Interview: Peter Holsapple Identifies as an “Omnicana” Musician, Talks About Model Cars, His Concept Album, and the Disappearance of Credits

Interviews

Peter Holsapple is a career musician who was a member of both the dBs and the Continental Drifters. He was a touring member of R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish too, having recently done some shows with the latter.   The dBs put out an album in 2012, and now Holsapple is releasing a solo album, Game Day (Omnivore), available this week. Talking with Peter Holsapple is like a dancing through a brilliant wry field of mental poppies. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Holsapple’s new album will be available by CD and download.   We talked about the fact that there are many choices for ways to buy music right now. Holsapple says: “I am told I am classified as a new artist. At the age of 62, it’s nice to be new somewhere. The audience for this new artist is considered to be those who still buy CDs and downloads.” We talked about the digital experience. He comments that: “The biggest problem with digital “progress” is that they’ve taken liner notes away. The so-called “meta-data” doesn’t exist anywhere in the ethernet. Nobody is looking to see if this person played harmonica on this album, and also played it on another album. So people are really missing out on significant information. But of course this is what I spent my entire youth doing, playing on albums.”

Holsapple has stumbled on a personal pet peeve for this interviewer, so it takes a minute to finish chewing on this topic. This is a real injustice, when people don’t get credited for their contributions, and it’s a challenge for anyone who wants to cover artists’ work, especially when it’s new. But as it turns out, Holsapple reports that on this album he has simplified the problem of searching for credits, because only three people other than he himself have played on this album at all, and he’s played over 99% of it:   “There’s one vocal by Susan Cowsill, and my son Webb Holsapple played horn on one song,  “Not Right Now,” and Jeremy Boomhower came in and played horn on another: “Them Changes/SingLady Sing.”

Holsapple jokes: “I don’t play well with others.” Amid my protests, he clarified: “it’s just that it’s hard to trust other people to do what the songs require. And that may have come from living so long in New Orleans. Because there are no rehearsal studios in New Orleans, everybody wants to just play together. Most people just show up and jam. I mean, there’s a lot to be said for a town where you’re driving down the road and you see a kid walking along with a trumpet case. You don’t see that in every town. There’s a lot to be said about a town where there’s music in the air every place you go; if you just open your car windows, you can hear it. It may be the calliope on the steamboat, or it may be some kids banging on buckets in the French quarter. There’s so much music I don’t think people feel like there’s a need to rehearse. The thing is, in the Continental Drifters, we were ex-pats that ended up there, so we did rehearse, but after awhile we had regular gigs and had guests come in, but it became homework, not like we needed to get things just right.”

“You have to have that implicit trust in musicians that they will play the right thing on your song. And I’m a little bit protective of my stuff, so it’s hard. I was very fortunate in my life to have been in two bands where I could get that across and they’d make it better. Because other times people will say “I’ll just do ‘this,’ but ‘this’ wasn’t what I wanted. ‘This’ makes the song sound like Little Feat, not Big Star, and that’s a line that can’t be crossed.“

“I’ve got a 3-piece band now, Peter Holsapple Combo, with a bassist Glenn Richard Jones, and Will [Rigby], from the dB’s, is playing drums.  Glenn is great and he is up for all my suggestions. So this is good. I’ve never been a band leader before either, so I’m learning how to be sweet about things at the same time I am standing on his neck. But now with this band we can pop out and play and have the songs be right.”

How did this album come about after twenty-one years, I was wondering. I wanted to know whether it happened all in a flash, or whether he had been quietly amassing a sound catalogue. He traced the album’s evolution: “After Hootie and the Blowfish stopped touring, I started working at a theater in Durham, called the Durham Performing Arts Center, as a management assistant. I was just a middle-aged musician and the manager there gave me a job because I could type and had a brain in my head, which was handy.” (laughs)

“And somewhere in the midst of this, there was a podcast that was active for a few years called Radio Free Song Club (click these bolded words for information). This was a nice collection of people, with a woman named Kate Jacobs, a singer songwriter and children’s book author; Nicholas Hill who was a disc jockey for WMFU for many years and he also was road manager for Victoria Williams; a music director named Dave Schramm who worked with Yo La Tengo and a group called the Schramms. They called me up to ask if I wanted to write some songs. I had also just finished up doing an online irregular column, Measure For Measure, with the New York Times, which was a Songwriter’s Blog. Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, and some other really talented people were part of this blog, and somehow I was doing this too. (laughs) Part of that time was spent dissecting writing a song, and as I was on tour with Hootie and would sit in places like the Wolf Trap piano rooms, and would work on songwriting. Somehow during that process I had demystified it to the point that I had severe writers block and couldn’t write a song to save my life.”

