Welcome to the ramshackle, utterly charming onstage world of Holsapple & Stamey, circa 2009. Their place in the pantheon long since secure, the two indie-rock progenitors (once and, apparently, future co-leaders of the dB’s) are back on the road with nothing to prove, but a new set of amiable songs to work into the repertoire. They recently released their second album as a duo, Here and Now, on the Bar/None label; it comes a mere 17 years after they flew in the face of grunge with their beloved, stripped-down Mavericks LP. Yes, they were mavericks when mavericks were cool (before a certain Alaskan claimed the mantle) – but now they’re content to pretend, as they do on the new album’s title track, that their greatest ambition is to avoid screwing up: “If there ever was a show/We could not afford to blow to bits/We could always hire some counterfeits/To do that show.”
“Here and Now” serves as the perfect introduction to Holsapple & Stamey’s lighthearted, self-effacing duo aesthetic; indeed, if there were a market for a sitcom featuring a pair of aging rockers good-naturedly barnstorming the land – a gender-redefined, hipster Golden Girls, if you will – then “Here and Now” would be its theme song. It led off the McCabe’s concert, which also featured sterling (if shambolic) renditions of album cuts “Santa Monica,” “Early in the Morning” and “Widescreen World.” Stamey also sang Big Star alum Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos,” and the duo covered Family’s prog-rock fave “My Friend the Sun,” which opens the Here and Now album.
“Our label tells us that if we sell enough copies of the new album on CD, they’ll release it on vinyl!” Holsapple enthused at one point Friday night. Holsapple & Stamey have been around long enough to see traditions like album-release orders turned on their heads; thankfully, as they’ve proved on this mini-tour, other traditions – like the sound of two friends harmonizing around a condenser mic – can always pick up exactly where they left off.
Stamey chatted with Popdose via e-mail a couple weeks ago. Here are the highlights:
You and Peter have been working on the duo album, and also on a new dB’s record, for awhile now. What made this spring the moment for the release of Here and Now?
I guess this was the record that was closest to being finished. And with Peter living just down the road from me now [in Durham, NC], it was easier. Will [Rigby] from the dB’s lives in Ohio, and Gene [Holder] in NYC.
How have you compartmentalized the types of songs you’re contributing and choosing for each album?
Peter and I have a sense of what fits into the duo-record vibe; it is, overall, a gentler and simpler kind of song. Even though Here and Now ended up with a lot of drums and bass, these songs are, at their core, guitar-strumming tunes that can be sung quietly. Once we hear Will drumming and Gene playing bass, different sounds seem to work for the dB’s. So yes, there was a lot of “that’s a dB’s … that’s a Peter & Chris.”
We also went through a bunch of demos with Scott Litt, who’s been producing some on the dB’s record, and he gave us his take on which fitted where. I think of our duo records as hearkening back to almost the ’50s and early ’60s – the Lovin’ Spoonful, Beach Boys kind of thing. I also think the duo thing is a kind of California band, in a weird way — we started it in L.A., when Peter was living there. I think of the dB’s as very much an NYC band; the shadow of CBGB’s and Maxwell’s is never far away. Although we are all from North Carolina, it was NYC that shaped that band.
What is the status of the dB’s album, and how is the dynamic amongst the group after all these years?
The dynamic between the band is about the same, I’d say, maybe more humorous. We all listen to each other and argue about musical points, and remain friends. The geography is just a lot more complicated.
Hurricane Katrina, which forced Peter to move from New Orleans back to North Carolina, obviously had an impact on the sessions and on the material for the new album. The song “Begin Again” reflects his response to watching the hurricane unfold.
Although you are correct in thinking this to some degree, it is actually Katrina as metaphor, as well. Most all these songs existed before Katrina, and there were upheavals in our lives before and after that awful event. And even “Begin Again” can be taken as fitting more recent life-changing events. There will always be times of chaos let loose in the world. The Katrina angle on our record is a red herring, between you and me.
