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The dB’s: Tar Heelers in the Big Apple

Ahead of their new reissues, we spoke with founding members Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby
Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder of The dB's photographed at the Hideout in Chicago, October 17, 2005. (Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/via Getty Images)
Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder of The dB's photographed at the Hideout in Chicago, October 17, 2005. (Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/via Getty Images)

Two critically acclaimed albums from the dawn of the alt-rock era have long been found in the U.S. only as imports. But new vinyl reissues of the dB’s’ Stands for deciBels and Repercussion will make these influential albums available for modern audiences. Ahead of those releases (and live dates in support of them), founding members Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby spoke with SPIN.

North Carolina likes to claim the dB’s as its own. And while it’s true that all four members (Holsapple, Rigby, Chris Stamey, and Gene Holder) are originally from the Tar Heel State, The dB’s have always considered themselves a “New York band.”

That perspective has much to do with how the group came together. Songwriter and guitarist Stamey was born in Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, but by his early 20s had moved to New York City. There he connected with former Big Star members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. He launched an independent record label, Car Records, and released Bell’s single “I Am the Cosmos.” He also played live dates with Chilton.

The DB’s at the Metro on September 18, 1987 in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Paul Natkin/Wire Image)

Before moving to NYC, Stamey had been a member of Sneakers, a band that also counted Rigby and Mitch Easter (later the leader of Let’s Active and co-producer of R.E.M.’s early releases) among its members. And even before that, in 1972 Stamey had been in Rittenhouse Square with Easter and Holsapple. So when the dB’s came into being, the band members were already well-acquainted with each others’ musical skills and artistry. 

But back to New York City. “Chris had moved up there at the end of ‘76,” recalls drummer Rigby. “In 1977, I was not playing; I was just kind of sitting around. Chris asked me and Gene to come up in the Spring of ‘78.” The idea was a modest one: playing a few gigs together. The plan didn’t extend beyond that. 

Once the North Carolina rhythm section arrived in New York, they quickly realized that merely playing “just a few gigs” with their old friend wouldn’t be enough to keep them occupied. And all three agreed that they needed a fourth member—on keyboards, the thinking went—to round out their sound. 

Enter Holsapple. “I had been playing with Mitch in a band called the H-Bombs in Chapel Hill,” he recalls. “Alex Chilton was ostensibly the producer of note on some recordings we did at Trod Nossel Studio in Connecticut.” A serious Big Star fan, Holsapple decided that it might be fun to move to Chilton’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. “And it was an excuse to get away from college,” he admits with a laugh.

The dB’s perform at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on June 15, 2012. L-R: Chris Stamey (guitar), Peter Holsapple (vocals), Will Rigby (drums) and Gene Holder (bass), the keyboardist is the backing musician Brett Harris. (Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/via Getty Images)

Holsapple says that what he found was “not much happening.” He did work variously with Chris Bell, and with Chilton and Sam Phillips Studio engineer Richard Roseborough. “Richard took me under his wing, and we recorded some stuff,” he says. Those tracks wouldn’t see the light of day until many decades later when released as 2018’s The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton.

But Holsapple wasn’t happy in Memphis. “It was miserably hot,” he says. He made regular trips to the library, leafing through weekly copies of The Village Voice. “I kept seeing ads for Chris Stamey and The dB’s,” he says. “They were playing these shows, and I was like, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be interesting to go up to New York?’”

As luck would have it, right around that time Holsapple received a telephone call from Will Rigby, who told him, “Chris is interested in having a keyboard player. Would you be interested in auditioning?” Yeah, he would.

“I drank myself stupid the night before I left, “says Holsapple, who today is many years sober. “I got up to New York; Will met me at the airport.” After a quick shower, he replaced his puke-stained shirt for a clean one and went with Rigby to the audition.

On arrival, Holsapple found that Stamey had set up a vintage Ace Tone combo organ, a cousin to Vox and Farfisa keyboards that produced a distinctly retro sound. “Chris showed me some songs,” he recalls. “And it appeared that I had passed the audition.” Pausing for effect, he adds, “But I never got it in writing; we’re still waiting on that.” 

Holsapple says that his entry into the dB’s was a natural fit: “These were people who I knew from growing up in Winston-Salem for most of our lives.” They all shared a sort of common language, musical and otherwise. “It was a lot easier than trying to join a band that was a bunch of New Yorkers,” he says.

The new four-piece dB’s played their first gig in late October ‘78 at NYC’s Irving Plaza—part of a four-act bill with the Fleshtones headlining. But, Holsapple says, “unfortunately, we kind of sucked.” An audience tape of the show reveals that he’s overstating the case a bit; the band is audibly nervous, rushing through the tunes, but they don’t quite suck. “We could play circles around a lot of bands in New York,” Holsapple says, “but our vocals were… highly tentative.” Nodding in agreement, Rigby adds, “We had a bit of a reputation for equipment problems too.”

