Perfect Sound Forever

Peter Stampfel interview- Part 3

The Du-Tels
PSF: On Have Moicy Mike Hurley only plays on his own songs.

With Hurley, it was a problem. With Steve, it was worse. So, I really wanted to do this record with Weber. The record didn't come out until '81 and then we did some shows. We did a promotional tour and it was supposed to become a double album of the tour. We had that good, loose feeling. Really wild and crazy. It was funny as hell but it worked. The album was supposed to start off straight and get more and more crazed. The last side was going to be pretty chaotic. Rounder didn't want to do it because the other record didn't sell well. The tapes were passed around for years. Finally, half of the record will be put out soon. I tried to balance out songs between the two of us.

That one sold about 2000. Have Moicy sold about 12,000. Alleged sold about 7,000. I've never been given numbers but I assume the first Rounders record (on Prestige) sold well. Oh, five figures I would say. "Can you tell me how many records I sold?" "You sold a bunch of records?" "Could you tell me what the number is?" This went on for DECADES. I've never actually even had mechanical royalties from most of those things.

PSF: You also have a band with Gary Lucas.

I didn't know Gary but he was playing with Jeff Buckley. I was enthralled by his guitar playing. He was playing this basic folk style but completely taking it to a whole other place. I thought I'd like to play with this guy. I just started running into him where ever I went. So I said "I'd like to play with you." He said that he'd been a fan of mine since the sixties. Gary had his own band, Gods and Monsters with tons of people. We started the Du-Tels. I had the name forever but now I could use it. So we started in '94 but he broke his arm so we started later in the year.

PSF: When did you do another record with Mark Bingham?

I did it with Gary as the Du-tuls. I was also doing a record of childrens' songs but then I started working with Gary and thought we ought to do a record of childrens' songs. So the material is slanted towards kids. It's me and Gary mostly. Someone might pick up on it and release it... who knows when. I hate to say when things are going to come out because things come out eight months after you're told they will, if that. Alleged was recorded in '72 and came out in '74. Going Nowhere Fast was recorded in '79 and came out in '81. You Must Remember This was recorded in '91 and didn't come out until '95.

PSF: That's some delay.

Yeah, some delay. There's also a live album with the Dysfunctionells. I did some gigs with them. They're from Chicago. I heard about them from a fan who called me- he was a band member. I invited him to our post-Thanksgiving party. We had people over. I told him to come over. My wife was like "You're going to invite a Rounder fan over? He's going to come over here and throw up on our rug and steal things and smell bad." He turned out to be a neonatologist. A very respectable guy but a very wack musician.

He invited me to come to come to gig they were doing in Chicago. That was 2 years ago in July. They came out to play here in New York a couple of times. They put out a record called Not In Their Wildest Dreams not on a SERIOUS label. I'm on that one with them.

My big plan is to have two releases a year. I thought it's a good idea to have high ambitions because even if you don't achieve them, you'll get more things done than if you're ambitions aren't so high. It works. We're talking the laws of physics. This is not some kind of WILD theory, this actually works! At first, I thought that it was crazy then I thought what the hell. Now, things are starting to go in that direction. Finally, the new record (the live record with Weber) which'll be called Cruel and Unusual- The Punishment Brothers, will come out this fall. The Bottlecap record will be out in '97. The Du-tels records... they're talking about it coming out in Christmas. But indies (independent labels) usually lay low that time of year because that's when the big companies come out with their major stuff. Maybe before or after that then- what do I know?

The last Unholy Rounders gig was at the Bottom Line in May '77. I remember that gig as being disappointing and playing on six on a scale of ten according to our ability. I found the tapes and played them and was amazed at how good they sounded. Just really damn nice as well as the fact that distancing allows you to have greater perspective. I talked to Richie Schulberg and if he wanted to do a Rounders CD. It's all there, we basically have to go through the tapes, pick up the best stuff and there might even be enough stuff for two of them. So that's after the current things get going.

Then John Parrott found a bunch of recordings we made that are really good. Just me and him playing acoustically. It was around '78. I will do another record with Mark that's more rock'n'roll. That's next on the horizon. Of course, if we can sell the record with me and Gary, I want to make another record with him. It would be more grown-up material.

I'm deeply tickled by the idea of being 57 years old and having a full-time job and two kids and parrots...

Lily (Peter's daughter): And mom!

Yes, and mom. Your average rock stars who sell gold records, if they do an album every two years, they're thought of being incredibly prolific. These are people that don't fucking work! They don't have to go to a goddamn office. Back in the old days, pop artists put out three albums a year. This was true up until Sgt. Pepper which they used an unprecedented four-tracks to record. All of a sudden, a pop album was a serious artistic endeavor that took lots of time.

