The dB’s Write a New Chapter to Their 34-Year Story

Photo courtesy of the dB's/Facebook

In 1978, four Winston-Salem, N.C. lads migrated north to find that their quirky-but-commanding power-pop sound fit in just fine with the more tuneful side of the New Wave scene that was just hitting its stride in New York City. Co-fronted by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, the dB’s became linchpins of the emerging Hoboken Sound, alongside such Garden State provocateurs as the Feelies, the Bongos, and the Individuals. Their first two albums, Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1982), weren’t huge sellers, but they were mini-masterpieces that defined the era and made the quartet cult heroes.

After Stamey split for a solo career, Holsapple led the dB’s through two more albums before finally calling it quits in 1988. While pursuing his solo path, Stamey simultaneously established a production/engineering career with partners like Mitch Easter and Scott Litt (both of whom had produced the dB’s pals R.E.M.). Holsapple became an auxiliary player for R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish, and joined the Continental Drifters. At a couple of points over the years, Stamey and Holsapple reconvened briefly for duo projects, but now they’ve reunited under the dB’s banner for the original lineup’s first new album in 31 years, Falling Off the Sky. With a new chapter in the dB’s story opening up, Stamey and Holsapple look back over their long history together and apart.

Backstory: The Winston-Salem Years

Peter Holsapple: I met Will [Rigby, dB’s drummer] when we were eight years old, but Chris I think I met when I was probably in fifth grade and he was in sixth. I used to see him coming out with his viola case from string lessons at school and I think at that point I was starting to learn upright bass. Somehow I figured that he was an intimate of Mitch’s [Easter]. When Chris finally got a bass, there was this queue of people who said, “He’s in our band!” I got him to play with me and a couple of other people when I was in, like, ninth grade. That lasted for about four months. [The band] was called Ice, I think. Then I went off to prep school, and when I came back I rejoined Chris with Mitch and a guy named Bobby Locke, and we had a group called Rittenhouse Square. We actually made an album in 1972, people that have never heard it like to consider it a collector’s item. It’s a heavy record — heavy riffing, heavy guitars, heavy drums. At that point we were listening to a lot of Yes and the Move and Mott the Hoople. It was a little bit before Big Star entered the picture, because that was a total turning point for us.

Chris Stamey: I had been in a lot of bands in Winston-Salem, many with Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple, but always just playing bass. Sneakers was the first real band that I sang and played my songs in, and that I played guitar in. My big influences for that band were the Kinks and Television, whom I’d seen play in New York City, although they had only released one single; also, the first two Big Star records. Mitch was a “session man” on the first [Sneakers] record. Then he joined for some live shows. Then the band disbanded and it became a name for some home recording he and I did together.

PH: Chris had heard one [Big Star] song and went out and got the record and fell in love with it, and he turned everybody onto it. We all just thought it was superb. I think actually hearing that confirmed that we could do stuff that didn’t have a lot of guitar solos, and was kind of Beatle-informed. We really liked that, we really liked the first record by the Dwight Twilley band, we really loved the Raspberries, Blue Ash — there were a lot of groups like that around the same time.

CS: I was indeed a fan of the Big Star records. Through [Big Star leader Alex Chilton’s] label at the time, Ork Records, I was hired to put together a band for him for one promo gig, on Valentine’s Day, 1977, as I recall. And we hit it off, and he stayed in New York City for over a year, playing club shows and recording up in Connecticut some. The dB’s formed in order to play a few shows promoting a single I’d made with Richard Lloyd, from Television. We cut a b-side together and kept it going after that release. Later, Peter came up to New York City and joined us.

PH: The dB’s had been together for about three months without a keyboard player, and they said, “Do you want to come up and audition?” I’m still waiting to hear whether I passed the audition or not. I moved to New York with them in 1978. I got there two weeks after Television did their last gig, so I was miserable that I missed that.

The dB's on Avenue A, early 1980s. Photo: Stephanie Chernikowski/

The Hoboken Sound

PH: They were doing some covers, mostly Chris’s stuff, and then Chris said, “Well, you have some songs too.” So we started learning those. We rehearsed for a good long while and then we played a show for Halloween with the Fleshtones and the Zantees …we were just not very good, so we rehearsed a lot more. Both Chris and I lived in Hoboken for a while, in the same house, although we lived on different floors. There was a big article in the New York Times about Hoboken, and Glen Morrow, who runs Bar/None Records, decided that was the day he was gonna leave Hoboken, so I got his half of an apartment, I was paying like 98 bucks a month, I think, something absurd.

CS: New York City has always had a magnetic pull for artists, seems like so many pass through it, trial by fire. I’d been going up in the summers and had seen the CB’s scene developed, and it was something I wanted to be a part of. Honestly, although I lived in Hoboken, I was never sure what the Hoboken Sound was, but there was a lot of hanging out at Maxwell’s and recording at Water Music, both located there. We still felt a part of the greater New York City-area scene, and not just Hoboken.

PH: [Hoboken had] lots of bands, a couple of places to play, groups like the Bongos and the Cyclones … a record store, Pier Platters … Steve Fallon at Maxwell’s kept the scene going. It was very encouraging, and it felt good to play there.

The British Invasion

CS: The [dB’s] records came out in England first, on a label called Albion. We played the punk clubs and felt some solidarity with that DIY movement, but were not as naive, musically, as most of our fellows; also, sometimes we reached beyond our playing abilities, so not all shows were successful. It was fun, though.

PH: I have to admit that our live experience wasn’t always sterling — Chris and I had sort of fragile voices; musically though, we pummeled ‘em. The essence of it was the songs were really great and that’s why people are interested in us today, because the songs still hold up today.

We got some very nice reviews when [1980 debut single] “Black & White” came out, and we got action from New Musical Express and Melody Maker in England. Chris and I signed with [Albion’s] publishing company, and then they said “Well, you’re not putting anything out, why don’t you put a record out over here and then we’ll get you a tour.” We toured with the Raybeats over there, and came back and toured with Dave Edmunds. We tried our best to make inroads there to possibly influence getting a record out in the States but it still took us years to get one out. We played in England, had a great time, and we come back home and we’re hauling our gear around in shopping carts and taxicabs.

Watch the dB’s perform “Big Brown Eyes” in London, 1981:

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