Those smarty pantses at iTunes have decided to make "True Affection" from the Blow's new album their free download of the week. Right on, bros, that joint is some deep heartsting! We included Paper Television banger "Pardon Me" on our podcast weeks ago. Actually, we've been blowing up the Blow for a while and we're going to keep the magic flowing by offering FADER blog readers something else free: the entire article on Ms Maricich and Mr Bechtolt (NY Times step your gender fact checking game up) that appears in F41, on stands now.
The Blow’s R&B confessionals bring indie back from the fringe
By Eric Ducker
“The Big U” is the Blow’s Timbaland song. Jona Bechtolt’s beat begins with four stuttering, echoed bass thumps and then DEEEEEEWWWWWOOOOOOOOOO, the fifth one unexpectedly drops down a well. As the thump returns, steadily climbing its way back to Earth’s surface, it’s joined by finger snaps and what can only be described as the sound of a robotic cockroach scuttling across the top of the track. Then singer Khaela Maricich’s voice comes in at the 0:06 mark. She is calm yet concerned: I must admit, I’ve been a little bit afraid of your relationship with… and as you prepare for her to say “your ex-boo,” “your new roommate,” “the nude model in your life drawing class” or just about anyone else, Maricich flips the script and says…the universe.
The Blow’s new album Paper Television is a dance record constructed with an indie sensibility, breaking from DIY tradition and finding new possibilities within it. Bechtolt’s creations—which he says are recorded on “consumer-level computers, pirated audio software, cheap or broken instruments, and a $70 microphone”—take their inspiration from the radio songs played on your city’s “party station.” Among the styles referenced on Paper Television are dancehall, drumline sampling hip-hop and R&B confrontation jams. Though the real difference from their source material is that Bechtolt’s squiggly, quirky beats are married to Maricich’s introspective and skewed lyrics. She sings songs from the perspective of an animal being digested and about how “all of the babies they can feel the world, that’s why they cry.” They aren’t about who she might be taking home tonight (and how she’ll do it), instead they’re about trying to deal with an overwhelming world.
The effect is disarming, sounding huge and incredibly personal at the same time—music more deservingly classified as intimate club than the Ying Yang Twins’ raunchy whispers. It’s an unforced combination that comes from an honest, uncomfortable place. “In a bar where you’re listening to club music, everyone is having these amazing adventures in absolute humiliation,” says Maricich. “All the songs are like, ‘We’re in the club, we’re all getting down,’ but at the same time there are people thinking, ‘I’m going to die’ or ‘I wish I had to courage to do this.’”
Maricich and Bechtolt are accustomed to playing the role of vibe guides for visitors to Portland. Maricich has an extra, thick-framed cruiser bike stashed in her apartment for such occasions. As they travel around the city looking for an acceptable place for lunch that isn’t closed (ending up at Veganopolis downtown) and dropping by the homes of friends (where bedrooms often feature thrift store animal art and the smell of BO), Maricich keeps noticing the Subaru Outbacks that take up the city’s parking spots. She is in the market for a car she can tour in, her main prerequisites being that it get good gas mileage and that it not have an automatic transmission. She says she doesn’t want to be able to zone out while she’s driving.
It is often difficult to predict Maricich’s way of reasoning. When asked why she cut her hair short, she explains, “There’s a different way people treat you when you have long hair and after I turned 30 I wasn’t sure I still wanted that privilege.”
As the day wanders into the late afternoon, Maricich and Bechtolt scooch into a booth at the Alibi, a tiki-themed bar, and start to tell the tale of the Blow. They say their story won’t knock you on your keister, but it’s filled with details that illustrate their particular perspective. So as Maricich drinks her piña colada and Bechtolt sips something called a Scurvy Sailor, they start with the so-called boring stuff.
Maricich grew up in Seattle attending Catholic school prison during the height of alternative culture, but she wasn’t that concerned with music. “I was surprisingly clueless,” she says of the time. It wasn’t until she went to Evergreen College in Olympia during the mid-’90s that she focused her creative talents, writing songs and falling in with the crew of local stalwart K Records. Word started getting around this community about a teenager in the coastal town of Astoria on the Oregon/Washington border who put on shows in a space above his parents’ gas station. That teenager was Bechtolt. When Bechtolt was 13 he dropped out of school for forever and went to live with his oldest brother in Portland so he could play drums in their two-piece boy-punk band Allegro. “Deep novelty,” is how Bechtolt now describes the group. After quitting Allegro, Bechtolt moved back to Astoria with parents, right when the first iMac came out, which got him interested in computers. When he was 18 he returned to Portland on his own, playing in indie bands Wolf Colonel and Bader King, as well as creating his own laptop electronic music as YACHT. Maricich had started working on a combination of performance art and music under the name Get the Hell out of the Way of the Volcano and then as the Blow. The two met, heard each other’s music, saw each other play, dug what the other was doing, bro-ed out a little, whatever.
