Q&A With Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey

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There are many people who consider the first two albums by the dB’s—1981’s Stands For Decibels and 1982’s Repercussion—to be just as influential, in their own way, as those revered early Velvet Underground releases from the ’60s. The sway of the LPs from this groundbreaking Winston-Salem outfit over a North Carolina/Georgia-based underground railroad that included R.E.M., Miracle Legion, the Connells, Dreams So Real, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Guadalcanal Diary and pre-Girlfriend Matthew Sweet was undeniable. The singing/songwriting backbone of the dB’s was the tandem of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, whose simpatico musical attraction was strong enough to fuel Mavericks, an excellent 1991 album by the duo. Eighteen years later, the longtime friends have released the equally stirring Here And Now (Bar/None). The pair has also begun recording again with the dB’s, including original bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby. When MAGNET caught up with Holsapple via telephone from his Durham, N.C., home, he had just finished putting a diaper on his two-year-old daughter. (Our interview with Stamey was done via email.) For more on the dB’s, read this 2002 story, which was part of our power-pop special issue. Holsapple and Stamey are guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

“Here And Now” (download):

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MAGNET: Let’s start with (1972’s) Rittenhouse Square. Since it was a pretty limited release, it’s one of the few things that I haven’t heard with you, Chris and Mitch Easter.
Holsapple: Yeah, and a drummer named Bobby Locke. It was mostly Mitch’s songs with a couple of songs from me. The record itself would be referred to as a collector’s item by people who’ve never heard it. People who have heard it describe it as made by a bunch of kids that listened to good records and were trying to make a good record, too. None of us was blessed with the voices of a Caruso, but we certainly tried. There are six songs on there, a couple of these longer, guitar-workout things that Mitch wrote, and a couple are mine with immature lyrics about sex and Gibson Les Pauls and stuff. It’s entertaining on a purely immature level. You don’t want to show your home movies to people. It’s the kind of thing you get out when you want to embarrass your daughter and bring out pictures of her wandering around with her diaper hanging off.

How did you first meet Chris?
Chris and I both went to the same elementary school in Winston-Salem. I remember seeing him waiting to get picked up in the parking lot with his viola case. He and Mitch were in the same class. I was in the same class with Will (Rigby). It was an interesting group of people who grew up together for years and years. I was 12 and Chris was 13. I was a little bit in awe of him because he was really close pals with Mitch. Their moms were even close. And Mitch was a total guitar god, even then. He was playing in a cocktail band somewhere. Chris had gotten into recording. I remember standing with him in the R.J. Reynolds High School auditorium pit, recording another band called Rittenhouse Square with Mitch, the predecessor version to the one we were in. It was a who’s-who of great players in Winston-Salem and one of those moments when you make a connection between what the local band was doing and what the Beatles were doing. It may have been disparate, but I kind of got the feeling from watching that that it was obtainable. Then Chris got a bass—back then, there weren’t too many bass players—and we played in a band called Ice. Then I went off to prep school for a year at Exeter in New Hampshire in 1970, which was very fortuitous. On my hall lived Benmont Tench (Tom Petty’s keyboardist), who was a senior when I was a freshman, and we got along famously and played in a band. As much as I already knew about the MC5, we took it a few steps further, playing Mott The Hoople covers. Then we had a friend from Ann Arbor who had all the Creem magazines. We all lived and died by that.

Were you ready to rock when you returned to North Carolina?
When I came back, we all decided that’s what Rittenhouse Square should be doing too: Flamin’ Groovies and Guess Who covers. When the second version of Rittenhouse broke up, they decided that Chris and I, along with Mitch, should be the guys to fill out the last lineup. There we were in a band, playing and making a record. It was very exciting. They made arrangements to go to New York and stay at Mitch’s father’s apartment. But I was too young and my parents would hear nothing of it. Sadly, I had to withdraw from the band while they spent the summer in New York.

What came next after Rittenhouse Square?
I joined up with a band called Little Diesel in 1974. We recorded in Chris’ bedroom, five or six of us in there with Chris and his four-track TEAC tape recorder. It was insane. We cut 16 songs, lots of covers. We did everything from “I Got A Line On You” to “Riot In Cell Block Number Nine” to one of those Fairport Convention fiddle songs and a nice little medley of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” and “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night.” We went over like the proverbial lead zeppelin. We were fighting the taste of Winston-Salem, which, at that time, was all about Marshall Tucker and Southern rock: the boogie. We kept Little Diesel going all through high school. Will Rigby was the drummer, and a guy named Bob Northcott, who was the singer and was really good. We thought we were all going off to the University of North Carolina together in Chapel Hill, but I was the only one who got in, for all the good that did. I went for three years. I’m terribly sorry now, because that piece of sheepskin would be helpful in looking for a job.

