By Jim Testa
At 82, freak folk legend Peter Stampfel remains one of
the hardest working people in rock ‘n’ roll.
He’s released over a dozen albums since his Seventieth
birthday, with plenty more in the works. But first and foremost,
there’s Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In
100 Songs, a magnum opus 20 years in the making. Working
with New Orleans producer Mark Bingham, Stampfel recorded
100 songs, one from each year of the century in chronological
order, from silly novelty tunes to timeless standards to
pop hits like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”
and Chumbawumba’s “Tub Thumping.”
A few years ago, Stampfel was stricken with dysphonia,
a disease that attacks the vocal cords and makes it nearly
impossible to speak. The man whose insane cackle and yowl
first caught America’s attention with the Holy Modal
Rounders in the Sixties had to learn how to sing again.
We caught up with him, sequestered in his Soho apartment
with wife Betsy, weathering the COVID epidemic like the
rest of us.
Q: Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century
In 100 Songs is something that you've been working
on for literally decades, could you just talk a little bit
about how this all came to be?
Peter Stampfel: It was an, um… inspired idea? An
idea I had 20 years ago by the way, which is irrelevant
for many reasons. I began it with (producer) Mark Bingham,
and when we started I was recording with him in New Orleans.
One of the reasons it’s taken so long is because of
the distance between us, I’m here in New York City.
But we basically soldiered on, we got together when we could
but we were separated for years, mostly because of money,
basically. Then two years ago, we were going to make a push
and finish it, but I ain’t gonna lie, I lost my voice.
The condition is called dysphonia and it’s caused
by genetics and age, and many years of abusing your voice.
Anyway, that's basically it.
Q: It would appear, from several of the choices
you made, that you have a weakness for novelty songs. Or
do you do not believe in the concept of novelty songs?
PS: In the overview I wrote, I go into the derivation of
every song. It’s not that I like novelty songs as
a blanket thing. There are many that I would be happy never
to hear again, or never to have heard at all. Like anything
else, there’s good ones and bad ones. But I like goofy
shit, goofy is a category that I, you know, find one of
the most admirable characteristics of humanity and human
endeavor. Goofiness has been one of mankind’s survival
traits, it’s how humanity has kept its spirits up.
Q: I noticed that you included a couple of your
own songs on this collection? Is that cheating? Or do you
honestly think those were the best songs that came out that
you those years?
PS: They're not the best songs. The whole thing isn’t
meant to be the best songs of any particular year. A couple
actually may be possibly the best by those songwriters,
but they’re not meant to be the best songs of that
year. They are my favorites. And they had to be songs that
I was able to pull off fairly well. They’re all songs
I really like, and they’re all really good songs.
I don’t think there are any bad choices. .
Q: When I first heard all 100 songs, I was surprised
that I knew so many from the first several decades of the
century. I suspect that’s because growing in the Fifties
and Sixties, I was exposed to so much of that music, a lot
of those artists were still alive and playing those songs
on television, and a lot of TV back then was simply old
movies. Today, I think kids get less exposure to singers
from other generations, because popular culture is so involved
with what’s going on that minute, right now.
PS: On the other hand, young people have access to old
music on a scale that’s unprecedented in history.
I have a good friend that I asked once about what new music
he liked, and he said that he didn’t listen to new
music at all because there was so much old music he hadn’t
heard yet. I can understand that. I went and got Spotify
finally, and my first issue was that I had these huge gaps
in my knowledge. Like, I was aware of Peter Frampton and
Mongo Santamaria from 50 years ago, so I had a clue when
I was picking songs from those eras. But I had huge gaps
when it came to the Eighties and Nineties. I blundered into
this list of indie bands on Spotify, it was like a grab
bag, basically. And there's a lot of interesting stuff I
was unfamiliar with, so I started writing down the ones
I wanted to hear more of, and I was down that rabbit hole
for quite a while.
I can only do this basically when I'm cooking. My problem
is my wife doesn't want to hear what I want to hear. So
basically, I've been unable to play music for the last several
decades to a large degree. Anyway, well, to generalize about
indie music, in the last 10, 20 years, I hear lots of really
great vocal backups, vocal harmonies. Almost everything
reminds me a little bit of late period Beach Boys and/or
Fleetwood Mac, a lot of groups sound really similar to each
other to a great degree. But the songs don’t impress
me as much.
