The dB’s Change (Just Enough) with the Changing Times
What took so long?
That was the first question I was itching to ask Peter Holsapple. After all, the “classic” lineup of his dB’s – four Carolina boys who relocated to NYC in the late ’70s and blazed the trail for a tuneful strain of indie jangle soon to be pursued by legions of bands like R.E.M. – reassembled back in 2005, and rumors of a comeback album have circulated for nearly as long.
“The years just kind of got away from us,” Holsapple shrugs. “I wish I had a more interesting story behind it. Part of it’s the geography, I guess.” The geographic alibi is curious, given that three of the dB’s again live within an easy drive of one another, not far from their boyhood homes (“All of our parents are still in Winston-Salem, the ones who are still alive,” he adds). Bassist Gene Holder remains in New Jersey, where he has a couple of daughters and shifted toward the music production realm. Drummer Will Rigby seems the bigger complicating factor, however – although he now teaches music at the University of North Carolina, his ongoing gig drumming for Steve Earle throws a spanner in the works.
The duo of main songwriters, Holsapple and Chris Stamey, even found time to release 2009’s Here and Now, a follow-up to 1991’s lauded Mavericks. Their sophomore release even includes a track featuring all four dB’s, the mostly acoustic Stamey composition “Santa Monica.” So again, the holdup was…what?
“We have a fairly innate selection process for deciding what becomes a dB’s song,” Holsapple counters. “You could make the case that ‘Santa Monica’ is the dB’s, but it just didn’t feel like it belonged on a dB’s record. It’s easy to make a duet record, but there’s sort of a significant sound we expect from the dB’s.”
And so, after an extended germination we finally have an update of that dB’s sound on Falling Off the Sky, the first output of the Stamey/Holsapple/Holder/Rigby lineup since 1982’s near-perfect Repercussion. Stamey is on record as saying he thinks Falling Off the Sky sounds like it could have been recorded between the quartet’s two wonderful originals, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, the biggest difference being that “there are fewer angry songs.” I won’t go quite that far, but I could imagine Falling Off the Sky as the bridge to the band’s more commercially focused post-Stamey dB’s albums, Like This and The Sound of Music, both of which delivered shining moments but less overall magic.
“I don’t know where the fuck he comes up with that,” Holsapple good-naturedly laughs off Stamey’s positioning. “I don’t think of this as all that innocent an album lyrically. We definitely tried to consider what this thing would sound like 30 years on, given our collective experience.” Sure enough, the horns and loping tempo of Holsapple’s “The Power of Love” play like a fitting reprise to Repercussion’s stunning opener “Living a Lie,” also demonstrating the extent to which lyrical tone can affect a song’s reception. “Send Me Something Real” is a quintessential Stamey number with its ringing guitar motif and touches of trippy light psychedelia, the latter conjuring a more retro flair than the early dB’s iconoclastic experimentalism. “We tried a lot of wacky stuff – our favorite records are by the Move,” Holsapple allows. “You would laugh if you saw the CDs in my car,” he admits, leading to discussions of Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom (“I’ve still never heard anything like it”), Jeff Beck and a bevy of ’70s prog rockers – not what you’d expect from a guy whose post-dB’s work supporting R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish has veered toward the accessible.
Another Sky standout is “Write Back,” drummer Will Rigby’s first dB’s songwriting (and vocal) credit, which reminds me of the occasional Mike Mills twists on R.E.M. albums. “I’m glad we finally took care of that omission,” Holsapple acknowledges, pointing to Rigby’s two solo albums. “Paradoxaholic is a really substantial album, of great songs. When I heard those in a finished state, I realized he might well be the best of the songwriters in the dB’s.” Perhaps most reminiscent of the old days is the punchy “World to Cry,” which according to Holsapple has been around since soon after the band got back together, and had been posted to their website in slightly different form. “We recorded 25 or 30 songs – a few of them snuck out before, but I don’t think they all belong on the record,” he explains. “I’m glad this one found its way on.” One thing you won’t find is a Holder song. “I think I once saw on the ASCAP/BMI database one song with a co-credit of his,” Holsapple speculates, probably referring to Holder’s ’80s band the Wygals. “Writing and singing aren’t Gene’s thing.”
The reunion aspect to Falling Off the Sky doesn’t end with the four main players. Childhood Winston-Salem chum Mitch Easter – who played with Stamey and Holsapple in ’70s power poppers Sneakers and whose Let’s Active is a critical piece in the ’80s Southern jangle jigsaw – is credited with additional guitars although he never really jammed with the band (Holsapple chuckles at the very notion of the dB’s “jamming.”) “Mitch has a wonderful studio (the Fidelitorium) and we did some tracking there, but with the advent of ProTools you can send files back and forth, which is exactly what happened.” And Scott Litt, who cut his teeth producing Repercussion before making his name behind the board for R.E.M., gets an engineering credit. “Scott’s still in California, I don’t think he does all that much recording anymore. Maybe our songs just interested him. If we had had shitty stuff, I would have understood people not wanting to work with us. But I think we presented them with some pretty cool stuff. Hail hail, the gang’s all here.”
