A SERIES OF SNEAKS: Sneakers

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In 2016, Chris Stamey put together his seminal band from the mid-‘70s for a handful of reunion gigs. With guitarist Mitch Easter, bassist Robert Keely, and drummer Will Rigby joining Stamey onstage, Sneakers duly performed in public for the first time in four decades, and it was a North Carolina music scene follower’s wet dream. Easter and Keely reflect on this most-unlikely turn of events…. Pictured above: the original lineup of Keely, Rigby, guitarist Rob Slater, and Stamey.

BY BILL KOPP

In the histories of power pop, indie rock and college rock (and whatever you want to call the musical scene that bubbled under in North Carolina several decades back), there’s one band that elicits approving nods whenever it’s mentioned. Sneakers never released a full album and played only a tiny handful of live shows, but the band is an important part of those histories. More to the point, Sneakers left behind a tidy pile of catchy songs that are full of clues about the subsequent direction of the band’s members.

Sneakers was (and is, but we’ll get to that in a bit) guitarist Chris Stamey, bassist Robert Keely, Will Rigby on drums. (Guitarist Rob Slater was there in the early days, too, but with due respect to his contributions to Sneakers, you won’t see his name again in this story.) If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned rock subgenres, at least a couple of those names will be familiar to you. Stamey and Rigby would go on to – among many other things – The dB’s, one of the most celebrated bands to come out of North Carolina.

And helping out in various ways with Sneakers was another name you’ll recognize: Mitch Easter. Years before producing R.E.M. and fronting Let’s Active, Easter was a key (he’d probably prefer the word peripheral) part of the Sneakers story. “First of all, Sneakers is Chris’ baby,” he says. mitch_easter_and_bill-kopp_by_audrey_kopp

Chris Stamey is (a) currently very busy with a number of projects and (b) well known for his reluctance to doing interviews. But when I set out to learn more about the history of this somewhat obscure band, Mitch was quite happy to sit down with me and chat. During that conversation – backstage before an actual Sneakers gig, but again, we’ll get to that a bit later – I said a brief hello to Stamey and chatted a bit with Robert Keely. (Pictured: Easter, with the author.)

Chris described the bassist to me as “a real keeper of the flame for Sneakers. He’s somewhat of an historian as well for everything about that period of the North Carolina rock scene.” I followed up with Keely sometime later, and he was kind enough to share some thoughts on the band. You’ll find his observations sprinkled here and there throughout this story. (Below: Sneakers live in 2016 at Durham’s MotorCo.)

Though as early as 1972 there had been a band called Rittenhouse Square, featuring Chris, Mitch and Peter Holsapple (and Bobby Locke, another guy whose name won’t reappear in this particular story, so never mind), and though that heavy band actually recorded a number of tunes, the pre-history of Sneakers can actually be said to have begun with a band called the Pedestrians.

“They played once, I think,” laughs Easter. “And that was kind of legendary.” Chris Stamey was “moving into a front man role” with his new material, Mitch recalls. “He wrote this batch of songs … great songs. He was playing an acoustic guitar and singing a lot, but the neck of the acoustic guitar was broken. Which was … memorable. And kind of traumatic, too.”

The chronology gets fuzzy; Easter says he wasn’t really in that band, either. “But I played acoustic guitar on the session.” One figures that somebody had to, what with Stamey’s guitar being broken and all. “I’ve known Chris for a really long time, and whenever he asked me to get involved in things, I would do it.”

Mitch relates Chris’ version of the story since Chris isn’t doing the interview: “His story is that after the Pedestrians fiasco, he just assumed I wouldn’t even want to play in the band, because that was such a disaster. But it was more a disaster for him, because it was his baby. And it kind of exploded along with the guitar.”

Robert Keely remembers that show as “disastrous,” and remembers that the show was billed as “The Pedestrians: Play the Nixon Years.” His very earliest recollections of that group – the first combo he’d ever played in – involve “being invited to Will [Rigby]’s apartment in Chapel Hill, where he and Chris taught me ‘Some Kind of Fool.'”

But even with the failure of the Pedestrians, Stamey still aspired to – and worked at – being the leader of a band. “Chris was just ready to be that kind of artist, you know,” Mitch says. He had played bass in high school, and played in bands, but just not as the front guy.”

Mitch explains that while Stamey was already a musician by his high school years, he wasn’t yet a songwriter. “But then in college, he started sort of re-configuring himself” to be a songwriter and “front guy.” The first batch of songs that Chris wrote ended up forming the basis for Sneakers’ first record, a 7” vinyl EP released in 1976 on Stamey’s own label, Carnivorous Records.

Priced at a reasonable $1.98, the six-song EP sold about 3,500 copies. Try finding one now, and expect to pay about ten times as much for one in decent shape, and up to $40 for a mint copy. In the CD era, that EP – variously appended with other Sneakers-related material – has been reissued no less than three times: East Side Digital released a 19-track compilation called Racket in 1992; Collectors’ Choice Music released Nonsequitur of Silence in 2006, adding two more tracks.

