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Stories to Tell: A Conversation with the Family Stand

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Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010
From music to politics, the members of the Family Stand are fearless in their convictions.

Brooklyn residents didn’t know how lucky they were on the evening of September 8th.  Neither did Gothamites who took the No. 2 or 3 train to Atlantic Ave. and walked along the restaurant-studded sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to Southpaw. The evening’s attraction had traveled a collective 6,447 miles to perform one show. Without the promise of reappearing in New York (or anywhere else for that matter) anytime soon, the three members of the Family Stand walked out onstage to the sound of an adoring audience clearly thrilled to have the band back in its hometown.


The occasion for Sandra St. Victor, Peter Lord, and V. Jeffery Smith to unite for one night only was the release of In A 1,000 Years, their fifth studio album since first arriving on the scene as Evon Geffries and the Stand in 1987.  One inspired rechristening later, the Family Stand released Chain (1990), landed a number three R&B single with “Ghetto Heaven” and continued to saturate the airwaves with “In Summer I Fall”. Moon In Scorpio (1991) held listeners of progressive funk-rock rapt while also underscoring that the musical range of the Family Stand was not limited to such facile genre hyphenations. The terrain of their musicality was (and remains) vast, confounding an industry driven by categorization and commodification.
  
Following Moon In Scorpio, the individual members of the Family Stand took an extended hiatus to work on their own solo projects while writing, producing, and recording with a number of other artists. Their special fusion of talents returned on Super Sol Nova, Vol. 1 (2007), a characteristically expansive work that included everything from the politically charged “In the Name of What” to the rousing rock-dance of “Dangerous”, to the stunning “I Thought We Had”, which even surfaced on the television show So You Think You Can Dance.


Three years later, the Family Stand has channelled the momentum generated from Super Sol Nova into In A Thousand Years. Those who sang along to fan favorites like “The Education of Jamie”, “Sweet Liberation”, and “Highway” at the Southpaw CD release show were introduced to acoustic renditions of “Story”, “The Last Time We’re Here”, and “How I Got Over”, a trio of tracks that anchor the stellar musicality of In A Thousand Years.  Never a group to follow convention, the Family Stand is giving listeners an opportunity to purchase the album via thefamilystand.bandcamp.com at whatever price they can afford. One dollar from each sale will be donated to the Prevent Cancer Foundation.


Before Sandra St. Victor, Peter Lord, and V. Jeffery Smith rocked Southpaw, they spoke with PopMatters about…well, just about everything. From music to politics (especially politics), they are fearless in their convictions. Fueled by a breakfast of turkey spaghetti, a Starbucks artisan snack plate, and the adrenaline of being back in New York City, the Family Stand had some stories to tell…


+++


What was the force that brought you three together for In A 1,000 Years?


Sandra St. Victor: Central Park Summerstage. We had an offer to do a show in 2007. We said, “Well, let’s do a record too!” Shows grew around it. Music grew around it and here we are.


Peter Lord: Was that after Super Sol Nova or before?


St. Victor: That was while we did Super Sol Nova.


Lord: Right. We did Super Sol Nova and then we said that we wanted to do some more albums and just get back into the groove of making music. I think we have a very special combination and we’re just committed to do that for awhile. That’s why we wanted to come back with this album relatively behind Super Sol Nova.


V. Jeffery Smith: The album’s been done for a little while now.


Sandra, you’re in Amsterdam, Peter you’re in Los Angeles, and Jeff you’re still in Brooklyn. Logistically how did recording the album work? Did you use digital files or record in a studio?


St. Victor: We finished it when Pete was still in New York, so when I was in town I’d do my recording at Jeff’s and Pete’s. They both have studios. It really wasn’t deep at all because I’m here enough to make it happen. Now it’s going to be more difficult because Pete’s on the west coast so I got two stops to make when I’m recording! I got mics at home…


Smith: ...though it’s not the same (as being in the studio), we can still do it that way.


St. Victor: It’s much easier when I do it at home because they’re not there to crack the whip!


I imagine having your own studio is helpful since you don’t have to pay for studio time.


Lord: We mastered the album at another friend’s studio. We mixed and mastered here in New York.


