Blues Control is a wild misnomer. The rock-adjacent duo isn’t always in control, improvisation being a sturdy part of its practice. And none of this really has anything to do with Robert Johnson. Despite all that, though, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear tagged the band as his opener on a nationwide tour.
Removing themselves from New York City a ways back, Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse set up shop in semi-rural Pennsylvania, which hasn’t impeded Blues Control from upping its recognition amid a pretty crowded field of would-be experimentalists toting around keyboards and synthesizers (think Wolf Eyes’ descendants). But there are a wealth of balances to strike—city living and rural life, out-music and more palatable works, as well as dependence on a label and an utterly self-determined mode of working.
“The whole time, I mean, we’ve been a self-sufficient band,” Cho said of the duo’s ascent to relative prominence. “We like to be in control of what we do. And everything that we do is our idea. We do all the legwork for everything, so it still feels very DIY.”
Valley Tangents, Blues Control’s 2012 long-player, isn’t necessarily the duo’s most accessible collection of tunes, but less difficult to infiltrate than earlier albums that traded between ambient waves of vague melody and distortion, pushing some tracks to the brink of noise. “Iron Pigs” circles around some martial drumming, antiquated-sounding keyboards, and Waterhouse’s tough guitar riffs. Portions of “Walking Robin” could easily fit into an album by shimmering popsters like Real Estate. Even that comparison, though, points to the endless hustle of being in a band that trucks in a compendium of mysterious influences.
“Are we trying to get away from some hierarchy? No,” Cho said about ditching the urban confines of New York for reasonably rural openness. “Our reasons for leaving New York are pretty diverse.”
Everything ranging from rent to the over-burdensome bustle of daily life has changed for the pair, but the unruly array of musical influence hasn’t been affected by the move. Some of their affinities might be a bit surprising—considering the avant leanings of Blues Control’s past—but there’s a nerdy, musicological discourse to go along with it.
“If you think of Pink Floyd as classic rock,” said Waterhouse, “I don’t think we’re too far off the mark, really.”
But the British band’s legacy comprises so many disparate facets, ideas, and members that drawing a comparison seems like a tough thing to do—and somewhat dangerous.
“The Wall is definitely not good,” Cho said. “Our goal with Local Flavor [Siltbreeze, 2009] when we were making it was … we decided it was going to be our Dark Side of the Moon. It was just a vague agreement we had.”
As with any record-obsessed couple, the back and forth isn’t so elementary. Waterhouse launches into a fuller summation of Floyd’s middle period, trying to explain what bits and pieces Blues Control might have clung most to.
“Animals is getting pretty bad, like it’s a retread,” he said. “I think Dark Side of the Moon is awesome and Wish You Were Here is where it starts to fall off.”
There’s some sidelong talk about Santana and how his contemporary work’s maligned, despite earlier albums being top notch. But more important than what’s spinning on Cho and Waterhouse’s turntable is how the pair assimilates it all into their recordings.
“I think it’s always been about the signifiers of classic rock and not so much the genre,” Cho said about the band’s raft of aural influence. “Coming from the world of noise, having a guitar and piano, playing songs and the harmonica—it was always a deconstructed version of classic rock.”
With those kinds of grandiose sonic expectations, hitting the road with Panda Bear and playing larger venues than in the past presents itself as a considerable opportunity. But Blues Control isn’t primed to augment its set for bigger stages and a new audience. Touring on Valley Tangents for about a year and a half, Waterhouse said, hasn’t left Blues Control much time to summon new compositions anyway.“We’ve never been able to do that,” he said about writing on the road. “We just kept getting offered tour after tour. … It’s only been since the beginning of this year that we haven’t been touring as much and started to write again.”
While there aren’t new wrinkles set for inclusion in Blues Controls’ performances, the duo has recently self-released a two-song cassette.
“One was a demo made around the same time we were demo’ing Valley Tangent stuff, but we had a feeling it wasn’t going to be on the record,” Waterhouse said. “Then the A-side was done shortly after Local Flavor and maybe would have been on an EP.”
Even if “Summer Games,” the tape’s a-side, was captured about the same time as Local Flavor, the synthesizer comes off sounding cribbed from sessions for the band’s most recent full-length. Regardless of when any of this was laid down, the persistent drumming and tripped-out guitar moves set the entire endeavor into the well-defined krautrock lineage that Blues Control’s known for mining.
Reaching back in time for inspiration, as well as for material to release, grants Cho and Waterhouse a proper perch to survey not just their work, but the history of recorded music. Drag City, the label that released the duo’s 2012 album, however, is concerned with the future. “They’d kinda like us to be done with a new record by now, but that’s not how we operate,” said Cho.