Peter Holsapple - Continental Drifters
If anyone deserves to be in illustrious company, in a band that's overflowing with talent, then it's Peter Holsapple. Teaming up with his old Chapel Hill posse in New York in the late '70's, he was a vital part of one of the strongest pop bands of the era, the dB's. The problem was that the world wasn't ready for gorgeously crafted tunes, what with new-wave the flavor of the moment then. They soldiered on for four albums before throwing in the towel. That left Peter to lend his talents to the likes of R.E.M. and (they should thank their stars) Hootie and the Blowfish. Fortunately for all of us, he's now in a supergroup that for once lives up to the name. The Continental Drifters not only feature Peter's work but also the songwriting and voices of Vicki Peterson (Bangles) and Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills). After going through years of exploring the up's and down's of romance in his songs and the up's and down's of the industry, Peter has found bliss in the Drifters, enthusing that "you should come see us too 'cause it's a stunning experience." Their latest release, Vermillion (Razor and Tie), is almost too perfect, full of expert writing and arrangements and harmonies that any of us should expect from a record.
Interview by Jason Gross (April 2000)
I had the chance to interrogate Peter about the Drifters and his illustrious past via the phone from his New Orleans home.
2001 Update: The new Continental Drifters album Better Days is coming out June 5th.
PSF: How did the Continental Drifters start out?
There have been a number of different groups called the Continental Drifters obviously. There was one down here in New Orleans that was made of people that ended up in the Sub Dudes. They put six different records on Atlantic and Highstreet Records. Very, very good band- it was acoustic guitar, tambourines, bass and accordions. Before they became the Sub Dudes, they added drummer Carlo Nucio and they were still an electric band. But when that all went kaput and they became the Sub Dudes, Carlo asked if he could take the name. So he started a band out in Los Angeles in 1990 with Mark Walton, who is still our bass player, Gary Eaton (guitar player from the Ringling Sisters), Ray Ganucheau (another New Orleans transplant) and a keyboard player named Dan McGough (who's now in Tom Waits' band).
They started doing shows around town while I was living out there at the time. As time passed, they began calling in reservists, shall we say, that would fill in when certain of the core members had to go and do something else. That's where it all started up. Susan, Vicki, Robert and myself were all people that just came down to the shows, more than anything else, and enjoyed it very much. That was very, very cool. Little by little, we all joined the band.
PSF: Did you all know each other before then?
Sort of... I knew Vicki just because I met the Bangles when the dB's were on tour. I didn't know Susan before. I was producing her brother Barry's solo record and playing on that. We went to see the Cowsills one night and I met her and the rest is history.
PSF: Having any these people from well-known bands makes it a kind of supergroup. Are you at all self-conscious about that, considering that these things usually read better on paper?
No, not at all. Basically, this was a bunch of people who enjoyed each others' music. We took as much pride in rehearsing and having a fun time in rehearsal as we did doing shows. We all got together and we like to sing. We'd all gone through our varying degrees of success and failure and enjoyment and non-enjoyment and finally found something that we all thoroughly enjoyed. That was a very, very cool thing. We look at this band as our reward for putting up with everything else we've done.
PSF: Since the group of full of songwriters, how do you decide on songs?
People bring songs into the band that seem like the right type of song for a Continental Drifters song. We play it for the members of the band. If they like it, that's great. If they don't like it, they're polite and say "that might not be a Drifters song." Then we rehearse, usually acoustically and perform electrically. We do acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordian, kid's drum set, bass through a guitar amp. We do it real quietly first to make sure that we get all the parts worked out and then we go from there. We plug it in and see what happens. (laughs)
PSF: Do you find there's a lot of changes and dynamics that occur when you develop a song that way?
Yeah but it isn't anything that's going to completely overwhelm the song. The nice thing about this band is that everyone is a very competent musician and a very good arranger themselves. So, we all work towards the good of each individual song.
PSF: You said that when you play a song for the group for the first time, some songs are kept because they're seen as Drifter songs. How would you describe a Drifters song then?
