The increasing popularity of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers is in some ways a product of that modern phenomenon, the internet sensation. The California-based quintet has sneaked into popular consciousness thanks to the success of its ongoing series, the Van Sessions, in which the band records cover songs with miniaturized instrumentation while on tour in — you guessed it — their van. Particularly popular is their amiable, kazoo-laden rendition of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That,” which has spawned close to two million YouTube hits.
It’s no “Gangnam Style” — blessedly. But it’s helped deliver the group’s stirring take on northern California folk, country and rock to wider audiences. The band is led by Bluhm and her husband, Tim Bluhm, a onetime member of NoCal cult favorites the Mother Hips, who discovered his future bride performing at a party. The Gramblers continue to build an audience the old-fashioned way, through near-constant touring. That included a Vermont stop last summer as part of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ Grand Point North festival at Burlington’s Waterfront Park.
In advance of the Gramblers’ performance at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge this Friday, March 29, Seven Days caught up with Nicki Bluhm by phone — where else? — in the van.
SEVEN DAYS: So what the hell is a Grambler?
NICKI BLUHM: [Laughs] That’s a good question. I guess it could mean a lot of things. Tim’s dear friend and bandmate in the Mother Hips, Greg Loiacano, kind of came up with it. It was loosely based on a Mother Hips fan who was really loose, just having fun and hanging out. When we put the band together for our first record, Toby’s Song, we needed a band name. And Grambler was just a funny word that made us laugh. So I don’t know if there is a real definition. You can choose your own.
SD: You played Grace Potter’s Grand Point North festival last summer. Tell me about that experience.
NB: It was awesome. The setting is beautiful. It’s like, the smell of Vermont. Maple syrup is in the air.
NB: It was a very pleasant place to be. And Grace couldn’t have been more hospitable and sweet. The audience was very inviting and warm. The whole experience was great.
SD: Many people have come to know the band through the Van Sessions, specifically your take on “I Can’t Go for That,” by Hall and Oates. Why do you think it was that song that caught fire?
NB: I think it could be any number of reasons. It could be something as simple as the tempo of that song, to getting the right groove. Maybe the kazoo solo? John Oates’ camp retweeted it and it got picked up by a lot of different people. Who knows? It was kind of a perfect storm, I guess.
SD: Are you a big Hall and Oates fan?
NB: I didn’t really know I was until we decided we wanted to do a Hall and Oates song and there were so many we wanted to do. I was surprised by how many I knew. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I learned them all through osmosis. And then, getting inside those songs, you realize how awesome they are. They’re really intricate. Great harmonies and melodies. Really cool stuff. But I hadn’t really given them enough attention before getting inside that song.
SD: Do you ever do the Van Session songs live?
NB: Sometimes we do, but not always. It depends on the night and the crowd. If it’s the right setting, we might do some acoustic stuff. But it can be tough to do that in a rowdy bar. It depends.
SD: You married the guy who discovered you, and now he’s in your band. Is it tricky to balance your musical and married lives?
NB: Yes. Not so much the musical relationship. But touring in general is a challenge. You don’t have very much privacy. And it’s really all work, especially the way we’re doing it. It’s a lot of driving and a lot of shared space. It’s a blessing in a lot of ways. But it doesn’t come without its challenges.
SD: Your album with Tim, Duets, is beautiful. Does any of that stuff make an appearance at Gramblers shows?
NB: It does. Again, it depends on the crowd and if we can get away with having some quieter sections. But we like to play some of that stuff when we can.
SD: I’ve heard rumors that you’re working on a concept album. Is that true?
NB: It was an idea that Tim had, a collection of songs that told a story. But modern technology took a real shit and he lost a lot of those ideas. So a lot of those conceptual-album ideas have been put to rest until we can remember them again. The album we’re working on now is not conceptual. But hopefully in the future we’ll have another project like that. It really does interest us.
SD: You were in a Gap commercial, part of a campaign with the Avett Brothers and Kaki King. Do you have thoughts on the role commercial placement increasingly plays in breaking bands?
NB: The thing that I did actually didn’t really help our numbers at all. We might have sold some more records, but I’m not sure. But because there was no music involved, it was just an image, it wasn’t as powerful as if I had lent Gap a song. But I definitely think having music associated with a larger-scale media reach helps bands a lot. It’s undeniable. Doing the shoot and seeing my picture around was cool. But I don’t know how much it actually did for the band.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers play the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington this Friday, March 29, 8 p.m. $10/12. AA. You Me & Apollo open.
This article was titled "Grambling, Man" in print.