Nicki and Tim Bluhm: The Gramblers’ Way
Photo by Dean Budnick
After Bay Area singer Nicki Bluhm released her first solo album Toby’s Song, the tall, beautiful singer/songwriter decided to put together a band for the album’s release party. She drew from her inner circle—husband and Mother Hips frontman Tim Bluhm, lifelong friend Daren Ney, members of ALO and other San Francisco favorites—and put together Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers. As her band’s name suggests, the group’s sound mixes the structured sing-along Americana of Levon Helm’s historic Rambles with the loose, funky grooves of an all-night improv-rock jam session. Nicki Bluhm’s 2011 follow-up, Driftwood, established her as a singer/songwriter in her own right and the Gramblers’ exhausting tour schedule proved to fans that they were more than a side project. Thanks to a series of unique YouTube clips recorded in their touring van and prime placement in a recent Gap ad, Bluhm has also started to move outside the indie-jam-Americana scene into a more mainstream space, too. Nicki and Tim Bluhm recently discussed their musical relationship, the Gramblers’ next studio project and what to expect from the Mother Hips in 2013.
Let’s start by talking about how the Gramblers came together. During the past year or so it really seems to have become a primary focus for the both of you. At what point did you decide to go from simply being married to bandmates?
Nicki: It started because Tim kind of pushed me to start playing music in front of people, which I had never done before. So I started as a solo artist and then I quickly realized [that] I needed some accompaniment, so I enlisted my good friend Daren Ney, who still plays guitar with us now in the band. We’ve been friends since elementary school. We made our first record, Toby’s Song, and for the record release party, we realized that we wanted the show to reflect the album, so we put a band together and then it just stuck ever since.
Tim: We worked well that night, so we realized we had to figure out how to make it work. It’s a pain in the neck having a band, especially a big band. It’s expensive, and no one makes money but it’s worth it. It’s more important that you have the tools that you need to make music sound the way you want it to because the music [is the reason] why we’re doing it.
Nicki: And the camaraderie, too, is really fun with a big group.
Tim: Yeah, they’re a good group of guys.
For a while all sorts of musicians were subbing in and out of the group but the Gramblers’ lineup seems pretty set at this point. When you started writing for your new album, did you write for specific players or did it become more of a collaborative, group effort?
Tim: It did. This new record that we’re going to release—hopefully pretty soon, it is done—is the first record that is actually by Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers because we felt like it was time to just to call it that at all times [as opposed to Nicki and a group of backing players]. That’s a reflection of the camaraderie and the bond that we’ve built with these guys. We’re all in it together, we’ve all sacrificed the same amount and we’ve all worked really hard. Some of those guys wrote some of the songs, so we all kind of contributed a little bit to the songwriting and it’s definitely a real band.
Speaking of the new album, I know it’s been in limbo for a while and when it’s going to be released is still in the air, but can you talk about the recording of it and a little about some of the vibes that you were going for? Tim, I assume it was recorded in your studio?
Tim: Yeah, it was recorded at Mission Bells and like I was saying before, it was the first time that the Gramblers played exclusively on the record and that felt good. It was nice to know that the people playing on the record were the people who were going to be playing these songs on the tours that we’re going to do. This will be the fourth record–
Nicki: If you count Duets [Tim and Nicki’s collaborative album].
Tim: Ok, so this will be the third record and, on each record that’s happened, we’ve sort of been able to be less eclectic and sort of zero in on what the sound of the band really is. That’s really pleasing to kind of identify what we’re good at and what works with Nicki’s voice and the players that we have. Each record gets a little more specific, I think.
In terms of the band’s name, did that grow out of The Grambles that you guys used to be involved with in San Francisco?
Tim: Yeah, that was all the same thing. My partner in the Mother Hips, Greg Loiacono, kind of coined that word. I don’t really know how it came about.
Nicki: It was from a Mother Hips’ fan.
Tim: Some Mother Hips’ fan said it one night and Greg heard it and was like, “What does grambling mean?” So we never knew what it meant, we just thought it was a funny word that is sort of suggestive of a lot of different things, I suppose.
Nicki: Then we had to put a name on the bill. We were playing at the album release party, so we had to come up with a band name that day, so it was not thought out at all. It was just The Gramblers. When it stuck, then it was used in all sorts of ways: Gramblers, Grambling, Gramble.
I remember seeing one of the final Grambles at 12 Galaxies in San Francisco before it closed in 2008. It felt somewhere between a Levon Helm Ramble and the old, Wetlands-style power jam.
Nicki: Oh yeah, it was a super hot, sweaty night.
It was one of the last shows, if not the last.
Tim: Yeah, that was in the formative months of the band.
Nicki, you mentioned that one of the reasons the band started was that Tim was encouraging you to get out in front of an audience. How did you guys first meet and form a musical relationship? Tim, I heard a story that you heard her sing once at a party and that is when you decided you needed to produce Nicki. Was that after you already met?
Nicki: That was after we met, so I started listening to the Mother Hips as a teenager and all my boyfriends loved Mother Hips. I was of course brought to the shows and saw Tim playing and was like, “Who is that tall, handsome singer and guitar player?” [Laughs.] So I had known Tim for many years, then we kind of became acquaintances through the years. Finally, the timing was right and we were at a party. I picked up a guitar–
Tim: I didn’t even know she sang. I thought she was just a pretty girl.
Nicki: He thought I was a groupie [Laughter].
Tim: You were not a groupie because that’s a different definition. You don’t fulfill that definition.
Nicki: I was more focused on the music.
Before you had met had you been writing songs on your own or was playing just a hobby?
Nicki: I hadn’t been writing. I got my first guitar when I was seventeen and [that’s when] I started playing, but I mostly played songs that I knew [that] other people had written. The first song I wrote was “Toby’s Song,” which was the title track to our first record. After that I sort of loved to write songs and would [do so] with Tim’s encouragement. I’ve kept writing and now it seems [like a] really therapeutic way to express your inner thoughts [and] feelings, so it’s really special to me.