“For two guys who aren't siblings, we really mesh very well. I'm really big on two-part harmonies,” says Peter Holsapple, talking about the new record he's made with longtime musical collaborator Chris Stamey. Best known as the acclaimed songwriters of the dB's, the two have returned some 18 years later with a new album, hERE and nOW.
How does that approach to harmony work in today's musical landscape? Holsapple half jokes that it may make him “an enemy of today's hot Nashville country sound, with the automatic third part layered in electronically, or by well-paid session singers. But I'd infinitely rather hear a duet. Two-part harmony leaves something to the imagination.”
Holsapple and Stamey grew up in Winston-Salem, and might be best known for moving to New York City and forming the jangly dB's in the late '70s. As members of that group, the two offered a clever, accessible modern take on power pop. Friends since their teen years, each stayed busy before, during and after the dBs era: In the late '70s Stamey played with Alex Chilton, then formed Sneakers with Holsapple and Mitch Easter. After the dB's went on seeming permanent hiatus, Stamey released a couple of solo albums, then concentrated on producing at his Chapel Hill studio.
After the dB's, Holsapple developed a career as an in-demand utility man: He played and toured with REM and Hootie and the Blowfish. He also joined New Orleans-based Continental Drifters with then-future (now-former) wife Susan Cowsill. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Holsapple moved to Durham.
Amidst all of these projects, Holsapple and Stamey found time to record and release 1990's Mavericks. The acoustic-based (yet electric and sometimes rocking) album has become something of an underground classic — popular on college radio, difficult to find after the demise of the RNA label and finally reissued last year.
Now the duo has reunited to follow up that album. Released last month, hERE and nOW builds on that disc's strongest elements: chiming guitars, clever wordplay and close harmonies.
But why such a long wait? “Eighteen years is a long time; there's a whole generation of listeners that has come and gone since then,” Holsapple says. “But,” he laughs, “we wait for the cycles to come around again.”
Stamey adds, “we began it right before Katrina. When Peter had to relocate from New Orleans, that really put things on hold for a bit.”
Holsapple is well-known for his clever turns of lyrical phrase. “I would be lying if I said it wasn't intentional. I enjoy wordplay; I have that terrible gift of being able to see anagrams where other people see a block of letters. And If I can make someone laugh once in awhile, I will.” The song “Early in the Morning” includes this line: "Read to me the obituaries / but if we're not in there then we'll see…" Holsapple explains: “I read the obituaries while I'm making coffee. Because I'll certainly make a smaller pot if I'm in there.”
“I love words,” Holsapple says. “The New York Times crossword puzzle helps keep my brain sharp. And considering all the things I've done to my brain over the years, any sharpening that I can manage is a help.”
Holsapple allows that “'Early in the Morning' is pretty autobiographical. I used to be the party boy who'd stay out all night long. But I've really grown to appreciate my more tempered domesticity.” Right on cue, Holsapple excuses himself briefly to take a call from his daughter.
Holsapple and Stamey have long been making accessible music, and that's been translating in a variety of venues. “I did kids' shows for a long time in New Orleans,” Holsapple says. And he learned something from those gigs. “You can have as highfalutin' lyrics as you want to have, but I don't know too many kids that wanna sing along with Leonard Cohen. Believe me: I love Leonard Cohen, but he's not the guy I'd book for my kid's birthday party.”
The new album rescues Family's 1972 song “My Friend the Sun” from undeserved obscurity. But Holsapple insists it's not all that obscure after all: “Apparently if you go on YouTube, you'll find that it's a very popular drunken British singalong.”
Though they'd love to see hERE and nOW shift millions of units, they're realistic. Stamey points out that “We both grew up starting to make music in the late '60s. And the whole idea of 'winning the lottery' with music wasn't really part of it. It was an honorable tradition. Nowadays there's an idea that if you get just the right MySpace position, and do a video, you can make a ton of money. But the reality of it is: Most musicians and most writers don't become wildly successful. The reason to do it is that you're drawn to it, because you love it.”
[Bill Kopp is an Asheville-based music journalist whose features and reviews can be found at www.musoscribe.com.]
who: Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, with Jeffrey Dean Foster opening
what: Acclaimed pop songwriters
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, July 10. 9 p.m. $10/$12. www.thegreyeagle.com