There are dark clouds on the horizon. The trees are stripped bare and it’s clear that a long winter is curling its fingers around the neck of autumn.
But at the moment, in the front parlor of a quiet house in Oak Park, dusky oldies are whispering out of the radio, streams of dust-dappled sunlight bathe the hardwood floors, green velveteen couches and antique tea sets.
There’s a mouse cage on the floor — tantalizingly close to house cat level — where the white rodent that Dan and Tracee Miller nursed back from the brink of death now burrows happily. You start to get the feeling that these are not people who take for granted that the sun will rise the next morning.
Still, it is Sunday serenity — a rare moment of quiet for Dan and Tracee, the married couple who are two-fifths of the Detroit country quintet Blanche. It has been a whirlwind year that has seen such highs as playing in front of thousands of folks with heroes like Loretta Lynn and longtime pals the White Stripes tempered by the tragic deaths of family members and the attendant ills, the kind that can test your faith — in man, music, medicine or otherwise. But right now, it’s quiet.
It was in this living room that Blanche was birthed four years ago with the Millers (Dan, guitar and vocals; Tracee, bass and vocals), Dave Feeny (pedal steel, vocals), Brian “Patch” Boyle (banjo and autoharp) and Lisa “Jaybird” Jannon (drums) as midwives. All but Boyle are metro Detroit natives (with Boyle hailing originally from Port Austin). In the past four years, the five members of Blanche have managed to carve out one of the most distinctive sounds around — a rough-hewn, homemade country music that rides the hairbreadth between gloriously chaotic and intensely quiet, joyful and spooked to the core, damnation and salvation. They’ve also managed to become a humanistic presence in a Detroit music scene that can at times seem chock-full of joyless, faceless, record-collection-obsessed rock.
On the eve of the release of their debut CD — nearly two years in the making —Dan John Miller, Blanche’s shock-haired, beanpole preacher-front man and songwriter is ducking the sunlight as he attempts to explain the record’s title — If We Can’t Trust the Doctors…:
“It’s a lyric from the song, but it gets back to the old country and old blues songs you’d sing when you’re at the bottom, at the depths of despair which everyone gets to — whether it’s a relationship gone bad or death or you’re getting sick or mental illness,” says Miller.
“It comes down to faith, and if you start doubting that — because there’s nothing tangible and you can’t really depend on that except in your heart — well, what else can you depend on? Let’s see, your prayers have fallen flat and everything’s going horrible and you’ve gotten bad news. So you say, ‘He’s a doctor. He knows what he’s talking about.’
“But then doctors, like politicians or anyone else, they’re going through divorces, they have their own illnesses. And then you start thinking ‘God, what the fuck can you depend on?’”
Welcome to the world of Blanche, a place where each new day presents equal possibility of hope and despair. Blanche’s sound echoes another time without bending to nostalgia. It is the sound of the Carter Family teaming with iconoclastic musical outsiders like Lee Hazelwood. It is Flannery O’Connor’s unblinking chronicles of sin and redemption from hearts saved by rock ’n’ roll. It is Sunday best out on Saturday night. Onstage, they look not unlike a sepia-toned tintype of stern-faced rural folk playing at a family reunion — come to life and dipped in Technicolor.
“The last time I saw them, I was in the balcony of the Gem and I just thought, ‘There’s something so odd about them,’” says friend, collaborator and former band mate Jack White of the White Stripes.
“These are five misfits that a computer-dating service had hooked up as a band. Like they’re from different parts of the country and they don’t have anything to do with each other and were forced into this band through contractual obligations,” he laughs.
“But it works because they make it work. It makes you want to smile seeing something so different, but it’s so emotional too.”
Requiem for an ex-Goober
Not exactly the kind of music one might expect from the pen and guitar of a man who, less than 10 years ago, worked the boards as the titular “Goober” of Goober and the Peas entertaining sold-out crowds at St. Andrew’s Hall, touring two continents and developing loyal pockets of a cult following with cowpunk hits like “Hot, Hot Women and Cold, Cold Beer.”
The hay flew fast and furious as Miller unleashed his inner ringmaster-in-hat-and-Nudie suit and the action was as frantic as it was often hysterical. It couldn’t have been further from the towering Abe Lincoln-with-guitar that leads Blanche through its paces.
But to hear Miller tell his story, the evolution from Goober to Dan John Miller is just that, a gradual metamorphosis from song-and-dance man to something nearer to confessional occasioned by life’s changes.