Tell me about the dB’s, certainly one of the high-water points of your career.
The dB’s had already started with Chris and Will and Gene (Holder) all living in New York. Chris had moved up to play bass for Alex Chilton. After that was done, he got Will and Gene to come up. They liked it, and Chris Stamey and the dB’s were born. I played in a band in Chapel Hill with Mitch called the H-Bombs, and that was a lot of fun, but it, too, fell upon deaf ears. It was getting obvious it was time to find another place to play, and New York was where I’d always wanted to be. After three or four months of living in Memphis and recording with Richard Rosebrough at the helm, I was on my merry way up to New York in the fall of 1978 to audition to play keyboards with the dB’s. I’m still not sure if I passed the audition. [Laughs] Nobody ever told me I’d made it.

Did you get a gig right away in New York?
Our first show together as a four-piece was in Irving Plaza with the Fleshtones and the Zantees with Billy Miller and Miriam Linna. Frankly, we just sucked. We were so bad, we woodshedded for a couple of months after that. We realized we had to get better. So, we did and got a gig opening for Nervus Rex, a really good band. We came out, and I think we actually blew them off the stage. They rehearsed upstairs from us in The Music Building on Eighth Avenue between 38th and 39th. The Del-Lords were across the hall, a floor up from the Fleshtones. It was a very heady time. Great people and people who liked us. We coined the term “combo-raderie.” Everybody really enjoyed each other’s bands. You read about the backbiting, conniving things that go on in the L.A. scene, in particular; it just wasn’t like that in New York. We were always thrilled for each other. We’d go to each other’s gigs.

Where else did you play in New York?
We played CB’s and Max’s, but there were other places like Hurrah and a place called The 80’s that Neil Cooper from ROIR had, which was where we opened for X on their first New York gigs. There was My Father’s Place out on Long Island. Maxwell’s was just starting up with the front room open but not the back. I remember jamming with the Fleshtones there. I moved to New York two weeks after Television played their final gigs at The Bottom Line. That’s my demarcation line as to where things began for me. It was kind of a second wave of bands. We lived off record-release parties, had girlfriends at record companies. I worked in a record store for years at 23rd and Third, a place called Musical Maze. I got that job through George Scott, the bassist for Eight Eyed Spy, the Contortions and the original bass player for the Raybeats.

Two amazing albums, Stands For Decibels and Repercussion, by the original lineup, were records later revered by some as much as the Big Star stuff. Why the breakup?
We didn’t really break up. Chris left the band because he wanted to do stuff that was more experimental. He took a lot of composition courses under a guy named Roger Hannay at UNC. Chris is more of a schooled musician than I am. I could be wrong, but maybe it got a little boring for him when my songs ended up being the a-sides of the singles. He parted company with us, not anything angry. He wanted to move on. And we were still enjoying playing with each other a lot. Chris was looking for something new and interesting to do, and I think he felt we’d mined the two guitars, bass and drums stuff as far as it would go. But now we’re back together as the dB’s with the original members, and we’re working on a new record.

When I play the two Holsapple & Stamey records back to back, I can’t tell which is which.
I think that’s wonderful to hear. We did a lot of referencing to Mavericks, because of all the records that Chris and I have made over the years, that’s the one that people come up to us and say, “I really thought that was such a beautiful record.” I think we succeeded incredibly on Mavericks, because it didn’t have much of a budget, but it sounded incredibly expensive. We tried to make things happen musically and sonically that were reasonable facsimiles of what adult dB’s would do. Not quite as frenetic or as hard-rocking as the dB’s. And we really tried to make something that wouldn’t sound dated. So many records from the ’80s and ’90s are time-stamped. But you put 17 years between records, and there’s bound to be some change. I think the songwriting has improved. I’ve outlived so many of my idols, it’s kind of sad. But I’m really grateful for that opportunity. It’s the only way we could have made a record like this. 

