Andrew Ryce talks to the Canadian band about their unlikely reunion and bridging the gap between pop and club music.
Raph Standell-Preston was asking her musical partner Alex Kerby, looking for something to end their Dublab session with. It was a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, and they had spent the last two hours playing an eclectic mix of dance music on the radio. Standell-Preston would occasionally sing over it, a throwback to their hybrid live-and-DJ sets that captivated audiences back in 2013, around the time of Blue Hawaii's last album, Untogether. When I walked in they were playing house, and by the end their musical flow had unraveled into something more freeform, with Standell-Preston and Kerby anxiously discussing what to play next, looking to each other for reassurance. It's telling that "Believe" would come up—Blue Hawaii are striving for the same seamless dance-pop hybrid as that 1998 hit, if on more underground terms.
To see Standell-Preston and Kerby interact, you'd never think they spent three years estranged. They finish each other's sentences and rarely argue, treating each other with patience and respect. To watch them decide on the next track was to see diplomacy in action. The last time I saw them together, they were on the verge of splitting up, ending Blue Hawaii to focus on solo endeavors. Here in the Dublab studio, on the release day of their new album, Tenderness, they seemed closer than ever.
This revitalized friendship courses through Tenderness, a collection of tighter and more impressive songs than the already excellent Untogether. The album happened accidentally, after Kerby and Standell-Preston—both Canadians living in Montreal—found themselves escaping to Los Angeles for different reasons. They decided to hang out one afternoon, and then recorded three songs almost instantly. Their individual priorities went to the wayside, and Blue Hawaii was reborn.
None of that was ever likely to happen; the two admit they didn't see themselves returning to Blue Hawaii, or each other, anytime soon. By the time of Untogether, four years into a romantic relationship, they had grown impatient and snappy with each other. The recording sessions were so fraught that they ended up recording it separately, in the same city, one working a night shift and the other during the day. The result was a chilly and atmospheric record about a troubled relationship. In their contributions, they seemed to be battling each other, with Standell-Preston's sharp vocals chopped up and tossed around by Kerby's production hand.
This was partly a product of the dance music crossover going on in 2013. Blue Hawaii were part of a bustling and fertile scene in Montreal, one where electronic influences started seeping into the city's indie rock community. The collective revolved around Arbutus Records, a label founded by Kerby's brother Sebastian that signed indie-electronic artists like Doldrums, Lydia Ainsworth, TOPS and, most famously, Grimes. Of all these artists, Blue Hawaii had the most direct connection to dance music, as Kerby fell in love with the wave of post-dubstep that had infiltrated North America from across the pond. He brought Standell-Preston under its spell.
After finishing Untogether, which drew plaudits from both indie music publications and the dance music scene, Blue Hawaii toured the world and carved themselves a small but impressive niche. They wowed audiences with their powerful hybrid live show, where they would perform their own songs and improvise over other people's tracks, combining a live performance with a DJ set. They made fans out of clubbers and indie heads alike.
Still, the two were looking for different things, and they eventually split. Standell-Preston focused on her other band, Braids, an outlet for shoegaze-y indie rock where she could flex the impressive range of her voice and songwriting. Kerby hopped around the world's clubbing capitals, trying to make a career out of DJing under the name Agor. Then, coincidentally, they both gave up and headed to LA for a rest and a change of scenery.
"It was a weird time in my life and a weird time in Alex's life," said Standell-Preston, "And in the community, too. There was a lot of jealousy going on with Grimes' rising success, and the Montreal community was kind of torn apart. Two of our closest friends got huge—and I'm so happy for both of them, they're amazing artists—but at that age, when you're hustling and everyone's trying to catch a break, it's so confusing. I wanted to take a break from Braids, we hadn't taken a break in years. It was supposed to be some self-exploration time, where we would go do our own things, then come back to Braids with whatever we had learned. But then I was like, 'I'm making another record... with my other band!' Swallow that one!"
Kerby had moved to Los Angeles with Arbutus Records label-mate TOPS, hoping the big city would provide him with some new inspiration. But it only led him back to Standell-Preston.
"We had really drifted and we really needed a lot of space," she said. "But when we reconnected again, it was like—'Oh yes! This is a friend I love.' The chemistry was still there, and very quickly, it was like, 'OK, maybe we can do this.'"
Just a week before meeting with Kerby, Standell-Preston had a "trainwreck" breakup after a one-year long distance relationship. It was a connection that existed almost entirely on the internet, and Standell-Preston found herself completely absorbed in her phone as a result. She obsessed over every text message to an unhealthy point. "I realized how much of a mask I would put on when I was on the phone, and how anxious I was," she said. The unraveling situation seeped into the songs she was writing, specifically in themes of distance, longing, emptiness and loneliness. It made threads that would eventually coalesce into the concept behind their new album, Tenderness.
"The concept of the record came about when we were shooting the record cover in Glendale, this January, with our friend Arvida Byström," said Kerby. "She just took a photo of us on the couch with our phones and we liked the way it looked. We kind of built the album—"
"—After that," Standell-Preston interjected. "When Arvida took the photo and we were both holding our phones, I was like, 'Oh! This makes so much sense!' So many of the songs are about a relationship that was online, and we had a bunch of samples using a phone, so we decided to amp up that element of it."
Laughing, Kerby explained her habit of recording other people's conversations, sometimes strangers and sometimes people she knows (her aunt appears on the album in a voicemail asking about some vague "big news"). At one point, after a particularly loud stranger walked by, Kerby said it was just the kind of thing Standell-Preston would record.
