Martian Dreams and Carolina Blue

An Interview with Chris Stamey

by David Tatasciore

A discussion with the dB's co-founder about most anything except the dB's.

For my birthday this year, I treated myself to a pair of tickets to see the dB’s at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was here in 1978, four years before I was even born, that the power-pop legends got their start. Twenty-seven years later, a mix of longtime fans and curious hipsters came out to see the relatively obscure—yet hugely influential—band, reunited for a limited run of four live performances, two in Chicago and two in Hoboken. This was in September.

A few weeks later I interviewed dB’s co-founder Chris Stamey, hoping to break exciting and exclusive news about the forthcoming dB’s record, their first with Stamey since the year of my birth. To my dismay, Stamey had precious little to report, and I was derailed considerably through the rest of the interview. I mean, wait ‘til you read the “sea or space” question.

I was offered some consolation, however. According to Stamey, Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde set a high standard for rock journalism when for a brief time she was a reporter for the UK’s New Musical Express. During an interview with Eric Clapton she simply asked him what his favorite color was and left. And of course, history doesn’t remember Clapton’s answer, Stamey said. Thanks to me, it will remember his.

Are you guys getting ready to go into the studio next week?
Yeah, but not on the dB’s record. It’s for a guy named Otis Gibbs.

Something you’re producing?
Yeah. Actually, Will Rigby’s on drums for it, Will and Don Dixon and, uh, I think Reggie Young, who is a Muscle Shoals guitar player, one of them. And Al Perkins on steel.

With the dB’s reuniting that’s going to be of a lot of interest to people, but this is really just talking to you about whatever.
Well, yeah I was a little reticent when it was set up because I think the dB’s are trying to form a plan for the next six months but I don’t really have one to report this week. I mean, I might in a couple of weeks. But as far as substantial content, I’m not sure what I have for you. But I can talk about the shows we did.

So, I guess to clear that up, you are not recording with the dB’s any time soon?
Peter [Holsapple] does have some time this month, but I’m not sure we’re gonna be able to really get going. There is some possibility we’ll be recording this month, but, like I said, I can’t tell you that for sure.

Yeah, when I was told you’d be recording I guess I just assumed—
Oh, I record every day. I’m just in Nashville next week. Today I finished some stuff for Bobby Sutcliffe, who was in the Windbreakers, who makes really good pop records, your readers might know about him. And I’m doing some more stuff today for a guy named Patrick Park, who is on Hollywood Records, who is a great new songwriter.

Well, as for the dB’s… I guess first of all, what made you guys decide to do this? There are a lot of bands reuniting now for nostalgia or for some the money. What were your reasons for getting back together?
Well, I guess rather than being clever, I’ll tell you what really happened. Peter and I were talking about doing a record together and some of the songs he’d written, for example the song “World to Cry”, really seemed to fit the way Will and Gene [Holder] play, so we decided to get together and cut those songs and see what it was like. Everybody has a really kind of busy schedule; for example, Will plays many days of the year with Steve Earle, and it’s hard to schedule stuff. But we got together in January of [2005] and recorded a bunch of things and tried out some different arrangements and had a good time with it. I think the only thing that’s come out so far on the internet is “World to Cry” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” which is an old song we covered to benefit, the New Orleans Musician’s Relief Fund. And it’s already raised about ten grand, so it’s doing pretty good.

I was at one of those Hoboken shows you guys played, I thought it was pretty cool that you plugged that there.
Oh, which one?

The second night.
Ohh! The monitors went out the first night and Peter kind of blew out his voice, so the second night was definitely rough, sorry about that.

I did want to ask you about that. Has his voice changed, is he going to sound noticeably different on the new record?
No, he sounds kind of the same. He’s singing lead on the two new ones we put out and he sings as high as he ever did. What happened was we’re not the quietest band, and the monitors shorted out; it wasn’t one of those rock star things, they actually went bad on his side, so he went ahead on Monday night and sang full-on, but you can’t judge what you’re doing and he just burned his throat. He had no trouble singing the week of rehearsals. We’d sung for the Dali Lama and played two shows in Chicago… his voice is great, it was just the fault of electricity. People shouldn’t worry about Peter, his voice is in great shape.

Speaking of Hoboken, are you guys planning on recording at Water Music?
I’m not sure. I mean, it’s a great place. It’s always nice to think about Led Zeppelin recording those records while they’re on tour, or the Rolling Stones. We actually did have a plan to do some work at Piety Street in New Orleans, and that has been, as they say, blown out of the water. But I think Water Music is our home base.

You guys have always had sort of a connection to Hoboken. How did that come about?
Sometimes different people in the band lived there. And Maxwell’s is a well-known, receptive, and groovy place to play. When we first played there, we were maybe their second or third band ever. And there was no back room at all, we just played in the restaurant and moved the chairs around.

I had never been there before the other night when I saw you guys.
A lot of newer bands will play a big venue in New York and then pick up an additional show at Maxwell’s. It’s not really like McCabe’s in Santa Monica, but it’s a little bit like that. It has a family feeling.

Was it hard for you guys in the early days coming from the South? Was the community of bands down there something that helped you to break in a place like Hoboken, and then New York City?
The dB’s were almost always in New York. When I was in the band it was a New York band. We lived in New York and played New York clubs. We had our 15 or 20 friends who played music down in North Carolina, so that was a sympathetic and good environment. The dB’s were really more like a ‘70s band in my mind, that’s when we all started playing together. At that time, if you weren’t doing all the Allman Brothers material there wasn’t much hope commercially. Of course, now I love those Allman Brothers records, it’s just funny.

