BLANCHE with the KILLS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, November 25). $12. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Ask your average rock band member about their musical mentors and they can come up with a laundry list of inspirations and influences as long as J. Lo's rider.
But how many musicians actually get the chance to be their heroes? Until mad scientists perfect the art of cryogenic head transplants, Dan John Miller's come as close as most folks get to becoming the idol that inspired him.
A few months back, the gangly, shock-headed, cigarette-smoking frontman of Detroit gothic country outfit Blanche hunkered down in Nashville to play Luther Perkins, the gangly, pompadoured, cigarette-smoking (he died after passing out with a lit butt in his hand) guitarist who backed Johnny Cash, in James Mangold's upcoming Cash biopic Walk The Line.
"You know how some people are obsessed with, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan and model their performance on flashy guitarists like that?" raves the chatty Miller on the line from his Detroit pad, where he's packing before Blanche take off on tour. "Luther was that kind of role model for me. He had such an understated, simple elegance to the way he played guitar - none of that excessive, wanky crap. It was just clean and almost minimalist."
It may have taken a little while for the pseudo-Man in Black (played by Joaquin Phoenix, who actually sings in the flick) and his filmic posse to fall into an appropriately effortless C&W groove. They jammed for a weeks before the cameras started rolling to make the band seem believable onscreen, much to Miller's relief.
But anyone familiar with his band's theatrical live performances won't be surprised to learn that Miller himself, a noted ham who's mugged in commercials and instructional videos, had no problem getting into his character. Like pals and sometime collaborators the White Stripes (Jack White used to play drums in Miller's old band, Goober and the Peas, and appears on Blanche's debut disc), the members of Blanche are highly invested in their ensemble's aesthetic, as different as it is from Perkins's.
Drawing equally from the fire-and-brimstone snake oil salesmen of old-time travelling medicine shows, the quietly desperate tableaux of Dorothea Lange's Depression-era snapshots and the carnivalesque campiness of vaudeville acts, Blanche match the tortured Southern gothic narratives of their tunes with thrift-store costumes and high-energy live hoedowns.
"It was actually harder to remember how to perform with the band after I finished the role than it was to play the character," Miller confesses, chuckling. "Luther was totally stoic and still onstage. After we wrapped, I packed up my apartment in Nashville, flew back home, packed again and went on tour in Europe with the band. Our first performance, I was still in that poker-faced mindset, so I just stood there onstage until it hit me - 'Hey, I'm not just a background guitarist any more! I have to front a band!'"
While Miller and wife/bassist/co-vocalist Tracee admit they've gotten flak for their high-maintenance aesthetic, both insist it comes naturally.
"A lot of people write it off as just a gimmick," notes Tracee Miller, taking over the phone while her husband finishes packing. "Sure, none of us could play our instruments at first, so the costumes were a way of compensating. But as Dan said, he was always really interested in that old vaudeville stuff, where musical acts were real events.
"And as for me, I had family members with serious mental health issues when I was very, very young. I grew up knowing people in institutions - not hospitals, but real mental asylums - and it was a huge influence. I'm fascinated with the way medicine used to have that kind of magical promise, like the snake oil salesmen, who'd give you a bottle with a beautiful label, and you'd just know from looking at it that it'd solve all your problems."
Of course, she adds, they were all quacks. Hence the title of Blanche's debut album, If We Can't Trust The Doctors (V2), and its rickety death-country ballads about pills and potions, hospitals and heartbreak, crossed fingers and casualties. The tunes became a kind of catharsis after both Millers watched family members endure the medical industry's inefficacy ("It's hard to accept doctors have bad days, too," offers Dan Miller) and pass away.
But Blanche aren't just about doom and gloom and waiting to die. As our interview wraps up, the conversation turns to another of Miller's recent hero-worship experiences - through his Jack White connection, the dude got to play on Loretta Lynn's killer Van Lear Rose album.
"Loretta's amazing," he lights up. "She's in her 70s and still writing every day. We'd be sitting on her porch sipping a milkshake, thinking we were just gonna relax, and she'd jump up and lead us all into the studio.
"It kinda gives me hope about the longevity of music, y'know? Maybe hiphop is the new rock 'n' roll, like it's becoming the primary form of youthful rebellion, the way rock used to be in the 50s or the way punk was in the 70s. Whereas now, rock music isn't just for kids - like country, maybe it's a lasting art form that you can keep doing as an adult."