On Thursday, March 14th, KCSB’s Program Director interviewed Blue Hawaii, an indie electronic duo from Montreal consisting of vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston and producer Alexander Cowan. The duo talked about the differences between their recorded and live music, their experimental new LP Untogether, and their upcoming April tour with fellow Canadian electro duo Purity Ring. Read the text below or scroll to the bottom of the page for the audio.
Navid Ebrahimzadeh (KCSB): All right, KCSB here with Blue Hawaii. Can you guys please introduce yourselves, full names? And then we’ll get started.
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: Full names?
KCSB: Yes please, just to make it all official.
Standell-Preston: Okay, I’m Raphaelle Alexandria Standell-Preston.
Alexander Cowan: This is Alexander William Curby Cowan coming at you.
KCSB: Cool, so how did you two meet?
Cowan: It was a long time ago, about three or four years ago. We met at a loft venue that I was running, and immediately we connected and decided that a good thing to do would be to jam electronic music together.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, Alex was working the door at a show that I just happened to stumble upon, and I walked up and he was selling tickets, and he thought I was cute, and I thought he was cute, so then we talked and realized that both of us really liked music and playing music, and decided to go from there. He said that, I guess in a faster way.
KCSB: Well, I think that was a fortuitous meeting.
Standell–Preston: Very nice.
Cowan: Next question please.
KCSB: All right, next one. This one is for you in particular, Raphaelle. How do you see your projects — this and BRAIDS — being different or similar?
Standell–Preston: I guess, with Blue Hawaii, Alex has tried to make it really, really fun for me. Like really uncontrolled, somewhere that I can really do whatever it is that I want, whether it’s involving outfit or makeup, or lyrics or musical style.
KCSB: I saw you guys wearing blue face paint the other night.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, that’s something that we do a lot. And we’ve done it every day since day one, so, yeah, I guess Blue Hawaii is a very like, freeing project. As is BRAIDS, but in a totally different way, ’cause it’s much more controlled. Austin and Taylor are very trained musicians. They’re very much visionaries. So it’s two very different approaches to making music. Agor and I kind of just do things on the fly, usually.
Cowan: You could like, sit down in a theater and watch BRAIDS play, and then after go to the club around the corner.
Standell–Preston: An after party, and then Blue Hawaii would be playing. So yeah, two very different sides of my personality.
KCSB: Thanks a lot.
Standell–Preston: No problem.
KCSB: All right, this next one’s about genres. I don’t know, I think genrefication is a kind of tricky, sticky business. Terms I’ve seen thrown around a lot in describing your music: BRAIDS, I’ve heard being described as art-rock.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, that’s cool.
KCSB: And then Blue Hawaii as like glo-fi and chillwave.
Standell–Preston: What is glo-fi? That’s amazing.
KCSB: It’s basically synonymous with chillwave.
KCSB: Just like, electronic dream pop kind of stuff.
Standell–Preston: I hate the word “dream pop,” I’ve never understood it.
Cowan: I like “dream pop” a lot more than “chillwave.”
Standell–Preston: Oh yeah, I hate chillwave. I hate that name! I don’t like when things are described as “chill.” Like, I’d rather it be called “reggaewave.”
Cowan: Okay, ask a question about genres.
KCSB: That’s basically it. Is it really stupid, or does it have a purpose?
Standell–Preston: I think in electronic music it’s very, very important. Wouldn’t you say?
Cowan: That’s an interesting thing with electronic music, that it can be identified in terms of its subgenres just like, based on certain sounds you can pick out and everything like that. I mean, I guess what we just described with the different places in which you can kind of catch the bands, and that maybe would signify their genres. I think like, the kind of music we’re making now is probably less chillwave, maybe more like cold minimal or something like that. I don’t know, but definitely I could see why people would say things like that.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, I don’t know why I get frustrated by genres. ‘Cause I’m just thinking about it, and I’m like, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I get upset that someone would call us chillwave?” I don’t know why. Maybe for me, I feel like chillwave has a negative connotation around it, just being like really throw-together music, you know? Like not that much thought. At least that’s the chillwave that I’ve listened to, like really four-on-the-floor, like sidechain to the kick, like some whatever chords, and like singing that is, I don’t know, unidentifiable. I guess when we’re kind of grouped into chillwave or dream pop, it seems like, as not perhaps thoughtful as I think our music is?
Cowan: Well like, Beach House is a really good dream pop band.
Standell–Preston: You’re right, they are a really good dream pop band.
Cowan: But anyways, yeah, I think that’s enough.
