This summer guitar-pop avatars the dB’s released Falling off the Sky (Bar/None), not only their first album in 25 years but also the first in three decades with founding guitarist, singer, and songwriter Chris Stamey. The two classic LPs the band released in the early 80s, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, would influence countless future groups with the sweet-and-sour push-pull between the classic melodies of coleader Peter Holsapple and the wobbly, off-kilter tunefulness of Stamey (the latter is a bit reminiscent of Alex Chilton, with whom Stamey played before launching the dB’s). After leaving the band in 1982, Stamey began an erratic solo career (his first album since 2005 is due early next year) and became a successful recording engineer; he founded a studio, Modern Recording, with dB’s and R.E.M. producer Scott Litt. In both arenas he’s distinguished himself with meticulousness unmarred by cold perfectionism.
Stamey was interviewed by Rick Rizzo on October 29. The day before, Stamey had barely made it out of New York (where he’d played a few gigs) ahead of Hurricane Sandy’s calamitous landfall. Rizzo, a founding member and primary songwriter of Eleventh Dream Day, is Chicago rock royalty and one of the most explosive, emotional guitarists anywhere in the country. —Peter Margasak
It sounds like yesterday was a blast.
Yeah, well, at least we made it out. It was a long day, and it was kind of weird, because my wife and I were on different airlines and I lost my cell phone. But we had relatively good luck—Brett Harris, who sings on the dB’s record and plays with us now, is stuck in New York. We’re kind of worried about him.
Were you all playing there, or what’s going on?
I did a show of my own with a string trio and then played at a benefit for the Jazz Foundation, which offers emergency medical assistance and funding for musicians who all of a sudden can’t pay their rent or who have to have an operation.
To transition a little bit, I was reading the press guide that came with the CD, and you were talking about North Carolina and how this is the first dB’s record to be recorded in North Carolina. You said that’s something that you’re proud of, and I was wondering about geography. Do you think it’s important to your sound?
We’re all southern musicians and grew up liking music from around the world, but when we were growing up, the Allman Brothers were the thing, and we resisted that. Also, famously, Big Star was doing things in Memphis. The dB’s formed in New York, in the CBGB days, and that was a big part of the “why” of the band—but we’re all from here and do feel like we’re part of what’s happening down here.
Even today there’s a great scene going on in North Carolina. A lot of the folks can read music, which is freeing because you can write parts, and a lot of the 20-year-old players around here seem to know everything that happened, for example, in Muscle Shoals. You mention a Gene Clark record, and they know it. There’s a guy named Jeff Crawford, who’s also played with Peter [Holsapple] and me a bunch and has produced me, and he’s doing great things. When we were growing up here, Don Dixon had started to produce, and of course Mitch Easter was doing really cool things, and there were a lot of great players—but we skipped a couple steps. We were in New York for years. It’s wonderful to be back in North Carolina and have it coming alive.
I know a lot of people who did move from the south—they were friends with Rick and Sue, Sue Garner and Rick Brown [both of Fish & Roses and Run On].
Yeah, I saw them on Friday actually. They came to my show.
And my friend Tara Key [of Antietam] is from Louisville, Kentucky. I went to school down in Lexington. So my formative punk years were in a little town in the south.
You know, there’s a great singer from Kentucky that I did stuff with two weeks ago named Cheyenne Marie Mize, who also has a degree in violin or something. So Kentucky has got some stuff going on.
Yeah, well you ended up in New York right in the thick of things in the 70s. You mention Big Star—how did you end up meeting Alex?
I would be interested in not overemphasizing the Big Star side of things; I don’t hear that so much on the dB’s records myself. I guess my feeling is that—I think about Eric Clapton. If you’d heard “I Shot the Sheriff,” you might think Clapton was a reggae artist. It was something he loved, and he had this huge hit. But the dB’s have catholic influences—I mean, we used to play “(Let’s Make It Real) Compared to What” for half an hour at shows. George Jones. There’s so many things we all loved. And I’m not trying to get on you at all.
I never really saw the dB’s as connected to Big Star, in terms of a common sound. There’s definitely some DNA that runs around, but I think we all had it, just as record collectors and fans of a lot of garage music.
I think collectively we’re often surprised by being called a power-pop band. You know, any port in a storm, but that’s not really the way we thought of ourselves. I mean, we were playing shows with Arto Lindsay and jamming with Richard Lloyd.
Definitely, your version of pop—well, I have the first Sneakers record, and it is not a slick record. And for 1976, to sound like you sounded seems kind of unusual. People were making—I guess it was the beginning of some punk-rock stuff, but I don’t know how much that was influencing you. Or maybe it was how much money you had to make a record. It’s definitely pretty rough pop music.
I think that before, you always had to go through filters, you know—you had to go through A&R levels. And I was interning, or assisting Don Dixon on shows, and he recorded a traditional band down here who just took the tape and sent money to Nashville and they ended up with records. As crazy as it seems, that was kind of mind-blowing. We didn’t know that was legal, in a way, and so we thought, “We can do that.” And the Sneakers record was made with no filters. Well, Don Dixon produced it as best he could in the few hours we had. Nobody stopped us. And maybe today there are a couple—you know, I wish I wasn’t sick when I had done all the lead vocals, but that’s the way it goes.
As an engineer and producer, do you ever try to get the sound that you got on older equipment? “If and When,” on that first dB’s single, I know it was recorded on a Teac four-track. One of my favorite songs of yours is “Something Came Over Me,” and that sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom.
Yeah, it was in a big empty room. With “Something Came Over Me,” I would have preferred it to sound like I sounded in the room. Like, you know, in movies, there’s a love scene on the corner of a street in New York, and you can’t really record the dialogue; you have to dub it in afterward. So no, I don’t choose lo-fi.
One problem with digital recording and with modern records is that everything is wide spectrum—it’s not realistic to put mikes close to everything and keep all those high frequencies and low frequencies. It’s not the way you’d hear it in a room, and the fact that digital is wide open makes it so that we have these grating high frequencies on everything. So you have to have sense about it. But would I go in and have the Sneakers record sound like that? No, I would’ve come back to sing the next day when I didn’t have a cold; we wouldn’t have recorded it in a girlfriend’s bedroom when we had to leave the club we were in because they had to mop the floor. There were things I would have done differently.
It’s like the drummer in my band, Janet [Bean], we’ll record something in practice, and it’s like . . . It seems we’re always trying to recapture some of what made those recordings—the magic part of them—it’s always trying to get that when you’re in the studio.
My advice is don’t demo. Figure it out in a room but don’t record; that way you’re not fighting it. I think so much of what ends up being the problem with demo-itis is that when you’re in the studio, the tempo is a little off or the monitoring headphones are just not set up right. I think it’s not actually the sonics, but things that—if you’re really careful about what was good about those demos, you can do them again. Trying to think about the dB’s records, so many things were—I think we made the new record a little bit like I’ve read the Beatles made records. In that we brought in songs, we’d show them to each other, and we’d play them until they coalesced. There wasn’t preproduction.
And is that typically how you guys have always worked?
No. I’m not sure I’d say that generally the dB’s were overprepared for recording, but for Repercussion we worked with Scott Litt in New York for weeks and also had plenty of time in England. For the first record, it was just like, “How many quarters have we saved up? Let’s run it in the studio.”
I think the most time we ever spent was five weeks. It was fun because we did it at Sorceror in New York, so I was glad to be there for five weeks. But I could never see how bands took months to do a record.
The dB’s new record certainly was nothing like that. We met for a day or two at a time, spread over several years. We definitely didn’t have time to get tired of the local pizza.
The new songs are great. Like any dB’s, I can immediately tell who wrote what. It just seems like you guys have these distinctive styles.
Well, I think we do. Peter tends to resolve off a II chord a lot of times. That’s something I kind of learned from him—he does have certain harmonic places he goes that are great and surprising to me.
I think these are up there with the best you guys have done. A lot of the bands from the early-80s indie era, like Mission of Burma, are still writing great songs; it’s just that they’re older. Do you think you still have game?
I’m not sure that—you’re saying that we do, and then you’re asking the question!
Well, I think you do! I think they are as good. I’m just saying, do you think that you’re still—we’ve done like 13 records, and I always think that my newest stuff is the best.
Personally, I’m back to writing on paper. I’m writing for kind of chamber-music groups and it’s very invigorating. I did it a little bit in music school, but when I was doing it then, it was in the era of—there was still very complicated serialist music going on and also very avant-garde pouring-milk-on-balloons-inside-a-grand-piano kind of writing. For me, my juices are really flowing now after writing the string arrangements for some of the dB’s stuff. I’ve kept on that path while writing the horns for “The Wonder of Love” or whatever. I’m very interested in what orchestral players can do.
But this is not, you know—we’re trying to talk about the dB’s overall, and that’s not so much the tendency of the band. But I have a new solo record; you could probably get a copy. It’s out in February. As far as me feeling creative, this is a great time. As far as me judging whether it’s as good as before, I mean, I don’t think that I was in a great creative—I don’t think I was writing great songs when I was in the dB’s. I think Peter was, and I think I was a help, productionwise, but I don’t think—if you actually look at the songs I wrote on that first dB’s record, they are not my best. I like the record, but my writing . . .
So when you put out It’s a Wonderful Life, did you have a bunch of things saved up, or did you just hit a creative stride? I love those songs.
“Depth of Field” was played by the dB’s and was cut from Repercussion. I don’t think anything else on that record. There’s a song called “Excitement” the dB’s also played, and in fact still play occasionally.
[Drummer] Will [Rigby] has got his first song on the new dB’s record, right? “Write Back,” that’s like a hit.
The first song on the record is “That Time Is Gone.” Oh, Will has his first song—right!
“That Time Is Gone” is the perfect way to lead off. Peter is a great songwriter, and he always has something extremely catchy on your records—and he’s got it again. “World to Cry” is great.
I think that even before Peter moved to New Orleans for a decade, he had that rhythmic thing going on. I think that when you look at his writing, you’ve got to not just look at the chords and the words, but just the way he grooves. It’s great to play with him, on any instrument. He’s got—you’re tapping your foot and shaking your head.
Well, I imagine that when you guys get together, it’s pretty easy to get back into playing together—the chemistry is really evident there.
[Bassist] Gene [Holder] and Will are—it’s like nobody in the dB’s really plays straight down the middle of the beat, is my theory. Gene and Will have this thing going on where they dance around it. Gene comes out of kind of a very soulful, Motown, Muscle Shoals kind of bass playing, and he’s very fleet. Will can play all kinds of things; he loves country music and old rock ‘n’ roll. We all used to go see NRBQ all the time, and they’re a great example of finding the rhythm in the crevices around the straight downbeat. So when we think about the dB’s, we think of little dancing molecules of rhythm more than lyrics of longing.
Yeah, it’s always been a fun band. You have a sense of humor, and that goes a long way in music. Is there anything else you want to bring up specifically for this interview, for the sake of the reader?
I guess we would be open to suggestions for songs to play, if people want to post on the band’s Facebook page. I’m not saying we will, but we’re open to reading them, because there are a lot of songs! We’re traveling with Brett Harris, who’s a great songwriter and singer, so there will be five of us onstage, and we’re excited about being able to dig in for two nights. We used to play a weekend in a row at CBGB’s or the Knitting Factory, and that’s really more the way it should be. We’re hoping people will come both nights, because we don’t think that they’ll be the same. v