July 17th, 2009 | Interviews

nathan morse

Stream: Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey “Here And Now”


(from hERE aND nOW out now on Bar/None)

Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple were (legendarily) the only people in North Carolina who bought Big Star albums the very first time around, and they’d team up most famously for the power-pop band the dB’s. (Stamey would also release Chris Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’ 45 and Holsapple would go on to play with R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish!) They are now teamed up and touring as a band with no official name. This interview by Dan Collins.

Peter, you joined a band when you were eight?
Peter Holsapple (guitar/vocals): What?
Admittedly, this is from Wikipedia. But it says you were born in ’56 and joined a band in 1964.
Peter: That is true. I played in combos. But they weren’t professional. The first professional band I played in was when I was 12—when I earned money. We lived in a city with a lot of very active places for young people to play. They were the assembly halls for churches. On the weekends they’d get a PA and bands would play. That was kind of fun.
Did you ever cut a single?
Peter: No. Chris and Mitch [Easter] and I had a band that had an album in 1973 called Rittenhouse Square. It was not very good! It was what you’d expect out of 14- or 15-year-olds. We certainly listened to a lot of Yes, a lot of the Move. Things were funny and grind-y, but in retrospect it’s pretty naïve stuff.
Sounds like you met each other early in life.
Peter: Chris and Mitch were ahead of me in school. I do remember him standing in the parking lot of the school with an instrument case waiting for his parents to pick him up. His dad was a pediatrician in town—a lot of people went to Dr. Stamey! I saw him as a sort of inroads in a lot of ways. When I met him, he wasn’t playing music at all. He was learning to record, which I thought was very cool.
Yeah! And Chris, you produced Peter’s band Little Diesel in ’74.
Chris Stamey (guitar/vocals): We made it in an afternoon in my bedroom at my parents’ house. I’d moved the bed a little bit, and I had little tweed Fender amps nailed up to the wall and we made it on a four-track tape recorder. At the time I think they made 10 copies. They recorded it on an eight-track recorder, and by that I mean a little recorder that made 8-track cartridges. There were only literally a few copies made.
Do you have an 8-track you can send to me in the mail?
Peter: No! But a vinyl edition did come out a few years ago. It came out on Telstar records.
Chris: I was talking to Mitch about how we should find that, and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got the master tape still!’ So we dug it out and I mixed it up a little better than I had back then, and it’s a really cool energetic record! Anybody who’s heard it loves it.
Peter: There were a breadth of covers that we were trying to tackle. We were doing Free and Spirit and Status Quo. We didn’t really ascribe to the Allman Brothers/Marshall Tucker stuff that was popular there at the time. We sort of rooted for the underdog. That’s probably why we were such huge Move fans. That’s probably why the first song off our new album is by a band called ‘Family,’ who we love very dearly. That’s a band that had really meant an awful lot to us.
Chris: The MC5 had just come to town and just really transformed the Winston rock scene.
Peter: I was in school in New Hampshire at prep school for a year, during which time I did get to play in bands with Bob Tench, who went on to be Tom Petty’s keyboard player. He was one of those guys who was very deeply into the MC5 and the Stooges. The first Mott the Hoople album came out, and we really absorbed that.
Did you see the revival tour the MC5 did a few years ago? Evan Dando and Mark Arm from Mudhoney were singing with them.
Chris: And Marshall Crenshaw playing with them too—I have to say, the night I saw them in Chapel Hill, it was not a huge success, but it was only one night on a tour. It was kind of dark, I guess you’d say—the energy. The singers were reading all the lyrics—it wasn’t totally all together.
Well, enough about the past—tell me about the sound on your new album.
Chris: Well, what’s refreshing about talking with you is that it does remind me of a sixties interview. It’s not the usual questions. But Peter and I think about this as a band that we have together that has its own identity, and we just don’t have a band name for it. We recorded Mavericks in 1992, and in some ways we see this as a continuation of that.
Why is that?
Chris: It makes a connection to I guess what used to be called ‘good guy’ radio, almost like sixties AM radio. My experience with Big Star, for example, was hearing them—they were a hit band in Winston/Salem, and they were on the radio with bands like the Grass Roots and the Seeds. It’s just that they weren’t anywhere else but my hometown. It just isn’t a Porsche—more of a Woody! A family station wagon.
If somebody was a dB’s fan who had never heard this album, what differences would they see between this album and your old stuff?
