The Drifters' new "Better Day" CD is more than just 12 songs. It's about six inextricably intertwined people interacting. In spit of day jobs!
by Alex Rawls
Off Beat Magazine
THE LUNCH CROWD that arrived at Liuzza's By the Track were turned away by Susan Cowsill. In sunglasses and brown corduroy overalls, she told the laborers and businessmen sneaking to Mid-City for an hour, "It's closed." Sitting on the stoop, Vicki Peterson added, "The kitchen's being remodeled. We're the disappointment committee." When someone in a suit asked if the six of us waiting for guitarist Robert Mache to arrive were all Continental Drifters, Cowsill assured, "We're all Drifters," to which Peterson off-handedly joked, "Singers and sisters," quoting a line from Vermillion's "Drifters." In the half-hour or so it took for the band to assemble on the corner outside the closed restaurant, the meals we would be missing were mourned while they kindly suggested alternative dining experiences like a roots rock Zagat's. All in all, twenty to thirty people were sent to find lunch elsewhere by Continental Drifters.
The occasion for the get-together was to discuss their new album, Better Day, which may or may not be roots rock depending on your definition. If "roots" is a sound, be it folky acoustic guitars or countryish twang, then the Drifters have fallen out of that genre if they ever were a part of it. But, if "roots" — like the best country and folk songs — conjures up images of working people sharing their stories, hard-learned lessons, and finding strength in the community around them, then this is roots rock at its finest. The small wins life offers are celebrated on this, their third album; in "Long Journey Home," Vicki Peterson offers perhaps the most concise summary of the record when she sings:
Forgiveness and favor earned
Traveling on lessons learned
We are all alone in this together
as far as I'm concerned.
On paper, the flinty optimism of verses like that may lead readers to think the songs are as much fun as iodine on a skinned knee, but the passion in the performances and the songcraft itself make Better Day feel warm, defiant and, ironically, triumphant.
For the band, Better Day is a change because, for one thing, "This is the first album we've ever done that we haven't inherited songs from previous incarnations," Mache said. Cowsill continued, "They're songs that we haven't been playing for 25 years. They were written this year. They're fresh." They were sufficiently new that, according to Peterson, "We had the big show on New Year's Eve [at the Howlin' Wolf after the Big Star reunion] and we were scheduled to go in the studio January 2.
That night was the first time we really played the songs all together on one night in one space of time, and I remember when we walked offstage feeling for the first time confident that we had a record." Bassist Mark Walton explained, "A lot of the time we'd sit in the living room, come up with the parts, play it live for a month or two, go back to play in the living room again, figure out a different way to do it until we land on something. This time we didn't have that luxury — we maybe played four or five shows."
The brief preparation for the studio is partially due to the success of the Continental Drifters and Friends shows at the Howlin Wolf. They have had over 150 musicians join them onstage for those shows, and some have been so successful that the artists like Chuck Prophet, Kim Richey and Steve Wynn expressed interest in recording with the Drifters. While some combinations never got to that stage, they were nonetheless magical. "lan Matthews — that could have been a band," Peterson remembered. Playing with others has become a source of pride with the band — "I think we're one of the only bands who does it on a regular basis," Cowsill said — and "it makes us a better band," drummer Russ Broussard pointed out. It also has a therapeutic value because "It's great being in a band, but try to picture ten years of just us playing every time," Cowsill laughed.
The down side of the guests though, is that "A lot of times when we'd play the Tuesday night Continental Drifters and Friends nights, we would want to learn new songs but the guest was more important," Walton explained. "Even leading up to going in the studio," Cowsill continued, "We thought, 'We've got to have a few gigs before going in so we can tighten this stuff up.' 'Oh, but guess who's in town and who's playing?' Instead of tightening up our stuff, we ended up playing someone else's stuff." As a result, the recording at Lafayette's Dockside Studios was a very immediate, intuitive process. "Where Does the Time Go?" was recorded in one take, while songs like "(Down By the) Great Mistake," "Long Journey Home" and "Snow" went through multiple takes before they decided the first one was the best. The result, Walton said, is "A Polaroid picture rather than a sculpture;" in musical terms, it's a nearly-instant record of who they are in 2001.
