Chris Dorn interviews Chris Stamey (Saturday, April 23rd, 2005, Minneapolis)
It was the summer of 1987. I had just graduated from high school and my buddies and I had started a band. When we weren't practicing or playing Velvet Underground covers at the Teen Center, we would scrape together enough gas money for a road trip up to the Twin Cities in Chris Knott's beat-up VW Rabbit he affectionately nicknamed "Vince" to spend as much money as we could buying records.
I bought plenty of great records that summer: Big Star's "#1 Record/Radio City" and "Sister's Lovers;" Love's "Forever Changes;" Skip Spence's "Oar;" Husker Du, Soul Asylum, and Replacements singles. But the record that really changed me was the dB's "Repercussion."
I couldn't believe that records like this were still being made (even though it was 5 years old at the time); it was fresh, yet crafted; arty, yet heartfelt, smart without being pretentious; melodic without being predictable--incredibly musical. I was in love. Chris Stamey was one of the dB's two amazing songwriters. While Peter Holsapple provided effortlessly melodic material that seemed like it had just been plucked out of the sky, Chris Stamey's songs were the history of pop taken apart and put back together again. I listened to that record over and over. And I've listened to pretty much everything those two songwriters have done ever since--most of it pretty great. And I'm still amazed that they haven't received more attention.
In a lot of ways the dBs seem to me to be like the Shins--only 20 years before the fact. (And indeed I've always wondered if "...wearing tennis shorts made of stripes" from the Shins' "Turn a Square" is a direct nod to "dressed in stripes" from the dB's "Dynamite.") And the dBs have been a big influence on my band, the Beatifics, as well. (I've copped some lines from dB's songs too--in an attempt at a post-modern homage.)
For those interested, the dB's story is best told by Holsapple himself as "The dB's:What Happened?" in Spin's "Alt-Rock-O-Rama," and by drummer Will Rigby on the dB's official website, thedBsonline.net, and the two-fer collection of “Stands for deciBels," their first record, and "Repercussion," remains an absolutely essential must-own.
So it was very exciting that I got a chance to chat with Mr. Stamey, himself, over dinner at Quang's in the "Eat Street" district in Minneapolis on the evening of his recent Minneapolis show at Lee’s Liquor Lounge. Last year Stamey released the first two records he's made in over 10 years, and this was his first performance in Minneapolis since 1991, having spent the last 10 years producing records by the likes of Le Tigre, Whiskeytown, Ben Folds--the list goes on and on.
In the car, before the interview tape started rolling, we had talked about how he plans to stage a live version of Big Star's Sister's Lovers, going back to the original orchestral scores and with or without Alex Chilton's and Jody Stephens' involvement (although he has discussed the possibility with each), telling me that that record, like "Smile," has kind of a life of its own, how Alex doesn't like to play those songs anyway, and how everyone thinks of that record as tossed off but the original string arrangements are very meticulously thought-out.
We also talked about his high school band, Rittenhouse Square, which featured Holsapple and Mitch Easter in which he played bass but didn't write songs and why their lone record will never be reissued, before moving on to a wide array of subjects including his approach to recording, producing yourself, the birth of the dB's and working with people like Mitch Easter and Alex Chilton...
A transcript of the interview conducted by Chris Dorn (with David de Young) follows.
On Recording and Production
Chris Dorn: It's really exciting that you're making records again.
Chris Stamey: Oh, thank you. I've made a lot of records every year, but they're not mine.
CD: (laughs) So how has that changed your approach, spending so much time working on other people's records?
CS: When I started producing again in about '93 ... I got really interested in Pro Tools which --you know there's a lot of evil connotations associated with--but I found it very inspiring that you could hear things as you think of them. It excited the musicians I worked with. I think that's a big difference from when I was making records in the '70s and '80s. That technology--I think it's great. I don't think the records I've made with it sound "computer."
CD: Do you use Mitch's [Mitch Easter's] studio a lot? The Fidelitorium?
CS: Yeah. And in New York there's this place called Water Music
CD: I know you've recorded a lot of stuff there.
CS: Yeah. You know I used to work with engineers who were being thrown into the deep end doing everything themselves on a lot of projects. I'm a lot more knowledgeable [now], my ears are better in terms of miking, I think, than they were.
CD: So with Pro Tools, do you have the HD setup?
