In 1978, four Winston-Salem, N.C. lads migrated north to find that their quirky-but-commanding power-pop sound fit in just fine with the more tuneful side of the New Wave scene that was just hitting its stride in New York City. Co-fronted by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, the dB’s became linchpins of the emerging Hoboken Sound, alongside such Garden State provocateurs as the Feelies, the Bongos, and the Individuals. Their first two albums, Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1982), weren’t huge sellers, but they were mini-masterpieces that defined the era and made the quartet cult heroes.
After Stamey split for a solo career, Holsapple led the dB’s through two more albums before finally calling it quits in 1988. While pursuing his solo path, Stamey simultaneously established a production/engineering career with partners like Mitch Easter and Scott Litt (both of whom had produced the dB’s pals R.E.M.). Holsapple became an auxiliary player for R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish, and joined the Continental Drifters. At a couple of points over the years, Stamey and Holsapple reconvened briefly for duo projects, but now they’ve reunited under the dB’s banner for the original lineup’s first new album in 31 years, Falling Off the Sky. With a new chapter in the dB’s story opening up, Stamey and Holsapple look back over their long history together and apart.
Backstory: The Winston-Salem Years
Peter Holsapple: I met Will [Rigby, dB’s drummer] when we were eight years old, but Chris I think I met when I was probably in fifth grade and he was in sixth. I used to see him coming out with his viola case from string lessons at school and I think at that point I was starting to learn upright bass. Somehow I figured that he was an intimate of Mitch’s [Easter]. When Chris finally got a bass, there was this queue of people who said, “He’s in our band!” I got him to play with me and a couple of other people when I was in, like, ninth grade. That lasted for about four months. [The band] was called Ice, I think. Then I went off to prep school, and when I came back I rejoined Chris with Mitch and a guy named Bobby Locke, and we had a group called Rittenhouse Square. We actually made an album in 1972, people that have never heard it like to consider it a collector’s item. It’s a heavy record — heavy riffing, heavy guitars, heavy drums. At that point we were listening to a lot of Yes and the Move and Mott the Hoople. It was a little bit before Big Star entered the picture, because that was a total turning point for us.
Chris Stamey: I had been in a lot of bands in Winston-Salem, many with Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple, but always just playing bass. Sneakers was the first real band that I sang and played my songs in, and that I played guitar in. My big influences for that band were the Kinks and Television, whom I’d seen play in New York City, although they had only released one single; also, the first two Big Star records. Mitch was a “session man” on the first [Sneakers] record. Then he joined for some live shows. Then the band disbanded and it became a name for some home recording he and I did together.
PH: Chris had heard one [Big Star] song and went out and got the record and fell in love with it, and he turned everybody onto it. We all just thought it was superb. I think actually hearing that confirmed that we could do stuff that didn’t have a lot of guitar solos, and was kind of Beatle-informed. We really liked that, we really liked the first record by the Dwight Twilley band, we really loved the Raspberries, Blue Ash — there were a lot of groups like that around the same time.
CS: I was indeed a fan of the Big Star records. Through [Big Star leader Alex Chilton’s] label at the time, Ork Records, I was hired to put together a band for him for one promo gig, on Valentine’s Day, 1977, as I recall. And we hit it off, and he stayed in New York City for over a year, playing club shows and recording up in Connecticut some. The dB’s formed in order to play a few shows promoting a single I’d made with Richard Lloyd, from Television. We cut a b-side together and kept it going after that release. Later, Peter came up to New York City and joined us.
PH: The dB’s had been together for about three months without a keyboard player, and they said, “Do you want to come up and audition?” I’m still waiting to hear whether I passed the audition or not. I moved to New York with them in 1978. I got there two weeks after Television did their last gig, so I was miserable that I missed that.
The Hoboken Sound
PH: They were doing some covers, mostly Chris’s stuff, and then Chris said, “Well, you have some songs too.” So we started learning those. We rehearsed for a good long while and then we played a show for Halloween with the Fleshtones and the Zantees …we were just not very good, so we rehearsed a lot more. Both Chris and I lived in Hoboken for a while, in the same house, although we lived on different floors. There was a big article in the New York Times about Hoboken, and Glen Morrow, who runs Bar/None Records, decided that was the day he was gonna leave Hoboken, so I got his half of an apartment, I was paying like 98 bucks a month, I think, something absurd.
CS: New York City has always had a magnetic pull for artists, seems like so many pass through it, trial by fire. I’d been going up in the summers and had seen the CB’s scene developed, and it was something I wanted to be a part of. Honestly, although I lived in Hoboken, I was never sure what the Hoboken Sound was, but there was a lot of hanging out at Maxwell’s and recording at Water Music, both located there. We still felt a part of the greater New York City-area scene, and not just Hoboken.
PH: [Hoboken had] lots of bands, a couple of places to play, groups like the Bongos and the Cyclones … a record store, Pier Platters … Steve Fallon at Maxwell’s kept the scene going. It was very encouraging, and it felt good to play there.
The British Invasion
CS: The [dB’s] records came out in England first, on a label called Albion. We played the punk clubs and felt some solidarity with that DIY movement, but were not as naive, musically, as most of our fellows; also, sometimes we reached beyond our playing abilities, so not all shows were successful. It was fun, though.
PH: I have to admit that our live experience wasn’t always sterling — Chris and I had sort of fragile voices; musically though, we pummeled ‘em. The essence of it was the songs were really great and that’s why people are interested in us today, because the songs still hold up today.
We got some very nice reviews when [1980 debut single] “Black & White” came out, and we got action from New Musical Express and Melody Maker in England. Chris and I signed with [Albion’s] publishing company, and then they said “Well, you’re not putting anything out, why don’t you put a record out over here and then we’ll get you a tour.” We toured with the Raybeats over there, and came back and toured with Dave Edmunds. We tried our best to make inroads there to possibly influence getting a record out in the States but it still took us years to get one out. We played in England, had a great time, and we come back home and we’re hauling our gear around in shopping carts and taxicabs.
