The Staziaks: Pop Survival Instructions (1999)

Overture (Radio Edit)

The perfect three-minute pop song.

It’s the contemporary critic’s Holy Grail, the epitome of the modern-day minstrel’s ministry and popular culture’s most endlessly analyzed — but creatively elusive — magical totem.

The Staziaks (singer-guitarist John Powhida, drummer George Lipscomb, guitarist Rich Baldes and bassist Scott Dorrance) have been searching for the perfect three minute pop song for years, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. And by some critical accounts, they’ve tasted that fabled Grail wine — and have tolerated its intoxicating spirit so well that they’re able to describe its flavor to others, both on their albums (1995’s I.F.O. and 1998’s Teenage Survival Instructions) and in their regular regional concert appearances.

And they’ll be the first to tell you that there’s a right way to go about pursuing your share of pure pop bliss — not to mention writing it. But it’s gonna take a little while . . .

First Verse

“When I was a young boy I was very into professional wrestling,” recalls John Powhida. “I used to be a big fan of a wrestler named Stan Stasiak, who was the master of the heart-punch. Stan would hit his opponent in the chest, stopping the other guy’s heart. But the audience would always boo as Stan left the ring, so he would go back and use the same punch to restart his opponent’s heart and bring him back to life, at which point everybody would cheer. I thought that was very cool.”

So cool, in fact, that when Powhida was pondering band names before his ensemble’s maiden gig in 1993, Stan Stasiak’s surname popped to the top of the mental tickler file, albeit with a slight spelling change. But the moniker has proven apt nonetheless: today’s Staziaks specialize in the same sorts of giddy showmanship, heart-stopping authority and effortless coolness in which their late namesake once trafficked.

Of course, today’s Staziaks deploy those talents not to flatten opposing bands — but instead to benefit the juicy pop confections that the Albany-bred Powhida concocts. It’s important to note, however, that those songs wouldn’t exist at all had the young Powhida not been willing to leave home in order to redefine his rock & roll responsibilities.

“I always wanted to play guitar but my older brother, who played guitar, told me ‘No, you play the bass,'” he explains. “So I did and ended up growing into this hot-shot bass guy around here in the ’80s, when I played with a group called the Opposite. But my heroes were always the singer-guitarist-songwriter guys: I remember seeing Todd Rundgren at Allen’s Radio City in Scotia, which was great, amazing, like a soul to soul connection. Or seeing Hall and Oates at the Glens Falls Civic Center, hearing the sound of Daryl’s voice and thinking ‘That’s what I want to do!’ But the whole bassist thing had just kind of taken on a life of its own around here by then.”

“So in 1988, I moved to Seattle, Washington, pre-grunge period mind you, with the Staziaks’ original bassist, Billie Way. And that gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted since no one there knew who I was or what I did back home. But I didn’t actually front a band until Billie and I came back to Albany and founded the Staziaks.”

Chorus

“Music has always been just so important to all of us, it’s truly the meaning in our lives,” enthuses Powhida. “Music is something that we all have to do. And that’s why we’re still enthusiastic after seven years. We’ve seen so many bands come and go in Albany because their expectations are just so wrong. We just want to keep playing and exploring and loving music and having fun–and it’s a lifelong pursuit, I’ll tell you.”

Second Verse

Finding Staziaks drummer George Lipscomb was almost a lifelong pursuit for Powhida as well.

“My brother and I had seen George at one of the very first Larkfests,” Powhida recollects. “And we talked about finding George for years, but we never saw him again until around ’93 when my brother literally ran into him on the street. The two of them jammed together a bit but it didn’t go very well — so my brother told George that he thought he’d be perfect for my stuff instead.”

Lipscomb had performed on the landmark Hudson Rocks compilation album with the Extras and had also anchored the A.D.’s before relocating to New York City in the early ’90s. Serendipitously, the Coeymans native returned to the Capital Region just as Way and Powhida were seeking a drummer for the nascent Staziaks. Never mind that he didn’t actually have any drums at the time.

“For as long as I’ve played drums, I’ve actually owned a kit for a surprisingly short time,” admits Lipscomb. “I had to borrow people’s drums for a long time and it got to be like ‘No! Don’t let Lipscomb use your drums! He’ll break ’em!’ Even growing up with my parents it was always like ‘We’ll think about getting you a drum set, but you gotta do well in school’ or the famous: ‘You can’t make a living doing that sort of thing.’ So if there’s anyone who made it possible for me to be a drummer I’d have to say it was my grandmother . . . who let me stash a borrowed set of drums in her hot attic where I could go and practice every day.”

While Lipscomb’s parents may not have supported his desire to drum, they did feed the music lover in him through other outlets.