CS: No, I'd like to. I've got a Mac-style, "Old World" setup. But I've got Apogee converters. And I'm careful with it.
CD: Do you ever get out the old TEAC (4 track reel to reel). What is it? 3840?
CS: It's in the room all the time. I think the one now I've got is a 3440.
CD: Do you still use it?
CS: No I don't use it. I look at it.
CD: I think the stuff you did on it--the stuff that came on [the collection of dB's demos] "Ride the Wild Tom Tom"--and also the Sneakers stuff that was recorded on that sound fab.
CS: Thank you.
CD: To veer off to another subject ... One thing I've been amazed with--in hearing some of your [early] live recordings and different demos is how worked-out that stuff was before you actually went in and recorded it ...
CS: Are you talking about the dB's?
CS Those players--all of us--wanted to take pride in our arranging and performing and would work for a long time. I think there was a lot of elbow grease that went into it. I mean, not that a lot of other bands don't work hard at it, but there was an "esprit de corps" about doing complicated things by memory rather than razor blade.
CD: Do you think now with Pro Tools that arranging is something that you don't think about as much before the fact? Or because you've spent [such a long time] working out arrangements that it's still something that's ingrained in your working method?
CS: It depends. I mean, the recording I did of Whiskeytown wasn't really about arranging--exactly. And it is true that after the fact I'd go in and say, "You know we really don't need that rhythm guitar here," or whatever. I did a record with a band called Hazeldine and the photographer came over and took these Poloroids to see if the light was right. And then shot so much film, but the only ones that were any good were the Poloroids. I mean they were good--but they weren't "the images." And so, recording on tape you're typically economical about it. But I've made so many records out of run-throughs where the song had just been written when everybody was really on fire about it. And often not only are those performances more exciting, but they're often more accurate. And more to the point. Just better in all kinds of ways. However, rarely do I get a chance to participate in the arranging. It's just kind of going down on the fly.
CD: Were your last two records recorded in that same kind of manner?
CS: Yeah, but I really wouldn't talk about my last couple of records in terms of my production, because I don't really consider I "produced" them. I mean, I would have done it much better (laughs) if I were the producer. I mean, you can't produce yourself. I really think that it's just impossible.
CD: You've produced yourself on a number of records.
CS: Yeah but it's a terrible idea. It's only because record labels know that I can, [that] I keep getting stuck with it. I would love to have a producer.
CD Who would you like to work with?
CS: Oh, I don't know. There's a million good people. Scott Litt's great. John Agnello I like a lot.
CD: I don't know him.
CS: Agnello was an engineer at Record Plant. He did Dinosaur Jr. records, Eve Six. Drive By Truckers, I think he mixed. Steve Wynn records. He's really good.
CD: What do like about working with Scott Litt?
CS: He's just got a lot of soul. Producing is a job--a multi-task job. You don't have to be in love with music to do it. You just have to get a record done on time and get good performances, but you don't have to have your heart fill with joy when something amazing happens. But that's what the good people do--they try. Scott's great. And he's got that in him. The good people can recognize when magic happens, and that's elusive, you know, someone will be making coffee, and you don't really rehearse it.
CD: One of the things I got from your website is how much you believe in trying to achieve that timeless, classic stature, and how important it is to get it right.
CS: Yeah I've got to look at that website. I have no idea what's up there now. It was so long ago.
David de Young: I think he's referring to what you said on the Record Production page about what you try to do as producer, not using a gimmicky sound that's going to sound dated in 6 months.
CS: Yeah in the last couple of years--maybe it's because everybody's got a digital camera but the term "date stamping" is what people use for being afraid to use reverb du jour on a record because you can easily go back and see how that screwed up some of your records.
On the birth of the dB’s
CD: How did it happen that [Peter Holsapple] became a contributing songwriter in what was essentially, originally your band?
CS: Well that's kind of out of the context because I'd been playing with [Peter] since 7th grade. For the people in the dB's, it's a continuum of all these different bands, it's just that one band, since we were in New York, got written up more, and recorded. But everybody knew Peter was great. He was in Memphis ... not really having any fun, I think. And we said, "Do you want to come up and play with us" for what might have just been a couple months. I don't know what the real plan was. It's obvious Peter's great.