I think a certain amount of soul, good vocals... We try to strive not to be too pop, I guess. We've all done our time in pop bands. It's just not the kind of stuff that we really listen to anymore. Doesn't have much to do with the way we are in the year 2000. We like the stuff fine but it's not like we're a power-pop experiment. We've been there, we've done that. This is (something that) actually reflects what's in our record collections.
PSF: Going way back to the beginning, what led you to start a career in music in the first place?
Growing up, my older brother had musical instruments around- a piano and an organ in the house. My father had a mandolin and my mother had a guitar. My parents really didn't play anything but these instruments were available to me so I taught myself to play all of them at once. I kind of got a linear aspect on music. It came very easily to me. It was all about hearing the Beatles on the radio, like everybody else my age. I kept playing and was in all kinds of pre-teenage and teenage bands. Cut a record in 1972 with Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey (Rittenhouse Square), which is an amusing little piece of history. Nothing terribly vital on it but it's certainly an interesting thing for a first recording experience.
PSF: How did you meet up with Mitch and Chris?
We were all in grade school together. We all grew up together. Same thing with the dB's- we're all from Winston-Salem (North Carolina). It's a very talented city, full of musicians. I find nowadays, people of my age group knew about bands from Winston-Salem at that time, like Arrogance and people like that. The talent pool was vast and very deep, which was very nice. So people would have bands for a year or two. People kind of played with everybody around there.
PSF: What was it about that area that made it so fertile for music?
I couldn't really say. I think we were just very fortunate and we all encouraged each other. There was a real camaraderie kind of thing. In a lot of cases, it was fighting the status quo of what were hearing on the radio?
PSF: Which was...?
Boogie. Our bands were always into Mott the Hoople and the Kinks and the Flamin' Groovies than the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker and Jethro Tull. But if you wanted to be booked some place, you had to play that crap. So you had to work up "Midnight Rider," you didn't have much choice. (laughs) But you could throw things like "Rock and Roll Queen" in there and confuse 'em.
Then we just started writing our own stuff, which was a good thing. Somewhere along the line, around '72, Stamey got the first Big Star album and that shifted everybody's gears.
PSF: What was it about that record that floored you?
It was just perfect music. It was like... beautifully performed, beautifully written, ethereal three-and-a-half minute pop songs that didn't have huge lead guitar breaks. It sounded like a collective effort to make something really gorgeous. That was pretty exciting.
Then, as time passed, there were bands in Chapel Hill. Chris had his group, Sneakers, that Mitch eventually played with. Mitch and I had a group called the H-Bombs (no relation to Evan Johns' group). It was very, very cool. It was a neat group that stayed together. We still all know each other, post-dB's and post-everything.
PSF: That's really nice.
It is. I got to do that nice record with Chris in 1990 that still seems to attract people to this day. I'm happy to see everybody working. (laughs) Very helpful.
PSF: What led to the formation of the dB's?
Chris had moved to New York to play bass with Alex Chilton. I was living in Memphis for a short while (around '77), doing some recording there at Sam Philip's.
PSF: Did anything from then come out?
No, just some bootleg stuff on some Chilton records. Alex came down one night and we played together. It was highly unremarkable stuff so I wouldn't suggest anyone search it out.
So, I was down there and it was HOT as hell. I was not enjoying myself tremendously in Memphis, as much as I thought I might. So I moved to New York and auditioned for the dB's as the keyboard player. Chris, Will and Gene had started it up. They had been doing some shows and I noticed that their names had been showing up in ads in the Village Voice and I was very excited for them.
PSF: What did you think of the band before you joined them?
I was loving it. I think the fact that we had all been playing music a long time before punk rock and new wave, we just kind of happened along at a time where people were embracing people writing music. We had a little bit more sophistication than a lot of people because we had been doing it for years. We weren't specifically of that time except for the fact that we happened to be around then. There was the purely DYI ethic of "I'll just pick up this guitar and make this." It wasn't the Slits.
PSF: Chris definitely had a different style than you. How did you two make that jell on the records?
We were marginally competitive about stuff, which was really cool. When I say competitive, (it's) not like fighting it out but just... we wanted to better what the next person was doing. I'd write a song, he'd write a song, I'd write another song. It was great- we were both very prolific at that point.