The band has also benefited from a period of extended professional stability. According to Mache, "One of the things about Better Day is that the band is finally reaping the benefit of being a solid unit for a number of years." Drummer Broussard, the most recent addition, joined before Vermillion was recorded in 1998. "For the first album, we never had a band. Ray [Ganucheau] got sick and couldn't play and quit the band, and our other guitar player [Gary Eaton] wanted to stay in Los Angeles with his son," explained Walton. To finish Continental Drifters, they "made this record and flew the tapes to Robert in Tuscon and begged him to play on it and begged him to join the band, which is a weird way to make a record," Walton continued.
Not only has the band stabilized, but they finally have a label, Razor & Tie Records, ready to release Better Day domestically. The first album was released in 1994 by local independent label Monkey Hill, then 1998's Vermillion was first released in Europe by a German label before Razor & Tie signed the band and released the album in America over a year later. Since then the label has also re-released Continental Drifters. "This is the first time we've had a real record company go, 'Hey, let's make a record,'" Walton explained. For the longest time, "Nobody could figure out how to market to our willing audience," Peterson said. "Razor and Tie came along," she continued, "and that wasn't even part of the conversation. They never didn't get it." Having a label has allowed the band to dispel one myth: "People perceive us as taking a lot of time because we can. We've taken a lot of time because we haven't had a [record] deal. Now we've got this deal and we're going to try to do something pretty regularly," Holsapple said. Walton elaborated, "People are so surprised that we somehow pulled it together because over the years people thought, 'Oh, you just do it when you want to do it.' No, if we could do it every year, we would."
At an essential level, making music is what the Continental Drifters do. When Susan Cowsill said Better Day shows "where we've evolved to with this group of people, finally settling into it, keeping and pulling from the roots and the Louisiana thing we started with Ray and Carlo (Nuccio]," she is talking as much about the people as she is about the songs. Their music is obviously an extension of who they are, and more than once different members have gushed over the arrival of the new disc in terms and tenderness usually reserved for newborns. Just as parents can't wait to break out photos and discuss their wee'uns, the Drifters warmed to reminiscences about the songs from the new album. Walton recalled bringing "Tomorrow's Gonna Be," his lead vocal debut, to the band: "I was scared shitless." He "was hoping to keep it real stripped-down acoustic. It ended up being more electric but ..." "More like a Beatles song," Cowsill interjected, like a mom with a photo of her own to show. "Susan immediately heard it and thought, 'Wow, we can do a Beatles thing,'" Walton resumed, "that's what she was hearing and I was hearing this very demented thing, and the rest of the band brought it to what it is." "If you listen to the arrangement of the vocals it's very pop, very Beatles. It's the instrumentation that makes it so damned scary; that and Mark's fabulous delivery," Vicki Peterson finished, completing the others' thoughts. Better Day is more than just 12 songs. As Mark Walton said, "It's about six people interacting."
In the hour I spent learning all this, we were spit-rained on a few times, and a steady rain interrupted us twice. While we sat around a picnic table outside of Whole Foods, Walton and Cowsill laughed and held a napkin canopy over my tape recorder to protect it from the rain. When a car alarm went off, Peter Holsapple started speaking stroboscopically, timing each word so that it would be inaudible on tape under the alarm. When Mark Walton referred to "Tomorrow's Gonna Be" as a ditty, Holsapple asked after a theatrical pause, "Did you just describe your song as a 'ditty'?" When the table erupted in laughter, wisecracks were rattled off at a string-of-firecrackers tempo. Cowsill added, "Mark Walton, ditty writer," followed by Peterson's, "It's a witty ditty," which Cowsill finished, "It's a wittle witty ditty! It's a doo wah ditty!" before Peterson finally cried, "STOP!" In short, it was obvious in that hour that the musicians audiences think they know onstage are the people they run into offstage, and the onstage camaraderie reflects how they feel about each other onstage.