CD: Oh yeah, and Mitch Easter too. For all that talent to come out of one place [Winston-Salem, NC] Love the stuff. In fact, I'm surprised that you and Peter and Mitch haven't worked together.
CS: Yeah Mitch's superpowers are a little overwhelming for us mortals. You know, he can do anything. He'll play any instrument better than anybody. And his songs are amazing. I recorded a lot of stuff with him. Every 3 or 4 months we'd make another--what we'd call albums. We'd do all these complicated things on the 4-track, and finish them and pad them on a reel-to-reel tape with a different funny picture on the front and try to get a record deal. And we'd do this over and over again. So I've recorded with him a whole lot. Just not anything that's ever been released.
DD: With your next album, November, are you going to be taking a different direction from what you did with A Question of Temperature/V.O.T.E.?
CS: I don't know. I'm still writing a lot of songs about death, but I think they're a lot more about sex…if that helps. But it was done with a band called Roman Candle, which is a great band and has been tossed around on different labels. Now they're on V2. And I think the record's probably going to come out this summer. It's my collaboration with them. Roman Candle is these two guys [featuring brothers Skip and Logan Matheny] from Williamsburg, North Carolina, that are just amazing together. The drummer in particular is a phenomenon, Logan Matheny.
DD: So, you won’t be working with any of the Yo La Tengo folks for the next one?
CS: No, they're not on the new one. That was just like a session for a single that got out of hand. Or we were thinking it would be an EP and after awhile Ira [Kaplan] kept saying, "This is a long EP." (laughs)
DD: I thought that the latest one [Question of Temperature] almost sounded like a compilation of different bands . . .
CS: I was thinking it was more magazine-ish rather than novelistic, but, you know, we were in New Jersey recording and the paradigm there is the Rudy Van Gelder studio on the cliffs. This guy, Rudy Van Gelder, his parents let him record in the living room. And he did the great Blue Note jazz records. A station wagon would pull in around noon and they set up and by 5 or 6 o'clock they'd have an album and it would be 'A Love Supreme" or something. I mean, it would be a really good record! So we were just cutting things live in the studio. It wasn't like, a lot of production meetings or anything. I had some charts and we'd talk about something and go in and record it. So I think that's why the kind of compilation flavor.
CD: It's a fun record. It's very spontaneous sounding.
DD: And the two versions were due to a wish to 'get it out early' to work with the election last year?
CS: Yes. We were going to try to do it just before the election. But this wasn't reasonable. The record company needed some time to be able to get some reviews and stuff. They did go along with putting it out two weeks before the election.
CD: So the new dB's will come out in 2006?
CS: We recorded a bunch of songs in January just to get going but we can't do any more until after September because of other commitments for everybody and, the way things go, it will not come out this year.
CD: I've seen some thing on the dBsonline.net, or other articles talking about how it's the same people who were in the dB's but it's a fresh musical direction, that it's not just going back to the past. How would you say that it would be an extension of what you've done with that group before and how is it a newer [endeavor]?
CS: Of course, Radiohead changed the world and we're still recovering from that. I don't know how to answer that question since the record isn't finished. If I talk about what we recorded and then those songs don't end up on it.
CD: Well obviously [you and Peter’s] songwriting has evolved. And your voices ...
CS: I don't think I've written really differently since I was 8 or 9. Well, or since I was 12.
CD: I'm excited to hear it. I think that Will's a terrific drummer, just a hammer-down rock drummer ... And having played with him a lot, but not having played with him for awhile--I think it would be an exciting way of hearing your songs.
CS: What is worth saying? I think it's certainly about the performing. That's more what we're talking about. I think as your body and brain is growing up that you're breathing the same tobacco-laden air and you're really in the same environment, you grow up being able to mind-meld more easily.
CD: That makes sense to me. There's a synergy that must exist even after not really playing with them all these years.
CS: You know, the odds are so high that for these reunion things that they'll be terrible. [It was] quite great to find such a vibrancy in the sessions. And it will be great if that's maintained, but who knows. As far as the playing--yeah everyone's playing great. Peter's singing really well.
CD: Well his voice has changed over the years--from the early days.
CS: He doesn't smoke or drink or anything. I think his voice sounds more like a kid now than it used to. I think he's had a lot of different voices at different times.
