This summer guitar-pop avatars the dB's released Falling off the Sky (Bar/None), not only their first album in 25 years but also the first in three decades with founding guitarist, singer, and songwriter Chris Stamey. The two classic LPs the band released in the early 80s, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, would influence countless future groups with the sweet-and-sour push-pull between the classic melodies of coleader Peter Holsapple and the wobbly, off-kilter tunefulness of Stamey (the latter is a bit reminiscent of Alex Chilton, with whom Stamey played before launching the dB's). After leaving the band in 1982, Stamey began an erratic solo career (his first album since 2005 is due early next year) and became a successful recording engineer; he founded a studio, Modern Recording, with dB's and R.E.M. producer Scott Litt. In both arenas he's distinguished himself with meticulousness unmarred by cold perfectionism.
Stamey was interviewed by Rick Rizzo on October 29. The day before, Stamey had barely made it out of New York (where he'd played a few gigs) ahead of Hurricane Sandy's calamitous landfall. Rizzo, a founding member and primary songwriter of Eleventh Dream Day, is Chicago rock royalty and one of the most explosive, emotional guitarists anywhere in the country. —Peter Margasak
It sounds like yesterday was a blast.
Yeah, well, at least we made it out. It was a long day, and it was kind of weird, because my wife and I were on different airlines and I lost my cell phone. But we had relatively good luck—Brett Harris, who sings on the dB's record and plays with us now, is stuck in New York. We're kind of worried about him.
Were you all playing there, or what's going on?
I did a show of my own with a string trio and then played at a benefit for the Jazz Foundation, which offers emergency medical assistance and funding for musicians who all of a sudden can't pay their rent or who have to have an operation.
To transition a little bit, I was reading the press guide that came with the CD, and you were talking about North Carolina and how this is the first dB's record to be recorded in North Carolina. You said that's something that you're proud of, and I was wondering about geography. Do you think it's important to your sound?
We're all southern musicians and grew up liking music from around the world, but when we were growing up, the Allman Brothers were the thing, and we resisted that. Also, famously, Big Star was doing things in Memphis. The dB's formed in New York, in the CBGB days, and that was a big part of the "why" of the band—but we're all from here and do feel like we're part of what's happening down here.
Even today there's a great scene going on in North Carolina. A lot of the folks can read music, which is freeing because you can write parts, and a lot of the 20-year-old players around here seem to know everything that happened, for example, in Muscle Shoals. You mention a Gene Clark record, and they know it. There's a guy named Jeff Crawford, who's also played with Peter [Holsapple] and me a bunch and has produced me, and he's doing great things. When we were growing up here, Don Dixon had started to produce, and of course Mitch Easter was doing really cool things, and there were a lot of great players—but we skipped a couple steps. We were in New York for years. It's wonderful to be back in North Carolina and have it coming alive.
I know a lot of people who did move from the south—they were friends with Rick and Sue, Sue Garner and Rick Brown [both of Fish & Roses and Run On].
Yeah, I saw them on Friday actually. They came to my show.
And my friend Tara Key [of Antietam] is from Louisville, Kentucky. I went to school down in Lexington. So my formative punk years were in a little town in the south.
You know, there's a great singer from Kentucky that I did stuff with two weeks ago named Cheyenne Marie Mize, who also has a degree in violin or something. So Kentucky has got some stuff going on.
Yeah, well you ended up in New York right in the thick of things in the 70s. You mention Big Star—how did you end up meeting Alex?
I would be interested in not overemphasizing the Big Star side of things; I don't hear that so much on the dB's records myself. I guess my feeling is that—I think about Eric Clapton. If you'd heard "I Shot the Sheriff," you might think Clapton was a reggae artist. It was something he loved, and he had this huge hit. But the dB's have catholic influences—I mean, we used to play "(Let's Make It Real) Compared to What" for half an hour at shows. George Jones. There's so many things we all loved. And I'm not trying to get on you at all.
I never really saw the dB's as connected to Big Star, in terms of a common sound. There's definitely some DNA that runs around, but I think we all had it, just as record collectors and fans of a lot of garage music.
I think collectively we're often surprised by being called a power-pop band. You know, any port in a storm, but that's not really the way we thought of ourselves. I mean, we were playing shows with Arto Lindsay and jamming with Richard Lloyd.
Definitely, your version of pop—well, I have the first Sneakers record, and it is not a slick record. And for 1976, to sound like you sounded seems kind of unusual. People were making—I guess it was the beginning of some punk-rock stuff, but I don't know how much that was influencing you. Or maybe it was how much money you had to make a record. It's definitely pretty rough pop music.
I think that before, you always had to go through filters, you know—you had to go through A&R levels. And I was interning, or assisting Don Dixon on shows, and he recorded a traditional band down here who just took the tape and sent money to Nashville and they ended up with records. As crazy as it seems, that was kind of mind-blowing. We didn't know that was legal, in a way, and so we thought, "We can do that." And the Sneakers record was made with no filters. Well, Don Dixon produced it as best he could in the few hours we had. Nobody stopped us. And maybe today there are a couple—you know, I wish I wasn't sick when I had done all the lead vocals, but that's the way it goes.