There was an article in the (New York) Times called "The Death of Popular Song." His idea was that popular music was shot down by the Beatles because they had the audacity to write the words and the music and perform the music! You needed to have a composer, a lyricist and an artist. He tied this to melody being tossed out. Melody started loosing its way in rock'n'roll in the early '70s. The cause was all these tracks available and precedent of Sgt Pepper and the fact that suddenly records were happening every year instead of three a year. People could go into the studio and write the songs there. "Hell, we're getting paid union scale. We've got a $100,000 budget." It's an excellent way to make five figures in one fell swoop. So they would just sit around and jam and get their licks together. Songs started being constructed in pieces rather than being melodically based. The Stones did exquisite ballads. Everyone did hard songs and ballads. The Who and everybody, that's the way it was done. After the tracks-opening-up phenomenon and composing in the studio, it became unnecessary for songs to be melodically based. That's just my personal view.

A melody is the ultimate hook. With rap, which has no melody, the words are the most powerful hook. A hook is a thing that you hear and can't forget it. If you're not listening to the song which the hook is embedded in, you still hear the hook. The most powerful hook of all is total silence. That's got to attract your attention even if you're not listening to the music. A melody you hear, you whistle it and you can't stop. How many jingles in commercials go through your head and won't shut up and you can't make them stop?

So many musicians are afraid of the most powerful hook of all, the melody. On the other hand, the reason that Nirvana did so much better than other bands like them is because Cobain wrote KILLER MELODIES besides great lyrics. People have this really incredible ambivilance about melody which I find really strange. I adore melody. If a melody is the most powerful hook then what if every hook is as good as a melody. How many of them can you superimpose?

Like "Endearing Young Charms" on You Must Remember This. "Tennessee Waltz" goes along with it so I told Mark to have somebody play it. They go really amazingly together. But the piano player forgot how the bridge went and that was the coolest juxtaposition. I wasn't around for the whole session. I just did the vocals in a couple of days, headed back to New York and handed Mark the ball. He did a really superb job. We discussed the arrangements. He would come up with things that I wouldn't think of or couldn't think of.

PSF: Parts of it had really interesting arrangements like the acapella group on "Haunted Heart."

That was my idea. "Doo vop, du vin vin vop." It was a gospel group called the Friendly Travellers. It was so amazing, teaching this black gospel group this doo-wop part. I never dreamed I would ever have an opportunity like that. It was hilarious!

Anyway, I must say for myself that musicians tend to burn out. The only people that can write a song as good as they could in their prime are Neil Young and Lou Reed. I must say that it's true of myself also. However, in the sixties, I was not very good whereas Neil Young and Lou Reed were close to or at the pinnacle of their creative powers. I'm a real SLOW learner. I take forever to get things down. I started late. I work slow. I don't have the diligence to practice seriously and become a serious chops guy. But I persevere. I've played with guys who played circles around me who don't play anymore. They could play so well so easily that they couldn't value their ability.

PSF: How was it different for you? What kept you going?

The strength and depth of obsession. I'm obsessed with music. I'm seriously obsessed with trying to put together any and all aspects of American popular music from its inception. I don't have the chops to do this but I've gotten better. I can't just sit down and write a Brian Wilson ragtime song that has the best aspects of both. I'd like to. It's eventually, definitely within my grasp. I'm started to learn piano now after wanting to for years. It's such fun. It's challenging, exciting, interesting, HARD. I just love taking tiny baby steps and getting a little tiny bit better. On thing I've learned is that if you do things a little bit but keep on doing them, eventually you can achieve an amazing amount of stuff. It's the tortoise and the hare. The hare runs like crazy and falls asleep before he finished. The tortoise doesn't have speed but he's relentless.

Another thing is that although I've had periods of despair, they didn't really last. I'm fortunate enough not to have a depressive personality. I'm basically optimistic and have lucky chemistry. My most recent songs are better than anything I've done previously. Antonia wrote this song in '67 and we couldn't figure out the melody. It was the only thing we ever had a problem with. We'd stick a couple of people on it over the years but we didn't care for what they did. When John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants) wanted me to make the record for the Hello Club, I thought that I'd like to look at that song again. I did and wrote a really perfect tune in five minutes flat. I've learned so much.

Jerome Kern could write songs up until the end. He wrote "Long Ago and Far Away" which I think is maybe one of the greatest songs ever written.

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now, that dream is here beside me
Long the sky was overcast
But now the clouds have past
You're here at last
Chills run up and down my spine
Aladin's lamp is mine
The dream I dreamed is not denied me
Just one look and then I knew
That what I longed for long ago was you

Absolutely exquisite. Brilliant. Then "All Through The Day."

All through the day
I dream about the night
I dream about the night here with you
And all through the day
I think about the time

Oh man! Just devasting, brilliant, so incredibly moving. Irving Berlin lost it. He wrote this big musical in 1960 that was a big bust. Gershwin died young. I'm told that classical composers don't lose it.

PSF: Actually Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaichovsky were REALLY troubled.

