Dallas-based chillwave group Blackstone Rangers might not be a common household name yet -- but that'll change, believe me. With a rapidly growing fan base and a brand new EP, Descendant, released Feb. 25 via Saint Marie Records (also home to shoegaze label-mate Nightmare Air, who we’re big fans of here at SoundDiego), the band is certainly poised for big things.
The trio, consisting of Ruth Ellen Smith on lead vocals and keyboards, guitarist/co-vocalist Derek Kutzer, and drummer Daniel Bornhorst, seem to have been on tour nearly as long as they’ve even been a group (although Bornhorst's duties are currently being filled by Brian Garcia on tour): “We love recording, but we've always wanted to put on a good live show," Kutzer says. “Touring and playing out often, and out of our typical comfort zone, helps hone the craft of our live performance. I think we've gotten much better as we've figured out our stage setup and gotten more comfortable in our own skin."
Unlike some other dreampop groups that seem to focus on one sound and repeat it over and over, the six songs on the band’s upcoming release take cues from a dizzying array of indie rock genres. The guitar-led, garage-pop peppiness of “You Never” leads into the hazy, wordless synth-pop single “Frozen Echo” (stream it here
)– which then unexpectedly careens into the reverb-blanketed, pulsing bleakness of the Joy Division-esque “Judas Tree.”
The EP’s finest track however, “Nights Days,” is seemingly plucked out of some ‘80s John Hughes film dream sequence; the angelically-sung, bass-heavy New Wave pop song captures the band perfectly with an instantly memorable, nostalgia-inspiring chorus and fitting, wasted-youth refrains like “We are not sure of what we will say/What a mistake.” One thing’s for certain, the only mistake here would be missing their performance at the all-ages Che Cafe
at UCSD on Feb. 28 (also, buy their new EP here
Smith and Kutzer were kind enough to talk with us about hitting the musical blogosphere with a single devoid of any lyrics, a gnarly Chinese food story from the road and what’s around the corner for Blackstone Rangers in 2014.
Dustin Lothspeich: You've signed to Saint Marie Records, which just released Descendant -- how did that partnership come about?
Derek Kutzer: It kind of just grew organically. Wyatt, the label's creator and owner, actually lives in Ft. Worth, which is just 30 minutes down the road. He was a fan of our first EP, and I noticed that he didn't have anybody from our area signed to the label. Actually, there's not a lot of bands in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that fit the label's dreampop/shoegaze focus. So, I think we just naturally gravitated towards each other, even though we're not necessarily a dreampop or shoegaze band. After asking him some questions about the finding-a-label process, he flat out said, "Do you want me to release it?" I said, "Um. Yeah!" So, here we are.
DL: I hear slight traces of bands like Beach House, MS MR and even Joy Division in your EP – what would you say were your main influences for it – musical and non-musical?
Ruth Smith: I would say the main influence of "Frozen Echo" and splotches of the rest of the album were very David Lynch-inspired. I had recently watched Twin Peaks, and it exposed me to Lynch's twisted '50s kitschy, nightmarish-style, which made me obsessed with all things Lynchian. That paired with the vocal styles of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), Patsy Cline and Siouxsie Siou had an impact on the vocal style of this album.
DL: Ruth seems to sing most of the songs but Kutzer sings “You Never” – why the switch? Is that something we can expect on future releases?
DK: She sings the majority of the songs because she wrote the majority of the material, which, she imagined as within her vocal style and range. I sing "You Never" because I wrote that song. On the last EP, I did more writing, but I think I've come to realize Ruth's superior knack for grooves and melodies, at least for now. This album just came more from her head and from her emotions than from mine.
DL: “Frozen Echo” is wordless – have you had any complaints from anyone that there aren’t any lyrics in the song?
RS: No complaints, only some critics concerned that listeners won't "get it." But, I don't think I have to put words in a song to make it "say something" to you. I've heard vocalists in other languages sing songs that were so beautiful that they'd make you cry, and I have no idea what they are saying. We've written instrumental songs in the past and have new songs that repeat only one phrase, but I think as long as it sounds good we shouldn't force meaningless lyrics onto a song.
DL: One of the great things about the EP is it boasts a variety of different genres: Do you guys ever feel pressure to keep evolving your sound or stick to one thing?
RS: I definitely think we will evolve, not because of any pressure, but just because we have so many styles we are influenced by. I would love to have a really dark and ominous album followed by a pop or straight noise album. I have always thought that a musician that can evolve shows true artistry. I'd hope to live up to that proficiency.
DL: Do you have a particularly funny story from the road you can share?
DK: Once, in NYC's Chinatown, we had a trash bag filled with Chinese seafood stuck to our trailer hitch. I guess a restaurant worker had thrown it out, and it just so happened to land on our hitch post. It was disgusting and rotting, so nobody wanted to touch it. It road with us all over the east coast and back to Texas. Eventually it fell off. Sorry, planet Earth, for the gross litter.
DL: Have you ever played San Diego before, and is there anything you’re looking forward to about the show?
DK: This will be our first time anywhere on the West Coast. I'm obviously looking forward to the ocean and the sunshine, but I'm really stoked to be playing the Che Cafe. The DIY sensibility and the community feeling of the space is something we care deeply about as artists and musicians. We're also stoked to be playing with some rad San Diego bands, like Soft Lions and Idyll Wild. It's gonna be fun!
DL: What does the rest of 2014 hold in store for Blackstone Rangers?
RS: Very busy. We are sitting on a lot of new songs, so we probably will start recording this summer when we get back from tour. I would ideally like to have another album out by fall, but we'll see how it goes. I am constantly writing, so who knows what kind of inspiration we'll find on the West Coast.
Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Chess Wars and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.