The decision to collaborate didn’t come until the summer of 2003. During the warm season in the Pacific Northwest, when the rain clouds finally decide to take a breather and let folks go outdoors for a change, there are a series of fests—daylong showcases of local, underground music. Since 2002 the What the Heck Fest has been put on in Anacortes, Washington by Bret Lunsford—Maricich’s cousin and a founding member of Beat Happening. “It’s in the town where my dad grew up and where my grandparents immigrated to from Yugoslavia, so it’s a big place for me personally,” says Maricich. The island town also has five pristine lakes to swim in. “It’s deep magic,” adds Bechtolt. During one swimming session at the 2003 festival, Maricich was on one side of a lake with Steve Schroeder, who runs Portland’s States Rights Records, and as the two talked about her doing a limited-edition release for the label, Maricich called out to Bechtolt, who was on a rock across the water to see if he wanted to put it together with her. He responded with an immediate and nonchalant OK. “But I had to yell it,” he says.
The result of this collaboration was the Poor Aim: Love Songs EP, a brief set of lost heart longings that used R&B as a plea for personal connection. The one thousand copies that were pressed up sold out quickly, but Poor Aim found a larger audience through a global network of CD burns and digital files. After Bechtolt performed with Maricich for the Northwest Music Festival in 2004 they decided to officially make the Blow a two person project.
The duo toured together and wrote new songs so they’d had have more than 17 minutes of material. After a hiatus when Bechtolt was on the road for six months—playing as both YACHT and the drummer in Devendra Banhart’s band—the two began working on Paper Television. Maricich had moved to Portland from Olympia, looking to engage with the mainstream using what she learned on the fringe. “The thing I think the most about is our defenses and what we are most scared of,” say Maricich. “There’s all kinds of fear in the DIY scene, but there’s a little bit less fear of being a spaz. I think that if you can risk being a spaz, then you can take these risks with your ideas about how people are and you can take performance risks and you can just take risks philosophically.”
The Blow’s song-writing process begins with Maricich, who comes up with the lyrics and creates a melody that Bechtolt creates the music around. Bechtolt says he usually lets the sounds blipping in his subconscious dictate the direction, but sometimes the match is thought out. Speaking about the Blow’s breakup jammy “True Affection”—a bummed out cousin of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy”— Bechtolt says, “I heard the words and I was like, Why isn’t there any sad snap music?”
Twenty five-year-old Bechtolt is the musical omnivore of the group. Maricich’s consumption is significantly smaller in both scope and size. Though having no stereo and a janked up internet situation contributes to her lack of intake, Maricich’s relationship with music is not that different from when she was growing up. As a kid, if she found a cassette copy of Laurie Anderson’s Big Science or her parents’ Simon & Garfunkel records, she would listen to them obsessively. “It’s like living on an island,” says Maricich. “If something washes up on it, I’ll be really invested in it and excited about it, but it’s rare that I hear new things.” Nowadays she mainly listens to classic rock radio, which Portland has an astonishingly large amount of.
Both Maricich and Bechtolt say that the making of Paper Television was not easy. “There were times where we’d be like, If this part stays in the song, I’m quitting the band,” Bechtolt explains. “We both said that to each other multiple times, and it always would stay in and we wouldn’t quit.” The relative success of Poor Aim created expectations that didn’t exist before and when they made the EP they didn’t know each other well. Now being both friends and bandmates, a more complicated relationship evolved. “We developed good and bad patterns working with each other,” says Bechtolt. When Maricich tours in support of Paper Television, she will do it alone. Bechtolt is going to concentrate on his work as YACHT, so his live role in the Blow as the hypeman will be through video projection only. Maricich also says that after making one EP and one album of pop music, she may be ready to try something different.
Despite these difficulties, Maricich understands the opportunities their partnership allows. “I knew because of Jona it was going to sound clean enough that people would really be able to listen to it,” she says. “When I’ve done production by myself it’s had a more rustic charm, open to a smaller slice of the population who can deal with lo-fi sounds. So I was like, here’s my chance to say something about the world, what’s it like to exist and how terrifying this place is.”