“There was always music in my house,” he remembers. “My parent owned a bar back in the late ’60s in Coeymans — and the cool thing about owning a bar and a jukebox was that when the record guy came, we got all the old records. So I was constantly getting new stuff and there was constantly music in the house. And, you know, my parents had Elvis records and all sorts of other things like that, and back then you didn’t see that in a lot of black homes, but I was just surrounded by it. And I remember looking at record albums and seeing pictures of the bands all dressed up and everything and I’d be looking at the drummers and thinking ‘Yeah, that’s it!‘”

Chorus

“So many bands get together and sit around the table and plan things out–and then they bag it before they ever even play a note in public because their expectations are so high,” says Lipscomb. “But the way I look at it, all you gotta do is get out there, play every gig you can get and have fun . . . ’cause if it ain’t fun, it’s not gonna work, no matter what you’re doing.”

Bridge

Scott Dorrance was the Staziaks’ original guitarist, although his membership expired early in the group’s history when the band downsized to a trio in late 1993. Dorrance did, however, serve the group ever-so-briefly as a bassist before his departure.

“We played at this Blotto tribute show where Billie Way just flat out refused to learn a new song with one day’s warning,” explains Powhida. “She was always stubborn like that, which was fine; it was kinda charming in its own dysfunctional way. But once Billie refused to play I asked Scott if he could learn the tune on bass and he said ‘Sure!’ And I think that turned out to be a really great gig for us, with 20/20 hindsight.”

So great, in fact, that when Way left the Staziaks for good in December of 1998, Powhida re-recruited Dorrance, once again sending the guitarist a tape of songs and asking him to come up with bass parts for them.

“I was happy when John called for two reasons,” says Dorrance. “First, because I was just glad to be back in the band . . . and second because it gave me a chance to play out again, which I hadn’t done since having a kidney transplant last year as a result of complications from diabetes.

“I’ve been a diabetic for almost 22 years now, so I knew a while back that I was going to have kidney failure and have to do something about it. So by the fall of ’97 my kidneys had gotten to the point where I was going to have to start dialysis, which I did for about seven months, then in August of ’98, I received a transplant from my younger sister, Jennifer. So it was good to be given the opportunity to get out there and play again.”

“Y’know, most guys in perfect health don’t do as well as Scott does,” interjects Lipscomb. “And if they do, then there’s a catch somewhere . . . but Scott just comes in, plugs in, has fun. He knows what the expectations are.”

“Yeah, Scott got pneumonia in the spring after his transplant,” adds Rich Baldes. “And we were scheduled to play this EdgeFest tryout show at Valentine’s and he basically rolled out of the hospital bed and played that day.”

“I told the doctor I had to get out for a show ’cause we were already lined up for it,” confirms Dorrance. “If you saw me that night you could probably tell that I was hurtin’, but I made it and that’s what I planned to do. And we won the spot in the EdgeFest, so it must have gone okay overall.”

Baldes shakes his head and says, “I still don’t think that was doctor’s orders.”

Third Verse, Different from the First

“Rich Baldes and I were doing acoustic things at the Lionheart and we just sort of always ended up on stage singing together,” says John Powhida. “It was just so easy for us both, so when Billie, who handled all the harmonies, left I started thinking ‘Jeez, well, maybe there’s something we can explore here.’ So George, Scott, Rich and I got together and it had an immediate power to it–which was fortunate, since it was the night before our first scheduled gig together at the QE2.”

While he was a fresh Staziak that first night, Baldes was no stranger to the QE2 and Albany’s other music haunts when he accepted Powhida’s invitation to gig.

“My father was in a lot of cover bands around here, he played weddings and bars and had numerous instruments around the house,” Baldes explains. “And my brother played in bands around here too. All three of us played at Bogie’s at different times. It’s a family tradition . . . or at least it was a family tradition before it became a disco.”

Baldes played in his first serious band while studying art at Alfred University. Since returning to Albany after graduating, he’s worked the open mike circuit, done a stint in the Explosives and laid the groundwork for a new project called the Day Jobs. While Baldes has proven himself to be a talented songwriter in all of his projects to date, he’s content to serve as a non-writing guitarist and vocalist in his new band.

“Y’know, in the Explosives we had two songwriters and we were always fighting about keeping the same number of songs in the set and that just got to be horribly tense after a while,” Baldes says. “But with this band it’s all about playing John’s songs and that’s fine. I’ve got no problems with that, because John’s songs are that good.”