Smith: From the very beginning, we’ve always been self-sufficient. With our material, we’ve always done our own thing. We saved a lot on the budget with the expense of recording because we always had our own situations. Unless of course with some situations where we were doing outside projects like Paula Abdul and got string arrangers like Clare Fischer or Joe Mardin.


So let me ask about “Liberal Brain Training and Our New Voting Machines”...


Lord: Oh, you’re paying attention! That’s the funny thing about this artist. His name is Jeffery Scott (1019). He has an amazing book. He’s an unbelievable artist. We started speaking. I had noticed the name of the picture and I said, “You’re not a conservative right-wing nut are you?” He said, “As a matter of fact, I am!” We had a long debate. I said, “Well you know what? I’ve known people who are so-called ‘right-wing’ that if I was stranded and bleeding on the road at night, they would help me, and I’ve known liberals who would walk by and run for the nearest exit.” He’s a good guy. I crack jokes about Sarah Palin and he gets upset but we laugh about it.


I read the title of the illustration and I wondered what it meant. I wanted to ask you how you think that reflects the current socio-political climate?


Lord: I didn’t take the meaning of his picture literally. That’s what it meant to him, the artist. For me, I was looking for something that reflected the idea of “In a 1,000 Years”...


St. Victor: It’s more about the imagery.


Lord: ...the futuristic imagery. There’s two other pictures that he had that we liked at first but actually I think we ended up with the best choice for the album cover. It had to do with the idea in the song “In a 1,000 Years”: Will we still be funky? Will you know how to love me? That concept of, “Are we heading towards a Spockian universe?” It’s reflected even in the type of music you hear nowadays. We put some of those elements in that track, subconsciously. We used Autotune but it was on purpose! [laughs]


St. Victor: It’s not because I was out of tune!


Lord: She was too in tune, that’s the thing!


Hearing that line in “In a 1,000 Years” about, “Worship the koolaided hype you wanna be” reminded me of the cover. To me it correlates to that image because I feel like that figure looking at the screen is enraptured with their own visage or with their own idea of being a celebrity. It points to how saturated our culture is right now with people that have no discernible artistic talent being celebrities.


St. Victor: Yes, the people famous for being famous.


When I listened to “In a 1,000 Years”, I realized there are a few things going on in the lyrics. What was the inception for those particular words?


Lord: I usually start with the concept for the title and then write from that. I had the hook and the verse but I wanted Sandra to add to that. To me, a lot of modern rock is a mixture. You have electronica but you have the guitar in there. It’s beat-oriented, but still alternative. That’s what the song is. It’s that fusion of all those elements. It’s a relatively simple melody and hook but there’s subtext to what’s being said.


It’s a great launch for the album because people like to move and it gets you to do that.


St. Victor: I like the whole concept of the question: will we still be funky? If you haven’t heard anything from us since “Ghetto Heaven”...


Lord: “Moon in Scorpio, what? I’m a Leo, I don’t like Scorpios!”


St. Victor: ...maybe you haven’t heard us since 1990. I think the song brilliantly speaks to the timelessness of the Family Stand, whether we make another record or not, I think this says what we would like to be for true music lovers. I think we’re trying to make that statement.


Really, the opening song is like a tributary for a few different tastes. You have the rock, the dance, the alternative…


St. Victor: Absolutely, and it’s certainly soulful.


Now Jeff, you performed “How I Got Over” at Sandra’s solo show at the Blue Note last week. Listening to it is very cathartic. I wondering when you’re performing, do you feel a similar kind of catharsis?


Smith: When I’m performing anything these days, I try and be as passionate as I can about whatever I’m singing. I wrote the track and originally it was called “Trying to Get Over”. I gave Sandra the song. She went and wrote the lyrics. She called it “How I Got Over”. I said, “How the hell is that going to work?” She sang it to me and we just went with it.


St. Victor: We ain’t trying to get nowhere. We’re gonna show you how we did it. [laughs]


Smith: It was just such a natural thing for us to sing, in the tradition of what a lot of people know and see us as with the hard rock element.


Just the intro suggests, “Here they come. The Family Stand is here”. Speaking of lyrics, Sandra last week you broke down Don McLean’s “American Pie” for everybody in the audience, which I loved because it’s so easy to take lyrics for granted. That really showed how dark that song is. I wonder if, for any of the songs on this album, did meanings reveal themselves to you subsequent to recording them?


