex “Agor” Cowan. Blue Hawaii is also an experiment. Serving as a way for the two musicians to explore their musical compatibility, the project had already created a stellar EP in 2010 by the name of Blooming Summer, and a recently recorded album is lined up for January 2013.
Before then, the band is playing CMJ 2012 as well as opening for Grimes on October 27 at Bowery Ballroom. I caught up with them over the phone a week before the festival to check in on the band’s new album and the pre-show jitters. They had a lot to say about the differing methods of music creation, a new-found love of electronic music and finally breaking out of one’s shell.
Did the process for the second album differ from the first?
Alex Cowan: Well, definitely. Since it’s been so long since our last one, one thing that we noticed was that we’ve learned a lot since the initial recording, and the last thing was just this really quick effort that we did after we got back from a trip to Central America. So we definitely had learned a lot and gotten into a lot of different styles of music, so it took quite a bit longer to make. We started pretty much in the new year in Vancouver and worked on it a lot. The big difference between the last one and this one is that we were working on this one separately, sort of. I would spend a night in the studio doing stuff, and then Raphaelle would do it the other night, and we would kind of trade on and off duties doing that for the entire length of it. So this kind of weird thing developed where we never really played any of the songs together or we just worked on it in the music itself. We didn’t sit in the same room and do it until it was finished, and now we’re playing it live or whatever.
Do you think that that’s a better way to do it for you guys? Or do you wish that you had more time together?
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: It was just kind of what life provided for us at that time. I don’t know; I think each individual record has its own process that it requires, and I guess that in order for this one to get done it required us to work separately. And our schedules didn’t really allow for us to come together so much on it. But maybe with our next record it will be different? I’m happy with the work process with this one. It was very interesting. Very interesting, you know?
Was there an inspiration that made you go “OK, we need to do this record?”
AC: Yeah, definitely. A big thing for me was that the trip this time was more to Europe and specifically to Berlin. Going to a lot of deep house events. Late-night techno events in Germany. It was a big inspiration for a lot of the things that we’ve done on this record. That’s becoming apparent especially now that we’re playing it live. While we were recording it, it’s harder to get the feeling of. With a lot of electronic music, it’s interesting because it’s composed in a studio, but then it’s DJed to tons of people. It’s funny—that dichotomy of some guy sitting in a dark room somewhere making something that is meant to be played in a very social environment. That’s interesting now because playing shows and putting together a live set, you come to realize about that experiential aspect to the music and how electronic music in particular can be really really good for that through, obviously, dancing and stuff like that.
You guys are playing the CMJ Music Marathon. What do you hope to get out of your appearance? Is this record something you’re trying to work out on stage?
AC: I think I have a really interesting way of putting that: A big problem that people have when they’re trying to play music back when they have less members in their band than they could possibly play with the sounds they have on the recording, it’s like “Do we sample this?” Or, “How do we recreate this experience that we gave on the record?” It’s different for different bands, but one thing that we’ve been doing that I’m excited about is making the songs again, in this new way where we just take very short samples from our songs. Just one-bar loops and two-bar loops and trigger them back as chords and then Raphaelle sings on top of them while I do live MIDI stuff and drum machine stuff. Basically, make new versions of the songs that aren’t just playing back the drum part and playing back the synth part but actually making them brand new.
RSP: Reading the audience and just seeing what it is that they’re in the mood for. That’s something with Braids that I don’t really do too often because we’re really concentrated in the music that we’re playing and the members who are on stage. I’ve never really looked out into the audience and never really enjoyed interacting with the audience, and that’s something that I’m really looking forward to during CMJ. Realizing that an audience is there, and they give a lot of energy that you can feed off of that.
What’s been your favorite place to play, and is there any place that you want to go to?
RSP: Alex and I really want to go to Japan. So badly. Since we first met, we’ve talked about going to Japan at some point, and I think our music would translate well over there. I think the best was in Slovakia. That was really cool. When Braids went to Slovakia and Agor was tour managing us. It was this festival, and there were like a thousand Slovakian fans. It was really great. That’s my answer to that. I like smaller shows with good sound. You have the intimacy, but then really great sound. I hate shitty sound. It annoys me so much when things sound bad. Music is supposed to sound good. The music that I play is supposed to be sonically pleasureful, so when I play venues that have bad sound it takes a bit of mind work to try and get past that. To feel the raw emotion without the sonic pleasure.
AC: I think my favorite places tend to be more loft-venue type places. I started by opening a loft venue in Montreal and running it for a couple of years or so. In New York we used to go down to Silent Barn a lot and this other place called Much Mores and 285 Kent or whatever. Great place. 285 Kent is great because there’s pretty decent sound. That’s the problem with loft venues, sometimes they don’t have good sound. Either a place like that or a place that’s really set up for music, like, in Germany the big club is called Berghain, and for me, it would be this personal feat if I could play at Berghain. I remember a friend of ours and labelmate, Grimes, played Berghain, and I thought this was a really big milestone for her. I noticed that playing smaller shows is really fun and big shows is fun too. Then there’s kind of the in-between that’s sort of awkward.
What type of bands do you guys like playing with? Who would you want to open for?
RSP: I’m really interested in electronic culture. That’s something that really intrigues me because that’s something that’s very new to me because I spent a good five years in the indie community. I’m fighting to be very interesting right now, but how Purity Ring is crossing over into that area but also staying constant with indie rock still. They had Evian Christ open up for them, and they had Headaches playing—those are two great electronic acts. I don’t know, I think I’d like to open for—I love Max Cooper. He’s so great. He’s a DJ from England, and I love his music so much. Who else? Pantha Du Prince is really great too. Pantha was a big influence on the record that we just recorded. I have a guilty pleasure; I really like Royksopp. That’s a really guilty pleasure of mine. I don’t like admitting to that one too much. That’d be really fun, opening up for them.