KCSB: For me personally, it can be really constraining. It’s like, “Oh you like Blue Hawaii, that chillwave band.” And it’s like, they’re their own group. And it’s very distinct from a lot of the things grouped under the same micro-subgenre. I think it’s fine, I think it’s fine to organize…
(At this point, a loud show starts in Swan Dive, the venue we’re sitting in.)
Cowan: Check out this hard rock band that just started playing.
Standell–Preston: This is like a crazy metal band.
Cowan: At least if it was a chillwave band, we could like, still talk right now.
KCSB: Right? Well, let’s talk a little louder. All right, this one’s “chill.” How have you guys been enjoying SXSW? Tell me about your experience here.
Standell–Preston: Um… Okay, SXSW is really fun, but I don’t like it.
KCSB: Why’s that?
Standell–Preston: For me, it’s really stressful. I don’t like the constant overstimulation, like there’s just too many people, the change-overs are way too fast, the sound checks are too short, just that kind of stuff, you know? I like things that are calm. Is this going to be okay?
KCSB: Yeah, this is like, a pretty high quality recorder so…
Standell–Preston: So it’s like, directional in my mouth.
KCSB: If we all just enunciate well… If you guys wouldn’t mind, actually, we could step outside.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, let’s just step out on the street.
KCSB: There is not a quiet place in this entire city.
Standell–Preston: This is why SXSW is fun, but I just don’t really like it.
Cowan: I’ve had a pretty good time here, I really enjoy like, coming to the hot weather. That feels really good; it’s like -15 in Montreal.
Standell–Preston: That’s really nice.
Cowan: And I really like seeing new things and meeting new people, and that stuff’s all really good.
Standell–Preston: You’re so positive, Agor.
Cowan: Yeah, yeah, I stay really positive. Today I had my first down day about it in a while, but I’m bouncing back. The only thing that gets me down is kind of the like, negative feelings of competition, and stuff like that.
Standell–Preston: The very rat-race feeling of it.
Cowan: The best part of SXSW is coming down here and seeing so many people that you talk to on the internet and everywhere, and everyone’s like “Hey, let’s all get along and have a good time,” but at the same time there’s this like, aspect to it that’s like, competitive and negative. And obviously that exists, but that’s something that can become materialized over the course of the week, something you really understand after a while. And that to me is probably the only negative tinge, but, on the whole, I really like it a lot.
Standell–Preston: I do like getting to see people I haven’t seen in a long time. Like getting to see Baths.
KCSB: I went there last night. That was really fun.
Standell–Preston: And Born Gold, he’s here too. He’s not playing, he just came down to check everything out.
KCSB: Born Gold is, uh…
Standell–Preston: Gobble Gobble. Cecil Frena.
KCSB: Yeah, and uh, Corin Roddick, used to be in there?
Standell–Preston: Yeah, from Purity Ring. He used to drum for them.
KCSB: Cool. Can you guys talk about the differences between your recorded versus live music? Because I was really taken aback, I was at Mohawk on Tuesday, and you guys totally sounded so much different from the recording. You reworked a lot of the tracks, like “Follow,” I feel like the order of the segments was different.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, it was. Good ear.
Cowan: It’s really awesome that you bring that up.
Standell–Preston: That’s something that we’re really excited about, the difference in energy between listening to a recording and then delivering that live. Two very different things.
Cowan: Like when I’m at home, I really enjoy music that is light, you know? Maybe when I’m like, ripping down the highway and I want something banging, that’s good too. But I listen to like, mostly house and techno, and that has intense moments, but there’s a kind of smoothness that is important, that blends into my environment, with environmental music or like textured music or something like that. But when I’m out, it’s less of the textures and more of like, the direct…
Standell–Preston: The energy.
Cowan: Yeah, the energy that I want to feel, and like, that’s as much as we’re trying to communicate. We don’t necessarily have all the time in the world to prepare for our live sets and do lots of touring, so when we do it it’s mostly about the kind of energy we can communicate. And then people can like that energy or not like it or whatever, and that’s fine, but it’s something more direct, like a beat, or singing, so we can take our songs and rearrange them. We do these things where we take really short loops, like one bar loops, of our recorded material, and then just add drums or drum machines on top.
Standell–Preston: And then add different vocal loops. Yeah, it’s very fun. It’s very liberating also to see the songs kind of transform into this whole other thing. It’s amazing how many different pathways you can go down with just single idea.
KCSB: Totally, you guys do a great job. I want to ask some questions about your new album, Untogether, which is an amazing, beautiful album. This is kind of irrelevant, but I think it’s going to be the best album that’s released this year, though it’s early.
Cowan: That’s so nice.