I’ll give you an example, a band I found that I really
like is Yeasayer, so I started listening to their albums.
And basically they’re good but I didn’t find
much variation between between songs. Another artist I ran
into on the indie list was St. Vincent, who, I don't know
what you’d call her proper category, but long story
short, she has a brilliant melodic sense. Oddly, a lot of
the indie groups are just geniuses at harmonies, but there
aren’t that many killer melodies. As opposed to St.
Vincent, which is chock full of killer melodies. Also, she
has great variation between a wide variety of structures,
as opposed to most indie groups. But I do like exploring
music, especially more recent music.
Q: Let me go back to your 20th Century project
again. What is your ultimate hope for this project?
PS: Basically I’d like people to get a bare bones
idea of what happened to popular music in the 20th Century.
So it was an educational thing. I wanted to impress younger
people with how much better melodies used to be. Melodies
are one of the weakest characteristics in contemporary music
as opposed to, you know, the Great American Songbook and
early rock and roll. Basically it’s a brief history
lesson, which I feel it’s a good thing for people
that are into music to know.
Q: I have quite a few younger friends who are interested
in the history of popular music, I think this will be a
fascinating voyage for them. I really enjoyed it. Especially
the oldest stuff, the very earliest 20th century songs.
There were a couple there that were floating around, in
the farthest reaches of my mind, from wherever I first heard
them, and I thought, Oh, yeah, this is a really cool song.
It's good to hear it again.
PS: Antonia and I discovered these 1,000 fakebooks in the
1970’s that had transcriptions of lots of old songs,
and we, of course, looked up all the songs we'd liked as
kids. In every case, we still liked them. And in every case,
they were really great tunes and chords. Maybe we were just
born with good taste. (laughs)
Q: How have you been doing with the COVID lockdown
these last ten months? Have you been keeping yourself busy?
PS: I just finished the liner notes for 20th Century and
sent him off I think in late July or August, so there was
that. Also, Don Giovanni Records got the rights back from
ESP to (the Holy Modal Rounders’) Indian War Whoop
and Live In ’65, and they’re going to put it
out as a double vinyl release. And I wrote a long piece
about me and (Steve) Weber. Honestly, it’s excerpts
from my memoir, along with my obit. They’re all going
to be included with the album.
I’m also working on about 35 songs now. I’ve
written five songs during the lockdown. And I’m working
with a vocal therapist as well. It’s made for huge
improvements in my singing, thank God. The condition is
supposed to be incurable basically. But there are a lot
of work-arounds. There's a lot of cheats you can do. I'm
going to have to basically learn to use a microphone more
Q: The last time we spoke was back in April, 2020,
when Don Giovanni released the Peter Stampfel & The
Bottlecaps Demo ‘84, and at that time, you said that
you and Jeffrey Lewis had another record in the can that
would be coming out soon. Do you know when we’ll be
PS: That’s a double album too. We're talking about
having streaming be the cheapest way of doing it. But it’s
all finished. We just need to write the liner notes. There’s
also the album I made with Walker Shepard (Sam Shepard's
son) and Eli Smith as The Wildernauts. I needs to put vocals
on some of the songs, but of course the process of recording
has been forbidding during COVID. And there's also another
Meta Pagans album that needs a couple more tracks as well.
There's also going to be a Unholy Modal Rounders album,
quite possibly a double album, taken from our last show
at the Bottom Line. We were only a band for not much over
two years duration but we probably had dozens of really
good songs. And I'll be really glad to have people finally
hear it. That one’s for me, basically. It will be
great to have that out there.
I’m also trying how to get the liner notes for Peter
Stampfel’s 20th Century online to be interactive.
We’re figuring out the logistics for that. Basically
the idea is for the overview and the song notes to be a
historical geek hangout, and have people come and leave
comments and have discussions about the songs.
Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century is available
as a 5-CD box set and digital download at Louisiana
Red Hot Records and is also available on all streaming