With a sharpened focus, the duo took what they had and made a story out of it. They shaped Tenderness into a narrative that traces the aftermath of that online relationship, stages of grief and acceptance that range from feeling lonely and desperate to frustrated and then, finally, redeemed. They ran bits of songs like "Younger Heart" through an iPhone speaker to add to the concept, and padded the album with interludes to make it more cohesive. The lyrics are clever, succinct and emotional, using the language of pop music to tell a story that feels intensely personal and distinctly modern—which is all the more remarkable considering most of the words were ad-libbed in the studio, the same way Standell-Preston talked and sang during their Dublab broadcast.
"That 'No One Like You' song, the first single—I made the beat in the morning, Raph came to the studio in the afternoon," Kerby explained. "We were supposed to have finished the album already, but she was like, 'That's a pretty cool beat, let me just see what happens, I've got the headphones set up.' I let it roll for eight minutes and she just sang a bunch of stuff. A lot of the songs we were like that. 'We're just gonna let the mic roll.'"
"I love having a loop that's already made, or a drum groove, and just working it out," Standell-Preston said. "It does kind of feel like I'm barfing it out—it's just like 'bluuurgh' for eight minutes—but I love working under pressure and just seeing what happens. Using that energy you've built up throughout the day or the week and letting that guide you, instead of being meticulous or calculating."
Standell-Preston said that one of the reasons she likes electronic music is she can listen to it all day and make melodies in her head, creating lyrics for songs that had none, which makes Kerby an ideal partner for her. On Tenderness, he crafts clear and economical arrangements that borrow from classic '90s electronica, trip-hop and deep house, making room for Standell-Preston's vocals rather than dominating them like he did on Untogether. Instead of imitating what's going on around them in the dance music world, the duo create their own world of glossy pop that's just weird and quirky enough.
The new approach also means that Tenderness is much more of a pop record than it is a club record, though the two are divided on that particular issue. Kerby spent an extraordinary amount of time tinkering with the album—several songs on the vinyl version have different instrumentals than the digital versions, a product of down-to-the-wire editing after the vinyl had already been pressed. He shortened some songs to make them more digestible, made some beats stronger and made the record tighter overall. But as soon he mentioned trying to make something more poppy, Standell-Preston interrupted.
"Even if it takes three minutes to get to your chorus," she said pointedly, "maybe those three minutes... maybe they're essential. And maybe they'll really resonate with somebody."
Blue Hawaii's music has always been about a constant push-and-pull—between the dueling impulses of the two people at its core, between club music and indie rock, between pop music and what Standell-Preston calls "integrity." But their innate differences are also their strengths. Standell-Preston calls herself a grandma when it comes to computers and tech, so she has Kerby to help realize her vision and make the beats. And Kerby credits her sense of rhythm for making his productions more interesting, a musical sensibility that he credits to her playing guitar in a band for so many years.
The duo might have struck gold by grounding their songs in dance music back in 2013, but now their music owes less to dance music and sounds less like it, for better or for worse.
"I made all these remixes [as Agor], and I really enjoy DJing," said Kerby. "I love dancing and I love the way it brings people together. We're trying to do something that's bridging these two worlds somehow, and in a way it's difficult, because they'll never fully be together. I feel like when you try and do two things, you fall a little bit short. This is a position we found ourselves in. With our last record, we did a Boiler Room show and we tried to push our whole, 'Hey, we're not just an indie band' thing. And it was hard to get that message across... because our single had an acoustic guitar in it! Maybe this time it'll be easier to do, because it doesn't have an acoustic guitar in it."
"It does in the last track," Standell-Preston said. "I've had two people write me, being like, 'Oh my god, that's my favourite track on the record, I've just put it on loop for hours.' I'm like... 'You really like the acoustic stuff, hey?'" I don't feel like we've fully found [the balance] yet."
The duo are still figuring out what they want their project to be, but at least now they have a future, which is more than they could say a few years ago. They have a new live setup based around just a few pieces of hardware, and they no longer play or sing over other people's tracks—a new stage in their evolution from uneasy dance act to full-on electronic pop band.
That transformation has come with costs. Standell-Preston and Kerby both complain about the specter of their first record, the chillwave-inspired Blooming Summer from 2010, which some fans still love and hold over their heads, even though it has little to do with any version of the band since. And some fans of Untogether have even had some trouble swallowing the new record.
"Some of the YouTube comments are so funny," Standell-Preston said, "talking about how we've sold out on a song like 'Versus Game.' It's like—have you listened to the radio?! Do you know what actual pop is?"
What separates Blue Hawaii from "actual pop" is a scrappy DIY approach that's still there underneath all the polish. Kerby's fiddling with the songs after the record was finished caused all kinds of problems with the release process, and even with all that post-production, the recording is still pretty amateur, which is part of its charm. This isn't big-budget pop—it's homemade pop, in the same way that Untogether was folksy, homemade dance music.
"Our records are all aliasing all over the place," Kerby said with a laugh. "When I listen to it I can tell that this has been slowed from 140 BPM down to 120, and we haven't changed the pitch, and it's recorded from all these different sources, phasing all over the place. There are all these disasters, but—"
"They just kind of work together," Standell-Preston said. "You collage it together, and you slap a name on there and you call it a record!"
Kerby: "You put it out there, people listen for a bit and then they move the heck on."
"Move the heck on!" said Standell-Preston, with a mixture of humor and despair. "2017, everybody!"
Even on the release date of their best record yet, Kerby and Standell-Preston are already talking about what they might do next. They hum-and-haw, hesitate and gently argue over how to describe what they're aiming for. Kerby brings up the smash-hit SeeB remix of Mike Posner's "I Took A Pill In Ibiza" as an example, before embarrassingly retracting it while Standell-Preston looks horrified. Whatever they decide to do, Blue Hawaii are closer, and more themselves, than they ever have been before.