October 28, 2006
I first saw Khaela Maricich perform live five years ago, as part of the Paper Opera Tour she went on with K Records labelmate Phil Elvrum (Microphones/Mount Eerie) and label founder Calvin Johnson. Although all three performers played solo sets, the sets were integrated into a collective multimedia performance that relied heavily on audience participation, and included everything from dance routines and costume changes to campfire singalongs. Back then, Khaela went by the unwieldy moniker Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano, and her sole release was a cassette-only collection of songs performed on voice and acoustic guitar. On stage, she sang with only an archaic drum machine as her accompaniment, swaying to the machine’s muffled pulses as if she was caught in a gentle trance. I bought her cassette, but when I listened to it on the way home, I realized that she hadn’t performed any of the songs on it. I knew then that Khaela was still an artist in transition.
Shortly after that tour, she changed her nom de rock to the Blow. The Blow’s first appearance on CD, 2002’s Bonus Album, sounded like an extension of the cassette, but with slightly better production. Her recorded material didn’t really begin to reflect her live show until her 2003 follow-up, The Concussive Caress, or, Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along With the Vacuum. Its best songs (“How Naked Are We Going to Get?,” “What Tom Said About Girls”) relied more on keyboards and drum machines than on guitars, and discussed love and sex with a candor that her previous material lacked. These songs represent the embryonic stage of the Blow’s current sound, one that Khaela cheekily calls “indie R&B.”
This sound began to flourish when she teamed up with audiovisual artist Jona Bechtolt for her 2004 EP Poor Aim: Love Songs. Jona, who makes dance music with his own solo project YACHT, used his technological knowhow to accurately recreate the booming bass lines and skittering rhythms of contemporary R&B. With his help, Khaela’s embrace of a bigger (and yes, blacker) sound began to feel more authentic. Some of the songs merely sounded like a female-fronted Postal Service; others, like “Hey Boy” and “The Love That I Crave,” sounded just as comfortable when played next to the latest Beyonce single as they did when played next to my favorite Mirah song.
Khaela and Jona were so pleased with Poor Aim that they decided to keep collaborating, thus turning the Blow into a duo. For the next two years, Khaela and Jona performed live together, turning their shows into full-fledged dance parties. With Jona pumping the audience up like a hip-hop hype man, Khaela was free to take her stage presence to new levels of animation. After a six-month sabbatical, during which Khaela was the artist-in-residence at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), she and Jona recorded their latest album, Paper Television.
Paper Television improves on Poor Aim in every way: the singing is more confident; the writing is more adventurous; the beats are funkier and more intricate. Lyrically, Khaela employs unconventional metaphors to describe the complexities of human relationships. For instance, “Pile of Gold” compares love to economics, to often hilarious effect (“They need the warmth that we export/Of course, some boys will try to force the prices down/By pushing girls around”). “Babay” uses disgusting scatological metaphors to lament the end of a one-sided relationship (“Inside your digestive trip, what was there for me to grip?/Picture me clinging in the bowels as the shits poured on”). Jona eschews the Postal Service template more often, in favor of less rhythmically rigid sounds --- the disco-influenced grooves of early hip-hop (“Pardon Me”), the Ying Yang Twins’ minimalist crunk (“The Big U”) and the rapid-fire snares of HBCU drumlines (“The Long List of Girls”).
Khaela just finished a week’s worth of shows opening for Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. I was fortunate enough to see this bill at the outside amphitheater of Stubb’s this past Monday. Jona was in France playing shows of his own under the YACHT moniker, so Khaela had to perform solo. About 100 people showed up early to see Khaela, which is impressive considering that her set began at 7:30 p.m. She sang two songs a capella (“How Naked Are We Going to Get?” and Wolf Colonel’s “Jet Ski Accidents”), but spent the rest of her set singing and dancing along to pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s tough for a solo performer to capture and keep the attention of an audience that big, especially in an outdoor venue, but Khaela did it. Her stage banter got funnier as the set progressed (“I feel like I’m at a real Western ranch, and you’re all my neighbors!”), and she danced so hard that she occasionally lost her breath.
After her set, she was kind enough to talk to me for 25 minutes. She was just as easygoing and chatty off stage as she was on stage. You can read an edited version of our conversation below:
Can you tell me about the time you spent at PICA?