Given your history of experiments with improvisation, did you do any serious jamming with Branford Marsalis during his sessions for “Early in the Morning” and “Begin Again”?
We did a lot of talking; the playing itself was quick. He was overdubbing, and pretty much nailed it in a few takes. I’ve recorded him since, in a jazz context, and he’s been equally efficient. He has a great ability to burn brightly and then move on.
You’ve been recording in such a variety of contexts over the past several years, after recording only sporadically during the 15 years or so before that. Which projects have you found particularly satisfying, and what positives do you take out of the various settings in which you’ve been making music?
The difficult thing about recording a lot is that you start to have a voice that says, “Oh, yeah, guitar through a Leslie, I’ve done that before” — whereas, actually, every day is different and new. You have to find your beginner’s mind amidst all of history’s echoes. As far as a timeline, I’ve been working maybe 200 days a year in studios, on average, for most of my adult life; for the last decade it’s been more like 300 days a year. It’s just that I haven’t been the artist (with the name on the front) on many of these records, but they all have been creative endeavors. The most satisfying ones? They come when, seemingly out of nowhere, a great performance or a new song swirls up from the ether.
Most of the people I talk to about your earlier solo work prefer the Fireworks album, but I have a strong preference for It’s Alright — which I had a heck of a time tracking down on CD a few years ago. What’s your attitude toward these albums … and toward A&M?
I like the songs on Fireworks, but the performances are probably a bit better overall on It’s Alright. Both these records, to my ear, have the drums up too loud–but that was the era. The songs are sunnier on Fireworks, but the sound is sunnier on It’s Alright – maybe that’s a good way to look at it. I wish “27 Years” and “The Seduction” had a bit better mix, I guess. I’d tend to go more song-by-song in rating the percentage with which each song was successfully realized.
Being on A&M with Karen Glauber and David Anderle at the helm was great fun, and an honor as well –although it was also a shock to my indie system. I was mostly interested in using the major-label clout to put together a tour of high schools where resident marching bands would play my songs and I’d sing them — see “Incredible Happiness” for a clue to how this might sound — and when I realized the marching band thing didn’t seem to them to be a good way to sell records, I guess I felt a bit let down.
A couple questions from my Popdose colleagues: Do you still have any spare copies of Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” single lying around? How did he find his way to [Stamey’s label] Car Records, anyway?
I do have some copies of Bell’s 45 — not that many, though. Alex Chilton told me about that record and asked me to consider releasing it. In classic Jimmy Iovine fashion, Chris played it for me over the phone and I flipped for it. Although I asked him to speed it up a bit in mastering – again, typical A&R thinking, I guess! He wanted “Fight at the Table” as a B-side, but I argued for “You and Your Sister.”
Speaking of former Big Star members, you’re credited with playing maracas on Alex Chilton’s “Bach’s Bottom.” Had you ever picked up a maraca prior to those sessions?
Alex, Lloyd Fonoroff, and I cut a speedy, frentic version of that song one afternoon at Kurt Munkasi’s studio. The next day we scrapped it as too typical, and Alex recut it, playing all the parts himself — except for the maracas idea I had. Then we redid the end of it when it turned out the geography was off, as I recall. To this day I add shakers and maracas to mixes; they are like adding a bit of salt — thus the derivation of “salt shaker,” I think.
You appeared on the Golden Palominos’ album Visions of Excess. Were you fortunate enough to turn up on the days that either John Lydon or Richard Thompson were around? And is Syd Straw as much of a trip to work with as she is in interviews?
Anton [Fier] went to London to record Richard, and I didn’t go to the Rotten session. Syd has the gift of gab, for sure. At one point she was up for the job that went to Conan, I think, or maybe it was another late-night show. All of the Golden Palominos were classic characters, in retrospect, except perhaps for me, Lisa Herman, and Michael Stipe — we were the boring ones with the cameras.