“It seems to me that we have a marketing problem,” says Zach Phillips. “We’re very hard to identify with.”
Phillips, speaking by phone from his home in Brattleboro, Vt., is a founding member and keyboardist of the experimental pop band Blanche Blanche Blanche. I’ve just asked him, rather reluctantly, how he would describe his band’s music. Usually, that question is music-scribe sacrilege — a music writer who can’t describe music is in the wrong line of work. But in the case of Blanche Blanche Blanche, I’m not alone in my puzzlement. As reviewers from online publications such as Stereogum, BrooklynVegan, Pitchfork and others have discovered, the band can often leave even capable writers at a loss for words. Or at least in a frantic search to find the right ones.
That search will begin anew this week when the band releases its latest LP, Wooden Ball, on Burlington-based cassette label NNA Tapes. On its heels comes a string of release shows, including one on Friday, March 15, at the BCA Center in Burlington with locals Ryan Power, Son of Salami and Toy Boat. Much like BBB’s six previous albums, the record features a hoary collection of deconstructed pop, manic songs that twist, turn and twist again amid a disorienting maelstrom of alien synth and fractured vocals. This is music that aggressively gnaws at the boundaries of modern musical convention. Even the band’s moniker, Blanche Blanche Blanche, suggests a sort of panicked insistence. In short, it is bewildering stuff.
So how does Phillips describe BBB’s music?
“Non-idiomatic songwriting, which means actively avoiding an idiom,” he offers. “And the accidental idiom I think we’ve been hitting on is what I like to call ‘open-session rock’ … You do the work now, and you figure out what it means to you later on.”
Phillips explains that a central tenet of BBB’s artistic philosophy is not to ascribe any deeper meaning to their work during its creation. Instead, he and cofounder Sarah Smith prefer to let their music exist as a free-flowing and freewheeling extension of themselves, which is to say, unpredictable.
“We’re both pretty manic people,” says Smith, speaking by phone from her home in New York City. “And I think that comes out in our music.”
“The way that we work, we really don’t try to conceptualize the significance of what we’re trying to do up front,” says Phillips. “It’s more about placing our trust in the act of working.”
The idea that there is no conscious idea has left audiences and critics alike scratching their heads in an attempt to interpret some greater message or meaning in BBB’s music. It has also inspired some interesting, and sometimes dubious, speculation, from off-the-mark comparisons to other artists — Ariel Pink, for one — to White Stripes-like musings on the nature of the duo’s relationship.
(For the record, Phillips and Smith are childhood friends who grew up as outcasts in Hanover, N.H. “We were big freaks,” says Smith. And yes, they did date for several years but are no longer a couple.)
For her part, Smith says that at least some of the material on Wooden Ball is a reaction to the national attention the band received last year for its 2012 record, Wink With Both Eyes. On “Family of One,” for example, serrated blades of synth carve up a plodding bass line, fending off a blunder of drums that seem to crash in a heap just at the brink of gaining rhythmic momentum. Picture the frustrated movement of a malfunctioning Roomba vacuum and you’ll get the idea.
Over this collapsing cacophony, Smith sings in apathetic deadpan, “Music’s even worse when it’s not great.”
There is a wry sense of humor in BBB’s writing, coupled with a keen self-awareness of the band’s own strangeness. While Smith describes their collaborative lyric-writing style as something resembling stream of consciousness, both say their approach to musical composition is anything but off the cuff.
Phillips says that BBB’s songs typically begin life as far more conventional tunes might: hammered out on piano.
“If it’s a song that seems to have conspicuous chordal content, it was written on a piano,” he says. From there, he describes a process of meticulous deconstruction.
“We might think something is beautiful, and then kind of want to fuck with that,” he continues.
One of the signature ways in which BBB do just that is to use bass guitar in an almost adversarial relationship to Miller’s vocals, resulting in a queer sort of counterpoint.
“That’s a fundamental idea that structures the songs, the action of the bass against vocal melodies, explains Phillips. “The melody is doing something pretty, so we’ll disorganize it with the bass.”
As outlandish as their material often sounds, BBB use virtually no extraneous effects. There are no computer sequencers, effects, tape loops or any other hallmarks typical of modern experimental pop.
“It’s one synthesizer and occasionally a piano,” says Phillips, who plays a Yamaha XY77, of BBB’s core sonic aesthetic.
“A lot of the music that we both find compelling seems to have at its core a love of knowledge and activity,” says Phillips. “But there is also a sense of refusing to alight for very long on something and assign it any significance.”
That sense of intellectual and emotional ADD is readily apparent on Wooden Ball. Rarely does the band linger on any theme, musically or lyrically, for more than a few seconds. And you would be hard-pressed to divine anything resembling a traditional hook or chorus in most of the 16 songs that make up the under-30-minute record. Just as quickly as Blanche Blanche Blanche touch on an idea, they move on to the next one. That’s true on a macro level as well.
The band has already finished recording a follow-up to Wooden Ball, due out on Brooklyn’s Wharf Cat Records later this year. Featuring the band’s current six-member lineup, the album will be the band’s seventh in roughly 18 months.
“We’re both pretty crazy,” says Smith of their prolificacy. “We have a tendency to make something and then immediately move on, endlessly trying to avoid cycles so we can move on to the next idea.” And then the next one. And the next…
Blanche Blanche Blanche, Ryan Power, Son of Salami and Toy Boat perform at the BCA Center in Burlington this Friday, March 15, 9 p.m. $8. Wooden Ball is available at nnatapes.com.
The print version of this article was headlined "Standard Deviation".