In Part 3, we ask Peter about his Eighties band
Peter Stampfel & The Bottle Caps, which recorded three
albums - a self-titled debut in 1986, The People's Republic
Of Rock And Roll in 1989, and The Jig
Is Up! in 2004. Then we talk about some of the collaborations
that have carried him into the 21st Century.
Q: I knew Steve Almaas and Beat Rodeo from the Maxwell's
scene in the 80's, and then a stupid thing happened. Steve
thought the band couldn't get signed to a bigger label with
a rhythm section that included a bald bassist, so he fired
Al Greller, and drummer Peter Moser quit in protest. Luckily
they quickly wound up as members of the Bottle Caps, and
one of my favorite Eighties bands was born. Can you talk
about that experience?
Peter: When the rest of the Rounders moved to California,
right after we did “Alleged In Their Own Time”
in 1975, I started playing with Luke Faust (of Hoboken’s
Insect Trust) and a couple of guys and Antonia, because
I didn’t want my music life and my home life to be
two completely different things. It was like being torn
in two all the time. But Antonia totally creeped out the
other guys. She couldn’t do music unless she was speeding
her tits off, basically. She was picking at her lips incessantly
for days at a day, and basically,she’d just creep
people out. So that band fell apart. I was drinking a lot,
which lasted a couple of weeks, and then I snapped out of
it and I started to take lessons. After faking it from childhood,
I wanted to actually get good. All the people I wanted to
play with had way better chops than I did, and I wanted
to be able to keep up. Then I formed a duo with John Parrott,
an old friend, and then these two guys volunteered to be
our rhythm section, which was just great. But then Parrott
dropped out and didn’t want to do it. By now we’re
in the late 70’s and I was just like, Fuck it, I’m
so sick of trying to have a band and having it fall apart.
I gave up, I had just had it, and got really depressed.
So me and Parrott fell apart, depression, and then I went
to a show one night and met John Scherman. We decided to
do a swap, because he wanted to learn fiddle and I wanted
to get better at guitar, so we started hanging out. giving
each other lesson. Well, there was this guy, Brian Coleman,
he was some downtown producer type, and he wanted to put
together an album of alternative musicians doing Stephen
Foster songs. I wanted to do “Old Dog Trey,”
which I got from a really old, turn of the century songbook.
I actually tweaked the melody and improved it a bit, but
here was a great song, really powerful and sentimental and
yet really heart-wrenching. So Scherman said he was playing
with this guy W.T. Overgard, and then we ran into Peter
Moser and Al Greller, who were the rhythm section of (Steve
Almaas’) Beat Rodeo. So we formed a little group to
record that song, but then some other people got into the
act and decided they only wanted to use famous people on
the record, not people like me. So anyway, we’d started
working on some other stuff by that point and decided it
was fun, and that was how the Bottle Caps got started.
Scherman was extremely fastidious, he was a real perfectionist,
but he had a lot of real arrangement chops. It enabled me
to do cover a broader range of music in ways that actually
worked. There’s this big book called The Penguin Book
Of Music and when the guy writes about me, he says, “well,
the Rounders were great but the Bottle Caps were this dreadful
aging hippie band.” On the other hand, (NY Times rock
critic) Robert Palmer said it was the first truly post-modern
folk-rock band, and we won the Best Indie Album of the Year
with the New York Music Festival. So there are a couple
of different takes on the band.
Q: I love that first Bottle Caps album, it’s
probably my favorite of anything you’ve done, and
it’s such a shame that it’s out of print. But
I’ve read other interviews and you really like the
third Bottle Caps album, The Jig Is Up.
Peter: The first one is good but The Jig Is Up
is a nice damn album. We decided that instead of renting
out a recording studio for a few hours, why not just give
some money to Jonathan Best – Jabe, we used to call
him – and really make an album. And so we actually
spent years at it. My wife and I had our second kid during
that period but we were able to complete the project at
our own speed, and it’s a good album. It has some
really singular stuff, and we had been playing together
for several years at that point so we really knew each other,
and I just think it’s one of the best things I’ve
My big regret about the Bottle Caps is that we did amazing
fucking covers live. We did “The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance,” we did “Double Shot Of My Baby’s
Love,” “Games People Play,” “Kung
Fu Fighting,” the Kinks’ “Animal Farm,”
“Be True To Your School.” I love doing covers.
I feel a real band does covers. Otherwise the tendency is
to crawl up your own ass and disappear, and get structurally
atrophied to a degree. But anyway, I really wish we had
made a whole album of just our covers. It would have been
Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel
Q: You in your Seventies have made more records
than most people make in their career. You seem to have
this relentless drive to always pursue new projects, so
I wanted to ask you about some of them. How did you meet
and start working with Jeffrey Lewis?
