The power pop group has reunited with "Falling Off the Sky," their first new record in a quarter-century

Photo of The dB's
I suspect that if they’re honest, fans of The dB’s always wanted to be Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. Not in real life, but the Holsapple’s songs had a clever quality that came from intelligence and wit, and Stamey’s felt emotionally open without being James Tayloresque. Both were admirable artistic personas, and the fact they were harnessed to pop songs that also embodied those qualities made the band even more appealing. If the band needed further validation, Stamey had played with Alex Chilton and their charms were sufficiently subtle that they couldn’t find a label in the States and ended up on England’s Albion Records. That meant their albums were imports in their homeland. For underground music fans who felt misunderstood (which was most of them, rightly or wrongly), The dB’s were you.

Life went for them as life goes for most underground bands, and eventually they frayed (Stamey left) and came apart. This summer, the main lineup of Holsapple, Stamey, Gene Holder and Will Rigby released a new album, Falling Off the Sky, and it’s impossible for me to hear it without that backdrop. I hear the sound of men growing up, which in most ways is a better, healthier sound than the sound of men refusing to. Where Holsapple once jammed 20 hooks into a song, now he doles them out more judiciously. As a result, the songs breathe a little better, but there are moments when I miss the rush to say everything at once on Stands for Decibels.

They’re also writing as adults now, and if that produces material that doesn’t speak to me in the same way, I don’t begrudge it either. A little irony or a distancing device could help “I Didn’t Mean to Say That” and “Long Ago and Far Away” as songs, but they’re also honest reflections of where Holsapple and Stamey are today as artists. And, they same writers wrote “That Time is Gone” and “Before We Were Born,” two of the strongest songs on the album, so it’s not that they went soft; it’s that they can.

How are you doing?

I’m doing alright, we made this record and people seem to like it a lot. It took several years to make it, but we’re nothing if not perfectionists. We ended up with about 30 songs in the can in various states of composition and decomposition and what have you, mixing and rough mixing. People have asked in the past, how do you know when a record is finished? And when you are doing what we did, like the gentlemen musicians with no fixed income, we don’t have the record companies saying we have to be finished by this time.

It was a lot different from the old days of, you’re three weeks in the studio, record it, mix it, and then we’re going to schedule when it’s coming out and you have to tour behind it. We’ve been able to call the shots because we sort of have to. We’re very satisfied with it, and as far as I can reckon, people that have loved The dB’s in the past love this record, some to the extent of saying they think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done, which completely blows my mind. I would not have expected that sort of reaction. And then people coming to us fresh are very excited about it, too, and that makes me feel like we did our part of the job right. It’s the best record we could possibly make.

You said it took seven years. Was that just from talking through the ideas or was that actually recording?

I say seven years because in some lights, it starts from 2005 when The dB’s were offered a couple of gigs in Chicago. Over the years, Chris and I had done a couple of duo records and as we were compiling songs for those, there were some that were certainly more dB’s in nature, having a slightly more aggressive thing going. The duo records are great without a doubt, but they have a sentimental gentleness to them. Am I quoting Bob Welsh? I didn’t mean to do that.

The stuff that’s on this record seemed to Chris and I that it would really be better served with Will and Gene on bass and drums. And sure enough, it was. They did that thing that they always do--they gave it meat and hair and teeth--and it stood up on its hind legs and roared.

So it sort of started around there. Chris and I had already done Mavericks in ’91, hadn’t really done anything much together since then. We started working on Here and Now a couple years ago, too, and that also took a little bit longer than we thought because of that weather situation we had in New Orleans. We were originally going to record it there and try to use local players, but it became difficult because I left, I really couldn’t stay there. [Holsapple lost his house in Arabi to post-Katrina flooding] And we had actually been thinking about North Carolina because my parents were elderly.

Chris and I kept the idea going, and then we started recording. We got a couple of tracks. We wanted to record something for Jeff Beninato’s New Orleans Musicians’ Relief Fund project also. We cut that really neat version of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which is still my favorite vocal that I’ve ever recorded on anything. I’m so proud of that. I think I’ve pulled out all the Richard Manuel stuff I could manage. I tried to be as soulful as I possibly could without turning into Eddie Hinton. But then we also recorded some other stuff. We did “World to Cry,” we did “Send Me Something Real,” and again, it was a situation where the ball started rolling and then we had other songs, so we put them together and made it another record, and like I said, we did end up with about 25-30 songs to pick from, which was good. A couple of them have seen other releases, like “Revolution of the Mind” came out as a video last year and I think two years ago, “Picture Sleeve” was a single for Record Store Day, which, of course, my family treats as seriously as Christmas.

So what was involved in getting everybody back together to play?

Really, working around everybody’s schedule more than anything else, and geography. Will was living in Cleveland up until recently and his wife ended up getting a teaching job at Carolina. She’s in Chapel Hill, so are they all. It’s great that they’re down there now. Gene is still up in New Jersey where he’s lived for years. He had a mastering lab until recently. I’m not sure what he does now, I think he does a lot of gear selling and trading and what have you, but he’s also part of the Tony Randall Society and he’s got a couple of young daughters as well.

