A dB’s reunion seemed a pretty unlikely thing when it happened in 2006. Sure, the band probably changed a few lives, but not quite enough to get their rightful place in the history books. The number of people who love a beautifully turned, emotionally frank pop song just aren’t necessarily large enough to set a band up for life. The dB’s themselves split up in 1989, leaving four albums (but only two by the original lineup) that you’d play for your closest friends, to prove that pop songwriting didn’t peak with Big Star after all.
The original dB’s ended when co-frontman Chris Stamey went solo in 1982. Peter Holsapple took over the reins and kept the band alive till the end of the decade, then became the unofficial fifth R.E.M. member for a few years, went onto a similar role in Hootie & the Blowfish, and wound up in New Orleans with another terrific band, the Continental Drifters. Stamey became a busy producer—with Whiskeytown and Alejandro Escovedo, among others—and made the occasional solo album, the last of which (A Question of Temperature) had Yo la Tengo as backup band. Bassist Gene Holder opened a studio and pretty much stopped performing, while drummer Will Rigby landed a gig as Steve Earle’s drummer.
A full six years after that first reunion show, the dB’s finally have a new album, Falling Off the Sky (on Bar/None), and are now being greeted as power-pop heroes. The dB’s were never just another power-pop band, though. For one thing they never tied themselves to one sound, becoming as raw or as lush as each tune demanded. Holsapple and Stamey always aimed high with their songwriting, delivering depth along with shimmering hooks; they had no problem fitting cool cynicism and giddy exuberance into the same song. There’s barely a happy lyric anywhere on their 1982 album Repercussion, yet a more uplifting disc would be hard to find. Falling Off the Sky maintains the same bittersweet edge, and the shimmering harmonies that defined the Holsapple/Stamey lineup’s sound. It makes no attempt to turn back the clock—the first song, a snarling rocker, is called “That Time is Gone”—but damned if it doesn’t succeed anyway.
This interview comes from a phone chat with Holsapple, and a separate email exchange with Stamey.
Rocker: Given the dB’s history as an underdog band, it must be a pleasant surprise to see all the press the new album is getting.
Peter Holsapple: People have even said it’s our best record and I am a little stunned. If we satisfy the old fans and the new fans then we did the rjght thing. Not to marginalize our place in rock’s rich tapestry, but I’m never really sure where we stood. When I meet people and they say “Oh, you’re from the dB’s”, I’m a little shocked that they know who that is. In the larger world of popular music, it seemed that we never made that kind of dent. So yes, I’m pretty grateful.
Rocker: This album’s been a long time coming, since the band first came back together in 2006. Was there any game plan at that time?
Chris Stamey: It might have been 2005 when we started doing the occasional recording sessions, actually. I don’t think there was a plan, though, regardless of the year. It’s like a twist on Delmore Schwartz, “In recordings begin responsibilities.” It isn’t a teenage gang like in West Side Story. We are more BenandJerryists, “if it’s not fun, why do it?”
Holsapple: We wanted to look at what the possibilities were. We knew there was a world out there in terms of the social marketing thing and digital downloading. That’s almost taken the whole rich rock star option out of the running—That part didn’t seem like it was important. Sure, I would love to not have to be working a job, and love to survive on what I make in music. But realistically, in this generation, I don’t see that as a possibility, sad to say. The way things have turned out you can either get bitter about it, or you can roll with it. So I have lawns to mow and braces to put on children that are worthwhile investments on my time.
Rocker: It would be hard to characterize what’s a dB’s song, but you know one when you hear one.
Holsapple: Chris and I write like that. It’s not like Al Green, where everything he writes is an Al Green type of song. I think we both have listened to so much music over the years and just absorbed every note we’ve ever heard that it informs everything we write. I know what good music does for me– It makes me happy, it brings me to tears. I still cry when I hear “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, or “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer. I hope one of my songs can move people that way. But as a writer I am the sum total of every note I’ve ever heard—every Move song, every Bob Seger B-side, every Procol Harum song. I mean, I could sing you every note of Broken Barricades [the 1971 Procol album].
Rocker: Don’t tell me you actually know all the words to “Luskus Delph”?
Holsapple: I could certainly hum it.
Rocker: The album took quite a few years to make. Was that due to logistics, or were you that concerned with getting it right?
Holsapple: It was a little of both. The geographical issue was one thing; Gene still lives in New Jersey but at least there’s three of us in North Carolina now. But we wanted to make sure we were really happy with the product, since our name’s on it and we have to live with it. And sequencing comes into play, you want it to move from song to song. When you make an album, the listener should believe that it was all recorded in one clip, direct to disc, and needless to say, we can’t really do that. But we’re album guys, and we wanted this to be a real album in an age of single-song downloads. We’ve always loved our albums, even if it’s an antiquated delivery medium. And I can’t believe I just used that expression.
