It's been a breakout year for Seattle rock trio the Blakes. In 2007, brothers Garnet (guitar, voice) and Snow Heim (bass, voice), along with Bob Husak (drums) released strong material on a cool label, got the hell played out of it on the radio, caught Iggy Pop's ear at SXSW in Austin ("Who's this? This shit is good!" goes the quote in their press kit) and played the CMJ showcase in New York City. They've been busy.
They've also been warmer.
On speakerphone from a St. Louis club bathroom, the Blakes say their current American tour has been great. And extremely cold.
The Blakes travel with a merch man and a tour manager, and after screaming and sweating at concerts almost every night, all five of them sleep at truck stops in an old Dodge Van. "Two sleep sitting up in front and two on the benches," explains Snow.
Whoever gets the back of the van sleeps in a shallow wooden box not quite big enough for any of them. Calling it "the hellhole," Snow paints a pretty picture: "Since it's so cold outside, condensation will drip on your face when you sleep. If you touch the window with your foot, your sock gets soaked. And then someone will wake us up at like 6 o'clock and tell us we gotta go -- a lot of truck stops have security."
Alcohol helps, though: "It's not so much sleeping as it is passing out."
Earlier this year, the Blakes toured a more temperate America. At truck stops, they'd set up instruments and practice outdoors while truckers vibed to their loud '60s-ish rock and roll. Sunflower seeds and speed, leather jackets and whiskey: that's the Blakes' scene. A hardscrabble work ethic is pure currency for a band trying to make it, and the Blakes are dedicated road warriors, enjoying life even when life appears to suck.
They know they are not crazy to do this awful tour. Seattle's Light In The Attic Records (the Black Angels, the Saturday Knights) put out their EP and LP (both eponymous) and supports the Blakes to the fullest. Cool in a land of cool labels (SubPop, Barsuk), LITA does famously great publicity to make sure its artists' efforts aren't in vain.
Bob says, "We have a good team working behind us, so when we go out and play shows we have some press and we have some people coming out to see us. You know, Light In The Attic is a pretty respectable label, so there's always fans coming out."
But the biggest push came from Seattle's famous taste-making indie-rock radio station, KEXP (90.3 FM, KEXP.org). Run on public donations and Paul Allen's fortune, the city's best station has a heavy Internet presence and plays the Blakes all the time. Snow can't overstate its influence.
"Man, it's real. Every night on the tour, no matter where we play or how small the town is, somebody knows that station. Somebody came 'cause they heard us on it. You'll be in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or in Toronto, Ontario, and there'll be someone, 'Oh yeah, I love KEXP.' It's kind of amazing."
Surrounded by Clear Channel radio stations pumping subliminal, lowest-common-denominator pop, fans of real music check blogs and Internet radio to see what's cool.
"Also, after touring the U.S., I can see why," says Snow. "The mainstream radio here [in America] is God awful. It's f---ing horrible."
He's right, of course, and nothing throws better focus on pathetic radio rock than a healthy dose of reality. The Blakes' songs are simple -- screaming two-chord anthems and loose three-chord pop tarts -- but, like the band, they carry an air of authenticity that cannot be faked or even completely understood. The only way they could wind up on commercial radio is by accident.
Sure, you can approximate the Blakes' charm by picking apart their material -- on the screeching, stoned "Streets," Garnet bellows with all the dark enthusiasm of Mick Jagger's most dangerous sneer, while "Lint Walk" is the opposite, a sweetly buoyant lesson in classic pop minimalism, the perfect combination of rush and restraint -- but song-by-song analysis misses the point. The Blakes' songs about girls, drugs and girls aren't held together by complicated chord progressions: It's all about the vibe, man.
Asked if the Blakes is a band that listeners immediately "get" or don't, Garnet says, "I think you just gotta come to a show."
That's been common wisdom about the Blakes -- their pure command of rock is best witnessed drunk at a concert. But it's not entirely true. Album tracks like the savage "Two Times" and sure-shot make-out anthem "Don't Bother Me" sound great on headphones, hit hard when they're supposed to, and run on their own momentum. Take a walk downtown and listen to the Blakes. See how well their tough, concise songs fit into life.
Though the members don't hear it, there is a Strokes-ish, White Stripes-ey quality to the Blakes that suggests the band could have been popular in any of the last four decades. It's an archetypal cool they're channeling, and listening to the Blakes can make you feel pretty hip.
Seeing the Blakes is a different thing. It's still hip, but the loose control members exercise over their explosive songs is dangerous in a physical way. There are consequences (Garnet got a black eye on stage last week). At every concert, the Blakes recklessly threaten to fall apart.
In Seattle, they sell out shows and obsessed fans scream lyrics. Garnet, Snow and Bob get recognized on the street every day. They are the toast of the town.
But out on tour, the Blakes are still freezing.
The Blakes and guests at Big Easy Bourbon Street stage on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 8 pm. $5. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.