Peter: dB’s records and the duet records are such that they both have as their main contributors myself and Chris. But if they’re dB’s records, they’ve got Will on drums and Gene on bass and it’s a harder rocking and slightly more frenzied thing.
Chris: The way the dB’s bass player and drummer play together is kind of like you drop an electric blender in a bathtub, and yet it keeps running. It’s a very explosive combustible combination. And we use really good players and we have more drums on this record than we thought we would, but this is more about our guitars and our voices.
Peter: It is two different voices! Even though Chris and I are the main guys writing for both groups. You know, there’s only been one saxophone on a dB’s record—on a single maybe. And here we’ve got Branford Marsalis who played on a couple cuts on this album.
That’s a score!
Peter: Yeah, Bran is a great guy. For years I was the keyboard guy and utility guy for Hootie and the Blowfish, and Branford always came down for their charity golf tournament every year and played. A couple years ago I said, ‘Well, I’ve got these songs that would be really well served if you could find some time to come and play on it. It’s about New Orleans.’ He was like, ‘I’m busy, but let me know! We’ll make it happen.’ Both tracks were lifted incredibly by his presence.
Lou Reed, before he was in the Velvet Underground, cut a single with King Curtis as the session horn guy! But I think you just beat that. Do you want to gloat at Lou Reed for besting him?
Peter: Lou’s contribution is sacred! Even his bad records aren’t that bad. I have no opportunity to diss him, frankly.
A few years back you recorded an album called A Question of Temperature.
Chris: Peter and I just came up with that title, I recall. On a record with a lot of covers, to name it after a cover that we weren’t doing seemed, you know… it was originally called Vote, and it was done as an EP. We did too many things… it became the world’s longest EP! We put it out right before the election that John Kerry lost to try to encourage people to vote. It seems crazy in retrospect. It was then released as a regular record in January. It was never intended to be an album-album.
What songs did you cover?
Chris: We covered a song of mine called ‘Summer Sun.’ The Yardbirds, we did. We covered ‘Venus’ by Television.
Can I get a statement from you about the death of Sky Saxon?
Chris: He was a friend of Chilton’s. I never really met him. When I played with Alex, we used to do ‘I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine’ almost every night. Alex was a really big fan.
How did you meet Alex Chilton?
Chris: I was making a record with Terry Ork. He’d put out the first Television 45, and I’d just moved to New York. And he said that they were putting out a record by Alex Chilton, and he needed a band because he was going to come up for one day—to play Valentine’s Day in New York. And Alex called me up, and we talked, and he asked me what my sign was, and everything seemed to be okay. I was playing bass—I think Tina Weymouth almost got the call, but I ended up getting it. And Alex stayed for over a year, and we kept playing. He’d stay on my couch a lot, and we went up and recorded a lot, most of which never came out.
There was another celebrity death this month as well. You guys once had a song called ‘Neverland.’ Do you think Michael Jackson named his ranch after you?
Chris: I think that would be a stretch.
The dance music movement that came along in the mid-early eighties, with Michael and Prince and Sheila E.—did that eclipse the fame that bands like the dB’s might have earned?
Peter: It certainly didn’t help it get on the radio! But… the music was great. All the music was great. We felt that we weren’t particularly in competition with that.
Chris: I think that for most bands, the whole idea of making it big wasn’t around. Once MTV came along, and it went out into the world, people got the idea, ‘Yeah, let’s make it big!’ But that wasn’t why we were making music. We weren’t trying to win the lottery.
Peter: Even as well known as we are for our contributions to sort of ‘new wave’ with the dB’s, we had already been writing and recording well before that. We just happened to come along at the time. The dB’s didn’t even have an American label for many years.
Of the people who were your contemporaries, who would you say sounded like you?
Chris: I think the Soft Boys! I clearly thought Television had the right idea, but I think the Soft Boys would be the closest.
Peter: Without meaning to be left of center, it appears that we were left of center. My dear friend Mark Brian from Hootie & the Blowfish says things to me like, ‘You’re my favorite eccentric weird songwriter.’ And I listen to my songs, and I don’t think they’re all that eccentric and weird. They’re simple, they’re rock ‘n’ roll, they have verses, they have choruses and bridges. What’s so different? Same thing with a Michael Jackson record. They’re still set up approximately the same way. Yet there’s a world of difference between them. The thing that we’ve all had to learn over the years is that this is not about huge success. That would be wonderful! I’d love it if a song got used in a commercial that would take the load off of being an unemployed musician. If I could ever get my publishing straightened out, maybe I could do something! The great thing is that I’ve got a job that I love. I love to be a musician. I love the reaction of people when they like my songs. Maybe I’m just a ham, but I really do dig it a lot. It feels really good. I’m not really comfortable in the rest of the world. I am on stage, though. Music was just about the most important thing to me until my kids came along.
