When Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino comes to San Francisco this week, she has one movie at the forefront of her mind. Hint: It’s not Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu’s I Was Born, But…!, the 1932 silent comedy about economic inequality that the alternative-rock trio, which she fronts, is set to live score at the Castro Theatre, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, on Wednesday, April 11.
The Japanese native, who formed Blonde Redhead with Italian twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace in New York in the mid-1990s before rocketing to indie fame with 1998’s highly experimental In an Expression of the Inexpressible, says she just can’t help but think of 1971’s gritty crime thriller Dirty Harry.
“From the first time I went to San Francisco, a long time ago to even now, I get excited because I feel like I’m in Dirty Harry,” Makino tells SF Weekly. “A lot of Dirty Harry was shot there. Somehow San Francisco still seems horrendously dangerous, even with a booming economy, and that kind of tension really reminds me of Dirty Harry. So every time I go there, I think about that, and get half scared and half excited as well, because it’s so groovy, too and has always been a groovy place. That’s the vibe I get.”
Makino also opened up about the wildest thing she’s ever witnessed in San Francisco, seeing music in color, and how she overcame her infamous 2002 horse-trampling accident.
You’re no stranger to film scoring. You sang on the 2006 horror remake of Sisters, and, with Blonde Redhead, scored the 2008 documentary The Dungeon Masters. How did this opportunity to live score I Was Born, But…! come about?
They picked it for us, and we said, “Yes.” My bandmates have been doing more live shows to visual films, so they got a little bit of practice, and then recently we played to Jim Jarmusch’s film Permanent Vacation. We enjoyed it so much. Then right after that, this offer came, and because of that experience being so positive, I said: “Yeah, I’d like to try it.” Then when they mentioned Ozu, how can we say, “No”?
How will this performance be different than what most people expect from your band?
It’s actually quite new to me. As a band, we haven’t done much of this. So this is a silent film with silly jazz music from that time, so I think we’re just going to replace it with our music and see what happens. But it’s also very comical, so I need to figure that out because our music tends to be a little bit darker. I don’t know if there’s a space to be comical, and if so, we’ll capitalize on that. So we’ll just do what we do but maybe modify it.
When did you first become aware of this movie?
Yesterday. [laughs] I’ve seen it a little bit because I’m from Japan, and all these movies are somehow familiar. When I saw the twin kids in the movie, I was like, “Oh yeah.”
How do you feel about returning to San Francisco for this performance?
I find the city quite outrageous — the way that New York people say New York used to be. There are still a lot of people on the street, and then other kinds of people that seem out of comprehension, rich and booming at the same time, and all kind of mingled together.
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve seen here?
In broad daylight, I witnessed a car break-in right in front of my eyes, in front of the hotel, when I was there the last time. A sporty-looking athletic man just pulled up next to a parked car, and with his plain hand, just made a fist, broke the window, and took out this pretty big Louis Vuitton bag. He clearly already knew it was there because he didn’t look around. We were all like not exactly appalled, because he was just so slick. We were actually quite impressed. He didn’t look poor, either, so that was kind of wild.
One of my bandmates, Amedeo, tried to chase the man, but he drove off so fast. Then people told us, “You can’t leave anything in the car here.” It made New York look like a far safer place.
Like the picture you just painted, your music always seems so cinematic. Do you have moving pictures in your mind when you’re composing songs?
Yes, I am super visually oriented. Like, everything translates to a visual, so sometimes I even see some sounds or notes as a color, and I start referring to “that green thing.” But there’s no green; it’s just the sound.
Also, before I write lyrics or melodies, I start to see stories. Like this is about a person who’s defeated or who can’t just get it right, or this is about a person, who’s really furious. I see it as a vision, so I just follow that story and that makes it a lot easier to write lyrics.
Do you have synesthesia, where when one of your senses is activated, another unrelated sense is triggered?
I don’t see color for everything, just certain things. It can drive you quite crazy, too. If you’re making a record or mixing, it can be like, “Wow.” But it does happen to me.
As a woman working with two brothers, was it ever a challenge to have your voice heard?
Yes and no. They have a lot of respect for me, and I’ve been pretty influential one way or the other. But I think what happened is I had some inferiority complex no matter how hard I worked because they’d been trained, they’d been to music school, which I’d never done. But that’s mostly my own dilemma.
But being around twins is actually complicated. It’s weird because most problems that happen aren’t between them and me but between them, so I’m mostly the witness of their struggle and conflict. To watch them fight is actually quite painful, because, in some ways, it looks like they’re beating themselves up. I wish I could just step away and let them sort it out. The last thing you want to do is take sides with them, because that’s the kiss of death, because they’ll always make up, and then you’ll be the one who’s wrong.
Will there be a new Blonde Redhead album?
The twins wrote three or four songs from one idea. It’s so cool because it could have been just one song, but Amedeo saw it as three variations. So now we have this EP coming out that is almost like a whole catalog of songs from one idea, which also includes two remixes from different people.
And recently you’ve been working on your first solo album?
I got my rocks off because I’ve been working on my solo album and just finished it like yesterday. It was a lot of work to be responsible for everything that goes into the album, and I didn’t expect it to be this fun, but it was. But now I need to decide which label to put it out on. I can’t wait to hear the comments from good to bad.
Two things you get associated with a lot are stage fright and the horrifying horse trampling you endured. Do you feel like you’ve overcome these experiences?
Well, the stagefright thing, I don’t know how that story happened. Of course, sometimes I’m shy, but it’s not stage fright. It’s I’m shy, so I feel like I should be the last person to be performing onstage in front of other people. That I feel, because I just don’t have that in me. I’m not really entertaining. I’m quite introverted and think I’m more nerdy than entertaining or extroverted. But once I’m onstage, I’m quite comfortable being up there. But I don’t talk a lot or show off for the sake of showing off. That’s not in my nature.
The horse thing, it was a traumatic accident, but my passion for horses was so powerful that it was just one of those things, where falling is just part of the game. Mine was a freak accident, so I got really banged up. I’m still paying the consequence. My hips still hurt and I have certain problems with my jaw.
But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from riding or my music. I took three months off and I was back on a horse. But I became more cautious and only rode horses I really loved. That taught me a lesson. It’s like people. There are horses you’re just not going to get along with — and those I’ve avoided after that. I don’t ride a lot today because I’m focusing on my music, but I still watch other people ride and horse videos, so the passion is never going to go away.
Blonde Redhead with I Was Born, But…, Wednesday, April 11, 8 p.m., at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., $25; www.sffilm.org