INTERVIEW: Q&A with Montreal’s Blue Hawaii

Y'know, I struggled for a while trying to find the perfect way to describe Blue Hawaii. It was going to be perfect; a transcendent revelation on one of my new favorite bands, featuring one of the members of another of my favorite groups, Braids. I poked my head around curtains and through doors of obvious descriptions. There were going to be subtle tweaks of wordplay that would alter the flow and content of the piece in ways invisible to the eye yet inseparable from the comprehension. After all that, I found that I couldn't do any better than the short piece on the Arbutus Records website. Sometimes perfection is right in front of you. Enjoy that, a fully expository interview, and a new song and video below!

"Blue Hawaii tells the story of a lush paradise. The way begins ambient and uncertain, but beautiful white shell beaches and carefree sunshine parties await and nourish those travelers with love in their hearts; their peace thus raised above the arguments found along the rocky road. The duo consists of Raph and Agor; they use voice, guitars, synths, drum machines, and other electronics to create a kind of tropical-pop with love ache melodies and experimental club rhythms."

There hasn’t been much press surrounding Blue Hawaii and your new album Blooming Summer. Who is Blue Hawaii?

Raph: Blue Hawaii is Alexander Cowan and myself. It’s a project that we started when we first met each other. We’ve been dating for the last while, so it’s kind of been, I don’t know, I don’t how I feel about saying it’s like a “love project,” but it kind of is, I guess.

It could be a project of love.

R: Yeah, I think so. The album that we just created is all love songs and revelations I’ve come to with being committed and being good to somebody and respectful of them. It’s a project of love.

Speaking of the album, it was recently released on Arbutus Records, though there’s been very little press behind it. Is that indicative of how quickly it came together or did you decide to embrace the anonymity of the project?

R: We just wanted to release something. Alex definitely had a real urge to finally release something because he was the type of musician who just did it in his bedroom while he was going to university. He had hundreds and hundreds of tracks on his laptop of him just strumming around and some of it was pretty good. He just really, really pushed for us to finish it. At time I didn’t want to finish it, I didn’t really have to do it. I was trying to balance Braids’ album, but he really pushed forth and I’m happy that it happened the way it did. We weren’t really expecting anything to come of it, but now that we have this piece of art in front of us we’re very proud of it. Now we feel the urge to really support it and get it out there. We didn’t know what Blue Hawaii was going to be it was just us jamming around, and now people like it. It’s fun.

I’m not familiar with the timeline of the project’s development. Did it progress fluidly?

R: From the time that we met, we met in January of 2008, we both just started jamming together. He was in the Lab Synthese art studios. He ran it with Sebastian. We started jamming out and doing a lot of improv.. We did a set together and then I left for Calgary for two and a half months. When I came back we wanted to make it more structured and it just went down the drain. We were making such shitty music for like three months or maybe four or five months. We were trying to make it structured. We were writing music on a laptop and it wasn’t going anywhere.

Then we went to Guatemala and we became really close friends and got to know each other really well. When we got back we started fully recording the album. It’s a work that’s been in progress for quite a long time.

The sound you’re producing is quite distinct from your other projects. Was it a decision to move away from that or was it just a natural influence?

R: It was just a natural influence. Every project that I do really takes on its own sound. Except for a few of the tracks my voice doesn’t sound like it does for Braids. It’s such a different art form in itself that I become a part of the music. This one was very romantic and wispy, whereas Braids is very urgent and angsty. It was a different part of me, just like Indiensoci is. Indiensoci is very feminine and ethereal.

From the name of the group, Blue Hawaii, to the veneer of the sound you’re playing to some of the imagery you’ve adopted, it seems like there’s a very specific aesthetic that you’re going for. Do you have a description for what it could be?

R: We spent a lot of time in Belize when we were traveling. We were traveling for about 2 months and it became about seeing as many oceans as possible and going swimming in as many places as we could. I think that really influenced our music, that feeling of happiness that we got by being by water and hot, warm climates and people bustling around and everyone being excited. When we came back we wanted to have something that felt like that, because our trip was so amazing. We wanted the record to feel really tropical and really lush and watery and stringy. I think that’s kind of where the sound came from.

The name Blue Hawaii came from our friend Trevor. I remember we were sitting around a table and we were playing with some band from New York. We were sitting at the kitchen table at Lab Synthese and we were like, “What should we be called?” Some one suggested the name Black Indian, which would be so bad,

That would be the trendiest name possible.

