"I'm not sure that an album is the way to present things anymore," says Peter Holsapple. He ought to know. Over the last three and a half decades, he's been involved with some of the biggest, most acclaimed albums around and some of the most exceptional-but-underappreciated ones too. The Winston-Salem-bred singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist first caught the public ear as a leader of eighties power-pop cult heroes The dB's. As a sideman, he's all over R.E.M.'s Out of Time as well as Fairweather Johnson, the triple-platinum follow-up to Hootie & the Blowfish's debut.
With their quirky, crafty brand of power pop and two gifted singer-songwriters, The dB's came off like a new wave Beatles, but never quite grabbed the brass ring. After their split, Holsapple took up with his pals in R.E.M. before joining the Continental Drifters, a sort of underground supergroup including his then-wife, Susan Cowsill, Vicki Peterson of The Bangles, and ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton. A few years later, he was tapped to be the auxiliary member of yet another million-selling Southern band: the aforementioned Hootie and company, who were touring in support of Cracked Rear View.
But Holsapple—these days a Durham resident—is approaching records a bit differently now as he readies the release of his first solo songs since 1997's Out of My Way. Instead of an album, he's putting out a stand-alone single, the kind with a hole in the middle, featuring "Don't Mention the War" on one side and "Cinderella Style" on the other. He caught up with the INDY about the new project and dipping his toes back into solo work.
INDY: "Don't Mention the War" is about the furthest thing from the kind of hook-heavy pop tunes we're used to hearing as a single. What made you want to take that direction?
PETER HOLSAPPLE: It's got everything going against it. It's six and a half minutes long, slow, it's got tubas on it, it's niche marketing for PTSD. I mean, I don't see people getting up and dancing to it. But that's not the point. It's mainly just to say, "Hi, here I am, I'm around if you're interested, still putting out stuff that I think you might like. You have to come to me to get it now, but that's great, because I'm happy to send it to you."
Why the two-decade gap between solo statements?
I have all the qualities of a successful rock musician except for abiding ambition. And that's fine with me. I've been very fortunate to have records by groups that I've worked with, and I've been very satisfied with that.
You've also had a music-related day gig in recent years.
My day job is now working off-site for DPAC. I was employed there full-time for a few years, working as an assistant to the general manager. It was cool to be able to experience "the biz" from the other side, having pointedly avoided that all my life. It was really wonderful to get to do that.
It was only about eighty miles west of Durham that your life in music began, right?
I grew up in Winston-Salem in the sixties and seventies with people like Chris [Stamey, dB's co-frontman] and Mitch [Easter, Let's Active founder and R.E.M. producer], and [producer and musician] Don Dixon was around all the time. We had a very active combo scene in Winston. I don't think there's a day that goes by that I'm not eternally grateful to have had that kind of petri dish to grow up in. It wasn't bands that played Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker, it was bands that wanted to play Mott the Hoople and The Kinks and The Move and Bubble Puppy.
Chris had a band down here called Sneakers in 1976 that put out one of the first DIY new wave records. Then he went up to New York and started playing bass for Alex Chilton. At that point, Mitch, the bassist for Sneakers, and I had a band called The H-Bombs, and we played for about a year. Then I moved to Memphis and Chris had The dB's getting started. Then I got a call from Will [Rigby, dB's drummer] saying, "Chris wants to know if you want to come up and try out on keyboards for The dB's." I went up and auditioned and that was the beginning of a long and wonderful band. It's all guys from Winston-Salem, but we basically got the band together in New York.
How did you come to work with R.E.M. after The dB's?
I got a call saying, "I know your band has broken up, would you consider coming out and playing?" So we went to Tokyo and started a tour that lasted for ten months. I was sort of the auxiliary musician. I played mostly Hammond and piano and guitar. I played a little bit of bass. I played some accordion also. I got to play the acoustic twelve-string on "It's the End of the World As We Know It."
I'm really happy to see the twenty-fifth-anniversary [edition] of Out of Time; those packages are beautiful. And I'm really proud—I can walk into a grocery store and hear myself playing the rhythm guitar on "Losing My Religion," and I'm very happy with that.
And how did that lead you to Hootie and the Blowfish?
Tim Sommer was their A&R person at Atlantic, and they [Hootie] had seen me play with R.E.M. They said to Tim, "Well, if we could get somebody to go out on the road with us like Peter Holsapple did for R.E.M., that would probably be the best thing." And they decided that they had enough songs that needed organ and mandolin that it'd be a good idea to take me out [on the road]. It's been a great run. I took a few years off and then I was asked back, and that was extremely cool.
They do three or four shows a year, mostly charity things. They're incredibly good people. They've been a punch line for so long that it's OK, they're used to it. But they also are just incredibly magnanimous, generous people. I'm as proud of my time with Hootie as I am of my time with R.E.M.
Since then you've kept up with your old dB's buddies, making a second duo album with Stamey and a 2012 reunion album with the band. Have you been playing locally too?
I'm the piano player for a group called The Well Respected Men. We are a Kinks cover band and we're having a ball. We've played a bunch of shows and we've got a nice repository of mostly early to middle Kinks.
Will there be any solo shows in the wake of releasing your new material?
I think at this point, at my advanced age, I'd better keep every option open. Because you never know, maybe I'll get called to be second guitar player in Cheap Trick.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sideman, Front and Center."