One of the great things about having a music blog is that you are exposed to great deal of music. Every so often, a publicist sends you a band to listen to and you go, wow. The other day, I was contacted about the band Bluphoria. This is an extremely young band who sounds like they have been together longer than they have actually been alive. Raised in the Bay Area, schooled in Eugene, Oregon and currently living in Nashville, this band has the grit that it will need to move to the next level. Bluphoria consists of Reign LaFreniere, 22 – Lead Vocal & Lead Guitar, Dakota Landrum, 19 – Rhythm Guitar & Background Vocals, Dani Janae, 20- Drums & Background Vocals and Rex Wolf, 21- Bass Guitar & Background Vocals. We had a chance to talk to the lead singer of the band, Reign LaFreniere about how their sound developed, what music means to them and where they plan to go from here.
1) How would you describe your sound? How has the West Coast and specifically, Eugene, affected that sound?
I’d describe our sound as psych meets southern rock. A lot of the time I describe it as “The Beatles meets Hendrix” if I’m trying to explain it quickly! I think my growing up near San Francisco really helped bolster the rock and especially psych rock influences in my life which were only amplified after visiting Oregon. Most of my time spent learning music was from recordings of the great players who used to pass through San Francisco and the West Coast which aided my style. Eugene, but mostly being in University, allowed me to meet some like-minded people who helped create the music that you are hearing today.
2) In your Bio, you speak of reclaiming Rock music for the blacks. "I wrote these songs as a black man making rock ‘n’ roll in America,” proclaims Bluphoria’s lead vocalist and guitarist Reign LaFreniere. “Rock ‘n’ roll started as a black art pioneered by black men and women. I’m taking my people’s music back. We’re reframing it together in our way. The rhythm is the focal point. The blues is in there. Rock ‘n’ roll is definitely not dying.”
Can you expand on what you mean by this statement?
Rock was started by black people and in my eyes, it should continue with black people at the helm. There was a lot of time in America’s history that radios would attempt to control the popularity and dissemination of black art until it started being accepted by the predominantly white culture in the country at the time. I feel that in my own way, by me just playing this music, I am making a statement. I feel as though rock needs that real energy back focused on the backbeat and rhythm to create the next generation of music.
3) Again, based on the above comment, who specifically do you count as influences? Do you have any local influences? further afield?
I mean, Hendrix, Bob Marley, Sam Cooke, and James Brown are big ones for me. They were really able to capture this energy and feeling that not a lot of people are able to tap into. Furthermore, Sam Cooke’s live shows are some of the most jaw dropping recordings to me just based on how he engaged the audience with his voice. I’ve moved around a lot and met many different bands so it’s hard for me to say if I have any local influences but I was probably picking stuff up along the way.
4) Covid Sucks!! Tell us about how your touring life has changed since the pandemic.
Covid was a moment of reflection for us that actually let us stop and think about our future as a band. We were able to focus on the quality of our songs and actually write without having to play shows so often. The world around us was going down the drain so a lot of the music we started to make sort of reflects that in a subliminal way. Covid, despite all its downfalls, actually taught us to be more creative with how we entertain, perform, and write as a band. It definitely stopped us from doing two shows every weekend but Im sure that once we go on tour now the energy will be reciprocated ten-fold.
5) What is the next frontier for Bluphoria? What big shows do you have coming up? Do you plan to make it our way soon?
We are working on some big shows! Right now we are talking about doing a big event with our label and working on some possible tours so stay tuned for that. We just got done recording all of our upcoming music so we are focused on getting that out and getting some shows on our docket. We just moved to Nashville so we weren’t able to line up a lot of events yet but we are excited to see what the south has to offer!
6) The production on the record provides certain layering elements that bring out each part on the track. Is that something you all intentionally built into your process?
We always want our songs to be substantive but cooperative, a lot of the time when we are writing songs we come up with too many intricate details that we have to widdle down. Mark Needham, the producer for this record, really helped us find the parts that elevate the song most and are able to stand out in the mix and not muddy the music which was the goal going into the record.
Bluphoria - submitted image
About 10 or so years ago, a buddy from college invited me to the mountain town of Todd, NC to see Doc Watson. Todd is about 15 miles from Doc’s hometown of Deep Gap and he made that journey easily. He liked playing close to home. We made the trip up and one of the bands opening for Doc that day was a young bluegrass band out of Cincinnati, Ohio, called The Tillers. At the time, I thought it a little weird that a band out of Cincinnati would travel to Todd, NC to play a show.
