When the dB's first appeared in 1978, the American ideal of power pop was just coming into focus, and the psychedelic Southern jangle of R.E.M. was largely unknown. Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by Chris Stamey, Will Rigby and Gene Holder, and then with Peter Holsapple (who went on to play with R.E.M.), the band's first album, Stands for deciBels, came on like a quirkier, artsier version of Big Star, with sweet harmonies, sun-blinded guitar hooks and a smart-but-playful temperament.
Plagued by label difficulties and inconsistent sales, the dB's dissolved in 1988, though Stamey (who has become an ace producer and engineer) and Holsapple have continued to work together and are plotting another dB's album, with ten tracks completed. The duo of Stamey and Holsapple appears in St. Louis this week, and the former sets the record straight in an e-mail exchange.
B-Sides: How does the dB's story begin?
Chris Stamey: We started playing together in different bands in junior high school, including Rittenhouse Square and Little Diesel. After I moved to NYC and did some time playing with Alex Chilton, I talked my friends into coming north and playing with me again.
The dB's is regarded as a great power-pop band. What about the group is most overlooked?
The dB's scope is more catholic than that of what I think of as typical power-pop bands. Also, we didn't worship the Beatles — far from it, actually. I was quite an Anglo-phobe at that time, personally. We liked American bands like NRBQ and Television.
You didn't appear on the "reunion" album Paris Avenue, but you've remained close with Peter. How has your relationship changed over the years?
We essentially have a two-person band in this duo persona, and we write songs for that "voice," the first collection being our Mavericks record and finally there is a second, the upcoming Here and Now, which we are doing final mixes on this week. Also: Paris Avenue was far from a reunion record; it was just a collection of unreleased demos that a label associated with the band's management released after the band broke up one of several times. No one in the band considers it a reunion record.
You've produced more artists than I could name, from Le Tigre to Whiskeytown to Chatham County Line. In that diversity, do you have an underlying approach to sound?
As far as vocal records go, I try to help the singers to sing their best, and then build the sound around the singing. I like it when there is a tight "handshake" connection or interaction between the lyrics and the music. I also try to make "desert island" discs more than radio discs. Getting on the radio is just about impossible these days, and thus it's a great time to just make music that you believe in. My mentors in the studio include Don Dixon, Alex Chilton and Scott Litt, all very different, but all great teachers.
Can you hear or imagine the arrangement of the song while you're writing it?
I usually just try to get the words, melody, harmonization and tempo in the ballpark — which might include a specific bass line or arrangement ideas. I might have preconceptions about the sound at first, but I try to ignore them later and be open. I do have a good idea of the point or the meaning; I usually don't just ramble on à la "scrambled eggs" ["Yesterday"].
Describe your songwriting process.
Quick and intuitive. I try to get it all in one go. Going back to write that second verse is never as easy as it seems like it will be.
You titled one solo album Travels in the South, and you moved back to your home of Chapel Hill in the '90s. Can you describe your connection, musical and otherwise, to the South?
I am a Southerner; it's in my bones. This is my home.