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Published: 2013/03/11
by Mike Greenhaus

Nicki and Tim Bluhm: The Gramblers’ Way

As you said, your third album is not out yet, but it’s been circulating in certain circles for a while. Do you have a set plan to release it this spring or winter?

Tim: I would say the spring. We’re not really supposed to talk about it. Yeah, we have some situations that we’re trying to see how they play out.

Tim, can you talk about your role in the Gramblers versus the Mother Hips? I know it has been a busy time for you balancing gig offers, pulling double duty with both bands on some nights and jetting between shows. I remember when you played New York last year you had to fly back to California for a Hips date and then back to New York for a Gramblers show.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. Aside from the politics of trying to keep everybody from being mad at me, it’s been working out pretty well. At least from my perspective, but for me it’s fabulous because it’s fun not to have to be the front guy and I can play piano and organ. I can kind of be like the utility guy on stage and it’s really fun because there’s less pressure in a way. I sit down some of the show and a lot of it is my own music that I’ve written, arranged and produced, so it’s very gratifying to hear these guys play it so well, and in some ways I’m kind of the weak link as the keyboard player. I’m not really a keyboard player, so it’s a good challenge for me [because] it’s interesting and it keeps me on my toes.

I remember the first time I saw you with the Gramblers, I didn’t know you played organ professionally…

Tim: Well, I don’t [Laughter].

In the last year, two things have increased the band’s visibility. Nicki was featured in an international Gap ad that was plastered in magazines, on billboards and even in phone booths, and you released a series of YouTube videos. In those videos you covered all sorts of bands. Can you talk a bit about how you felt both of those campaigns helped increase your visibility? Have you found that it has helped increase your fanbase outside San Francisco and your other key touring markets?

Nicki: I don’t really know. I feel like some of our YouTube videos were a lot more effective in getting people’s attention. The Gap I felt was a little mysterious because you couldn’t really see my face.

Tim: The Gap thing was cool among people who knew Nicki, both friends and family [thought] it was very exciting. It was like, “Holy crap! There’s an 80-foot Nicki on the side of a building!” But I don’t think it really showed up on our publicity front.

Nicki: But I do love the Gap and it was cool for me to do that with a company that I’ve worked at since I was a little girl. We went to Paris and saw the billboards up and that was the first place that I saw them. The ad was written in French and we were like, “What?!” That was cool.

You mentioned a bit about the YouTube videos. Can you talk a little about some of the songs you played, where the initial concepts came from and how that went viral, so to speak?

Tim: Steve Adams, the bass player [who also co-founded ALO], it was his idea. I wasn’t even in the band when it first happened, but he suggested that they videotape the song.

Nicki: Well, he always brings a ukulele on road trips, so he and I were in the front seat [of the car], he was in the passenger seat, [and] we were trying to work out a song called “Tonight You Belong to Me.” It’s a classic ukulele-type song. Tim wasn’t with us and we decided to record to send to him. Then [Steve] was like, “Let’s put it on YouTube, then our family can see it.” So we did it. It made people feel good and they kind of passed it around. I don’t think people really understand a touring musician’s life very well because they just see the performance part but really the truth is you’re up like all day.

Tim: It’s mostly driving.

Nicki: And you’re just so bored out of your mind, so to show people how we use our time, [show them] that we’re not just messing around. I mean we are messing around in a productive musical way.

Tim: Just learning and trying to learn a song that already exists. I think one of the keys as to why those videos are as appealing as they are is that we focus on the key elements of the song. We learn them really faithfully, it’s not like an impressionistic version of the song, it’s totally more instrumentation than any of the real songs, but we learn actual parts and we’ll sit there for hours and just get the notes right and get the harmonies the way they actually are on the real recording. I mean it’s sort of the same thing in [our country cover band] Brokedown in Bakersfield. We’re not just doing it the way we’re remembering it, we’re like really studying it. It’s tedious but that’s what passes the time.

