Gawd, they got TV
Life keeps getting better for Blanche.
Their first album surprised a lot of people. With assistance from Jack White and
Brendan Benson, their first album did well in Europe and made waves in North
America beginning at a small independent label and landing at The White Stripes'
mainstay V2, slow as America was in starting to get wise to the new sound of an
indefinably indie country band. The White connection also got chief Blanche
songwriter Dan Miller onto Loretta Lynn's critically acclaimed Van Lear Rose.
Dan and his wife/bassist Tracee Mae took time out from their first real North
American tour with the Ditty Bops to talk with us.
It wasn't until after the interview when
I realized how cool their responses were; cool in a different
way than expected. There is a great pressure when dealing with rock bands to
make everything seem as marketably cool as possible whenever possible. But Dan
and Tracee at all times seemed very genuine. It threw me off a bit, actually, to
know their stage outfits are actually just their clothes and that this is just
who they are. Their tone shifted during my questions
about image, so you can tell they're tired of answering it
and for good reason. Having a sense of style so unique and being in a rock band
equals the same questions over and over again. But they answered them anyway and
without hesitation, without a marketing strategy in mind. They're just good
people with weird taste. Now if only I could find a
retro leisure suit for a guy 6'7"...
How's life on the road?
Dan & Tracee Miller: Good.
D: A little fatiguing today. Been doing shows, just this tour was, you
know, a week out east a couple weeks ago, then this is the first time we've been
out to the west coast so it's kind of exciting to play to people who've never
seen us before. That's always more exciting to play for people who've never
seen us than fans who know what to expect.
This is your first time to Vancouver, what do you think of it so far?
Just got here so we haven't seen any of it. I was here about 10
years ago. I was in another band called Goober & The Peas and we played here.
And we had a really great show but then we went to go see a movie the next day
and they towed our RV. So that wasn't too pleasurable an experience but I
remember we all showed in the Vancouver YMCA.
With songs like "So Long Cruel World" and "The Hopeless Waltz," do you write
songs as a way to deal with hardships in your life, to comfort those who do feel
that way, or do you try to base them on more traditional themes?
D: I think it's just a way of dealing with stuff that
I, you know, feel but I think it's also trying to relate to what other people
feel 'cause I think old country and blues music did such a great job of that.
Whether it's the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, or Blind Willie McTell or somebody
like that where they just do these sad songs that are kind of mournful and
melancholy but I think in a way they're kinda like a...it's comforting to listen
to that kind of music. I don't know if our music's comforting. I didn't think
it would be a good idea for our music to be depressing. Hopefully it's
comforting to other people.
How much of yourself do you put into your songs? How much are they drawn from
real life experiences?
Quite a bit. I think it starts out there but then some way you
want to present it as, I don't know...I think the inspiration for a song just
comes from some kind of emotion you feel and then some idea will click,
hopefully, with the song and then you try to write what's inside you but I think
it's a lot more interesting for me if I don't know exactly what the song is
about. Whether it's using some kind of metaphor or something, you don't want to
get too clever, but just keep it simple and make sure it gets the emotion of the
song gets across.
Was "Do You Trust Me" about someone?
D: I think when I wrote it I felt so completely, you
know, like you take you take so much stuff for granted about what you can trust,
whether it's love or anything in your life. And then if you get too comfortable
with that then you can just never know what's going on.
bonus track on Doctors was a barely recognizable cover of Van Halen's "Running
With The Devil." How did you come to cover that song?
T: One day you just had that weird melody in that
song. I had the CD in the car and I rolled the windows down, summer was
D: I think it's always a challenge to take a song like that that's kind of
thought of as...it rocks. It's a great rock and roll song and I always liked
that song as a kid. I don't now. If you take a song like that, that you like,
but then you think, "Is it meaningful?" And I think there was something about
that song that was so cocky, and just so rock and roll.
It was like hair metal before hair metal.
D: Right, and just that whole thing about the way Van
Halen was. We were listening to it and, you know, there's actually some
interesting lyrics in there, what if we slowed it down, turned in into a waltz,
and tried to make it into a gospel song. Not to make it super jokey or anything
but to really have it sound meaningful, that would be a good challenge.
I totally couldn't tell. I listened to the album like five times before I found
out online what the last track was.
D: I think with Van Halen, they just want to keep
running with the devil but we just ended it in a gospel way by saying "I was
running with the devil but Jesus has called me back home."
Do make up a persona for your old-timey wardrobe? Do you have to get into
character before getting onstage?
