By Al Kaufman
San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers spend a lot of time on the road. The band, with Nicki on vocals, husband Tim Bluhm (of The Mother Hips) and Deren Ney on lead guitar, Steve Adams on bass , Dave Mulligan on rhythm guitar, and Mike Curry on drums released Driftwood in 2011 (after Bluhm released Toby’s Song with her husband in 2008). The album had a great lo-fi, country rock charm to it. The band toured extensively behind it. To kill time, they often recorded themselves playing songs while riding to gigs in their van. Their cover of Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go for That” received over 2 million hits on You Tube. Since then, their Van Sessions, as they have come to be known, have covered everyone from Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run” to George Michael’s “Faith;” from the Commodores “Easy” to Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” They cover everyone from Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, from Whitney Houston to Madonna.
Bluhm and the Gramblers plan on releasing a concept album in the near future and have already released two songs from it; “Little Too Late” and “Ravenous.” Both have more of a ‘70s psychedelic rock feel to them. They are on the road supporting their new material, which only gives them more time to produce more Van Sessions. Nicki spent some time talking about their cover song performances.
You guys have really become known for your Van Sessions. How do you decide which song to sing?
We typically just do a big brainstorming session in the van. Everyone throws out ideas and when the right song comes up, it’s usually unanimous.
What are the logistics like for these songs? What recording equipment do you use and how long does it take to set it up?
We used to use an iPhone 4 to record but I just upgraded to an iPhone 5. All the video and audio are done on the iPhone, nothing fancy. Once we have the song dialed in and ready to record, we’ll do a few test runs to see if the mix is right. Sometimes we have to rearrange ourselves to correct the mix; if the guitar needs to be louder, the guitar player will scoot up a bench or something like that.
Is there a lot of rehearsal involved for the Van Session songs?
When we’re in the van, we have nothing but time. We definitely take the effort to learn the song as intimately as we can so we can best represent it in our renditions. That’s what it’s all about for us, getting inside the song and dissecting it. It keeps us on our toes.
Any chance of a Van Sessions album in the future?
Anything is possible! Part of the charm of the Van Sessions though is all the imperfections…road noise, traffic, lights. The visuals are also a crucial part of the Van Sessions. I’m not sure the audio could stand alone. That’s what recording studios are for.
While your early songs had more of a Americana/country edge to them, your new stuff feels more like it came of the Grace Slick/Stevie Nicks ‘70s. Your long hair, jeans, and sunglasses have a certain ‘70s flair as well. Were you born too late?
Ha, maybe. I was born in the ‘70s, just barely though. I guess it’s still in my genetic make-up.