Something Else! Interview: Chris Stamey, co-founder of the dB’s

Chris Stamey, up until recently, hadn’t issued a new long-player since he worked with Yo La Tengo on 2005′s A Question of Temperature, and last recorded a full album with his old band the dB’s in 1982.

Now, after a creative outburst lasting just a few months, Stamey will be following up 2012′s critically acclaimed Falling Off the Sky — an ear-wormy reunion featuring all four original members of the dB’s — with the solo triumph Lovesick Blues, due on February 5, 2013, from Yep Roc Records.

Not that Stamey hasn’t been keeping himself busy. Between working as producer and audio engineer at his own recording studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., and orchestrating a series of all-star performances focusing on Big Star’s Third, Stamey can’t be accused of slowing down. Along the way, he’s also continued collaborating with fellow dB’s leader Peter Holsapple as a duo, producing Mavericks in 1991 and Here and Now in 2009.

Still, to have so much new material from Stamey in such a short amount of time can only be called a blessing by fans of his quirky brand of indie pop. Stamey stopped by to discuss this intimate new recording, and classic moments from his time with the dB’s and as a solo artist, in this new SER Sitdown …

NICK DERISO: Is it fair to say that Lovesick Blues is one of your most personal efforts? There is a such a finely detailed sense of poignancy, and all of these little details. The quiet intimacy was striking, to me.
CHRIS STAMEY: I wanted it to be a record that would sound good if you played it late at night, in the dark. In fact, as it developed, that was the acid test: I’d take rough mixes and play them that way and change things if it seemed jarring or incongruous in that environment.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Three decades in the making, the new and very long-awaited dB's reunion effort 'Falling Off the Sky' reanimates the band's classic early-1980s jangle-pop sound.]

NICK DERISO: After returning to your indie-pop roots with the terrific Falling off the Sky alongside Peter Holsapple in the dB’s, it seems you’re experimenting with more sophisticated textures here — in particular, with the use of strings. Was that a conscious effort? Or was this simply where the music took you?
CHRIS STAMEY: Well, I’ve been relearning how to write on paper, so it was appealing for that reason: I have some improved chops as an orchestrator now, after a few years of work and study in this regard. But really, my arranging is all over the dB’s record — the strings on “She Won’t Drive” and “Albatross” and “Far Away” and “Write Back” are crucial parts of the arrangements, and the brass on “The Wonder of Love.” In fact, a large number of the songs have this element in them, integrated into the band performances. It’s just that my record doesn’t, for the most part, have loud rockin’ parts side by side the orchestral, so the orchestral parts stand out more. For one, I’ve spent a few decades making mixes “happen” with echoes and guitar layers and delays and the usual tricks, it’s more interesting right now to use other colors to achieve the same kind of excitement, as needed, for the frozen tundra of the recorded document — to underline a lyric with a bass clarinet instead of an ebow guitar, for example. But yes, chamber music flavors did fit well with the meaning of these songs; it was where the music wanted to go. And they were written with these parts as part of the original conception, instead of tacking them on later. We started with me singing and playing acoustic guitar at the same time, got takes we liked, and then let the specifics of these core performances dictate what was minimally needed to get the point across. It’s different from recording a lot of layers, then cutting bit by bit as you try to shoehorn the singer into the rush-hour bus that the track has become in the meantime. Not that that doesn’t make for good records, too; it’s just not the way this one was done.

NICK DERISO: What brought you back to “Occasional Shivers,” an old B-side from your limited-edition 1986 Christmas single? I had almost completely forgotten that one.
CHRIS STAMEY: It came aboard because it fit the other songs. Frankly, it kept getting jettisoned and would by hook or crook climb back onto the boat. I think in the end it does fit. Also, I’ve always thought of myself as a songwriter, first; but I don’t think most people think of me that way, these days, and I thought “Occasional Shivers” was a good argument for that. It seems like it’s so streamlined in the way that a classic Jazz Age torch song would be.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Bandmate Peter Holsapple takes inside a key musical moments with Mitch Easter, R.E.M., and the dB's - from 'Repercussion' through 'Falling Off the Sky.']

NICK DERISO: The redemptive title track is dedicated to the Sam Moss. What was the North Carolina guitar great’s impact on you?
CHRIS STAMEY: He was a dear friend as I was growing up, but also a kind teacher to me when I was still wet behind the ears. He “broke the code” of playing electric guitar at a time when there were few of us anywhere that could figure out what was happening. In the ’60s, we were aware of Michael Bloomfield, Todd Rundgren (in the Nazz) and just a few others in America who could bend strings accurately and could play expressively and frenetically and in tune over changes. It’s hard to explain now what a mystery this was at the time, but Sam, born with a great ear and the ability to work hard, stayed in his room and figured out how to make the fingers make the sounds come out. Sam could stand his own with all of them, Bloomfield and Todd and the rest, at age 16 — and was willing to show the rest of us how it was done, to the degree that we could each take it in. I think he was the first person I knew who was “on a mission,” who was a kind of jive-talking beat monk in pursuit of music and honesty and freedom, and with a ne’er-erring bullshit detector.