In the fall of 2004, I did a performance piece for PICA’s yearly festival. It's a huge performance festival. They invited me to present this piece that I'd been making. I played an entrepreneurial businesswoman doing a presentation on a company that she worked for called "Remosch." It was supposed to be Swiss. Basically, it was designed to address mental health debilities --- people going off the path of sanity. It involved music. The company had these interactive dance music videos that they used to help people maintain their sanity. I told PICA about it and they said, "That sounds cool. We'd like you to come be in the festival." Then, they also suggested that I be their artist-in-residence in the PICA office, which is in this big advertising agency called Wieden + Kennedy. They do a lot of work for Nike. They're the company that made up "Just Do It."
Oh, wow...so they're making serious bank!
Yeah, and they're making serious concepts that get soaked into our culture. People say "just do it," you know what I mean? People think "just do it." "Just do it" has affected the way that I think about myself. There were lots of times when I thought to myself, "Come on, Khaela --- just do it."
Even if you don't wear Nikes, you end up saying "just do it" as a motivational tool.
I haven't worn Nikes since sixth grade. I'm a New Balance subscriber.
I'm not wearing them right now, but my other two pairs of sneakers are both New Balance.
Some people can only wear New Balance. My performance was about identity. In order to stay sane, you would pick this music video program that fit your identity type. You'd figure out who you are. Are you a "chains and tattoos" hipster? Are you a squeaky-clean "no tattoos" hipster? There were all these different varieties. Are you a Hello Kitty hipster? Are you an American Apparel-wearing, Vice-reading hipster? What kind are you, and what do you subscribe to? How do you look? What do you care about? How do you think? What routes do you follow every day in your life? It was about knowing yourself and who you are. Since that was what I was interested in, they said, "You should come be an artist-in-residence in our building, and watch what the advertising agency is doing”...which is what I did. I was there for six months, just checking it out.
What was the name of the piece?
It was called "The Touch Me Feeling."
Oh, okay! That's the name of your blog!
It's actually one of the things that I stole from my friend Calvin Johnson throughout my life.
Well, you picked a good source to steal stuff from.
I don't even think that it was really stolen. One time I said something about a feeling --- "You know, it's got that feeling" --- and he responded, "The 'touch me' feeling?" I said, "Yoink! That's mine." [laughter] I've gotten other things from him too, but that was a really great one.
Since what you were doing in Portland was focused on the role that music plays in shaping identity, I was wondering how your personal experience dovetailed into that. Do you feel that there are certain artists or groups that played a huge role in shaping the person that you came to be? If so, how?
That's pretty interesting. I mean, my experience with music has always been pretty remote. I never had a huge hunger for music. I always did things out of a sort of...living way out in the country and every once in a while getting some music. I didn't grow up way out in the country, but we've never been a sort of “music family.” My family had some Simon and Garfunkel that we listened to, and it really shaped me a lot. Every once in a while something else would come along, and I would grab it and seize it. Specifically, what are those musics? When I first heard the Breeders and Liz Phair, that affected me a lot, just because it was kinda low. There's this beta wave, and it's not like...[imitates a soprano singing a very high note]...it's really low-frequency. I think that that affected me.
Was it the comparatively unassuming and easygoing nature of the music that drew you in?
Yeah! I think that stuff that's kinda understated has always really appealed to me. I feel like Simon and Garfunkel is pretty understated. It's not throwing stuff out there too much. I don't know.
It makes sense to me, because when I listen to Poor Aim: Love Songs, I always get the feeling that it’s contemporary R&B refracted through the lens of a very shy and withdrawn individual. I'm pretty sure that you hear R&B songs all the time where the vocals are totally extroverted and melismatic, and they're just singing their hearts out. It seems like your songs have the same subject matter, but sung through the viewpoint of someone who keeps a little bit more to herself.
I don't think that I could ever be called withdrawn or shy, necessarily, because I'm pretty extroverted. There's a way that I'm secretly shy, but it's a secret. I don't think that people who hang out with me very much should know that. The range of my voice is an alto. I'm not a soprano, and sopranos are the ones who are like...[makes a very loud wailing sound, similar to last time]...they could really step up. I don't have a powerful voice like that. I don't have a Jenny Lewis voice or a Whitney Houston voice. I'm working with what I've got, modestly ekeing my way along. [laughter] I'm not really into stepping out and saying, "HEY! LISTEN TO THIS!" I'm more like, "Uh...how about this, guys?" [laughter] Whenever people seem interested, it kinda draws me out more and I feel more confident about it.