Watch the dB’s perform “Big Brown Eyes” in London, 1981:
The Great Schism
CS: Peter and I had too many songs, and we couldn’t make three albums a year, financially and logistically. By [second dB’s album] Repercussion, there were a lot of good songs in the back catalog. In order to record the songs, which is what we liked to do, we needed to separate at that point.
PH: I think Chris didn’t like the confines of power pop, he wanted to do some more interesting things. He took composition courses … he’s a very serious musician in a lot of ways, and I think he really wanted to experience some other stuff outside of the traditional four-piece rock band, and you would have to say that’s exactly what he did. The first [solo] record that he did, It’s a Wonderful Life, definitely had some different textures to it.
CS: I got to work with a lot of great people and was learning constantly. It was a bit lonely, though, working without a band/gang.
PH: I think he still loved us and we loved him, but we came to a parting of the ways over the perceived milieu of the band. I’m not much of a leader when you get right down to it. I can make things happen but I’m not really The Guy, so I would say the last few years of the dB’s, with me with my hand on the tiller, were not the most directive ones. I had an abundance of songs and Gene [Holder, dB’s bassist] and Will are such good musicians they obviously brought their best every time I brought a song in. Gene moved over to lead guitar and we got Rick Wagner on bass first and then we got Jeff Beninato from New Orleans, and he played bass with us for about five years. But it became very evident at one point that we were just treading water. Will said maybe we should change the name of the band … rather than that, I just was like “I need to stop, we should just cease and desist for a while.”
Working Behind the Scenes
PH: R.E.M. had gotten wind that the band had broken up, and they needed somebody. They asked me to come out and play keyboards and guitar. So I was busy for about nine months that year . We did the whole Green tour. Then we did recording up at Bearsville [studio] for the Out of Time record, and I played all over that. I played acoustic guitar on “Losing My Religion” and played bass on some songs, what have you. Right before I stopped working with R.E.M. I had begun playing with a group called the Continental Drifters in its formative stages. Eventually we ended up with a pretty steady lineup, and we toured a lot, and we did three really good records. We were sort of the Band meets the Mamas & the Papas.
CS: [As a producer] I always liked the adventures with Ryan Adams, even though most of my best stuff with him was never released, and with [former Whiskeytown member] Caitlin Cary. Alejandro [Escovedo] was great. Anything I’ve done with Scott Litt, including Flat Duo Jets, was always a blast … I did a record with the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice [Moon Colony Bloodbath] that I loved a few years back, kind of a space-rock opera.
PH: I got a call from Tim Sommer, who signed Hootie & the Blowfish to Atlantic, when their first record had come out, and he said they needed somebody to come out and play extra keyboards and guitar. They’re about 10 to 15 years younger than I am, so I always referred to myself as “the avuncular presence.” We learned a lot from each other and we’re very, very good friends. I took a lot of ribbing about playing with them, but honestly I like their music just fine. They’re humanitarians first and foremost … nobody seems to realize quite how much charity work that band does, but it’s astonishing. I just love them to death; they’re my little brothers.
Watch the dB’s perform “That Time Is Gone” from SXSW 2012:
PH: Chris and I started working together again. We did the Mavericks [duo] thing in 1990, while I was still with R.E.M. We ended up doing Here & Now just a few years ago. I think both of us had stuff over the years that didn’t seem as “rock,” maybe. Something like “She Was the One” [from Mavericks] definitely would not have thrived in a power-pop situation with bass and drums. We wanted to go for something that was a little bit lighter in tone.
CS: We were hanging out in L.A … and fell into playing and singing together. The material didn’t warrant the way Will and Gene play. It was, to us anyway, based around pre-rock stuff, like the Everly Brothers.
PH: We played a couple of shows in Chicago in 2005 with the original band. We tested the waters and it felt good, but then we started working on the record [Falling Off the Sky] and it just took a very long time. We had some stuff that sounded like it clearly would benefit by having Will and Gene on it, so we ran it by them and they seemed okay with the idea. It was like getting back on a bike. It felt so natural. We all speak the same language — we had that shared growing-up period in Winston-Salem.
CS: It seemed like it might be fun, a lark. In practice, it was a lot of hard work, like making any record always is.
PH: I think it fits snugly into the canon, it’s got all the elements that we believe a dB’s record should have, specifically, good songs and production that affords you many listens. It took a lot of thinking on our part to figure out, “What would a dB’s record with the original four guys sound like 31 years later?” We’ve all lived our lives, we’ve all had our children and our wives, and our other bands and experiences, so that all has to figure in somehow. I’m very satisfied. I think it’s a worthy addition to the catalog.
CS: Peter writes songs as they come, and we picked the ones that fit. Then we worked them up and really found out if they felt right or not. I did write with the dB’s in mind, and some of these made it onto the record, although different versions of “Send Me Something Real” and “Before We Were Born” were a part of an earlier, unreleased solo record of mine called November. We recorded many, many songs and narrowed it down to this group. Honestly, though, if Will and Gene are playing together, you can sing a recipe for chicken soup and it will sound like the dB’s, more or less. In fact, this would be a good concept for the next record, perhaps in collaboration with Anthony Bourdain?
PH: I have this plan with Falling Off the Sky to go on Facebook and say, “Look everybody, we’ve all talked about the better world in which the dB’s were on the charts. If you’d like to help make that happen, what you should do is go out and buy the damn record the first day, so it’ll show up on Soundscan.”
Falling Off the Sky is out June 12 on Bar/None Records.