It can be easy to draw conclusions about what kind of music a band named Blue Plains makes. If you are like me, maybe you pictured country folks playing bluegrass music with banjos and fiddles, naming the band after their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It might surprise you then that the name Blue Plains actually comes from a DC wastewater treatment plant, the band members are a couple of DC locals, and their sound ranges from Americana and folk to alt-rock and grunge. But Blue Plains co-songwriters and founders Lee Cain and Adam Ortiz don’t care about labels; both have mentioned in previous interviews that they strive to create original content and not limit themselves by comparing their sound to others or slapping a genre label on their music.
And so far, this approach has worked for Blue Plains. Comprised of Cain (vocals, guitar, cavaquinho), Ortiz (vocals, guitars), Pete Daniels (violin), Brandon Miller (bass) and Joe Hodgson (drums), Blue Plains first came together when Cain and Ortiz met at a board meeting for the Anacostia Watershed Society, where they learned of their shared love of music and concern for the environment. Based out of DC, the band pulls their inspiration from the nation’s capital to love to the modern issues that concern them most. They dropped their self-titled EP last summer, and now Blue Plains is set to release their first full-length album, Falling Sky, at Black Cat tomorrow. On Tap had the chance to sit down with Cain to talk about the band’s upcoming Black Cat show, their new album and being musicians in DC.
On Tap: Tell me a little bit about your upcoming Black Cat show.
Lee Cain: Olivia & the Mates are playing with us, and so is Kellyn Marie Goler. It should be a really fun show. It’s going to be on the backstage and I’m kind of excited about that because I think it’ll feel very intimate, but then also allow us to be loud too. We [will] have kind of a reveal of the artwork for the album, and we’ve put together a few CDs. People have probably heard some of [these songs], but I think one or two might be pretty new for people. And we’ve got some variations on what we normally do; little surprises for how we switch up the instruments and things like that.
OT: How did you all come up with the name Falling Sky for the album?
LC: One of the songs is called “Falling Sky,” and it is a very dramatic song. It’s about the trail but it also recognizes that one person’s falling sky might not be the next person’s falling sky, if that makes any sense. That’s the title track and I think that’s one of [the band’s] favorite songs off the album. We just start jamming with instruments at the end, and it gets really big and intense. I love playing that song when we’re playing it live; I get the chills.
OT: How does the name Falling Sky tie into the album as a whole? The name sounds almost ominous.
LC: [Laughs] It does. I think it goes back to what kind of music would you describe your band to be, and we have a lot of influences. In some ways, we identify as an indie band, but we definitely have a lot of roots too. It’s kind of hard to classify what we are, but the songs are generally about love but also social justice. And there are a lot of elements in there that have to do with who we are and the kind of things we believe in. There’s an understanding that in the city that we live in, there are definitely people that need a lot of support, and there are people that have that and there are people that don’t have [that support]. And they are issue we’re working on. People are going to the Anacostia River to fish because there are food deserts in Washington, DC, for example. We believe in a lot of things about fixing those issues, and so some of our songs reflect that too. Falling Sky is pretty dramatic and I think if you ask any of us, we wouldn’t say the sky is falling, but we kind of wanted that sense to get out there that we want attention drawn to these issues.
OT: How is Falling Sky different from your EP, and how has the band grown since then?
LC: We released the EP last May, and “Falling Sky” was one of the songs on the EP, but we have a couple more that we’re very excited about. The songs that are on the EP are also on the album, but there are four additional tracks, and there’s some stuff that’s really different that’s on the other four songs. There’s one song that for the past three or four years I was singing, and when we were in the studio, I couldn’t make it work, and then Adam gave it a shot and he nailed it. So we went with that take. We recorded in a way that was different than I’ve recorded before. I’ve been recording CDs since I was in high school, and it’s always been in a digital format. And we went to Inner Ear in Arlington, Virginia and a guy named Don Zientara recorded us – he also recorded some of the big punk bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat – but he has a reel-to-reel machine, which is like an old tape machine, and in order to record on that, you basically go in and you set everything up and everybody records live.
OT: Where did the name Blue Plains come from?
LC: Adam and I were both working on the Anacostia River and cleaning it up, and one of the features in the Anacostia River that cleans it is Blue Plains. It’s kind of a funny name because you really kind of have to know the District to know what Blue Plains is. Or even if you’ve lived here a long time, if you don’t work in the same field that we do, you might not know what the Blue Plains treatment center is. It’s partly because of that we thought it would be a great name, but it’s also symbolic because it cleans the river and we felt like that’s kind of what music does. I always look forward to getting together and jamming at practice because if I’m stressed out, I always know after an hour or two of playing music I’ll feel so much better. It’s kind of like a cleanse.
OT: Who are the band’s musical inspirations?
LC: There’s such a variety, but the variety serves us well because everyone has different influences that they bring to the table and we fuse it together. Speaking for myself, there’s a band I like a lot called King Khan & BBQ Show. They have a song called “Zombies,” and it’s super lo-fi and it sounds really awful, like the recording quality is bad, but their energy is just amazing. I personally value the energy and emotion that comes out. A couple of us really like punk music. Adam, for instance, when he was growing up, was all about Fugazi and Minor Threat. I liked a lot of Nirvana and classic rock. Pete was trained classically on the violin but he later got into metal and is also really into blues. Joe actually went to school for drums and he focused on jazz percussion and drums. And Brandon, he’s just been in a whole lot of bands over the years and loves Jaco Pastorius. We all like Radiohead a lot, and The Strokes.
OT: How has being DC natives influenced you and the band?
LC: We’ve played the last couple of years at the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival. That’s actually where I work now. We’re also connected to a lot and are supportive of bands [in the area]. There are a lot of people putting some really cool art out this year, and we’re excited that DC has this. And it’s funny because I think people don’t really know or think of DC as a music space. Most people think of it as the center of government but people actually live here [laughs]. There’s a lot going on and there’s a vibrant music scene and it’s really exciting.
OT: Where do you see Blue Plains heading in the future?
LC: We would like to put on a tour. We’re not full-time musicians and we all have a variety of different jobs and obligations, but we could definitely see a small East Coast tour or just Mid-Atlantic tour in the near future, maybe in 2018. We also have probably another album’s worth of songs that we didn’t record, so there might be another album not too far from now.
Stop by Black Cat on Thursday, February 8 for Blue Plains’ album release. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Learn more about the band here.
Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com