Chicago reissue imprint the Numero Group is generally known for highlighting the unknown, whether its repurposing dusty R&B reels found at Florida estate sales for its Eccentric Soul series or injecting proto-metal DNA into their Grammy-nominated Cities of Darkscorch release. It might be an odd fit, then, for the label to now be working with much celebrated and still very much active New York outfit Blonde Redhead, the new Masculin Féminin box set compiling some of the trio's earliest material. But while the collection certainly scours the archives for rarities, drummer Simone Pace admits there are some live recordings of the band's initial covers-heavy sets that they're choosing to keep buried.
"I have tapes of that, but nobody's going to hear that," Pace explains with a gentle laugh. "We were doing Chet Baker, Brazilian music, Jimi Hendrix, some Caetano [Veloso] stuff, but then we started experimenting a lot with our options."
Speaking on the line from his NYC apartment, the percussionist notes that the opportunity to work with Numero arrived as the band were in the process of buying back the rights to their self-titled collection from 1995 and the next year's La Mia Via Violenta, both initially issued through Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records. Teaming with the obsessively details-oriented archival imprint led to the two sides putting together more than just a simple reissue.
"It was interesting because it wasn't just about putting out the two records, it was much more than that: looking at photos, going back and seeing if we had any extra stuff," Pace explains of compiling the gorgeous package. All told, it spreads 37 songs across four plates of vinyl, and comes with an engaging book of essays and photos that show the act parading around early '90s New York, ahead of the big clean up.
Pace adds of the extravagant time capsule: "I guess I do get a little nostalgic about things. Listening to what we did then and seeing the photos obviously really brings me back to the time. To me, it's a really warm feeling, but it was hard. We were just starting out, so we were poor, and we had jobs. New York was very different then. We tried to get shows, and nobody was at the shows until Steve kind of took us under his wing and put out this first record. Things started getting better."
Pace's musical journey began long before playing to empty rooms on the Bowery, though. The Milan-born musician recalls how he and twin brother Amadeo played guitar for crowds in Italy as adolescents, and how they started a cover band called the Bad Sinners after the family moved to Montreal. After studying music in Boston, the pair migrated to New York, where they were introduced to enigmatically-voiced guitarist Kazu Makino. Shortly thereafter, they formed Blonde Redhead.
"Amadeo had been telling me [about her voice]--they started going out and making music together, that's how it began--and finally when we started playing, I loved the sound of her voice. It was really amazing to be exposed to that," he recalls of the fateful union. "It's almost like you find the right girlfriend: let's have a relationship!"
Working from their Rivington Street rehearsal space beneath a "whorehouse," the group evolved from playing covers into developing a more enigmatic, experimental sound that meshed noise rock with beatific dream pop.
"Amadeo started using his own tunings just to get away from the conventional way of writing songs, and that was the beginning to the creativity of the band," Pace recalls. "At that time, we were called Masculin Féminin. That's why the box set is called that."
While united vis-a-vis the often poetic, duality-exploring musings of both Amadeo Pace and Makino, the box traces a sonic evolution. Early pieces like their self-titled set's "I Don't Want U" and "Mama Cita" add the occasional fierce scream alongside stomp box-abusing, Sonic Youth-style alt-scapes. 1996's La Mia Via Violenta turns down the volume while mutating Flamenco with French chanson ("(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get Rocks Off"), or flirting with a kind of baroque hypnotism later crystallized on albums like Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and Misery is a Butterfly.
"The first record is beautiful, but everything is more hidden. We did not want show any kind of beauty. We were trying to hide it and make it more about the energy," the drummer says, allowing that the band opened themselves up to exploring the sonic possibilities with each release since.
"We didn't grow up with punk rock. We grew up with classical music, Italian music, and then the Stones and stuff like that. But, you know, we were also a bit pissed off, in the beginning."
For those looking to learn a bit more about Blonde Redhead, Masculin Féminin reveals that being pissed off can often be beautiful.