The next year, we all did it again: me, my buddy, The Tillers, and Doc. That year, I got the opportunity to meet The Tillers at an afterparty and have been keeping an eye on them ever since. When I saw the lineup for this year's Ohiolina Festival knew I was going to do a preview piece, The Tillers were the only band I thought to contact.
The Tillers are made up of Mike Oberst on banjo, Sean Geil on guitar, Aaron Geil on bass, and Joe Macheret on fiddle. They formed in 2008 in Cincinnati and have maintained a hometown love and stayed local most of that time. I chatted with Mike on the phone the other day about life, COVID, life during COVID, and, of course, the Ohiolina Music Festival.
Revisiting those first shows I saw with The Tillers opening for Doc in Todd, Mike said they got the initial invitation thanks to one of Mike's former students, Helen, who had moved down that way and thought of them when they were planning this concert in Todd. Mike mentioned that even after all these years have passed, he still "gets all the feels" thinking about those shows.
I also asked Mike about his personal connections to Doc, and he said that his dad was a musician who would always be playing Doc Watson records in the house as Mike was growing up. After some time listening to punk and rock and metal, Mike made his way back to Doc in his 20s. When it came to llearning about American and bluegrass music, Doc was and remains Mike's main hero. As Mike put it, Doc seemed “accessible and down to earth.”
The first time Doc heard The Tillers, he told them, "You boys sure raised the rafters!" After such an amazing first meeting with Doc, Mike and the boys thought they might be able to spend a little more time hanging with Doc, so they all piled into the car and drove towards Deep Gap. Mike had somehow finagled Doc's personal phone number out of him, and so they went.
As they got closer and closer to the destination, Mike finally worked up the will to call. Amazingly, Doc answered the phone and Mike wondered if they might stop by for a chat and a little picking. Well, I know how I want this to go, but sadly, Doc was on his way to visit Rosalee, his wife, in the hospital. But Mike always thought if he weren't on the way out, that things would have been different. Doc was always warm and welcoming to them, and he did say that maybe they could come another time. Sadly, he passed away before the next show in Todd, but he will always be an amazing presence to all who remember him.
My conversation with Mike then led to how people that we consider to be our heroes are human beings as well, and how humble and caring some of them can be. Mike had a friend, CJ, who had a brain tumor and it didn't seem as if he had much time left, so Mike thought he would surprise his friend with some messages of caring from some of CJ's musical heroes. Mike reached out to punk icons like Henry Rollins, Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy, Steve Ignorant, and Dick Lucas of Subhumans. All of these singers and more made video messages for CJ on what turned out to be his final birthday, as he passed at age 40. These amazing singers and their acts of kindness are why we continue to follow and love them.
And then we turned to Ohiolina. Yeah, this is why we called Mike in the first place, as The Tillers will be headlining on Friday. I asked Mike what playing this festival meant to him and the rest of the band. This is the second year The Tillers have played Ohiolina and they had wonderful memories of playing the last one. One of the highlights from the last one for Mike was the workshop. Theirs was "How to make it as a DIY Band,”...for 15 years, added Mike. He is also especially excited this year because his good buddy Casey Campbell is playing. Catch him Saturday at 6:00. This is a special festival to The Tillers and they have so many memories of playing here.
Well, it was certainly great to speak to Mike. What I thought would be a 20-minute conversation lasted over an hour. I appreciate Mike taking time out of his super busy day to catch up. Wait, you said an hour and this is all you gave us? Okay, I have one more story to share. Being at the Ohiolina Festival makes Mike reminisce about the early days on the road: when they managed themselves, when they had to camp because they couldn't afford hotels, when survival meant making it to the next town to play a gig.
In 2014, The Tillers were about to go on tour with Pokey Lafarge and Dom Flemons on The Central Time Tour and their bus named Gus had finally come to the end of its life. Pokey had asked if Dom could ride with them on this tour because there was no room in his bus. The Tillers ended up buying a "New Van for Dom” so he would have room on the tour, but Pokey ended up finding room in his bus for Dom and he never rode in their new van. Even so, it will forever be known as the van they got for Dom.
The Tillers. submitted photo
Blue Cactus played at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro back in early August. Following the show---which was incredible--we sent both Mario and Steph a couple of questions. We thank Blue Cactus for taking the time, while on the road, to answer them! Read out questions and responses below.
With the song “Not Alone ‘Til You Come Home”, can you give us a little background to that song and what events might have inspired you to write that?