Rocker: The passage of time is addressed in a lot of these songs, and I’d say in a pretty upbeat way. I assume that was a hard topic to avoid on this lineup’s first album in 30 years.
Stamey: This wasn’t a complicated process, we brought songs we’d written to the band and everyone learned them in a few minutes, and then we went and played them together until we got something we liked. The record is like a collection of short stories; you try to put the stories into a compelling order after the fact and try to pick the ones that fit together in a collection, but it is NOT a novel. For example, “That Time Is Gone” was not written to describe anything to do with the history of the band, and to construe it as an opening salvo in that way, or a manifesto, is incorrect. We weren’t completely blind to the implication of putting it first and thus having it be (mis)read in that way, but that was not what Peter was thinking about when he wrote it, I can say this confidently as it was written before we had even considered doing more dB’s stuff. “Send Me Something Real” (to speak more definitively about one of my songs) is about death and after death, but I think the young are often the most fascinated by the end of life (e.g. all the girl group songs about it), I don’t think it’s an elder’s prerogative.
Holsapple: “That Time is Gone” was one of those songs that kinda fell out intact. I spent a week at (Hootie member) Mark Bryan’s house in North Carolina with a Pro Tools setup– Here you are on this break, you got this gear, set the shit up and play. That was the first thing that shook up the tree, and I guess it came from me wanting to have some kind of talky-talk song in my canon. Lyrically I don’t know what to tell you about it, because I’m an uncomfortable lyricist. I’m a guy that tries to make the words fit around the sound. The “wake up” thing was something that happened when I was putting the track down and it was really cool.
Rocker: “Albatross & Doggerel” is another of my favorite tracks—a bit psychedelic, but something very dB’s about it. Can you tell me a bit about that one?
Stamey: Will said the same thing when he first heard it, that it seems like a dB’s song, like something we’d have done back when. I didn’t write it to be like that, it’s kind of a blues riff, I was thinking of Jack Bruce’s songs for Cream, at a certain point those songs always go to a C# chord. It’s a mate to “Send Me Something Real,” but from the other person’s point of view. I really like answer records, such as “Ring My Bell” and “I Want to Ring Your Bell Again.” Or “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and then “Loosen Up” by the Nazz “from Philidelphia.” It’s the reverse of the Nirvana thing, we step on the fuzz boxes on the verses, not the choruses. Oddly enough, this is an easy one to play live, it seems, even without the flute figures and the other 50 orchestral tracks.
Rocker: One thing a few people have said about this album is that it sounds like the logical next one after Repercussion. Was that a happy accident, or was it planned?
Stamey: I personally wondered what it would be like to have a “sequel” record, like you have sequels to movies sometimes. But I might have been the only one in the band thinking that way. I think it’s more of a sequel to Stands for deciBels than Repercussion, it’s a messier record, for the most part, than Repercussion, to my ear. I have never been so happy about my own contributions, songwise, to those first two dB’s records, so I was glad to continue the dialogue in that respect, a chance to do better.
Holsapple: We tried to look at Stands for deciBels and Repercussion and see what made those songs well sequenced. The new one is entirely different, but things were kept in certain places. For instance, somebody asked me if I thought we had specifically set out to do an A-side and a B-side—where the first batch of songs are kind of singles and the second are more think pieces. We didn’t go in trying to do that, but it seems to have turned out that way.
Rocker: To my mind there’s a pretty short list of really good reunion albums—yours, Television, the ‘70s Beau Brummels one, Mission of Burma, maybe the new Beach Boys… As a fellow music fan, any thoughts on this tradition?
Stamey: I thought both the last Big Star record and the last Television record were both excellent collections of songs and had great performances, but they were also cautionary tales about how reunion records can really rub some fans (or critics) the wrong way–it’s a jungle of preconceptions, full of lost travelers waving machetes. But hey, you can only worry so much about stuff like that (and wear hardhats I guess). What we did do is record a lot of songs over time, so we could play them for friends and associates and get a sense of how other people might react to them, instead of keeping them cloistered amongst the band–I think this helped. Although I love the other songs we recorded as well and hope they see the light of day sometime.
Rocker: So what happens now? Will there be more gigs and another album?
Holsapple: Sure, why not? Far as putting our gear in the car for three months and playing every Tuesday night, that’s not really in the cards; but we are looking at hitting some major markets and cities. Aspiration wise, I want as many people to hear this record as possible, and I’d love it if one of these songs wound up in a major movie where people could hear it. But it seems people are charged up that we’re a band again, and that’s a great thing.