From the beginning, the musical and the social have been inextricably intertwined. When they started playing in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, they used to get together in "this house in North Hollywood Susan and I referred to as 'the batch pad,'" Peterson recalled, "because all the guys lived up there. It was Carlo, Gary Eaton and Mark living in this house together. There were beer, cigarettes, and coffee everywhere; it was disgusting. It had a hideous bathroom." Since that time, they have been meeting regularly in someone's living room to play, but "one of our quote/unquote rehearsals," according to Peterson, "is usually just a social gathering in the living room." As Robert Mache pointed out, "Generally we mean to do a lot more than we get accomplished. In a given amount of time, there's about sixty percent socializing that goes on before we can even sit down. It's socializing and getting done with business before finally sitting down with instruments to go, 'Okay what are we going to do with this song?'"
Rehearsal is social time, so playing live becomes a kind of rehearsing, which means a lot of musical decisions are often made on the fly. While that kind of pressure can be daunting, they work that way "for the same reason people jump out of planes and sky-dive," Walton said. "We didn't know what would happen. We'd watch songs develop and think, 'Wow, that's pretty cool." Recording Better Day, Russ Broussard said, "It felt like we were hosting ourselves. When we host a guest artist, we have one living room rehearsal then we play it that night, and it comes out totally different that night, but it comes out somehow sounding like us," to which Cowsill jokingly added, "We were our own friends." Obviously, to work like that takes a lot of experience, but beyond that, "There's an amazing sense of trust that go on and off stage, and it's just beautiful," Mache said. "99.9 percent just happens automatically."
That trust comes from a lot of places, one of which is the challenges they have faced together. In This Britney Moment, one obstacle they have faced is record companies who were unable to figure out how to sell a band with members over 30 and some over 40, but the 'Drifters' ages also add a whole new layer of issues to be dealt with outside of the business. While I was talking on the phone to Walton, his daughter called daddy to see two termites in her bedroom, which means that like many of us in New Orleans he has a termite problem to deal with, and like many in the band he has a family that needs to eat regularly, stay clothed and live somewhere safe. In short, they have the responsibilities that come with adulthood, and those provide challenges younger musicians don't necessarily face. Families mean jobs are needed because as of yet, being a Drifter isn't anyone's sole source of financial support. "The money is not what it could be, and it's not what it probably should be," Holsapple observed, "but it's probably going to get better. There will be a better day for pay-checks." Until that day comes, they have to deal with the demands jobs create. "If we didn't have to work day jobs, we'd be able to be out on the road a little bit more," Peterson explained. "We're caught in this horrible cycle now where you get a day job to pay the rent but it's not where your heart is. Your heart's playing music with the Drifters, but if you tip the scales more toward playing with the Drifters, you're going to lose your day job because no one's going to put up with that for that long. One of our dilemmas right now is getting out this summer and how we're going to make it work," she continued. Some labels shied away from signing the Drifters not because of their ages but because of their families and the
fear that they would be greater priorities than the act the companies were investing in, but as Walton explained, "Families aren't more important; they're necessary."
The Continental Drifters family itself was tested last year when Susan Cowsill and Peter Holsapple split up after years together. The band is understandably circumspect talking about it, but as Holsapple explained, "It has its moments that are easier than others. I always feel extremely blessed to be able to be in a band with such a world-class singer as Susan Cowsill. I am a huge fan of hers and I would be even if I hadn't been married to her." Their split, Vicki Peterson suggested, was not the first romantic storm the Drifters have had to weather: "The Drifters are a long, involved soap opera. Way before Susan and Peter were even married there was always something going on, so for me, I view it with an overview and with trust that as long as people are happy in this situation making music together, things will be fine. It's not a deciding moment in the band per se. It's another in a long, very interesting chain of interpersonal relationships. It's just life."
