To alleviate the boredom of long treks between gigs, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers discovered a unique and undeniably effective way to promote themselves. The San Francisco sextet filmed themselves driving along and performing covers of Hall & Oates, the Grateful Dead, the Commodores and many others — all in the cramped confines of their tour van. They uploaded the clips to YouTube as the Van Sessions, attracting millions of views and scores of new fans.
Newcomers were introduced to both a band with a playful sound and a frontwoman with a sharp, expressive voice. And while there are no covers on their new album, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers does showcase the band’s broad range, from the gently funky SoCal folk-rock of “Little Too Late” to the darker Rumours vibe of “Ravenous.”
It’s Bluhm’s third album, but only the first credited to the Gramblers — a band that includes her husband Tim Bluhm as keyboard player and producer. While the Bluhms were enjoying a few minutes of rest at home before heading back out on the road, they spoke to CMT Edge about the lessons learned in the van, the joys of tracking live in the studio and the need to establish their own identity.
CMT Edge: Did the success of the Van Sessions surprise you?
Nicki Bluhm: It really did surprise us. It was something we never could have planned for, but it was a very welcome event because it got us on the radar of a lot of people who really didn’t know who we were or what we were doing. They started paying attention to us, and luckily we had a lot of original music that we could share with them. We were able to show them that we’re a real touring band, and we write our own songs. The covers are fun and we enjoy them, but we wanted to make sure we had a back catalog readily available for people to check out.
Tim Bluhm: The success of the Van Sessions surprised us tremendously. Those recordings were strictly a way to pass the time. Posting them to a YouTube channel just ensured that we didn’t phone them in. One thing I’ve learned about the music business is that you never get to choose where or when the breaks come.
What kind of logistical challenges does recording in a moving van present, aside from getting pulled over?
TB: Background noise is the obvious one, and it is pretty insurmountable. We tried to clean up some of the Van Sessions audio in postproduction, and it proved to be futile. Other challenges are trying to play touch-screen iPad keyboards while the van is jostling about. Very tricky. And usually the volume that you need to play your own instrument seems totally out of control. The only ear in the van that matters is the iPhone microphone, which is way up by the windshield. When we are in full Van Session mode, I would say that everyone is pretty distracted. But luckily we have never had any incidents or accidents. We don’t do them as often as we used to.
It’s almost like an apprenticeship for the band. You have to really figure out how and why the songs work.
TB: Getting inside those tunes and really being forced to route out the essence of what makes them work has been extremely instructive to all of us. Even simple-sounding songs are usually surprisingly complex.
NB: The songs we chose were all hit songs, of course, so it’s neat to get inside of them and find out why people like them. What are the elements that make a good song a hit? A big part of the prep work for these videos is choosing the songs, then deciding who’s going to play what. Then you have to be creative making the videos and mixing because you don’t have a lot to work with — really just an iPhone mic and camera. It’s a great exercise for us to do as a band, a good way to study the music closely.
It seems to have helped the band gel. Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers is the first album credited to the group, as opposed to another Nicki Bluhm album.
NB: This is really the first record that the whole band has played on in its current form. When we made our very first record, Toby’s Song, it was before the band had even formed. We used a bunch of different musicians to record Driftwood. Tim produced it, and he used a lot of San Francisco musicians to get the feel that he wanted. This new album is the most reflective of us as a band because everybody played on it and we did it live in the studio. It’s the first time we’ve done something like that.
TB: Since we made the album Driftwood, the band has been on the road almost constantly, figuring out how to make all our songs work the way they need to. It was only natural that we would continue that pursuit in the studio. The band is fully capable of getting groovy masters and that’s the way you want it. The more records I produce, the more I value capturing those live moments. There really is no substitute.
The record sounds very San Francisco, as though you’re all influenced by local history.
NB: Obviously San Francisco is incredibly rich in its history. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane … the list goes on and on. I wouldn’t say we’re like any of those bands, but we’re certainly influenced by them. Except for [guitarist] Dave [Mulligan], who’s from Arizona, we’re all native Californians. I think we appreciate a certain time when music was being made — down in L.A., too, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I really look up to Linda Ronstadt and value what she was doing. She’s such a strong woman in rock ‘n’ roll who found the right people to trust and the right songs to sing. She’s definitely an influence of mine, but there are so many amazing musicians to look up to.
You’ve put a new spin on those influences, though, so you’re not just re-creating old sounds. Are you conscious of that distinction when you’re writing and recording?
NB: All of us are really big vinyl collectors, and we all listen exclusively to vinyl. So I think we have a desire to get those warmer tones on our own record. I don’t think we consciously thought, “We want to make this record sound old.” But the records we like are old, so it’s inevitable that we’re going to go that route. It’s a warmer sound and a simple, honest recording technique. But we wanted to make sure we weren’t referencing a specific record, but more of an overall vibe. We wanted to make our own style.