By Adrienne Yeung
Blue Hawaii are Alex “Agor” Cowan and Raphelle Standell-Preston, who live in Montreal and play electronic music. If their sound can be described as dream pop, then their first full length album Untogether is a dream neither nightmare nor sweet, but introspective and amorphous. It’s a dream lit by strobe light, where people from your past flicker in and out of the narrative of your subconscious. Untogether sounds like the kind of dream which you wake up from, lie still, and think about.
Instrumentalist Agor and vocalist Raph wrote Untogether in physically separate spaces – and the sound of many songs are likewise disjointed, drifting, pensive, and fragile. Stylus was curious about Blue Hawaii’s songwriting process, so on a spring day in Winnipeg, drinking coffee and wearing three sweaters, we called Agor (who at the time was in San Francisco record store “Amoeba” watching label-mate Doldrums play an in-store show) to chat.
Stylus: Can you tell me about the aesthetic of the album art? How do you think it fits with the sound of the album?
Agor Cowan: We were originally going to have this image of people in an Australian swimming race. But then we realised we wanted to do something we had thought about a bit more. And we decided on this image of both of us hugging, reaching out, but then kind of falling through each other, rather than actually landing on each other.
We had been composing this thing separately, taking turns night by night and [we] would cut it up and move it around. In any moment it could have just not worked out. At the same time, in Montreal, people we knew were moving in and out a lot. And between us, we were kind of drifting apart. So it felt really appropriate that once we did finish this album, it would have this constant feeling that it’s so delicate, it might not even exist. A lot of the songs are really light, and there’s this image of “we’re there, and we do see each other, but there’s this disconnect” that you can hear through the music. It is complete, but [the album] accepts and addresses a certain kind of failure.
Stylus: In what ways did the cutting and pasting affect the sound you wanted?
AC: [We’d] rearrange things to a point where they barely resembled the original: maybe put a different feeling underneath [a track], change it from minor to major. We reworked the thing so much that by the end, the songs were so far away from what we had originally planned, but I guess in an ultimate sense they were a lot closer to what we really wanted. [The vocals are] like evidence from our creative process. We had this one vocal take done on a crappy microphone, and we can barely hear what Raphaelle’s saying. We’d kind of just make the lyrics up after. And it’s interesting, because for me, a lot of the songs never really were fully realised until we started to play them live. We realised that there really is songwriting underneath it. It doesn’t quite sound like a song, it’s so cut up; but that’s just how the songs were composed. Not on a piano, or guitar – it was synths and melody and then we’d jot down some lyrics or something.
Stylus: So you and Raph spent a while apart after [your EP] Blooming Summer. While Raph went on tour with Braids, you went to Germany. How did your time in Europe change the way you make music?
AC: Definitely the main thing that Europe did for me was show me that there was a proper form for electronic music. But I wasn’t really playing very much. It was almost like research or something. Often I’d go to clubs by myself or with my German friends, and wouldn’t even party [in the sense of getting drunk and partying]. Sometimes I’d show up at like eight in the morning; people had been partying all night and I’d watch for hours as the night reached its new fate.
When you first know somebody, it’s so exciting and easy. And your life builds up. But [Raph and I] took a break for such a long time from making music, and a lot of stuff happened. We lived alone in a lot of different places, and [the album] really shows how quickly things get really complex and how that complexity can have a weight and sadness to it. [But] making the album was like shutting all that baggage away and understanding what we meant to each other, not necessarily romantically, but as people.
Stylus: So are there underlying lyrical themes here?
AC: A lot of them have to do with Raphaelle’s past, but “Try to Be” in particular is a really simple song which I think speaks strongly about not realising your potential, wondering why you’re not the person that you’d want to be – then realising that you can just be the person that you are, and then things will fall into place. A lot of lyrics are about lacking something or needing something else.
Stylus: I thought of an exercise that might be fun. How would you describe Untogether in terms of all the other senses besides hearing? Can you give me a word for vision, smell , touch, taste?
AC: Hm. For vision, I would think about it as being like that kind of obscure transparency that you get when you look through a windowpane, and you’re reflected back at yourself, but you’re also looking through it. It’s distorted and unclear, but you see, ultimately, what is on the other side of the glass. Smell … smell’s a sense that you could lose and still sort of be okay. But maybe it’d smell… sour. For touch, it would definitely be soft, like velvet, or like a bed that’s really like so deep that you don’t really want to get up from your sleep. And taste would have to be … bittersweet.
Catch Blue Hawaii with Purity Ring at the West End Cultural Centre May 1st.