So would you guys play shows together and sort of network?
We would record things on four-track tape recorders and play at churches.

OK. At the show in Hoboken, I think it was Peter who remarked on how a lot of the people there were obviously not around when you were first putting out music. Does that still surprise you that there’s this younger crowd sort of just picking up on you now?
I think I’m generally kind of oblivious to that kind of thinking, I don’t know if I have an answer. I’m interested in trying to make the occasional good record. I’m old enough to think more about what it will sound like in a hundred years, it doesn’t seem like that long to me. Mozart died a lot longer ago. A 20-year break doesn’t seem that great, but that’s my perspective. What you’re asking is a sensible thing, I just don’t think I have an answer.

It was interesting to look around and see all these people, like the guy from Water Music and the president of Bar/None Records, and you could tell all these people who go way back and have known each other… like this was their show, and I know it’s stupid and really doesn’t matter but for a minute it was like feeling out of place.
For those shows we worked up a bunch of old songs. The actual activity of the band this year has been mostly with new songs. We thought, well some of these songs are still pretty much OK, and we’ll do that for this round of shows. The most interesting thing is recording.

Do you approach that differently now, having produced so many bands?
I know not to produce ourselves. We did kind of bumble through the two tracks that have come out so far, but I think, in general, it’s not a good idea to produce yourself, and never was for the dB’s. The best stuff I was involved in was on the second record [Repercussion] where we had Scott Litt producing.

Who’s going to produce the new—
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean there are lots of good people. Basically anybody’s better than doing it yourself, I think.

Are you excited to be a touring band again?
I think it’s unlikely that the dB’s will be a touring band, per se. I would like to play shows in Japan but I don’t think that we’ll play, you know, six months out of the year.

Do you just not like being on the road?
I play a lot. I mean, everybody in the band plays a lot of shows a year, except for Gene. Right now I think because everybody does so many other things it’d be hard to do it.

What advice would you give a touring band?
I would say whatever I suggest do the opposite. I don’t know. I was really big on throat-coat tea for a while, but apparently it really messes with your thyroid. So I guess maybe my recommendation would be to do nothing in excess.

What’s your favorite TV show?
I don’t watch. I saw part of the Dylan documentary, but I don’t watch TV. No help here. [laughs] I mean gosh, it’d be fun to have a favorite show.

What are you listening to?
Typically I listen to what I’m working on. I just bought the new Ryan Adams record, Jacksonville City Nights. I did buy the Big Star record but I haven’t really had time to listen to it. Because I have my recording studio, and I’m always working on something, I’ll spend a lot of time listening to stuff that’s coming up. “Hey Ya” infiltrated my consciousness, but it takes a lot of repetition to actually get to me.

So, you’re an OutKast fan?
Oh, yeah.

I realize a lot of these questions are bullshit.
I’m not helping you too much.

Do you not like interviews?
Like I said, I’m not sure what the dB’s are doing at this point, how we’re going to approach getting this record done, so I can’t really report to you.

Yeah, I’m down to the really stupid questions.

No, really. Somebody told me to ask: If you had your choice, would you rather live at the bottom of the ocean, inside like a Sealab kind of thing, or in space, which can be in a space station on the surface of a planet, not necessarily in orbit. And either way, you can’t leave it for the rest of your life.
I’m familiar with questions like that, where at the end it tells you something about your sex life.

Don’t worry, this one definitely goes nowhere.
Well, definitely space. It’s the great heroic myth… I mean, no one’s gonna believe we ever went to the moon…

Do you?
Yes, completely. My next record, the cover is actually from a child’s bedroom, like a banner of a spaceship going to Mars, but now that Big Star called their record In Space, I may have to change it.

Is that something you’re interested in, space, or just science in general?
Every musician has gotta be inspired by the example of John Denver, who tried to bribe the Russians to go to space. That actually is a reason for going triple platinum.

So that kind of stuff sells more than music?
No, no. I mean he sold enough records to be able to make an offer.

Oh, OK… so what else are you interested in besides music?
Um… usually I’m making plans to make other records. Yeah, I’m pretty much a one-note pony here.

Do you want to keep doing this for the rest of your life, recording and producing?
Well, I like writing music. I’m trying to do more of that. My background is actually in classical composition, that’s a passion of mine, although I like being around any kind of music if it’s good, whether I’ve written it or not.

You said you got the new Ryan Adams. What do you think of it?
Oh, he’s great. He re-cut a song I recorded with him called “My Heart Is Broken” and did the whole Nashville string thing to it.

Are you going to try to work with him again?
I think it’s a safe bet to say no one can bank on what Ryan’s gonna do next.

[laughs] Truer words were never spoken.

Epilogue: On December 21, 2005, I sent a follow-up email to Chris Stamey. It is transcribed below, along with his response:


“Hi Chris,

We spoke on the phone several weeks ago in an interview for the website You had said to go ahead and email you with any follow-up questions as it got closer to the time of publication. I just had a couple quick ones, so whenever you get a chance I’d really appreciate if you could get back to me:

1. In as much detail as you’re willing to give, do you have any updates on the process of creating and recording the new dB’s album?

2. What’s your favorite color?”

Chris Stamey:

“We are meeting up again in January 2006 to record a batch of new songs at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium, in Kernersville, NC. Peter and I are e-mailing new songs back and forth, in the modern way, and are meeting up in Winston right after New Year’s to write some together. There is more news to come but not until end of Jan.

Carolina Blue (a little like an eggshell blue [?] or a sky blue).”

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