In a culture as fickle as music fandom, where the currency of the trade is some mysterious and ill-defined spark of cool, "What's in a name?" isn't just a rhetorical question. For a band in its early years, and for any group aiming to reach new audiences in the future, a name sets the proverbial stage that partially determines what the literal one will look like. Let's not kid ourselves: Radiohead wouldn't inspire quite the same hushed tones if they had never ditched their tossed-off early moniker, On A Friday. (Just ask the Foo Fighters.)
Without being dramatic about it, an attribute they steadfastly avoid in person, vocalist/keyboardist Ruth Smith and guitarist Derek Kutzer of Blackstone Rngrs are making a shift that they hope will be similarly profitable artistically — and perhaps, in time, monetarily — by taking the new name Pale Dian. But they would never put it that way; they're too focused on the work to make silly comparisons.
After all, shortsighted associations are one reason for the change. Since they started writing and playing together as Blackstone Rngrs roughly four years ago, Smith and Kutzer have faced misconceptions and misnomers about what their music sounds like and where it belongs. Fans and journalists alike have made faulty assumptions without experiencing the music on its own terms, expecting everything from country and Americana to hardcore and metal.
If your book gets consistently misjudged by its cover, it might be on you to switch the image, if only to make your life a little easier. “Blackstone was a reference to a black youth gang in Chicago,” Kutzer says. “It’s just a name, but right off the bat it didn’t really fit the sound." He's seemingly unaffected by the four shots of espresso in his coffee. (Even the barista seems impressed.) “It has a very male and aggressive feeling,” he adds. And with Smith’s soprano playing such an important role in their sound, the dissonance has only grown.
Timing is another big factor. Having just finished recording their full-length debut (which they expect to release next year), and on the cusp of moving to Austin, there likely won’t be a better time for Smith and Kutzer to re-brand. On their most recent tour, they switched out their drummer for a machine and added Ben Fleming on bass, so while devoted fans will certainly recognize the sound, there are enough changes to justify a new beginning of sorts.
In their customary nonchalance, they don’t care if you think of them as a new band or not, so long as you actually listen to the music. “We’re playing all new songs, so it’s a new project in that sense,” Kutzer says. “Ruth, Ben and I all just work really well together. It’s the realization of a new lineup.” Both of them speak highly of Fleming’s contribution to the group, which frees up Smith to do more adventurous work on synths and allows Kutzer to focus on his guitar texture. Though he’ll be staying in the Dallas area, Fleming looks to be a permanent addition and makes the name change more about gain than loss.
According to Smith, the name Pale Dian is, like the songs she writes, somewhat open to interpretation — even how you say it is up to you. “We put a macron over the ‘i’, but you can pronounce it both ways,” she says (though her pronunciation is usually like “dyin’”). “It can mean pale candle, or moonlight; it just suggests that dreamy quality, I think. We’re a more developed band, and it just fits our music better.” The truth of that statement is fairly self-evident. Smith brings up the Cocteau Twins and the mood of David Lynch films as major rites of passage, and judging from the demos I’ve heard, she knows her influences. (Also, what I’ve heard is quite good.)
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With the new name and lineup comes a renewed confidence and dedication; the smoothness of their most recent stint recording, employing the drum machine and working with Alex Bhore (drummer from This Will Destroy You), can’t hurt. “It was really breezy; we just knocked it out with no issues, and everything sounded great,” Kutzer says. It’s a good thing too, since their first show in Dallas as Pale Dian, and their last before the original two members make the transition to Austin, is set for Double Wide this Saturday. It will serve as both a hello and a goodbye — and also neither.
If all goes well, audiences will connect the electronic-tinged, dreamy-surreal music more easily with Pale Dian than they did with Blackstone Rngrs, or at least won’t jump to conclusions so quickly. But, for a little while, it may be a bit like trying to find an old friend via Facebook search, only to realize the bonds of matrimony have given that familiar face a strange and different context. And, like with marriage, that change reflects choices made and values emphasized. Smith and Kutzer’s fans may be in for a brief period of confusion, but they’re hoping it eliminates more of the same down the road.
PALE DIAN performs with New Fumes and Moth Face, 9 p.m. Saturday, July 25, at Double Wide, 3510 Commerce St., $5-$8