It's A Family Affair
by Kathleen Warnock
March / April 2000
The New Orleans-based Continental Drifters feature the many talents of Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills (the '60s real-life musical family that inspired the Partridge Family television show) and ex-member of The Bangles, Vicki Peterson (the successful '80s group that included Peterson's sister Debbie). The group gets together in a big house and makes music every day.
The other band members' credentials are equally impressive, with alma maters that include the dBs (Peter Holsapple], Dream Syndicate (Mark Walton), the Steve Wynn Band (Robert Mache) and Bluesrunners (Russ Broussard). Although Cowsill, Peterson and Holsapple take most of the lead vocals, everyone plays, writes and sings.
The band began in Los Angeles, but has since relocated to New Orleans. The Continental Drifters tour in between working day jobs, raising families, and hosting musical evenings at their home and Big Easy clubs. An album released in 1994 and a few singles have garnered the group a cult following. Vermilion, their critically-acclaimed most recent alburn, was recorded in 1998 and released in Europe, finally finding an American home on Razor & Tie in 1999.
When The Continental Drifters played New York just before Christmas, we had the opportunity to meet and talk with Cowsill and Peterson about life as a Drifter.
How did you settle in New Orleans, and why did you move there from California?
PETERSON: Two of the original members of the band were natives of New Orleans. They were unhappily living in LA, and Peter and Susan had just gotten married when they were offered the opportunity to live in a large house in New Orleans with a studio in the garage. I was the last west coast holdout. I commuted for about two years but it was a hell of a lot more fun to be in New Orleans.
COWSILL: It's definitely a wonderful environment. We have a six-year-old and three of the six members of the band have kids.
Has it been a fruitful move creatively as well?
PETERSON: It really feeds us as a band. It's easy to be creative and
active in the musical community in New Orleans because the community is so active.
COWSILL: We have dinner parties and everyone brings an instrument.
Do you still feel you have to tour?
COWSILL: Sure we do! We love touring.
PETERSON: You start playing music because you love music. Then there's this little in-between place where you're playing music to make some money. After you've achieved success as a working person, you go back to the level where it's about the music again.
Susan, you literally grew up in music, so was this a choice?
COWSILL: No, it was not a choice, but it was not against my will either. It was like growing up in the ministry. Like it or not, it's part of your life. When you grow up in that fashion, it's all you know. You don't have a formal education, and you haven't been
L TO R: RUSS BROUSSARD, PETER HOLSAPPLE, SUSAN COWSILL, VICKI PETERSON, ROBERT MACHE AND MARK WALTON - PHOTO BY ROBLEY DUPLEX
exposed to much more than that, so when you're double-digiting, you wonder, now what do I do?
Vicki, the Bangles had the kind of success a lot of bands only dream about. What was that like?
PETERSON: I was lucky, that's how I look at it. I knew without a doubt that being a musician was what I wanted to do, and I didn't stop until it happened.
COWSILL: There comes a point in your adult life when you think
about switching over to something other than music. You spend a lot of time thinking maybe you should, especially when you have little people who say, "Feed me, feed me." Yet, it's hard to let it go when it's so much a part of your soul.
PETERSON: We choose it, but it chooses you. Susan grew up in it. I'm not sure why my sister and I became so deeply entrenched in music, but we were from a very early age. We didn't have parental disapproval. They were skeptical and afraid for us, but it's like that for everybody.
"IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT MUSIC AS A CAREER, PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR INSTINCTS. DO NOT LET ANYONE DISCOURAGE YOU. LISTEN TO YOUR GUT."
In The Continental Drifters, you're clearly making music you like, but people find it hard to label.
COWSILL: When the Cowsills came out, four-piece boy bands were the deal and we were a family doing rock and roll. I remember people asking back then how we were going to market it. The record industry has to think harder. They couldn't figure out what to do with us and we have three singers!
PETERSON: I heard the same thing with the Bangles: "You can't have all four women sing lead."
It's scary when you have to justify loving music and having a lot of talent and skill.
PETERSON: We were a little perplexed.
COWSILL: It's hard not to let it get to you when the business waylays the spirit. We hit a point where we weren't finding what we wanted in the business aspect of it, and decided to just chill out for awhile. We kept playing and had the Tuesday night sessions at home. Everybody had their jobs and everybody was eating.
PETERSON: We let it go. COWSILL: We let it come.
What hopes do you have for the album and the band?
COWSILL: What we expect and want are two different things. It would be nice to pay the rent. I would like to be able to pay my bills, be in a band and balance home and career. I don't want a Lear jet. I would be pleased with just the bare necessities, to be able to do what we do and support ourselves without having to stress out. It would be swell to have a little extra cash and a horse and a farm in Connecticut.
We want to make records. If that's the worst case scenario, then frankly I can live with that.
Tell me a little about your side project, Psycho Sisters.
PETERSON: Normally we don't talk about the Psycho Sisters when we're talking about the Drifters, but since this is about two girls who are rockers, we'll make an exception. The Psycho Sisters
actually existed before the Continental Drifters.
COWSILL: It's kind of a strange crossbreeding of our musical identities. What we do as Psychos is very different from our Continental Drifters songs.
PETERSON: A couple of Psycho Sisters songs ended up on Vermilion: "Rain Song," and "Who We Are, Where We Live."
COWSILL: Sometimes when we're writing a song, we're not sure if it will go Drifter or Psycho. Sometimes we'll be practicing our Psycho stuff and the guys will go "What's that?" At sound check, the songs start creeping in. That's how "Way of the World" went from a Psycho song to a Drifter song. As Psychos, we walk the line of disaster at all times because we intentionally create a situation where our strengths are strongly challenged by our weaknesses.
PETERSON: Our strengths are songwriting and singing together and we balance that with what we are not comfy doing: playing loud electric guitar. It's a challenge because in the Drifters, Susan and I are so warmly surrounded by amazing musicians.
What advice would you give others who want to follow in your footsteps?
PETERSON: If you are thinking about music as a career, pay attention to your instincts. Do not let anyone discourage you. Listen to your gut. If it's not joyful, take a long, hard look at yourself because you're either in the wrong place or with the wrong people. It's probably nauseating to people around us, but we view each other with undying love and appreciation.
COWSILL: We really do feel that way about each other.
PETERSON: In some ways we're struggling but we're a really happy band. We cram into a van with seven people, all our gear, all our bags and just have a blast,
I'M NOT SURE WHY MY SISTER AND I BECAME SO DEEPLY ENTRENCHED IN MUSIC, BUT WE WERE FROM A VERY EARLY AGE. WE DIDN'T HAVE PARENTAL DISAPPROVAL.
Vicki Peterson plays a Les Paul Custom through a Fender Deluxe amp she's had since her Bangle days. She also uses a couple of stomp boxes for noisy solos. In Psycho Sisters she plays a pink Fender Telecaster Thinline through a little Fender Princeton amp.
Susan Cowsill plays a Nanci Griffith edition Taylor acoustic guitar in the Drifters. For Psycho Sisters she plugs in a Danelectro through a bashed-up Silvertone amp.