I noticed that when you were performing, for the first 10 to 15 seconds you were just staring at the mic, and then you started dancing. You came alive as the set progressed. When you told the soundman to turn everything up louder, it had a directly proportional effect on the boisterousness of your dancing. I liked that!
Yeah, I definitely needed something boosting me up each little step of the way.
Does that attitude toward performing change from day to day?
You mean what my shows are like? Well, it's definitely your mood. You're surfing the vibrations. [laughter] To me, there are so many different factors: "I didn't eat that much," "There's a chill in the air," "I had a sip of Kombucha"... It's what everything makes you feel like, which is what's so interesting about being alive! You can't always be at high-octane performance every single second. All the factors that contribute to why you are super-powered when you are --- that's what makes performance interesting. I'm really into just admitting that I'm an awkward human being. What am I gonna do? I just am, you know? [laughter]
There are always different kinds of variables that affect live performance, regardless of whether you're solo or in a band, regardless of what personality type you are. It's always going to change from day to day.
Even in life, when you're just going about your business from day to day.
That ties into another question that I wanted to ask. I know that the Blow has two members now --- there's you and then there's Jona. Do the two of you regularly perform together live? If so, was this show an exception? What's Jona doing right now?
Right now, Jona's on tour by himself with his solo project called YACHT.
I've heard of it, actually, and I need to check it out.
Yeah, you should! It's really cool. It's really smart. He's just a really, really supple and really exceptionally talented producer and media artist. He can just make things exist out of nothing. I mean, I make things exist out of nothing, but it's more like ideas and songs and words, but he can make them exist electrically. He can make videos and songs pop right out. When we're recording, he effortlessly creates songs.
Do you present the basic skeletons of your songs to him, and then have him construct whatever sonic edifice that it takes on --- the tracks you end up singing along to?
"Sonic edifice"...that's so nice..."sonic edifice." What happened with both records that we made is that I wrote the song and then --- except for a couple of songs --- I wrote the song beforehand, and came to him and sang it. Sometimes, he'd write a part, but usually I'd just be like, "How about THIS?," and he would start making a beat, and we'd work together to make everything melodic. I'm words, he's beats, and together we do melodic interpretation. I'll do the melody of the song if it's written on keyboard or guitar.
Is the R&B influence something you were initially going for when you started the Blow, or was it something that Jona's presence brought out?
Well, there are a couple of songs on The Concussive Caress, which is a record that I did before him...
Yeah, I have that one. That's what I was thinking, because there were songs on it, like "How Naked Are We Going to Get?," where I got that vibe in a more embryonic form.
Yeah, totally! It's definitely the embryo of that. I had the notion: "How cool would that be --- INDIE R&B??!?" There's so much ripping off of African-American music and culture. Everybody does it, from Elvis to Justin Timberlake. It's a historical fact, so I opened myself up to the idea. It seemed funny to me at that point, and then Jona and I just ripped it. He has the capability to emulate that music more obviously, instead of me getting someone to beatbox and play the drums. [laughter]
Is that a sound that you plan on sticking with for a while, or do you see it heading in a different direction on future releases? Have you even thought that far ahead?
I don't know! I think we both have inklings for stuff that we want to work on on our own. I want to try some stuff that's different, I think. When things change in my life, I never see it coming. It takes a long time for me. It even takes a long time for me to realize that something already HAS changed. I just bought a car a month ago, and I still don't realize that I have a a car. [laughter] I have a long adjustment period. Even having made a new record makes me think, "Wow! I don't quite know what this means yet."
I guess you're still getting used to your own sound!
Yeah. I mean, I feel it, but I don't know if that's what the next record will sound like.
The first time I saw you was on the Paper Opera tour, when you were singing either a capella, or along to old drum machines. Now I’m seeing you five years later, and you’re solo again. Now that you have Jona around as a permanent collaborator, has playing solo become more or less difficult?
Well, there were two years in which Jona and I always played together. It was like taking a leap from being kind of a sober solo performer, 'cause there's this sort of way in which I've always dabbled in awkwardness a little bit, and dabbled in sizing up the audience. Tonight's show was a little more like that than it has been recently, 'cause I was just feeling a little shy. It's how my shows have been for a long time...and then when I started working with Jona, our shows were like dance parties. He just pumped people up. The music was way more pumping, and he'd be on stage pumping people up, and everyone would be dancing.
So he was kinda like your hypeman as well.