Mache is similarly philosophical about the matter: "Things change. You learn to roll with them. It's just one of many changes this band's gone through. We've weathered them all. We're mature people. Every thing changes all the time — life, death you move, you move to another house, you move to another city, you marry someone, you divorce someone. Everything just changes. People are born; people die. We have learned to roll with change. We rolled , we rolled with Ray, we rolled with Gary, and we're rolling with Peter and Susan." The constant throughout all this change has been the band, so "What the two of us have been going through splitting up," Holsapple pointed out, "we tried to make it so it didn't completely capsize the Drifters because this band is our family too. It's a very comfortable place for us. I'm still thrilled we're in a band together." Cowsill, who is frustrated that their separation has been the primary focus of the press she has done so far, said simply, "We are still here and it's obvious there is still love among all of us. We're grown-ups."
Like grown-ups who lived enough life to write their songs, they have come to believe in the core values, and they can be disconcerting in how genuinely and passionately they speak of those values. When Mache spoke of Steve and "Wish" Nails, the owners of Dockside Studios, he said, "The people who look after the grounds, even they make you feel at home. They never make you feel like you're trespassing on their property. You're just at home there," and the look on his face and his tone of voice said he was awestruck by such uncomplicated generosity. Similarly, when Susan Cowsill spoke of her anxiety about songwriting, she pointed out that "everybody's been very supportive and encouraging. We try and do that in this band," and she said it was as if no other band is that, and after a while, you start to wonder if I any other band really is supportive in as pure a way. After all, when Peterson said the situation at Dockside Studios "invites simplicity and the kind of records we are making — quick and I true," she said it with the sort of bedrock belief in the capital-T "truth" our grandparents and their parents and their parents believed in. Similarly, Holsapple said, "We try to keep it as honest as we can because it wouldn't be right if we didn't" with an almost Protestant sense of morality.
One of those core values is the belief in family and no matter what tensions have existed within their family, in the end it's always that family they return to. For the Continental Drifters, the sense of community finds expression both in their music and their collective sense of play together. When we discussed playing the new songs and Holsapple said they were still finding the "land legs" with the songs, another riff began amid laughter:
Cowsill: And that is why when we are onstage we sound excited
Mache: because we still don't know the songs.
Holsapple: So what you're actually hearing is terror . . . apoplexy . . .
Cowsill: ... a lack of confidence, insecurity
Mache: ... a lack of money . . .
Peterson: ... a lack of being jaded, an "unjadedness."
More importantly, they find musical strength in each other as well. "There are some shows that are transcendental for all of us. We're aware there's an audience there, but at the same time we're very inward-looking to the six of us when we're playing," Holsapple explained. "There art a lot of bands that feed off the audience when they're playing, and we do that too, but it has to start within the six of us and in the cozy place or the hot, smoking place or some place when we're all together from the git-go." The music translation of those shows is not necessarily as pastoral as that description might sound. Live the first surprise is always that the guitars roar the way they do, and while they can be beautiful and touching on stage, it's sometimes easy to forget that they rock with the loose-limbed feel of The Band.
Better Day is not going to make the Continental Drifters big rock stars, but there's no sense that that's what any of them want anymore, if they ever did. You get the feeling they are doing what they want to do, spending time with their actual and musical families, and inviting their friends to come over when they can. Sure, their friends are Amy Rigby, Syd Straw and Adam Duritz, and they play music on Tuesday nights instead of lawn darts on Saturdays, but their personal and professional lives are inseparable. When they talk about going to work at Dockside, the descriptions sound like vacations, complete with crawfish boils, barbecues, and boat rides with "Captain Rusty" — as Peterson called Broussard — "down to The Wa Wee, the local bar," Mache remembered. It's obvious when they tell these stories how successful they feel, and that they have learned to define "success" as something more real than gold, platinum and plutonium records. Peter Holsapple said, "When the idea of being the rock star with the trappings of all that becomes pointless or out of date or impossible, or you've aged out of it or whatever, then you have to do it for the love it. If you aren't getting paid royally for it, you have to love what you're doing. I think the Drifters as a collective love what we're doing. The band's a great balm. When the music plays, if it's sounding good, then everything gets shoved aside for that, and that's the greatest healer of them all."