Will has been drumming for Steve Earle for years, and so that’s one reason we’re not really doing a ton of gigging behind this record, because he’s out until September recording and playing with Steve through the summer. I’ve got a full-time job now, which I like very much at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That’s a 2,700-seat venue, and we get all the Nederlander Broadway plays and we get tours through. Music is there, comedy, family stuff, we host the American Dance Festival, so I have a decent job there that’s got benefits. Music is pretty much an unsustainable income at this point for myself. The fact that I got a full-time job sometime around Christmas at the age of 55 with only rock ’n’ roll experience is nothing short of a miracle, I think. And I want to hang on to that, I like my job.

That has to be a complicated thing to work through as a musician--if you were an indie or underground musician in the ‘80s, how do you keep alive as an artist and someone with mortgage payments and a family years later?

I think I was very fortunate, we all were very fortunate, to have such an active fan scene growing up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. I was thinking about that the other day. My first record came out 40 years ago with Chris and Mitch [Easter], a record called “Rittenhouse Square.” And even by that time, I feel like everybody had a band. And almost everybody was in a band at some point. When I think back on it now, when I look at the people now, I would say that probably over 60 to 70 percent are still playing some form. A lot of them are working at drugstores, and a lot of them are doing other things, but the lure of the music was so euphoric, and it made me feel good and sounded great and was something that you wanted so badly to do. The idea of stopping it never really entered my mind. I think of the job as something that I’m doing, but I don’t see it as the end of my musical career. You might ask me another day and I might tell you that it is, but I mainly want to be able to still create. I’m not going to lose that.

At this point, what does making an album mean to you?

Well, I realize that it’s an arcane form of delivery, but to me, it is finding songs that work together and present a great aural picture of people working together. I think it really still does come down to sequencing. Some people have gone so far as to say, “Well I got the feeling that you have a distinctive A side and B side to this record; the A side was the singles and somewhere about middle way, it turned into more of the think pieces.” And I was like, “That’s great that you think that, but I don’t think that was anything that we had planned.”

We definitely look at time signatures and key signatures and tempos, and we do try to trade off between Chris and myself a lot of the time, just to change it up. It’s not imperative. Chris has got a little more music on the record than I do, but we do try to trade it off because people like both of our songwriting and singing, and people now get to hear Will’s contribution, which is also great.

Our favorite records are albums. Any day of the week, I would pick up an album and try to play it through. I have favorite records that I don’t even know what’s on the flip side of them. I’ve listened to side one so many times that I haven’t even the faintest idea of what’s on side two. I have to admit, there’re a couple of Family records that are like that. It just seemed important to us to make a record. And I’m glad we did.

What I was thinking about is what a record represents. I’m sure there was a time when you put a record out thinking, “This is going to help me get to the next step; this is going to help us get bigger. This is going to do something.” And I’m wondering if your relationship to the record has changed, now that you don’t quite have the same aspirations or the same goals you had when you were in your twenties or thirties.

I think it most assuredly has changed. My feeling about making a record, at this point, is mostly for a combination of self-satisfaction and feeling the follow-through of having written the song. I don’t write these in a vacuum. Some wag said something like, “The dB’s, the band most destined to be discovered posthumously.” And I think that’s fine, but I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, feel that this is not destined for an audience. I’d like to share these with people, that they might enjoy them at least somewhat as much as I enjoyed making the songs. Maybe that’s just from the history of having made the songs for so many years, and the various good reactions we’ve gotten over the years. Sure, I’d love this to go to the top of the pop--what kind of nut would I be not to, you know? I’m not that selfless. I’m not Peter Green about this thing. I would like to seriously see this succeed. I’d like this record to be in everybody’s record collection.

We never thought we were all that much different from The Pretenders, or The Knack. There were a bunch of different bands that had considerably more success than us, and we just honestly did not feel like what we were doing was that far afield from that. But apparently it was. So this is the world’s chance to figure out that maybe we were right. And I think that this is incredibly accessible music, I don’t think there’s anything on there that would scare Grandma, or make children run from it. My kids sing along to “Before We Were Born” all the time. That’s their favorite song on there. I don’t care if it’s Chris’s song; it’s a great song. I just like the fact that they like it so much. They’re 4 and 8. And even Miranda [his oldest daughter] said, “Gee Dad, for a bunch of old dudes, you guys rock pretty hard.” I said, “I’ll take it.” That’s a huge comment coming from her.

I don’t know. I think that we do this because it’s in our nature. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we like to do. It’s what we hope will please people and give them the kind of enjoyment that we get from good music ourselves. My god, how many records have you put on in your life that you’ve just felt like somebody had driven a tractor over you, and you put the record on and all of a sudden you re-inflate and life’s good again and you just want to go do something. That, to me, is the miracle of music. I think that good music provides that kind of buoyancy, and I think that The dB’s record is a huge life preserver for some people. I think that there are people that have been waiting 31 years to see if we’d do something again. And so I’m really happy that we can offer them this, and that it’s a good record. Our fans have always been incredibly patient, devoted, loving, accepting. I know there are some dB’s fan that didn’t quite get The Continental Drifters. I wasn’t so sure why that was the case, but I see that there’s a distinct difference in my writing style. But I want everybody to enjoy everything that we do and have a good time all the time. Isn’t that what the keyboard player in Spinal Tap said? I’m all for that.