It's My Life: Peter Holsapple on the Life and Death of the Continental Drifters
Peter Holsapple made some of the best records of the 1980s with the dB's. Then he joined and left R.E.M. Then he joined the Continental Drifters by accident and made some of the music he considers the most important of his life.
"People loved the Continental Drifters," says Peter Holsapple, talking down the line from New Orleans where he and his mates from that very band are preparing for their first live performances in something like a decade. There's a happiness in his voice when he discusses this group, one that never fully found the audience it deserved. If these Drifters didn't reach a million faces they did manage to leave behind a small-ish but impressive body of work.
"But we had the NRBQ dilemma," Holsapple adds, referencing the cult band begun in 1967 known for its eclectic musical choices and jaw-dropping live shows and some controversial lineup changes. "There are people who will say, 'They make great records but you haven't really seen them until you've seen them live,'" he says. "Or they'll say, 'You didn't really see them unless you saw the classic lineup.' We had all of that working against us in the Drifters."
Holsapple became a Drifter when perhaps his highest profile gig, a four-year tenure with R.E.M., came to an end. After having struggling to find and audience with the dB's, the group he'd formed in New York City back in 1978 with his old school chums from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had become serious underground currency but failed to connect with the masses, Holsapple toured, recorded and some say wrote with the Athens, Georgia outfit. But he left the day the band earned a Grammy for its Out of Time LP, and wasn't keen to join another band right away.
"I went down and saw them live and they were great. They had good harmonies, the songwriting was really excellent," Holsapple recalls. "Then they asked me to join and I said, 'No.'"
He had just walked out of one group with members who had deep ties and this, Continental Drifters, had some pretty thick blood too. The tale of the unit's origins can be found in the liner notes of a new compilation, Drifted In: In The Beginning & Beyond.
For those who don't yet have that release in hand, the story goes something like this: Formed in 1991 in Los Angeles in the usual way -- friends, ex-bandmates and jam buddies sewing together some material and looking for a place to play -- the group split up a decade later after a mass migration to New Orleans, some marriages, divorces, and the usual round of problems that are visited upon bands. About 10 players had moved in and out of the ranks by that time -- some of them with serious visibility, others less so, but all with talent for writing and interpreting songs and getting up to plenty of good singing and good playing.
Drifted In isn't a compilation filled with highlights from each of the band's five studio albums, split singles and appearances on tribute albums, although those are represented in their way. Instead, we're treated to alternate mixes, demos and live versions of songs that that have been longtime favorites for many and are new favorites for a few.
The liner notes don't really include the qualifications for being a Drifter but it's easy to imagine that one ground floor qualification was the ability to sing and play more than one instrument. Founding members Gary Eaton, Ray Ganucheau, Mark Walton, and Carlo Nuccio all did.
In the two-disc set's liner notes, Walton offers that there were never intention of being "a serious band," though it quickly became exactly that. Dan McGough came into the picture on keyboards and the new outfit landed a gig at Club Lingerie, the venerable Hollywood nightclub that shuttered its doors just a few years after the Drifters first took to the stage there.
But Club Lingerie wasn't really the place to catch this band. Instead, the group looked elsewhere and, through a series of friends and favors, wound up with a residency at Raji's, a club that had welcomed everyone from The Mentors to Beck to GG Allin to Los Lobos and beyond to its stage. In the new collection's liner notes, Walton recalls that the Drifters "wouldn't have been a band" without that venue. The Continental Drifters played there every Tuesday night save one for the duration of 1992.
The individual members had roots in cow punk and the paisley underground with interests that ran deeper still, from NRBQ to the American spirit of the Band to English folk of Fairport Convention. And this eclectic mix of players was about to get more eclectic still with Holsapple entering the picture.
He'd been working on songs with his then-wife Ilene Markell and Nuccio. It was Nuccio who first extended the invitation for Holsapple to visit Raji's where McGough, who'd been playing keyboards with Markell in another project, was already on board with the Drifters. Although he initially declined the invitation to become a band member, he said he'd sit in on keyboards as time allowed. But that didn't last long. "Pretty soon I was sitting in every week," he says. "Danny got busy and I got his gig."
The Raji's residency had its charms but the band was a hot one and eager to get somewhere else. So studio sessions for an album, released in 2013 under the title 1993, began. Somewhere in there Susan Cowsill (of The Cowsills) and former Bangle Vicki Peterson were if not entirely in the band then so close they might as well have been.
The record features an embarrassment of riches from Eaton and Nuccio as well as Holsapple's "Invisible Boyfriend" and provides some clues as to the group's live charms. Whatever politics prevented its release in the 1990s aren't evident when one listens to it today and some might say that the group's 1994 self-titled release bests that long-unheard debut. By the time that record hit shelves there were some serious changes afoot.
