That Time is Gone – A Conversation with Peter Holsapple of The dBs

I jumped at the chance to interview Peter Holsapple, a founder of the quintessential indie act The dBs. As the day approached I was stymied. What would I ask him? And then it hit me … I would ask him why The dBs were reforming now. After all, it has been 25 years since the band’s last album and 30 years since the original line-up had released anything. Surely there’s some mystical reason behind this happening.

“I don’t know,” Holsapple said candidly. “It’s hard to say a particular why. We’ve always been friends. We’ve always enjoyed the music we’ve put together. I don’t know. It seemed like it might be a good time to do it. You never can tell with these things.”

Hmmm. Time to switch gears and go back in time.

The dBs began life in New York City in the late 1970s, even though the members had ties to North Carolina. They were signed to a string of indie labels, including college rock radio stalwart I.R.S. Records. They received critical acclaim and had pockets of power pop fans around the world singing their praises. Still the experience was challenging.

“We never had anything to judge it against; we were never signed to a major label,” Holsapple said. “The first two records did not come out in America. They were only on a British label during the lifetime of the band, which made it difficult. I worked in a record store, and I wasn’t even sure how I was supposed to price those records because they would come from different distributors with different prices. They were always prohibitively expensive.”

The band released a total of four albums between 1981 and 1987. Co-founder and Holsapple’s songwriting partner Chris Stamey left in 1982 after album number two. Holsapple picked up the slack and the band soldiered on.

“I will say that we were very grateful for the mix tapes that we showed up on, and we were very grateful for the college radio djs that would bring in their copies of the records,” Holsapple said. “Then the third record, after Chris left, was on Bearsville Records. Bearsville Records was about the closest we got to a major label, but they lost their distribution with Warner Brothers right as our record was coming out. It was tantamount to saying ‘We have a new record’ … ‘No you don’t, where is it?’ So, that was a tough one.”

Then it looked like everything was going to be all right. They landed at I.R.S. Records in the late 1980s. It was a magical time to be on I.R.S. After all, at one time or another, I.R.S. was the home of REM, The Go-Gos, The English Beat, General Public, Gary Numan, Wall of Voodoo and Oingo Boingo. REM took notice of The dBs early on and helped bring them over to “the big time.”

“And then REM left the label,” remembered Holsapple. “It was hard to tell what was going on … it felt sort of uncoordinated. We tried. We toured a lot behind that record [1987’s The Sound of Music]. We played anyplace that would have us, and still it was difficult. It’s not an easy band to sell, I guess. I guess I’ve deluded myself over the years into thinking it’s a lot easier than it is, but history is proving me wrong.

“We don’t have a gorgeous girl in front of the band. We don’t have a Michael Stipe or a Morrissey fronting the group, something you really fixate on. We just hoped that the songs would stand the test of time, and I think that we’ve proven that. So, that’s a good thing.”

And it is a good thing. The band, with Stamey, has reunited sporadically since 2005. A few years back, Stamey and Holsapple got together, wrote a bunch of songs … a lot of songs, actually … and put out a wonderful album called Here and Now. Many of the songs written just didn’t seem right for the project.

“Chris and I have done a couple of duo records [author’s note: the first, Mavericks, was released in 1991], and as we were doing them there were songs that would show up that seemed like they would be better served as dBs songs,” said Holsapple. “Of course, not knowing whether or not there was a dBs to do it with, and as we amassed a few of those it seemed like we should talk with Gene and Will and see if they were interested, and threw a few songs their way, and they both were. And then we got asked to do a few shows in Chicago in 2005.

“We didn’t plan on it being as protracted an experience as it ended up being,” he continued. “Every time we could get everybody together we would go into the studio and cut some basic tracks, and we did a lot of work at Chris’ studio also, without vocals. And then we finally hammered it together. We ended up with about 30 songs to pick from and pulled out the best ones for this album.”

And so we have Falling Off the Sky, a great power pop album and probably the best in The dBs catalog. When asked how writing with the band today compared to then, Holsapple was quick to assess the situation.

“Our life situations are completely different,” he said. “In 1979, I was a single guy living on my own in New York. In 2012, I’m a married guy, I have children and I own a house, I have a job … and so I think the outward trappings of the life have presented some changes. And then also, of course, the experiences of the time between have also been … that’s also contributed to the differences in the songs, I think.”

When asked about his kids and how they see ole dad in this new-to-them role, he beams with an almost self-deprecating pride.

“My kids like the record, although they really like Chris’ songs better than mine, I think. It’s fine with me. They’re always singing, ‘Before We Were Worn.’ [Author’s note: the song title is “Before We Were Born.”] I think it is so funny.”

As we discussed our kids, I couldn’t help but ask, on behalf of my seven-year-old, about his favorite vegetable. She has a strange fascination with people’s favorite vegetables, and I always try to ask. What I’ve learned is Mike Watt likes lima beans, Fast Eddie Clarke likes spinach, and Lita Ford likes carrots with brown sugar. Holsapple did not shy away. Not only does he have a favorite vegetable, he has a favorite vegetable dish. My daughter was thrilled.

“My favorite vegetable dish is succotash with corn and lima beans,” he said. “But, standalone vegetables, I’d say … let me think, just a second … gosh … I like broccoli a lot. I’m very much a broccoli fan. I like it in casseroles. I like it straight up. I like it al dente. It’s just a great vegetable. I do not love brussel sprouts. Somebody cooked them about a month or two ago and tried to get me to eat them. They sautéed the living shit out of them and it was much better than the hard, nasty little brussel sprouts we’ve come to know and despise, but it still, I would say, did not get me over the hump of saying, ‘Yeah, I like it.’”

We laughed and traded funny stories about our kiddos, as two dads often will, and as we got back to the subject at hand I asked him in a roundabout way what it all meant to him and how he’s viewed his career.

“We used to think back in the ’70s and ’80s that the band was completely accessible stuff, or at least our music was, and we were always a little surprised that it was looked at as this kind of strange foreign object,” Holsapple said. “Hopefully, 30 years on people’s minds have been opened enough … I always said that ‘when REM wins, everybody wins.’ They proved that you can have a guitar oriented rock band with vocals that will still be worthwhile to listen to.”

I had a critical moment as I was wrapping up our conversation, realizing that Peter Holsapple’s career spans A.M. radio to MP3. He’s seen pretty much every format and marketing ploy. And he has definite opinions about the state of the industry in a macro sense and his place in that world.

“Truthfully, the attempt by a lot of artists to make the best music that they possibly can, to make the most real stuff that they can do … that’s always been the biggest fight,” said Holsapple. “You have all these people out there laying bare their souls, their songs and they’re singing them, and they are trying to make a beautiful record that is personal and affecting, and then the general record-buying population would rather buy the 17-year-old kid singing ‘baby, baby, baby.’

“It’s always been like that,” he continued. “Look at the teen idols of the ’50s, the ’60s. That’s very familiar to me. As grateful as I am that The dBs’ record is selling as well as it is, and it is doing better than any dBs records has done yet, I’m still noticing that we’re exponentially selling less than Justin Beiber. And that’s the way it goes.

“The only thing you can ever do, as a performer, is to try to be true to yourself, you know … unless you’re going to be a total whore about it and then sell out, take all the money and the drugs … do what you’re going to do. I would not feel comfortable putting out incredibly vacuous music that meant nothing. I’ve gotten dropped by publishing companies because my music was ‘too personal.’ I’ve taken that as kind of a compliment. That’s what it is supposed to be, I think.”

To read a CD review dBs Falling Off the Sky click here