Falling Off the Sky also houses a few tracks with less direct lineage to the vintage dB’s sound, like the chamber strings and Spanish guitar of Stamey’s gentle “Far Away and Long Ago,” and the uncharacteristic lyrical storytelling of Holsapple’s “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” which also carries an unlikely writing co-credit: Kristian Bush (“people tend to forget that before Sugarland he had a really rockin’ band called Billy Pilgrim,” Holsapple counsels). It turns out Peter did have a compelling story to tell, as the song addresses his families’ less-than-smooth departure from their New Orleans home amid Hurricane Katrina.
“I was on the road again with Hootie,” Holsapple recounts. “My wife took all the right precautions – put the computer up on the kitchen counter, the guitars up on the bed. We just assumed it would be the usual flooding a hurricane would do, as opposed to The 100 Year Storm. My family (including wife, ex-wife and children from both marriages) took a train to Birmingham, bought a car on eBay and picked it up there, started driving across Alabama, then the vehicle died.” They stayed overnight in a shelter, met a minister who sold them a conversion van, and continued up the road only to find themselves driving through the height of the storm. “Lyrics are hard for me – it’s hard to come up with words that express something personal for you but that can still be enjoyed on a more universal basis. But ‘She Won’t Drive in the Rain’ – that one flowed out really easily. Some songs have flowed out almost intact, like ‘Amplifier’ (the Repercussion classic). It came to me walking down Broadway in New York. By the time I got to my apartment it was written.”
Another project that consumed Holsapple’s time over the 25-some year dB’s hiatus was the Continental Drifters, a band he helmed along with then-wife Susan Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson, among others. Although he won’t rule it out, Peter sees longer odds for a Drifters second coming. “We left it kind of open ended, and one year we did do a couple of reunion gigs. The water has gone over the dam, and everyone is friends again, but the Drifters were definitely of a time – it represented a point in our lives where we were going through a lot of shakeups personally. It was an amazing experience, but it’s tied to a lot of emotional baggage – the divorce of Susan and myself, and her marriage to Russ, the drummer. And that’s all fine now, but there’s other stuff. I just passed ten years since my last drink, and the Drifters were nothing if not a drinking society. I mean, we put it away. My life has improved exponentially since I stopped, and I don’t really enjoy being around people drinking anymore. It’s not a judgmental thing, but I don’t spend a lot of time in clubs anymore, unless I’m playing. I have a full-time job (helping manage the Durham Performing Arts Center) and two kids who get up early.”
And another who’s presumably a late riser – an eighteen-year-old daughter who’s since returned to New Orleans with Cowsill and will enter college in the fall. “Miranda would travel with us – so she was always around the music, and she loves her uncles and aunties in the Drifters very much. She can sing, and I know she plays a little guitar, but I think she’d agree it’s not a calling for her. Kids in the 21st century have so many more options of what they can do with their leisure time and money. I mean, I was eight years old in 1964 and I was a prime suspect for the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. So for me there wasn’t much of a choice. From that moment it was ‘OK, my dreams of being a NASCAR driver are put away right now, I just wanna get a guitar.’”
“My eight year old and I were coming home from the dojo last night, and we were listening to Hunky Dory. Webb said, that piano playing is really cool. So then I started explaining Rick Wakeman and Yes to him, and how Wakeman’s not doing so well and how his son is now playing for him in Yes. He seemed really interested – so maybe one of my kids will follow up in music yet.”
Such family obligations make extensive touring pretty much out of the question. “What do you think?” Peter smirks when I ask about the prospects for a month-long van sojourn. “I’m sure we’ll hit as many places as we can, but we have to be practical about it. It’s just real life.” Which is a shame, because the quartet is feeling pretty good about its chops. “We’ve always liked the studio – we could sound good recording. But I think we’re a better live band now. We played ‘Cycles Per Second’ (an off-kilter Stands for Decibels track) recently, which tuned out really well – we were surprised by how quickly it fell into place. It’s weird – there are songs I wrote with Mitch and Chris when I was 16 that I can still immediately remember how to play.” Instead, Holsapple gets his ya-ya’s out with projects like the Radio Free Song Club podcast, a loose confederation of ’80s Jersey Pop mainstays like Freedy Johnston, Amy Rigby and Dave Schramm.
“Real life happened while I was trying to make a musical career. When I was 25 years old and putting out Repercussion I wanted to be a rock star, right? I could say I didn’t but I wanted all that stuff – I wanted free guitars, and love, and the tour bus. I got the substance abuse, and I got to ride on other people’s buses.”
Photo by Daniel Coston.