That’s actually one of the other things that I was going to ask you about. I know that [Brokedown in Bakersfield] formed at High Sierra as kind of a Playshop performance. Talk a little about it for people who haven’t heard of it, the concept and how it has kind of evolved since that Playshop?

Tim: Well Lebo [ALO guitarist Dan Lebowitz] is really involved at High Sierra, and he does a lot of different Playshops. So he sort of has to come up with these creative ideas to make them interesting. He had recently started playing pedal steel guitar and he wanted to be able to play it in the band. He knew that we were all collectively interested in the Bakersfield sound, California country music, so he suggested it and honestly when Nicki and I first heard [about] it, our initial reaction was, “Of course! We’d love to do it!” But we were right in the middle of a really busy time, so the last thing we need is another batch of songs that we have to learn how to sing well and practice. For whatever reason we loved everyone involved so much that we said, “We’re going to do it.” We knew most of the music already and after the first show, [when] we played at High Sierra, it was like three years ago, it was obvious that the reaction from the audience was way stronger than we could have ever anticipated, so we all kind of looked at each other and we loved it too.

It’s really fun to come to a place like Jam Cruise and be able to do Mickey Hart’s band, which is a different kind of music, and then we get to play country music, and then we get to sit in with funk musicians and do that. It’s really enjoyable to be able to hop around and get in on different people’s scenes.

Nicki: Scott Law co-wrote “Tellum Blues” with us.

Tim: He co-wrote “Tellum Blues,” and then the song “Loving You” that Steve Kimock sat in on [during Jam Cruise] was written by Stevie Wonder.

In the four years you’ve been in Jam Cruise, you’ve been in some of the more diverse projects from world music, rhythm projects, jam projects, Jackie Greene, singer/songwriter stuff.

Tim: Yeah, it’s true. To me that’s really satisfying. I’m proud of that.

Speaking of your other projects, can we expect a Mother Hips record in 2013?

Tim: Yeah, we have a new record. It’s called Behind Beyond and it’s totally done. We’re just figuring out how we’re going to release it, but it’s definitely coming out really soon. [We’re] super proud of it, and we’re going to tour and fit it in around the Gramblers’ schedule. The Hips still play 80 shows a year, so we’ve had to change the way we tour a little bit because of the Gramblers but it’s not really playing less. We’re just concentrating it more in the time that I have off from Nicki’s band.

Not only have you been playing shows, but you also performed the Hips’ first album Back to the Grotto in its entirety a few times in 2012 for the album’s 20th anniversary.

Tim: We’ve been doing that in different cities all over the country and it’s really fun. It’s fun to revisit yourself when you’re 19 years old. I wish I could still be 19, sometimes. [Laughter.]

Nicki: You wrote pretty well for a 19-year-old English student.

Tim: There’s some pretty embarrassing lyrics if you ask me, but–

Is there anything that you’ve re-noticed about the album after all this time, particularly your lyrics? Do you see it from a different perspective now?

Tim: Yeah, some of them I’m like, “Wow! This kid was thinking pretty well.” But then there are other ones that were just bad. [Laughter.] Don’t try to shock your parents with your lyrics, it’s just not a flattering look. But then the other part that’s really interesting is the choices that we made musically, [the] chord changes I wrote, the rhythms that are there are—I can’t say that they’re sophisticated because they’re not—but they were adventurous. I didn’t know enough about music to not do that stuff. It’s sort of like when you don’t know any of the rules you just stumble into some things that sound innovative and maybe they are innovative, I’m not sure. That’s really been sort of fun to listen to these inexperienced musicians, who [were] really exploring the limitations of form.

Right. And updating it a little live.

Tim: Yeah, now we can play it better, but some of the things you can only play well if you don’t know how to play very well. That’s my favorite kind of music.

Yeah, like punk rock stuff.

Tim: Right. [Laughter.]

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