St. Victor: There are times, not specifically on this record, where I can hear my subconscious later. I feel the other layer where it may have come from. I’m not sure on this particular record if there’s one of those on there. I have to look at the titles…ah, oh yes. “He Loves Me”. Peter wrote that one but it definitely has many layers to it. The fact that it’s a woman talking about a man loving her and how difficult that may be for them both, for her to accept and for him to deal with. It’s a man writing for a woman to sing that....it’s a many-splendored song!



The opening lyrics of which…


St. Victor: They’re deep, man.


...they’re like a 2x4 hitting you.


St. Victor: No doubt. When I first heard it, that’s what it felt. I was like, “Wait a minute, is it a statement about me? You want me to sing that?” [laughs]


Peter, was Sandra the muse for the song?


Lord: One of many muses!


St. Victor: I don’t like being part of a crowd!


Lord: I think I might have just been getting out of a relationship or I was still in the aftershock of a previous relationship with somebody.


So Sandra, what did you use as a reference point to attack the song?


St. Victor: Experience, and very much knowing Peter and where he’s coming from. I know these guys. I know what emotion they’re looking for when they write something. Just yesterday we had a rehearsal and it was like, we could do this in our sleep almost because the chemistry, musically, you can’t touch it. Nothing will change that piece of the relationship. When I heard the song, I knew where he was coming from and I could absolutely dig in there and get to the space.


Peter, was “Bang Bang” written with Sandra’s voice in mind?


Lord: I hadn’t made a point to talk about it in an interview yet but you can be the first interview about the point of that song. We should have put “Bang Bang (A Song for Michelle Obama)” as the title because I picture her singing that song and people coming at Barack Obama. I have the idea for that video if we ever make it. It’s just imagining Michelle Obama singing a song about protecting her man.


Maybe I’m just hearing things, but is there a reference in that song to Sarah Palin?


Lord: Not exactly but yes, a little bit. “The miniskirt gangster”. I don’t think she came to the fore but I remember looking at the lyrics the other day and thinking, that’s what I meant! It’s not about her but definitely her ilk. I wasn’t thinking initially about her but it might have been a Fox News reporter of the same description.


This is the anti-Tea Party album.


Lord: Yeah, even though the artist is probably a Tea Partier. I love you Jeffrey Scott but you’re politics just ain’t right!


Shifting to “Destination”. I love the lyrics to that, especially, “On the detour is the Boulevard of Fools / There you were on the corner of Miracles Passed Due.”


Lord: That’s why my wife married me after I sang that to her! I sang it to her when I proposed to her. I’m a romantic.


What I want to ask about “Destination” is, let’s say ten years ago, what was the destination for each of you individually?


St. Victor: Ten years ago…That’s a really good question. The bottom line was that was the point where I had decided, “Screw the record companies. I’m going to do this independent thing. I’m going to do it myself. I’m going to do what I want to do musically”. That’s kind of exactly what I’m doing. It came to fruition. I never was saying I want to be a superstar. I never really said that. I just always wanted to do music that I honestly felt. I remember in 2000 saying, “I’m going to make a record that I feel like making”. I want to finish my life singing passionately, honestly, from the gut without compromise. That’s the road I’m on.


Smith: It was a real turning point for me. I just moved from upstate. Actually, I moved in with Sandra for a second. I went through hard times with my marriage. I knew music was going to be part of my life forever because it was all I pretty much had ever done. Like Sandra said, I definitely wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do. To this day, I keep myself out of situations that I don’t like. I’d rather make a little less money playing because I know it’s better for my health. In reality, there are people out there making tons of dough but they’re messed-up health-wise, emotionally.


Lord: I think I started on the path of…One of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles was that a lot of my creative focus was going towards writing for film and television, not music, but screenwriting and directing, creating my own series and shows. Just expanding the stories I wanted to tell. At the heart, I’m always a writer and it comes back around to music because, now, music is three-dimensional. How people connect to music is so visual. I did a couple of musicals, screenplays, and TV shows, some with music, some without. I knew ten years ago that that was the direction I wanted to go, in terms of a main focus for my career. 


