Five Midwest-born, recent Nashville transplants became the first-announced performers to play Bonnaroo 2014, as their newly formed band Blank Range won BMI’s Road to Bonnaroo competition in February. With only a cassette and a 7” available, the band, less than a year old, has amassed a huge Nashville following and recently played dates with bands like Spoon and Alice-in-freaking-Chains, among other previous and future endeavors.
Currently finishing up their Midwest tour, Blank Range performs on Saturday, May 31st at The Highdive, alongside Blitzen Trapper and Parkington Sisters. Though, at least for interviewees Jon Childers (guitar/vocals) and Matt Novotny (drums/vocals), this is anything but new territory. Childers and Novotny are both alumni of The University of Illinois and defunct C-U rock ‘n rollers, The Leadership. I recently spoke with both of them about their tour experiences, building their fanbase in Nashville, and their work on a debut LP, estimated to be released in the Spring.
Smile Politely: How’s your tour going?
Jon Childers: It’s really good. We got the opportunity to open for Alice in Chains, and we played a couple casinos with them, which was really cool, some of our biggest shows we’ve played yet… So that’s been really exciting for us.
SP: Did you guys win any money at the casinos?
Matt Novotny: Yeah, I won my first hand of Blackjack.
SP: How much did you win?
Novotny: I only won five dollars on that one, but I then took all that money and bet it on roulette and won that. I should also note that I lost probably seven to eight hands of Blackjack before I won that first one… I’m a glass half full kind of guy.
SP: Did you get a good response from the crowds at those shows?
Childers: We honestly weren’t sure how it was gonna go. Our music is pretty different than Alice in Chains’, so we were a little nervous, but the fans were actually really receptive.
SP: And, I saw that you were technically the first band ever announced for Bonnaroo this year. How did you end up getting hooked up with the Road to Bonnaroo thing?
Novotny: We’ve been playing around Nashville for quite a while, so our name came up. They used 30 local bands for that competition. So, we were one of those 30 that got chosen, and we just happened to win the night that we were on for Road to Bonnaroo. It was the first competition, and it was before the blam announcement of Bonnaroo. So for quite a while, about three weeks, we were the only band announced for Bonnaroo.
Childers: Yeah, we sold a lot of tickets that way.
Novotny: It was a combination of fans voting and judge voting… It was cool; it was pretty intense.
SP: I know that four of you guys are from Illinois, and one is from St. Louis. When and why did you decide to make that move from Illinois to Nashville, where I’m sure there’s a lot more competition?
Childers: A couple of the guys had been living in Nashville for a while. Matt and I went to school together at The University of Illinois, and I stuck around for a year after I graduated and then kind of decided to go down to Nashville to pursue music and to do something other than move to Chicago. And then Matt came down right after he graduated. It’s a competitive city, but it’s a beautiful city.
SP: How did you manage to build your fanbase once you moved down there?
Childers: We played a lot. We played every opportunity we could and did that often. For about a year, we played every other week somewhere different in town with a lot of different kinds of bands.
SP: It looks like you guys are touring pretty consistently, at least until the end of the year, but your LP won’t actually be out until the spring of next year. Is it frustrating having to wait that long to actually release your music?
Childers: I would say there’s a certain sense of urgency, only having a cassette and a 7” right now… I think it’s a really good chance to get the songs done, and then we’ll have opportunities to play them live and work them out. There’s something that kinda sort of happens when you play a song live. It just starts to click in different places where it didn’t click before, so we’ll be really comfortable with them and know what we like before going into the studio and spending a bunch of money…We definitely wanna get a full-length out. But we also wanna take the time to craft the best album that we could possibly make, and we want it to be a statement when it comes out…
SP: What kind of statement do you want that to be?
Childers: We want it to be a cohesive album. We like albums that feel like an album, versus a collection of songs. So I think that would be the main part of the statement, is kind of introducing the world to us.
Novotny: Just taking the time to do it right and making sure it’s an honest reflection of what we think is cool, and being satisfied with that.
SP: Do you write a lot when you’re on the road?
John Childers: We mostly read a lot, listen to a lot of records, I’d say, do inspiring things.
SP: What records do you listen to?
Novotny: We just stopped by and met some people when we were in Bloomington [Indiana], and we’ve just been listening to various stuff [while we were there.]
We picked up some Richard Swift records; we picked up that new Sharon Van Etten record. It’s been cool, we’ve just been jamming to those in the van.
SP: Have you written any material since the 7” and cassette?
Childers: Yeah, we’ve been working on it, played some new songs live, and we’re always working on some new stuff at practice.
SP: Are you working on anything fancy with these new songs, in particular, that you didn’t try on your older material?
Childers: We’re trying to record not-in Garageband anymore.
SP: I feel like the cassette has a pretty cool, almost lo-fi feel, though. Are you trying to do something more polished, or are you gonna stick with the dirtier sounding stuff?
Childers: I think we want it to sound professional. We like the way the tape sounds, but I think there’s a limitation to how far that quality of recording can go.
SP: Your publicist was saying that you were trying to settle on a producer for the record. Do you have any people in mind or anyone that you’ve talked to yet?
Novotny: That’s probably the biggest thing that’s up in the air right now. There’s just a million names and a million opinions.
SP: Who would you ideally have work on your record?
Novotny: I’m very fond of a producer named Dave Fridmann. He works with the Flaming Lips and others. I’m just really into his work. And, he helped out with that Tame Impala record, and he’s just done a lot of stuff that I really like, and I kinda wanna sound like that. But, like I said, there are a lot of names, and we’re having a hard time dwindling it down right now… We’ve been really busy, and there’s also the issue of having to contact the producer, and they just don’t wanna work with you, which is a pretty large hurdle for us, at this point.
SP: Do you have anything else you want to add before we end the interview?
Childers: Black Dog is the best barbeque ever… I wanna give Christina from Espresso Royale in the Library a shoutout. I worked at that one in the Library for, like, five years.