T: No, that the thing that's really difficult for our
band. The line does get blurred a little bit because we are what we are and
going out on stage just is an extension of that. I don't put on clothes to go on
stage. I might do something like maybe I'll put my hair up like you're going out
for a special night. I wear the same thing shopping. I mowed the lawn once in
my life and I was out in the yard mowing the lawn much to the chagrin of my
neighbours. The man who does our t-shirts came over before we left for the tour
and he came into to our house and he looked kinda stunned 'cause he knew we were
rushing to the airport. He's like, "Are you guys getting ready to jam? Why are
you dressed like that? You really dress like that? You're going to the airport
like that." Yeah, I almost find myself thinking self-conscious about it
sometimes but it's just me, and it's just Dan and Feeny with his suit, it's just
who we are. Our drummer Lisa is a little different there. She's one of those
crazy fanatics who's not happy unless she's running a triathlon. She does have
some sort of...
D: That's the way drummers are. They're a little different. It's just one of
those things too where...if we're going out to dinner or anything we just like
to have a certain look. We like getting dressed up. I guess we have something in
our blood that wants us to have some kind of style when we go out. I think for
bands that go up and play in a t-shirt and jeans, that's fine, but if we did
that, it would feel really awkward. I think there's a little bit of fascination
with old time entertainers and vaudeville...or whether it was the seventies and
sixties with Lawrence Welk and the way they looked or Sinatra or anybody, I love
going to see somebody who's entertaining or singing or an artist who puts some
thought into their presentation too. That's something we try to tie-in, we just
want to make sure it doesn't overshadow the music or anything; the music's gotta
come first but...
T: That's the hard part. If it's true to your soul, and it's true to your
personality, when do you rein it in? At what point do you have to say "I have to
hold back from what I really want to do" because you do get pigeonholed if you
have a strong image. It's true with the Ditty Bops; I think they have the same
issues we do. They love the whole vaudeville type show which we are big fans of
and I think it's easy for fans or critics to say it's just mimicry but I think
if you come and you see a show and listen to a CD, you realize it's real.
D: Like this suit. I love western suits and this is a suit from the seventies
but...like the way my hair is or something but then somebody will come and see
us, "Why, they're trying to dress like they're right out of the depression era."
And I got this fucked up, crazy hair and I got this '70s western leisure suit.
People are going to take something away from us. I think people will react to it
in a strong way and I think people usually really like us or they hate us. I
think that's better than a lot of people being like, "They're alright."
Musically, that's something we tried to do to too is to use our inspirations
from older music to create something that sounds current. We didn't wanna just
do shticky lo-fi like if we'd done the whole album like that Van Halen song, I
don't think it would've been true.
(I took a moment to appreciate Dan's dusty blue suit. How did a man who's 6'4"
find such a quality vintage garb?)
But the depression era is one of your favourite eras, right?
T: I guess it's not my favourite. My favourite is Victorian. That's where my
inspiration comes from. That's another thing I don't really understand and Dan
was touching on. If you look at the clothes we wear, they're not depression era
at all. It's really easy to dismiss it unless you go to a show, unless you
really listen to the CD.
Do you have any favourite literature than makes you feel like you're there and
alive in that corner of time and he world?
T: I do. I love Return Of The Native, Withering
Heights, all these really old Victorian romantic novels. I read 'em and reread 'em.
Is it possible that the hardships of the auto industry in Michigan helped you
take more of an interest in the depression era spirit?
D: Yeah, maybe. Especially going up to play Flint,
I've seen all the Michael Moore films.
D: Yeah, right, so you know he's documented that. You
see when an industry is that important...like with country music and blues
music, people moved up to Detroit, a lot of people from the South, to work on
the automotive lines. Once you're there, it was almost of like coal mining in a
way, like people say you get kind of addicted to it and people get so focussed
on that industry that it gets ingrained. You walk around Detroit and there's no
areas like this in Detroit. It's all pretty desolate. It is sad to see people
T: That's what brought all the country folks up to Detroit. All the people from
the mountains of Kentucky and Southern Appalachia came up for work. They would
come up to Detroit, make money, and then go back home to their families. Like
Dan said, once you get into it, it becomes part of your blood and that what you
do so their families moved up to Detroit. So there's all these strange pockets
surrounding the metro Detroit area, groups of people from Kentucky and Tennessee
and they keep their heritage really strong and alive. They keep their music
alive. They have these country jamborees where they all get together, they all
know each other, they still play really beautiful melodies. They're mostly
seniors at this point. We get a lot of inspiration from that.
Do you think government is doing enough for its people or is Michael
exaggerating a bit?
T: He makes some good points, I think, but I'm not the
type of person to listen to one person and say that's the truth and that's how
it is. I like to get a lot of different opinions and then form my own opinion. I
like what he does. I like that he opens people eyes to things and brings a
discussion about. I respect him for that.
would you like to see become the next president?
D: Ralph Stanley.
T: I have a bumper sticker that says "Ralph Stanley for president," Doctor Ralph
Stanley. He's a little old but he's sexy enough to be president.
D: He's an old blue-grass man.
T: He's the father of mountain music. Beautiful voice, a voice that gives you
Describe your idea of a perfect life? What makes somebody successful to you?