NICK DERISO: Tell us about playing the most recent live shows with Peter again — this time with a well-received batch of new dB’s songs to tear into. It seemed like an opportunity to reconnect with some of the youthful energy that made Stands for Decibels and Repercussion so great, but at the same time avoid becoming ossified by nostalgia.
CHRIS STAMEY: Most of the shows were great fun, my only complaint being that rehearsals were hard to come by, what with (bassist) Gene (Holder) living in NYC, so most of the playing was just on stage. Thank goodness, the dB’s were never so well known that we felt prisoners to the hit(s).

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Both Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple have collaborated recently with A Fragile Tomorrow, an up-and-coming South Carolina band very much in the tradition of the dB's.]

NICK DERISO: Did Holsapple ever lodge a complaint when you made him play that repetitive two-note guitar signature, over and over and over, on the seminal “Ask For Jill” — while everybody else got to have so much musical fun? It sounded like you, Will Rigby and Gene were on an improvisational tear.
CHRIS STAMEY: I think he actually likes playing that part; we still do that song. It’s actually doublestops, you know, so it’s a four-note thing, and the accents shift. And then it does shift, in the bridge the accidentals change, I think? I know that Phillip Glass was doing his ostinato things in our downtown New York City setting at that time — maybe we were thinking of that. Also, maybe there were Television songs that had those kind of interlocking loopy parts? I complain about playing that song, not Peter. I’m not too into singing the rap; I don’t feel the need to give a shout-out to the Bush Tetras any longer, I guess.

NICK DERISO: Falling Off the Sky, in particular on tracks like your ‘Collide-oOo-Scope,’ recalled the humor and majesty of those early dB’s projects, without sounding derivative. Was that part of what took the album so long to gestate, getting the right mix of songs that recalled the past without seeming to ape it?
CHRIS STAMEY: The dB’s record didn’t take many days in total, it’s just that the days it took were spread over years. I don’t know, time is something we all agree on, at heart, and that was the time that was. It was a recording experience before it became a real record, we cut a lot of different songs but there was no label and thus no deadline, until the home stretch. Then we held it up a year because Will had to go back on tour with Steve Earle. We did talk about what songs fit best as dB’s songs, but it was pretty clear about 80 percent of it, it was just figuring out which ones fit in to finish it off — and I think “Collide-oOo-Scope,” the one you mentioned, was cut many times from the final list but walked back in just under the wire).

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Chris Stamey 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.]

NICK DERISO: There’s a song referencing a road trip to see XTC on Lovesick Blues, but the connection actually goes deeper: Take us into the behind-the-scenes role that Andy Partridge ended up having on your new album. Is there a moment when, from the outside looking in, we might be able to pick out one of his contributions?
CHRIS STAMEY: Hmm … the vocal countermelody that comes in on the second verse of “Anyway,” the vibes on “Occasional Shivers,” several of the sounds on “If Memory Serves,” the guitar panning and mix elements on Astronomy … those are a few off the top of my head.

NICK DERISO: Though there’s not one on your new album, I’ve always been intrigued by your off-beat instrumental side trips — from a piece of noir-inspired mystery on In the Red to the weirdly transfixing opus “Ghost Story” to the album-length collaboration with Kirk Ross. Is there something liberating about working without lyrics?
CHRIS STAMEY: (Longtime collaborator) Mitch (Easter) wrote the song on In the Red that you are talking about, so I can’t speak for him. I wrote reams of instrumental music, most of which was never performed. The scores were all kept in a suitcase in what I thought was a secure location in New York City. One day, around 1983, someone put that suitcase out for trash collection and I lost it all — no copies. It was a blow. I love the record with Kirk Ross, in fact, until this new one came around, it was the only one of my recordings that I personally enjoyed to listen to. That first track, “Love,” I do love.

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

NICK DERISO: While that dB’s project was years in the making, here you are with a solo project just a few months later. Did one spark the other? Or was there already a sense of creative momentum?
CHRIS STAMEY: I finished this record after the dB’s recording was done, but held it up for a while because the dB’s were promoting Falling Off the Sky. I am writing a new one now and am eager to get that done. This is a wonderfully creative time for me, except for the fact it is so hard to find time to sit and write, which is the source of much frustration. I’m ready for the cloister’s gates right about now.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.