"You read the Rolling Stone 20th anniversary issue, right?" queried singer/songwriter Peter Holsapple, leader of rock group the dB's, who was phoning in from the road. "Well, Keith Richard made a good point that while rock 'n' roll was really new when he was growing up and kids of our generation were growing up, now it's kind of old hat. There's nothing particularly rebellious about it.
"I suppose if Pat Robertson got elected, rock 'n' roll would have really severe meaning again. It'd be great, so I suppose we should push for Pat . . . or Albert Gore. Once Tipper (Gore) becomes First Lady, it could change things around for the fate of rock. But at this point, it's amazing to me how little it means to people. It's infuriating and depressing."
Does this infuriation and depression lead Holsapple, a North Carolina native who moved from New York to Los Angeles this year, to write angry anthems of snarling social protest? Hardly. The post-garage guitar pop of the dB's--who open for R.E.M. tonight at UC Irvine and Sunday at the sold-out Universal Amphitheatre--is spunky and spirited, but a long way from youthful rebellion.
The tone of the songs on the band's new album, "The Sound of Music," is wiser, wry and realistic--mostly songs about relationships written for and by grown-ups.
"No crimes of passion," confirmed Holsapple. "Nobody dies in any dB's songs. Actually, I take that back. But we're masked optimists. And I like to be able to write the way I speak, fairly straightforward. When you have a regular old conversation with me, you just find a lot of the funny things we say and do are endemic to the way we actually are, and I don't write too terribly different from that."
Holsapple, reflecting on these adult qualities, said he has been thinking a lot about aging lately--but in his own whimsical way.
"It only gets to me when I start reading about 'those poor old dB's; gosh, they've really been slugging it out for a long time, and gosh, in another world, they'd be teen idols,' " he said, referring to the fact that though critically acclaimed for nearly a decade, the dB's have never dented the record sales charts. "But I try not to worry about that anymore. Hell, everybody's getting longer in the tooth as we talk, and I'm playing better guitar at 31 than I did at 23.
"It does occur to me that one day Redd Kross will be old. It's hard to imagine, but it'll happen. And the Replacements one day will have to collect Social Security. So why not? We'll go map out the waters and let 'em know what to expect."
Not that the dB's appear headed toward retirement just yet. This, in fact, would appear to be their lucky year--which helps make up for such previous bad breaks as: a) not having their first two albums even come out in the States; b) the subsequent departure of co-leader Chris Stamey; c) a brilliant U.S. debut album by a Holsapple-led dB's in 1984 that was undermined by the dissolution of the group's label, and d) a couple of years of what Holsapple terms an "enforced vacation" for the group.
Now happily hooked to I.R.S. Records, the rejuvenated band is doing predictably well on college radio and on tour with R.E.M., who is packing in a large, newly mainstream audience.
And the dB's aren't getting any mellower as they get long in the tooth. Holsapple's hooks are still catchy enough, but the band's approach has shifted away from its eclectic power-pop origins toward something a tad more raggedy.
"Somewhere along the line, we went from being a pop-rock band to being a rock band," asserted Holsapple. "We just wanted to be sort of meat -oriented."
The subtle difference? "I think not being afraid of lead guitar, not being afraid of volume," he said, noting that the name the dB's, which as the band's first album was titled "Stands for Decibels" (1981), was something of a joke considering the band was "one of the quietest in New York when we first started out. So justice has been served--we've turned that around. Now we've got these Marshall (amplifier) stacks. Grrrr--it's all teeth.
"Basically, it's not being afraid to bare your teeth, if you've got 'em to bare. Catch us while we've still got our teeth."