21ST CENTURY BOYS (MEN) The dB’s

Thanks to their lifelong
bonds, the Tarheel janglepop heroes are back.

 

 

BY MICHAEL BERICK

 

1982. Back then, Olivia Newton-John and her sweatband were getting
“Physical” and Michael Jackson unleashed Thriller.
It was also the year that the dB’s – four North Carolinians living in New York (Peter
Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Gene Holder and Will Rigby) – released their second album,
Repercussion.

 

The record didn’t impact pop music like “Physical” or Thriller did, although the album has
long been revered by power pop junkies and ‘80s college rock aficionados for
its invigorating mix of melodic hooks, witty lyrics, Everlys-inspired harmonies
and quirky arrangements. After its release, co-frontman Stamey departed the
dB’s but the band soldiered on. With Holsapple in charge, they released two
more critically-acclaimed but commercially-overlooked albums; eventually the
years of small clubs and opening act slots (including R.E.M.) took their toll
and the group called it quits in 1988.

 

Now after all these years, the original dB’s quartet is back with a new
album, Falling Off The Sky (Bar/None). “People could have been born,
had children, gotten married and divorced by the time this one has come out,”
jokes Holsapple on the phone from his home in N.C., while also admitting that
he honestly didn’t expect to see the day that there would be a new dB’s album.

 

This recording,
however, didn’t exactly “fall out of the sky.” Despite Stamey’s early departure
from the band, he stayed close to his old friend, Holsapple. The duo came
together in 1991 for a mostly acoustic album, Mavericks, and then reunited for hERE aND nOW, which came out in 2009.

 

By the time of
that record’s release the seeds were already planted for a full band effort.
While doing some solo recordings in New
Orleans, Holsapple did a tune, “World To Cry,” and
after listening to it, he recalls thinking, “Who does this sound like?” He
played it for Stamey, who also thought of it as a dB’s song. “It seemed like it
would be worth considering,” Holsapple shares, “if Will and Gene were
interested… because you really don’t get any better than that” – and Holder and
Rigby were.

 

In 2005, the
band was asked to play some shows, including a sold-out Bowery Ballroom concert
in their old New York City stomping grounds. Holsapple found the experience
exhilarating. While he was expecting to see fans from “back in the day,” there
also were a lot of younger fans there – “people who may or may not have been
born when our records came out the first time around… We find that we have a
lot of people who love the dB’s, maybe more now than ever.”

 

It was also
around that time that the group started to do some recording. Stamey recalls
that they had done a quick session that year and had several subsequent
sessions, “usually around Christmas or New Years,” before hunkering down in
2010.  The early recordings took place at
their old Hoboken haunt, Water Music Recording studios, although the bulk was
done at Stamey’s Modern Recording in the Raleigh-Durham area.

 

One of the
reasons that it took so long for the band to get back together was that for
years that four weren’t geographically convenient to one another. Stamey was in
North Carolina; Holsapple lived in Los Angeles, then New Orleans;
bassist Holder has a mastering lab in Weehawken,
N.J.; and drummer Rigby, who’s part of Steve
Earle’s band, spent years in New York, Nashville and Cincinnati.
Holsapple, however, moved to the N.C. Triangle area a few years back, while Rigby
also returned to the same locale recently, which made getting everyone together
easier.

 

Despite their many years
apart, the recording went smoothly. “The proof of a true friendship is not
seeing each other for awhile and picking up as though you just had the
conversation minutes ago,” Holsapple states. “We did have that. We still all
know how to play together. Gene and Will can still weave and dip like slalom
experts, and Chris and I still do our thing with the guitars where we support
each other and can allow each other to fly where we need to.” Stamey cites the
importance of the Holder and Rigby’s roles to the band’s music: “The two of
them, together in the studio, make the sound of the band-Peter and I just
decorate it with some guitars and words.”

 

It helps that the four speak,
in Holsapple’s words, “marginally codified Winston-Salem-ese” as they grew up
“loving the same records, knowing the same people, going the same places and
learning the same music.” He has known Stamey since junior high and they started
playing in bands together since their early teens. Both men have great respect
for each other. Holsapple calls Stamey “without a doubt my greatest mentor,” while
Stamey states that “my respect for him, musically and personally, has never
diminished” over the years.

 

Although they are often linked
together as a creative team, Holsapple and Stamey actually write separately and
then bring them to the band. Stamey describes the recording process as being a
“little like the non-touring Beatles records were made. Peter and I would play
a song a few times, go over the chords, then we’d go out and cut versions of it
with all of us until we got one we liked.”

 

While Stamey or Holsapple
wrote 11 of the disc’s dozen tunes, both emphasize significance of Rigby’s
contribution, “Write Back.”  Stamey
explains that the recording had been “a bit safe” but this shaggy-but-summery
rocker “opened up the door,” while Holsapple adds that “I am starting to think
that he may be the best writer among us.”

 

 


The dBs – That Time is Gone by DJ Dan Buskirk

 

 

dB’s fans won’t be surprised
by what they hear on Falling, from
Holsapple’s spirited garage pop numbers (“World To Cry” and “That Time Has
Gone”) to Stamey’s more wistful, slightly psychedelic offerings (“Far Away And
Long Ago” and “Collide-oOo-Scope”). They didn’t want to surprise people and do
something, as Holsapple jokes, “completely embraces electronica.” Both Stamey
and Holsapple respect the good will that they created with their fans. “I think
the dB’s have made some people happy… maybe even exhilarated for 3 or 4 minutes
at a time.” Stamey states. “I’m proud of that ‘manic pop thrill.'”

 

They also wanted to
acknowledge that 30 years has passed and answer the question, in Holsapple’s
words, “What does a dB’s album sound like in the 21st century.”

 

The songs on Falling frequently touch upon the
passage of time as titles like “That Time Is Gone,” “Before We Were Born” and
“Far Away And Long Ago” suggest. With the members now in their fifties, the
foursome have all grown up a lot over the years. Holsapple admits that they are
not the smart asses that they were in their younger days. Consequently, instead
of a sardonic relationship tale like the early band gem “The Fight,” this new disc
boasts a more contemplative, complex look at relationships, such as on “She
Don’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” a song about Holsapple’s wife and children
evacuating from Hurricane Katrina that both Stamey and he point to as being a
special track.

 

Because of their numerous
recording sessions over the years, the band had accumulated a wealth of
material. Wanting to keep to keep the disc at a traditional album length, they
spent a good deal of time selecting songs that fit best together while also revealing
some variety. “We still are kind of classicists enough to believe in the concept of an album,” confides Holsapple, “and having it
be a full listening experience.”

 

While a lot of band reunions
seem to be aimed (at least partly) on a big concert or catalog cash-in, the
dB’s reunion feels more about it being four old pals getting together to play
music again. “We will make a record because we want to make a record,”
Holsapple insists. “We have no illusions of mega-stardom,” adding that if a TV
ad or soundtrack placement arises that would be great, but, “We’re glad to be
alive, still friends and making this music.”

 

(This story originally appeared in issue #12 of BLURT.)

 

Below: The dB’s live in Austin (with Mitch Easter
subbing on bass for Gene Holder) at this year’s SXSW, March 16 at B.D. Riley’s.

 

 

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