From 1989 to 1994, Miller and Tom Hendrickson (aka Goober and the Peas guitarist “Junior”) married audacious entertainment to an obvious fondness for country music’s rural roots.
“When Junior and I started Goober and the Peas, the idea for the band was a shared fondness for old country music and that old style inspired us,” he recalls. “I remember our feeling at that time, like we’d go to some show at Bookies or wherever and we’d think, ‘What would be the most offensive thing to these people?’ — to the more fashion-conscious people wearing the punk-rock status quo attire.
“I was really proud that — even though there was a really strong element of humor with the band — we were trying to do something different and we were able to get it across successfully. I don’t think there’s many bands around here that can say that.”
For a half-dozen years, two albums and worldwide tours playing with acts like Morphine and on their own, Goober and the Peas were smack-dab in the left-of-center of the then-budding No Depression country scene (a scene — presciently for the future Blanche members — named after a Carter Family song). And then they folded the tents.
“It’s weird,” Miller says. “One thing about Goober and the Peas — I think because we ended the band when we were doing great, touring all over the world and all that, people were like, ‘Why would you break up?’ Well, it’s because it wasn’t inspiring anymore and you don’t want it to get pitiful.”
Of course, calling it a day at the peak of your game also means that you have to deal with the inertia of objects left in motion. For Miller the songwriter, that energy found a home in his next endeavor, the short-lived 2-Star Tabernacle. Comprised of Dan Miller (who for the first time faced the task of both playing guitar and singing), Jack White (vocals and guitar), Tracee Miller (who was literally learning the bass while on-stage) and Damian Lange (drums), 2-Star was the very definition of a transition band. It lasted from 1997 to March 1999.
Without 2-Star Tabernacle, it’s safe to say that neither Blanche nor the White Stripes would be the same bands. Veering wildly between Miller’s country compositions (like the Appalachian-tinged sweetheart ballad “Red Head” and the future Blanche staple “Who’s to Say …”) and White’s more rock leanings (several of the songs that would later end up on White Blood Cells were birthed in 2-Star), the band was an outlet for its two singers and songwriters to figure out where they would go next. It was, in many ways, an audience-facing songwriting workshop in which the two principals bounced compositions off each other. And for Miller, it meant telling the fans that the Goober character had been shed.
“Looking back on that, even the first few shows with 2-Star Tabernacle, people would be yelling out requests and I’d just have to say ‘Sorry.’ You know? When you’re doing a new band, you just gotta start fresh,” says Miller.
But the urge to stand apart from the crowd remained.
“With 2-Star, at the time, both Jack and I were really into Cab Calloway and we knew we wanted to do something with an entertainment aspect,” says Miller. “That’s come across in the White Stripes too. But you can’t just entertain for entertainment’s sake; it’s gotta fit the music and it’s gotta make sense.”
And it damn near worked. When 2-Star Tabernacle was on, it was a thing of musical beauty — two striking personalities leading the way through a nervous hybrid of country and rock so completely unironic that you’d just as soon get your heart broken as tap your toes.
But it wasn’t meant to hold. The band released but one recording — with legendary R&B crooner Andre Williams — “Jet Black Daddy (Lily White Mama)” backed with a cover of Hank Williams’ “Rambling Man” on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
It was obvious that both men had bigger fish to fry and other ideas bouncing around in their imaginations.
“2-Star, we kinda didn’t know what we wanted to do,” says White. “We were going in 15 directions at once. I had just started the White Stripes and we didn’t really have a direction. Like ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby’ was originally written for Andre Williams for that Bloodshot 45. And there was “Hotel Yorba” — these were songs I didn’t know I could do in the White Stripes, so we did ’em in 2-Star.
“We pulled the cord on 2-Star Tabernacle and when we did, things were — oddly — starting to gel in a way,” says Miller. “At the same time we knew it was really exactly right. Jack was really writing unbelievable songs. A bunch of songs we were doing in 2-Star Tabernacle actually ended up on White Blood Cells. Some of those songs and earlier songs that he had written for 2-Star Tabernacle were more punk, more aggressive in a good way.”
“When I first saw Blanche,” says White “I thought, ‘Now that’s what 2-Star should have been.’”
Blanche is born
After 2-Star Tabernacle was dissolved, Miller was left bandless, yet as often happens, the songs didn’t stop coming. Making it doubly daunting was that the songs he was writing were of a different sort than he was used to penning, owing more to the bubbling up of country’s distant past than anything resembling rock ’n’ roll.
