Cody Rea of Bluff Caller was born and raised in Reno. The entire four-piece band is from the area. There are strong bonds between Rea and every member. He and drummer Dominic Kelly have been friends since the third grade and their fathers were roommates in college and played football together. Bassist Greg Rea is his little brother. The three of them started playing music in the detached garage of Rea’s college house shared with roommate Spencer Mead.
“If we aren’t killing each other or throwing up on each other … we are playing music,” Rea said in an interview at Hub Coffee Roasters in Reno. “We’re oddly close. Maybe too close. It’s a fucked up, sexless marriage, but we love it.”
As local boys, one would assume the name Bluff Caller is a reference to gambling antics, but you’d be a fool for assuming such.
Their non-insulated garage was a reverb chamber. The walls rattled and the door shook until the noise complaints started piling up. On a freezing Nevada evening, they had to play with the door open a crack so the kerosene heater could vent.
“We all looked over as two black boots walked up,” Rea said. “Man, that’s the fuzz.”
The cop’s black glove lifted the door with a pink citation in his other hand. It was awkward for a second. The officer looked around and said, “Listen, I’m not going to cite you because that was a pretty cool song, but move it the hell inside.”
A friend witnessed the entire thing as he walked up. Later that night he said, “I can’t believe that cop just left. You guys are some bluff callers.”
The crew moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big. Once the culture shock wore off, they asked themselves, “What the fuck are we doing here?”
“The magic ended at three months,” Rea said. “We weren’t being creative. We ended up just working and living in our cars.”
The steep cost of living and stress of eternal traffic sucked the life out of their band. They had delusions of grandeur and were ready to work, but eventually missed their home.
Their first release “The Desert Party” was recorded and tracked live in Reno. They brought those un-mixed rough tracks with them to LA to rehearse on, build with and mix, but it wasn’t getting finished.
“We had an album lingering for almost a year,” Rea said. “We finally found a dude to mix it and we kept it raw. We are still really proud of it.”
The album ranges from jammy dance-rock like England’s Foals to grinding downtempo rock ‘n’ roll with syncopated hip-hop beats filling the gaps, similar to Chet Faker’s approach.
They were back in The Biggest Little City before a Los Angeles year passed.
“It gave us a lot of perspective,” Rea said. “Instead of chasing our synth-pop influences, we had the realization we are a rock band. We love to have the time to jam and record and afford to make music.”
They realized a lot of their influences come from home: the pine trees, the desert, not palm trees and a concrete jungle. Rea seems to connect Reno landscapes to soundscapes.
“We like washed-out, reverby guitars,” Rea said. “I think that’s synonymous with Nevada bands.”
Their second full-length release — “Leave Me Alone, Don’t Ever Leave Me” — was completely self-produced and recorded in Rea’s apartment.
“This album was my meditation on living with a romantic partner,” Rea said. “It was a concept album I had in my head for a long time.”
He thought it would be released as a solo project later in life.
“I thought the guys weren’t going to be comfortable with this,” Rea said. “It’s a break-up album, it’s long and sad. There’s lots of keyboards, lots of The National shit going on.”
But the release of “The Desert Party” made them ballsy.
I had voices in my head, but I wanted to adhere to the project. For six months I didn’t even go to a show.”
“We have a rock record,” Rea said. “We can play these live and have flashy solos, but now let’s make an R&B breakup album.”
They were confident in the small apartment because they didn’t need the space to mic up drums. They pulled together songs Rea thought they’d never release — songs they wrote in corners of rooms, in the grocery store or skeletons hidden away in GarageBand demos. Rea grew as a producer throughout the project. It was also therapeutic to get it off of his psyche.
“I liken it to a roommate you get sick of,” Rea said. “They’re gone and you kind of miss them, you miss the kinship, but you’re still like, ‘Get the fuck out.’ ”
When Rea is in the process of recording a release, he likes to not consume other music. When he wraps up, he feels like himself again.
“I was trying so many things and being so vulnerable with the lyrics,” Rea said. “I had voices in my head, but I wanted to adhere to the project. For six months I didn’t even go to a show.”
They moved on thematically and sonically. “Leave Me Alone, Don’t Ever Leave Me” is a small departure from their rock sound. Rea explores falsetto vocals and a keyboard. The 12 tracks are cohesive. “Low & Behold” and “Wife” should be on the radio. They sound like someone who’s lost and trying to grasp reality or steady footing.
“Love Me Forever” is entrancing and laced with harmonized pleading vocals. There’s an honesty in the lyrics and production akin to pre-Kanye Bon Iver. Rea apologies to his parents, re-evaluates love and admits to smoking away his 20s and being a loser. He grows in front of his audience.
From “Wife” – I want to run into your arms, want to turn off the tough guy songs. I enjoy you and I want you in my life, I don’t think that means you got to be my wife.
The songs have a flushed-out completeness. Most tracks get you swaying, all of them feature a bold voice that compels you to not simply listen, but hear and understand. Bluff Caller’s players realized music isn’t something they can use to immediately pay their bills. To extend their reach, the music is available free on streaming sites such as Spotify. There is so much noise is our daily lives, the aim is to throw up their product and let it land in as many ears as possible.
When Rea writes music, he usually focuses on one theme at a time. The 2018 release contains lamentations on getting his ass kicked in LA, a breakup and moving away from the person he loved. It was a mediation on loss and botched expectations.
“I wanted this to represent how we all have ghosts,” Rea said. “Things that leave, but are still there. Absent sounds in your life. Things that are bittersweet in your past and future.”
They moved from grandiose muscle-flexing to journal entries while sitting in sadness.
“I tried to change things I perceived as negative into songs, a positive thing in my life,” Rea said. “Turning shit into gold. It feels good to be vulnerable – not to impress, but to connect.”
— Tony Contini
Catch Bluff Caller live on Saturday, Sept. 8, at Crystal Bay Casino.