"Not Alone ('Til You Come Home)" was written during a time when my marriage had started to fall apart, and I was feeling increasingly distant from my then partner, but also starting to rediscover myself. I realized that I had become more at home with being in my own company than his. The song pretty much wrote itself once I sat down and listened.
There's a lot of your grandfather's music and feelings of your grandfather or lessons from him that show up in your music, are there elements to his life and relationship with you that you hold dear, outside of the music written?
Definitely. My grandfather is a big reason why I fell in love with country music at such a young age. He had one of those turntables that you could stack a few records on at a time. We'd put on Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford and dance through the A-sides, flip them over, and sing along, dancing to the B-sides. "Ring of Fire" was our favorite dancing song, and we'd dance so hard that Grandma would come upstairs to make sure the floor wasn't falling through.
Our song "Worried Man" is inspired by him. He grew up poor in a small farm town down in South Carolina and worked hard to teach himself everything. He worked for Moss Trucking Company most of his adult life, starting out as a mechanic and retiring as the vice president of the company. He taught me that being poor didn't mean you weren't smart, just that you had to work harder for things in life.
3. Steph and Mario:
Do you both see social media hindering or enabling your creative process, for you both particularly? I say that in regards to the INDY article, where the author mentioned "the dilemma of a digitally streaming world", do you encounter any dilemmas there?
There's really nothing about social media that inspires our creative process. At best, it is an easy way to stay in touch with folks and let fans know what we are up to. We like being able to feel connected in that way. At it’s worst, social media makes us feel detached from our creative selves. It can create the feeling that we should be doing things we see other artists doing in order to be successful, which is the antithesis of creativity. When algorithms require us to spend more time on social media to even show up in our followers’ feeds, they put the cart ahead of the horse in an absurd way. We have to be mindful and remind ourselves that we’re not a brand that creates content. We are a band that creates art.
4. Steph and Mario:
At the Cat's Cradle, in stage banter and presentation of songs, it felt at times that you both would take turns sharing songs you wrote separately, is that the case?
Do you tend to go into your own creative areas when it comes to writing, or is there a collaborative process and some examples that come to mind?
It's such a gift to have one another as collaborators. We usually start all of our songs individually and collaborate when we get to a point where it’s mostly fleshed out. If one of us hits a wall, the other might bring some new ideas that the song needs. But there are a few that we've quickly written together in a day: “Quittin’ Again” and “So Right You Got Left” came together like that.
5. Steph and Mario, Relationships are important. And it's apparent throughout many of your songs, and your current album that you're drawing from that well.
What are you drawing from moving into next year and future albums? Is there a muse behind the door, or inner thought or voice that might be giving you creative inspiration for what's next? Nina Simone said that "an artist's duty is to reflect on the times." A lot of the songs that we've been writing lately feel like they are exploring our relationship to the world around us during this time we're living through.
You mentioned how inspirational it was to meet and know Alice Gerrard, for you what have you learned or taken away from Alice? I've been fortunate enough to get to share the stage with Alice and have long admired her and her work. We're not exactly close friends, so I don't want to give that impression. If anything, I'm really a bit of a fan girl, and there's a lot to love about her. I admire her skills as a songwriter. She's a dynamic writer who can capture both deep sorrow and humor in ways that make you feel them. The last show I went to had me crying about a dog who died and then laughing about peeing on the toilet seat. I admire the way she uses her music to speak out about injustice. She reminds me that music is a lifelong passion; you're never too old or too young to play.
7. Both: What are you shooting for in a touring schedule this fall? Any goals for the future? Our favorite thing about playing shows is getting to share our songs with new folks who connect with them on a deeper level. That’s really the whole reason behind any of it: letting the songs find the people who need them. We're excited to be heading back through the southeast and northeast this fall as well as doing some support shows for Will Overman who's releasing a new record this month.
Things slow down a bit more in December, and we're looking forward to getting back into the studio then to record and get to know the new songs better.
Talking with Tommy
By Matt Busch
There are chapters of Tommy’s life, some shared and some evolving, in front of our eyes. There are songs for adopting pets and for the love of his new wife, songs for not taking out the trash, and songs for the past two years he’s gone through. If you want to hear his songs on an album, you’ll have to wait - they should be coming out soon. Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to go see him perform in person. Why? Because hearing these tunes is cathartic, I assume for Tommy, but also for the audience, who is carried through his life and the death of his beloved father, John Prine. I spoke with Tommy before his show in Durham’s Pinhook Music venue.