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Omnivore Recordings released a 10” vinyl record in 2014, and a shiny silver CD the following year. Omnivore used a slightly-edited version of the original EP art (it’s pictured below), and appended the six tracks with five more, one of which – a cover of The Grassroots’ “Let’s Live for Today” – had never been released before. Not even on all those other re-re-issues. (Ed. note: as sung by Rigby, the Grassroots number was included, along with other subsequently-issued outtakes, on a 60-minute underground cassette that was widely circulated by fans. A digital collection of unreleased and live material from Sneakers can be found at the most excellent NC music blog, The dB’s Repercussion.)

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The songs on that original EP – “Condition Red,” “Nonsequitur (of Silence),” “Driving,” “Ruby,” “On the Brink” and the immortal “Love’s Like a Cuban Crisis” – were all Stamey originals (“Nonsequitur” was a co-write with Will Rigby, who would go on to prove a sterling songwriter in his own right). And they were really good, a kind of skewed power pop. Maybe not quite as off-kilter as the stuff Alex Chilton and his Big Star band mates had been cutting – to critical praise and commercial indifference – 650 miles west in Memphis, but really, really good.

“Every time Chris starts a new band, he writes a batch of good songs,” says Mitch, who would know. “Which is a great way to get a band going. And I remember being very impressed with these songs because they were so good.” Mitch recalls that the songs they had each written before that weren’t, shall we say, up to the same standard. “They were these kind of things that were like nerdy children with guitars and stuff,” he chuckles, “but not something that you could really expect anybody else to listen to.”

The goal had been to write pop songs, but punk was looming on the horizon. In a good way; the aesthetics of punk had a liberating effect, even on people making pure pop for now people. “Even if you weren’t a punk band, it kind of re-defined what you could do as a lead singer,” Easter says. “I mean, you could have [somebody like] Tom Verlaine as the lead singer. Whereas, just a few years before it’d be like, ‘Yeah … Right, pal.’”

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There would be a second, sort-of-Sneakers record, In the Red, released in 1978. Though this record was bigger (12”) and had more songs (nine total), it was really a Stamey-Easter collaboration using the Sneakers name, for whatever reason. It too was self-released; to balance out the longer playing record, Stamey shortened the label’s name from Carnivorous to Car. (Pictured above are Easter and Stamey; note the B&G sign in front of the drumkit.)

Okay, not really; in fact In the Red was one of four releases on Car Records in 1978. The others were by people all of whom figure prominently into the story of that decade’s indie-rock/power pop: Peter Holsapple (at the time, soon to join The dB’s; he’d recorded a brace of songs that he, Easter, Keely, and drummer Chris Chamis had been performing under the name the H-Bombs, whose story can be read elsewhere on this site), Chris Bell (ex-Big Star) and the instant-classic dB’s debut single, “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know,” written by Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.

Speaking of wanting (or not wanting) to know, around the time that the original Sneakers EP was released, the band couldn’t get many gigs. In fact, according to Unofficial Sneakers Historian and bassist Robert Keely, Sneakers’ 2016 reunion performance at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh was exactly the band’s ninth show ever. “So every performance is a very special occasion,” smiles Easter. “We know where we are welcome.” (Below photo by Larry Tucker, from the Hopscotch show. Visit Tucker’s YouTube page for some clips from the band’s other 2016 gig, at Durham’s MotorCo.)

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For at least one of the band’s eight previous live shows between 1976 and 2016, they weren’t greeted with open arms. Mitch amusingly recalls one Sneakers gig in particular, one during which he wasn’t in the band. “I remember seeing Sneakers play at the Apple Chill Festival in Chapel Hill. At the time, Chapel Hill was pretty much culturally dominated by hippies.” He readily concedes that the hippie movement was largely moribund by 1976 … but apparently news of its demise hadn’t reached Chapel Hill. “I loved the hippie scene in 1967,” Easter says. “But by this time it was getting kind of dreary.” That hippie vibe was blended with a kind of down-home southern ambiance; not exactly a recipe for acceptance of a power pop group.

“Anyway,” Mitch continues, “the famed Apple Chill Cloggers were up next.” Workers were already busy laying down plywood flooring in front of the stage, all while Sneakers were still up there playing and singing. “They were all holding their ears, like ‘Ohh!’ And these were young people! I just thought, ‘Fuck you.’”

But Mitch thought that scene was, in its own way, a great image. “It definitely reinforced the dangerous punk aspects of Sneakers,” he deadpans. “They really offended people, which is always what you need to do, right?”