At Irving Plaza, the dB’s tore through a dozen songs, including covers of Bobby Lewis’ 1961 hit “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today,” an old Sneakers cut (“What I Dig”), and Holsapple’s “Bad Reputation.” But even though Peter had one of his songs in the set, he understood from the start that the group was envisioned primarily as a vehicle for Stamey’s songs. “I was always under the impression that I was to be the keyboard player,” he says. “We would be doing Chris’ songs.” 

Yet the transition to a more balanced arrangement came about without conflict. “The way I remember it,” says Rigby, “is that Peter was going to start his own band; there would be two bands. But it quickly became, ‘Let’s do Peter’s and Chris’ songs.’” He emphasizes that he was in favor of the one-band arrangement, but he cautioned Stamey: “There’s going to come a time when there are too many songs because there are two songwriters.” That time did come, but not until a few years later. 

The group befriended Television manager (and CBGB regular) Terry Ork; he planned to release a series of singles: some by Holsapple, others by the dB’s. “But the project quickly turned into, ‘Let’s just make an album,’” Rigby says. When the band failed to interest any domestic labels, they headed to London and secured a deal with U.K.-based Albion Records.

Recording with co-producer Alan Betrock, the group cut songs for their debut, Stands for deciBels. Released in January 1981, the record was an immediate hit… with critics. A review in Trouser Press observed, “Few pop records are as consistently aurally interesting as this without resorting to gimmickry.” 

Few listeners in the U.S. heard the album at the time. Holsapple believes that the music was right—in other words, commercially viable—for the time. “We didn’t seem too far afield from something accessible,” he observes. “But the fates would have it that we didn’t get it released in the United States. And that was problematic.”

Peter Holsapple performs during the Artist2Artist Benefit For Homeless Veterans at The Office on August 5, 2017 in Athens, Georgia. (Credit: Chris McKay/Getty Images)

A similar fate would befall the dB’s second album, Repercussion. Released months after the debut, it too earned rapturous reviews, earning a place among the era’s best and most influential albums within indie-, college- and/or alternative-rock.

While the U.K.-pressed Repercussion did technically receive a U.S. release, today it’s very rare to find a copy in the wild stateside. Stands for deciBels and Repercussion would eventually get domestic release on I.R.S. Records, nearly a decade after their creation. But those releases would be on CD and cassette only; today they too are long out of print.  

The dB’s would land a U.S. label deal in 1984, releasing Like This on Bearsville. But by that point in the band’s history, Stamey had left for a solo career. The Holsapple-led group would go on to achieve a bit of commercial success, but by 1988 the dB’s called it a day. Lifelong friends, all four founding members remained on good terms: as a duo, Holsapple and Stamey made two (again, critically acclaimed and modestly selling) albums, and in 2005 the four reunited for a pair of shows. In 2012 the dB’s came together once again—this time in the studio—to record and release Falling Off the Sky. That album and the handful of supporting shows maintained the defining qualities that made the dB’s exemplars of smart, arty yet accessible pop.

In celebration of the long-awaited domestic vinyl release of Stands for deciBels on June 7 (and, later this year, Repercussion) on Chapel Hill-based Propeller Sound Recordings, the four—Holsapple, Stamey, Rigby and Holder—will come together once again to play select concerts. The mini-tour will kick off with a performance at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh; other dates in major markets are to be announced. 

At the time of this interview, Stamey was sequestered on another project, but he did offer his thoughts on Stands for deciBels. “Coming back to this record now, I can hear that although I was still several years away from hitting my stride as a songwriter, Peter seems fully realized,” he says. “The musical and lyrical vocabulary is economical and precise, and the band’s performances and sonic detailing (smashed light bulbs, whispers, backward reverbs) match the intent most closely. And underpinning it all, Will and Gene are agile, lively, and attentive at every turn. I’m proud to have been on board for this.”

The dB’s certainly would have liked to have found wider success back in 1981, but Holsapple and his band mates take a long view. “We didn’t plan on being collectors’ items,” he quips. Decades on, he doesn’t seem to have hurt feelings about the low profile of those first two records; people who heard them loved them. And the dB’s are in good company. 

“Hey,” he points out, “Our record collections are filled with bands that we love but that didn’t sell squat.” 

The dB’s tour dates:

9/7/24  Hopscotch Festival. Raleigh, NC

9/13/24. Atlantis Washington, DC

9/14/24. Johnny Brenda’s. Philadelphia PA

9/15/24. White Eagle. Hoboken, NJ

10/11/24 Amsterdam Bar and Hall  St. Paul, MN

10/12/24. Old Town School of Folk Music. Chicago, IL