“And I’ll admit that in the Continental Drifters I had gotten very lazy because there were so many songwriters, I didn’t have to turn in nearly as many; you had 6 or 7 people writing great songs, I had to get in line. Susan (Cowsill) had blossomed into a brilliant songwriter, and Vicki Peterson wrote great songs, and Mark (Walton) and Robert (Maché) wrote great songs, and the others too, so I wasn’t in fighting shape. So after the Times column was over, Kate got in touch for the Radio Free Song Club, and she rattled off the other people involved: Peter Blegvad, Jody Harris, Laura Cantrell, and songwriters whose work I really admired.  Peter Blegvad did that song “Daughter.” [Holsapple sings to jar my memory: “that’s my daughter in the water.”] He was in the bands Slapp Happy and the Golden Palominos, and he’s done all this artistic illustration and comics. So I started writing then, and more stuff started coming. And after that, which was 32 episodes, now I had all those songs.”

“And the dBs had gotten back together for an album in 2012: Falling Off the Sky (Bar/None).“

Forces were clearly aligning for Holsapple to create a solo album. He talked a little more about the overall uniqueness of Game Day. “I wondered if I could do a concept album. Whereas the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds dealt with all the angst and depression of adolescence turning into adulthood, I was thinking ‘why can’t I do something about adulthood turning into middle aged depression and angst and turning old?’”

“So I started looking at some of the songs I had, and I wrote a couple more, and then I thought nobody knows who I am, nobody has heard of me. So I put out a 45 last year, called “Don’t Mention the War.”” This song is included with album purchase of Game Day.   Holsapple continued: “I did that myself with a couple local guys in Durham, and did all the artwork and press coordination and stuff myself. That was the beginning of my middle aged Pet Sounds.”

“I’m a luddite, I still think in terms of an album. A single isn’t enough. And then I thought where am I going to put this? Chris Stamey, my pal and bandmate from the dBs, got started with independent records when independent records were really new, and I just remember that being a headache for him.   So I thought who would be a good label to take it to? And Omnivore had done such a good job with the Continental Drifters reissue a couple years ago, and they’re friends of mine.   So I asked them, and surprisingly enough they said yeah, they’ll do that.”

“My daughter, Miranda Holsapple, took the cover picture, she even managed to get the Mystery Machine (from Scooby-Doo!) in the back of the picture, so that was nice. My son, Webb Holsapple, took the inside photo [of Holsapple in the helmet].”

Game Day is named after the opening track “Game Day,” which is a really great song. Holsapple talked a little about it: “It’s not glory days, it’s game day right now. There’s questioning going on: am I up for this? Do I have the stamina and the interest?“

“And after hanging around with the Hootie guys for 25 years the sports metaphor is always present somewhere. (laughs) Even though I don’t have a sports gene in my body, I thought it was apropos. It is Game Day. I want to go out and play, I honestly, in the face of people with worldwide success, I am hoping that just a few fans will come out and listen.”

“It’s an odd sounding record but I get the feeling that it’s something different. And the style feels like putting on an old pair of jeans.”

On the album, Holsapple tells long stories, lyrically. “I don’t have an editor,” he laughs, “but I also am used to writing articles. So I am trying to find unique ways to say things. For example the song “Commonplace” is a sardonic thank you note to a girlfriend I had in college.  She was abusive to me and I tried to seek help in an abused women’s clinic and they basically laughed and didn’t help me. I have read that she had recently parted ways with the person she was with after me. I haven’t been in touch with her since we were in Chapel Hill in the mid 1970s but I just thought, everything she thought I couldn’t do, I ultimately did. She thought being a musician was a subhuman tendency.   She had me quit playing, say goodbye to my musician friends and get into elementary education, and I couldn’t do it. But when you’re young and in love, you can do some incredibly stupid things.   But there was enough pain and sorrow that I was able to use for at least a couple of the dBs records. You know, so I thought this song could be a thank you note for that.”