So, where has Tommy been? On the road! This is Tommy’s first solo tour. He’s driving alone, booking his own hotels and selling his merch after shows. Top that off by the fact he was recently married in June. “It gets a little lonely, but it’s alright”, says Prine. I asked him if the solitude of being on the road offered opportunities to creatively think and write. “For right now, it doesn’t. I don’t want to say indefinitely, but for right now, it’s ‘nose to the grindstone’, I’m here to play a show, and after the show, I don’t pick up my guitar at all.”
So, what about his dad? Everyone asks Tommy questions about his dad, and I didn’t want to do that here. I wanted to keep the focus on Tommy’s journey. “I mean I don’t mind talking about my dad. I think it’s just when people approach me in the capacity of my dad and not as my own self, sometimes that can get a little tiring, but I get it - it’s not like I don’t get the weight of the shadow I’m walking in. But I don’t feel like I’m walking in a shadow, I feel I am walking alongside one”, says Prine.
Perhaps the best glimpse into growing up in the Prine household is shown in the parental lessons: “They were very much about teaching me good manners, teaching me how to be a good person, and then aside from that, I was asked what do you like? They were very observant and they listened. That was the greatest gift given in this life”, said Prine.
Since we were on the topic of teaching, I asked Tommy to tell me about a high school teacher he remembered or may have left a mark on his life? “My English teacher, Mrs. Sax. Everyone always told me that she was going to be very hard, but that turned out to be one of my best classes, because I was not perhaps the most attentive student, but instead of her getting angry at me or admonishing me, she would hold me after class, speak quickly about discipline, then ask me how the assignments were going, Most importantly she would be like: ‘I love how you write, and I don’t think you realize that this is actually your strong suit.’ She would encourage me and make the assignments fun, tailoring them to what I needed”, says Prine. Don’t we all need a teacher like that? That aspect can be found in a lot of great teachers - those that see something in you you’re not taking seriously. In Prine’s case, he held on to that, and it might have been the encouragement to continue writing.
On the topic of writing and influences, I asked Tommy if there were any songs of his father's that he particularly got a chuckle from because they best connected with how he knew his dad? “A lot of them do, because I know how my dad thought and perceived the world and would explain things. His additions to conversations were really funny - even in songs that are not intended to be taken that way, I would think, of course he would describe it that way” I asked Tommy to elaborate on that. “Well I think it’s the whole idea of the Egg and Daughter night that makes me laugh because of course that’s so interesting to my dad and his little town that everyone goes to in Nebraska, and he decides to make that a song on his final album. He excelled at finding universal meaning in very specific things. I will hear passing conversations and think my dad would have thought that was funny”, said Prine.
So here we are now, going down the road, leading into a concert with a record I haven’t heard, that’s not currently out yet, and I flat out asked Tommy, “What am I going to hear tonight?” Tommy responded and told me these ten songs that are on this album will showcase parts of his life he’s wanted to come out and share: “Who I am, what I’ve been through and how I perceive the world” So, I sat back and listened to his set, and at moments I laughed, and at moments I shed tears. Prine is truly talented and gifted, and when this album comes out, holy hell, it’s going to be great.
As for my review of the show? Well, I guess I could see that an audience member could become lost in a mindset of merriment and wonder in hearing authentic glimpses shared by someone they adored (John). But what Tommy's songs did do is break a barrier that let you know that you were hearing another individual, a human, going through (and having gone through) some really heavy experiences and feelings.
That's what Tommy's songs had the power to do (and did) on my night hearing them for the first time. It was like a sharp gut punch to your senses. The songs are descriptive and leave you envisioning a life lived that you never saw with your own eyes, such as, the song “Some things” co-written with Ruston Kelly, which describes being in the house around dinner time and hearing him down the hall, [John’s] his voice meshed together into the array of other things going on around the kitchen.
Tommy's songs are nothing like his dad's because he approaches it in his own unique way, banking on descriptions and feelings, whereas when you listen to his father's songs, they seem to constantly be people-driven narratives of characters doing actions to support a metaphor for life. Case in point by the song "that's the way the world goes round" where you follow scenes of a play and the chorus releases the metaphor (or universal truth) as Tommy called it earlier - his dad's unique disposition to see meaning for everyone in something so specific.
In an interview I read leading up to my conversation with Tommy, I heard Tommy mention that in order for him to write the way he does and do it so well, he'd have to let down his guard and be vulnerable to the world. That's a lot to unpack and explain, but I think I understand kind of what he means by that after hearing his songs for this album. Again, go hear Tommy for yourself. This career is only beginning, and I look forward to the album.