KCSB: I’ve been listening to it nonstop. It’s really different from Blooming Summer, though, and that’s what I really respected is that you guys went in a totally different direction. But uh… yeah, let me see, aside from ranting, what did I specifically want to ask? So on this new one, it’s very much, like you could call it a “glitched” or “chopped-up” sound.
Standell–Preston & Cowan: Yeah.
KCSB: And there was some of that in your older stuff. Like, I’d say “Lonelyhearts” had that.
KCSB: But now it’s the main focus. Can you talk about that transition?
Cowan: It’s interesting that you bring up “Lonelyhearts,” ’cause that was the one track on the Blooming Summer EP that was most reworked from its original state.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, I like that one.
Cowan: And almost everything, except for “Try to Be,” on Untogether, is very reworked from its original state. And that’s something that was like almost a suffering kind of process. It was hard, and there’s a lot of things that I learned a lot from that I wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat. And it’s cool that we came out with something that you think is beautiful, and that’s really great. To me, I think that’s a great accomplishment.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, I’m very happy that we actually released it. There were many, many times when we wanted to give up, or when the songs were so chopped, that we were like, “There’s nothing here, where is the essence of this song?” We had to go back and revisit and rework everything over and over again. With Blooming Summer and Untogether, they’re just like two totally different processes. Blooming Summer was very blissful and in love and feelings of, I don’t know, carefree? Untogether is like… we were feeling a little rugged and complacent and stale, like in many areas of our lives, and were questioning a lot of things. So just two moments in life.
KCSB: So, follow-up: the “glitched” sound, to me, makes it sound very, like you said sometimes it’s hard to engage with a track because you’re taking a melody and chopping it up, and that’s the whole point of chopping up vocals, but what do you guys think as far as emotional or thematic significance? Is it purely sonical, like “Oh, this sounds cool when it’s chopped up,” or is there something more?
Standell-Preston: There were actually a lot of interesting combinations of lyrics that came up with chopping up the vocals. Like in “Daisy,” for instance — I really love that track, that’s definitely one of my favorites on the record — I was listening to it ’cause I was trying to write lyrics for it, and I just heard like, the craziest lyrics. When I was recording that song, I was pretending that I was having a conversation with some kind of god, and it sounded like I was, when I listened really deeply to the lyrics that I had cut up, like it sounded like this really questioning conversation that was trying to understand what it is we’re living for, yadda yadda yadda. So I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of beauty held in that, and sometimes the most beautiful melody can be found when you reverse a melody that was forward at the beginning. Just looking at it in that different way can be really beautiful.
Cowan: And in a very direct sense, chopping up the vocals was something that was made necessary by the fact that we didn’t record this thing together, we didn’t write it together, we were separated and so one of the ways to actually move forward with the album was to be like “Well, in order to make this song happen, I need to take that vocal take, and put it on top of these chords, and in order to make it fit musically with rhythms and stuff, I need to chop it up.” So it was this thing that was necessitated in the first place by the things that ended up becoming the theme of the album itself.
KCSB: Speaking of the theme of the album: I can’t help, while listening to it, to think it’s kind of characterized by paradoxes in a lot of ways. I mean, Untogether, the name itself, is like a paradox. It’s interesting with your music, it’s like, you’re expressing these emotions, while at the same time — correct me if I’m wrong — suppressing them. Because you’re singing these lyrics, but it’s all cut up and reverbed out.
Standell–Preston: That’s true. Do you want to go for it? I don’t know exactly how to answer that one.
KCSB: I know it’s a really abstract question, I apologize.
Standell–Preston: No, it’s interesting.
Cowan: It’s more like a response than a question. There’s one thing that we’re really addressing when we’re talking about it in interviews, and that’s the way that both in its form the album is chopped up and never meant to be, like the songs were recorded and edited to a point where they eventually became songs, and called an album. And in that sense, it’s Untogether, because they were never meant to be and we brought them together. But also, socially, in our community we felt like things were breaking apart and coming back together in different ways, and like, not to get in to that right now, but that was going on, and then in our relationship, there were certain things that were breaking apart and coming together, also not to get into that really, but there were all of these things piling on top of each other that were paradoxes but also connected through their form of being a paradox, or something like that. Which is really an abstract way of looking at life that you can extend to almost anything. This metaphor is really funny, and comes up a lot, and friends joke about it. It’s such a general thing in a sense, but it’s just what we were feeling at the time.
KCSB: Cool, thank you so much. Could you guys talk about the music scene in Montreal? A lot of my favorite artists are from Canada: there’s you guys, Purity Ring, Crystal Castles, Trust, various really good indie electronic groups.
Standell–Preston: I think of the community as like, Claire (Boucher), Grimes playing loft parties, and Magical Clouds.