Peter: I was at a birthday party for Ed Sanders at the
Bowery Poetry Club, and I was playing with some guy, and
these kids get up on stage and one of them says they’re
going to do a song about the history of punk rock on the
Lower East Side. And I thought, these guys are too young
to know about that, this is going to be amusing. And I leaned
back to be amused, and instead I was immediately blown away.
Historically speaking, I couldn’t have come close
to doing as good a job as Jeffrey did. My take was always
that punk rock started with the Fugs – no knowledge
of music, bad attitude, let’s do it even though we
don’t know how to do it. But Jeff took it back to
Harry Smith and the Holy Modal Rounders, and I hadn’t
even considered that being the actual roots of punk. But
when Jeff pointed it out, it was obvious that yes indeed,
they were. So I went up to him afterwards and did the fanboy
Jeffrey is the best musical collaborator I’ve had
in 50 years of doing music. What’s perfect is that
I have a pretty good grasp on American music from about
1900 to about 1980, but I get a bit sketchy after that.
But Jeffrey, on the other hand, has 1980 to the present
down pat. So between us, we really fucking cover the waterfront.
Q: I really love both of the albums you’ve
done with him.
Peter: Me too. We’re going to do another one this
Q: I’ve read that there might be a “Have
Moicy! 2” coming with new people, is that coming too?
Peter: Oh yeah! It should be out this summer. Again, the
idea is the East Coast and West Coast people getting together,
and I’ve been trying to put it together for years.
I finally managed to do it in January of 2012, in Portland.
Jeannie Scofield couldn’t be a part of it at that
time because she was pregnant. And I really wanted her awesome
harmonies to be part of the record. If there already a couple
of harmony parts on a song, she can find a third one. We’re
not talking fifths or octaves, she can find a harmony part
that suddenly makes the whole thing fucking amazing. She’s
a brilliant genius harmonizer and I really wanted her to
be part of the package.
So we only had a week to do it. Do you know the story of
the McMenamin Brothers? They had just started to allow music
in bars back in the Seventies. And the McMenamin Brothers
bought an old Polish bar called the White Eagle, and the
Rounders became sort of the house band. They parked their
school bus outside and ran the electricity out the window
and well, over the years, the McMenamins built an empire
of bars and clubs in the Pacific Northwest. Basically they
had 60 or 70 venues. They bought a Mason’s Widows
& Orphans home, public schools, a high end brothel,
old movie theaters… all these old buildings and turned
them into music venues and breweries. They make wine and
beer, they own hotels, they have endless projects and festivals
going on. One of these venues is the Crystal Ballroom in
Portland. Have you ever seen one of those all wooden dancefloors
that kind of wave when you dance on them? I don’t
know how many of them there were, but they actually rebuilt
the floor in the Crystal Ballroom so the floor goes up and
down in this really gentle way when you’re dancing.
You don’t stumble and trip, it just adds this awesome
springing feeling to your step, like the whole floor is
this rocking chair. It’s an awesome stage. It was
at the Crystal Ballroom that Little Richard fired Jimi Hendrix
for being more eye-candyish than he was. So they said that
we could record there in the big ballroom, and they put
us up in one of their fine hotels, and the deal was that
we’d do a big show at the Crystal Ballroom free of
charge at the end. But we only had a week to do it, and
we didn’t realize that the place was being used for
other purposes at night, so we had to tear down all of our
equipment at the end of every day, and we could only use
it part of the day on the weekends. And so more time was
spent tearing down and setting up the equipment than anything
else. No earphones, and we were ten people in this big oval.
No playback facilities. We’d just say, okay, that
was a good take, let’s do the next one, and hope it
sounded okay. And most people were learning the songs as
we recorded them, so it was a real seat of the pants experience.
So we did the tracks, and Jeannie is listening to them and
deciding which ones she wants to add vocals to. She has
impeccable taste, so whatever she decides will be perfect.
And once she’s finished, the record will be done and
we can release it. Jeffrey drew pictures of everyone in
the band and that’ll be the cover art. So hopefully
by the end of this summer, it’ll be out.
Q: How did you wind up working with Baby Gramps?
Peter: He was one of the Portland people that hung out
with the Rounders. I met him during one of the periodic
Rounder reunions that happened in Portland around 1997.
And we kept in touch and kept saying, we have to make a
record some day, and we finally got a chance to do it.