R: Yeah, exactly, We were like, no, we can’t be called Black Indian. Then we thought of Black India and I was like, “No, I can’t have a ‘Black’ name, I don’t make ‘Black’ music.” Then our friend Trevor suggested the name Blue Hawaii. The album is called Blooming Summer, but we thought maybe we could make another pop reference, like Primitive Vacation, which is an Aerosmith album, but we decided to dump it.

The sound on the album is really unique. What kind of hardware did you use to produce it?

R: We did a lot of it through Ableton. The whole thing was recorded on Ableton and then we brought it onto tape with Sebastian. Sebastian is an amazing producer. He went to school in London, the same school as Aphex Twin, which is pretty cool He graduated at the top of his class and he has a studio at La Brique now, where his studio has been moved to. He has a reel-to-reel, so we transferred everything to reel-to-reel and then we brought it back onto the mixing board. We did really drastic things with compression just to get a sound that’s really unique. A lot of people don’t go so overboard with compression. The sound of the songs are as though they’re breathing. Some of the songs sound like they’re really alive.

The live performances of Blue Hawaii feature stylistic elements that are absent from your other projects. Is that adoption part of achieving the blissful aesthetic?

R: For sure. Especially lately, coming into my twenties and performing for the last three years, I’ve become intrigued by the amount of control and freedom that you have as the performer. With Braids, if I were to put on face paint and stuff like that I would just stand out like a sore thumb, and that’s not really what Braids is. With Braids, everybody is just wearing jeans and get out of the van and play the show. Blue Hawaii is a bit more of an outlet for the urge in me to explore what it really is to be a performer and to have face paint and to bring all the artistic elements into the performance. I’m excited about it. I want to go even crazier if possible. I want to bring projections and jellybeans.

Jellybeans?

R: Yeah! I really love jellybeans. I love when you put jellybeans in water and the really beautiful way the color diffuses. Luckily, we got Taylor and Austin [of Braids] to wear blue eyeshadow for that Blue Hawaii performance. I’ve never, ever seen Taylor wear blue eyeshadow in all my life, so it was a real treat to see everyone done up in blue eyeshadow for the Blue Hawaii show. It’s been really fun. I want to definitely get some outfits in there at some point.

I recently saw the video some one made for you around the single “Dream Electrixra.”

R: Yeah! Rosie made that and it has jellybeans in it! When it’s a closeup and there are flowers. Rosie Aiello makes amazing sculptures and she takes pictures of it. What is that called?

There’s claymation and stop-motion photography.

R: Yeah, stop-motion. She did a time-lapse of jelly beans melting into the water. There’s an ice cube in there too and it cracks. That was for “Dream Elctrixra.” I tried as hard as I could to write something that stuck in my head for a really long time. Braids is catchy but it’s also difficult.

Blue Hawaii seems to me to be a fundamentally pop enterprise.

R: Yeah, we tried really hard. I really wanted to make a pop album. I really wanted to learn how to write love pop songs, and I tried.

It’s unique in its construction, but the sensibilities are definitely pop-oriented.

R: The songs have all been ripped apart like three times. For “Castles of Clouds,” you know, it’s a really slow song. When we first did it, it was a funk song. It’s the same with “Katie.” “Katie,” was a soul song. We just ripped everything apart three or four times. It’s hilarious listening to the stuff beforehand.

Do you still have the original masters?

R: Oh yeah. I made Katie and Austin listen to it and we were all laughing so hard. Braids has gone through many different stages as well. We have to the recordings to prove it. From our early songs like “M is for Matrioshka” and the Set Pieces EP. Blue Hawaii had to do it very quickly so that we could put an album out that was up to speed.

Obviously you’ll be on the road for the next few months with Braids, but what are the future plans for Blue Hawaii?

R: That’s kind of hard. We’re going to figure it out. I know that next year Braids is going to be touring an awful lot. Alex and I have gotten some interest from people in Europe. The Europeans love it. The equivalent of CBC in Sweden did an interview with Alex today. They’re digging it over there and we’ve definitely had some interest. Maybe we’ll tour over there, maybe go to Japan or something like that. We’ll make it work. It’s going to be a lot of on-the-road for me next year but I’m looking forward to it. I want to see places.

Are you an Elvis fan? Blue Hawaii was the title of one of his greatest films, and one that would suit the aesthetic you’re going for.

R: You know, my mom is, and she would always sing him in the kitchen. I’ve seen clips from the film. I don’t know how everything came together, with Blue Hawaii sounding like Blue Hawaii, but it’s nice when things come together like that.

Blue Hawaii - Floral by Arbutus Records