“For the people in this room, this will sound better when there’s like 1,000 fans,” Diego Valencia shouts into the mic at 9:30 Club.
Valencia, a founding member of DC-based 90s cover band White Ford Bronco, just wrapped up serenading the mostly empty venue on a Friday evening in February to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” before addressing the dozen or so people standing in for the real crowd. The lights are still being tinkered with before the band’s sold-out show, and folks are rummaging around behind the bars on both sides of the venue. There are two half-finished pizzas on the countertop, presumably eaten by staff and maybe even the band; if so, they’ll soon wash the slices down with beer upstairs in the green room.
After the band wraps up soundcheck on some additions to their setlist, they join me for an interview, which feels more like a casual conversation. A few of the five members are quieter, namely Sean McCauley and Max Shapiro. Valencia is probably the most gregarious, and Ken Sigmund comes off geeky in a garage rock way. Lead vocalist Gretchen Gustafson talks the most, and her delivery is blunt and direct, like she’s heard these questions a million times before, whether they be from family, friends or fans. That makes sense, because 2018 marks the band’s tenth anniversary.
“I’d say it’s easy memories,” Gustafson says. “What we listened to at 13 is what we’re playing now. People have fun going back and reliving those memories, and typically it’s with your friends at a thirtieth birthday party or a wedding. That’s what draws us all to it in a certain way.”
It’s no secret that a majority of cover bands get their start in the local bar scene. Often, their first gig is at a place where the musicians know the owner or manager and do their best to invite everyone in the area following them on social media. White Ford Bronco was no different, except for their era of choice.
“Our generation had gone to see 80s bands, but we didn’t remember the music that well because we were kids then,” Valencia says. “So why not play music that we remember, that we talked about and sang along to? When we started 10 years ago, people were like, ‘Isn’t it too soon?’”
The answer was a resounding no. In 2008, culture from the 90s was slowly dripping back into the zeitgeist from the holy nostalgia faucet. This phenomenon has only grown over the past 10 years, as fashion, art and other forms of culture have looked back on the decade best known for grunge and teen dramas for inspiration and imitation.
“With O.J. out of prison and the whole series that they had about him [there are two actually: ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America and FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson], and they’re bringing back Full House and Rosanne – we definitely see the era in clothes, ads and colors, it’s everywhere,” Gustafson says.
Venues of All Shapes and Sizes
White Ford Bronco quickly gained popularity, going from the Irish dive bar scene – that some members still clamor for – to larger venues. The first breakthrough for the group was their debut at State Theatre in the City of Falls Church, which they find colossally difficult to recollect because the memory of the show is hidden beneath a drunken haze from the night.
“The first time we ever played State Theatre, they gave us nine days’ notice and all of us were scared out of our minds, and we got truly drunk,” Gustafson says. “It was absolutely crazy.”
The band has a ton of tales like this, each member waxing poetic on the venue – or benchmark – that meant most to them. For McCauley and Sigmund, it’s that State Theatre show; for Valencia, it’s Rock & Roll Hotel; and for Gustafson, it’s the Howard Theatre – proof their appeal could sell out a larger DC venue.
“I don’t think we ever thought we’d be here 10 years later and selling out venues like we do, and playing as much as we do,” Gustafson says. “Getting the opportunities that we’ve gotten has been incredible.”
Now the group plays in venues of all shapes and sizes, from bars to concert venues to parks. Though it’s human nature to get more excited about an opportunity to headline the famed 9:30 Club than a small wedding or corporate gig, the group is steadfast in performing for the audience.
“When we first started, we were at bars and we were playing to 20 or 30 people who were made up mostly of our friends,” Gustafson says. “They were there to support us, so no one was going to tell us we sucked. Now we’re playing for 1,200 people and I look out in the room, and I see only three people that I know. We just hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Why White Ford Bronco?
“Everyone knows where they were during that moment,” McCauley says.
That “moment” was June 17, 1994 when O.J. Simpson eluded the Los Angeles Police Department in a white Ford Bronco, avoiding arrest until he finally arrived in his driveway. Afterward, the image of Simpson’s truck slowly moving on the highway has undeniably been burned into society’s collective memory.
“You can call a cover band whatever you like, but most of them are references to a television show or a piece of music,” Valencia says. “This was an event. [His] white Ford Bronco – everyone saw it.”
On whether or not they are ever sucked into discussions on the O.J. Simpson trial, the band assures me that they try their best not to be. For them, it’s more fun to discuss the possibility of Simpson stumbling across their band name or bumping into them at random.
“The interesting thing is that a lot of people who come and see us don’t remember that,” Valencia says. “They don’t know what we’re talking about, and some people will have no clue.”
“Is that your favorite truck?” Sigmund adds, imitating recurring questions from audiences. “Are you a country band?”
The name emerged as the obvious choice by chance, after Valencia was going back and forth with a coworker to figure out what the hell he would call the band. There were numerous references to television shows and other nostalgic moments on the cutting room floor, but once White Ford Bronco came up, it was easy.
“The first time I heard it, it was simply, ‘Yeah,’” McCauley says.
Driving into the Future
The band has tenth anniversary plans, but a majority of them are under wraps – either awaiting confirmation or perhaps basking in mystery. The band is in full-on reminiscing mode, and they’re happy to be here nearly a decade later.
“It started just playing for some friends in a stupid bar on a Tuesday night,” McCauley says. “We were losing money, but after all these steps, here we still are.”
As time elapses, the musicians often find themselves competing with the bands from the very decade they tribute. People might think this creates a problem, because of the authenticity that comes from the creators of this sound they play, but the band doesn’t seem too worried.
“We lost a gig to a band from the 90s, but they have one f–king good song,” Gustafson says.
Valencia interjects, “And we play it!”
“It’s funny now that those are who we are competing with,” she continues.
While they’re happy to be here, it hasn’t all been great memories. No one looks too fondly back on unloading a double-parked car on a crowded Adams Morgan street in the rain or having to search and search for equipment, only to realize it’s been stolen. However, these moments supplement the brighter contrast, allowing the good times to glow like a piece of their own nostalgia.
“We’ve been a rock band for 10 years,” Valencia says. “We just happen to play other people’s songs and I’m okay with that. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Catch White Ford Bronco at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. both nights. $25 in advance, $30 day of show. To follow the rest of WFB’s busy schedule, go to www.whitefordbronco.com.
Gypsy Sally’s: 3401 K St. NW, DC; 202-333-7700; www.gypsysallys.com