“If you look at the personalities in the band,” says guitarist-singer-songwriter Peter Holsapple, “it makes sense that we would be playing together, but it wouldn’t necessarily suggest that this is the music we would be playing. It’s probably a power-pop person’s dream in so many ways, but we’re not really doing that. There’s a pop element but there’s also The Band, Nick Drake, Gram Parsons and some other stuff.”
Holsapple – former coleader of the power-pop cult band the dB’s and more recently an R.E.M and Hootie and the Blowfish sideman – is talking about his main project, the Continental Drifters, a country-folk-rock band that makes its local debut at Mama Kin tonight. Holsapple’s bandmates include his wife, Susan Cowsill (of those Cowsills), and Vicki Peterson (of those Bangles). Also: former members of the Dream Syndicate and the Subdudes.
The formerly Los Angeles-based group, named one of America’s best unsigned bands in last year’s “Rolling Stone” critic’s poll, has relocated to New Orleans. The band has released an eponymous album on the Monkey Hill label and is currently weighing various major label options. The album is a pleasant, engaging affair, but Cowsill says, “We’re harder, edgier and sloppier live.” As to the Drifters’ country-isms, she says, “That’s a far stretch – if somebody was coming out for some stompin’ they might be pissed off when they got there. But this definitely has some Southern roots. It’s roots rock, folk-rock. It’s one of those must-see, must-hears.”
It’s also nowhere near as quirky or eccentric as Holsapple’s dBs. Melodies, rhythms and lyrics are more direct, linear. “Well, this is quirky and eccentric in its own way,” counters Holsapple, “but not in a striving-to-be-eccentric-and-quirky way that perhaps the dBs bent over backwards to do. And obviously we paid for bending over backwards in terms of nonsuccess . . . I think (the Continental Drifters) have come along at a really good time. There are a lot of bands mining the same direction – the Jayhawks, the Boxing Gandhis, Rusted Root – mixed-bag things that we really like. It boils down to what we’re enjoying now. If you were to look at my record collection at this point you’d probably find a lot more John Hiatt records than Buzzcocks ablums.”
The four-year-old band is on a slow and steady course. Band members have all been through the record company wringer; the five songwriters know they’re writing music for a more mature audience.
Cowsill attempted a comeback with her brothers in the Cowsills a few years back. A smart, sharp pop band, the Cowsills weren’t able to rise above their ‘60s bubble-gum image, at least in the industry’s eyes. “The Cowsills is not a working unit right now,” says singer Susan. “We went through a horrible business situation that everybody’s recovering from. It’s been very difficult for the Cowsills to get signed.”
Cowsill is energized as a Drifter. “This band is, for me, learning how to write songs and play an instrument and have a say – ha ha,” she says. “There’s nobody here that’s older than me, bigger than me and can use it. I’m there when the bugle calls. This is a whole different ballgame. I’ve always been in my brothers’ band and always will be, because it’s something I really enjoy. But I’m just a wheel on the train of that one, and we all take turns driving this rain. That’s been great for me. A workshop. And I have a whole new family and that’s the cool part.”
“I would rather be in a group of my peers,” adds Holsapple, “where we’re all struggling for the same thing. To use the fundamental R.E.M. thing: We’re gonna do this until it’s not fun anymore and we’re really having fun.”