News flash: A cappella is hip! A capella quartet The Blanks travelled from America for their brand new UK tour, stopping in at one of our favourite live music venues of all time: Sin City. There to sing and make us laugh, they put on a fantastic performance and sat down with me after the show to talk about their music, Wales vs. America, and why there are no swans in Swansea.
It’s hard to find one word to describe this band of merry men. Eclectic, maybe, and quite possibly insane, but definitely, absolutely brilliant. The Blanks go by many names, including the Worthless Peons, and Ted’s Band from Scrubs, but whatever you call them, you cannot deny that they put on an unforgettable show.
Support act Paddy Kelly gave an outstanding performance and kept the crowd happy until it was time for the main act, with some great covers, excellent guitar-playing and some true gems of original songs. My favourite was a mash-up of Feeling Good and Hit the Road Jack, but there was also a fantastic cover of OMG by Usher. One to watch, that man, so make sure you keep an ear out.
After a long wait, The Blanks rush on to the stage to a roar of appreciation from the crowd and swing right into their first song- Superman. Their set is brilliantly choreographed with a nice sense of chaos and a touch of improvisation to keep the audience on their toes. There’s a running theme that they’re trying to get a talent scout (Marty Rotbart) to sign them to a record label so they can perform on “Broooadway”, which involves them needing to overcome a problem, having a good story arc, and learning something during the course of the show. “Marty”, a star-struck member of the audience, is dragged on to the stage once she agrees to sign them to a record label, and signs a contract written up on a roll of toilet paper.
The problem they overcome is when three out of four members of the band storm off at separate intervals, come back on as ice-cream vendors, then magically lose their Italian accents and forget their former identities so they can replace the others. They also have props: “Mr Pumpkin Head” and Mrs Claus- the latter dancing on a table to a version of “Maniac” by Michael Sembello.
The Golden 80’s song is fantastic, made to sound like an advert for an album but lengthened so they can cover some of the best songs from that decade in a cappella style. In between two songs they announce that a special guest is in the audience- Zach Braff. There’s a collective shout as everyone turns round to look to where they’re pointing before we realise it’s a hoax, when the band tell us we “just missed him”. Towards the end they freak everyone out by telling the audience their next song is a collection of 14th Century melodies… before launching into “California Girls” by Katy Perry. They march off-stage and back on again to huge shouts for an encore and do the song everyone was waiting for- the Emmy nominated “Guy Love” that was used in a musical episode of Scrubs.
After the show they seem so genuine and happy to talk to people that you see the shyest of fans have a joke with them as they stand together for photos. Once things have calmed down we go and sit at some tables and they beam at me, waiting for the first question, which is if they prefer to cover songs or write their own.
“I like writing the songs,” says Paul, which isn’t an unexpected answer seeing as one of the songs he penned (Guy Love) was nominated for an Emmy award. The lyrics in the original songs are well put-together, and the guys obviously have a lot of fun performing them on stage.
The other three say they like having a mix. I was going to ask about musical influences but they don’t seem to have any, and when I point this out Sam looks pleased.
“That’s what we want,” he says. “We just do the songs we like so there’s something different every time.”
“Dare I ask who the best singer is?”
“This is the bit where we all put our hands up,” says George, and they do, grinning like naughty children.
“Who would win in a fight between you four?”
“Oooh,” says Sam. “I’m not sure; none of us are very aggressive.”
“Is that why you pretend to have arguments on stage?”
“Yeah! It’s to get all the aggression out from our not being very aggressive in the first place.”
“So if the fake fighting gets rid of any pent-up aggression, where do the ice-cream men come from?”
“Alternative career plan,” says George. “In case people stop liking us.”
“Heading somewhere nice after Swansea?” I ask them.
“Aberystwth tomorrow,” Sam says.
“Aberystwth, Warwick, York, Preston, London, Reading…” George reels off a list while I complement Sam on his pronunciation of Welsh places.
“You’ve memorised the entire tour!” I add, looking at George.