Now “Never” is a song that references two years ago: when Obama won the presidency. I’d love to know where each of you were when it was announced that he won.


St. Victor: I was in my living room watching with one of my only black girlfriends in the Netherlands. I said, “You got be here. I can’t do this alone. If he loses, I’m going to fall out”.


Lord:: I was in New York.


Smith: I was with my mom.


Lord: It was just a very emotional experience for me. I felt, like everybody else, the hope but I knew the backlash was coming, which is where we are now.


St. Victor: Did you notice that when he walked out after Michelle and the kids came out, his face was totally different from all the confidence he had on the campaign trail? When he came out, and the whole audience was roaring, I was like, Oh my God—he knows. His face looked like, “Damn—I almost wish I didn’t win”. So many of the same people that were screaming and cheering for him were probably cussing him out in less than a year. Some of those same people were going to turn on him. He knew. They thought he was Jesus. They expected unreasonable things from one human. It was like, what did you all think he could really do? He doesn’t have a magic pen to just wipe it all away.


Lord: There’s a system in place and to some extent you have to realize he had to be part of that system…


St. Victor: Of course!


Lord: ...or he never would have gotten elected.


St. Victor: You don’t knock down the Clinton dynasty unless you’re entrenched in something.


Lord: It reminded me a little bit of that movie The Candidate (1972) when Robert Redford won. He’s in the back of the limousine: “You’re the winner.” “Huh?”


Smith: At the same time, if I remember correctly, didn’t Obama’s grandmother die the night before? The night before he won, she passed away.


Then, to see where we are now, and what the Glenn Beck’s have to say….


St. Victor: It’s amazing. Where are they from?


Smith: It’s all a show. Half the time I don’t even believe that they believe what they’re saying.


Lord: I agree with you but they know their audience. That audience has a very concentrated funnel of information that goes to them. That 45% of America is very clear. The other percentage is kind of a little bit all over the place in terms of where they get their information because they’re more intellectually discerning so they’re going to seek and question. A lot of these other people though weren’t reasoned to the position they have and you can’t reason them out of it. They’re not dealing with logic.


That’s like what Nona Hendryx wrote about in “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh”. That song reflects how strong the influence is.


St. Victor: Yes. How frightening is that


In a way, I feel like Obama’s presidency has really brought out people’s ignorance.


St. Victor: Absolutely. I saw on The McLaughlin Group...The NAACP passed a unanimous resolution to try to make the Tea Party own up to the racist elements within it. McLaughlin’s question was, “Has the NAACP’s resolution set back race relations in this country?” I’m like, excuse me! It’s bass ackwards. You’re not looking at the source of why they have to do that. You’re in denial. You’re just going to ignore that there any real racist elements in the Tea Party and blame the reaction for setting American’s race relations back.


Lord: They get us arguing about a false premise.


St. Victor: I changed the channel.


Lord: What’s frustrating about television is that there is basically one person who says all the things I would want to hear or say. It’s Rachel Maddow. She is just so intellectually superior to anybody else in the media that the right wing or anybody of that ilk is afraid to even speak to her.


Smith: She calls them out.


Lord: I saw Joe Scarborough just walk off camera. It kills me that people who are “intelligent” have this gap in logic.


St. Victor: Like Jeff says, I don’t think that the really intelligent ones believe it but they know how to manipulate the system and work with the words. You’re not stupid, you’re just playing!


Lord: They showed the Republican talking points. They showed the whole brochure of how they should approach their constituency to fundraise. For people who are of a certain intelligence, and you’re trying to get money, you just feed their ego. For others, you use wedge issues…


St. Victor: They go to the lowest common denominator of their base and unfortunately that’s a very large percentage of our country. They coral them with these false premises and wedge issues. It’s maddening. I find I do have to step back and look at it more from a transcendent perspective otherwise I’m consistently edgy.


I was going to ask how living in Amsterdam has informed your perspective on things in the U.S.


St. Victor: Their system is much different than ours. It’s not a two-party system. It’s really like a committee so it’s hard for one little faction to do what the right-wing or the left-wing tries to do here. It’s hard for that to happen, really. They really do have to take a real vote within the committee. Sometimes, the government freezes. They say the government fell down. What do you mean the government fell down? They literally stop and then nothing happens. They’ll discuss it until they’re blue in the face and a lot of times things don’t get done. Being there gives me a much better perspective on Americans and how we’re perceived and why we’re perceived the way we’re perceived around the world. Sometimes, there are very good things about the perception and sometimes there are some embarrassing things and I understand why that is. We are asses sometimes, as a country.


