When I met up with Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho, the guitarist and pianist, respectively, of avant rock duo Blues Control, their demeanor seemed to echo that of their latest Drag City LP, Valley Tangents: peacefully rebellious, free of pretense or trend. Surely the move from NYC to rural Pennsylvania has helped retain some calm, but the two chatted as though they had no age affixed to them and no timeline they had subscribed to, regardless of where they were. Any conception of this being an interview faded within seconds of meeting up – I felt that I was now just a friend, that any well-meaning stranger would be just as welcome to the party. As we hung out in Williamsburg and talked about their latest record, the humble origins of their “piano-rock band,” and the surprisingly positive turn a live show can take with broken equipment, Blues Control seemed more and more powerful of an anachronism in the super-saturated music industry, resistant to commodification or consumption by a methodology that was creative rather than destructive.
When did you guys first meet and start making music?
Lea: 2003…Well, we met in '03 and then we started playing around early '04.
Russ: The first year or so of Blues Control was pretty spread out. We'd play a show, put out a tape, maybe.
Lea: And we even did a Watersports tour. We were still kind of doing both projects.
Oh, I didn't realize Watersports and Blues Control were happening at the same time. I had thought of Blues Control as a spiritual successor to that project.
Lea: It was actually, but we didn't know that at the time. Watersports was our main thing, but it wasn't serious like a full-time job, just our main music project. Then we had the idea for Blues Control—
Russ: It was super casual. I think someone asked us to play a show as Watersports but we had just played a show the week before. We didn't want to do two in a row, but didn't want to say no, and we thought we could just do something different and under a different name.
Lea: Before that point, we had been joking that we had a rock band, like between ourselves. Russ came up with the name 'Blues Control' before we even had the idea that we would play as that, but it was all still very casual. So then when we decided to play as a different band.
Russ: Yeah, I was like 'we got this band,' and I threw up a web page in a night.
Lea: Well, you weren't trying to pull one over, this was all very low key.
Russ: Yeah, and the guy who asked us to play was cool with it. We played the show, someone recorded it, and then someone wanted to book another show. By the end of the year we put out another tape and had played several more shows. After that last tape, Riverboat Styx, we just stayed in touch with Jeremy from Fuck It Tapes and Woodsist…I think he had heard the first tape and wanted to put something out. After he heard that, then we ended up getting pretty busy and doing two records almost simultaneously.
Do you guys consider yourself a rock band?
Lea: Yeah, I think so.
Russ: That was the concept for it: a classic rock band.
Especially listening to Valley Tangents, I'm just like 'this is basically a classic rock record, but today.' There's something about the way the piano sounds and is used, and Russ' guitar tone being deeper, grittier, bluesier…it made me feel like I had time travelled. Do you feel like you take inspiration from older sounds?
Russ: Yeah, I think so. Because with Watersports we had started listening to a ton of new age records.
Lea: And krautrock, electro-acoustic stuff.
Russ: But we also listened to a ton of classic rock and were like, 'Oh, it'd be cool to have a classic rock band, a piano-rock band.'
Lea: Yeah, that was the original idea: 'a piano-rock band.'
Russ: It's definitely taken in a lot of different things but that's always been the core of it.
Did you have a particular mission in making Valley Tangents?
Russ: We tried a different approach to recording.
Lea: We demoed all the songs on this album before actually recording them, which is the first time we've ever done that. We didn't even own an 8-track until this past summer. Russ had them growing up and stuff, but he had already sold all that stuff when I met him.
How does that affect your approach to recording? Is it special when you finally get to gather in the studio?
Lea; It was actually pretty similar in the studio. We would always just work out the songs live, to the point where we knew exactly what we were going to do. We were paying for the studio time ourselves in the past, and so it'd be like, 'You have x amount of days.' We did Local Flavor in four days, so we had to have everything worked out and know exactly what we were doing, and we did most of it live in the studio. For Tangents, the demoing helped us get closer to what we wanted to write without having to work out small details on the fly.
Russ: And we multi-tracked this time, which gave us way more freedom to mix.
Lea: Moving out of New York was also a huge influence, there's really no way that changing your environment so drastically won't affect you creatively. We had a totally different space to set up and practice in, had a window where we could watch animals while we jam.
Russ: We were looking for a new situation and happened to find this house in PA. We lived in Philly for a year and were like, 'Think it's time to live somewhere else.'
Lea: It posed a lot of the same problems as living in NYC, so it didn't seem like we were changing much by being in Philly.
What does Laraaji think of Valley Tangents?
Russ: I don't think he's heard any of our records.
Even after your FRKWYS collaboration?
Lea: I don't think he listens to much other music. I think he plays a lot – maybe even all day and all night – records it all, and I think that's his only musical pursuit. We were hanging out with him and he really doesn't listen to music all that much.
Russ: He definitely used to listen to a lot of music, like in the '70s. It seemed like he was heavily into the NY jazz scene – Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, etc.
It seems like people who invest in a performing career don't get to listen to music as much. Do you guys feel like you don't get to just listen to music very often?
Lea: We don't listen to a lot of new stuff, it's hard to keep track of new stuff… We're trying!
Russ: Really? I feel like we listen to music constantly. We buy a fair amount of records, usually used ones, and more from trading and getting stuff from our friends.