The Millers and the folks who gather around them are the kind of people who play music not just for show, but like the musicians to whom their music nods, rural folk who played bluegrass, blues and country music on weekend nights and Sundays from the pure joy of expression. So it was that Dan Miller found himself one night sitting around the living room with his wife Tracee, plucking out his new songs just to get them out of his head.
Their friend Lisa Jannon happened by and she was soon tapping out a rhythm on a snare drum.
“I thought, ‘Let’s just see what we can do with this,’” says Miller. “We have a drummer who’s never played drums before, I had an old pedal steel in the basement and Feeny — who is an old friend of ours — had never played before. And Brian — Patch — hadn’t ever played his instrument, but we knew that he shared a love of the same kinds of music we did.
“I think that the idea for Blanche was basically, ‘Let’s just take something where we all have a really similar feeling about what the music should be like, and see what happens.’”
And so it began. Rickety at first. Rickety for a good spell, actually. But gradually, gelling into its own natural order, a front porch orchestra of simple, (dis)quiet, eerie songs that sound like very little else you’ve ever laid ears on. That “learn as you go” approach became a modus operandi for these five folks.
“Instead of practicing, we started playing in front of people,” laughs Miller.
Their first gig was, somehow appropriately, at a Christmas party for a Japanese corporation.
“A friend of ours was in charge of booking entertainment and he asked if we wanted to make some money, and I said, ‘Well, they’re gonna hate us,’” laughs Miller. “I think we really humiliated ourselves because we were so bad.”
“We all knew what we were trying to do, but we weren’t there yet. But now — because of that initial humiliation — when we go and play some high-pressure show, that pressure’s not there. It’s actually more stressful to play for 20 of our friends.
“I think that’s something great about Detroit. If we were doing it in some other city, we’d have been judged so quickly,” continues Miller. “It seemed like people appreciated that we were trying to do something different. Even if it’s something that isn’t your cup of tea.”
And there’s an oft-ignored (at least in the critical press) aspect to Blanche that’s only now making it to the surface. They’re a garage band. Not in style, of course, but in spirit, Blanche is a bunch of garage punks making country music as ancient as the hills.
“Garage used to mean something different. It was the spirit in which music was made. And I think we certainly have that spirit. But now, garage rock represents slick pros who have been in tons of bands before trying to imitate the Stooges.”
Further evidence of Blanche’s recessive punk gene can be found in the quiet storm of their emotionally blistering take on the Gun Club’s “Jack on Fire.” Featuring Henricksen on electric guitar, the song offers a glimpse not just into the members’ roots, but also Blanche’s abiding philosophy of running everything through “the Blanche filter.”
Adding the Gun Club cover to their repertoire was a turning point for Blanche. “When we started to play ‘Jack of Fire,’ something about the way we played it, the way we made it our own really invigorated us. It made sense.”
Did my debonair style impress you/but you kept asking where I shopped/that day you saw me picking through the garbage/was the day our romance stopped. —”Garbage Picker”
But even during these early shows, Blanche — on looks alone — were at least entertaining before they even plucked a single note. And once they started in on songs of trust, misplaced hope and other warm and fuzzy emotional landscapes, they were damn near hypnotizing: The twin Americana Gothic towers of Dan and Tracee, both with hair piled high, Sunday best circa 1930, Dan stern yet charismatic, Tracee distant but knowing. Boyle with a rumpled hat perched atop his head, curled like a question mark over his banjo rocking to either an inner metronome or the voices he was keeping at bay. Bespectacled Feeny adding expert lilt and weep to the proceedings from his post behind the pedal steel. And Jannon, a silent enigma behind the kit, holding the whole thing together-ish. Informal, but all dressed up. If you weren’t careful, you’d miss the often-devastating stories. And, according to Tracee, that dissonance is part of the program.
Their informality leavens the gravity of their tales. To get music like this digested, you need a sidecar of entertainment.
“I think if you’re going to be in a band, obviously the songs are most important, but entertaining people is important,” says Tracee. “Everything we do has to be somewhat of a cocktail. It has to have some strange twist to it.
“And I think what we do is really honest and genuine,” she continues. “I don’t think anyone on stage is putting on an act. Everything that we do on stage has evolved into what it is. It’s not like we choreograph anything.”
