Critical Questions: Peter HolsappleBy Jim Allen
dB's co-frontman's past, present and future.
In the early ‘80s, Hoboken-via-North Carolina quartet The dB's made two albums -- Stands for Decibels and Repercussion -- that remain among the greatest sonic statements of the New Wave era. The skewed pop sensibilities of co-leaders Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey gave the band more ammunition than most of their peers, but when Stamey left after the second record, Holsapple soldiered on alone in admirable fashion for a few more years. Falling Off the Sky is the first album by the original dB's lineup since 1982, and we talked to Holsapple about the band's long journey from scrappy Southern upstarts to power-pop heroes.
CM: As teenagers, you and Chris played together in local Winston-Salem bands like Ice and Rittenhouse Square. What happened after that period?
PH: I went to college, played a little there, Chris put out Sneakers [his project with Mitch Easter], which was a big deal in '76. I moved to Memphis for about four months and did some recording with Richard Rosebrough, who was one of the drummers that played with the Big Star guys, and then I moved to New York.
When you came to New York in '78 and started playing with the dB's, what was the working dynamic between you and Chris as dual frontmen?
A lot is always made of Chris and me being sort of competitors, but we never really looked at it like that, we always just wrote, and we tried to inspire each other to write a lot of good songs.
The first dB's record, Stands For Decibels, was made in a fairly ad hoc fashion, but you had an actual budget for the follow-up, Repercussion. How did that affect the production?
Scott Litt, who was the producer on the record, had really loved [1976 Graham Parker & The Rumour album] Heat Treatment; we all loved Graham Parker records, so we had some budget and we got [The Rumour Horns] to come in and play horns on it. We got Andy Clark, from Be Bop Deluxe and Clark-Hutchinson, to play keyboards.
Ironically, it wasn't until after Chris left that you got a U.S. record deal, for your third album, Like This. What were the circumstances?
Warner was not interested in us, but [Warner A&R] Karin Berg said "Why don't you take it to Albert Grossman at Bearsville? He might like it." We loved Sparks and we loved Todd [Rundgren], we loved everything on Bearsville. We got the record finished and got it ready to go, and then they lost their distribution with Warner Brothers. Our record had come out and you couldn't get it in the stores when we were touring with R.E.M., so it was all kind of distressing. We got some nice reviews, but nothing really happened with Like This, unfortunately.
How did you wind up at I.R.S. for the next album, The Sound of Music?
Thanks to our friends in R.E.M., with whom we had toured. They said, "Why don't you come over to this label?" They didn't say, "We're leaving I.R.S. shortly." (laughs) So we ended up doing Sound of Music with them, and that was cool. It went in a slightly more - they didn't really have the expression Americana yet, but I guess it was more Americanoid, more country-ish, more twangy, less strictly power pop.
Why did you decide to break up the band after that?
It just all seemed like, "What are we doing this for?" The joke has always been that the band would have broken up years before if we bothered to have a meeting. I just thought, "We've put a lot of time into this band. What are we doing wrong? Why, for all the work we've put in, for all the good records we've put out, are we still playing these shows for a hundred dollar guarantee on a Tuesday night?" It just seemed like any sort of efforts we'd made had all been for naught. I have some depressive tendencies anyway -- that sort of fed into it.
After that, you worked as an auxiliary musician with R.E.M. and Hootie & The Blowfish. How does that kind of work differ from fronting your own band?
There's a little bit of a disconnect, just in terms of when you're playing your own stuff you're jumping around like a puppy hoping someone will play with you. When you're playing somebody else's, you're trying to make it sounds as good as it can, but your soul isn't necessarily as on the line as Michael Stipe's or Darius Rucker's. So my deal was, "I just want to help you guys sound more like you do."
You joined The Continental Drifters when you were living in L.A. How did you wind up in New Orleans?
We moved about two years into that band, down to New Orleans, maybe the end of '93. I lived down there until Katrina. [Drifters member] Susan Cowsill and I were married and expecting a child, and we thought maybe there was a possibility of owning a house, unlike in Los Angeles. Two members of the band were from there. It just seemed like a reasonable place for a band that sounds like The Continental Drifters to come out of.
That band had a good run for a while, but what broke it up?
Susan and I ended up getting divorced after being married for about 10 years, and we tried to keep the band going, but it was difficult. Feelings were pretty raw at that point for both of us. We ended up calling it quits...2002, I think, is when we ended up putting the kibosh on it.
What was your Katrina experience like?
I think my [second] wife had a bigger experience, I think you can tell from [new dB's song] "She Won't Drive in the Rain Anymore," which is about her experience of having to evacuate with the children and figure out where she was going. I was out on the road with Hootie and I was just trying to get word about anybody, trying to find anybody. For me, emblematic of Katrina is losing my ex-brother-in-law Barry Cowsill, which was very troubling for all of us. He was an incredibly talented singer/songwriter. It was horrible for Susan and all her brothers. It really put everything else into perspective. My house was under 12 feet of water twice in two weeks. We left there with two contractor's bags worth of stuff, and of that I think one and a half couldn't be salvaged. It was a very tough experience, but New Orleans and the people there have really done a great job pulling the city together. There's still work to be done, but the light of the city has not been dimmed.
How did it feel being back with your old dB's buddies making Falling Off The Sky?
The references we make, everybody understands -- it's kind of cool that way. I defer to Chris a lot of times because he's a very sensible guy when it comes to studio stuff, but if there's something that I really believe in I'll certainly go to the wall for it. I don't think there's anybody that has supported my desire to be a musician more than he has, and he can find stuff in my songs that I can't find - good stuff, that is. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other, we're good partners that way.
The new album opens with "That Time Is Gone," which has a heavy-duty garage-rock kind of feel that might surprise some people.
We love our garage rock too, we're big fans of The Fleshtones and we love The Flamin' Groovies and we love The Count Five, all the Nuggets records were big parts of our growing up, so it's not too far afield.
The lyrics of that song seem very rueful; how would you characterize them?
That is one of those lyrics that's tinged with regret. It's true to life for me and for other people - it's that feeling that things have slipped out of your hands and you have to reclaim them if you're gonna keep moving forward, which has been my big thing, trying to move forward on everything. That's all very much a part of my life, so it's very realistic writing. I lifted a line from Rudyard Kipling I'm sure with the "greasy grey-green" thing, but it felt pretty original. There's a lot of people in and out of that song lyric, it's not necessarily about one person. It's almost like different parts of a movie.
Are there other songs on the album that come from a similar emotional place?
Again, "She Won't Drive in the Rain," which I co-wrote with a guy named Kristian Bush, who's got a band called [country superstars] Sugarland. That's not exactly who you'd expect, nor is the song, yet at the same time it strikes me as sounding exactly like it should. I do try to be satisfied with what I write.
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