He was a little bit of 'flava'! [laughter] Yeah, he was like a hypeman, and for two years that's what we totally did. We just put all of our energy into that. That was really exciting, and I feel like it rubbed off on me a lot. There's a way in which I'm kinda way more willing to just give it up to the audience now, and let go. Now, he got all of these awesome opportunities to do shows by himself. He's in France right now, and he played a show at the Centre Pompidou. It's a huge museum in Paris --- it's like there's the Louvre, and then there's the Pompidou. It's the next step down from the Louvre. It's huge.
It sounds like a pretty big deal.
It's a HUGE deal. It's like performing at the Guggenheim, or at the Whitney Biennial. He's got these really cool performances for YACHT, and since I can perform alone, we just veered off that way for now. I like it, though. I like performing alone. I like performing with him, but it's nice to connect with an audience and let it be a little more quiet and intimate again.
I like the fact that there's a storytelling aspect to the Blow. Even with these booming beats, it's still just one person trying to communicate a story or message to a large group of people. I think you've found a really good hybrid of the Simon and Garfunkel folksy thing with the "indie R&B" concept, and I like it a lot.
I have one more question, and then I'll get out of your hair. What is a non-musical thing that has recently excited or provoked a lot of thought in you lately? Name one thing that has nothing to do with music that you particularly enjoy, or have been doing a lot of lately.
Wow. Can I just think about this for a minute? I have to go through my list of things.
You can talk about more than one.
Something I've been up to?
Well, my friend Melissa Dyne and I made this collaborative project called Spirit Quest, and we've been hiring ourselves out. Before the record came out, I was really broke and so was she, so we were hiring ourselves out as artists to do art projects for people where they would just pay us. At first, the idea was going to be like, "We're artists, and we need your money, so we're gonna paint your house. [laughter] You should just pay us. You should do it to help us because you should be supporting the arts. We'll make art that you like, and it could just be your wall being painted a color." I don't think I can explain it in a way that conveys how cool it is. Anyway, we've been doing this collaborative project, and we got to do something at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. That's something that's really exciting, but I can't really explain how cool it is. What else have I been excited about? [long silence] The way that it all started is that we just renovated my apartment, and it was in a warehouse. We were working to make something that was really physically different. I moved into this warehouse space that was really big and really cheap and really cool and really disgusting. There were these open holes outside that these pigeons were living in, and they made these pigeon nests that were really wild, and were filled with twigs and shit. They were two feet wide, six inches deep. There was just a solid block of pigeon shit.
Like a pigeon outhouse!
Yeah. It was in this hole going into my house, so the wind would blow through it and blow pigeon shit into my apartment. There were three of them, and that was really intense. Just cleaning out a pile of pigeon shit was really, really empowering. Looking at something you don't like...
...and getting rid of it?
Yeah, and watching the amount of reservation that overtakes you before you actually do it, you know? It took weeks before I finally got around to being like, "There's something that smells. What is it?" It was actually months. I kinda got down on the floor and realized there was a hole filled with pigeon shit! I cleaned out, and then I realized a couple weeks later that there was ANOTHER one...in the kitchen! Cleaning it out and realizing that I needed to do something about this giant hole in the bathroom floor, getting around to it and realizing that I needed to take out the fixtures and putting in the new subfloor, then putting in the toilet and the sink and the bathtub again --- it was really, really a lot of work, and it changed me a lot, you know? The amount of energy it takes to change some things...just the amount of physical and energetic force it takes to alter your surroundings is really hefty. I think I got stronger just by being like, "I can do this! We're gonna do this!," and then changing it and having my environment be different. It's really easy to just live with things the way they are. That's been a really big influence. Also, I read the book "Another Country," by James Baldwin. I've been really into reading James Baldwin, and watching "Lost." [laughter]
I've been trying to find new books to read. I'm almost done with Paulo Coelho's "Veronika Decides to Die." It's a great book, and it's basically about how arbitrary the line between sanity and insanity really is, and who gets to draw that line.
Wow, that's like my pet topic, so I should read it!
A lot of the things that I've read in the book are things that I've heard other people in my life say to me, almost verbatim. Most of these people have never read the book, though, which only reinforces how touching and on point it is.
That's so cool. Well, "Another Country" by James Baldwin is probably the best book I've ever read.
Next time I go to the library, I will check it out.
It's really deep and beautiful.
Thanks for letting me interview you.
Thank you so much! It's so nice. I really appreciate it.