“I’m the writer in this group,” Powhida affirms. “But I don’t want to be one of those guys who plays all the instruments on a four-track or whatever. There’s not as much soul there when you do it that way. In the Staziaks, we’ve got different personalities and these guys bring up things that I’d never think of. So if I wanted to play by myself, I’d just do the solo acoustic thing and scrap the band concept altogether. But it’s so much more fun this way, so I think I’ll stick with the Staziaks approach for as long as everybody seems to be enjoying it.”

Chorus (Slight Return)

“So the one thing that I will say to other bands out there is that hanging in there, hard work and having reasonable expectations about what you’re doing all count for a lot,” concludes Powhida. “And every gig you play counts, too, even if there are only five people there on a snowy night, the worst night of the year, and you don’t feel like playing. Well, you’d better play anyway because, who knows? There could be someone important in the audience that night who might be able to get one of your songs into the hands of a hot girl group in Los Angeles or something . . . as long as you put your music out there like you mean it.”

Coda

A highly-hyped ensemble called Goddess are inciting a major label bidding war out west, largely on the strength of their scalding demo tape–which opens with Goddess’ rendition of the Staziaks’ “Super Bandwagon Boy.”

Seems Goddess knew a perfect three-minute pop song when they heard one.

Interview with Dave Boquist of Son Volt (1999)

Dave Boquist is a man who understands job satisfaction.

“Music is the only thing that I’ve found where I really get on with the people who I’m working with,” says the Son Volt guitarist. “And it’s not that I’m antisocial or anything, but it’s just that I’ve had a dozen jobs since I finished school and this is the only one that really works for me. Good thing, huh?”

Yup. And good thing, too, that Boquist’s professional choices have worked for quite a few other people as well. He and his band mates — singer-songwriter Jay Farrar, bassist (and brother) Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn — recently released their third long player, Wide Swing Tremolo, to hearty critical acclaim and are supporting the traditional/roots-flavored rock & roll record by touring with like-minded superstar John Mellencamp.

The high profile opening gigs afforded by the Mellencamp tour mark a significant change of modus operandi for Son Volt, who have been headlining their own shows almost since their inception in the mid-’90s. The quartet earned that early luxury as one of the two successor bands germinated in the death-throws of Uncle Tupelo, who had already almost single-handedly spawned the return-to-basics musical movement that now bears the name of their 1990 album, No Depression.

When principal singer-songwriter Jay Farrar abruptly scuttled Uncle Tupelo in 1994, fellow frontliner Jeff Tweedy (largely perceived at the time as George to Farrar’s John-and-Paul) reorganized Tupelo’s remnants as Wilco, who pleasantly surprised most listeners (and critics) with their unassuming 1995 debut album, A.M. And Farrar? He just went home to Illinois — and made some new calls on some old colleagues.

“My brother Jim was touring with Joe Henry, opening for Uncle Tupelo in the last days of that band,” Boquist recollects. “And I had played with the Jayhawks ten years or so ago when they were a young band and so we knew a lot of the same people. So after Jay left Uncle Tupelo, he and Mike Heidorn — who had been Uncle Tupelo’s drummer for a while and was from the same town as Jay — called Jim and I, and we traded some tapes and agreed to get together to see what happened. And I know it was a bit of a risk for Jay because of all the expectations that people had after Uncle Tupelo, but we all got together and really became a band during those first sessions.”

Unfortunately, Son Volt also immediately became (or at least were perceived as) a band with a rival — as the quartet’s Trace quickly followed Wilco’s A.M. into the racks, making for a convenient comparative criticism exercise for more music writers than Boquist cares to recall. “That stuff got real old, quick,” he explains. “But fortunately we don’t hear so much about the Wilco vs. Son Volt competition thing any more. And I think it’s because both bands are old enough now that if there are comparisons being made then they’re being made by people who are just hanging onto things that they can’t let go of for some reason. So we haven’t heard it much here lately, although we did get a lot of that last year when we were in Europe. I guess people were still lagging behind there since we haven’t been there as often as we have been here.”

In addition to reminding them of roots that they’d just as soon have kept buried, Son Volt’s European jag also had an unforeseen impact on the nascent project that would ultimately grow into Wide Swing Tremolo. “Jay was listening to a lot of ’60s garage rock during that tour,” Boquist recalls. “Or we all were, actually, ’cause we were touring around in Europe with the Nuggets box set on the stereo. And I’ve since heard Jay say that music influenced him as he was starting to write for the new record, which may account for the different feel to his songs.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to identify that influence, as Wide Swing Tremolo opens with the fuzz-tone rocker “Straightface”, a hard-edged number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place between the other slabs of psychedelic proto-punk that define the Nuggets canon. And that harder, furrier sound isn’t the only change defining Wide Swing Tremolo, which also carries a far more palpable sense of immediacy and intimacy than Son Volt’s first two records.