Can you get your kids involved in music?
Peter: I play at my son’s school. I was the kids’ entertainer at Borders in New Orleans for about five years. I started working on a kids record, but then I realized that practically every old semi-failed new waver had done a kids record! I don’t want to be in that number until I can do something really good. Dan Zanes does a great job! Robert Warren is great! Disney’s got the Imagination Movers—that’s just the shit! I love it! The kids love it! You want to make kids music so that parents don’t jump out the window.
Chris, you haven’t released any kids albums to my knowledge—but you released Chris Bell’s first single on your label, right?
Chris: Right! Again, that was through Alex. Alex told me about it. I was very proud to have done that, but it wasn’t anything very creative except to the extent that A&R is creative. He’d made it a while back. He’d done in a guy’s garage, in a shoe box in Memphis, and then moved to London and mixed it with Geoff Emerick at George Martin’s Air studios.
In the last couple decades, we haven’t heard a whole lot from you! Have you been recording and producing bands or selling crystal meth, or what?
Chris: I do an album or two a month—some mixing, some producing. I probably work on about fifteen records a year. I just did a band called Megafaun. I did Rosebuds, on Merge. The Old Ceremony. Luego, which hasn’t come out yet…
How about some L.A. bands?
Chris: I did a whole bunch of recordings with Patrick Park! I don’t think he qualifies as a ‘band,’ but if anybody qualifies as a one-man band, he can really do it. That would be the most recent thing. I lived there, working there with Scott Litt on a Flat Duo Jets record for a while at Ocean Way, which became Cello. I definitely put in time in California. In a lot of ways, I consider the span I spent with Peter Holsapple to be a California band. We really started in L.A. We live in North Carolina, but the spirit of our birth was really in the Santa Monica kind of thing.
I have the Sharp Cuts compilation you came out on in 1980 on Planet Records with ‘Soul Kiss.’ You’re on there with a lot of other L.A. bands. Did that record come about because of your association with people out here?
Chris: No, I think that would be prior to it. I think we just got a call about it. I do remember they accidentally put the wrong tape on there, which always bugged me. That was a joke mix! It never was supposed to be out like that.
If it makes you feel better, on the album sticker, they list Suburban Lawns twice and forgot to list the Alleycats.
Chris: It figures.
Besides just songs, did people constantly misspell the ‘dB’s’ name on albums and flyers and such?
Chris: I think we knew we were in for trouble. It was interesting to see how things change in translation. I kind of liked that it did change all the time, but I guess it was an uphill struggle.
Did people ever spell it ‘D-e-e-B-e-e-s’ like the Bee Gees?
Chris: I think we’ve had every kind of possible ramification. The embarrassing thing is that we never should have put the apostrophe in there to begin with. It was archaic even then. It’s pretty incorrect.
I was listening to your early discography, Chris, and I feel like you were playing a brand of power-pop that even now sounds a bit more youthful. I feel like other power-pop sounded a bit mannish, and yours sounds more teenaged—even maybe had a bit of a bubblegum feel.
Peter:We listened to everything—depending on what you feel is bubblegum. I was married to Susan Cowsill of the Cowsills, so I love the Partridge Family. I love the stuff that was on Buddah, the Kasenetz-Katz Orchestra and things like that. But I don’t love it anymore than I love Otis Redding or the Dave Clark Five or Big Star. I will admit to having listened to more than the lion’s share of AM radio. Anything that goes from about 1964-1974.
Did you have a hard time convincing your peers to appreciate something more gentle and delicate?
Chris: I always played with good musicians, and we just talk about how to play music. You know on iTunes, they have a little pull-down things for genre when you want to make an MP3? I actually think I do more ‘folk rock’ over ‘power pop.’
What folk rock bands inspired you?
Chris: I would say the Byrds would be the biggest.
Speaking of 8-tracks, you guys did a lot of cassette releases as the dB’s. You did one that came in an actual can! Wasn’t that expensive?
Chris: We didn’t get the bill, but I don’t think it was that expensive. Probably a big waste of chow mein noodles or something! Cans can’t really cost that much—otherwise, they wouldn’t put cheap food in them.
