Slow ripples of interest have been spreading about Blanche, a quintet from Detroit formed around the nucleus of Dan John Miller's songwriting. Some interest has come from the White Stripes connection – Miller played in Two Star Tabernacle, with the Stripes' Jack White, who guests on Blanche's debut album – but just as much interest has been provoked by the quality of their first release If we can't trust the doctors. Word of mouth, slowly but surely, is passing their name on as one to watch. The band, with their distinctive old time look and sound have played with everyone from 16 Horsepower, the Handsome Family, the White Stripes, Wilco, Loretta Lynn and Calexico, and have won over many with their delicately crafted, subtle and stark version of Americana.
Three Monkeys Online exchanged emails with Dan John Miller and his wife, Bassist, Tracee Miller [Editor’s note: responses are from Dan Miller, except where indicated], for the following interview:
From the music through to your clothes and image, it seems that there's a traditional element or nostalgic element to the band. Would it be fair to say that a certain nostalgia or backwards looking perspective plays an important part to Blanche?
(Tracee) It definitely does. We are by no means a traditional band but we hold fast to the innocence and emotion of traditional music. There is a certain sadness that you feel from nostalgia. It is a wistfulness that can only be had by looking into the past. Blanche has found a place where we were able to be true to our time and not fall into the ‘old timey’ gimmick but also keep our dusty attic intact.
There is a certain seam of American music, in particular, that does look back to the distant past (in pop music terms) for inspiration. Why do you think that is? Is there a notion of unease with modernity there – with modern fashions, production values, and technology?
In America, there used to be a feeling that if a band was influenced by old music, then they were dismissed as a gimmick or something. Only recently has America started to really embrace older forms of music. Maybe it's that disposable society trap…knocking down historic buildings for crappy strip malls, etc.
For us, I do think there is something intimidating and a bit scary about modernity. When there is pain in your life, I think we instinctively look back to safer time…your childhood, your grandparents house. I think personally, listening to The Carter Family, for instance, is like covering myself with an old quilt…there is so much sadness, but it's still comforting and even hopeful in an odd way.
As for modern fashions, there's a lot of stuff out there that just doesn't appeal to me, but we've always dressed the way we feel comfortable performing in, it doesn't have to be a certain ‘era’ or anything. Tracee has always worn these beautiful dresses, some very old, some brand new, but they fit her sense of style. It's easy for people to see us and say that we dress only in ‘depression era’ clothes or something. I tend to prefer western suits, and they're usually from the Salvation Army thrift stores, and they can be from the ’50s, the ’70s, and I've had friends who make clothes make me new suits that still look the way I like.
In terms of production values, I don't like things ultra polished, but I don't want to get caught up in recording only on analog equipment or to intentionally make albums that sound ‘lo-fi’. I think that can be a pretty gimmicky trap to fall into. Using the right kind of microphones, placing them properly…or closing your eyes and actually listening to the music is the real test. Even a band like the Handsome Family – I think Brett still records their albums on his computer -is fairly polished sounding, but the arrangements are so good that the emotion still comes across, and lyrically, I think that inspiration from older music still glimmers through. So I think the best music is that which is truly inspired by older forms and doesn't just merely imitate it.