It’s not always easy to recognize when a band is on the edge of something great. Sometimes a single hit song is all it takes to catapult a band to fame, taking them from indie to mainstream overnight. Other times, it takes years and years of climbing and pushing forward. The band builds a track record — a bruised and bloodied trail of determination, a ladder of moments on which each rung represents another step forward — one that proves they stayed true to their sound and paid tribute to no trend.
In the last year and a half, Strange Vine has embodied that faithful climb. Hailing from Fresno, they’ve defied geographical limitations and headlined Noise Pop, played at AT&T Park, topped the marquee at Great American Music Hall and driven cross-country to play single shows, all before releasing a full-length album. They fought their way to recognition, earning respect and paving the way to each of their achievements, including their latest: On Sunday, June 21, Strange Vine will play their first show at the legendary Fillmore, along with beloved English guitarist Robert Trower.
Ahead of the momentous gig, I spoke with Strange Vine’s Ian Blesse and Toby Cordova about their roots, their home-base in Fresno, and (finally) their upcoming debut album. Get to know these guys before they blow up, and if you’re in San Francisco on Sunday night, don’t even think of missing their set at the Fillmore.
The Bay Bridged: Strange Vine began as a side project when you guys were playing together in The Corby Yates Band. Was there a distinct moment, maybe a show or a practice, in which you decided to focus your attention on the band full-time?
Strange Vine: We grew up playing with Corby and it felt like a dream come true to become his rhythm section. He needed some time off from live shows so the two of us just kept getting together and practicing. At one point I set up a Fender Rhodes next to the drums and ran it through a bass amp to add some low end to the riffs we had been working on. It seemed to open up a whole new world of possibilities for us and things grew from there.
TBB: Blues-tinged duos are almost always compared to The Black Keys and The White Stripes. Do you mind such comparisons?
SV: Not at all, but I feel like we’re probably a lot closer to Harry Dunne & Lloyd Christmas. Especially the scene where they drive all night in the wrong direction.
TBB: You guys have a strong advantage in that you are both true vocalists. Do you each sing the songs you write or do you choose depending on the vibe of the song?
SV: For the most part we write together. One of us will bring in a melody, verse, riff or just a cool tone and we just play around with everything until some sort of structure forms. If someone comes up with a vocal part that we like we just go with it.
TBB: Among the blues rock and roll elements, theres an undeniably earthy feel to your music. Is that your Sierra Nevada roots coming out?
SV: We grew up jamming for hours on end in the Sierra Nevada mountains and playing generator parties in the middle of nowhere. It’s a magical, inspiring place and a big part of who we are.
TBB: When people talk about California bands, they tend to zone in on San Francisco and Los Angeles and the difference between the two. But there is so much going on in between. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being in a band from Fresno?
SV: Fresno can be tough for a band. There’s no management companies. No Booking Agencies. No publicists or licensing companies. No record labels. Anyone doing that kind of stuff here didn’t start as an intern for an established company, they had to work hard to make something from nothing. There’s a lot of exciting things happening in Fresno and so many good people. I think touring bands are often surprised by how rad the crowds and shows can be here.
TBB: Many people in San Francisco mistake you for a local band because you play here so often. And even the ones who know you’re from Fresno seem to have embraced you as locals. When you guys started off in 2009, did you make an intentional effort to be involved in the Bay Area music community?
SV: San Francisco has such a rich musical history and so many amazing venues. There’s something undeniably special about the city and I think we’ve always been drawn to that. Having the pleasure of playing with tons of great bands and making lots of close friends there, San Francisco feels like a second home.
TBB: From my point of view, Strange Vine has been making a steady rise over the last few years with major cornerstone moments in San Francisco, like headlining Noise Pop, playing at AT&T Park and headlining Great American Music Hall. Now you’re about to play the most iconic venue in the city, The Fillmore, opening for Robin Trower. How did this come about?
SV: We’ve been working really hard for a long time and tend to chase every opportunity we can. Multiple times we’ve driven to Austin or even the East Coast for one show in the hopes that it would turn into something more. Things have been slowly but steadily building and I feel like some of the work we put in is starting to pay off. So many people have helped us along the way and it really means the world to us.
TBB: You only have one record out, a 7-song EP that’s nearly five years old. Do you have plans to record or release music anytime soon?
SV: Yes! We’re very close to finishing our first full-length album. We’ve been recording to a 1 inch 8 track tape machine in the East Bay with Nino Moschella. There’s a deep musical connection that happens when you record live to tape and we can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on!
Robin Trower, Strange Vine
June 21, 2015