Did the people who bought them actually have to use a can opener to get the tape out?
Chris: Oh yeah!
Why did things end? Why did you shelve the dB’s?
Chris: I think it’s more of a mystery why things continue. I look at bands I like like Blind Faith where they last for five months and a few gigs. It seemed like it went on a long time.
And you guys are still working together as a duo, so it’s like this working relationship that was in the dB’s is still going.
Chris: It had started 11 years before that, really. It’s just that the dB’s got more press because there were press agents involved.
Peter, you had a huge bunch of press when you played with R.E.M.
Peter: I did play with R.E.M. We did a tour for Green, the first album they did on Warner Brothers, and we recorded Out of Time—I played the acoustic guitar on ‘Losing My Religion.’ And then we went to England, and we reached a point where it was ‘untenable’ to work together. Much as I love those guys and respect what they’ve done, it was time for me to move on. I joined the Continental Drifters for ten years, and was serving in the same capacity I had with R.E.M. in Hootie & the Blowfish, which was a great gig I had for thirteen years.
You were saying that the dude from the Blowfish thinks you write weird songs. For our readership the weirdest thing you’ve EVER done is play in Hootie & the Blowfish!
Peter: The guys in the band are remarkable people. They truly are! They worked very, very hard for their success. They did some things that were probably ill-advised—they rushed out a second record out because they were afraid their fans were sick of the first record! They were thinking of their fans, which I thought was really cool.
Yeah, but… Hootie and the Blowfish! Chris, were ever moments where you were like, ‘Peter is killing the brand?’
Chris: I can’t even think in that way! He had been doing flower deliveries in New Orleans before that happened. I can’t think of how many times he went to Vietnam with them. I think it was kind of fun!
Peter: I would certainly rather do this than not work! That’s probably the best job I ever had. I enjoyed playing the music—it was really comfortable music, and really comforting music. It was not like playing with Yes. But to get to back up a world-class singer like Darius Rucker for 13 years was a serious honor. I was able to rope him into a tribute to Sandy Denny—I was the music director for a show that was celebrating the work of Sandy Denny, in Brooklyn, and I asked him to sing ‘Black Waterside,’ and he just tore it up! We got him on the R.E.M. tribute show at Carnegie Hall, and he did ‘I Believe’ with Calexico. People are more inclined to hate Hootie & the Blowfish because they think they’ve heard Hootie & the Blowfish. But Hootie did five really good studio records. Every one of those records had songs that could have been hits on them. The shape of radio changed, and the band stuck with their style. It was tough to go from being nobody, to being a huge hit, to being a punch line. People just think it’s ‘Hold My Hand’ and Darius in a cowboy hat hawking Burger King.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever played?
Chris: They all seem so normal! With the Golden Palominos, we played the Montrose Jazz Festival. We were playing after the Herbie Hancock Quartet, with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock. I think we played after Miles Davis, too.
Have you had any crazy stories recently where you two put out an album or did a show, and some rabid fans did something… rabid?
Chris: I usually hide after shows! You seem to be looking for fun, tabloid stuff, and you’re probably looking in the wrong direction. We come from a very Southern, polite tradition.
I was actually at the 99 Cent Store on York in Highland Park, and ran across the Chris Stamey and Friends’ Christmas album— for a buck! It wasn’t bad! Can you tell me how that came about?
Peter: I did ‘O Holy Night’ on the very first version of the Christmas album years ago. I love that stuff! I grew up in the Episcopal Church, singing in the choir. I love the popular stuff! The Beach Boys’ Christmas record, the Ventures Christmas record, the Phil Spector Christmas Gift for You, the Beatles 45. Love ‘em, love ‘em, love ‘em! And the best part of Christmas albums is that they sell every year.
Chris: Gene Holder, who plays bass in the dB’s, always wanted to make a Christmas record, always thought that would be a fun thing to do. We were so impressed that even after I was no longer playing with the band, I wrote a song called ‘Christmas Time’ kinda with him in mind and got the other guys who had been in the dB’s to record it with me. And we put together other tracks based around that one song.
Who sings ‘Silver Bells?’ That was my favorite tune off the album.
That was Kirsten Lambert. She’s a friend of ours who lives here. That may be her only recorded effort, as far as I know.
That’s a tragedy! Tell her! If she ever goes on tour, I’ll give her an interview.
Chris: Okay—haha!