PSF: So you each learned something from each other?
Absolutely. We learned a lot from playing with everyone in the band and moving out to New York and hanging out with different bands there. To me, one of the great things about being in a band is knowing other people in bands. It's all about sharing music and not so much about competition. I don't like the crap that goes on in some of the scenes that I've seen- people clamoring to get over each other. New Orleans is good in that way too. All the bands around here like each other. We all sit in with each other.
PSF: At that time in New York with the dB's, what other bands were you chummy with?
The Scruffs had moved up from Memphis- they were friends of ours. DNA, who were TOTALLY different from us. Arto (Lindsay) is a great guy, he sat in with the dB's a number of times. George Scott from the Contortions was a very, very close friend of mine. We loved the Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy. It was a lot of different groups. The Del Lords practiced across the hall from us. Syd Straw was around. As the years passed by, different people... The Bush Tetras. We were all sort of managed by the same people too. The Bongos, the Fleshtones.
PSF: Why did the first two dB's records come out on an English label?
Because no American label wanted us. We tried but nobody took us. It's that simple. I wrote a piece for (Rolling Stone's) Alt Rock-A-Rama called "The dB's- What Happened?" It kind of explains the parallel world theory for the dB's. Everybody always said "In a better world, you guys'd be at the top of the charts!" But in the real world, interestingly enough, everything went kablooey on us most of time.
PSF: What kind of things happened?
When we finally got a record released in America, it was on Bearsville and they lost their distribution deal with Warner Brothers almost at the same time. The first two albums finally did come out in America after the band had broken up. In fact, all four dB's records were available after the band had broken up. That was the only time. Isn't that weird? (laughs)
There are NO dB's records available now, except for imports and the two parenthetical sort of things- Ride the Wild Tom-Tom (early demos) and Paris Avenue is thankfully out-of-print again.
PSF: Maybe it's the way things work in cycles where you have enlightened people realize how good those records are until the next big thing comes along. On and on.
We shall see. We made it into the top 100 Cult Artists in Mojo Magazine this month so... "Cult" basically is a shortened way of saying "doesn't sell records." To the people who knew who we were, we meant a lot. To the people who didn't know, we meant nothing. Pretty simple! (laughs)
PSF: Did you feel frustrated at all that more people didn't pick up on what the band was doing at the time?
I think at the time, I probably felt more frustrated about it. As time has passed, I couldn't honestly tell you why it happened but it's hard to go back and feel... No, I don't. Let me just say that I would be miserably bitter about stuff if I was (frustrated). I would miss out on the greatness and the wonder of being in the Continental Drifters. Right now, I'm in a band where if we sell 5,000 copies and that's about it, I'm OK with it- we made a great record and we had a great old time.
I think that when I was younger and more rock-star orientated, it was a slightly different thing. But I don't give a damn about that shit now. That means NOTHING to me. I have a daughter- that means something to me. I've got a wonderful rock band- that means something to me. I've got great friends. I've got a great job where I can get off to go work (with the band). I have opportunities facing me all the time to do all sorts of cool things.
It's a long time coming to learn the lesson that you need to take from music. The only thing you can really depend on from a career in music is the aesthetic joy of what you're doing. If you're banking on it, you ought to have your head examined. You really CAN'T bank on something like that. It's a crap-shoot. For all the Britney Spears out there, there's tons more girls like her that aren't going to succeed. Of course, every record company sees a Britany Spears and says "Boy, we better clone one of those!"
PSF: Yeah, it's such a fucking fickle business.
It really is.
PSF: When Chris Stamey left the dB's, how was it for you to be the only songwriter in the band?
I was thinking about this today. The hardest thing, the one thing I did not do was assume the mantle of leadership. I simply wanted to write the songs, sing them and be done with it. I really didn't want to have to be the leader of the band. In retrospect, I probably should have kicked in geer a little harder and done that. But I was lazy and you couldn't have persuaded me to do that. You couldn't convince me that it would make the difference in the band.
