Two chapters stand out in the retelling of popular music in Winston-Salem: doo-wop and R&B’s great overlooked band the “5” Royales and second, the crystalline pop rock made by Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Mitch Easter and Will Rigby in various combinations. The dBs and, to a slightly lesser extent, their predecessors the Sneakers taught rock bands in the ’80s that music could be winsome and smart while also bold and unexpected. The dynamic between Holsapple and Stamey in particular was a sort of good cop-bad cop rapport; Stamey, always the quirky one, turned ever more so as Holsapple immersed in straightlaced, grown-up exposition.
Now, with the release of his latest solo record Lovesick Blues, it’s Stamey who is the introspective, attentive one, having created a record that doesn’t so much as play as stir in the mind of the listener. It’s a lush, almost cinematic inquest into the facade of his Johari Window, set to subtle, but rapturous arrangements. Stamey will present Lovesick Blues at SECCA in his one-time hometown of Winston-Salem this Saturday, where he’ll be joined by his Fellow Travelers, a 20-piece army of classical, pop and rock players that will include renowned Kernersville producer and early collaborator Mitch Easter among member of the Old Ceremony, Mayflies USA and Lost In the Trees. YES! Weekly caught up with Stamey to talk about the album, his show and his Camel City roots.
Y!W: Though a lot of your work has been attached to New York City, this show looked upon as sort of a homecoming. Were there any important markers in the city that impacted the kind of artist that you’d become?
CS: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Winston was unusual in that there were a lot of church “coffeehouses,” fellowship halls that opened on weekends to young bands, who were then free to play music they’d written themselves. Nightclubs were not at all receptive to anything other than mimicking the hits of the day, but at the coffeehouses there were no musical restrictions. There were also a few key musicians in town who were really good and would show the rest of us how it worked; Personally, I’d include Don Dixon, Sam Moss, Mitch Easter, Dale Smith and Ted Lyons on this list. We were all influenced by the freedom of ’60s music in general, both in the US and in England, and the fact that we had places to play in public to try things out was golden. Looking back, it seems like a renaissance time. There was both creative competition and camaraderie.
Y!W: It’s been my impression that most of your work has been predicated on the belief that there’s no pop song that can’t be perfected through guitar, bass, drums and vocals — why now start to channel your inner Sondheim and Bernstein?
CS: I grew up listening to the romantic classics and the Great American Songbook. Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin…. and then in the ’60s fell for the psychedelic textures of treated electric guitars. And although not so much a Beatles fan, I always liked that combination of electric guitars and drums and strings and winds, the “I Am the Walrus” George Martin side. My first solo records for A&M had many of these textures on them (e.g. “The Seduction,” “It’s Alright”). Really, your take might be more true of everyone else in the dB’s more than of myself. I have never really been satisfied by only guitars and drums for very long, I doubt I’ve ever made a record that didn’t have something more in the mix somewhere. But in the last few years there has been a mingling of “classical” and rock players in the Chapel Hill area, started perhaps by the band Lost in the Trees, with even some of the NCSO folks getting in volved.
Being around great musicians makes me want to write for them.
Y!W: Other than the Big Star Third project, has there been any other collaboration between Mitch and yourself since the early days?
CS: Mitch and I work on stuff together all the time, but usually on other people’s records. I did a string arrangement for him a few weeks ago, he plays guitar on things for me, we “consult” back and forth. It’s a constant. I trust his judgment, always. He’s been a great player since he was 14 and a great studio cat for decades, and we’re friends. I played bass in Let’s Active for a while, he toured with the dBs as soundman, I really can’t remember a single year when we didn’t do something together.
Y!W: A lot of people are probably going to say that this album doesn’t really kick in until “You n Me n XTC”, but I see that song as a bit of a welcome anomaly — a reason to really peg the meter on an otherwise contemplative record. It addresses the topic of bonding, while also bonding the record itself together. Was that the intent of its placement?
CS: I was trying to make an album that you could play late at night.
Not one for all times of the day. But when it was done, I took a deep breath and moved the pieces around until I thought they worked best. I was using a record called The Ballad of Todd Rundgren as a touchpoint, and had remembered it as a consistently moody record — but when I went back and actually played it, I realized I was wrong. It really rocked for about half the time! So I thought it would be okay to have a rockin’ mix on this record, in the end. What’s been really fun is playing “XTC” with just string quartet and piano — it can rock as much with much less, I’ve found.
Y!W: The dB’s have some vinyl coming out on Record Store Day. Any details?
CS: The RSD EP has four songs: “Revolution of the Mind” (our MC5 tip of the hat you might say), “Lakefront” (a spacious ballad of Peter’s), “Orange Squeezer” (a nod to the effects pedal we used to use so much) and “pH Factor” (live in Chicago), an instrumental we always play at shows. It has a beautiful cover by Ron Liberti, as well, and it’s on orange vinyl. And it’s pretty fierce.
Y!W: Given the logistical perils of a band this size, are there plans to take it on the road? Is there a “rangier” version of it?
CS: In addition to the full “chamber-rock” scores, I love playing these songs with just acoustic guitar and a few string players, and there is a written version of it for just string trio and my guitar playing. In fact, I’m playing this in a church with the Tosca String Quartet at SXSW, a few days after the big concert at SECCA, and I just got back from playing around NYC with cellist Jane Scarpantoni (her resume includes Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, REM, lots more). The thing about written music is that I can take the full concert “on the road” by flying by myself and then meeting local players when I get off the plane. Every time is different, but it doesn’t rely on memorization. It’s a bit odd, though, like making a movie and then writing the play.
Chris Stamey & his Fellow Travelers will perform at SECCA on Saturday.