Blank Range: The TVD Q&A at Schubas Tavern

PHOTOS: SARAH DERER | Blank Range is a five-piece rock n’ roll band out of Nashville. And while you can probably get a sense of their “sound” from that statement alone, each member brings a diverse set of influences to the table, putting their own memorable stamp on a tried and true formula.

For a band that’s only self-released a cassette and a 7”, Blank Range has attracted a lot of attention. The group won BMI’s Road to Bonnaroo competition in February, making them the first band announced for the festival’s 2014 installment. They were guests on Daytrotter back in November, and, as of April, are the latest addition to The Billions Corporation’s roster of artists. All this recognition has helped them accumulate a notable following in and around their home state of Tennessee, with a burgeoning national fan base set to see Blank Range on their first official tour.

Band members Jonathan Childers (guitar/vocals), Grant Gustafson (guitar/vocals), Jon Rainville (keyboard/vocals), Matt Novotny (drums/vocals) and Aaron Wahlman (bass/vocals) all hail from the Midwest, and despite their home base in Nashville, agree that “regional” or “Southern” rock isn’t an appropriate classification. They’ve shared the stage with Southern rockers Futurebirds and Southern-inspired rockers Blitzen Trapper, but the group has a sound all its own—driven, in equal measure, by each member’s unique musical aesthetic.

At its heart, Blank Range is a DIY “American rock band;” but they are not playing dress up by singing about wartime, famine, and tales of yesteryear. Instead, the lyrical themes are true to each songwriter, which makes both their music and performances resonate with fans.

I checked out Blank Range on Friday night (5/31) at Schubas, where they played the second—and most engaging—of three sets. While their sound and lyrics are eclectic on tape, their range is even more distinct in a live setting. From one song to the next, the group displays influences all over the map. I heard sounds reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns (“Before I Go to Sleep,” “Last Crash Landing”), twang-filled Southern rock and soul (“Neon Sign,” “Roommate’s Girlfriend”), and even a bit of garage rock (“Scrapin’”). Yet somehow, it all collides seamlessly, resulting in a sound that’s both frenetic and genuine.

I sat down with the group before their Friday set to talk about plans for their first full-length, their musical influences and experiences on the road…as well as other important topics including John Childers’ “Seger Rules” tattoo, the band’s casino tour dates with Alice in Chains, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack.

How did you guys get started and where did you meet?

Jon Rainville: Grant (Gustafson) and I went to college together at North Central in Naperville and we met Matt (Novotny) and John (Childers) through some mutual friends. They went to U of I together. We met Aaron (Wahlman) down in Nashville after we’d all moved there. We started the group just about a year ago. That was the real first version, I guess.

You guys were recently announced as new additions to the Billions roster. How’d that come about and how’s it going?

Jonathan Childers: Signed up with them in March after we won a competition called Road to Bonnarroo, which I think helped raise our profile in Nashville. We had a lunch with our manager, Adam, and he liked what he saw.

Rainville: We ended up having several different lines to Adam. He bought a 7” and I sent him a note inviting him to our show. He came to 3-4 shows before he met with us, so it was a longer road than just one meeting. We go way back.

Your tour so far—tell me about it. Any lasting memories? Who has been your favorite band to play with?

Aaron Whalman: Alice in Chains, man. That was fun as hell. We’re just a totally different band, different sound. So it was fun to just go out there and slay it in front of a bunch of 40 and 50 year olds wearing metal shirts.

Rainville: I loved playing with the Futurebirds on our last tour. That was a real treat—they are just such fun guys. It’s good, too, because roughly half the band lives in Nashville, so it’s always great running into them.

How would you describe your sound to those who’ve not heard your music? Would you say you identify with the Southern rock scene?

Childers: Rock and roll is what we have going on—what we usually say. We don’t really want to go into too much detail with descriptors. All our songs we try to make a little different from one another, and we try not to put too much weight on the descriptors.

Wahlman: I mean we’re all from the Midwest. I’m from St. Louis and they’re all from Illinois, so we all kind of have that Midwest attitude. I don’t really know how you’d describe that, but it’s something I’ve experienced after moving around a lot. Just that hard working and, kind of—I don’t want to say angst, because that makes it sound negative—but kind of the “screw you were gonna do it our way” kind of attitude. That’s what makes us Midwest and not Southern. At all.