That Dan and Tracee Miller are a couple adds to the dynamic too. Married seven years, the natural, sometimes tense interplay between the two has become a growing part of Blanche’s performances. “I think people do sense that we are really married — even though people do come up and ask,” says Tracee. “And they also sense that these are stories — at least I hope most of them are stories, I can’t listen to the lyrics sometimes, I have to just stay in character,” she adds, half-laughing.
Rare is the band that can blur lines between the theatrical and the raw emotion and put on a show without resorting to cheap shtick. Blanche is that rare band.
“There’s a lot of inspiration for me that comes from growing up watching artists like Loretta Lynn,” continues Tracee. “And it doesn’t even have to be country artists, it could be Dean Martin or whoever. There were just these personalities that really came across on stage. I wouldn’t want to be on stage and not have a strong presence.”
“And it’s part of the history of music — from vaudeville to today,” adds Miller. “I think today there’s just a lot of just cynicism. We went through this time all across popular music where people thought it was uncool to ‘entertain’ and their logic was that if you do that, it’s unreal or unauthentic. It’s a balancing act because some people way overdo it and it’s not inspired or real.”
“People ask: ‘How does it make you feel when people get hung up on the way you dress?’” says Miller. “And we tell them ‘We brought it on ourselves. We like to dress this way.’
“When I met Tracee I thought, ‘Wow. There’s another freak like me who has her own style’” remembers Miller. “And it’s like that with everyone in the band. It’s some weird genetic thing that all five of us have. Except for Lisa. She’s more sneaky about it.
“I’ll look at Feeny getting so into the spirit of the music,” says Miller.
“I’ve seen people looking at him and think he’s joking. And I guess it is humorous, but your mind just takes you someplace else. I just look at him sometimes and think, ‘What is wrong with that guy?’”
“There are times,” finishes Tracee, “where I’ll just be looking at them thinking, ‘What has gotten into them?’ It’s shocking, even to me.”
“I think that’s what we want to get out of our music,” adds Miller. “To not force the creepiness or not force the spookiness, but just let the sound of our instruments create that.”
A tale of three studios
Folks you think I’d be happy and delighted/Because all my dreams are finally coming true/But did I mention all my dreams are nightmares/And in my head there’s a storm about to brew. —“So Long Cruel World”
Oddly (or appropriately) enough, the first recording of a Blanche song to hit stores wasn’t even a record by the band. The White Stripes released Blanche’s unsettling character study “Who’s to Say …” as a B-side to their cover version of Bacharach/David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” And in an oddly appropriate turn of events, White also plays on Blanche’s version, turning up to contribute a guitar solo.
“I just think that’s the greatest song that Dan’s ever written,” says White. “It’s so sad and if you really listen closely to the lyrics, the character in that song is so pathetic — has so much pathos — that it makes me cry. When we tried recording it, I couldn’t nail it. I just couldn’t nail that emotion like Dan does.”
After four years of musical growth and evolution, Blanche is ready to unveil their recorded works. They’ve already previewed the sound with their debut 45 on the local Cass Records label, but next week we’ll get to hear the fruits of a burdened recording process where life interceded more than once, a path rife with brambles, pitfalls and lost maps. It also found the band tapping members of their extended family and making new partners in song along the way.
One like-minded gent was Warn Defever — the main man behind His Name is Alive among other incarnations — who had only just hung the shingle on his Brown Rice recording studio when Blanche came calling.
They did cut some tracks at Feeny’s Tempermill Studios, and he mixed a majority of the record.
But, according to Miller, the decision to turn to Defever was natural. “Dave [Feeny] and I could have done the whole album ourselves, but I wanted to see what someone completely objective would do with the music,” he says.
“Warn has a really deep appreciation of country music that goes way back.”
Defever was looking for kindred spirits to work with for his inaugural project.
“There is something spooky about Blanche, something you can’t quite put your finger on, and I wanted to capture that. In their songs, their stories, their lonesome sound, their secrets, their old-timey jokes and language, I find contradictions, and, ultimately, an American mystery,” says Defever via e-mail.
“I found all this, a strongly developed sarcastic brand of humor, and a quality rarely found these days, the ability to handle my harsh comments and rude directions in the studio. My constant accusations of ‘You have fat fingers,’ ‘Can’t you try any harder???’ ‘You call that in-tune???,’ ‘You call yourself an autoharpist???!!!’ and the classic, ‘You suck, I hate you,’ plus ‘How old are you anyway???’ were handled with sublime professionalism.”
The results invigorated the thirtysomethings in the band.