Robert Keely remembers a few other details from Sneakers’ short list of live dates. “We played a street festival in Chapel Hill; we were so loud, they unplugged the PA.” And at the Connor Dorm Spring Fest – also in Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: BLURT’s future editor attended the show); save for the Max’s gig, Sneakers don’t seem to have been able to escape the city limits – band friend and producer Don Dixon “played an actual car horn from the parking lot for the intro to ‘Driving’.” This was long before sampling, kids. (Below: Rigby, Easter, Stamey, Keely, and Slater, plus unknown associate in hat.)

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Alas, there was essentially nowhere for Sneakers to play. Everyone involved does recall a show at famed New York City club Max’s Kansas City. “It was quite exciting to play Max’s,” says Keely. He recalls that it was Sneakers’ “fourth, maybe fifth show ever.”

“That was very exciting,” Easter admits, “but it wasn’t part of a tour. It was just like, New York and then home.” In fact, by the time of that gig, Mitch was in the group. “I guess I was sort of brought into the band; I can’t remember, man …”

But the whole thing ended shortly thereafter. “Chris had been to New York City, and met and seen Television,” Keely recalls. Stamey moved to the City in January 1977. “I don’t know if Television are aware of their influence on Chris at that time,” adds Mitch. Stamey soon joined forces with Alex Chilton, playing bass in Chilton’s band.

Fast forward almost 40 years. But first …

In the interval, Chris Stamey got The dB’s up and running. Peter Holsapple, fresh from the above-mentioned H-Bombs, joined. They did a few excellent albums. Stamey left, and Peter carried on with Like This and The Sound of Music, wonderful despite Chris’ absence. Peter and Chris teamed up outside the group for a pair of superb albums, Mavericks and Here and Now, separated by a mere 18 years.

Meanwhile, Mitch opened Drive-in Studio in his hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, and played a key (again, he might say peripheral) role in developing and capturing the sound of early R.E.M. His own band, Let’s Active, cut a wonderful EP and album before fracturing; the second Let’s Active album was excellent as well, but – like Sneakers’ In the Red – not really a group project. Post-Let’s Active, he teamed with then-wife Shalini Chatterjee in the groups Fiendish Minstrels and Shalini, and did more production work, including some of the best releases from Game Theory, yet another criminally unknown and underrated group. For his part, Keely enjoyed what he characterizes as “a very long retirement.”

More recently, around 2010 Mitch and Chris reunited for the Big Star’s 3rd concert series, along with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. (See how this all hangs together?) And in 2012, Stamey, Rigby and Easter (plus Holsapple) played at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin—billing themselves as The dB’s—including a special set at the BLURT day party held at the Ginger Man pub.

Returning now to the present …  (Pictured below: Easter and Stamey at the Hopscotch gig.)

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“I can always kind of remember these songs,” Easter tells me backstage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, while – of all people – Television is doing an extremely loud sound check a few yards away. “And it’s weird, because they’re not songs I played very much.” He muses that Sneakers happened when all of its participants were at young and pivotal stages in their lives.

 

“It was right when we all sort of became adults. We were trying to really do rock music and it was kind of, sort of happening around this band a little bit.” They had made a record that got some attention, and – they had hoped – that would mean they could “break out of the three or four local depressing clubs that we could play, [places] where they kind of wished we’d go away.”

Mitch says that “to have it feel like a connection to the wider world was fantastic. And that’s all down to Chris’ efforts, his wherewithal to actually press this [record] up and everything.” Keely shrugs and adds, “All the deep philosophy and musical questions are best directed to the other players. I was just extremely fortunate to be a passenger on the bus who happened to be in the right place at the right time, with correct change.”

Some months earlier, the organizers of the annual Hopscotch Festival reached out to Stamey, asking if he’d consider putting Sneakers back together for a reunion gig. Chris had played Hopscotch a few years earlier with a recently-reactivated dB’s; that enthusiastically-received set included him, Peter Holsapple, bassist Gene Holder and Will Rigby (plus the very versatile Brett Harris as an auxiliary dB). So he said yes.

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will_rigby_by_audrey_koppThe plans for Sneakers’ Hopscotch set were to do songs from “the original ancient EP, and then a couple of other songs, a couple of newer ones,” Mitch says. I ask if the set will include the infamous “B&G Pies Commercial” track that showed up on Racket and Nonsequitur of Silence. “No. We got a cease-and-desist [order] from B&G,” Easter says. They told him, “We don’t want to be associated with punk.”

The Hopscotch show was a success; the band tore through the material as if the previous forty years had never happened, and Chris’ guitar didn’t break. So who knows? Maybe they’ll do some more shows. “It’s all about the money,” Mitch deadpans. Keely leans in and adds, “It has to be bigger Canadian dollars; physically bigger dollars. And in another time frame; another nine years seems about right.”

Turning slightly more serious, Keely gets the final word. “It’s totally up to Chris, Mitch and Will. I’ll show up and know my parts if requested.”

Damn well better, Robert….. Bill Kopp is BLURT’s Jazz Desk editor, but he dearly loves his power pop, punk, and prog, too. 2016 individual bandmembers photos credit: Audrey Kopp.

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