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Don't Blanche, this band's on the upswing

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2004

Blanche lead singer Dan John Miller probably never thought life would be this good. The Detroit-based alt.-country band's five members play instruments they did not necessarily even know how to play when they started about four years ago.

The deaths of family members affected band members, husband-and-wife team Miller, and his wife, Tracee, who plays bass and offers backing vocals.

But despite the hurdles, life's been real fine for Blanche, especially this year. Blanche released its debut on a small Detroit label with help from friend Jack White of White Stripes fame. They have toured across the Pond four times this year alone. And they have seen their critically received album, "If We Can't Trust the Doctors...," get picked up by a much larger label as well this past fall.

Miller also expanded beyond his band responsibilities as well by getting on the silver screen.

"We're kind of shocked that (this) started out with five people who had no idea on their instruments and got to this point," says Miller in a cell phone interview aboard the band's van, which is about to reach Chicago for a Saturday night gig right after Thanksgiving.

"It's not that we're using a bunch of drum loops. We're doing something that's a little different. We're harder to categorize than a lot of stuff."

"That's kind of the problem with America. Everything on a bigger level has to fit in a specific (genre). It feels like America is getting more appreciative of things with more of an obscure sense to them - older forms of music, whether country, blues or jazz artists. Miller, 39, says part of the problem is that "America is just a disposable society. If there's any band that has anything to do with old music or old inspiration, it's got to be a gimmick, it can't be real music, (but) people are getting more appreciative of the music."

Blanche's music, which some label as gothic country, apparently doesn't strive to do things the typical way.

"When we started the band, we didn't start saying 'let's get the best drummer in Detroit'," Miller says. "Let's get our best friends, and put ourselves in this band...Our drummer (Lisa Jannon) had never been in a band before. She just started out playing brushes." In concert, Jannon keeps a steady beat among the mainly country-oriented songs.

The original banjo player Patch Boyle (since been replaced by Jack Lawrence) wasn't adept at the instrument, which figures in many Blanche songs.

But that did not stop Boyle. Miller recalls him saying, "I just want to play banjo."

Feeny had played guitar in Detroit bands before, but no longer. He now plays pedal steel and melodica. "He said, 'I'll just figure it out'," Miller says.

Tracee Miller also was inexperienced.

"Because of that inexperience everybody had, we were all kind of on the same thin ice. We had to keep it simple."

Blanche "just kind of kept it rickety and picked out these simple places. Embracing that simplicity was being in a garage band was what was all about."

"We started being an old time country band, and then we started staying true to what was in our hearts - old time and blues. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. 16 Horsepower and the Handsome Family were equal influences."

While Detroit has long been thought of as a rock and garage rock city thanks to folks like Bob Seger, Miller says country music also has long played a prominent role.

"I felt more comfortable hanging with senior citizens and going to country jamborees. There's a great tradition of country music in Detroit. People who had moved up (from the south) in the '50s. We would just go and hang out with these old folks. It became kind of a second family."

Miller played saxophone as a kid and eventually became part of Goober & The Peas with his brother, Michael. The band, which played psychobilly-type music, lasted from about 1989-95, released an album and toured about the U.S.

"It got to be a point where it wasn't really firing any more. It was more of a punky psychobilly thing."

Miller indicated he did not want to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Horton Heat or Southern Culture on the Skids.

"We wanted to end it when it was still relevant instead of milking it for the money," he says.

The Millers - married eight years - did a stint together in Two Star Tabernacle, a country and aggressive punk guitar sounding band which included White. They recorded a lone seven-inch disc with Andre Williams for Bloodshot.

"We didn't tour anything," says Miller, referring to it as "just a sporadic band. It just didn't exactly pan out the way we wanted it to. Part of it was Jack was getting the White Stripes going. He was a great songwriter. It was doing just more punk garage stuff. I was into slower stuff. It was okay, but it wasn't exactly the right mix. It was a cool band, but it wasn't really meant to be."

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