Ever since the White Stripes were launched into rock’s stratosphere with the scuzzy guitar chords of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” gritty, riff-based rock ‘n’ roll has made a relative comeback in the world of popular music. White’s delirious yelp, joltingly primitive guitar stylings, and a love for the most bombastic of blues and classic-rock traditions ushered in an era where retro-minded rock bands could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with pop divas.
And while the Chicago indie-rock band North by North has come along more than a dozen years after that seminal rock song was released, they fall decidedly in the Stripes’ distinct lineage. Frontman Nate Girard’s voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack White’s, and he and his longtime partner Kendra Blank (bass/keys) seem to prolifically pump out sweltering rock riffs with ease. Their debut, 2014’s Something Wicked, is an 18-track, two-LP monster that barely pauses for the breath it takes to flip the record over. The group also released a second double album, Last Days of Magic, a couple of weeks ago.
“We purposefully wanted it to be riff-heavy; that’s definitely something we’ve injected into our writing over the years,” Blank admits. “Nate’s previous band was a more direct ’70s throwback, kind of Led Zeppelin thing. It’s an obvious influence.”
That’s not to say that the band exists purely as an homage to any particular band — even though Blank and Girard started out as a two-piece (with Blank on drums), they distinguished themselves from the start by incorporating knottier, more prog-rock digressions and distinct counterpoints built around Blank’s secondary voice and synth contributions.
“When he and I started making music together, there were just a lot of bands that were out at the time like that — the White Stripes, the Black Keys — that were doing that,” Blanks says, noting that North by North began in 2011 following the dissolution of the group’s old act. But North by North was never as reverentially blues-driven as either of those groups were in their beginnings, preferring a cleaner, more adventurous sound from the get-go.
“We are kind of anachronistic in that we draw on a lot of different influences,” she reasons. “We like to listen to everything and some of that pops into the music for sure. But we’re trying to create our own sound, trying to keep it unique to us.”
And it’s true. There is a distinct sensitivity and thoughtfulness to the band’s riff-tastic sprawl, something they share with another South Carolina band often faced with similar tags, the Mobros, who will be playing a few dates of the tour with North by North. The ability to reinvent and repurpose such archetypal styles and patterns into something new is commendable.
Part of that seriousness and attention to detail shines through in the band’s physical productions. Something Wicked comes on mint-green vinyl with elaborate artwork from Girard, and each side of the LP is well-thought-out, beginning with a short intro and then packed together with different songs that build nicely upon each other.
“It was a conscious decision to put it out on vinyl,” says Blank. “The vinyl format allowed us to make sure each side is kind of its own experience, and that’s something we’ve been able to do on the new one too. It allows each side its own sonic space.”
It’s clear from both the intensity of the tour schedule — the band arrives in Charleston amid a three-month tour and plans to spend most of the next year on the road — as well as their rich, stadium-ready sound that there’s more than a bit of ambition in North by North. Blank says their rotating cast of drummers over the years has slowed the recording and touring practice in the past, but the group still currently fires on all cylinders. Their three-month stint on the road will culminate in the release of their new album digitally worldwide and a press campaign, although they will have vinyl copies exclusively at the shows.
“We gotta do this; we have to get our name out there,” Blank says. “Our tour plans for next year is to be out on the road for seven or eight months.”