 

The first thing I remember hearing from you was a single I bought in the ’70s from Greg Shaw’s Bomp! mail-order that still sticks in my brain called “The Summer Sun.” It sounded like nothing anyone else was doing at the time. Can you tell me something about your earliest days making records?
Stamey: This, and the flip, “Where The Fun Is,” were both produced by Alex Chilton. He and I played all the instruments, starting with acoustic guitar (not with drums and bass). While in the Box Tops, Alex had toured with the Beach Boys and gotten to know them and their ways of record-making; I think some of this informed his choices on those songs. I wrote the song originally, as I recall, under the influence of my upstairs apartment neighbor, Alan Betrock, who was an expert on Phil Spector and also on ’60s records in general. So, although Alex and I were part of the CBGB scene at that time, we stepped out of it for those sessions, which took place in Wallingford, Conn., at Trod Nossel Studio. It came out on Terry Ork’s label, as I recall; he had released Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” on that label, still one of my fave records ever.

Sneakers, as I recall, was a studio project by you and Mitch Easter. I have a 12-inch on your Car label. How did the collaboration with Mitch come about? Did you guys ever play that stuff live?
Mitch and I (and Peter and Will and Gene and … ) grew up together and were in lots of different Winston-Salem, N.C.-based bands. Mitch and I had a basement studio in high school and learned about the basics of sound capture there. When we started college at UNC, I started Sneakers with Will, a band that rehearsed a lot and played a little, most notably at Max’s Kansas City. We made one EP, produced by Don Dixon in one or two days (with Mitch as a guest). I moved to NYC and had an indie label there called Car Records. Mitch and I put together some new recordings and made the second Sneakers record; by that time there was no performing band, though.

How did Rittenhouse Square differ from what came before and what was yet to come, with the dB’s?
The R2 record is a good example of what’s called juvenilia in the visual arts: the kind of early work that gets burned in the fireplace later. It has its charms, but they are not as abundant as we would have liked, I think it’s fair to say. It was a midnight-to-dawn session to document some of Mitch’s and Peter’s first songs. The band was primarily a cover band at that time. It was one of many local bands with ever-shifting personnel, which in its original incarnation had played songs by Yes and Deep Purple.

How did you first meet Mitch, Peter and then Gene Holder and Will Rigby?
I met Mitch in summer-school camp after first grade. We hit it off and went through many phases together: motorcycles, model rockets, trains, CB radios; music has proved the most lasting of these. Peter and I had a blues band together in middle school, many bands after that, one of which, Little Diesel, included Will Rigby, a sensation on the tubs. I met Gene a bit later, in high school, in typing class, I think. Winston-Salem had a lot of churches that hosted coffeehouses where the psychedelic bands would play; this encouraging scene meant that local musicians found it easy to find each other.

Was there a great plan that preceded the formation of the dB’s?
I had recorded a solo record for my label of Richard Lloyd singing a song of his, “I Thought You Wanted To Know.” When Television’s A&R person, the legendary Karin Berg, kindly pointed out that he was signed to Elektra and this was thus illegal to release, I redid the vocal myself (with Richard’s blessing) and made up the “and the dB’s” part—couldn’t afford to waste all that expensive recording time. Will and Gene had moved to NYC to play with me, and we did a quick b-Side, “If And When.” We took the dB’s as the name of the beginning band because of that single, played as a trio for a few months, then sent a passenger pigeon to Memphis to reclaim Peter into the fold. No great plan went into any of this, I think we were just happy to be part of the exciting CBGB-based music explosion, where the rules seemed to be shifting and anything seemed possible.

I told Peter that when I play the two Holsapple & Stamey records back to back, I can’t tell which is which. What is it about the vocal blend you achieve that sounds so right?
Peter and I consider that the two of us have a band together, and we try to pick songs that fit that duo “voice,” choosing by content and intent as much as by sound. We did, in fact, specifically start out to make a sequel, in the grand Hollywood tradition, to Mavericks; however, I must say that it didn’t take long to deviate from that plan. We did periodically touch base with that earlier record, though, during the recording sessions. And even at the very end, in mastering, we tried to catch the same general sonic quality. The Peter and Chris “voice” is not a stranger to sorrow and loss, but it does tend to default to a sunny disposition in spite of slings and arrows; not a lot of anger there, either, in my view. I think there is also a shared harmonic vocabulary, which owes a debt to the Beach Boys—and Bach—perhaps in the way we modulate and use diminished chords and pedal point to step outside the “cowboy chords” of some folk music.

—Jud Cost

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