Smith: It’s arrogance.


St. Victor: Yes, it’s arrogance. This whole thing about, We’re number one. We sound like 12-year-olds when we say it. It’s not a game. I understand you’re proud and happy to live where you are. That you can say but to denigrate every other culture and society is really asinine. We totally got off the subject, but that’s part of the Family Stand too!


It’s okay. I think the song “Story” actually ties-in a little bit in terms of what we were saying about the media: “Got a deadline at six we need to be on. Make up some details later. We need to come on strong. OK, now you be the front guy and we’ll surround you with people who never ask why”. What circumstances led you to write that?


Lord: A number of the things that we’re talking about plus connecting the story of Donovan Drayton—Ronny Drayton’s son—and how misinformation is spread and put on the news. There was a particular case about something that happened within some government department where things were turned around…it might have had to do with Dick Cheney and one of his minions…


St. Victor: You mean Satan? [laughs]


Smith: I think people can convince themselves that whatever they say, they believe. It could be bullshit and they know it’s bullshit but they convince themselves. Then you have a lot of people that need to be led so if somebody has the balls to put that bullshit out there, they know that there are people that are always going to follow.


You had given Rob Fields a quote about how In a 1,000 Years is about “our refusal to be discouraged by the false definitions and marginalization that others may have tried to impose on us”. That quote made me think about the song “Definition” and how interesting it is that people perceive you a certain way and then suddenly that’s real to them. It’s a powerful song because you’re calling that kind of mentality out.


Lord: As a group and a band, we’ve suffered from that. Actually, let me be more accurate. They didn’t try to marginalize us, they were successful. On one level they were successful. We’re still making music that is true to ourselves so they weren’t successful in that sense. Loose Ends had a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman who sang so we were like Loose Ends. Then, since we were a rock band, we were like Bad Brains. Or, my favorite one is the Prince comparison. All of us are around the age that Prince is so that means we grew up loving Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone…


St. Victor: Just like he did.


Lord: ...James Brown. Maybe we had a little less James Brown than he did and a little more Stevie Wonder but people don’t listen to Tom Petty and say, “You’re a Bob Dylan imitator”. The Family Stand? “Oh they’re just this, that, and the other”. And the thing about our albums being all over the place? The Beatles could do “Twist & Shout” and then “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The problem with the power of power is that—and this is true of a lot of artists who happen to be black within film, music, television—we’re trying to make a living but the problem is that so many of us are just happy to be here. “I’m on TV, I got a record out”, but they don’t want to say anything special, they don’t want to be about anything else. At a certain point, you write a great song or make a great record, but the rest of it is politics and logistics and support.


I wish there could be more awareness across the board.


Smith: Like you said, it’s about getting the support. For instance, on our last album we had a ballad. We weren’t thinking about it being a single. It was just buried but it happened that the person that Peter was involved with got it in a show on television.


Lord: It was “I Thought We Had”. It was a great beautiful song. Someone happened to love it and had a chance to get it to people. The thing is when something doesn’t “succeed” in the eyes of the public, they don’t care about the story. It’s just, “You won? You lost? I know it? I don’t know it?”  At least we haven’t made VH-1’s “One-Hit Wonders”. They kind of can’t do that because we had hits with other people.


St. Victor: I wouldn’t mind being on Unsung, though. There’s this BET website that was asking, “Who would you like to see on Unsung?” People answered, “The Family Stand”.


I didn’t even think to ask you this because in a way, everyone has talked about it. Because you did grow up with music being presented in a certain way as a complete work on an LP, do you feel like something’s lost now with people being MP3-oriented and playlist-oriented?


St. Victor: Certainly


Smith: It might be lost to us but to them? They don’t know.


Lord: If you think about it, music comes from the ether and it’s now returned to the ether as something intangible. Yeah, something has been lost.


Now is now and you should move on and music should evolve as well as ways to experience it but at the same time, there’s something about really absorbing it…


St. Victor: Something tangible.