It was tough because we floundered for a while. We didn't have all four pieces. Eventually, Gene (Holder) moved over to lead guitar, which was weird because he was such a great bass player and I was so use to that. I actually thought of playing bass for a while but that never panned out either. We went through a number of different bass players and came up with Jeff Beninato who worked with us on the last record. Then after Gene left, it was down to me and Will (Rigby) to keep the fire burning. It wasn't really happened- it got to the point that it felt redundant. We were starting to feel slightly embittered at that point. Nobody had paid attention after we made these records that we really put a lot of heart and soul into and then they were over. So, it was not for lack of trying. (laughs)
PSF: I thought that Like This had some amazingly well-written songs on it.
Thank you. The nice thing about it is that the songs still exist somewhere. They're available for people and one day... There's a world of power-pop people out there that are worshipping songs like "There She Goes" by the La's and stuff like that. I'll bet that Sixpence None The Richer could do a lovely version of "Love Is For Lovers." Somebody could do that and do something with that.
So the hope is, songs will outlive the records that they're on. They're more ethereal and they can be any number of things to anybody. That's my hope.
PSF: Could you talk about the time that you were working with R.E.M.?
They were friends of mine. I knew Jefferson Holt, who was their manager at the time, pretty well from the Chapel Hill area. He asked me where to take this new band he was recording. I suggested that he go to Mitch's place, the Drive-In. That happened and that was a real nice relationship. I went out and opened for them on a couple of tours (solo and with the dB's). Finally, when the dB's had folded their hand, I got a call and they asked me to come out and play keyboards for them. So I did that for the Green world tour and recorded on Out of Time and then parted company with them.
PSF: What kind of effect did that have on you?
I making money playing music- it was a really extraordinary thing! That's a kind of a pat answer though. I was great to play in front of that many people. It was a real interesting thing to see the good stuff and the bad stuff connected with being in that kind of arena situation.
PSF: Like what?
I think you'd get the same kind of answer from the guys in R.E.M. too. The hard thing is, you're trying to present something that originally had been this intimate kind of music. Suddenly, you find yourself having to do this in a coliseum. How are you going to do that? To their credit, I think they did a great job presenting it as a larger deal. Still, it was a tough thing. When we were done with a year of touring, it was like "Man, next time we go out, we need to do six or seven nights at a theatre." Just to change it up like that.
PSF: Before, you were talking about when you got to work with Chris again. How did that happen?
We started doing some shows, which we had a lot of fun doing. We thought about doing a record because we still enjoyed singing together and playing. We talk about that every so often. I don't think that's the last thing we're going to do together. I'm really a HUGE fan of Chris'. He's just kind of retired from playing music. He produces and he records a lot now. Gary Stewart was starting RNA Records at the time and he suggested we do that (Mavericks, 1990). It turned out really good and it was a lot of fun to do. We toured behind it and got over to England.
PSF: Had things changed a lot with the way you two worked together by then?
Yeah... We were both more confident in what we were doing. Chris never lacked for confidence. I certainly did. I think I was able to contribute more.
PSF: Ever thought of a full dB's reunion?
Maybe at some point. It's hard to say when that would be. We're all very busy. Will is now playing drums for Steve Earle and the Dukes. Gene's got a recording studio in Hoboken. Chris has got one down in Chapel Hill. Then I've got the Drifters.
I don't want to confuse the issue either. By doing a dB's reunion, if for some reason that people got it in their fool heads that it was going to be a regular thing, then I would have screwed things up for the band I really care about (the Drifters). I grew up in the dB's and now I've grown up. I'm a 44-year-old man. To do the dB's again, I would have to really think hard about how to write songs like that. That's not the kind of song I write these days.
PSF: What's changed?
They don't come as fast and furious as they used to, for one thing. They're more thoughtful and more thought-provoking, I'd like to think. Really work very hard on them. I have different things to say lyrically. I would hope I would since I'm not a 22-year-old anymore. To be able to still be creative and to still have music coming out of me at this point is a wonderful thing. It's really nice.
PSF: It probably helps to have writers and singers like Vicki and Susan around too.
Oh Lord God, those guys! The best thing about them especially is that I have to learn how to sing better. I have to be a much better performer. They've taught me that.
See some of Peter's favorite music
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