I don't know enough about classical to say. Mathemeticians burn out early. Poets tend to burn out early. I've really thought about that a lot. I really started so early and so poorly that I've had to figure out a lot of it which is maybe why it's sticking. Once my songs are written in dreams, I'll wake up and remember a few words but I'll remember what the song is about. To write a song, you have to have an attitude. It has to be about something. Once you know what a song is about, you're home free. That's the hardest part of a song. I'd like to do some serious dreaming and be able get it under more conscious control.

PSF: You work with DAW books also.

I do reading, dig up reviews, find good blurbs.

PSF: Do you do any fiction writing yourself?

I wrote some columns in the '60s for the Boston Broadside, Crawdaddy and the Village Voice but I really don't write fiction. I'd like to write about mine and Antonia's amphetimine hallucation. I have no idea what'll be done with it but it's really the most interesting, fascinating thing that ever happened to me. After we'd been up for some time in '66, we'd hit the point we'd hear the singer singing with total belief like Johnny Cash singing the Pepsi jingle. When he sings "You've got a lot to live," you think "YES, I DO!" He delivers those lines with such conviction that this bland meaningless sentence comes out profound.

Anyway, the singer could be Connie Francis or anyone. Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix would be playing guitar, Nicky Hopkins would be playing piano. The bass line would be the most compressed, melodic unit that could ever be. Paul McCartney maybe. Keith Moon would be the drummer. All the pieces would be clear. You could easily hear every single component that was going on. Harmonies might be exquisite. We would both hear the same thing! These periods would last for a couple of days. Nothing I've ever experienced was more enthralling, fascinating, delightful.

It's weird to point at a drug experience, really a psychotic state. Nothing has ever been as great. That sound is my vision. I took speed to have a vision. It culminated during the Moon landing. For the first time, Antonia and I heard different things. Instead of hearing Jeff Beck playing, I was hearing a banjo playing chords. It was the greatest thing I ever heard. I don't know how it worked or how it happened but it was funny. The incredible hilariousness of this was hotter than Jeff Beck. I don't know how to do that. It seemed to be real. This was the final piece of the vision. I'm still dumb-founded. It seems like I was hearing a real thing that was different from anything I've ever heard but simliar. I'm totally at a loss.

I have these musicial ideals which were drug induced which were nevertheless a valid and true vision that I'm working towards and may never achieve. That's what a vision quest does. It gives you a goal that defines your life. In an ideal world, I would have stopped taking it (drugs) in '69. At that point, we stopped having hallucinations because Antonia stopped playing guitar. She basically made them happen by playing slide guitar. The first time it happened, we were aware of this thing called "the train" that was coming. Later, I discovered that on that day that one of President Johnson's daughter got married and chuch bells rang all over the country. More bells rang at once than ever before in our history. This thing was supposed to compensate for nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of music being this powerful force, this very psychotic, drug feeling that music could make something happen that would fix all the evils of the world. As we know, this is not possible unfortunately.

PSF: I've heard that you played with Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt before.

It was in late summer of '61 and saw Dylan at a place called the Fat Black Pussycat. I thought he was a little hoody guy because he had a motorcycle hat. I thought that he was carrying a guitar because he heard that you could get laid if you were carrying a guitar. I walked by Folk City and saw him playing through the window but didn't hear him. He had a harmonica on his neck so I thought he must be a good player. A week later, I was there on Hoot night and I saw him actually play. His phrasing was rock 'n' roll but his sensibility was traditional. Before his '65 stuff, he had put together rock 'n 'roll and traditional and I thought these forms were incompatible. I never dreamed that they could be the same thing. I had a fucking epiphany! I was on the ceiling. I was mad with giddiness.

I was 22 and he was 20. It was a real lesson. When you're in your early 20's, you think you're hot shit and that younger people can't show you anything. It taught me that having that attitude towards younger people is really stupid. I went to him afterwards and met him. We started hanging out together and he was crashing at different places all the time. He came and stayed with us for a while. We played together for a while. I started playing really good then because he was playing SO FUCKING SOLID. Suddenly, I was playing better. We both played at the Gaslight Cafe with Jim Kweskin. I joined him on fiddle and kazoo.

John Hurt is a really interesting story. Everyone thought the old country blues guys were dead. Those people quit recording in the depression. In '63, blues became commerical again. This speed freak was going out with this underaged girl and her family was after him to lynch him. They were on the lam then across the South. They ended up in Mississippi in a town called Avalon. He remembered a line from a John Hurt song saying that Avalon was his home. So he went to a local drug store and asked about Hurt and if anyone knew him. So the guy says "Here he goes over here." His playing was just as good as it ever was. All of the country blues fans went GULP simoultaneosly and descended upon the South. They quickly realized that the phone book... "Bukka White, where's he from? Booker White, there he is!" The whole rediscovery came about from this speed freak. I think he was Tom Hoskins. In Massachusetts, John Hurt was playing at a club. Before the show, I played with him because I knew a song he was doing. Who would have dreamed? Life can be like that.

Also see Peter Stampfel's article on freak folk and PS's article on 'Go' songs

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER