Peter Holsapple on the dB’s, Mitch Easter and R.E.M.: Gimme Five

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Peter Holsapple, long-time leader of the newly reunited dB’s, joins us to discuss the band’s rocky early years, working with Mitch Easter and R.E.M., and how he and Chris Stamey eventually reunited the original lineup to produce the triumphal new release Falling Off the Sky

“AMPLIFIER,” with THE dB’s (REPERCUSSION, 1982): A rockabilly Holsapple number that ended up becoming the lead single for the dB’s sophomore effort — and, because of its nifty video, was later included on the follow up Like This, as well. Repercussion, the last dB’s album in the 1980s to feature Chris Stamey, was produced by Scott Litt — later famous for working with R.E.M., and for remixing Nirvana’s album In Utero. Litt would eventually return to helm two tracks on Falling Off the Sky, a project that saw the original lineup revisiting their initial albums during the earliest stages of recording.

PETER HOLSAPPLE: I just like how they all sound. I like the quality of the recording, I like the quality of the songs. I liked the way that we tried to make listening to our records a constantly evolving process. It was like when the Beatles or the Stones records were reissued, you hear new things. With dB’s records like Repercussion, I think people can listen 30 years on, and say: Wow, I never heard that before. I like that. I think that’s how you reward your listener for their patience and affection — give them something they can chew on for a good long while.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: dB’s cofounder Peter Holsapple talks about reuniting with the original lineup after nearly 30 years, and the difficulties of surviving Katrina.]

“THE ADVENTURES OF ALBATROSS AND DOGGEREL,” with THE dB’S (FALLING OFF THE SKY, 2012): One of two tracks on the dB’s new album produced by childhood friend Mitch Easter, who achieved a similar level of fanatical, if limited, college-radio fame in the 1980s as leader of Let’s Active. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina native, featured playing bass in the above video, is perhaps best known for producing R.E.M. between 1981-84 — a period that included their debut EP and first two albums. Easter later worked with Pavement, Suzanne Vega, Marshall Crenshaw and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, among others.

PETER HOLSAPPLE: We all grew up with Mitch. Chris and Mitch were best friends; their moms were best friends. He played with us when we first got up in New York. We’ve always been friends. His role has been anywhere from peripheral to deeply involved. He’s always been a sort of fifth dB, if there is such a thing. He’s so much a part of our world; he talks Winston-Salem, like the rest of us. It’s funny with a band that all grew up at the same time in the same era, we can say one word and everybody will just bust a gut laughing. We will all know exactly what the other is talking about. Mitch has done so many things with so many bands, as a producer, as a blank slate. He’s the kind of guy you recommend to artists, because he won’t try to leave his imprint on stuff. He will just try to get good music out of you.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The dB’s long-awaited reunion effort ‘Falling Off the Sky,’ arriving some 30 years after the original lineup split, might just be the best thing they’ve ever done.]

“I LIE,” with the dB’s (SOUND OF MUSIC, 1987): The moody “I Lie” was part of perhaps the dB’s most traditional, least eccentric offering — a final bid, it seemed, for mainstream acceptance on the band’s long-awaited first appearance an American imprint. Alas, the dB’s — having issued two albums after Chris Stamey’s departure, but still apparently going nowhere with the broader record-buying public — were doomed to go their separate ways anyway, drawing to a close a deeply underrated initial tenure that included years of spotty distribution from overseas labels, lineup changes and plain bad luck.

PETER HOLSAPPLE: I just got to a point in 1988 where it was just like, fish or cut bait. It was hard and tiring, and it just felt like we were a new band every time out. So we decided — or I guess, I decided; I don’t think everybody else was thrilled with my idea — to end it right there. Without a doubt, if we would have had an American release on the first two records, things might have been a lot different. No doubt. One of the things that was good, though, a lot of our fanbase would bring their copies to their college radio station or they would make mixtapes. And that helped spread the word. It was very much a grass-roots kind of campaign for the better world that the dB’s were supposed to be inhabiting. But, you know, we even had problems when we had an American release. When (the first Stamey-less release, 1984’s) Like This came out, Warner Brothers had dropped (the subsidiary label) Bearsville right as that happened, so we had no distribution. When IRS put out (the dB’s 1987 finale) Sound of Music, R.E.M. had just left, so our biggest supporters there — the band that was actually making money at the label — were gone. But I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. It’s come and gone, years ago. I’m grateful for the opportunities we’ve had, and I think we did the most we possibly could with those opportunities.

“LOSING MY RELIGION,” WITH R.E.M. (OUT OF TIME, 1991): Between 1989 and 1991, Holsapple was often described as the fifth member of R.E.M., having worked as an additional guitarist and keyboardist on the Green world tour, and then helping with the writing, development and recording of the multi-platinum smash Out of Time after the initial breakup of the dB’s. Holsapple played bass guitar on “Radio Song” and “Low,” electric guitar on “Belong,” as well as acoustic guitar on “Shiny Happy People,” “Texarkana” and on this, R.E.M.’s two-time Grammy winning No. 4 hit — the group’s highest-charter in the U.S. Holsapple says he joined with the band’s biggest fans in mourning R.E.M.’s decision in late 2011 to stop recording and touring, though it came as no big shock.

PETER HOLSAPPLE: It’s hard when any band breaks up. It’s like when somebody dies and their library gets distributed out to thrift stores, relatives and stuff like that. I think of the MC5 documentary, where it said with really good bands there’s always another member — which is the band itself. We’ll always have Peter, Mike, Bill and Michael, but without having that band around, it’s a very sad thing. Granted, I have not listened to a lot of their later records very much but even if you just get up through the IRS years, that to me is some of the finest rock music every put on recording tape. I guess I wasn’t surprised, though. I didn’t think they would keep going after Bill left, at first. He’s a gentleman farmer now, after all of his health scares. He’s a happy guy now, from talking to Mike. That’s important. People’s personal happiness is important — their desire to do what they want to do. It’s like when Chris left the band. Nobody hated him. He needed to stretch his wings in a different direction, and we understood that. I’m happy for the guys in R.E.M. They’ll go on and do whatever every they’re going to do, and I’m sure they will do it better than anybody else.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Peter Holsapple and the dB’s never quite achieved the acclaim of musical soulmates R.E.M., but that doesn’t mean they weren’t just as interesting.]

“COLLIDE-OOO-SCOPE,” with THE dB’S (FLYING OFF THE SKY, 2012): A great melding of hooky power pop, the thoughtful prog aesthetic and trippy psych-rock delights, this Chris Stamey song seems to herald (like almost no other on their reunion project) the return in full of the early-1980s lineup of the dB’s. Yet, and this was important to Holsapple and Co., it doesn’t sound derivative — nor like it’s pandering directly to today’s audiences, either. Instead, like much of this new album, it sounds quite stubburnly like the dB’s — almost like it could have been part of a follow up to the band’s celebrated debut.

PETER HOLSAPPLE: Our conundrum was to try to figure what does a dB’s record sound like in 2012? I mean, are we supposed to sound like we did 30 years ago, when we were in our 20s? That wouldn’t make sense. So, we had to re-calibrate some things to figure some things out — because of all of the lives that we’ve led. What was it supposed to feel like? We obviously listened to our old records, and tried to figure out what was good about them. It was important. We feel like our contributions so far have all been pretty inviolate. They’re all really good records, even today. They’re still listenable, and on a lot of different levels. We had a lot of active perimeters that we had to make sure were in place. And I think we delivered on all of those fronts. The planets aligned, and it was good. It was the right time.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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