“We had all of our own equipment with us for this record,” Boquist explains. “So that had something to do with the different feel of the record. We were able to play what we owned, which we’d never done before. We also recorded the album in our rehearsal space in Illinois, which was a more relaxed setting, of course. Jay and Mike able to go home at end of day . . . and Jim and I could go back to our hotel rooms, since we actually live in Minnesota.

“But that was okay. It was still relaxing and we could actually take the time to do things like, say, tune the drums. We could spend half a day doing just that to get it right for a song if we felt like it,” Boquist continues. “And we worked up from scratch in the recording process, doing things in a low tech way with no computerized gear. It was a slower process, much more deliberate — but we able to experiment a little bit more, do songs in different ways instead of settling for just one. It was very comfortable, very natural.”

Ironically, this back-to-basics creative approach actually produced the least “country-sounding” record in the entire Uncle Tupelo-Son Volt continuum, a fact which that didn’t necessarily endear Wide Swing Tremolo to the group’s long-time followers.

“I’ve got a friend who I’ve known since high school — and he wasn’t thrilled about this record when he first heard it,” says Boquist. “He’s real honest with me that way, y’know, although now he says that he’s listening to the record a lot more since he’s seen us do the material live. So I think our shows will bring things out in the songs that you might not hear just listening to the record. Maybe the songs will rock a little harder. Maybe people will hear the songs differently when they don’t have the fiddle and lap steel and other things, since we’re trying to stick with just the basic guitar line-up on this tour.”

So does Boquist worry about Son Volt losing their “No Depression” clout as they set aside their country instrumental flavorings?

“Y’know, I don’t think anyone in the band pays much attention to what category we’re in at any moment,” Boquist concludes. “We’ve all been happy playing lots of different kinds of music all along without thinking about where we are or whether we’re part of a movement or not. I mean, we’re a rock band, for Christ’s sake. Why not just leave it at that?”

Interview with Iris DeMent (1999)

Early morning, Corvallis, Oregon; Iris DeMent hunkers down at an economy motel after an unexpected scheduling change in her West Coast tour itinerary. The press interrupts her lazy morning with a call from the East Coast, which could conceivably annoy the road-weary singer-songwriter, were that her style–but she’s in a good mood, instead, happy that her motel has windows that open.

“Opening windows is the first thing I do when I can,” she explains over the prominent sound of a weed-eater being operated by an up-and-at-’em motel employee. “I can’t stand feeling cooped up in rooms where they don’t let you open the windows to get some fresh air in.”

DeMent’s songs are sorta like that too: they tell you something personal about her while evoking fresh air, long horizons and big spaces, where regular folks do regular things on a regular basis. Which fits, since DeMent has spent most of her life that way, growing up the youngest of fourteen kids in a religious, blue-collar household, marrying a fire-fighter who turned in his boots to manage his bride’s career, working in the down-home spaces between the folk and country communities. Of course, growing up as a regular girl, DeMent never imagined that she’d be in a place where folks would have any reason to call her up from the Coast while she watched the weed whacker.

“Music for me growing up was always in the context of the church,” she recalls. “So whatever dreams I had about music were wrapped up in that-and I never really thought of clubs or radio or anything else. Everybody around me sang: my family was the musical family of the church, so my sister would direct the choir and some of my brothers and sisters wrote special songs and then performed them. And I grew up admiring so many people who could put words together that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything as good or meaningful.”

Until desperation set in.

“I got really tired of doing things that I didn’t love and I realized that I was putting a lot of effort into things that didn’t matter to me,” DeMent continues. “I went to school, worked hard and got good grades for one semester, but that was not where my heart was. So I started thinking that if I put that energy into something I cared about, like music, then I could probably do well and have a little bit of happiness. And it all just opened up for me when I started thinking that way.”

But not immediately: it took three years worth of Open Mikes before a Rounder Records representative spotted and signed DeMent, whose ear-opening 1992 Rounder debut, Infamous Angel, then won her a contract with Warner Bros. Her two major label releases, My Life (1994) and The Way I Should (1996), built on her reputation as one of the most important singers and songwriters to straddle the country-folk divide in this decade–and added to the anticipation for (and pressure associated with) her elusive next album.

“I’m not really trying to take my time with the next record,” DeMent concludes. “But that’s just how it is: I’m still looking for songs that say what I feel they need to say, songs that lift me up and say something to other people too. I’m trying to take a picture of my life experience and share it with other people . . . I feel a need to do that, although I don’t know why. Or, well, I guess I do: I just want to write songs and sing ’em for people ’cause that’s what makes me happy.