Blouse's Charlie Hilton: Making people feel something is the only success that matters
Photo by Tonje Thielsen
In 2011, Portland trio Blouse entered consciousness on the subtle wake of a daydream with their hazy and textured self-titled debut. Their momentum built as ad-nauseum '80s dream pop associations coincided with an aptly-timed spike in nostalgia. Now, having deconstructed to a more guitar-driven sound on their sophomore release Imperium, the general consensus of web-critic blather is mixed. Skeptics seem to think they've strayed too far from their "place."
But to anyone who has paid any real attention to Blouse from the beginning, they've always been a lot more than the sum of their comparisons. And "Imperium" is a testament to the band's diversity and strength in a more structured arena. Ahead of their Tuesday show with Dum Dum Girls at the Triple Rock, Gimme Noise talked shop, and even a little academia with charming frontwoman Charlie Hilton.
Interview: Dum Dum Girls
Gimme Noise: How are you feeling now that Imperium is out and has been on the road for a bit now?
Charlie Hilton: I really enjoy being on the road and meeting so many people. It really rejuvenates me to play in person and have all of these interactions, playing for actual people. I really find the meaning of playing music through those interactions. You can get a chance to see physically what's happening around you instead of just on blogs and reviews and stuff online.
How was your experience in Austin?
My personality really doesn't match the size and energy of SXSW. That said, we didn't play that many shows and so we really had a chance to see other bands and I'm so glad I got to see a few of the bands that I saw. It's just kind of fascinating just hanging out and seeing the spectacle.
What performances left an impression?
Oh my god this band called Bo Ningen, they are Japanaese and they played this showcase and it just blew me away both visually and sonically. It was incredible. They were really beautiful. I also saw this band called Cosmonauts that I had never heard of. It's just so cool to see music that you didn't even know about. I'm not really in the loop that much lately so it was nice to feel like I was discovering things on my own.
I read an article that hinted that the first album didn't really feel like yourself but that you're very pleased with Imperium. Is there any credence to that notion?
In the beginning, we were just listening to a lot of post-punk and guitar-heavy music. We didn't have a clear vision of what we wanted to do but just started working on stuff. We didn't anticipate the record going the way it did but it just happened pretty naturally. We ended up being given some equipment and started using it and we started using this old Alesis drum machine we had laying around and it naturally transformed into this dark, electronic record. And I think that the songs wanted to be that way. We were very happy with the way it turned out. I definitely think that it was true to what we kinda wanted to do and then for Imperium we wanted to try something fresh. It seemed like an important thing to do for a second record. It didn't seem like that big of a deal to change the formula slightly but it's been surprising to me how strongly people reacted. It's very hot and cold. I guess it is different but that's what I like about it.
If the polarity to Imperium doesn't bother you, then what's the most important measure of success for you?
Oh man. That's a tough thing for me to measure. It's probably going to sound really cheesy, but this is a tough industry to break and I feel really lucky that we've come as far as we have. I've been playing music since I was like 12. So I think what matters to me most is just going back to those interactions with people and just physically seeing that you are meaning something to other people and that they're listening to the record. I've met people who come up to me just, like, crying. Moments like that have been so meaningful to me and if that's not success I don't know what is. It's the most moving things, you know? I don't think any type of money or recognition by critics or anything would ever mean as much to me, that stuff doesn't last very long. It's easy to get addicted to that, and I'm sure for some people it's never enough. But, to really appreciate knowing that your music is in the world and it means something to people and maybe makes them feel something. That's the only success that matters.
There are admittedly a lot of changes on this record. Were they all calculated? Where was your head when you wrote it?
It changed a lot throughout the process because we took our time, especially with Jake's Unknown Mortal Orchestra touring schedule. We'd get into the studio, work on some songs and then take some time to reflect and go back. I think that's a really good thing to have when you're working on something because you get to think about it a little longer. For a good period of the time I was feeling pretty down. I went through a little bit of a depression and I was going out to this cabin every weekend and spending time in the mountains. I wrote a good portion of the songs out there. I was feeling bummed inside, just in this really natural way, it wasn't anything specific.
It's just life experiences and it gets really confusing sometimes, you know? I think it would be a mistake not to have dark periods sometimes. Some of the songs came out of that and then some of them came from a really playful, lighthearted place. We actually took all of the gear to the cabin and played songs up there and messed around. It really changed a lot. There wasn't any one mood or anything. I was also studying a little bit of art history classes at the local university and that really influenced things, like the title track. That's what the title track is about; it's about imperialism and takeover, specifically the Spanish Empire taking over Mexico. That really affected me I was obsessing over that idea and reacted to it.
I'm with you on that one. Tangible imprints are the most interesting historical context.
Yeah when you get to study history through art history there's just this level of poetry to it because you're seeing it through works of art. If I could just study art history for the rest of my life I'd be very happy because there's something about it that I just love so much. I could literally talk about it for hours.
I read your reflection/translation experiment that you wrote for Impose where you translated "Trust Me" from English to French to German and then back to English. I thought it was really interesting. Can you reiterate that experience a bit? How did you choose what song to use? What did you discover?
You know, it was really hard to choose a song. For the first time I was really thinking about language heavily in terms of translation and how it's kind of magical that it's even possible to translate a poem or something so specifically like, when the sentiments behind words are different everywhere... I don't really know how to put it into words.
Some words don't even exist in other languages.
Yeah, there is just such a nuance there and so I started to really appreciate the fact that we can do that and it's an art form. It's just this beautiful thing that I had overlooked for so long. I was starting to get fascinated with putting my songs through this filter of language, into a different language to see what would happen. Once I started taking a look at my lyrics I decided to choose a love song because I thought it would be... I don't know. I thought that somehow some sort of magic would be pulled out of it and revealed to me in this other language. And it just didn't really work out that way. I think that love is too broad and it wasn't really a valid experiment because it was very simple. I feel like you'd have to translate and look at each language each time it was translated and decipher that, not just bring it back to English without seeing the other ones.
You guys initially came together and dove right into playing and recording music and deciding you'd get signed with Captured Tracks and then did? What sealed the deal that your band mates were the right people to be doing it with?
Well I met Patrick at school and we first and foremost became friends. We had really similar taste in music and I think that's an important thing. He was a good bass player and I liked hanging out with him and his friend Jake who ended up coming around to record with us right away. It worked well. I liked the way Jake worked because he wanted to set up a bunch of instruments and mic them without really having a plan. Then we'd wander around and try a bunch of things and not be too methodical. Every time we sat down to track something it was like "let's try 20 takes without even knowing what we're gonna do on this keyboard." That seemed very exciting to me and I felt like his production was really interesting and distinct.
Was there a conscious shared appreciation of '80s dream pop or is that just the narrative that people assume?
We like a lot of older music but I think the sound or whatever happened pretty organically. I think that people just want to put a label on something, the stuff that we do. I don't mind it, it's fine but we were never like "let's make a dream-pop record that sounds old." We just made our own music.
What do you hope to accomplish this year aside from touring?
There's a side project that I've been working on. I've been talking about doing a solo record for a couple of years and I've had it on hold so I'd like to go home and finish that and then work on the next Blouse material. I think we wanna just keep on doing stuff but it's nice to finally be at a point where we haven't promised anyone anything for any given time. I'm really enjoying that space. We can go home and work without pressure.
Blouse. With Dum Dum Girls. 18+, $15, 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 1 at Triple Rock.
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