Tim Bluhm: The Arc of A Rhythm Devil
Tim Bluhm has been a fixture on the live music circuit for 20 years. Originally known as The Mother Hips’ frontman and guitarist, Bluhm has built a unique reputation over the past decade as a producer, solo musician, studio collaborator and godfather of the new Bay Area jamband scene. Last summer, he also joined Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s reactivated Rhythm Devils project and accompanied the group onboard Jam Cruise in January. Bluhm also continues to run the Mission Bells studio with singer/songwriter Jackie Greene and plays an active role in his wife Nikki Bluhm’s fledging career. Below, Bluhm discusses his busy schedule, Mother Hips’ annual Family Hipnic and the biggest mistake he made by buying the Grateful Dead’s music on iTunes.
Let’s start with your recent involvement with The Rhythm Devils. You joined the band during the second leg of its tour last summer. How did that collaboration first come to fruition?
Their management called my management in April of last year and asked if I wanted to be in the band. I had never met Mickey or Billy and it was very surprising because I had no connection with the Grateful Dead at all. I wasn’t even very familiar with the music. I had just started to become familiar with the Grateful Dead because of my close friend Jackie Greene, who had been playing with Phil Lesh. So it was sort of out of the blue for me.
Though The Mother Hips is not a traditional jamband, the group has existed in the greater jamband universe for quite some time. Do you know how Mickey and Billy first heard about you?
You know, it’s a little mysterious but I’ve never really asked them directly because I don’t want to worry about that, I’m just happy to have the gig. But I think, from what I understand, Billy and Mickey wanted to find people that hadn’t been tapped before. I think they just probably asked around and they looked at a bunch of YouTube videos of me and [Rhythm Devils guitarist] Davy Knowles and just liked what they saw. Which is interesting to me because I put a lot of stock into the Internet these days and—being in a band that is relatively well established but is not on a major label—we really need to find outlets like that. The Internet has been so great for us [The Mother Hips], and I know a lot of other bands too, but that’s a perfect example of how important it is for bands to have content online. Current videos really seem to matter—you can get a huge reaction by having good video content on the Internet and this is a perfect example of that.
You hope it’s presented well, but I think the real important thing for artists is needing to realize that—whenever you are playing in public these days—there’s a pretty darn good chance that there’s gonna be at least one if not ten different videos posted on YouTube within a week after the performance. I think in a way it kicks everybody ass in gear. My wife Nikki is sort of up-and-coming right now so it’s interesting to watch her reputation form, and her notoriety is being formed mostly by YouTube. When I was coming up 20 years ago the Internet didn’t even exist, and it’s interesting for her because she has to kick ass every time she gets on stage because someone’s gonna film it. It’s gonna be preserved for posterity. So I think it’s actually starting to make people better musicians.
They’re putting the emphasis back on the live show.
It puts the emphasis on really what you can actually do. When Pro Tools and all that digital editing came out, I think it deemphasized that because you can create a great performance out of a crappy performance by just editing to digitally. But now, I think YouTube is changing that and I think it’s a really positive thing.
You had to learn a huge amount of Grateful Dead material before joining The Rhythm Devils. Given what you just said about the power of the internet, did you rely heavily on YouTube to learn that canon?
I did, I did. I looked at a lot of old YouTube stuff but a mistake that I made—and I didn’t discover until after we started rehearsing when I wasn’t really indoctrinated into the Grateful Dead world—is that I didn’t place enough emphasis on the bootlegs. You don’t get them on the normal channels so I was just going on iTunes and buying the albums, which turned out to be not anywhere near the versions that Mickey and Billy were used to because their versions were more like the end of the Grateful Dead in early ‘90s before Jerry died. That’s where they had left off, and I was playing the ‘60s versions of some of these songs and they didn’t even recognize them—like “Cold Rain and Snow.” I started playing them and they were like,“What the hell are you doing?” and then I had to go back and listen to the more recent versions. There was a lot of that happening because I was referencing the original recordings—I still like those the most, just for the record.
There’s nothing like playing a song for 20 years on stage to make it sound different than the recording. All theses little micro mutations happen.
You mentioned your friend Jackie Greene, who not only plays with you in The Skinny Singers but also co-owns the Mission Bells studio with you. Did you ask him for any advice when you started working your way through the Dead’s catalog?
I did. I talked to him a lot because he went through it, and he was playing in front of large audiences so I think, if anything, he understood my anxiety and the responsibility of playing this music but probably being the least familiar person with it in the entire venue. He had the same experience so he gave me a lot of moral support and advice and it was useful. But, at the same time, Phil is a very different person than Mickey and Billy and they all have their own ways of leading bands, so we each had our unique experiences based on that.
Shifting over to The Mother Hips, do you plan to work on another album this year?
We are actually. The day I [got home from Jam Cruise we started] basic sessions for our eighth studio record and hopefully we’ll have it… we’re planning on putting it out in this year but probably towards the end of 2011. We have most of the songs written and we’ve rehearsed them a few times.
You have made your name as a producer over the past few years. Would you consider self-producing the album?
No. It’s pretty much impossible for me to produce The Hips because my relationship with the other guys in the band negates me being a record producer. I don’t blame them…it would be different than it’s always been, so I kind of sit back, and we all do it evenly. I probably end up spending more time in the studio than any of the other guys just because it’s my studio and the guy who’s producing it is my partner Dave Simon Baker, so I’m there probably somewhat more than the other guys. It wouldn’t work for me to be the producer. I wouldn’t want to.
I think the whole point of a producer—of hiring a producer—is that it isn’t you. It is a chance to get a somewhat objective outside perspective so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to self produce, although there’s many genius records that have been made by someone that was in the band, like My Morning Jacket.