I had read about shows you used to do with natural elements onstage, specifically a Watersports show that used a flowing fountain of water as an instrument. Do you think you'll re-visit this experiment with a future Blues Control performance?
Lea: You never know! We played one Blues Control show with a mechanical dog and a Christmas tree.
Russ: Mic'd the dog (laughs). Last summer we played, for a lack of a better word, a new-age and spiritual conference in Pennsylvania, and for one of the songs we set up huge wind chimes. We brought out a fan and tried to blow it on the chimes, play live, mic it, process it. Meanwhile, a bunch of people in their sixties were like, 'what?'
Lea: These chimes were huge… It sounded awesome! But while we were trying to process it, we realized we just can't do that live. It was way too complicated.
Russ: Yeah, now we just incorporate a recording of the chimes instead of trying to do it live. Or sometimes I'll just use little loops or beats that we recorded.
Why do you think you keep getting called a 'noise band?'
Lea: It's a way to ghettoize things, scare people off. We definitely just get really put off by any labels. Every band hates the label they're given most of the time.
Russ: Yeah, some people think we're a new age band, some people think we're a noise band, some people label things as noise that are even remotely close to that. Definitely more comfortable with classic rock, that's really more what we were thinking.
Lea: And that's not even anti-noise necessarily, our stance or anything. We love noise music, certain kinds, but we know what it is and that's not what we're doing.
It seems like you guys, by definition of writing songs, can't be that. Even if there were long, drifting passages, they weren't just part of an experiment, they were parts of a composition. Do you feel like you guys are songwriters?
Lea: Oh, yeah. That's the most frustrating part about being called a noise artist because we really work hard on actually composing songs and that's really less the point in that scene. We work really hard on melodies.
Russ: Our writing process is sort of a mix of jamming, recording it to a tape deck so we can refer to it later, and then figuring out what section comes next in a piece that's already coming together.
Do you guys ever notate stuff?
Russ: I can't.
Lea: I've notated some things, but I don't even own staff paper, I haven't owned that since I was a kid. I just do my own version of what that would look like depending on what I'm trying to notate. Usually just for specific sections. We secretly have to go back to old records and be like, 'What were we doing there?'
Russ: There are certain things that I'm just like, 'I won't be able to play that again.' (Laughs.) Even if I remembered what tuning it was in, which I might not even know.
How do you feel about that?
Lea: It's cool, I just wish we had documented ourselves more thoroughly early on. In the very beginning, we would come with a whole new set of all new music for every show, and we didn't have that many shows, so every set that we played was like this whole, new thing. We would always do a non-stop thing and just transition live between songs, and we never recorded any of it. When you're starting out, you don't think anyone cares about it, but when you look back you kick yourself for not documenting it.
Russ: I recorded every show on the tour with Laraaji though, just haven't uploaded any of them.
DId you guys take music lessons?
Russ: I took keyboard lessons for a little while, and enjoyed it, but really wanted a guitar. So I saved all my money, bought a guitar in eighth or ninth grade, and then shortly after that I stopped my keyboard lessons. Never took lessons for guitar. Someone would just be like, 'Oh, there are these things called bar chords,' and I'd realize 'Oh, if I tune it this way, it sounds a certain way.' And then years later, I realized the action was so high on my guitar and that was why I hadn't progressed much in like five years (laughs).
Lea: I took lessons and have been playing for a long time. My mom went to Juilliard for piano and flute, so I learned from her when I was little. You know, it's too hard to learn from your parents, the older you get. There's too much familiarity, so I'd just take lessons from friends of hers who were teachers, and I eventually started coming to New York for lessons. I loved playing piano, but, not living in NY yet, the long distance travel for lessons made me feel like a total weirdo. I didn't even want to tell anyone that I was doing it, but I loved it! I was really serious for awhile and won a bunch of competitions and stuff. The one that was the best experience was the AMSA competition; I won first place and then played at Carnegie Hall as part of some winner's recital thing. I was really serious for awhile, but by the time I was in high school I got into underground stuff and was just like, 'Fuck this.' It was still such a huge part of my life, and I took some music courses at NYU later on because I really missed it. Until Blues Control, I didn't think I would ever play a lot again. I thought I was going to be an anthropologist… Maybe I still will.
I've heard that you guys don't really use many digital effects processors, and rely on more traditional, analog methods of production. You even utilize a lot of cassette loops in your live performances. What about those traditions or older forms of technology is appealing to you?
Russ: They're easier to understand and I can relate to it from my youth. I started writing and recording in junior high and that's all the same as back then. There's a thread that runs through that approach.
Lea: The reason we use so many tapes, though, is that we just like the sound of it. And also, we don't spend a lot of money on gear so we rely on whatever's lying around the house.
Russ: You could make a beat on a computer and just digitally transfer it to your four-track, but sometimes it may just sound better if you go to tape first and let it get saturated with that aesthetic.
Lea: It can be more difficult sometimes – when the tapes don't work and you're playing live, or any number of complications. Some people are just like, 'I don't know how you keep track of your tapes.'
Russ: We definitely gravitate toward methods that can seem more inefficient, but we're also thinking in terms of how to do things live, what we have to change for that. We've definitely had a few shows where the tape deck will just die live.
Lea: Doesn't happen that often, and it can even be a cool thing to happen during the set. Like suddenly the tape will be really, really slow (laughs). We're just like 'okay, guess we're doing something different tonight.'