If you go by the remarkably few live sightings, not to mention their slim output, you might think The dB’s were lead by Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger. Okay, maybe Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, the band’s songwriters, aren’t quite that reclusive, but it has been 30 years since these purveyors of hip pop put out a record featuring all four original dB’s (including drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder).
With Falling off the Sky, the silence has ended. Sky boasts all of the band’s cherished trademarks: lissome melodies, punchy, personal lyrics and a nice dollop of avant-garde horns and strings.
eMusic’s Peter Gerstenzang talked with Holsapple and Stamey to see what brought them back, from day jobs and record producer gigs, to grace us with this newly-minted gem.
A number of your contemporaries, most notably, R.E.M., have been calling it quits. What made you guys want to do the opposite?
Chris Stamey: Peter and I were talking about making another record together back in 2005, but the songs we played for each other sounded more like dB’s songs. We got together with Gene and Will at Water Music Recorders in Hoboken, one of our old haunts, and enjoyed the sounds we got on songs such as “Send Me Something Real,” “World To Cry” and “That Time Is Gone.” I think we would have stayed on that path at that time except for Katrina, who walked through Peter’s life and left rubble.
Peter Holsapple: Chris is right. The more we played the songs we planned to do a duo, the more it sounded like it should be a group effort. I think we were also aware of our age. We thought, “We’re all in our early-to-mid-50s now. Our time to make a record together isn’t limitless. This is the time.”
Was it torture to try to work within everyone’s schedule?
Stamey: Will has a busy schedule playing with Steve Earle, so we always have to work around that. But once Peter moved back to N.C., from New Orleans, it got much easier. We basically kept it on a holiday schedule for a while, recording after Christmas, New Year’s, when everyone was typically around North Carolina for a few days. We weren’t on a schedule; we were just recording music we like to play. Our lives and personalities are very different from those of, say, the Velvet Underground, whose very name comes (I think) from a book about S&M. Our lives propagated from an instructional manual about electrical appliances.
Holsapple: Plus we worked on these songs over the period of about six or seven years [laughs]. So, you might say there wasn’t a lot of pressure. We did something like 30 songs, all told. And, safe to say, we did it in fits and starts.
Compared to the early days, was it easier for the band to get along when you were recording?
Stamey: It was about the same, I’d say, except we weren’t regularly playing in clubs where we were basically being paid in drinks instead of cash, so discussions were more measured. But we can all be passionate advocates for our own positions. It wasn’t a yes-man process, everyone argued about the music in an effort to get it to a place of excellence.
Peter, you have a regular day job now. How’s that been?
Holsapple: I’m the Management Assistant at Durham Performing Arts Center. It’s a wonderful job; we’re playing our part in making Durham a viable artistic community. The fact is, despite playing and touring with R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish, I really couldn’t make a living simply writing songs. I have a wife and kids; I have car payments and a mortgage. And it’s nice to not have to worry about that stuff so much anymore. The job takes the pressure off having to play music for a living.
Chris, “Far Away and Long Ago” is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard of yours. Is it real or fictional?
Stamey: It is indeed real, as much as anything is real, you know. It describes an emotional state that is familiar to a lot of us perhaps, but of course there is very little detail in it, it’s pretty nonspecific. I would love to hear Green Day cover this one. I think it could easily be a rocker under other circumstances. But maybe that’s just me.
Peter, the opener, “That Time Is Gone,” also seems personal-a goodbye to the hard times that you-or the band- experienced. Am I reading into this?
Holsapple: Yeah, you probably are. That song just fell out of my guitar when I was playing one day. It was catchy and felt right, but it’s not about any particular event. I knew it was a strong song. It’s cool that it opens the album, and that it’s followed by Chris’s “Before We Were Born.” Sequencing is so important when it comes to making a good album. Take the Little Feat album, Sailing Shoes. It starts with the one-two punch of “Easy to Slip” and “Cold, Cold, Cold.” We tried to hit that hard with “That Time” and “Before We Were Born.”
Chris you produced Ryan Adams [with Whiskeytown]. What was it like working with him?
Stamey: Ryan was an inspiration and a delight in the studio, always. Brilliant guy. Peter has a song called “Don’t Ever Lose the Child in You,” and I think of Ryan like that. He is, of course, not a child — far from it. But he can still find that child in himself, the one with the eyes full of wonder.
Where do you see The dBs’ legacy in the history of indie rock or just in rock ‘n’ roll?
Stamey: I think, for better or worse, that I have been the recipient of both the best and the worst of the indie-rock phenomenon — I’ve recorded a lot of things as I was learning that I now cringe about, but having the freedom to “learn on the job” was a gift. If I’d have to wait until corporate record biz guys wanted to work with me, I’d never have gotten off the farm. I would like The dB’s to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if it includes a good meal and some dry shoes. Otherwise, I’m not too concerned about it.
Holsapple: I think we went from being the Bright Young Things to the Almost-Rans. But I feel we’ve been influential, even without selling a lot of records. The records are inviolate; they hold up well. We never did anything just to sell albums, so I feel good about that. So if I had to rank us, I’d put us somewhere between Big Star and R.E.M. Which is actually a pretty good place to be.