Ganucheau wanted to go home to New Orleans and for a moment there was talk that the group would stay together even if it meant being based in two different cities. Cowsill and Holsapple were by then a couple and expectant parents and decided to relocate. Walton opted in and Peterson came along, although she was somewhat reluctant at first. Eaton stayed behind to raise his son in Los Angeles and the outfit moved forward, although not without its share of problems.
"We moved to New Orleans and everything kind of blew up in our faces," Holsapple says with a laugh.
Ganucheau started to have health problems and Nuccio was becoming increasingly enamored of drugs. The former had to drop out of the band while the others, including new guy Robert Mache, showed Nuccio the door. By 1998 the band recorded what is arguably its finest hour, the album Vermillion, which Holsapple calls, "a great record" and clearly his proudest moment in the band's history. "I've been listening to all this stuff and I'm still astonished by how good Vermillion sounds. It's really, really wonderful."
With fine songs such as "Way of the World", "Spring Day in Ohio", and "I Want to Learn to Waltz With You", it's impossible not to be seduced by Vermillion's charms. The record achieved cult status in the U.S. but the band found sure footing in Europe and became a sought-after live draw.
"I had more exhilarating moments -- both onstage and off -- with the Continental Drifters than anything else I've ever done," he says. "There were nights when it was like standing naked in a field during a massive thunderstorm and screaming at the top of your lungs."
But internal frictions, some of them reportedly there from the start, began to take their toll. Holsapple and Cowsill saw their marriage fray and break. "It was very difficult for us and very difficult for the band," he says.
Vermillion's successor was 2001's Better Day, a record that bore an optimistic title but in retrospect was probably too optimistic for the bumpy ride the group was on. The public wasn't as keen on it either.
"It had some great songs on it but I don't think it was as widely accepted as Vermillion," Holsapple says, "why that was is hard to say."
The group couldn't tour Europe in support of the LP and by the end of the year, one also marked by the release of Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson covers EP titled Listen, Listen, drummer Russ Broussard and Cowsill, who by then had started a relationship, had left the band. By mid-summer 2002, there was no longer a Continental Drifters. "We had tried to do a couple of shows," Holsapple says, "but it didn't have that same vibe."
The 1993 band did get together to play in New Orleans for a kind of one-off but nothing really stuck. A group of players who'd shared the stage with Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, and others packed it once and for all.
Holsapple played on a variety of recordings and even got together again with The dB's again, which resulted in the first album since 1987, 2012's Falling Off the Sky. He also teamed up fellow dB Chris Stamey for a gorgeous duo album, hERE aND nOW.
It's apparent that the dB's have never been far from Holsapple's mind and perhaps that's as much a testament to the band's staying power as it is to the friendship he has with the other members of that band. He met the others while they were all youngsters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He, drummer Will Rigby, bassist Gene Holder and Chris Stamey had all grown up there and had known each other for most of their lives to that point.
"We all found each other because were in the same school," Holsapple says, recalling that he and the other future dBs were tracked into academically advanced classes and, for the most part, segregated from the other students.
"We were all in close proximity to each other and all took up instruments at the same time, so that was really cool." Later, they'd migrate to New York City and form the dB's. "I was living the dream as they say now," he adds. "I was doing what I wanted to do: I was 22 and playing in a rock band in New York. I had a girlfriend. I had a job at a record store. What could possibly be better than that?"
The group recorded a series of highly influential albums, including 1981's Stands for Decibels and 1984's Like This.
A lesser-known item in the catalog is Christmas Time Again!, which is credited to the dB's & Friends. Originally released in 1986 as an EP the record has been reissued a few times in subsequent years; a new, 2015 edition adds Robyn Hitchcock, Jeff Tweedy with Wilco, and Birds and Arrows to the party in the nine years since the album's last release.
The dB's material on that album was recorded at the time of the final album, 1987's The Sound of Music and featured, until the 2015 edition, the Holsapple composition, "O Holy Night". "We decided it needed a little airing out so we took it off this year," he says.
Obsessives can also rejoice in the re-release of the self-titled EP by Sneakers, which featured Winston-Salem wunderkinds Rigby, Stamey and Mitch Easter just a few years before the formation of The dB's and Easter's equally impressive Let's Active.
They've all come a long way since their days in the relatively isolated Winston-Salem of the 1960s and 1970s. So far, in fact, that at least one of that original dB's crew isn't sure that he's even part of the music business anymore -- none other than Peter Holsapple. "You might say that I'm on the other side of the world," he says.
"I'm in a spiritual Timbuktu. You must understand that I'm doing it as a sort of part-time job. I do shows with Hootie and The Blowfish with whom I've played for 25 years. When they call I go. But having been party to all the industry stuff with both The dB's and the Continental Drifters, my inclination to stay well is to stay away from that stuff. It's always been odious and contemptible. It's always been strategically positioned to fuck the artist. Playing music is still fun but you can't depend on it for anything. If you try to be professional with it you find yourself inextricably bound to the commerce and you're going to have a hard time keeping your family afloat. So, there it is. That's my life, you're welcome to it!"