We spoke with Jonathan Childers of Blank Range about recording their last album.
Blank Range just released an EP, Vista Bent, the follow-up to Phase II EP. Each of these has a unique sound - Vista Bent seeming to have a bigger production budget. What is the mentality for releasing EPs versus a full album? Is there a level of experimentation for an EP that is less easy to get away with on a full LP?
We started out with our first EP recording at home in our basement - it's pretty lo-fi. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we used the knowledge and equipment we had on hand to get our songs out to the people. I don't think we could make that EP today. I don't even remember how we got some of those sounds, to be honest.
We never set out to be a lo-fi band and for the next batch of songs we envisioned something that was a little fuller, a little more 3D. We had a lot of ideas we couldn't wait to try out. And most importantly, we had an excellent friend and co-producer, Parker Cason, who was along for the ride at Creative Workshop studios. Together, we chased a lot of new sounds, went down some rabbit holes and came up with a more fleshed out vision for our next tracks.
Up until now, EPs have served us as a great vehicle to get our ideas out and they've taken us pretty far. There's a little less pressure for an EP than there is for a full album release, so you can maybe take a few more chances than on a "proper album." Honestly, in the rock and roll world we make our home in, I think people still have interest in records, but in the larger picture of people listening to music, I don't know if full length albums hold the weight for listeners they did four year ago, or even four months ago.
You've spent some time recording a new album, correct? What was the recording process like and who handled the production? Was it a quick process or a drawn out endeavor?
This was crazy and exciting for us - it happened really fast. We met with our friend Brad Cook in Nashville I believe in late October and showed him some new songs we'd been working on. Brad is currently the manager for Hiss Golden Messenger and William Tyler, but he's a lifelong musician, was in Megafaun, and does a lot of production work these days. He was really enthusiastic and encouraging about the songs and invited us to come make a record with him in North Carolina. A few weeks later, we were there.
We had four days in the studio to track ten songs, which for us seemed like quite a daunting task. We did our homework, practicing in Nashville before leaving, but left some room for new arrangements and studio magic to happen. We ended up tracking almost all of it live in a whirlwind of marathon sessions, but we got it done. When we drove home, he wouldn't give us rough mixes because he didn't want us to over think and freak ourselves out, so it wasn't until a couple weeks later that we actually heard the record we had made!
I'm really proud of the songs and I think it's a testament to how much we've grown as a band and as people in the last twelve months. I just caught a few seconds of a video of us at SXSW last year and it's hard to believe we're the same band; so much has changed. The final mixes are being completed and we're hoping to have this record out in the spring.
What inspired the newest set of songs you've recorded?
Oh man. For me, personally, sobriety has been a huge inspiration in the last year. I feel like I've reignited curiosity and passion, the reasons why I started down this path in the first place. So re-learning about myself and what's important to me in relationships and worldview in a search for peace and purpose has been my main focus lately. It's been a crazy productive time for all of us and there's tons of great material that's on the cutting room floor. I know the day we got back from NC, we all were inspired and just kept writing. Loving creating lately!
You've just announced a huge tour across the U.S. with The Wild Reeds. You guys are no stranger to the road. What are the things you look forward to in a long tour? What are the challenges to traveling for months at a time?
We all work really really hard at home so that we can afford to be out on the road. It's like a reward for us and we like to remember that we're lucky to be doing it. I love the routine of the road, it's that sense of purpose. I wake up every morning and I know exactly what I have to do that day - the end of which is getting to play songs on stage that I wrote with my best friends. That's really cool.
We've driven the highways all over this country - we get to see how the landscape gradually changes. And you start to get the sense of how the land effects the attitudes and outlooks of our fellow Americans. That's a perspective that I don't think a lot of people are afforded.
We also regularly get to see friends and family that have moved and are really spread out. Many of these people are gracious enough to let us stay in their homes. They cook for us, and tell us stories and we play music together and that's really special.
Yeah it can get to be a slog driving 8 hours and sleeping in a van etc. etc. but that's an absolute chore to read bands complain about. All in all, we're really lucky.
Blank Range is based in Nashville, TN, a place known for country music. How has living in a place like Music City impacted your songwriting?
I would have to say it's crept in a little bit, but we were all fans of country music before we moved here, and hell, Taylor grew up here so it's in his blood. Pretty much everyone in town, no matter what genre they're playing, has a healthy respect for country music, a lot of it is the foundation for what we do.
I think watching the craft of songwriting and recording is something that you get a front row seat to in this town. There really is a lot of talent and more streaming in every day so people are honing their chops and really getting to the sinew of a song. The information is all there if you're paying attention.
You guys put years between releases of your music. Is this an implication of being very precise and calculated in your songwriting and recording or just happenstance?
Up until this point, songs that we've released have definitely gone through the Blank Range gauntlet before they get to listeners ears. From the time someone writes the chords and melody on an acoustic guitar, to the time the record comes out, we've traditionally done a pretty intense self-editing process. But I think as we've grown together as musicians, that process has gotten a lot easier/quicker and it's made our writing better to the point where now we might bring a song to practice and have finished arrangements after a couple of times running it down. It feels like something has really gelled.
Does a long tour inspire you to produce creatively or does it tend to be a burden on the creative processes? Do certain places you travel and perform impact your live shows?
Without a doubt. I think our first West Coast trip as a band was pretty huge for us. We've got notebooks and we're jotting down notes about what we see and what we're feeling. For me personally it's a little hard to distill those thoughts into songs while we're so busy, but one of the songs on our next record I started writing on a hay bail in Tulsa after our last set of tour, so you never know what's gonna happen, you just have to be present when it does. Grant is really good about being diligent with working while we're on the road. When we stop at a park or a vista for an hour he'll wander off with his guitar and work stuff out. Sometimes I'm afraid that I'm missing out on what the other guys are doing or finding the local spots, but I'm getting better.
Sartorially, being on the road makes us very creative with our choices. Anything goes and everything is encouraged when there's no one to judge you.
What can the world expect from Blank Range in 2017 besides a slew of tour stops all over the country?
New looks - we're always working on our looks so you can expect us to be trying choices out there on stage. We're traditionally a one-bag-per-member touring party, but rumor has it Grant is bringing a suitcase on this next run.
We'll be getting that new record out real soon. We'll be trying a lot of those new songs out on the road, so if you come you can hear them early. Maybe traveling more internationally. Maybe dropping another EP or a couple 7 inches. Who knows where the winds might take us? We're excited to find out.