...this [holding CD] is not an accident. It was put together with thought. To that point, one of my favorite moments on here is the Bach piece. Is that you playing the flute, Jeff?


Smith: Yes.


Artists use to do things like that. Blood, Sweat & Tears had a classical interlude on their album. That’s what this reminds me of. What was the catalyst?


Smith: What happened was, I was in the studio laying down a guitar part for another song with Ben Tyree. He was warming up his guitar and he was just playing that so I said, “What is that?” He said, “That’s Bach. We had to play that in school”. I said, “Look I’m going to lay it down for our project”. Usually on all our albums, I have an instrumental but here I did something a little different with the classical piece. That’s the range of how we think when we’re making music.


It’s a flute and guitar duet. That’s Ben playing guitar?


Smith: Yes, Ben Tyree.


The fact that it comes after “Happy Together” on the album is just perfect. What prompted the cover of “Happy Together”?


Smith: You know I play with the Soulfolk Experience. We were doing a gig somewhere and they were playing music so that song came on and I just like the way that song goes from happy to dark. It keeps going back and forth. I made it really hard at the end. I like the brightness and darkness of it. We never actually did a cover on any of our albums but I thought it would be a really good time for us to do a cover.


St. Victor: I think it’s a really good choice.


Smith: When I originally heard it that night, I went straight home and started working on the track. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the track.


It works in the whole context of the album. Tell me about your approach in selling the album through BandCamp.


St. Victor: Rob Fields from Boldaslove. That was his idea. It’s a simple tool that everybody can reach out to. The set-up and logistics of it are simple. You can’t say “pay what you want” on iTunes, so you have to do that on your own personal website or a place like BandCamp, which everyone kind of knows about. It makes our whole idea about this record a whole lot simpler.


Lord: We were ready to go in terms of the music but it was everything else that needed to come together. Rob Fields has been completely instrumental in getting us together, also David Pilgrim who did the graphic design did a fantastic job. Actually, the way it kind of came together was like a label. The way it’s been organized has been purposeful in terms of the logistics.


Smith: What I like about Rob is that he’s passionate about us and the project. That’s really important for us to get someone…


St. Victor: That cares!


I know you have the show at Southpaw in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Are there plans for other appearances anytime soon?


St. Victor: 25th September at BAM Cafe for me. The Family Stand? We’ll have to see because we’re about to disperse again into our corners of the planet.


Smith: The trick for us is going to be how to keep it going. What happened with Super Sol Nova was we made a little splash and then we dispersed with people waiting around. We’re constantly in a situation where we have to start all over again. With Facebook, we can kind of keep talking but people still want to see you.


Another facet of the release is that one dollar from each sale of the CD goes to the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Does that have any personal resonance?


St. Victor: Jeff just lost his mother to cancer. I lost my mother to cancer. We wanted to give back with the project. This album is not a get-rich-quick thing. This album is about music and we want the focus to be on the music, so the money that does come in, we want to make sure we hand some back to things that are in need. We could do all kinds of things on this planet. We can go to the moon but we still can’t cure cancer. We can’t get rid of roaches and we can’t cure cancer. These are strange things to me that they still exist in the society that we live in.


The last question I have for you—for the people that only know “Ghetto Heaven”—how does that song reverberate all of these years later?


St. Victor: I know when I do it, and I think I probably perform it the most, I always have to flip the song to keep it fresh. I have to find a way to make it feel fresh to me. When I hear the original, or the remix that became the hit, it feels timeless to a certain degree but in my head, I still hear people saying, “That was Soul II Soul, right?” No! It was the Family Stand so I don’t want to be reminded. I try to flip it and make it feel more us. Lyrically-speaking, and the melody, I still think it’s a great song.


Smith: You can put any kind of remix behind it, as long as you have the lyrics and the melody, it’s timeless. You can do that forever.


St. Victor: I think we’ll always be able to make it feel new and fresh.


Smith: That’s what’s important about writing good lyrics and good melodies. People always want to sing, no matter what. Even if they can’t sing, they want to sing!


St. Victor: I remember we had just had a meeting with the label [Atlantic] and they heard the whole record. They said, “We love it but we don’t hear any singles”. We were pissed. When you challenge us, specifically Peter, he goes for the throat!

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