Good segue into the next question…what would you say is the most annoying music cliché?

Childers: All of ‘em.

Wahlman: Um, I dunno…when someone describes music as the physical appearance of the band performing, that’s really frustrating. I used to live in L.A. for a while and there would always be people hyping up these bands being like “Man you gotta check this band out.” And I’d be like “Oh yeah cool, cool, cool, what do they sound like?” “It’s this badass bitch with a fro! And like, this dude, I didn’t even know what he was playing half the time, there was kind of a drummer and everyone just gets fucked up on stage.” It’s like…oh, ok. Well I’m gonna stay in. I’m gonna watch Seinfeld again, you know what I mean? Again.

Rainville: I think the annoying ones are the ones you find yourself using because you don’t really have the words to say what you’re thinking about. I guess that’s why they’re clichés. The one that annoys me the most is one I actually use a lot: “it’s open for interpretation.”

So, then—I’m sure you can each answer this individually—who would you say are your musical influences?

Childers: I mean personally, I love “harvest rock” which is like Bob Seger. “Heartland rock,” excuse me, not “harvest rock.” It’s like Seger, Bruce Springsteen, stuff like that. I love Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Fleetwood Mac.

Wahlman: I grew up on everything. Anything on an oldies station, to ’70s punk music to jazz, world, I love it all. Anything that has a hook and makes you want to have a good time. That’s what music is for, to me.

Matt Novotny: I grew up listening to a lot of Motown and then went to school for jazz, so just trying to keep that pocket steady.

Grant Gustafson: Neil Young. I’m a huge Neil young fan. That’s a tough one man. All kinds of stuff. I’m really, really into the second MGMT album right now. Pathetically obsessed with that album. It’s a lot different from the first one. No hits. It’s beautiful. Into all kind of old folk stuff, old psych stuff, Bill Frisell has been a big influence on me.

Rainville: I like Brian Eno a lot, Bob Dylan. Couldn’t pass by that. As far as records that stick around a long time, Charles Mingus.

Sounds like you have a really diverse set of influences, how would you say they all come together as Blank Range? How do you all agree on a sound and make a song?

Whalman: It’s forced. Five filters is the best way to say it. It goes through the first one and someone’s like “ooh don’t do that” and then it goes through the second one and someone’s like “yeah he’s right, it’s a mess” but in the end, oddly enough, everyone becomes appeased and it works out.

Who’s writing the lyrics? Do all of you write?

Childers: Whoever brings in the song first will probably write and sing. We switch off and everyone sings lead on some parts. That’s how we’ve been doing it, but we’re open to trying new things, too.

Aaron: Childers has written two songs on the 7” that we play every night, Grant’s written a multitude of songs. And Rain-man (Rainville) over here has a song in the set too—so, that’s kind of how we split it up.

Rainville: I think it’s a goal of ours, as John was saying, to try out different practices. We want to write songs for each other at some point that we know each of us will be great at singing. As we grow as a band it’ll be nice to have that option, creatively.

What was your first CD? I know this is The Vinyl District, but let’s stick with CDs for the sake of realistic middle school nostalgia. I’ll just lay it out there: mine was some Busta Rhymes number.

Childers: The Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack. My Grandma bought it for me.

Novotny: I told my mom I loved the Spice Girls. That was my first CD

Rainville: I think mine was like, DC Talk—Jesus Freak. So, that’s a little thing I went through.

Gustafson: Uh, I got it at a yard sale, but it was the first Boyz II Men record. It didn’t get a lot of air time, but that was the first.

Future of the band—what do you want to do?

Childers: We’re working on an album. We want to record that album in a cohesive form. Go into the studio for a few weeks, get that out and then proceed from there.

Wahlman: Visit the world. Play a lot. Work hard. We’re ready. We’re tired of making sandwiches.

Novotny: To clarify – we still love eating and making sandwiches for ourselves.

Wahlman: All of us are super excited to hit the road, work really hard and make this our full time gig. It would be an honor and a privilege to know that people would pay money to make that lifestyle a possibility. That’s the Midwest in us, I guess.

Last question: favorite hashtag?

Childers: #SegerRules.

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