Cowan: Everyone’s connected in a certain way, and that’s what makes it beautiful. That’s one nice thing about being here at SXSW, seeing all these different connections come together. Like Cecil from Born Gold. Just the ways that Grimes, and Purity Ring, and Arbutus (Records), and us are connected through like that guy, and Sean Nicholas Savage. And the Edmonton music scene, and the Canadian music scene, is just like a spiderweb of people, and each intersection is a different person or band. It’s all connected, it’s not limited to Montreal, but like, depending on focused in you wanted to get, you could talk about it.
Standell–Preston: Focusing on the Montreal music scene, it’s a very gifted group of people who all found each other all at once and challenged each other and live down the street from one another. It’s very interesting, very crazy that it fell in like that.
KCSB: Thank you. How did you guys end up opening for Purity Ring? Can you guys just talk about that upcoming tour (which I’m really excited for)?
Standell–Preston: Well, Corin is a very good friend of mine. Oh, what is this? I thought it was a firework.
KCSB: It’s a motorcycle.
Standell–Preston: But yeah, Corin, good friend. He was in Gobble Gobble.
KCSB: He does the synths for Purity Ring, just for our listeners’ sake. Corin Roddick.
Standell–Preston: I go way back with Corin, and went on tour with him in BRAIDS and have known him for four years. He’s helped a lot of people, and is now taking us on tour, which is absolutely amazing.
Cowan: Yeah, we’re going to have a good time.
KCSB: So it was set up through your friendship with him, right?
Cowan: Like he texted Raph one day and was like, “You wanna come on tour?” I didn’t even know it was happening until the next day, when she was like, “We’re going to go on this month-long tour with Purity Ring.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s great.” I was really excited. But of course, I get along with them really well too and everything.
Standell–Preston: They’re both really, really nice people.
KCSB: I personally have been waiting to see Purity Ring for a long time, I haven’t seen them for months and months, and was desperately checking their website and then when I saw you were supporting, I was like, “That is the greatest setup. That is such a good lineup.”
Standell–Preston: I think it’s really fitting.
KCSB: I think especially your new album, fans of Purity Ring, if they haven’t heard of you guys, will be like “Wow, this is really awesome.”
Standell–Preston: I hope so.
Cowan: It’s similar.
Standell–Preston: We’re very excited.
KCSB: I’m actually going to be at the LA show, and the SF show.
Cowan: Sweet! Come say hi to us.
KCSB: I will. Okay, I think I just have one more question. This is kind of a really specific question. Can you talk about the song titles, “Lammicken” from BRAIDS, and “Flammarion” from Blue Hawaii?
Standell–Preston: “Flammarion” is an interesting one.
Cowan: The only reason that came to be was that we had this working title, “Plane My,” because the way we cut up the vocals made it sound like she was saying “plane my.” And it became “Flammarion,” because that’s a really interesting concept. It was a painting from the thirteenth century, or something like that. It’s an image on a woodcut, and it’s like this man and he’s like reaching through this barrier into the celestial heavens, but he’s crawling at the same time, so it’s kind of like the human mind and soul and psyche breaking through a barrier to like, see the infinite, or whatever, which is something that we’re constantly trying to see. So it’s like this weird struggle where half his body is breaking through to the celestial world, and that was a cool concept to go for.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, we just liked that.
Cowan: We could talk a long time about how the songs could relate to that, but actually that’s just a nice woodcut and I think you should check it out.
KCSB: Oh, I for sure will now. That’s a really, like esoteric but awesome reference that I wouldn’t have got if I didn’t ask you.
Standell–Preston: And then “Lammicken” is from a novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. The word “Lammicken” in old English means “weakness of a lamb.” And the lyrics are “I can’t stop it,” over and over again, so it’s like feeling as weak as a little lamb.
Cowan: That song is one of my favorite of all time.
KCSB: Yeah, that’s my very favorite BRAIDS song. I’m like, really, really in love with it.
Standell–Preston: Thank you, that’s great.
KCSB: If you could ever play that live, that would be great.
Cowan: You guys probably could play it live.
KCSB: Do it! Okay I think that’s all I have for you guys.
Cowan: We should peace out anyway.
Standell–Preston: Yeah, we have to go make sure the band’s all good.
KCSB: All right this has been Blue Hawaii, KCSB interviewing in Austin, Texas, at SXSW, Pi Day, March 14th, 2013.
Standell–Preston: Is it Pi Day? Oh, it is!
KCSB: Thanks again guys.
Standell–Preston: You’re very welcome.
Cowan: Thank you.
Untogether was released on March 5th on Arbutus Records. The duo’s first full-length LP blends a refreshing mixture of house, ambient, chop-and-screw alongside Standell-Preston’s delicate, angelic vocals.