“It’s going great so far,” Phil says, sipping from a pint of Strongbow (his fourth, he tells me). “We really like travelling around the UK.”
“Where’s your favourite place, Wales or America?”
They all glance over to give Gary a wave.
“We love it here in Swansea, it’s like coming home,” Sam tells me. “We started our first ever UK tour right here at Sin three years ago, and we love the club, the staff, Gary, everyone. Everyone’s so warm and friendly here, it’s a great place to be.”
“Could you tell the students one thing?” Paul asks me. “When we’re telling a joke, if they know the punchline…”
“Don’t shout it out before we say it!” George finishes.
“We’re joking,” Sam says. “The students here are great, they’re so enthusiastic about music. They should bring their own Mister Pumpkin Heads before the show!”
“And throw them at George,” Paul says, mock-glaring at the only member of the band with a full head of hair.
“Should they bring Mrs Claus as well?” I ask, and they all nod eagerly. “How did she get brought into the show?”
“Well we saw her dancing, and just thought… she is amazing, we have to have her on the show,” says Sam.
“Is she like a groupie for the band?”
They laugh. “Her and the pumpkin. We live a very glamorous life.”
“So in the near-future you’re finishing the tour, what do you want to do later on? Is Broadway really something you want to do?”
“Broooadway,” says Sam, letting a misty expression go across his face for a moment.
“We’re going to make a film,” George announces. “But it’s top-secret, you can’t tell anyone.”
“What’s the film about?”
“Ssh, it’s a secret!”
“It’s Four Blanks and a Baby,” Sam grins.
“Isn’t that plagiarism?”
“That was Three Men and a Baby,” he says slyly.
“We’re looking for orphans, do you know any?” asks Phil.
“We need twins,” adds Paul, “because babies can only have a certain amount of screen time. I’m a twin; you’re actually talking to Paul II so Paul didn’t have to do the interview.”
I say they should think about having Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as the twins in their film. Sam seems to like this idea but Paul shakes his head.
“We should get triplets!” he says.
“Why not get one each?” I suggest.
“You ask very good questions,” George says to me approvingly. “Journalists usually ask us the same thing all the time. It’s very boring.”
“What kind of boring questions do they ask you?”
“It’s always about where we got our name,” George grumbles, and then launches into an explanation.
“We were called Phil and the Blanks, because we couldn’t decide on a name, so it was Phil… n’ the Blanks. Geddit?”
I make the obligatory punchline/drum sound.
“And then we took the “Phil n’ out,” says George, and this time it’s Paul who makes the punchline sound.
“Two of you met at university, right?”
“Three,” Sam corrects, and gestures at Paul and George, “Phil came in later.”
“I was the ringer!” Phil says, doing jazz hands, and he makes me write that down and promise I’ll put it in the interview.
“I was doing this show called Forever Plaid,” says George. “We ended up doing this audition for a cruise ship where two of the microphones didn’t work, and then we started performing for fun.”
“So you didn’t expect to get this big a following?”
“Not at all!” says Sam. “We did a little performance at the cast and crew party for Scrubs but we only had three songs at the time. Then we got added into the show and here we are, in Swansea.”
“It’s the dream,” George bellows.
“I have a question,” Paul says. “Why are there no swans in Swansea?”
“Excellent question,” Sam declares, peering around the club as though there might be one wandering about in Sin City. “Why are there no swans in Swansea?”
“Maybe they’re all hiding,” I say.
“If we saw a swan we wouldn’t need to come here anymore,” says Paul. “That’s the only reason we came in the first place, because we thought there’d be swans.”
“That’s probably why you haven’t seen any,” I say. “We’re hiding them so you keep coming back.”
“Ooh, that’s crafty,” says Sam.
“Do they migrate here because they like the name?” asks Phil, making the others laugh.
Their tour manager comes up and says he has to get them ready to go, so we all shake hands, apart from Phil who kisses my hand then asks what the “TB” written on the back means.
“That’s you,” I tell him. “The Blanks.”
“Then I just kissed myself,” he says gleefully, and we wave goodbye.