D: I used to think, I remember reading some interview
a long time ago with John Waters, the director, where he was saying he got to a
point where he could wake up and do whatever he wanted every day. And he didn't
have to go anywhere to someone else's schedule, he could just do whatever he
wanted. Which is pretty great as long as you're doing something good. It seems
like most people that have that success don't really use it. I think creating is
an important thing.
T: The perfect life for me, I think that I'm well on the way to having it. I
just recently started this way of thinking of this kindness for people and
honesty. I think that is success, in a way, socially and in your life being a
good person allows you to have the life you want as being successful and to be
truly happy. I really think that's the key. You can have all the money in the
world, you can be incredibly famous, but unless you have a really solid idea of
who you are and the people you want to have around you and to truly love
everyone that you have around you, make the most of every minute, those type of
things. I think that's the perfect life.
D: You gotta keep the weeds out of your life too. It's like gardening. It's like
the movie Being There with Peter Sellers. Everything will come back down
T: You have to be really careful of people around you and who you and who you
let into your life. If you're careful about that and you trust your gut, you
trust your instincts, that leads to a perfect life.
So, aside from Johnny Cash, who inspires you either generally or artistically?
D: Directors like the Coen brothers. The way that they
create things, there's a dark humour to it but it's still really meaningful and
emotional and inspiring and beautiful.
T: Tennessee Williams, the playwright.
D: Tracee's paintings inspire me. She's a great painter. Looking at her
paintings really inspires me musically. There's this guy named Clarence Ashley,
an old-timey singer and banjo player who has this attack, this reckless abandon
you like The Byrds style of country?
D: Yeah, 'cause I think they were making it their own.
They weren't just rehashing anything. I think that's the important thing. There
are bands that doing it. I think 16 Horsepower do a good job of doing that. The
Handsome Family, they're a current band who's been real inspiring musically to
us which is great for somebody who's still around. People get so wrapped up in
old influences and everything. I think that is really inspiring seeing people
take certain forms of country, blues, folk music, jazz, anything and turn it
into their own.
Have you noticed any difference between playing to a European crown and a North
T: I have. I think the European crowd, they go in and
they're excited to see something different. You don't have to prove anything to
them, which is good and bad. I find when you play shows in America, people come
in, it's almost like they wait to see...
Here we are now, entertain us.
T: You almost have to show them that you're worthy for
them to come out and see. Which I appreciate, I think the acts should bring
something. I think, over in Europe, they're just more accepting of country
music even, different styles.
D: I think a band like us that doesn't fit in to any category like people say,
"they're kinda alt-country but they're kinda garage rock too and they're kinda
gothic and this and that." Over there people are just more open to things that
don't fit neatly into a category, at least the places we've played so far where,
in America, it seems people are like "what are you? Are you guys garage rock?
Are you alt-country?"
There are an endless number of prefixes you can put before country.
D: I think America is getting better at that. People
are getting sick of these pre-programmed radio stations where everything sounds
the same. They're doing that in Canada too, aren't they?
One would hope. You've mentioned before in interviews that "America is a
disposable society," that that is why it's been slow to embrace your music? What
do you think has caused this? Is MTV entirely to blame for killing people's
T: You can move on so quickly to something else because it's there for you
whereas before you had to give it a chance. I think it's really sad now that
there's this big machinery of bands that come out. Like, "Oh, this band's so
great." And you already know this band's great. I'm talking about the bigger
T: And they'll be there and gone. When we were growing up, these bands had a
long career and they built their career because it wasn't so disposable. MTV,
television, and the internet, people just want so much. They want something
There's this computer program out where they can tell you how to write a song
and what the chords should be and it's just so fucked.
That's something Silverchair said in their liner notes for Diorama, that they
didn't use pitch correction software, technology that tweaked voices or
instruments played out of tune, as they believe "such artificial perfection
T: It's even funny now how you can go on the internet
and find out all the tabs for all the songs. Before people sat in their rooms,
you had to wait for it to come on the radio or you had to go out and buy the
album and you'd figure it out. And now you just punch it up, you got it, you
play it, well I'm sick of that one, what's the next one? You never have to work
for anything. It's terrible.
D: Then again, maybe that's what people were saying about when we were growing
up compared to somebody who grew up in the thirties. "Gawd, they got TV."
There's something beautiful about childhood. When you just think about parents
with kids and how everything is so set-up. Everything's overscheduled as far as
kid's lives. There's something about throwing a kid outside and saying, "Just
use your imagination. Make up a game. Make up a friend." I don't know. That
helped screw us up in a good way.
How's the follow-up to Doctors coming?
D: Good. We're just writing songs and then hopefully
record in the fall. It'll be out in February or something like that. I
think...there was more of sadness, melancholy feel to the first album. We wanted
it to have a little bit of gentle sadness mixed with heart. I think this one
will sound a little grittier and a bit more rock and roll but it's still gonna
have pedal steel and banjo. It's never gonna be a feel-good, up with people from