Q: You have a distinctive voice but I can’t
even begin to describe the way he sings.
Peter: He’s a cross between Popeye and a Tuvan throat
Q: How about the Worm All-Stars?
Peter: They were going to screen the Holy Modal Rounder
documentary in Rotterdam, and they wanted to know if I’d
come over and do a set when they screened the movie. Well,
fuck yeah, I’ll go to Rotterdam and do a set. And
this guy Lucas wanted to know whether I wanted to do it
solo or have a backup band, which is like asking whether
I’d rather jerk off or fuck. (laughs) So I had a really
great time playing with these local musicians. It was a
fast and dirty thing, but it was really fun working with
those guys, so we decided we should record it. And Lucas
had a recording studio and a little label over there. So
that was one of those serendipitous things that just worked
out, the Euro Stampfel album.
Q: You have lived through so much rock ‘n’
roll history, I’m just going to rattle off some names
here and I’d like you to give me the first thing that
pops into your head.
Dave Von Ronk/Bob Dylan
Peter: I met Dave in ’59. The ex-boyfriend of the
girl I followed to New York whom I became roommates with
was an old friend of Van Ronk’s. So we go way back.
The Van Ronk story is, Bob Dylan in the early days did all
those clowning stuff. He had this Chaplinesque shtick. And
after the big article in the newspaper when people started
coming to Folk City to see this kid, there were suddenly
these rich uptown jet-setty beautiful women at the front
table, and there’s scruffy little Bobby Dylan there.
He’s scrunch over and put his feet together and do
this goofy little dance, and just charmed their asses off
by doing this adorable little routine. It was whimsical
but not self-demeaning, lovable but not twee or fey.
He was hilarious. He would do all this funny, funny stuff.
And this was besides how great he was as a musician. And
suddenly there were just hordes and hordes of people coming
to see him. So first he stopped wearing his hat onstage,
that funny little cap he has on the cover of his first album.
And then once he stopped wearing the funny little cap, he
stopped doing all the comedy shtick too. I think he just
started feeling self-conscious doing it in front of so many
people. And it was kind of sad. He could have been one of
the great comedy minds of the 20th Century, along with all
the other things he did too. And I thought that was a tragic
cultural loss to the world. So I was saying that to Von
Ronk one day, and he goes to a drawer in his apartment,
and he pulls out Dylan’s hat. He had it, when Dylan
stopped wearing it, Dave asked if he could have it.
Von Ronk should have been more appreciated than he was,
and I should have done music with him. Like everyone else
at the time, Dave was so amazing that he gave me and everyone
else in the scene at the time a case of the ‘I’m
Not Worthy’s.” His wife was our manager. And
he had this great self-deprecating sense of humor. He said
once, “if you really want to stop the Vietnam War,
get me and Stampfel to go over there and sing and everybody
on both sides will run off screaming.
The Rounders opened for the Velvet Underground at the Boston
Tea Party in late ’69 or ’70, and that was the
first time I ever actually heard him live. I had already
heard all the records. We’d run into each other periodically
now and then, and he was always friendly. But the last time
I saw him was at a benefit for Tuli Kupferberg. I was doing
a couple of songs with my daughter. We were waiting to go
on at St. Ann’s and Lou Reed comes in, and I wanted
to introduce him to my daughter. I had turned her onto the
Velvet Underground, which she loved, and I thought it would
be really great for her to meet him. So I walked up to him
and said, “Lou, I’d like you to meet my daughter,”
and Lou just totally ignores me and walks right past, and
walks up to this other guy and says, really loudly, “Hey,
good to see ya, how ya doing?” Glad-handing this guy
and I didn't even know who he was. It didn’t bother
me that he ignored me, but he was rude to my daughter, and
rude to my kid is unforgivable. It’s funny, the building
he lived in is managed by the same person who manages our
building, and it’s a co-op and there’s all these
rules. And none of those rules every applied to him. He
was Lou Fucking Reed. He was an arrogant dick who wrote
a bunch of awesome songs. Jeffrey Lewis said that the only
people he has every record by is me and Lou Reed. The last
song of his that blew me away was “Cremation”
from the Magic & Loss album. There was a Lou Reed thing
that Jeff organized at Jalopy, and he organized it so everybody
did different songs. I heard a bunch of Lou Reed songs I
had never heard before, and I heard a bunch of really great
songs, so I became aware that his songwriting hadn’t
fallen off to the degree I had thought. I’m almost
ashamed to have such a nasty story, but gratuitous rudeness
to my daughter is something I can’t forgive.
Stampfel Interview - Part 4: Legacy, and Discography (since
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