The Dead Covers Project Profiles - Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers
Nicki Bluhm is a rising star in the San Francisco music scene performing with her band, The Gramblers, and as a duo with her husband Tim Bluhm (The Mother Hips). She's even shared the stage with an array of revered performers including Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. You can catch Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers live at their June Residency at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop or on the road this summer.
Learn more about Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers in the exclusive interview below and at nickibluhm.com.
Take us back to how you got started as a musician. Did you grow up in a musical family?
I didn't grow up in a particularly musical family - I mean, we always had music around but the only person in my family who played music was my older brother. My grandpa used to do a lot of singing. He loved Frank Sinatra. He would record his voice - he was also really into technology, and at the time it was the 80s and it was not as easy to manipulate... home recording was new. We didn't know much about it, but we would be sitting at the dinner table at my grandpa's house and he would play a record and all of the sudden my grandpa would be singing harmonies taped over Frank Sinatra. I just got a kick out of it.
My grandpa, he loved to sing, but he was certainly not a musician. My brother played guitar and I just really looked up to my older brother David. That kind of got me into it initially.
Was your brother into the Dead?
Yea, he really was and it was cool. Their music is great because it bridges so many generations. It appeals to my brother who is ten years older than me and it appeals to me... I think it appeals to a lot of different people in a lot of different styles of music. That was probably one of my earliest exposures with the Dead. He listened to a lot of reggae - Peter Tosh and of course, Bob Marley. Those were my early musical influences and they were solely because of my older brother.
How did The Gramblers form?
It started initially just me solo. I played my first handful of shows...when I met Tim, my husband, I didn't sing at all or play out in front of people. He heard me sing at a party. We started a relationship there and he really encouraged me to start singing in front of people - to go to open mikes and just get some experience playing in front of people. I didn't really want to, but I trusted him so much that I kind of figured he knew what he was talking about. So I started going out on my own and playing. I was living in San Diego at the time so I played my first open mike and didn't tell any of my friends - just kind of went and played my songs and it was a really good experience. I was surprised. It went really well which gave me the courage to keep doing it and then I moved to San Francisco and did some recording with Tim. I wanted to start playing some shows - real shows, not just open mike shows and I did and I liked it. At some point, I was in these louder clubs, opening for Skinny Singers (Tim Bluhm and Jackie Greene) - just solo - and I immediately wanted someone to be playing with me. It's hard to play a club with one guitar and one voice. People are chatting and I wanted to cut through a little more so I enlisted my childhood friend Deren Ney, who still plays guitar with me in The Gramblers. We were a duo act, just me and Deren. Then we recorded our first record with a collection of musicians from San Francisco. It was just our favorite musicians playing on that first record but when we went to release the record, I wanted the release show to sound like the record. So I hired some musicians and we played the show. It was a total rush for me to play with a band because I'd never done it before and I could never go back. So I've had the band since 2008 and some of the players have shifted but for the most part it's been me and Deren and Tim and our drummer Mike Curry. Steve Adams was added on bass shortly after that initial release. More recently, we've added Dave Mulligan to the mix. It's a good, strong family of people. We're all really close.
The music you make has a bit of rock, a bit of country, a touch of soul. How would you classify it?
It is hard to say... just sitting in the studio and listening to the songs that we're recording now, that we have played live - I just have a sense of pride because there are no tricks. It's just honest music like you heard on your parent's AM radio. Honest music that you would hear today, made by people that care about crafting songs, spending time with lyrics. I think it's thoughtful music. I think it's honest music. It's fun. It's real.
Your YouTube channel has a little series called the Van Sessions where we came across your video for "Deal" among other classic covers. How did the Van Sessions get started?
Boredom! Sheer boredom. We were just without a radio. You have long drives. Steve Adams kind of started it because he always brings a sort of road ukulele with him. You know that movie "The Jerk," with Steve Martin and the famous ukulele song that they play in it... so Steve and I always mess around at parties and we try to perfect that song. We were driving to Salt Lake City and Steve had the ukulele and we were like, let's finally figure out this song - it would be a cool thing to do at the end of a show. We started singing it and Dave had a little back pack for his guitar and he pulled that out. Deren had a melodica - or Steve brought a melodica and let Deren play it - and Deren can pretty much play anything he touches. So that was cool. And we all started to play that song...[sings] Tonight you belong to me ... and tonight you belong toooo me... and we started playing in the van. We were like we should film this. This is cool. We just strapped an iPhone to the rearview mirror and recorded it. We thought it was really funny and we wanted to share it with our friends and our fans. It's hard to keep in touch with your friends and your family when you are on the road. It's really isolating. You're kind of in a tour bubble so it's our way of connecting with people and letting them know what we're doing. You know, people are doing their jobs, sitting their office, or they're doing whatever they do. This is what we're doing at our job. It's kind of cool to see stuff other than the show. It's kind of cool to see the in-between. We like to make music and we like to share it so that was kind of the birth of that. I think people can relate to it... it's just fun... it's like being in high school or something. It's silly.
Your connection with the Dead runs pretty deep. Do you ever play their stuff live?
Yea we have. We've played "Deal" live and we very much admire the members of the Grateful Dead. Tim, my husband, was on tour with Mickey Hart. He did a Rhythm Devils tour with Mickey and that was really an honor for him to get to play with living legends. Mickey is very, very dedicated and serious about what he is doing, it's cool. It's so interesting because what I do know about the members of the Dead is that they are really cerebral, intellectual, smart people. Obviously they have great stories too, you're like wait a minute, tell me that part about Grace Slick again. It's been an honor to get to know them. I got to sing with Bob Weir at the Seva benefit last year. It was Chris Robinson, myself, and Bob among other incredible musicians up on the stage. Everybody there was just amazing. That for me was a really, really cool experience. Phil opened Terrapin Crossroads so we played there. It was really cool to play with him and his son. It's been a honor to live so close to these people and have our paths cross.
Great vid Nicki and the guys! Gonna send this to all my colleagues in the office (~40 of them, quite a few of them will want to see it for sure). Trouble is YouTube is only accessible at lunchtime (IT rules) so could get a bit choppy ...
When are you coming to the UK? If you get a gig in Yorkshire you can stay at my house if you like ... no problem parking ...
Edit: I just had to watch it again ... makes me feel so good. You guys really should try and get over here to the UK & Europe ... we are (I am) still living in the "post-punk" era and nothing new is happening ... same old, same old ... the Justin Bieber thing just doesn't do it for me. Get your van over here and travel for a while ... furth*r ...
Peace and Love xxx
Glad to see Nicki and the Gramblers on this list. Such a great year since that gig at Craneway a year ago... Like ! told ya! Have a great weekend at Terrapin!