But during the recording process tragedy struck the Blanche house not once, but twice. Miller’s brother, painter and musician Michael Francis Miller — to whom the album is dedicated and with whom the entire Blanche family was very close — died suddenly. Tracee’s father also died. This had a ripple effect in everything that Blanche did. It seemed to give the band a galvanizing bond, but it also altered the songs and the way they were played and sung — adding a gravity, perhaps, and sending the songwriter down a pretty dark path.
“There was a lot of bad stuff that happened while we were recording. A lot of the songs I wrote about my brother and the sad stuff I was feeling at that time,” says Miller
“It’s just weird looking back on it. You read about people who have, like, 10 really horrible things hit them in a year, and you think, ‘That can’t be me.’ And I realized when we were at the funeral home for the third time in a year, that, yeah, that could be me.”
The music became a way of exorcising some of the demons that haunted the band over this last year. Playing music that’s both near to their heart and steeped in spirit has a way of helping both player and audience is one of the reasons Blanche transcends scene, audience and, in a weird way, time.
“In old country music, if you listen to the Carter Family, for example, those are really sad songs,” says Miller. “But there’s something uplifting about them, especially if you’re going through hard times.
“I love playing gospel music and spirituals. The troubling thing is the exclusivity of religion. I don’t want it to come across like we’re pushing one brand of religion or Christianity.”
“When you just feel so horrible with sadness or death, when you get to that lowness of despair, then what is gonna do it?” he continues. “It’s gonna be friends and family or whatever, sure, but there’s got to be something else. Even atheists have their faith that everything’s fucked up and beyond their control. That’s faith in something, at least.”
The Millers’ and Blanche’s trial by fire was not without its positive impact on the band. “It’s like, once you’ve gone through a crisis in life, once you’ve made it through something really horrible, the regular bill stuff, the day-to-day stuff, doesn’t matter,” says Miller.
So it was that Dan, Tracee, Patch, Feeny and Jaybird found themselves last year, musical chops polished — or evolved, as the case may be — solidarity intact, with an ambition for what Blanche could be, their focus redoubled.
This is the band whose confidence was boosted by warm receptions at Austin, Texas’, massive annual industry orgy South by Southwest, opening for Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, playing with the White Stripes and Loretta Lynn both in New York and Detroit, and knocking out audiences in the UK on a two-week tour last month with their pals in the Handsome Family.
This is the band that found its way into pop-songwriter Brendan Benson’s studio to knock out a couple more tracks — among them a dramatically retooled, slowed-down take on “Who’s to Say …” that replaces twang ’n’ stomp with hush-and-don’t-rush.
Benson’s informal, set up-and-play approach managed to capture the Blanche live sound. Three producers, one tough year and a leap of faith later, Blanche finally has If We Can’t Trust the Doctors … to show for their efforts.
“Looking at the album, I was thinking, you know, these songs are kinda depressing, but it works as an album because we’re not presenting them in that typical drone-y, confessional singer-songwriter-y way,” says Miller.
“If somebody reads the lyric ‘It’s bad luck to be superstitious,’ they’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s a funny little ironic play,” continues Miller. He shifts to and fro on his living room couch as the sun begins to fade in the sky. “My dad died when I was 14, and I remember sitting in a waiting room at the hospital thinking, ‘All right, I’ll sit a certain way. Last time was it good news or bad news? OK, I’ll sit this way and it’ll be good news.’
“But at a certain point, it’s like, ‘This is being fucking superstitious and it’s ridiculous.’ And the thought actually went through my head that if you’re being superstitious, that would be bad luck.”
That circular logic sums up neatly why Blanche are the way they are. When you bring the serious songwriting together with all these personalities, you get a strange mix. You can talk about dark places and tell these stories and still have it be digestible without being completely depressing. Because, in the end, it’s all about communion. Communion with other people at the most basic level — a strong emotional level. And the net effect is that it inspires them to think about their own life, their own superstition.
So did it bode well when, upon arriving in the UK for their first-ever tour, they were greeted not by a tour bus, but by a converted ambulance?
“All of a sudden everything started to make sense when they pulled up in that ambulance,” says Miller.
“We had all these different weird things, like we all just happened to buy old 1930s doctor’s bags to keep our cords in. It wasn’t really planned, but everything seems to be falling together pretty well.”
Blanche’s If We Can’t Trust the Doctors ... record release show will be Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) with the Waxwings, Brendan Benson and the Joel Shawl Trio (straight from the Polish Village Cafe, Hamtramck). Call 313-833-9700 for more information.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]