 

“Lyrics to me are the hardest part of writing a song. Music, I got, although I’m also not going to be the guy who’s going to do the same 4 chords everybody has been doing for the past few decades, you know the “1-minor6-4-5” thing. I like to make the chord changes be smart. My 10 year old and I have been listening to Arthur by the Kinks, and what a perfect example of great songwriting that album is, with its little twists and things, and little parts that’ll come in. And in “Mr. Churchill Says,” the air raid sirens come on in the middle of the thing, this is neat to me. I like to make an interesting song. I’m less interested in making a popular song.“

He gave an analogy for musical songwriting: “It’s like when I was a kid and I’d make model cars, and then I would take them apart and put the pieces in a box, so by the time my family moved out I had a huge moving box full of car parts and not very many cars.   But I could put together cars out of those parts, and I did that and I’d admire them for awhile and it’s sort of the same way with the parts of songs.   I might desperately need a bridge, and I’ve got an old bridge sitting around that’s still pretty stable — I can just use this.   I’m the conservator of these parts, and I feel I am supposed to do things with them. I’m supposed to assemble them or leave them alone, and I’m supposed to have the good sense and ability to tell whether something is working or whether it’s not.

“I look at songs I’ve written over the years and that have shown up on albums. And I think they were immediate and great from the get-go. “Amplifier” for the dBs is one of those, that all came to me on a walk down Broadway from 38th Street to where I was living on 2nd street, and just going straight down Broadway. And it was at a walking tempo, and it just all started flowing out, and I didn’t have a pencil so I wrote it all down when I got there. And it came to me part and parcel, all together.”

“But there are other songs, like from the dBs record that we did for I.R.S.: “A Better Place.” I had had great hopes for that song. There were a lot of open notes and stuff, but by the time we recorded it, we had done so much to the poor thing, it had been beaten and stretched and canned and extracted and shaved and reconstructed, and now I can’t even listen to it, it’s so belabored, and you can tell. It feels that way.   I think that the best songs are the ones that come naturally. I’m sure there are writers who write every day and work on parts of the song and get that fixed and then move on to another part and get that fixed.   And that’s great, but for my own skillset, I can’t do that because I lose interest. I have a short attention span. If it doesn’t hit me right away I’ll put it aside for something else.”

We switched gears and started talking about the Americana genre of music.   I was searching for an inclusive definition. Holsapple mused: “I am only tangentially related to the genre. I saw the dBs as a sort of a pop rock group. I mean you can call them new wave, or power pop, I suppose. And the Continental Drifters had songwriters from New Orleans who were writing kind of swampy stuff and so that was more Americana. I am not sure how Game Day fits in with what I think of as Americana. I mean if you think of Americana as limited to red and white checked table cloths and that lettering that looks like boards are nailed together, then I am not sure my stuff fits.”

“As far as the country aspects of Americana music, I appreciate what those artists are trying to do, because what passes for country music today is just those 4 chords and the “Red Solo Cup” stuff. That stuff doesn’t get me. I’m sure it gets a lot of people, but not me. I mean look, you can’t deny that the Daisy Dukes and the guys in their pickup trucks, these people exist and they need music too. But we have a new radio station here in the NC triangle area, that’s 95.7, and this area is where Guitartown, the online chatroom, started, and Ryan Adams is from here, and we have brilliant players like John Howie Jr, and Tift Merritt, who are Americana. I like the idea of Americana that can cover a wider swath of musicians. I mean, if Richard Thompson can be labeled Americana? That’s pretty broad. I think we could define the music here, and my music, as “Omnicana” (laughs) I’m going to refer to myself as an Omnicana artist from now on.

What’s on the horizon for Peter Holsapple? “I’d like to make more records.   I’ve already got Willis Alan Ramsey beat… after he put out one his self titled album in 1972, and never put out another one, he still says: “what’s wrong with the first one?” Willis is great and if he never puts another out I’ll still be playing that first one of his. But I’d like to keep making more.”  Get Holsapple’s new CD here, and check out his tour dates too.  https://omnivorerecordings.com/shop/peter-holsapple-game-day/

2 thoughts on “Interview: Peter Holsapple Identifies as an “Omnicana” Musician, Talks About Model Cars, His Concept Album, and the Disappearance of Credits

  1. Great interview! I’m Jimbo Martin. I was the drummer in the band Mercury Dime back when. We were a five pc fronted by an extremely talented cat named Cliff Retallick . We did two records during that period co produced w Mitch Easter… Baffled Ghost & Darkling. We were right there w Whiskeytown , two dollar pistols…! P.S. Peter’s B3 case w Hootie was mine…. my other band Museum was very tight w Hootie! Small world!

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