CD: The early stuff I've heard, the H-Bombs, the single that came out, Big Black Truck, he sounded different.
CS: Well he was just trying to do a rockabilly voice. Yeah we made that record with Alex Chilton and then they couldn't pay the studio bill for another project and we couldn't get it. All we had was a rough mix of the rhythm track. So we overdubbed on top of that. I think it might be Alex on drums, but then Mitch added drums to it or something. I'm trying to remember the genesis of that. I love that record. I think that one's never ever come out on CD.
CD: I was told Shake To Date came out in Germany online. It's hard to find. I have the vinyl of Shake to Date. I don't have the single. I don't have any CAR records, which was your label.
CS: Right. Yeah Chilton produced Peter and Mitch. And it all got eaten by the studio. The only thing we had left from them was that one. But it was a cool session. Alex was battling insomnia at the time and would fall asleep under the board, and then he'd kind of wake up at the right moment and say, "Sing it more like Peter Lorre!" I mean, he wasn't asleep the whole time, but was kind of like having a little stoned Buddha over in the corner. He had an impact on the whole session even though he wasn't conscious.
CD: And he produced your solo single, the original version of Summer Sun.
CS: We did a lot of things. They just all got eaten.
CD: Do they exist anymore?
CS: I don't know. It involved GE Smith and Gilda Radner and some kind of Scientology conflict. There were all kinds of levels of what went wrong, I think.
CD: Where The Fun Is [B-side of Summer Sun] has never showed up on any CDs?
CS: No. That's one of my favorite things I've ever done.
CD: I have a digitized version that someone made on a cassette. It still sounds really good.
CS: Yeah I'd written that and did the basic guitar and bass stuff and then Alex went out and did this feedback guitar stuff which was really great. Then he said that he had a theory that the way to get the most out of an analog synthesizer was to chain a chimpanzee to it and just let them--you know--put food on top of it. And so he kind of did that as if he were that. It's probably not that crazy now, but that's my memory of it. He was just kind of going (makes synth, siren noise) without looking at any of the presets on what was probably a Putney, an old-old synth. So yeah, I'm very fond of that track.
CD: It's a great song. So there are more sessions somewhere--from that era?
CS: Yeah, they're probably thrown away.
CD: That's too bad.
CS: Yeah There was a really great version that Alex did of this old song, "I'm Your Handy Man." [by Otis Blackwell and Jimmy Jones] We worked on it all day and thought it came out great. I know it's a crazy choice. But really sang the hell out of it, and we were so excited about this crazy cover and we're driving back in the middle of the night in Connecticut, and, lo and behold, James Taylor's version came on the radio ... and well there goes that. Fame and fortune dashed!
DD: Do you still enjoying getting out there?
CS: Yeah. It's great to play with Anton. I've had the best musicians ... It's been fantastic.
CD: You haven't toured much, obviously, in the past 10-12 years, how have things changed in that time?
CS: Well, cell phones have made a huge difference. And Mapquest! The clubs haven't changed much.
CD: As far as like the whole MP3 phenomenon, and changes and shifts of the paradigms of the record industry, how important is it to tour these days? About the same as it always was? Or is it a different kind of a game?
CS: I think they think that you get press related to a record if you're touring.
DD: Well that's the way the publicists have it set up as they shoot stuff out before people come through town. So it seems to be built in. I'm not sure it has to be that way. But I would think that touring would become more and more important with the paradigm shift that Chris had mentioned.
CS: I don't know. I only know it from my perspective
CD: The only reason I'm asking is that [is that the last time I toured as a sideman] there were way too many shows with 10 people...
CS: I used to go up to New York in the summer. Mitch's dad worked up
there and had an apartment in Greenwich Village, and there were a couple
of summers where I went up and saw Television playing over at CBGB's and
there was nobody there. I mean, the dog, and Patti Smith was there one
of the nights--but it was like four people. I took so much out of that.
It seemed very brave and very musical and it was fantastic that they just
didn't say, "Nah, nobody's here. Let's play this song--and make a
joke out of it. That really influenced me. My bassist John [Chumbris]
was talking about seeing Freddie King in Washington. The same thing--there
was almost nobody at the show and it was no holds barred fantastic. Last
night in Milwaukee--nobody knew we were playing, and, I don't know, there
were 10 people there, but it was really a wonderful experience...